March 10, 2008
THE WATCHER: Dec 05, AU Edition
ALAN RM JONES
The year of the monkey…
It was an annus horribilis for an increasingly isolated and beleaguered Republican president under attack from a scathing media and irresolute Democrats in Congress. Each day’s news appeared more dreadful than the last; a constant stream of casualties and poor generalship and setbacks.
Even the president’s attempts to honour the nation’s war dead was sharply condemned. The Chicago Times said he ‘misstated the cause for which they had died’. In other words, he had lied. And, they added, ‘the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States’.
Pretty harsh words. They were to be expected, though, from pundits and cartoonists who frequently questioned the president’s intelligence and who had regularly drawn him as a chimpanzee. Abraham Lincoln would have been happy to give 1863 a miss entirely. But then 1862 hadn’t been a banner year, either. At Antietam, Union forces suffered over twelve thousand casualties, the South nearly fourteen thousand; many more would fall in the year ahead at Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor.
One of the few bright spots in an otherwise grim political landscape was that Congressional Democrats were severely split. The so-called ‘War Democrats’ were all for it, but squabbled over every battlefield disaster, of which there was no shortage. If that wasn’t enough, the War Dems also accused Lincoln of being a tyrant – packing the Supreme Court with cronies that would do his bidding to destroy civil liberties.
On the other side of the Democratic divide were the ‘Peace Democrats’, who had bitterly attacked Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration on job protection and racist grounds – proof, they wailed, that he had lied all along about the real aims of the war he had foisted upon the nation. They demanded that the war, which was being ‘fought on a lie’, be ended at once, even if the Confederacy was allowed to secede.
Even some Republicans voiced their doubts. Covetous European powers were encouraged.
Today, the Democratic and media chorus sings the same tune: ‘Chimpy lied and thousands died’. George Bush, from the beginning of his presidency portrayed as having apelike characteristics, has been accused of lying the nation into war the war in Iraq.
While the Big Lie charge has always focused on WMD, it has morphed through three distinct ‘lies’, each charge itself a lie. The first version of the lie, in the immediate aftermath of the war, went something like this: Bush lied when he claimed that Baathist Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the national security of the United States.
Of course, Bush had never argued that Iraq posed an imminent threat. He had clearly argued that in a post-September 11 world, preventative action was justified to prevent gathering threats from metastasizing to the point where it was too late to act.
In a major pre-war speech, Bush said: “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”
Bush argued, in accordance with international law that threatened nations need not wait for an “armed attack” or even an “imminent” threat before responding with force. Rather, as the distinguished diplomat, presidential adviser, and Yale Law School Dean, the late Eugene Rostow, maintained: ‘the target of an illegal use of force need not wait before defending itself until it is too late to do so. International law, after all, is not a suicide pact’.
It is past ironic that Bush – who was and still is scolded for his doctrine of early preemption (i.e., preventive or anticipatory self-defence) against gathering threats – was attacked for not meeting a standard which he explicitly rejected.
The second Big Lie invention that has been peddled is that Bush argued that the war in Iraq was, in the words of California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, ‘all about WMD, full stop’. Boxer made this outburst during Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice’s confirmation hearing earlier this year. It would be generous to accept that Boxer simply forgot what she had voted for in authorising military force against Iraq:
“Whereas Iraq persists in violating resolution of the United Nations Security Council by continuing to engage in brutal repression of its civilian population thereby threatening international peace and security in the region, by refusing to release, repatriate, or account for non-Iraqi citizens wrongfully detained by Iraq, including an American serviceman, and by failing to return property wrongfully seized by Iraq from Kuwait...
“The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to:
“(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and
“(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq”.
Or as Bush stated in October 2002:
“America believes that all people are entitled to hope and human rights, to the non-negotiable demands of human dignity. People everywhere prefer freedom to slavery; prosperity to squalor; self-government to the rule of terror and torture. America is a friend to the people of Iraq. Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us. When these demands are met, the first and greatest benefit will come to Iraqi men, women and children. The oppression of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Shi’a, Sunnis and others will be lifted. The long captivity of Iraq will end, and an era of new hope will begin”.
The third Big Lie furphy, re-heated lately by Chimpler critics the New York Times and Democratic Chairman Howard (‘Yeeeeeaaaahhhh!’) Dean, is that the Bush Administration twisted and lied about pre-war WMD intelligence. Congress and every other intelligence service in the world, including those of nations which were against enforcing the UN Security Council’s resolutions – chiefly France and Russia –had access to the same intelligence and agreed the threat that Saddam posed was real. The Mesopotamian miscreant’s record spoke well enough for itself: four wars, genocide, WMD use and support for terrorists.
To this Dean et al now claim bizarrely that Bush had a secret stash of heretofore uncovered intelligence that showed Saddam had uncovered all of his WMD. Again, it would be charitable to suggest that such charges are based on an innocent overlooking of extensive bipartisan and independent investigations in the US and Britain that showed intelligence had not been cooked up to stage a war.
If the Bush administration could be criticised for anything, it would be for indulging the doubters in the first place. It was never for the UN or the US to prove that Saddam still had WMD; rather, it was always for him to prove that he did not. This he failed to do, or even attempt in good faith to do, and the message and precedent was made clear by Bush’s response.
Nevertheless, Bush has hit back at his critics:
While it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began. Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s judgments related to Iraq’s weapons programs.
Bush was up-front about his war aims. While Lincoln planned the Emancipation Declaration in secret, after the war had begun, Bush at least outlined all of his goals before the first shot was fired. But like the Civil War, the war in Iraq was always about much more than the primary stated aim.
While the Civil War was fought, initially, to save the Union, in the end it was and had to be about freedom. The denial of freedom was, after all, what had led to secession and war. Likewise, the absence of freedom in Iraq, and in the Middle East generally, was the proximate cause for terrorism and the spread and use of WMD. For it is a simple fact of the modern world that democracies not only do not repress and terrorise their own people, they do not terrorise or otherwise attack other democracies. It is why, so long ago, the Great Emancipator’s work remained unfinished.
Lest it descend into the Planet of the Apes.
THE ARENA: Dec 05, AU Edition
Get ready for a long, hot summer…
Anyone who has ever taken a holiday in a beach community knows that such places can be fairly insular places. When so much time is spent looking out to sea, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there’s a whole land-based world behind you. And with a little bit of paradise on their doorstep, it’s no wonder that locals get possessive and resentful when outsiders roll in and start violating all the little informal and unwritten rules that make a place where everyone enjoys a common piece of property – the beach – function properly. Just ask fish-kisser Rex Hunt, who was accosted with his teenage son by a group of toughs in Byron Bay recently.
But the riots which swept over Sydney’s eastern beaches recently in the wake of the bashing of a lifeguard by young “men of Middle Eastern appearance” (as the popular press so gingerly puts it; it’s amazing that they don’t use the abbreviation MoMA to save column inches, though perhaps a certain museum in New York might not be so happy about it) were something else entirely.
It is no secret, to anyone who has cared to look for it, that there have long been simmering tensions between packs of youthful “MoMAs” and not just beachside locals but about anyone else who is unfortunate enough to cross their path. In places like Cronulla, the only Sydney beach with its own train stop, this simmer has been on the verge of boiling over for months if not years, as locals share stories of disrespect, abuse and attacks by young Lebanese males pouring in from the western suburbs and causing trouble and charging around the place with a disrespectful swagger.
(Apparently one of the favourite lines of these thugs, cited by the Daily Telegraph’s Anita Quigley, to women and girls who reject their advances is to turn to their mates and say, “She’s not worth doing 55 years for” – a reference to the sentence handed down to gang rapist Bilal Skaf. Combine this with the statements of a Pakistani recently convicted of rape to the effect of “my culture made me do it”, and it’s not hard to see why people get nervous).
But the sad thing about the recent riots is that in many ways they were completely preventable. Although the popular press has been quick to cry “racism” and cite the riots as another example of just what an uncouth bunch of bogans we are in Australia, race ultimately had precious little to do with it. (Just ask the infamous Bra Boys gang of Maroubra, which had a starring role in the riots and which over the years has become a fairly multicultural operation, united in defence of former NSW Premier Bob Carr’s postcode). Instead, John Howard had it right when he said that the “behaviour was completely unacceptable but I’m not going to put a general tag (of) racism on the Australian community … I think it’s a term that is flung around sometimes carelessly and I’m simply not going to do so.”
The problem could have been headed off at the pass years ago had police in NSW – ironically enough, largely under the leadership of Bob Carr – not been systematically stripped of their powers to deal with trouble before it gets out of hand. And while in a free society the presumption of innocence lies with the individual, there’s also a noble tradition of what might be called informal “hidden law”, which says that cops know when a group of kids are up to no good, and should have the power to move them on, arrest them, or break them up accordingly.
Instead, Cronulla residents tell hair-raising stories of offensive and threatening conduct by Lebanese youth, and being told by the police that they can only do something if matters get violent – by which point, of course, the damage is already done.
Nature and criminals abhor a vacuum, and if criminals see that police have, by their absence, created a space where bad behaviour is permissible, they will rush in to fill the gap. That’s been happening for years at Cronulla, and locals finally got sick of it – and of trusting the police to deal fairly with their complaints (hence the violence). But unlike Macquarie Fields, where cops hung back after the riot began at the behest of a politically-timid leadership that kept front-line officers from doing their job, in Cronulla and at other beaches, the failing has been going on for ages, leading many to believe that there is one law for the testosterone-charged MoMAs and one for everyone else.
NSW Police could learn a lot from the example of New York, where an aggressive police campaign against the sort of anti-social behaviour committed regularly not just by ethnic gangs but all sorts of people ended years of “long hot summers” of riots and slashed the crime rate to previously-unimaginable levels.
Or, closer to home, they could look at New Zealand, where a few years back Auckland cops employed a change in the unlawful assembly laws to tackle similar problems of race riots and thuggery.
There’s an old cliché in politics that goes something along the lines of, “the first person to call their opponent ‘Hitler’ loses”. There’s something similar when gangs go at each other: the first group to pelt an ambulance with bottles loses, at least in the eyes of the media. And certainly the thugs of Cronulla who went on a rampage against anyone with too dark a tan are no better than the thugs of Bankstown or Lakemba who, fighting massive internal cultural conflicts, treat beachgoing women as objects of both desire and scorn. But it’s amazing to think how much of this could have been prevented if the provocation – community concern at the thuggery on the part of visiting gangs – was dealt with by the cops at a much earlier stage. It’s time to empower cops to crack down on yobbos and crims – no matter what their ethnicity.
TRAVEL: Dec 05, AU Edition
Patricia Rodriguez discovers the joys (and hassles) of Vietnam, but falls in love with it anyway
LAU CAI, Vietnam – After sleeping fitfully on the night train from Hanoi – note to self: Drink fewer liquids prior to a 10-hour journey on a train where the bathroom is a hole in the floor two cars down – we are herded onto a waiting minibus for the drive to Sa Pa.
The highlands village of Sa Pa, a 90-minute ride from Lau Cai, a trade centre on the Vietnam – China border, has been billed as a bucolic paradise, green, peaceful and mostly unspoiled by modern commerce. But the morning is hazy and foggy and still a bit dark, and as our van struggles through traffic-choked streets, I can’t see much of anything. We drive past long stretches of small, faded buildings with their metal security doors rolled shut, advertising “pho com” (soup/restaurant), “bia hoi” (fresh beer) and “karaoke” (no translation necessary). Kids in Nike warm-up jackets and baseball caps drive scooters loaded with trays of cut-up chickens or boxes bursting with vegetables; other mopeds carry entire families, two adults and two or three kids, so tightly packed together they don’t even have to hang on. It looks like bustling Ho Chi Minh City, except on a smaller, dingier scale.
Then, suddenly, the bus turns a corner and begins to struggle uphill, and the sun burns through, the fog lifting like a film being peeled from a piece of glass. Revealed is the lush landscape we’d been promised. Low, mist-covered mountains, their sides precisely terraced with rice paddies. Rises covered with fir trees and endless beds of lavender-flowering indigo plants. A clear, rocky stream, crossed by a rudimentary wooden bridge. It’s “National Geographic” – beautiful. Worth every second of last night’s discomfort.
And that, for me, is Vietnam: Just when I’m about to give up on this place, something happens that makes me fall just a little bit in love with it.
At times, Vietnam can be an easy place to love: When you’re walking undisturbed through thousand-year-old palace ruins in the imperial city of Hue. When you’re eating a huge bowl of “pho,” beef noodle soup scented with cilantro, mint and lemon grass, that costs less than 50 cents from a sidewalk vendor in Hanoi. When you’re being fussed over in a tailor’s shop in the ancient fishing port of Hoi An, being fitted for custom-made silk clothing that will be delivered to your hotel within 24 hours.
But at other times, it feels like trying to travel with a toddler, one who’s loud, messy, frantic, constantly changing his mind and demanding all your attention, right this minute.
My husband and I had hit bottom in Ho Chi Minh City, only a few hours after arriving in Vietnam and finding our way to a $15-a-night hotel in the area of the city that caters to backpackers. Trying to walk to the nearby public market, we couldn’t take two steps without being asked to buy something. Postcards? Cyclo ride? Taxi? Chewing gum? Spring rolls? Cigarettes? Beer? Hotel room? Guidebook? Guide?
Hot and frustrated, we retreated to a touristy cafe – crowded with dreadlocked and tattooed Western backpackers, smoking and drinking Vietnamese-brewed 333 beer – and wondered whether coming to Vietnam had been a good idea.
We’d planned to spend a few days based here, seeing some of the nearby sights, like the Mekong Delta’s floating markets, huge flotillas of small boats moored together so closely you can step from one to another, buying lychee and bananas from one boat, plasticware from another, conical straw hats from the next. But the smog, the heat and the relentless commercialism got to us. On only our second day, we hopped on a flight to Hanoi, the northern capital. The center of the country’s ruling Communist Party, it also has a reputation as a gracious, reserved city, older and quieter than Ho Chi Minh, retaining a bit more of its French-colonial heritage and architecture. Also, roughly a thousand miles to the north, it would be cooler. We thought we might like it better.
“Mademoiselle”, the cook says, waving my husband and me into her tiny restaurant, just a bare room that opens directly onto the street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Her daughter smiles and propels us toward a low table in the corner, where we sit on tiny plastic footstools. Around us, several other diners, mostly older men, eat their pho, or soup, and read local newspapers.
We don’t have to order; the proprietress simply starts cooking. Squatting in front of a few pots on portable burners, she takes a couple of large handfuls of very long noodles, cutting them with scissors and eyeballing them until the two portions seem equal. These she places in a bowl, ladling hot broth from a giant kettle over the top. Next, she plucks pieces of meat, hard-cooked eggs and dumplings from other pans and adds these to each bowl, finishing with a handful of fresh herbs. She hands the bowls to a young boy, who delivers them to our table, and then watches attentively as we dig in, giggling as my chopsticks keep dropping the long, slippery noodles. I laugh, too, but I keep trying; the pho is too delicious to leave in the bowl.
The cost for breakfast and entertainment? Less than $1. We head out into the early-morning streets, well-fed and happy. It’s our third day in-country, and Vietnam is growing on us.
Hanoi is jammed with traditional tourist sites, including ancient temples and pagodas, French cathedrals, scenic lakes and parks, and a gaggle of buildings dedicated to the late Vietnamese ruler Ho Chi Minh himself, including a museum, the stilt house where he lived in the ‘60s, and the mausoleum where his remains are on display. We’ll eventually see some of these, but mostly, we spend our time in Hanoi getting a feel for the city – walking, shopping, eating and just sitting.
Hanoi is perfect for this type of touring because it’s compact, walkable and, somewhat surprisingly for such a large urban center, quite beautiful.
Tourists spend much of their time in the Old Quarter, which has been the city’s commercial district for more than 1,000 years. The district begins at the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, edged by weeping-willow trees and a small park where young and old gather to exercise at dawn, and complete with a small pagoda built in the middle of the lake.
At one time, each of the narrow, twisted streets in the quarter was named for the type of goods you could buy there – silk, bamboo, copper. Today, the old names are still used, but the streets have become less specialized; stores sell merchandise of all sorts, from traditional water puppets, carved wooden boxes and silk clothing to fake designer sunglasses, boomboxes and T-shirts printed with the image of Ho Chi Minh, four for $10.
The exception is the meat and produce market, with sections still dedicated exclusively to astoundingly fresh displays of fish, flowers, live chickens, vegetables, herbs and fruits, and filled with buyers and sellers haggling over prices and quality. It becomes our favorite place for lunch. At one stall, we buy fritters of sliced bananas and sweet potatoes, dipped in a sweet rice-flour batter and fried crispy.
At another, a crusty French baguette filled with pat’ and cucumber slices, garnished with cilantro and fish sauce, the national Vietnamese condiment. At a third, giant prawns, cooked over a tiny charcoal grill, served with French bread and cold Vietnamese beer.
The Old Quarter has also been an area of growth for hotels, restaurants and coffee bars. We linger over sweet iced coffees and spring rolls at a second-story cafe overlooking the traffic circle across from Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the cat-and-mouse game that is city traffic here.
Traffic in Hanoi, like in the other large Vietnamese cities, is dominated by motor scooters, traveling six or eight or more abreast. There seem to be few lanes, few traffic lights and only one rule – if you’re driving, don’t hit anyone. Crossing the street is like playing the old video game of “Frogger.” There’s no such thing as a “walk” sign; to cross a busy street, you simply take a breath, make sure you’re not stepping out directly in front of anyone, and start walking slowly and deliberately, keeping your eyes on the traffic, so they know you see them. Miraculously, they’ll swerve around pedestrians every time. Watching it from above, it’s like a beautiful ballet, except with lots of honking horns and traffic fumes.
Still, after a couple of days, Hanoi’s charms wear a bit thin; it’s still a city of people trying to make up for lost time economically. Some of our fellow tourists have developed strategies for spurning the persistent vendors and cyclo drivers – ignoring them, frowning, pretending not to understand English. (Practically all young Vietnamese speak at least a bit of English, though some older people still speak French.) I, however, must look like an easy mark; I can’t help but speak to every vendor, often with a smile, even when I’m saying no.
Sa Pa is as far from the city as you can get in Vietnam, we’re assured. It’s not a short trip – at least 10 hours overnight on the train both ways – but we figure to see another side of this diverse country, it’s worth it.
Sa Pa was built as a hill station by the French in the early 1920s, a scenic retreat where they could escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands and the coast. When the French withdrew, it fell into a period of decline, hotels and cafes getting shuttered and many people moving to larger cities in search of work.
But over the past decade it has been discovered by tourists who are eager to see the lovely mountain vistas and experience the culture of the hill people. Hotels have been restored or built from scratch, new restaurants have opened, tour guides have multiplied. There’s even an Internet cafe. Now the market in Sa Pa is flooded with tourists every day, and there are frequent organized tours to smaller markets in the surrounding villages.
At arrival, Sa Pa seems like the Vietnamese version of a Colorado ski town; a couple of the new hotels are even built in the style of a mountain chalet, complete with flower-filled window boxes. But it’s still somewhat rustic, with dusty, steeply angled streets and little traffic. Our simple guesthouse has a terrific view of the town and surrounding valley – but requires a hike of six flights of stairs to get to our room.
Yet some complain that the influx of outsiders – still only a tiny proportion of those who visit Vietnam – is having an adverse effect on the culture of the tribal peoples, essentially Westernizing them.
True, the Hmong and Dao women in particular have taken well to capitalism. The women have learned that their craft work – pressed-tin and silver jewelry, and beautifully dyed and embroidered pillows, tablecloths, purses, vests and dresses – were coveted by the Western visitors. Now small groups of women and larger bands of girls, as young as 7 or 8, congregate on the main tourist streets and near the market, wearing gorgeous traditional dress and trolling for customers.
“You’re pretty!” one calls out.
“I like your hat!” says another, emboldened by the first.
“Where are you from?” asks a third, and they all collapse into giggles. But they keep their mind on business. Pause for even a second and risk being engulfed by a sea of smiling, chattering little saleswomen, each begging that “you buy from me, from me.”
The tactics work. I end up with far more tin bracelets and indigo garments than I can possibly use, and many new, small friends, all of whom remember us the next day when we wander through the market.
“Are you ready?” asks a tiny, beautiful girl, dressed in the traditional clothing of the Black Hmong tribe – a skirt, vest and leggings dyed in indigo, a blue-black so deep it’s almost shiny, and embellished with rows of colorful embroidery, and a conical hat, her long black hair pinned within it and the ends spilling from the opening at the top. She also wears huge loop earrings, an armful of bracelets, and in a nod to the changes that have arrived in her world, a pink ribbed turtleneck, a nylon backpack and flat plastic-soled sandals.
Her name is Zei, and she will be our guide for the next two days. She looks about 12, but she says she is 16 and has been leading tours for almost three months. Today we’ll have an easy hike – a couple of hours round-trip to a waterfall that was once harnessed for electrical power by the French, with a leisurely side trip over a wooden footbridge and through fields of indigo.
But the next morning, when Zei comes to collect us after breakfast, is a different story. Today we will visit three ethnic villages – one settled by the Hmong, Zei’s tribe; another by the Tay, known for their wooden stilt houses; and the last by the Dao, recognized by their bright red, puffy turbans, edged with large silver beads.
“We will walk for 14 kilometers (about 8.5 miles) today. Mostly down, though,” says Zei, whose English is very good, from talking with tourists.
(She didn’t study English in school – in fact, she says she hasn’t been to school regularly in years, apparently a sadly common occurrence among the hill-tribe children. Her first language is Hmong, which somewhat resembles Chinese, but she says her English is better than her Vietnamese.)
“You’ll be OK?” she asks, shouldering her backpack, containing lunch and water for all three of us, and assuring us we can catch a ride back to Sa Pa rather than repeat the 14-kilometer route. We promise her we can handle it, and we head out of town.
For a while, we keep to the main road, where the lovely overlooks of forests, rice paddies, indigo fields and the occasional small house must compete with a constant passing stream of minibuses, motorscooters and small trucks. After about a mile, we evidently pass some sort of test, for Zei leads us off the main road and its parade of tourists and onto a barely discernible footpath, descending steeply into the wooded valley.
“This is a better way,” she says.
“Shortcut?” I ask.
“No, just better,” she says.
This, apparently, is a local route. We no longer see tourists, but we pass water buffalo, which make a show of ignoring us, and Hmong women and girls, on their way to market, who smile and offer to sell us yet more indigo clothing. At one point, we’re passed by a group of eight or nine young teen-agers, each carrying a piece or two of corrugated metal on his head and walking about twice as fast as us on the rocky path.
“Someone is getting a new roof,” Zei observes.
Sometimes, we can see a small house or two, tin or thatched roofs nearly obscured by the greenery. Most often, we see an endless expanse of green. Though the villages have been billed as the tour’s highlight, we find ourselves more thrilled by the landscape. It changes from thick forest to a more open valley; we cross rocky streams on rickety-looking wooden footbridges and clamber up staircases rudely fashioned from flat stones. Eventually, the path seems to disappear. We pick our way through rice paddies, carefully balancing on the earthen dikes that are built into the hillsides.
Zei, at first shy, begins talking more the farther we walk. She lives with her mother and little sister; we get the sense she is their main source of income. She used to sell trinkets to the tourists, but when her English was deemed good enough, she was hired as a guide, an occurrence she seems to regard as a striking bit of good luck. She makes better money – a few dollars per trip, plus tips – and the work is steadier. To her, being a tour guide is easy – just walking along paths she’d be using anyway. And usually, she says, the people are nice.
At the last village, little more than a half-dozen huts in a loosely arranged group, we run into another guide, a friend of Zei’s, and her charge for the day, an Australian army officer named Flo whom we’d met on the train. Flo has taken a longer excursion yet, and she’ll be spending the night in one of the villager’s homes. They invite Zei and us into the home to look around; it’s cozy and comfortable, with wooden benches, a small kitchen and several platforms piled with bright blankets for sleeping. The guide offers us cool water and snacks, but we still have a long way to hike; we have to be on our way.
“Isn’t this the greatest?” Flo stage-whispers to me as we leave her to head back to Sa Pa. “Don’t you love that you’re seeing this?”
Flo is talking about the villages and the day’s hike, and I agree with her. But as we make our way back to the main road, where local entrepreneurs will offer us rides on their mo-peds back to Sa Pa, I realize that I’ve come to feel that way about Vietnam. Ten years from now, as the economy continues to explode and ever more Western tourists discover it, it will be a different country. For better and for worse, I love that I am seeing it now.
The Reunification Express
15 days, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
Trip Style: Intrepid Original
Highlights: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City
Brief: Traverse the length of vibrant Vietnam by train. The Reunification Express is a vital lifeline between north and south Vietnam. Along its path we experience the many scenic, historical, cultural and culinary highlights of this marvellous country. All aboard for a ride you’ll never forget!
Departure: Departs every Sunday & Thursday
Price: AU$885 plus a Local Payment of US$200
21 days, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
Trip Style: Intrepid Basix
Highlights: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island, Sapa hilltribes, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City
Brief: There is a lot more to Vietnam than rice paddies and noodle soup! See Vietnam from top to bottom, witness its ancient and modern history and explore the tiny villages and teeming cities. From commercial centres to spiritual havens, this stunningly beautiful country has something exciting to offer around every corner.
Departure: Departs every Monday
Price: AU$895 plus a Local Payment of US$300
Vietnam Family Adventure
15 days, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
Trip Style: Intrepid Family
Highlights: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City
Brief: Diverse, beautiful and lots of fun – Vietnam is a great place for a family adventure. Journey together from Hanoi to historical Hue and Hoi An, the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang and the modern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. On this trip, the whole family is set to be entertained and educated by the people, history, colour and culture of this ancient and amazing country.
Departure: Departs on a Saturday. Dates available online at www.intrepidtravel.com/vfa
Price: AU$1165 plus a Local Payment of US$200
15 days, Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi
Trip Style: Intrepid Comfort
Highlights: Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi Tunnels, Mekong Delta homestay, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, water puppets, Halong Bay, Hanoi.
Brief: From south to north, Vietnam is a kaleidoscope of wonderful people and picturesque landscapes. Imagine exploring the beautiful lakes and boulevards of Hanoi and shopping to your heart’s content. What better way to get to know the locals than to be their guests in a Mekong Delta homestay! Experience historical temples, spectacular scenery, delicious banquets and lively cities all with a touch of comfort.
Departure: Departs on a Sunday. Dates available online at www.intrepidtravel.com/vkt
Price: AU$1625 plus a Local Payment of US$200
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
When is the best time of year to travel?
Generally, there is no “best” time for travelling in Vietnam. The seasons are a little vague and vary considerably from north to south and within regions. Flooding can sometimes cause minor alterations to our itineraries. THE SOUTH: The dry season is from December to June with March to May being particularly hot and humid. Temperature range from 27°C to 36°C. The wet season with short, heavy rain showers is from July to November. Temperatures average between 22°C and 27°C. THE NORTH: With four seasons, winter is from December to February – it can be extremely cold in Hanoi and the mountainous regions, with overnight temperatures of 4°C and daytime highs between 10°C and 20°C. Thermal clothing is a good idea if trekking in winter. Summer is June to August – expect hot and humid conditions at this time. Temperatures average 27°C to 30°C with high humidity.
Religion: Predominantly Buddhist, with Confucianism, Taoism & other minorities
Currency: Dong (VND)
Visas: It is necessary to apply for a one month travel visa prior to travel as they cannot be obtained on arrival. This visa takes about 5 days to process and must state the date of arrival and departure in order to be valid.
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz AC (some 110V, 50 Hz AC)
Times to avoid: Best to avoid the Vietnamese New Year, Tet. Dates are based on the Chinese New Year lunar calendar and therefore vary from year to year. Scheduled TET dates for 2006 are January 29th and for 2007 it is planned for the 18th of February. Vietnam effectively shuts down for at least 3 days over this period and it is virtually impossible to travel anywhere as 60 million Vietnamese are also travelling to see their families.
FOOD: Dec 05, AU Edition
Eli Jameson celebrates summer and separates the ripe tomatoes from the hoary chestnuts
Hear the word ‘tomatoes’, and what do you think of? Spaghetti piled high and swimming in marinara sauce? Garden vines hanging heavy with ripe, red fruit? Or perhaps something less pleasant – childhood memories of supermarket tomatoes as tasteless as their plastic packaging, sliced into a salad of sweaty iceberg lettuce and gloppy dressing the colour of jaundice?
To me, tomatoes always mean one thing: summer. Regular readers of this column are familiar with my fierce dislike of the colder months, and so the arrival of abundant and cheap tomatoes in the markets is always a cause for celebration. For the foreseeable future, there will always be a truss of tomatoes, still on the vine, on the kitchen bench ready to go on sandwiches, be tossed into some dish or other, or simply sliced on a plate and sprinkled with sea salt and a little extra-virgin olive oil – the ultimate simple summer salad – perhaps with basil and a torn-up ball of buffalo mozzarella.
But what’s the story with tomatoes? Are they fruits or vegetables? Were they really once thought to be poisonous, until someone ate a bucket of them on the steps of a small-town U.S. courthouse? There are a lot of strange stories that have grown up around tomatoes, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve fallen for some of them (the courthouse steps one, especially) myself over the years.
Tomatoes, according to the invaluable Wikipedia, are a fruit, at least scientifically speaking: they are the ovary, together with the seeds, of a flowering plant. However, because tomatoes are generally served as a main dish and not as desert, they are legally classified – at least in the United States – as a vegetable. The issue even went so far as the US Supreme Court, which in the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden declared tomatoes as vegetables because of their popular use (along with cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas), a decision which had huge tariff implications at the time. For a good time, invite a botanist and a lawyer along to your local’s next trivia night, and make sure the emcee asks the fruit-or-vegetable question.
And then there is the tale of the brave Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, who is said to have eaten of a basket of tomatoes on the steps of the Salem, New Jersey, courthouse in 1820 to turn the tide of public opinion and show that the fruit was not the least bit dangerous to anyone who didn’t suffer severe hearburn. Alas, the much-loved Johnson tale is not true: the American television network CBS popularized the story in a 1949 episode of You Are There, in which an actor playing the colonel declared to an assembled throng of two thousand, “What are you afraid of? Being poisoned? Well I’m not, and I’ll show you fools that these things are good to eat!”
As it turns out, tomatoes were grown and eaten in North America since at least 1710; not only were they not thought of as poisonous, but Puritans of the time even eschewed the things, fearing their alleged aphrodisiac properties! That great gourmand and man of the world Thomas Jefferson himself purchased the fruit (not yet classified a veggie by the courts) to serve at state dinners in 1806, and from 1809 onwards planted them at his estate, Monticello. Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph, author of the extremely influential 19th century cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, contained some 17 tomato recipes for such exotic dishes including gazpacho and gumbo.
Today, tomatoes are not only not considered dangerous, but downright healthful, especially as they are rich in the cancer-preventing antioxidant lycopene. Bloody Mary, anyone?
Chilled Tomato Soup
This is one of my favourite mid-summer soups, adapted from Charlie Palmer’s excellent cookbook, Great American Food. He suggests serving with toasted croutons with warm goat cheese and basil; I think that can get in the way of the clean tomatoey goodness of the soup. But try it – you may like it. In any case, this is a great dinner party starter course for the height of summer.
About 8 large, ripe vine-ripened or truss
Some good extra-virgin olive oil;
1 finely chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Fresh basil leaves
500 ml sparkling mineral water
2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
Good sea salt, like Maldon
1. Peel, seed and chop the tomatoes; set aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large, heavy pan and sauté the onion, celery, garlic, and about 8 basil leaves – which should be torn in half as you toss them in. Lower the heat and continue to cook gently for about four minutes (you want the vegetables to soften but not pick up any colour), and add the tomatoes, sparkling water and sachet. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Take off heat and let rest for 30 minutes, then remove and discard the sachet.
2. Puree the mixture in a blender, working in batches if necessary, until the soup is quite smooth. Pour through a fine sieve and strain into a non-reactive bowl – giving the solids a push if need be to extract liquid. Add a couple of teaspoons of Lea & Perrins (just enough to bring out the tomato flavour; not enough to make it obvious) and your salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until icy cold – at least four hours.
3. Serve in chilled, flat soup bowls, with a spring of basil for garnish.
HEALTH: Dec 05, AU Edition
PERCHANCE TO WALK
Sleep is still barely understood; sleepwalking, even less so.
A look into the bizarre world of people who go bump in the night
So I sleepwalked the other night. I didn’t go far, just down the hall to the boys’ room and lay down on the floor and continued my snooze in the more traditional, horizontal manner. Obviously, I don’t recall this, nor do I recall my confused husband coming in to fetch me. Why should I? After all, I was asleep. Sleepwalking is a common form of parasomnia, which one sufferer described as “things that go bump in the night.” Sleep, as we all know, can be tricky.
More than 15% of children are thought to suffer from parasomnias of some sort, and this is considered normal childhood behavior. Most young children will occasionally talk or call out in their sleep (“no...I won’t share her…she’s mine!” being my favorite overheard phrase, confirming that a sleeping toddler is, indeed, a toddler).
In adults, parasomnias are less common, affecting something around 6% of the population. They are sometimes a sign that there is something more seriously wrong with the sufferer, and therefore should be investigated. In adults, parasomnias are most commonly linked to drinking, taking drugs, stress and sleep deprivation. I may have been under the influence of at least one of the above when I took my sleepwalk – I’ll leave it to you to guess which.
A parasomnia, according to the psychiatric bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or as it is known in the business, “DSM – IV”), is a “disorder of arousal, partial arousal, or sleep stage transition. It represents an episodic disorder in sleep (such as sleepwalking) rather than a disorder of sleep or wakefulness per se. May be induced or exacerbated by sleep; not a dyssomnia.” The dysomnias, by way of contrast, are a separate category of sleep ddisorder and are difficulties sleeping or waking up: sleep apnoea, narcolepsy, and that old chestnut, insomnia.
Parasomnias are things like teeth grinding, sleep talking, sleep terrors and REM sleep behaviour disorder (RSBD). This lattermost disorder is particularly scary as it is characterized by twitching and other violent movements in the sufferer’s sleep that can cause injury. And researchers have been discovering that parasomnias are in fact more common than previously thought.
As I said, sleep is tricky; it is complex and poorly understood. It’s tough to define sleep, for which reason most definitions of sleep become ridiculous. It’s some kind of important state that all animals go into where we loose consciousness to varying degrees and undergo characteristic changes to our brain waves. Dreaming is undertaken, although not always remembered, and is widely thought to be the brains system for going through junk it has picked up or is sorting through and making sense of it. A good analogy is a computer hard drive, which needs its old junk and temporary files it accumulates with use cleared out from time to time. The interpretation of dreams (paging Dr Freud) is a fun parlour game, but is like any form of insight; you need to have some in order to have more. If you keep dreaming of suitcases and hats and the cigar chompers keep telling you it’s about sex, this means you are spending too much time with the cigar chompers. The exception, obviously, is if while you are awake you believe that a dream of ripe fruit heralds a pregnancy. If everyone in your culture believes this, such a dream is a likely sign you are thinking about this. Even your own private subconscious is sociologically programmed and subject to peer pressure.
Sleepwalking can of course be incredibly dangerous: The person is not awake but they can take in some information. They can see their coffee table and walk around it, even if the sleeping brain “sees” a lake or a dragon or what have you in the place of the real object. For this reason, if you lock a sleepwalker in the house, their sleeping brain can find still find the keys if their awake brain can. Sadly, sleepwalkers have been killed walking on highways, and even behind the wheels of their cars. The latter has occurred on only a few documented occasions, and tended to lead to sleep studies being carried out, largely for medico-legal reasons.
“Sexomnia” has been studied in recent years, and looks set to be officially listed as a disorder. Last year the first and only mass-market book on the phenomena was published (Sleepsex: Uncovered by Dr. Michael Mangan, available from Amazon.com or as an e-book from www.clickbank.net). Unlike sleepwalking, sufferers are unlikely to wake up in a strange place if they have had sex in their sleep, and it occurs at a different stage of sleep to sleep walking. “Sexsomnia” is not necessarily a problem for all people who have it, although it can cause serious relationship problems, and in some cases the person may be violent. Consent therefore becomes an issue if only one party is awake. The awake person may be assaulted by the sleeper, or conversely, may believe the sleeper to be awake, and take advantage of the situation. It’s a medico-legal minefield, and raises difficult situations: if you were raped by someone who was asleep would you want them to be punished? How does one prove that someone with a sleep disorder that can be scientifically established was, nonetheless, asleep at the time?
Sleepwalking was first raised as a defense to murder in the United States in 1846, and the killer, Albert Tirrell, got off, after nearly decapitating a high-class prostitute he was obsessed with and wanted to marry. (She refused; after killing her, he then set fire to the brothel in which she worked). But he had a known history of sleepwalking, and denied all knowledge of the murder and was acquitted. Today, 150 years later, the science would not have been able to help shed much more light on things: while Tirrell could have been sent to a sleep lab to see if he had a parasomnia, there would still be know way of knowing whether he was asleep at the time of the murder and arson.
Sleep is imbued with meaning in our culture – probably in all cultures. It’s a pretty weird thing that we animals do; the only evolutionary advantage sleep is thought to confer is that perhaps there are times that being out cold is safer than running around hunting. Perhaps. It’s not the best theory, really. Just another pitiful dumb human attempt to understand why we need to sleep. We don’t understand much about sleep, except that we do need it; we get very messed up without it, and rats who are prevented from sleeping get sick and die.
For which reason, of course, we need to sleep. Practical advice: Don’t go to bed until you’re tired; face the alarm clock to the wall; if you can’t sleep get up until you are really tired; and if you read before bed don’t do it in bed. Bed is only for activities you can do with the light off. Yawn. I think I’m done.
TECHNOLOGY: Dec 05, AU Edition
RAIN AND TERROR
What makes a storm a killer? Scientists are searching for the early warning signs, say Jeremy Manier and E.A. Torrier
The two hurricanes that roared into the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year were identical in nearly every way. Born in the same region near Haiti, the storms called Katrina and Rita reached monster status in the warm waters off Florida and swirled toward major cities along the coast.
But before they struck, the two hurricanes underwent subtly different yet fateful changes deep within them that resulted in Katrina reaching land with considerably more destructive power – and a far greater death toll – than Rita would nearly four weeks later.
That divergence is stirring ardent debate among experts eager to build better theories of what separates less intense storms from those that become historic killers. The battle of ideas will help shape how experts study hurricanes and prepare for the next big one.
One explanation in this case may be the movement of deep, warm currents in the Gulf that fed Katrina but slipped to the side of Rita days before that storm reached land. Some researchers believe a Gulf system called the loop current played a major role in the evolution of Katrina and Rita.
During both hurricanes, government scientists deployed a battery of experimental tools to measure deep ocean temperatures and currents where the storms passed through the Gulf. Experts hope the new information will improve forecasters’ ability to predict the intensity of future hurricanes.
“We’re looking at what we did with these storms as a poster child for techniques we might use in the future to get better observations on the interaction between hurricanes and the ocean”, said Peter Black, a meteorologist with the Hurricane Research Division of the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Hurricanes are among the most complex weather systems that bedevil meteorologists, in part because of the peculiar way the storms can change their nearby ocean environment, which in turn can affect the power of the hurricane.
One way to think of a hurricane is as a vast engine that converts ocean heat – its fuel – into high winds. A shortage of fuel or other glitches in the engine can reduce the storm’s strength.
An example of this is when a hurricane’s winds churn up cold water from the ocean depths, robbing the storm of the warm water it needs to sustain high winds. Deep, warm currents such as the loop current in the Gulf can reduce that effect. They provide more fuel for the storm to rage without picking up colder water from below.
Both Katrina and Rita strengthened as they passed over the loop current, experts said. Katrina headed straight from the current to the shore, where it unleashed destruction across a heavily populated region. Rita was just as powerful at its peak, but it took longer to reach shore after it moved off the deep current, losing energy along the way.
“Rita peaked early”, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was on its way out when it hit the coast.”
Researchers have recognized the importance of that interaction between hurricanes and the ocean only in the last 10 years or so, Emanuel said. In fact, some experts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami still doubt that deep temperatures played a decisive role in building up the two storms.
“That stuff about the loop current – it doesn’t hold water, so to speak”, said Stacy Stewart, a hurricane specialist at the Hurricane Center. “You have to have a lot of other conditions right to allow the storm to extract energy from the water.”
She pointed out that other factors also affected Rita’s decline, including a lack of moisture in the hurricane’s middle levels. As it hit land, the storm also was undergoing eye wall replacement, a poorly understood phenomenon that happens in cycles with the most powerful hurricanes and often saps their strength.
Katrina and Rita were unusual from the start, in that they were “Bahama busters” that took shape in the Caribbean rather than off the coast of Africa, which spawns most of the storms that become hurricanes. Hugh Willoughby, a hurricane researcher at Florida International University, said the wind shear – a change in wind speed at different altitudes – was too great for large storms to develop near Africa.
That wasn’t the case in the Caribbean, where Katrina and Rita formed within a few hundred miles of each other.
“They were almost like twins,” Willoughby said.
At 11 a.m. on Aug. 24, the National Hurricane Center announced the formation of Tropical Depression 12, the storm that became Katrina, about 200 miles southeast of Miami.
Actually, it was an energizing small squall that started off the coast of Africa but never formed into a storm because of the wind shear. Some of the formation came from a different tropical depression that ran out of gas.
Tropical Depression 14 was spotted on Sept. 17 at 11 p.m., about 500 miles southeast of Miami. This was the birth of Rita.
The storms were nourished by the exceptionally warm waters of the Atlantic, a pattern since 1995. But in both cases, high pressure across much of the United States blocked the storms from turning northward, a trend for much of the last two years. Instead, they headed west over the open ocean.
“Both would have turned otherwise,” said Keith Blackwell, a hurricane researcher at the University of South Alabama, “and we would have heard from them no more.”
In the Gulf of Mexico, both hurricanes moved over the loop current, which moves around the Gulf and exits south of Florida into the Atlantic, becoming part of the Gulf Stream current.
Black of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division said the data his team gathered this year should help improve computer models used to predict hurricane intensity. Forecasting intensity remains a glaring weak spot in hurricane models, experts say, even as the ability to anticipate where a hurricane will go has improved greatly.
The workhorses of Black’s research are small, disposable probes called AXBT devices, which are dropped from planes and measure the temperature of the ocean at depths up to 1,000 feet. Black got his probes as Navy surplus, leftover from Cold War efforts to track enemy submarines using sonar.
He said it would help attempts to gauge hurricane intensity if the US government would buy more temperature probes and make their deployment a routine part of hurricane tracking.
“We’re just about out of these hand-me-downs,” Black said.
SCIENCE: Dec 05, AU Edition
TO HELL AND BACK
Was life on early Earth as bad as all that? And what does
that mean for life on other planets? Robert S. Boyd reports
A scientific quest called “Mission to Really Early Earth” has unearthed evidence that our planet had an ocean, a continent and an atmosphere suitable for life half a billion years earlier than previously thought.
Since the requirements for life – land, water and air – were established so soon on Earth, some scientists say the finding makes it more likely that living creatures could also have arisen on other worlds.
“If it happened so early on Earth, why couldn’t it happen elsewhere in the universe as well?” said Stephen Mojzsis, a geoscientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
According to the traditional view of its infancy, Earth formed between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years ago from a disk of dust, rocks and gas circling the sun.
It then took 700 million years for the young planet to settle down and cool off enough for the first microscopic organisms to appear around 3.8 billion years ago, paleontologists believed.
This early period was named the Hadean (“hellish”) Eon, because it was presumed to be totally hostile to life. During much of that time, the planet was bombarded by giant meteorites like those that blasted the craters on the moon. Any early life would have been wiped out.
Now, however, researchers report evidence that conditions were much more benign when the Earth was only 150 million to 200 million years old – three to four per cent of its present age.
“The stage was set 4.3 billion years ago for life to emerge on Earth”, Mojzsis told a conference on astrobiology – the study of life on other worlds – here last month.
“There was probably already in place an atmosphere, an ocean and a stable crust within about 200 million years of the Earth’s formation”, said Mojzsis, chairman of the conference. “Water was gushing out of the Earth.”
This picture of a comfortably warm, wet young world “contrasts with the hot, violent environment envisioned for our young planet by most researchers”, Bruce Watson, a geochemist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., declared in a recent online edition of the journal Science. “It opens up the possibility that life got a very early foothold.”
“If there was surface water, then life presumably could exist”, said Don Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“We don’t know when life began on Earth,” cautioned Mark Harrison, an Australian geoscientist who was at the astrobiology conference. “But it could have emerged as early as 4.3 billion years ago. Within 200 million years of the Earth’s formation, all of the conditions for life on Earth appear to have been met.”
Two hundred million years sounds like an awfully long time, but it’s relatively brief on the geologic scale.
For comparison, suppose Earth’s 4.5 billion-year-old lifespan ws shrunk to one year, with 1 January marking the beginning and 31 December representing today. By that yardstick, life could have begun on Earth as early as 12 January. Under the older, traditional view, it would have taken until 26 February to get started.
The evidence for a very young habitable Earth consists of a collection of tiny crystals called zircons dug up in the Jack Hills of Western Australia over the last 20 years. New technology pioneered by Mojzsis and John Valley, a geochemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has made it possible to determine how and when they formed.
For example, zircons contain uranium, which decays at a known rate. The Jack Hills zircons also enclose bits of shale, a sedimentary rock that must have previously been created by erosion by liquid water. In addition, the zircons contain a rare type of “heavy” oxygen that forms only in the presence of water.
“These zircons tell us that they melted from an earlier rock that had been to the Earth’s surface and interacted with cold water”, Mojzsis said. “There is no other known way to account for that heavy oxygen.”
Sonia Esperanca, an earth scientist at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., called the Jack Hills zircons “time capsules of processes happening in the earliest times in Earth’s history.”
“The estimated ages for the oldest evidence of an early crust have been getting progressively older as geologists seek out and analyze new samples”, said Douglas Erwin, a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who isn’t involved in the Mission to Really Early Earth. Erwin agreed that primitive microorganisms could have existed that long ago. “But I expect it will be very difficult to get any real evidence on the matter”, he said in an e-mail message.
“It’s certainly possible that life arose before the great bombardment, then was extinguished and arose again afterward, but we have no evidence either way”, said University of Washington geochemist Roger Buick in an e-mail message.
Another note of skepticism comes from Samuel Bowring, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “It’s a bit of a leap from a few grains of zircon to continents and oceans,” Bowring said, but he acknowledged that “it is consistent with most people’s view of early planetary evolution.”
The Mission to Really Early Earth is supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, which studies the origin of life on our planet and its possible existence on other heavenly bodies.
“We’re beginning to get the tools to test the Hadean world”, said Mojzsis. “Hell wasn’t as bad as we thought.”
FINANCE: Dec 05, AU Edition
OFF THE STREET
New breeds of community banks are getting customers out of queues and into high interest, says Todd Parker
Australians love to hate their banks. It’s a constant staple of talk-back radio; one of the most popular Aussie films of all time was a ludicrous piece of work about a bank that drives small businesses under and (it is implied) kills their children for sport; and who hasn’t seen a battered ute with a kelpie cross in the back and a bumper sticker reading, “Which bank? They’re all bastards!”
Of course, one of the golden rules of capitalism is that when the big guys aren’t able to get it done any more, smaller and more nimble competitors, using new technology, are able to step into the service gap, win over new customers, and make the old establishment institutions take notice. That sort of revolution is quietly taking place in Australia’s banking sector, where a new breed of entrepreneur is taking advantage of the widespread dissatisfaction created when the Australia’s big four banks closed local branches – in some cases leaving whole suburbs and towns without a physical branch office. One new banking network has, in partnership with local communities, set up over a hundred “community banks” across the country, and as part of that has pledged to plow money and profits back into local areas – something that the big banks, with their eyes on maximizing yield for shareholders, pay lip service to in principle but in practice are loathe to do.
But in the Internet age, there is no reason why one even needs to go into a physical branch to do one’s banking. Australia is more advanced than many other countries when it comes to electronic payments, and on-line banks are able to compete on both fees and interest rates by avoiding the expense of brick-and-mortar operations all together. One bank that is making great strides in this area is Community First Credit Union, which is powering a new online financial services operation called Easy Street Financial Services (http://www.easystreet.com.au). Based in Sydney, Easy Street has over $500 million in assets and some 57,000 members – and because it doesn’t need to pay dividends to shareholders, that means that it can offer higher rates of interest and better service.
The company’s EasySavings plan, for example, offers a 5.65% interest rate, 24/7 internet banking, and (unlike the big guys) no fixed terms, minimum deposit, or bank fees. In fact, the EasySavings account has been awarded “Best paying E-account” by Money magazine three years in a row.
Account holders can also take out personal loans up to $35,000 simply by applying online, with no application fee or early repayment penalties and convenient redraw facilities.
And for those looking to invest long term, or just have a little flutter on the share market, their EasyBroking service provides flat-fee $26 trades on the ASX and a full suite of on-line trading tools. So far, Easy Street’s business model seems to be working. Unlike big banks that have to entice customers with “bonus interest” schemes and other incentives to stay with them, Easy Street “feels loyalty is built by providing our customers with consistently good returns on their at call savings.
“What consumers will need to be aware of with a bonus interest offer is that at the conclusion, they could end up with an interest rate that is below what’s on offer in the marketplace”, says spokesperson Kerry McMorrow.
“We have found our funds to be sticky and enjoy a retention rate of approximately 95%”.
Money, Dec 05, AU Edition
Who’s getting rich off high gas prices? Hint: think ballot boxes, not bowsers
Let me take you back in time, to a land that existed long, long, ago. A time when life was vastly different, an era when we were more mobile, a time when petrol was around 85 cents a litre. I am, of course, talking about January 2005. They say that a year is an eternity in politics. Well, the same can be said for petrol prices. I recently heard an explanation from an “industry expert” about how the price of petrol is determined each day, indeed, each hour. It makes subjects like the structure of DNA and thermonuclear physics seem like kindergarten stuff.
Not surprisingly, the only person to lose out in all of this is the motorist. In my honestly held opinion, there are snouts in proverbial troughs everywhere when it comes to making a quid out of petrol. It is also a fact of life that we all depend on our cars for almost everything. Maybe, just maybe, cutting back on petrol, and not using the ol’ chariot as much as we used to, is not such a bad thing. Do we really need to drive to the local shops when they are only a 5 minute walk anyway? Dropping children off at school can be a bit like a demolition derby, but with more emotion… so walking to school is maybe not such a bad thing.
In July 1969, when man landed on the moon, the number one hit was a cheerful little number called, “In the Year 2525”, by Zager and Evans. Some of the lyrics of this song include, “Your arms are hanging limp at your sides. Your legs got nothing to do. Some machine, doing that for you”. Perhaps they were predicting the way we would be going if we didn’t stop using our cars for the most mundane tasks. Call me an eternal optimist but there has to be an upside in this whole price of petrol predicament. Conversely, maybe the more haunting lyrics from Messieurs Zager and Evans are, “I’m kinda wondering if man’s gonna be alive. He’s taken everything this old earth can give. And he ain’t put back nothing...” So let’s have a look how we can drive through to the other side of this petrol pricing tunnel: there is a light but we just need to look for it. And, no, it is not a train heading toward us.
Who gets what?
Let’s look at a litre of standard unleaded petrol – say it costs $1.20 per litre. Where does your hard-earned go? Well, the refiner gets about 60 cents (this is called the “Terminal Gate Price”), and the government gets their bit (in fact its a large bite; around 41 cents goes to consolidated revenue, but only the government could get away with having a tax on top of a tax, because we have to pay GST on top of all these figures, so that makes another 11cents). Are you starting to see a bit of a trend here? We are paying $1.20 and approximately 52 cents of it is going to…drum roll…the government! The wholesaler gets about 5 cents out of all of this and by the time the poor ol’ servo gets a cut they only wind up with about 3 cents a litre.
You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to see that there is a 100% mark up on the refinery price, so the next time you are muttering under your breath about the petrol station owner, remember that the actual outlet itself is not getting that much from the petrol. (This is why they’re always flogging Mars Bars and chewing gum and groceries and magazines). They make more money on a few chocolate bars than they do on your petrol.
Let’s make these numbers dance a bit so that they are more meaningful: if we assume that the average car has about a 60 litre tank then a full tank would cost $72. The government gets $31, the refinery $36 and the servo gets $2. If you fill up once a week, that means that over the course of a year you are paying around $3,800 in total for petrol – including $1,650 extra in tax. Can you take that off your next income tax return? I don’t think so… and once again the total that the petrol station retailer gets for your patronage is about $100.
Hopefully it is now a bit clearer about where the money goes but we still haven’t looked at how the Terminal Gate Price is determined. Why have we seen such a big increase in the last 12 months and especially the last 3-4 months? This is where it is a real minefield and requires some unravelling of the facts.
How do they decide on a price?
The key point is that Australian refineries compete with Asia for petroleum products. Both oil and finished products (such as petrol and diesel) can be purchased at competitive prices from a number of locations in the region. Prices of fuel types such as diesel or petrol in this regional market are driven by supply and demand of each individual fuel type, resulting in fluctuations of the prices relative to each other. Australian refineries not only compete with imports of finished product in Australia but also export product to the regional market.
The Terminal Gate Price includes the import parity price plus tax (again), and a very small margin which covers some administration and marketing costs. It appears we are getting closer to the crux of all of this. We know what the terminal gate price is but what is the import parity price?
The import parity price is essentially the cost of importing, including freight and wharfage, finished product (as opposed to crude oil) to Australia. The import parity price is not regulated but instead determined by market forces. It now appears that the base price of the petrol we buy is directly linked to the importation of product. But in what way?
An international pricing benchmark is required for efficient operation of the petroleum products market in Australia and Asia. Singapore is a major refining centre and prices there are the best available reflection of prices in our region. For this reason, the Australian market uses Singapore prices as a benchmark, with actual prices negotiated relative to this benchmark. Changes in Singapore petrol prices or exchange rates typically take one to two weeks to flow through into either increases or decreases in pump prices. These changes are often masked by weekly cycles in pump prices in major capital cities.
What a revelation! It appears that the refineries pay for their imported product based on a calculation using the Singapore petrol price. This in turn is directly linked to the fluctuating cost of a barrel of crude. This changes daily and is determined by international supply and demand forces in the Middle East and the USA. This is globalisation in action. The next time you are in a country town like Wheelyabarraback or somewhere near the Black Stump, then realise that the petrol you are putting into your car is costing you what it costs because of what is happening in Singapore and Arabia… and don’t forget the government taxes!
But why do they all go up at once?
A common question is that all petrol stations seem to put up their prices at the same time. This, in fact, is not collusion but rather the result of marketing forces. You see what happens is, as we have just discovered the price that refiners pay for their product is determined by international supply and demand, and what the Singapore price is…but there is still a lot of room to move for thee refineries. There is a time lag between when prices are agreed and when they are paid. There are also corporate marketing strategies that result in temporarily decreasing the margin for the oil company. In other words, instead of a refinery making a 20% margin on their terminal gate price they make a 10% margin but they sell a larger volume.
Now this is why we see petrol cheaper on certain days, usually Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It is marketing ploy to make us buy then rather than wait. And if one company moves in price the rest will follow to remain competitive. After a couple of days of not maximising profits (remember, they are still making a profit but it is just lower) then there is financial pressure on the oil companies to increase their prices again, hence higher prices toward the weekends. I suppose it is basic commerce really: there are two groups of factors which lead to higher petrol prices – higher costs, and different competitive environments. (And of course, taxes.)
So what do we do?
The aim, of course, is to minimise your petrol bill, and you can do this with push and pull strategies.
1. Firstly, think carefully each time you use the car. Do you really need to fire up the beast to go two blocks to pickup some milk?
2. Do you really need that milk in the first place or can it wait?
3. Can you use public transport? At least on a bus or a train you can relax, maybe read or do some work, and save money.
4. Cadge a ride with someone else. Car pooling works well overseas.
5. Think … and act about your driving style. Drag-track starts might get you away from the lights quicker but you just get to next set of lights before everyone else, and it costs a bundle in petrol. Also there is no need to rev a car’s engine when you first turn on the ignition, unless you have a car built before 1960.
6. Plan when you buy your petrol. If you hear on the news that crude oil prices are going up then that means every part of Australia will be affected. Try and beat the oil companies to a price rise.
7. Watch for pricing cycles. If petrol is usually cheaper on Tuesday, well, buy on Tuesday.
8. Use coupons from supermarkets and other retailers to get a reduction in the pump price. Remember the old truism; look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.
In case all of this fails…buy a horse. This used to work before, they are cheap to buy, and upkeep is more efficient than a car. Unfortunately, the price of cereal and hay is going up. Why? Because of petrol costs. Oh well, maybe it is better to just stay at home: at least we can’t be taxed there…unless we do something.
Dec 05, AU Edition
YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN
James Morrow speaks to Zimbabwean actor and filmmaker Chloe Traicos about life in exile, her documentary about the brutality of the Mugabe regime, and the growing community of escapees from that African thugocracy who now call Australia home
In retrospect, perhaps the world should have known Robert Mugabe was going to be trouble. In the 1970s, when he was fighting the war for Rhodesian independence, he was thought of as the most radical, and most Marxist, of all the guerrilla leaders at the time, and did his best to drag out the war and its suffering – especially that of the white population – for his own aims. And his return from exile to lead what would become Zimbabwe was, according to historian Martin Meredith in his book The State of Africa was marked by throngs of supporters displaying “rocket grenades, land mines and guns … and many youths wore T-shirts displaying the Kalashnikov rifle, the election symbol that [Mugabe’s party] wanted but the British had disallowed.” But Mugabe, being a crafty warrior, moderated his tone on the advice of Mozambique’s president, who told him not to scare the white population back into exile.
Now, with Mugabe in the twilight of his life, his true colours have emerged once again as a brutal thug and an anti-white racist. And like another ZImbabwean author and the characters in his book, individuals like Chloe Traicos and her family have paid the price as well.
Tall, blonde and 26 – and with just a touch of the young Audrey Hepburn about her – Chloe Traicos is a Zimbabwean-born actress and filmmaker who has devoted the past five years of her life to documenting and exposing the brutality of Robert Mugabe. The daughter of former Zimbabwean test cricketer John Traicos, Chloe Traicos was born around the time of independence, and had what she describes as an idyllic childhood. The black-versus-white tensions that have been so enflamed didn’t exist at the time, and she recalls going to South Africa when she was a girl and being utterly baffled by apartheid – a system totally alien to the Zimbabwe of the 1980s.
“My father was a cricketer and also the managing director of a big hotel, and everyone there was like my family. That was my home, and I stay in touch with a lot of the people there, but the only way I can go back is if the government changes.” Traicos was forced leave with her family for Perth when it became clear that Mugabe was beginning to show his true colours.
“By the time we left, there were already violent food riots in the country”, recalls Traicos over coffee in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, where she moved two years ago. “I remember doing a three-day computer course in downtown Harare with my sister, and in the middle of one morning the college got a call telling them not to let anyone outside”, she recalls, making her an eye-witness to a situation it would take the rest of the world several more years to wake up to.
“The next thing I knew, our mum was there – she had coming racing in
to get us – there were riots going on around town, and we sped home and everything was shut down in the middle of a weekday and I just thought, ‘well, it can’t get any worse than this’.”
Of course, things were to get a lot worse, with the farm invasions that began in 2000 and the brutality that continues unchecked to this day. “When the farm invasions started happening, a lot of Australians just thought, ‘oh well, they’re finally kicking out the rich whites’, but they didn’t understand that all this was making life even worse for Zimbabwe’s blacks.”
To shed light on the situation in her homeland, Traicos – who studied acting in South Africa – has written and produced A Stranger in my Homeland. What started out as a stage play that ran in 2000 at Perth’s Blue Room has turned into a one-hour documentary of the same name that has screened all over the world, including at the Perth International Arts Festival, the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, and the Las Vegas International Film Festival – and has recently been picked up by Amnesty International as well. Essentially telling the story of both black and white Zimbabweans who have been forced to flee by Mugabe’s reign of terror, the documentary tells the story of “just how bad things are” – including the horrific Matabele massacres of the early 1980s, a “bath of blood” in the words of one witness carried out with the help of North Korean mercenaries.
It’s a constant battle to keep awareness of Mugabe’s crimes on the agenda in the West, says Traicos, who says she finds many who have escaped Zimbabwe just want to keep quiet, “keep their heads down”, and quietly start a new life. “The memories of what has happened is just too raw for many of them”.
But while the silence of Mugabe’s victims is understandable, Traicos is less sanguine about the attitude of Australians and other Westerners, many of whom still choose to turn a blind eye to the situation in Zimbabwe. “No one it seems really wants to know about what’s going on – he even has a following in the US!”, says Traicos, outraged. “Did you see that horrible speech he gave to the UN where people stood up and cheered?”, she says, referring to the address (boycotted by Australia) Mugabe gave recently – ironically enough for a man who has driven his country to starvation – to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“It’s like what happened in Rwanda”, says Traicos, speaking of Western countries’ failure to act in Africa before disaster strikes. “People will say, ‘oh, that’s terrible that that is going on’, but no one is willing to step in and really stop it. Sadly, the only country that’s really in a position to do anything is South Africa, but they won’t.”
Given some of the Mugabe-like rhetoric to come out of South African president Thabo Mbeki, perhaps that’s not surprising. For the people of southern Africa, though, it is very, very worrying.
DIARY OF A CABBIE : Dec 05, AU Edition
One 21st birthday bash plus two divorced parents minus cigarettes equals a very tense ride
Just after dark recently I was dropping off a passenger in an Eastern Suburbs Housing Commission neighbourhood. As I slowed, a party of three hailed me. It was obvious they were waiting for a booked cab: A young guy around 18 years old in suit pants, white shirt and tie, plus two women likewise dressed up.
The fella ran after the cab then stood on the roadway at my window waiting for the passenger to alight, then asked, ‘Mate, are you free?’ ‘Um, did you book a cab?’, I replied. ‘Yeah but we’ve been waiting half an hour – it’s my sister’s 21st and we’re really late. Please, I know you don’t have to take us but it’s really important’. The kid’s plaintive appeal struck a chord. ‘Yeah righto, jump in’.
My passengers were in good spirits as we headed for a five star restaurant at Circular Quay. The kid earnestly engaged me in banter about cab driving whilst the two women quietly chatted in the back. When one of them requested we stop at a convenience store for cigarettes, the kid tapped me on the leg and said, ‘Mate, this cab doesn’t stop, does it?’. ‘Depends who’s paying’, I replied. ‘I am’, insisted the woman. ‘No, Mum’, the kid replied, ‘we haven’t got time – we’ll be late for the guests’.
Hearing the word ‘Mum’ surprised me. From snippets of their easy chat I’d been under the impression both women were the same age. Now I realised I was carrying a single parent and two children. ‘Mum, you can buy cigarettes when we get there’, the kid told her. ‘No, I don’t think there’s anywhere near the restaurant’, she said, ‘We’ll stop at the nearest hotel’.
At Circular Quay I pulled up at the Paragon Hotel for the mother to buy smokes in the bottle shop. However, as she only had plastic the kids told her she would need cash for the machine. ‘I don’t care, we’ve got to find another shop’, she said tersely, ‘You know not to get between me and cigarettes’. The birthday girl chided her, ‘Mum, you’re being childish’. But the mother’s frustration was obvious – she needed smokes.
‘I’ll take you around to Harrington Street’, I said, ‘there’s a 7-11 there’. ‘No mate...’, said the kid, but his mother interrupted, ‘Yes Steven, we get the cigarettes first!’. Whatever, I thought; it would only take a few minutes. Unbelievably though, the store was lit up but closed! The mother stood outside its doors willing it to open, before storming back to the cab and slamming the door. ‘I told you I needed cigarettes!’, she exploded. The kid leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Mate, please take us to the restaurant now’. ‘Okay’, I said, ‘but there’s a shop back on Pitt Street’. ‘We’ll go back then!’, the mother barked. ‘Mum, let’s just get to the restaurant’, the kid pleaded, ‘then I’ll run up to the store for you’. ‘Yes, you will’, she scowled.
We completed the trip in tense silence, the jovial atmosphere now gone. ‘Thanks Mum’, the daughter quietly said, ‘you’ve managed to spoil the start of my night’. Ignoring her, Mum handed over a debit card then hopped out, slamming the door. ‘I’m really sorry about my Mum’, the kid said as he punched in the PIN. ‘Mate, it’s cool’, I told him. ‘I’m a smoker too.” I handed him a cigarette for her along with the receipt.
What I understood was the situation of divorced parents coming together to celebrate a child’s 21st birthday. There was a good chance relations between the parents were not ideal and the pressure of such a momentous evening could be overwhelming. A child’s formal graduation to adulthood is a tough gig for parents at the best of times, full of powerful mixed emotions. And if a parent insists on cigarettes for such a night, then they must be believed. Believe me.
Read more of Adrian the Cabbie at www.cablog.com.au
THE ROUGH LIFE: Dec 05, AU Edition
Eli Jameson hopes his kids don’t wind up inheriting his handicap
Frank Sinatra famously sang that he’d had regrets, but that they were “too few to mention”. (One has to wonder what those regrets would have been: Letting Peter Lawford into the Rat Pack? Cozying up to the Kennedys? The famous “two-dollar whore” remark on his 1974 tour of Australia – if only because it inspired the dreadful The Night We Called it a Day?)
Personally, I try to live much of my life by Sinatra’s credo. Sure, I don’t punch out blackjack dealers (much), can’t stomach Jack Daniel’s, and my wife isn’t named Nancy. But I do believe that it’s good to keep the regrets of one’s life to a minimum. Looking back on my life, however, there is one thing I would have done differently.
I would have learned to play golf when I was much, much younger.
In fact, I grew up overseas, in a city where golf courses were pretty inaccessible except to those who had the money for a pricey membership, the time and fanaticism required to camp out for a tee time at a public course, or both. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and was living in a golf-mad town that I finally picked up a club, when some mates announced they were going to the driving range after Sunday brunch. Having nothing better to do on a hot summer afternoon, I asked if I could tag along.
To make a long story short, I was hooked two minutes after first picking up a club. (I sliced thirty seconds after picking up a club, but that’s another story). My friends put a 9-iron in my hands, gave me a bucket of balls, some basic tips on set-up, stance, and swing, and I was off. The memory is hazy, but I know that only about half of my first dozen swings even came close to connecting with the ball, and those that did saw shots skitter wildly across a 120-degree field of fire that managed to include the course’s first fairway.
Then it happened: the one magic shot that took off high and straight, describing a parabola, before settling down to earth with a satisfying thup and little puff of dust, a la Wile E. Coyote when he has one of his unfortunate run-ins with gravity. Like the caveman at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey who discovers the power of an old bone as a club, I had discovered the power of the 9-iron as, well, a club. The following day I went into the office, ordered up a set of clubs off the Internet, and pestered my friends to take me out on the course the following week. (In a tremendous dose of beginner’s luck, my very first shot on my very first hole – a par-3 – was a 5-iron that landed nicely on the green. Everything about both me and my game has gone downhill since.)
And that’s the problem: I will never get to be really, really good at golf. Breaking 90 is a pipe-dream. Perhaps if I were a natural-born athlete who’d done sporty stuff his entire life, I could have adapted my other skill sets to fit the game, but there’s really no chance of that happening at this point.
That’s why I’m determined that I won’t make the same mistake with my kids. I’m going to do whatever it takes to be the Earl Woods of the Southern Hemisphere. I’m going to turn my offspring into stone-cold golf nuts with negative handicaps by the time they turn 18 and have the world wondering when they will take the US PGA by storm. And as their manager, I’ll never have to worry about how my super is doing again.
OK, maybe that’s a bit much. Still, though, I hope they decide to gather their rosebuds – or work on their mid-irons – while they may. I guess it’s a case of another aphorism that I first came across in a Tiger Woods book about golf strategy: Never make the same mistake twice.
Or something like that.
MUSIC: Dec 05, AU Edition
HIT AND MISSY
Elliott’s latest fails to impress. Plus: soul survivors, and a moving tribute to Sublime
“The Cookbook”, Goldmind/Atlantic
Missy Elliott has a remarkably consistent track record of combining stylistic innovation and commercial success, with a series of freakishly catchy hits that match her outre sensibility with her producer pal Timbaland’s off-kilter beats. All of that came to a creative peak on the brilliantly strange 2002 hit “Work It.”
On “The Cookbook”, though, Timbaland is in the kitchen on only two cuts. As a result, Elliott delivers the first merely mediocre album of her career.
It has its soulful, compelling moments, such as the confessional “My Struggles,” with Grand Puba and Mary J. Blige, and even better, “Irresistible Delicious”, which makes excellent use of the insouciant flow of rap legend Slick Rick. But “The Cookbook” is ultimately not much more than a serviceable party record. From Elliott, we’ve come to expect a more nourishing repast.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
“Classic Moments”, Def Soul
“Vivian”, Sony Urban
To hear these Philadelphians tell it, soul never really got too hijacked by hip-hop. For veteran Patti LaBelle and youngster Vivian Green, soul is all about desperation and joy within supple arrangements and vocal twists beneath the rhythms.
Lacking a memorable song, Green’s voice inhabits the colors of each careful arrangement, such as the flying strings of “Under My Skin” and the flickering guitars of “Mad”. From her lyrics to the ache in her high register, Green conveys how some emotions surprise her, from the sadness of “Frustrated” to the carnality of “Damn”.
What Green is just gathering, LaBelle has cultivated during her decades-long career. Without too much sass or gloss, she takes to these slow classics with the sort of simmering and seasoning any great cook would.
Her hefty voice bounces off the Fender Rhodes bump of “I Keep Forgetting” and winnows through the gospelish “Ain’t No Way.” Amen to that.
Reviewed by A.D. Amorosi
“Look at All the Love We Found: A Tribute to Sublime”, Cornerstone
Nothing overshadows the tragedy at the heart of Sublime’s legacy: Singer Brad Nowell’s succumbed to a heroin overdose, leaving behind a wife and baby just before the band’s self-titled breakthrough LP appeared in 1996.
Sad too, in an altogether different way, is the unrealized potential of the trio, which loved punk, reggae, pop and hip-hop. This solid and varied tribute – with contributions as far gone as the Greyboy Allstars’ jazz vamp on “Doin’ Time” and as faithful as Fishbone’s bug-eyed “Date Rape” – underscores that point in a way the perpetual radio play of “What I Got” does not.
Yes, Sublime inspired hokey beach bums such as Jack Johnson, who strums on till the break of yawn here on “Badfish.” But it also dared fellow So-Cal punk-reggae kids No Doubt (who deliver a live version of “D.J.s”) to dream big.
That’s a legacy worthy of a tribute.
Reviewed by Patrick Berkery
MOVIES: Dec 05, AU Edition
MORE LIKE PURGATORY
Reece Witherspoon’s latest fails to thrill, while Russian Dolls is more than just kid stuff
Release: December, 2005
French with English sub-titles
Russian Dolls is a sequel to the very popular 2002 French flick, The Spanish Apartment. In The Spanish Apartment a group of 25-year-old students come to discover life isn’t all about meaningless sex and realize that they have to grow up. Set five years later, Russian Dolls has the group on the cusp of thirty discovering they really, really have to grow up.
The storyline is predominantly explained through voiceover from the lead character Xavier (played by a cute but slightly dull Romain Duris). He’s no longer working in finance and is now doing crappy freelance writing for romantic TV movies. So as he writes he fills in plot gaps: “I wrote a book called L’auberge Espanole five years ago, but haven’t been able to find a publisher.” It’s a clever way to bring you up to speed with the lives of his friends over the past five years.
Basically the gang all get back together for the wedding in St Petersburg of English stagehand William (played charmingly by Kevin Bishop) and Russian ballerina Natasha (Evguenya Obraztsova).
Two stand out roles are Xavier’s ex-girlfriend, Martine (played by the captivating Audrey Tautou), who has a young son by a never-seen father, still carries a semi-torch for Xavier and, like all the characters on display, is searching for true love. And current girlfriend Wendy (played by the magnetic Kelly Reilly) a gifted writer getting over an abusive relationship.
Enter Celia (played appropriately woodenly by Lucy Gordon), a top fashion model whose life story is being ghost-written by Xavier. She’s beautiful and dumb – making her the perfect woman in Xavier’s eyes.
My question is why do all these beautiful and smart women fall for a neurotic no-hoper wreck? Sure Xavier is handsome and French – but come on girls, we all know he’s a commitment-phobic disaster.
If you liked The Spanish Apartment you’ll like Russian Dolls. It’s nice to have films that grow up with you.
Just Like Heaven
Release: December, 2005
Look, I love Reece Witherspoon. And I think Mark Ruffalo is a big spunk. But the new movie they are starring in, Just Like Heaven, leans a bit too heavily on their sweetness to make up for its failings.
Basically Elizabeth is a type-A, work-obsessed woman who has no time for love – not much of a stretch for a Reece Witherspoon character. David is a depressed yet gentle man trying to get over the death of his wife – again, Mark Ruffalo could play this with his eyes shut.
The catch is Elizabeth is a spirit that no-one but David can see. Yup, it’s a pretty dumb plot alright. The scriptwriters obviously hope viewers will make the leap of faith before you run from the room screaming Ghost. Myself, I struggled with it.
Anyway, our two leads have to figure out why Elizabeth is a spirit and only David can see her so they can hopefully fix the problem. There are some funny bits. While Elizabeth is trying to convince David to help her, she seals the deal by arguing, “Look, you have two realities to choose from. The first is a woman has come into your life in a very unconventional way and she needs your assistance. The second is you are a crazy person talking to himself on a park bench.” Fair point.
Of course this is a romantic comedy so they fall in love – even though she’s not real so he can’t touch her and she can walk through walls and furniture. Hmmm.
If you’re looking for a dumb chick flick to distract you this summer Just Like Heaven is for you. But I prefer my spirits mixed with with orange juice.
Dec 05, AU Edition
LAST FLIGHT OF THE DRAGONFLY
A mystery from inside the Pacific’s Bermuda Triangle
In February 1962, an ageing bi-plane on a scenic flight became the first victim of an area they’re calling the Pacific’s Bermuda Triangle. Six planes have vanished never to be seen again, taking with them 23 men, women and children. Now in this extract from aviation writer RICHARD WAUGH’s new book, Lost Without Trace?, comes the story of the missing Dragonfly, and details of a $4,000 reward for its discovery.
From a gentle idle Brian Chadwick closes down the Dragonfly engines. The ground running warms them up before the flight and is a last check for any obvious faults. Everything is fine and there is plenty of fuel aboard. Stepping away from the Dragonfly, Chadwick looks toward the distant Alps. It’s a habit. There is total cloud cover and he can feel the southerly wind.
With the Flight Plan filed he walks into the imposing terminal building and greets two men already waiting at the Inquiry Desk. “Hello, I’m Brian Chadwick, your pilot for today’s flight,” “Gidday mate, I’m Louis Rowan,” “And I’m Darrell Shiels.”
Elwyn Saville soon joins them and his new wife Valerie emerges from the powder room. ‘A happy young lot; they’ll love the flight,’ thinks Chadwick as they head off chatting, toward the parked Dragonfly. Louis quickly works out his older brother Bill had worked with Darrell at a Sydney brewery.
“Yes, she’s not the newest plane,” says Chadwick, “But you’ll have fantastic views and we’ll be slow enough for you to use all the film in your cameras – I guarantee it!” He soon finds out where they’re from, and puts Elwyn and Valerie together on the rear bench seat, Louis in the front seat next to him, and Darrell in the middle seat. They listen attentively as he gives the safety instructions and points out the First Aid box, barley sugars and four small blankets.
Chadwick eases into the pilot’s seat. He has just over 6,000 flying hours experience. There is friendly banter in the cabin and they all laugh when he says, “On board we have a Pom, three Aussies and a Kiwi – not a joke – but it’s going to be a memorable flight!”
The Dragonfly had been refuelled the evening before by Ken Froggatt who worked as an assistant to Chadwick. Following instructions Froggatt had filled the wing tanks to capacity (30 gallons each) and put 15 gallons in the rear fuselage tank, and the aircraft was all ready for the morning’s flight. After ground running the engines, Chadwick went to meet his passengers. The four tourists were all from New South Wales: Elwyn & Valerie Saville from Wahroonga, Louis Rowan from Granville and Darrell Shiels from Balmain. Valerie was a New Zealander who had married Elwyn in her home town of Gisborne just two months earlier.
The Savilles came to the South Island as part of their extended honeymoon holiday in New Zealand, wanting to see some of the renowned scenery. They were intending to return to Australia in late February. Sidney Elwyn Saville, known as ‘Elwyn’, was born on 8 October 1941 at Casino on the north coast of New South Wales where his father Roy owned and ran a dairy farm. He was the third of five children. The family were Seventh Day Adventist and Elwyn attended Casino High School and then went to work at the Wahroonga Sanitarium and Hospital in Sydney. This is now the Sydney Adventist Hospital.
Valerie Gay Bignell was born on 27 June 1939, the second youngest of twelve children of Fred and Jessie Bignell at Tokomaru Bay, north of Gisborne. Fred was a foreman and slaughterman at the local Freezing Works. Valerie attended Tokomaru Bay School and from the age of 14, the New Zealand Missionary College (later Longburn College) near Palmerston North. She returned to Gisborne and worked in the office at Cook Hospital as a typist. Valerie’s family remember her as “a loving kind person, quiet, who loved children.”
She decided to go to Australia in 1959 as several relatives were there including a sister, Patricia. Valerie soon got a job as a secretary-clerk at the Adventist Sanatorium and this is where she met Elwyn. Engaged in the winter of 1961, they set a wedding date in New Zealand, took extended leave from their jobs and the couple left Sydney by air for New Zealand on 21 November, along with several other friends and were booked to return to Sydney by sea on the Canberra, leaving on 28 February 1962. It was a return trip they would never make.
Born at Junee in New South Wales in 1928, Darrell Stanley Shiels was the youngest of Warrie and Doris Shiels’ three children. His father worked on the railway. He attended Drummoyne Boys High School. Darrell’s older brother, Allan Warren Shiels, aged 19, was killed in wartime England on 19 June 1944 in a plane crash whilst serving with the RAAF.
Darrell was 5’11” tall of medium build and played tennis, but his favourite occupation was playing the piano. He took after his grandmother who was a very good pianist. Darrell worked in a railways office and later as a clerk in the office of Tooth & Co Brewery in Sydney. Darrell was single but had been engaged for a short time a few years earlier. While at Tooths Brewery he lived at home with his mother at Balmain, Sydney.
Louis Rowan had been working in New Guinea before returning home to Australia for Christmas 1961 and then took a trip to New Zealand with the prospect of working for a while.
“Louis was a very outgoing and popular man who had close mates and a wide circle of friends,” remembers his brother John. “He was generous by nature and a willing helper to anyone who needed it. He was popular with the girls and flirting was a trademark. He played tennis regularly and kept himself very fit. Louis was 6’1” tall, lean and about 170lb. He was a member of the Granville RSL and really enjoyed a beer and a smoke. He owned three cars, the first a Vanguard, the second an FJ Holden and the third, his pride and joy, a Dodge Kingsway. He was never short of family and friends to fill these cars for any occasion.”
Rowan’s date with destiny happened by chance: the possibility of a scenic flight to Milford Sound came up while he lingered in Christchurch awaiting a flight back to the North Island and thence home to Australia. When the opportunity came to board the Dragonfly, he seized it, leaving his luggage behind in a bed and breakfast establishment he never returned to.
As the group of five boarded the Dragonfly, Don Eadie, a 24-year-old licensed aircraft engineer with Airwork, was ready to help. In 2004 he remembered: “I was on tarmac duty when Brian Chadwick loaded up AFB with the tourists for the trip to Milford. At that time, the engineering staff at Airwork wore grey overalls, and I always kept a clean pair of white ones for ‘tarmac duty’. My job was to assist the pilot ‘load up’ and having shut the door, stand by with a fire extinguisher while the engines were started. I often wondered what I would do if one caught fire! However, I was never put to the test. The Dominie and Dragonfly engines always started and ran smoothly after a short warm up. A testimony to the care with which they were maintained.
“I seem to recall that it was a warm day at Harewood. I can still see the young couple in the Dragonfly, lightly dressed and quite excited at the prospect of flying to Milford. After a wave from Brian, I pulled away the wooden chocks and he then taxied out to the runway. That was the last I was to see of him.”
Dragonfly ZK-AFB was airborne just over 10 minutes late. George Blackett reported, “Upon Captain Chadwick’s departure from Christchurch the Control Tower sent the Flight Plan to Communications for onward transmission and sent the Control Centre a plaque to inform the Centre of the actual time of departure. The aircraft left at 9.52am and was to set down at Milford at 12.37pm.”
Christchurch Airport received no further radio reports from Chadwick as the Dragonfly began the long climb toward the Southern Alps.
As expected, many other pilots were flying in the lower South Island that day. From Hokitika, Brian Waugh took off mid-morning on the scheduled West Coast Airways service to Haast. He later wrote: “Dominie ZK-AKT lifted off into a light cloudy sky. It was early morning, and Hokitika looked quite sleepy beneath me. Another typical day I thought. Little did I realise that 12 February 1962 would be a day not easily forgotten. Just over an hour later I landed at Haast in sunshine, picked up six passengers and headed home on the return trip. Jim Harper was right: while the coast weather was good, it was pitch black in the ranges. I smiled smugly: ‘Chaddy will not be carrying any scenic passengers to Milford today,’ I thought.”
No radio reports were received from Chadwick after the Dragonfly took off but this was quite normal as his next designated radio reporting point was the Mt. Eliede Beaumont area, assuming his “Usual Route”. While there were no radio messages there were a number of reported hearings and sightings of the blue and white Dragonfly as it droned its way over the Canterbury Plains and headed south-west. In this sense the aircraft did not disappear ‘without trace’ as these observations were made by a range of people at many different places. These reports indicate that the progress of ZK-AFB for part of its intended journey can be confirmed with reasonable certainty.
In 1987 Eric Gillum contacted the author recording his memories of 12 February 1962: “I was digging a drain with a dragline working on Mr Walter Elliot’s Omahau sheep station that day, which is about 6 miles south from Lake Pukaki Village and about half a mile from where Twizel village was later established. I had just stopped work a few minutes before midday when I heard a plane going over, it was far too low and one engine was spluttering and blowing out smoke. I thought then that if it got as far as Lake Ohau it would be as far as it would get.
“Mr Elliot came out that afternoon about 3 o’clock and told me a plane had been reported missing. I asked him if he knew what sort of plane it was and when he said it was a Dragonfly I told him it had gone over with one engine spluttering. I had met Captain Chadwick and found him a very levelheaded person. If the plane had kept on course after it flew over where I was it would have had to gain a lot of height to get over the Ben Ohau Range, but I couldn’t see that being possible with one sick motor, he could have flown around the Ben Ohau Range at the bottom of Lake Ohau and got back on course from there.
“About 11 o’clock that same day my sister, Eileen Harrington, was at Jim O’Neil’s farm on Clayton Road, Fairlie, when that plane passed overhead, therefore he was right on course and the timing would be right too.”
One of the earliest reports received by Search and Rescue on the Monday night was relayed from deercullers at the head of Lake Ohau. This was further investigated on the Tuesday. Evan Blanch in 2004 wrote this detailed account:
As a 20-year-old, I was employed by the New Zealand Forest Service doing deerculling in the Hopkins River watershed. There were eight shooters covering the Hunter, Ahuriri, Hopkins and Dobson Valleys – two to each, plus a Field Officer and under the control of the Otago-Southland office in Queenstown. On the day Chad- wick’s aircraft went missing we were all at the NZFS Waitaki Base Camp on Huxley Gorge Station. This camp is at the base of Ram Hill at the south end of the Hopkins Valley. We would meet up once a month to collect and send out mail, fill in our monthly report cards and have our tallies counted.
“The weather was, to say the least, terrible, with a very strong southerly coming up over Lake Ohau with low cloud and rain showers. I don’t remember now the exact time but it was in the middle of the day. I was at the time repairing the driveshaft on my Chevrolet pick-up truck and was surprised to suddenly hear an aircraft overhead in the cloud. It was clearly twin-engined and working very hard against the wind but at no time did it become visible. I stood and listened until it could no longer be heard. It flew directly up the Hopkins Valley and my impression was that some mountain tops must have been visible to make it possible to fly up the valley. The plane sounded as if it came out of the Dobson Valley and around Mt Glenmary, when the sound of the engines ceased – they stopped very abruptly.
“Everyone at the camp heard the plane but as they were indoors they did not take a lot of notice. It was not until the 6 o’clock news came over the radio saying that a plane was missing that we realised that what we heard was probably it.
“The Hopkins River is almost North to South and has a gentle curve over most of its length. The Huxley River is quite a large valley on the west of the Hopkins with the Elcho Valley a bit smaller. These would be an absolute trap in bad weather for any plane but they do give access to the Landsborough River, via the Brodrick Pass, which in turn gives a route to the West Coast and Haast. So we heard the plane going north away from its intended destination and into an area of high mountains and dense forest. In two years working in the area there was a lot of the area I never visited. A blue fabric covered aircraft could easily still be there!
“The Police were interested in what I heard but I didn’t see any – but officers in charge tend to take over in these situations. I have never been asked for my story and this is the first time I have put it to paper.”
A total of 17 civilian and 17 military aircraft – including both RNZAF and USAF aircraft from Operation Deep Freeze at Christchurch – combed Fiordland for any trace of the aircraft. All up, they logged more than 630 flying hours across more than 250 individual sorties. To this day, it remains the largest air search ever conducted in New Zealand history.
The whereabouts of Dragonfly ZK-AFB, its pilot and passengers, quickly became a persisting mystery spawning wide interest, and this has continued to the present day. Based on what many people reported seeing or hearing, the Dragonfly’s progress south west is reasonably certain but its final resting place is still elusive, despite a number of search initiatives over the years. Adding to this Dragonfly mystery is the subsequent disappearance in the same lower South Island region of five further aircraft which have never been found (see sidebar story).
With the official Dragonfly search being suspended, the families of those on board the missing aircraft were compelled to face the reality that their loved ones had died. It was a traumatic week.
Telegrams had been sent from the New Zealand Police in the late afternoon and early evening of 12 February notifying relatives in Australia that the aircraft was overdue and missing. Darrell Shiels’ mother told newspapers the following day that her husband had been put on sedatives to help cope with the shock.
For the Rowan family it was just as devastating with the family making desperate attempts to obtain more news. Every news bulletin on Sydney radio was listened to and reception of late evening radio broadcasts from New Zealand were sometimes successful. But the distance and lack of news was heartbreaking for all involved. Support for the families from relatives and friends was encouraging with care and prayers being offered all across Australia.
Elwyn Saville’s parents stayed with Valerie’s sister, Patricia King, at Cooranbong, and it was from there that Mrs Saville wrote a letter to the other bereaved families. Her heartfelt letter of 20 February to the Rowan family said:
“We are writing a short note to you in hope that by being parents of the young couple in the same plane as your boy has disappeared, we may be able to offer some comfort in knowing that the one sadness covers both our homes. We do not know each other but may God bless you with his love in our sad time, it is very hard for us to understand but I do feel that God must have a purpose for it all, may we put our trust in him.
“We contacted the New Zealand Commissioner of Police asking if they considered it would be of any gain for us to go over to New Zealand or if my husband and son could be of any assistance in the search, the reply wasn’t just what we’d have liked but they have really made a wonderful effort in the search for them.
“The reply stated that they have searched 17,000 square miles six or seven times. The search has been suspended in the meantime and will be taken up immediately if information comes to hand. No point in coming to New Zealand at present. We cannot expect more of them even though we’d like them to go on searching. We can only have faith in knowing that if we should not see them again in this world we will meet our loved ones when Jesus comes on the Great Resurrection Day. May your faith, courage and health, as well as our own be built so as to face the future whatever God has in store for us.”
In Christchurch the news had filtered out more quickly. The Isles family, where Valerie and Elwyn Saville had been staying, heard about the aircraft being overdue by late afternoon but Valerie’s parents, Mr and Mrs Fred Bignell and their family in Gisborne, weren’t contacted by police until later that evening.
Two weeks later Mrs Bignell and her daughter Joyce went to Christchurch, stayed with the Isles, and collected the luggage, including wedding presents, that the couple had left behind.
For Sylvia Chadwick and her two sons, the news was also unbelievable. At the naval training establishment in Auckland, Tony was convinced that his father would turn up unscathed after a couple of days, and had to be virtually ordered to go home on compassionate leave. Then there was a sense of helplessness, as there was nothing that could be done to assist the search.
Certainly the performance of the Dragonfly in alpine flying conditions, especially at the required altitudes in the lower Southern Alps, was very poor. Not only was there an appreciable difference in the actual single engine performance of ZK-AFB when compared to manufacturer’s claims, but by 1962, in comparison with other newer aircraft available, the veteran Dragonfly was clearly unsuitable for such trips. When the aircraft’s known poor single-engine performance and susceptibility to icing, is combined with the mountainous terrain and deteriorating weather, a whole new meaning is given to the term “margin of error”.
The reality was that the Dragonfly had little or no margin of error to cope with any major weather deterioration or mechanical failure en route to Milford Sound. Chadwick may not have originally envisaged using the Dragonfly for his Milford Sound flights, as his larger Dominie aircraft was more suitable, but in practice the aircraft regularly flew the Glacier and Milford Sound charters. With hindsight it can now be said that flying a Dragonfly aircraft on regular commercial charters over the rugged Southern Alps to Milford Sound, sometimes in deteriorating weather, was risky, if not a tragedy waiting to happen.
In spite of the passage of time, local pilots continued to keep watch for the Dragonfly, looking for anything unusual in the dense bush and trees, especially in more isolated areas. Brian Waugh was prominent, but there were many others.
Nancy Stokes, widow of Mt Cook skiplane pilot John Stokes, who was based at Fox Glacier 1961-1964, recently commented: “John always kept an eye out for Chadwick”. Ray Sweney from Hokitika also deliberately flew over many likely areas. The same was true for Canterbury-based pilot Jim Pavitt, who continued to fly Milford Sound charters, “After Brian Chadwick went missing, every time I flew to Milford I scrutinised the terrain for any signs. I even varied the route to cover as much as possible, but there is such an extensive wilderness it was fruitless. One day I hope a tramper or someone finds something; then we might learn what happened.”
In January 1975 a deerstalker, N.L. Duncan reported seeing what looked like aircraft debris in the headwaters of the Rangitata River. A fully equipped six-man team, led by two police constables, completed a search accompanied by Mr Duncan but nothing was found.
On 8 August 1980 Paul Beauchamp Legg and his wife Frances were flying with Dr Paul and Jean Monro in the Middle District’s Aero Club’s Piper Cherokee 180 ZK-ECR. Paul Monro recounts: “We were on a flight from Franz Josef to Milford Sound with Paul Legg flying. I remember us flying well round Mt. Aspiring to the south of the West Branch of the Matukituki River. We then headed for a point a few miles out to sea from the entrance to Milford Sound and flew over tall bush-covered undulating country which I assume may have been the Dart River. As we descended towards Lake Alabaster, before crossing its southern end, Jean, who was sitting in the left rear seat, saw what looked like the white tail plane of an aircraft semi-hidden in the bush.” Beauchamp Legg was quickly alerted and he recalls: “We were in a severe down-draught at the time and I was more interested in staying with the living than joining the dead and was working hard to get into an updraught. I only had time to make a quick glance in the direction Mrs Monro indicated. I marked it on the map and passed the information to Air Department but as far as I know nothing was done about it. I was told much later, at Queenstown, that one of the helicopters had dropped a fridge in the bush somewhere about there but Mrs Monro was still adamant that it was an aeroplane she saw.”
A further on-going search initiative has been quietly undertaken by Lex Perriam, a ranger with the New Zealand Forest Service based at Omarama since 1975. Perriam remembers the Dragonfly going missing while attending high school at Mosgiel. In 1977 he discussed the mystery with Stafford Weatherall, owner of the Lake Ohau Station.
Weatherall told him that on the day the Dragonfly went missing he had been mustering east of Lake Ohau on Ben Rose Station and heard, above the fog, an aircraft to the west with engines revving loudly. This account, together with a dream Perriam had of the Dragonfly being in the South Huxley area, and Richard Waugh’s article for the 25th anniversary of the disappearance in 1987, renewed his interest and prompted him to be deliberate about ongoing searching for wreckage in the areas for which he has Forest Service responsibility. In 2005 he reported: “I was encouraged to continue looking for the location of the plane by foot and by air.”
Mason Whaitiri of Bluff reported to the author recently: “In early 1962 I was the Skipper of the Miss Geraldine fishing boat and was working directly off the entrance to Milford Sound at the time the aircraft went missing. It was a bright sunny day and the boat was straight out from St Anne Point about a mile from the Sound mouth. The time was about midday or 1pm and the boat was picking up pots.
“I was in the wheelhouse and two crew members were at the winch – Russell Trow, my brother-in-law, and Allan Strange. In spite of the noise from the freezer and engine in the wheelhouse I heard a very loud aircraft noise which all of a sudden cut out.
“I went out on deck and asked the others who were using the winch whether they had heard the close-by aircraft but they hadn’t heard a thing over the noise of the winch and didn’t see anything. While the weather was sunny and clear it was blowing a 25-30 knot wind from south west coming up the coast. A hard wind!
“Later that day we heard that an aircraft was missing. We also saw smoke in the bush behind Big Bay and steamed for about three hours to get closer but we determined it was Davy Gunn mustering cattle. Some weeks later it dawned on me the possible explanation for the very loud aircraft noise and its sudden end.
“I felt the aircraft would have been very near for the noise to have penetrated the wheelhouse so clearly – maybe within 200 yards. I think the missing aircraft may have been running out of fuel and the pilot had nowhere else to land and so decided to get close to the only human civilisation – the Miss Geraldine – and to ditch in the sea alongside. This was the loud noise I heard as the aircraft came up very close. But unfortunately the pilot ditched on the wrong side and was not noticed. The crew and I were not looking that way as we were concentrating on collecting the pots and were watching certain land features to help determine where the pots were. I am a friend of veteran helicopter pilot Bill Black. On occasions Bill came up close to my boat but if I was in the wheelhouse I only heard his helicopter when he was directly overhead. This whole incident has haunted me for all these years.”
Although many years have passed it is quite likely there will be still more reports made about the Dragonfly. All deserve to be considered carefully. The reality is that the Dragonfly did not just vanish without trace. This book documents many key and credible reports, many dating back to 12 February 1962, which provide strong evidence that the Dragonfly was flying on a southwest route down the eastern side of the Main Divide. The sighting/hearing reports of an aircraft in the Lake Ohau/Hopkins area and the Mt. Aspiring area provide important clues as to its possible final resting place.
Investigate magazine is supporting Richard Waugh’s quest to solve New Zealand’s most perplexing aviation mystery by offering a $4,000 cash reward to anyone who discovers the wreckage and reports it exclusively to Investigate in the first instance. No reward will be payable if news of any discovery is first publicized intentionally or unintentionally in any other media than Investigate. For full details of the likely route of the Dragonfly, purchase a copy of Waugh’s new book, Lost Without Trace? Available at all good booksellers.
THE PACIFIC’S ‘BERMUDA TRIANGLE’?
Since the disappearance of Dragonfly ZK-AFB on 12 February 1962, there have been five other aircraft lost without trace in the same southern region of the South Island; four fixed wing aircraft and one helicopter. In total, including those aboard ZK-AFB, 23 persons – 6 pilots and 17 passengers – have vanished!
The large area in which these aircraft and people have been lost is among the most rugged in New Zealand, with much of it having World Heritage status. Since the Dragonfly, other aircraft to disappear have been:
• 16 August 1978: Cessna 180 ZK-BMP owned by Central Western Air. The pilot was Rev Cyril Francis Crosbie (aged 37) of Riversdale and the passengers were: Trevor George Collins (aged 50) of Waimea, Gordon Grant (aged 28) of Waipounamu and Peter Alexander Robertson (aged about 40) of Wendonside. The aircraft was on a flight from Big Bay, South Westland, to Riversdale, Southland. It was probably last heard at Jamestown at the northern end of Lake McKerrow and appeared to be heading towards the Jamestown Saddle.
• 29 December 1978: Piper Cherokee Six ZK-EBU owned by the Otago Aero Club. The pilot was Edward James Sinclair Morrison (aged 28) and the passengers were: Earl Blomfield Stewart (aged 40), his wife Elizabeth McGregor Stewart (aged 37), their son David John Stewart (aged 18), Alec Davidson Stewart (aged 38), his wife Rosie Stewart (aged 37) and David Hogg (aged 20). The elder Stewart men were brothers and all the Stewarts were from Dunedin. The aircraft was on a scenic flight from Taieri, Dunedin, to Queenstown, Milford Sound, Preservation Inlet and then back to Dunedin. It was last seen flying down Milford Sound toward the coast.
• 30 July 1983: Cessna 172K ZK-CSS owned by Arthur Roy Turner. The pilot was Arthur Roy Turner (aged 55) of Mt Ruapehu, National Park, and the passengers were: his wife Anne Zelda (aged 33) and children Kim Dorothy (aged 6) and Guy (aged 4). Anne was also a pilot. The aircraft was on a flight from Tekapo to Fox Glacier.
• 8 November 1997: Cessna 180 ZK-FMQ owned by Cascade Whitebait Ltd. The pilot was Ryan Michael Moynihan (aged 23) and he was the sole occupant. The aircraft was on a flight from West Melton Aerodrome, Canterbury to Waiatoto, South Westland.
• 3 January 2004: Hughes 369HS ZK-HNW owned by Featherstone Contracting Ltd, Hamilton. The pilot was Campbell Montgomerie (aged 27) from Hamilton and his passenger, girlfriend Hannah Rose Timings (aged 28) from Cheltenham, England. The helicopter was on a flight from the Howden Hut, on the Routeburn Track, to Milford Sound. A total of 204 flying hours and 2300 man hours were reported as being spent searching the mountainous area for the missing helicopter, without success.
Following the Dragonfly’s disappearance, Civil Aviation officials investigated some overseas developments regarding aircraft radio beacons. A 1962 memo entitled ‘Recommendations Arising from the Dragonfly Accident’ says in part: “Radio in the past has been out of the question, but recently appears to be becoming a distinct possibility. We are currently obtaining data on several emergency transmitters which have recently become available.”
In New Zealand, the Emergency Locator Transmitter device (ELT), to assist in locating missing aircraft, was not finally made mandatory for the general aviation fleet until 1986. The beacon commences transmitting if a certain ‘G’ threshold is exceeded, as in a crash. It radiates on 121.5 MHz for civil or 243 MHz for military, but in the near future the standard will be 406.5 MHz. The signal can be detected aurally if a receiver is set to the appropriate frequency, so overflying aircraft are often the first to report a beacon.
Orbiting SARSAT/COSPAS satellites operated by the United States and Russia are designed to receive the signals and within 90 minutes they can typically determine the location with amazing accuracy and so greatly assist Search and Rescue personnel.
In the case of Hughes helicopter ZK-HNW, the ELT did not function correctly with no signal being transmitted; a rare failure. Phil Timings, father of Hannah Timings, was reported in the New Zealand media in March 2004 calling on the British Government to pay for high tech “Synthetic Aperture Radar” (SAR) equipment that could possibly locate the missing helicopter. He said: “It is like a giant metal detector and the Americans use them for search and rescue. If they can find downed pilots, they can find Hannah.”
Over coming years it will be interesting to see whether the six missing aircraft, Dragonfly ZK-AFB included, can be located by advancing technology.
Note: The author acknowledges published information regarding four of these missing aircraft from the book ‘Missing! Aircraft Missing in New Zealand 1928-2000’ by Chris Rudge (Christchurch, Adventure Air, 2001)
DVDs: Dec 05, AU Edition
RINGS AND THINGS
James Fletcher has two good reasons to stay home on a hot summer night
Submariners: The Complete Series
During the 1980s the Australian government took the dramatic step of constructing a new Collins Class submarine fleet, to be built in Adelaide and homed in Western Australia. But from the outset things did not go well with massive budget blow-outs and numerous flaws surfacing in the design and mechanics of each boat.
After the initial public relations disaster, which played out in both parliament and the media, the negative attention eventually subsided and for the past few years has remained relatively quiet. But now, a new six part made-for-television series takes a look at the Collins Class fleet from a very different perspective.
Submariners, released as a two DVD set, is a unique independent series filmed aboard the Collins Class flag ship HMAS Rankin during its crew shakedown and subsequent voyage around the globe in preparation for RIMPAC, the world’s largest military war games, off the coast of Hawaii. With the cameraman and producer granted unparalleled access over three month at sea, the Rankin is revealed warts and all in an intimate profile of her strategic capabilities and crew dynamics. In fact, director Hugh Piper reveals a military culture which suffers from an 80% divorce rate, continually demonstrates its resistance to change, and sincerely embraces the Australian spirit of camaraderie – to the point of hazing rituals which, shall we say, don’t always benefit the Navy’s reputation.
However, the series does manages to capture the claustrophobic habitat and isolation of life aboard a submarine, and to its credit efficiently strips away the Hollywood glamour to instead reveal a raw and unnerving sense of distress, a feeling which is effectively demonstrated when the Rankin’s air supply becomes toxic after an engine malfunction while submerged as well as during a tense and unrelenting cat-and-mouse game played against a US Naval destroyer.
Set against some breathtaking cinematography, the series is both an intriguing insight into modern high-tech warfare paralleled with the reality of life aboard a military submarine, a theme which is mirrored in the DVD’s two galleries featuring images from renowned photographer Jon Davison. And surprisingly, the series also manages to blow the Collins Class reputation as a dud right out the water.
Ringers: Lord of the Fans
After the recent spate of pop-culture fan-boy documentary DVDs such as Trekkers and Comic Book Confidential comes Ringers: Lord of the Fans – and with it a breath of new life to revitalize a tired and neglected genre.
Without question, Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy has carved its way into film history, drawing audiences as diverse as university academics, heavy metal rockers and the palest of Star Wars geeks, but love or hate Jackson’s interpretation, Tolkien’s novels remain a seminal part of modern pop-culture. And it’s from this perspective that Ringers explore the evolution of its global fan base.
Utilising a unique blend of animation, interview techniques, reenactments and a superb soundtrack, Ringers explores the history and inspiration behind Tolkien’s Middle Earth from its initial conception to the critically disastrous release of The Fellowship of the Ring before it found a home within the counter-culture of 1960’s America.
Resonating with comedic moments and fascinating trivia, Ringers also delves into the various incarnations of LOTR’s influence in western culture over the past 50 years, from an hilarious pre-Star Trek Leonard Nimoy gaily singing “Happy Hobbits” to the cryptic, drug-infused lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album and John Lennon’s failed big-screen adaptation.
But it’s the impressive celebrity talent that director Carlene Cordova intercuts with interviews from Tolkien’s enthusiastic fan base that drives home just how wide-spread the series’ influence has become. Featuring many of the film’s cast, including Dominic Monaghan (who also supplies the film its charismatic narration), Ringers also includes interviews with fantasy writers Clive Barker and Terry Pratchet, Motor Head front man Lemmy Kilmister, filmmaker Cameron Crow and actor David Carradine who, along with many others, sing the praises of Tolkien’s visions and themes.
Released as a Special Edition, the DVD includes a number of behind-the-scenes featurettes, along with deleted scenes, an amusing audio commentary from the production team, and some hidden material. Overall the DVD manages to deliver a fun, entertaining and fascinating look at the culture and influence that LOTR’s still maintains in today’s society.
BOOKS: Dec 05. AU Edition
FLY ME TO THE MOON
Plus: Guinness’s records are not so stout anymore, and falling in love (again) with Venice
GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS 2006
Edited by Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records, $45.00
Up until recently the Guinness Book of Records was a quiet black and white document with every record imaginable recorded in small sombre print. Not any more. The cover looks like the inside of a pulsing nightclub, complete with hologram-like reflectors that image anything close by with a series of green and silver highlights. The contents page is adorned with the world’s Most Pierced Women and an actual-size cane toad. The razzle-dazzle continues with the Most Hula Hooped Woman, a Dog with Five Tennis Balls in his Mouth and the proud possessor of 137 Traffic Cones. Impressed? But wait – there’s more! – 31,424 Students Cleaned their Teeth for 60 seconds! 937 students and staff wearing Groucho Marx Masks! 1254 Students Danced the Scottish Reel! Leonardo D’Andrea Crushed 22 Watermelons with his Head! And here’s my favourite – Most Valentine Cards Sent to a Guinea Pig – Over 206 cards from as far away as New Zealand!
Old time Guinness Book of Records readers – fact crunchers who took their records and achievements seriously – must be wondering what the hell is going on. No question – Guinness has gone upmarket with flashy collages, in-your-face images and silly records that anyone could help set. The new format declares that you don’t have to be a fact-geek or a horn-rimmed nerd to read this book – a skateboarder or a guy with 258 straws stuck in his gob will be fine. I guess all this new mass participation is nicer than a group of Islamic terrorists squashed into a bus but it seems to eliminate the point of setting records for true human endurance which are mostly an individual matter requiring either guts, ingenuity or perseverance. Brushing your teeth for one minute with 30,000 others hardly qualifies.
OK, I’ve had my beef. The compendium still has plenty to endear the true record lover. Paul Hunn can burp at 104.9 decibels. Rene Alvarenga has eaten 35,000 live scorpions. Michel Lolito, whose teeth can grind at eight tonnes per cm, has eaten 18 bicycles, 15 supermarket trolleys, 3 TV sets, 6 chandeliers, a set of skis, a computer and a Cessna light aircraft. Whether or how long he brushes his teeth is not recorded. I was impressed to learn the largest private library contains 1.5 million books and the record for one finger pushups is 126 (pushups not fingers). I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been, that the world’s fastest solo circumnavigation record is held by a woman (Ellen MacArthur) and astonished to learn that the world’s most dangerous stinging nettle is in New Zealand – Urtica ferox can kill dogs, horses and even once killed a man.
Bacteria are tough cookies – samples have survived over two years in outer space (they were attached to satellites). I learnt that there is such a critter as a Wolphin, the result of a whale-dolphin cross, and that the fastest humanoid robot can only stomp along at a snail-like 1.8 mph. On the human side, the oldest surviving couple have been married for 78 years and the world’s largest wedding banquet had 150,000 guests – a missed opportunity to set a dishwashing record. It is satisfying, though slightly absurd, to learn the longest prison sentence handed out (fraud, Thailand) was for 141,078 years. Though I’m sure the fraudsters will be out after only 140,000 years for good behaviour.
More criticism – many records that could reasonably be expected are absent - examples (from a list of many) could include world’s largest aircraft, most poisonous snake, world’s loudest band, largest extinct bird. In its present format, the Guinness Book of Records is no longer the exhaustive compendium of yesteryear. Perhaps they should consider a smaller formatted pocket edition which is mainly print?
THE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS
By John Berendt, Sceptre, $49.95
What is all this fuss about Venice? This question is usually asked only by those who have not visited the famous watery city – the only city in the world without traffic noise. When I spent a weekend there some years back, I knew little about the place but on arrival, I became, as many have done, an instant convert to her decaying charms. There’s something about magnificence in decay that stirs me deeply, just why I don’t know. Perhaps because magnificence at its peak is often accompanied by the expression of tyranny that expects obeisance whereas when the civilisation has passed away and only the buildings remain, we can enjoy them as architecture minus the tedious and oppressive trapping of visible power.
In the long litany of adoration that Venice has enjoyed from art critics, poets and composers (there are of course notable exceptions among the eulogists), most of the travel writers and essayists have looked at the city as a kind of architectural poem – which it very much is – and somehow overlooked the Venetians. As Mary McCarthy, renown American author once pre- sumptiously said, “Nothing that can be said about Venice has not been said before” – and she was echoing another famous American literary visitor to Venice, Henry James. As Berendt triumphantly demonstrates, these statements have about as much objective correlative as the fatuous statements made around the end of the nineteenth century that science had discovered nearly everything about the universe. Berendt, a skilful social observer, has managed to find out and report back on various scandals and upheavals in contemporary Venice - events that would make a wonderfully dramatic film. Events that give the reader a fresh view of an embattled city.
The City of Falling Angels begins - a perfect film prologue – with a destructive fire in 1996 that incinerated the Fenice Theatre, a stately opera house that was a symbol of Venetian cultural grandeur.
Three days later, with the smell of charcoal still in the air, Berendt arrived. His mission – to see Venice sans tourists – was to be fulfilled in a way he could not have anticipated. For the obvious ensuing question was, was the fire an accident or deliberately set? Either way guilty parties had to be fingered. The book has the feeling of a triptych, with the first event and eventual culprits identified enfolding many additional and wild characters, who, of course, are flesh and blood not novelists’ invention – a forwarding note says: “This is a work of non fiction. All the people in it are real and are identified by their real names.”
Presumably, Berendt (or his publisher), insisted on such a note, otherwise non-Venetians night be inclined to imagine that such fellows as Ludovico De Luigi – a latter day Dali – a surreal painter, who arranged for a porn star politician to arrive in a gondola, topless, climb one of the famous horses at St Marks and proclaim herself a living work of art – might not exist. (And in fact, I’m still wondering, if, after all, as Berendt tells us, the Venetian embellish everything and consider truth tellers a bore, whether he hasn’t added a bit of colour.) The intricate drama of intrigue and plotting that Berendt details is a modern soap opera from real life. Naturally, the Mafia come under suspicion and in my innocence, I didn’t know that they had used arson against art institutions as an extreme form of cultural terrorism.
In the middle chapters, Berendt, who seems to have a knack for engaging friend and foe alike, explores other dramas of great poignancy such as a rift in an ancient family of glass blowers from Murano. First, we side with the father, then sneakily, we see the rebel son’s point of view. Either way, the glass creations emerge, whether fire-inspired or technically innovative – some photos would have been nice. Another long chapter is devoted to Olga Rudge’s struggle with other Poundites determined to secure the old poet’s papers for a song and the bitter battles that ensue. If all of the above sounds unrelentingly highbrow in scope, Berendt slips in a rat exterminator who attributes his huge success at his chosen profession by feeding rats the same (but slyly doctored) food that local humans eat. Is Berendt trying on a symbol for the wiliness of Venetians?
Owing to the fortuitous events of history, what was intended to be perhaps just another travel book, an architectural swan song, became an enthralling and immediate social history. This is only Berendt’s second book, so it will be interesting to see which part of the globe he brings his acute gaze to next.
PS: Against difficult odds, the restored opera house re-opened in 2003.
By Bret Easton Ellis, Picador, $27.00
Lunar Park which is not to be confused with Luna Park, the Sydney amusement park, and indeed there is little chance of that. Luna Park possibly brings a smile to the face of its users but Lunar Park, Ellis’s latest novel, is neither amusing, uplifting nor entertaining. In fact, it is a tiresomely bad book. The reader may well wind up asking “is this a horror or a horrible novel?”, and the answer is yes on both counts.
Initially, Ellis pulls out that tired metafictional trick of an author turning himself into a character in a novel. Witty when Philip Roth does it, alas not here. The opening chapters with their confessions of druggy parties read like a straight autobiography so the casual browser could be tricked. The blurb tell us “that every word is true”, an assertion which even the dimmest reader will slowly realise is fictional puffery. Ellis, the character, keeps complaining that he is not cut out for suburban married life. And it might appear, Ellis, the real author, is forewarning us not to expect this brat pack novelist to turn respectable and suburbanly settled, anytime soon.
Enter Terby, a nasty doll that seems to have stepped out of the B-grade pages of Stephen King. What’s worse or better, depending on how you look at it, is the presence of a young man dressed up as Patrick Bateman, sadistic-psychotic villain of Ellis’s previous notorious novel, American Psycho, who appears to be leaving a trail of corpses. In other words, art is copying life, even though that “life” is also fiction. Stated thus, something shallow sounds metafictionally deep. I can assure you this is not the case.
The gratuitous slaughters in the pages of American Psycho leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth and here the narrator (Ellis) seems to want explain and excuse the author (also Ellis) by maintaining that brutal murderer Patrick Bateman was a notoriously unreliable narrator and that the crimes may well have been fantasies, “fuelled by his rage and fury about life in America was structured and how this had ...trapped him ...”. The book “was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women”. Or is Ellis, the real and actual author, seeking to let himself off the hook of accusations of unrelenting sadism towards women as grimly reported in American Psycho? It certainly looks that way.
Another unconvincing theme in Lunar Park is that Ellis is trying to make peace with his father and the nastinesses of Patrick Bateman were based on anger against his dad. This notion at least leads to the only good piece of writing in the book – the last two magnificently lyrical pages which describe the ashes of the dead father being cast into the sea. Which is possibly what Ellis should have done when this book was still a manuscript. Except, of course, for those last two pages.
GRANTA 90: Country Life
Edited by Ian Jack, Granta, $27.95
Established some 20 years, the very non-literary (no criticism or poetry) literary book-formatted magazine, Granta continues to publish first class short stories, travel and sociological memoirs. There is a Granta package – meticulous detail, lucid elegant English, sympathy for the underdog, particularly the working class underdog – the old style factory or field worker – which is sometimes presented as the worker speaking or narrating non-stop for several pages. This approach is used for the lead feature – an evocation of a fading rural way of life in England entitled “Return to Akenfield” by Craig Taylor.
Akenfield – first published in 1969 – was “a rich and perceptive portrait of life in an English village, told in the voices of the farmers and villagers themselves”. Akenfield has had a boom – population 298 in 1950, by 2001 it had rocketed to 358. We learn that picking black currants is bloody (actually sticky) hard work and buying a reasonably-sized dairy farm nowadays will set you back a cool five million bucks.
In former days, Granta tended to mainly feature big name writers but the only one featured here – unless you count Studs Terkel interviewing Bob Dylan back in 1963 – is Doris Lessing’s “The Death of A Chair”. I found Lessing’s piece uninspiring. She is surpassed by less known authors like Barry Lopez (noted for his book on wolves) who writes a poignant piece on salmon fishing with his son; “Fantastic Mr Fox” by Tim Adams, a satisfying look at the crazed dedication and frantic antics of the anti-fox hunters, and “Nightwalking” by Robert Macfarlane, a celebration of noctambulism (walking at night especially in search of melancholy) as opposed to somna- mbulism (sleepwalking, possible at high noon).
The intriguing thing about Granta is if you open it at random you will find it difficult to tell fact from fiction. Actually, the fiction is in the minority but when I read “Constitutional” by Helen Simpson (fiction) I took it to be the kind of typical personal memoir piece that Granta writers do so well. Does this mean my reading filter had fallen asleep? Or that fact and fiction have become indistinguishable? Neither, I believe; it’s just the hard bitten exactitude of the Granta style.
The collection is rounded off by the postcard-tinted style photographs of tree blight by Robert Gumpert and the solemn dignity of English folk parading their showtime farm animals by Liz Jobey. The piece de la resistance (almost) is a bunch of gloriously cheerful Englishwomen holding up their prize chooks on a Hertfordshire farm in 1933, exceeded only by four behatted gentlemen clutching their piglets. The inscription on the building behind reads, “Adolph’s Kindergarten, Bombing Verboten.” Great stuff.
By Deborah Cadbury, Fourth Estate, $67.95
As a small boy I informed my parents that one day a man would fly to the moon. My parents, aunties and grandparent (I had only one) laughed with amiable derision. Man fly to the moon! Consistent aerial Luddites, none of my elders so much as set foot in an aeroplane though they lived into the 70s, the era of cheap flight.
Today – setting aside the conspiratorial sceptics – we know men have flown to the moon not once but six times. The notion that flight to the moon was possible was most prominently mooted by Werner Von Braun, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a former member of the SS whose scientific prophecies included space stations, artificial sunlight, rocket planes crossing the Atlantic in 40 minutes – all in 1945! A series of articles published in Colliers in 1952 continued the hype and were read by millions. Certainly, I knew the name von Braun when I was in short pants. As adolescence hit, I became a science fiction fan. The moon trip was a certainty – it was just a matter of time. My parents were alive when the moon was reached, though kindly, I never crowed ‘I told you so’.
Space Race is a very apt title and just how fiercely it was contested is the thrilling tale related in this gripping book. Major Staver was responsible for the Americans gaining an early lead over the Russians by acquiring – just hours before the Brits arrived – 100 V2 rockets, 15 tons of documents, 1000 technicians, plus the inimitable and charismatic Von Braun, ever after to lead the American half of the space race. Later, the Americans secured some 7000 “German experts” from all branches of industry. By any standards, they had a head start. In fact since they had the V2s, they had a flying start.
What of the Russians? Stalin was furious that they had no V2s, no documents and no senior experts. But SMERSH agents managed to get hold of a gyrostabiliser platform used in a V2 rocket, a talented young engineer called Helmut Grottrup and some blueprints for parts of the V2. Later the Russian’s trump card was an outstanding rocket engineer, Sergei Korolev, brought back into favour after a period of incarceration in a gulag on the usual trumped-up charges.
It was the genius of Korolev in pioneering the R-7 rocket that led to the dramatic overtaking of the American space program by the Russians. I am of the generation who reeled under the impact of Russian success – A satellite! A dog! A man! A rocket impacting on the moon! – while the Americans languished in miserable technical failure. In relatively uncensored America, the press had a field day calling the failed American attempt to catch up Flopkin ... Dudnik ... Puffnik ... Oopsnik ...Goofkik ... Kaputnik. Of course, the Russians had their disasters too, though Soviet propaganda meant that a massive explosion in 1960 which killed 150 was hushed up. The Americans had their small successes and further humiliations, but their moment of triumph finally came with the awesome moon rocket Saturn V whose 5 F-1 engines delivered 7.5 million pounds of thrust and were so powerful they could be heard 100 miles away. Meanwhile, in an ironic reversal, the Russian equivalents began blowing up. This is drama on a grand scale and no has told it better than Deborah Cadbury. It’s a blast!
Dec 05, AU Edition
ALL THOSE BURNING FRIDGES
A former appliance serviceman claims a bad fridge design could burn someone’s house down, another finds a string of safety faults in other brands of appliance. Is there a big problem or just a series of smaller ones? IAN WISHART investigates
John Rogers grimaces in the glow of a 60 watt tungsten bulb doing its best to illuminate a small suburban dining room, and is failing miserably at the task. He pauses at the question, as if tumbling it over in his mind, glancing across at his wife Kerry. In their eyes you can see the thought writ large, as if in the neon light that decorates the home of this former appliance repairman turned neon artist: oh God, here we go again. Moments later, that unspoken thought takes wing.
“I must admit, when I got your call, Kerry and I thought, ‘do we really want to do this again?’ After all the publicity on TV four years ago when we blew the whistle on Fisher and Paykel’s dishdrawers…”
He stops for a moment, then lifts his gaze from a spot on the table to lock with mine.
“It wasn’t dealt with back then, maybe somebody will deal with it now. We don’t want to be responsible for someone losing a life because we kept quiet.”
It’s been four years this month since Rogers folded the tent on his long time company, JK Appliances, and walked away from a lucrative business as an authorized Fisher & Paykel service agent.
“I was an appliance serviceman for about 30 years, and we’ve been in business together for about 15 or 16 in West Auckland and we fixed roughly 42,000 appliances in that time. I put through seven apprentices and we did mainly F&P service work. So we did refrigeration and all types of domestic appliances.”
Rogers vividly remembers the day that changed it all, the one that tipped him off his perch.
“It was early in the morning, a job in Glen Eden. I walked into the kitchen, the family were all there in their pyjamas, the husband was there and there were two buckets of water beside the fridge. The front of the fridge was absolutely black from smoke and flame damage. They’d woken up in the middle of the night and smelt the smoke, turned it off and started throwing buckets of water in there to put the flames out.”
The immediate danger having passed, Rogers regrets not dialing the Fire Service. “I wish I had, now.” In hindsight, it would have been his smoking gun, in a manner of speaking. But instead, he rang F&P who promptly sent a truck with a brand new fridge, and took the near-new burnt one away.
Rogers was mystified, but thought little more about that incident until he was called to another fridge a week or so later, and again, some evidence of fire damage.
“I saw another one which wasn’t so bad, and again they changed it over. Then I saw three in one week and two at another service company, and I thought ‘this is getting out of hand’, because there’s no way of repairing them because the whole cabinet is burnt.”
Stripping the panels away, Rogers found the evaporator and defrost elements were set too close to the internal plastic casing of the freezers and, in the right conditions, they were overheating and melting the appliances. None of which was visible to the homeowner, who’d usually called him in for something else.
“It was usually another fault – cracking noises, or noises from the fan or something like that, but it wasn’t because of the burning. They hadn’t seen it, and not until I took the whole thing apart and they saw the big holes burnt in the base of the freezers. That’s when I explained to the customers very politely that it had a fault and we’d organize a new refrigerator for them.”
Rogers decided to make a habit of checking every freezer he was working on, and reckons 20% to 30% of them showed varying signs of meltdown. In all, some 15 to 20 units in his West Auckland patch alone, over the space of three months.
It wasn’t all fridge/freezers.
“Only the electronic ones. Anything with an electronic panel on the back wall. The majority of the problems come in the ones with a bottom freezer. I have seen one top freezer one with burning but it wasn’t as bad. It was just a one-off. Whether it was going to escalate I don’t know.”
Why was the problem not appearing in fridges over the previous 20 years?
“The freezers and fridges prior to that were made of steel. This model, the interior of the freezer is made of plastic, and they’ve still got an element in there that glows red hot when it goes into defrost and it’s so close to the plastic lining that the heat transfer causes the problem.”
Rogers felt he was on to a major public safety issue, but he also knew as an authorized Fisher & Paykel repair agent that his business depended on F&P’s continued goodwill. And if John Rogers had been a cat, he probably felt he’d already used his quota of lives after months earlier spilling the beans on a major fault with F&P’s flagship range of dishdrawers. The drawers were rusting out after only a few months use.
“They were offering customers who had rusty dishdrawers a normal dish drawer plus they had to pay an extra $500. So once we blew the whistle on it, things changed and they had to replace the dishdrawers.”
But ‘blowing the whistle’ involved calling in TVNZ’s top rating consumer programme Fair Go and bringing considerable public opprobrium to bear on the corporate that employed him. So to say that John Rogers was chuffed that he was the mug to find a problem with the new fridges would also be a serious overstatement of his mood.
He says he tried to deal with it internally, alerting F&P’s technical team about the growing number of burnt or partially burnt fridges he’d discovered.
F&P tried to brush him aside, he claims, telling him to “leave it alone”. But the company’s reaction got more strident when Rogers began contacting other F&P agents to inquire about their experiences with the problem.
“I talked to another service company over the North Shore about it. And he was concerned as well and he contacted F&P, and so at that stage F&P came storming in – there were about three of them – and they got really stuck into me.”
In Rogers’ mind, he was reporting a major safety hazard to one of country’s leading technology companies, and nothing was being done. Wondering whether he was overreacting, he sought a second opinion from registered electrical inspector Bruce Gosling, an independent analyst who’s main investigations are on behalf of large companies and the Electrical Workers Registration Board.
Gosling drafted a one page report to the Energy Safety Service (ESS) in Wellington, the Government agency tasked with regulating electrical appliance safety for the public. His report was headed, “Potential Fire Hazard issue” with the Fisher & Paykel E402B fridge/freezer.
“JK Appliance Services (John Rogers) have located this immediate fire damage in two of the above freezers and four others have had potential fire hazards existing,” he wrote on November 11, 2001. After personally inspecting one of the units, he told EnergySafe:
“This freezer unit has a potential fire hazard due to the incorrect fixing/installation of the evaporator/defrost heating assembly. This fire hazard, created by the manufacturer, breaches NZ Electricity Regulations 1997….the element touches and heats up the plastic lining until eventually catching fire.”
Under “Conclusion” he wrote: “This model of fridge/freezer needs to be modified.”
According to both Rogers and Gosling, EnergySafe never formally replied to their complaint, and no product recall of Fisher & Paykel fridges was ever made.
As part of their contract, authorized F&P agents were required to guarantee their work for 12 months, says Rogers.
“We had to guarantee these appliances once we’d repaired them and I couldn’t. I couldn’t guarantee that this wouldn’t happen two months down the road.”
“What was the newest fridge you found it on?”
“Three months old.”
After a long discussion with his business partner and wife, Kerry, Rogers decided to toss it in.
“It got pretty ugly from then on. They appointed another service company to take over from us, and we said we’d had enough and closed down. We didn’t want to work like that, we couldn’t work like that. It was at this time we got the phone call from Energy Safe in Wellington to say they couldn’t do anything. They needed proof from the Fire Service or the Insurance Council on loss of life or property before they could force F&P to make any modifications.”
As part of the process of investigating this issue, we approached EnergySafe’s senior technical advisor, operations: Bill Lowe.
Lowe admits that to some extent his hands are tied on the issue of public safety.
“We wouldn’t become involved unless there is injury or damage.”
“Isn’t that closing the door after the horse has bolted?”
“That’s the way our powers are, if they’re handling things internally.”
Fisher & Paykel, says Lowe, controls its own repair team and can control the information that gets released to government agencies like his. If the company chooses to keep a problem close to its chest, he says, it takes the commercial risk associated with that – the risk that one day a house might burn down and all hell will break loose.
But having said that, he adds, no house fire has ever been attributed to a Fisher & Paykel ActiveSmart fridge.
“Electrical fires, if they cause damage to the structure of a house, would be reported to this office. The few that we’ve had have been Westinghouse product, a bug problem literally. The defrost relay had some ventilation slots and a cockroach infestation, and the little beasties get up there and eventually get cooked. And in another one the guy poured brake fluid around to kill the roaches and it caught fire.”
Lowe concedes his agency did receive Gosling’s report on the fire hazards in November 2001, and felt it was serious enough to raise with F&P. Unfortunately, however, because the person handling the investigation left ESS soon afterwards, there’s no evidence that Fisher & Paykel ever responded to EnergySafe’s request for more information, or that ESS chased it up.
“We’ve [now] asked F&P to check their records as to what changes if any were made at the time to the design to address that potential fire risk,” Lowe told Investigate.
“So you’ve got no record in your office of anything being advised to you by F&P?”
“Not that I’m aware of, a quick check hasn’t revealed that.”
For their part, Fisher & Paykel have been critical of John Rogers.
“Mate, we’re open to suggestions, but we want it supported with facts,” says general manager of Customer Services Brian Nowell down the phone. “We asked the guy for information and he just did not deliver it. It’s been high on rhetoric, short on fact, all the way through.”
And Fisher & Paykel global CEO John Bongard is equally skeptical:
“We have never had a fire with the model refrigerator that he has supposedly ‘tested’ so we are at a loss as to what we can say about his ‘issue’. Perhaps you can supply some factual information that we can refer to?
“Surely if these claims are true the ESS would have been able to confirm them. Have they done this? Could you tell me what the ‘specific’ problem is?”
Over at the ESS, we threw the curly questions back at Bill Lowe: is it true that there was no incident, no information supplied?
“Well we know of the two initial problems, so the allegation is a littler higher than that. Actually in the case of the F&P fridge we did consult with their engineers, possibly two of them. There will be a record somewhere but we’ve asked F&P for that information.”
Lowe believes his office may even have sent a formal notification to their counterparts in Australia via an electrical product safety incident report while they waited for F&P to report back, a report that apparently never came and which EnergySafe apparently failed to chase.
For their part, F&P insist that a fax from Investigate is the first time they’ve seen Gosling’s technical report to EnergySafe, despite requests in an exchange of lawyers letters in 2001 and 2002 asking Rogers for more data.
For his part, serviceman John Rogers accuses Fisher & Paykel of trying to avoid an embarrassing product recall on its ActiveSmart fridge line by “hushing up” the smouldering fridges and ensuring authorized repair agents towed the company line.
“I think the authorized service agents have been told to keep everything under wraps. I know they have.”
“Who’s told you?”
“Other service companies. They were told to keep quiet about it, and just put all the information back to F&P.”
Fisher & Paykel’s Brian Nowell says suggestions that New Zealand’s leading home appliance brand, with a strong presence in Australia, the US and UK, is anything less than responsible are ridiculous.
“We take a hell of a responsible attitude to these sorts of things. We view all of these sorts of things seriously, but people’s views on potential hazards vary from individual to individual, and we try and work through them as responsibly as we can given that we have authorities involved from time to time.
“And hell, we wouldn’t have been around for 70 years if we’d been as flippant as some people would have us believe.
“It doesn’t matter what the nature is of a problem that we come across, we sit down and we work through what we should be doing about it, whether it necessitates things like recalls, whether it needs modification and if we deem it needs modification how we confront that sort of thing. So if we deemed it to be of a high risk nature, we’ve done things like product recalls in the past.”
He also points out that no house fire has been attributed to this problem in a Fisher & Paykel fridge.
“Yeah, that’s a very valuable point. We from time to time come across appliances that cause smouldering, which might generate a bit of heat. If the Fire Service is called out to an incident of any nature where they think an appliance is involved, whether it’s ours or someone else’s, they get hold of us. We treat things like that pretty seriously. We’ve had clothes dryers for example, and people who use towels with hairspray all over them and they don’t clean lint filters and things like that.”
EnergySafe’s Bill Lowe nonetheless feels the fridge issue needs a closer look.
“I would say they’ve certainly got a design problem there because it’s not failsafe, however modern product is also manufactured to fire safety requirements in terms of materials and self quenching plastic and so forth. They will burn until such time as their source of energy is removed.”
And, says Lowe, the close working relationship between EnergySafe and F&P is a bonus, not a problem.
“I won’t say we treat them any better than other suppliers because we do work with Westinghouse and some of these other suppliers whose product is not made in NZ, but the fact that they’ve been quite open with us providing information – possibly selectively – but we work closely with F&P on the standards committee and we would expect them to be a responsible company.”
Meanwhile, the electrical inspector who kicked off the bunfight claims Fisher & Paykel can’t be left to take the rap for what is increasingly an industry-wide problem as regards appliance safety. Bruce Gosling says he’s made up to twenty reports to EnergySafe about unsafe appliances, and heard diddly-squat back about any of them.
“The Energy Safety Service, as far as I’m concerned, are a law unto themselves. Rarely can I get an answer from them, and one time I recall trying to get an answer, either yes/no or just a simple written reply from the ESS over a very serious safety issue – the only way I finally got an answer from them was threatening to go and see my local MP at the time, and my local MP is Helen Clark!”
An example of safety issues, he says, is an upmarket brand
“We still have an ongoing problem with Tuscany rangehoods that are brought into the country by Mitre 10, and again we could only go so far and we had to hand the complaint and the hazard over to the ESS. Again, we would have thought the ESS would have taken them off the market until they’ve been improved,” Gosling told Investigate.
“What’s the problem?”
“People getting electric shocks from these new rangehoods that have been installed, due to the design faults within them. They’re Italian manufactured, a very nice looking stainless steel rangehood, but the one we investigated, I was there on behalf of the Electrical Workers Registration Board as an investigating inspector. And we totally disconnected and removed that particular rangehood from service and we wrote a report, again, to Wellington to both the EWRB and we sent a copy to the ESS.
“That saga went on for well over a year for the customer, who was left without a working rangehood – he was contacting the ESS monthly because he wanted to get a new rangehood, obviously, and he was hoping Mitre 10 might supply him with one. I was totally blown away at the length of time they left that customer in limbo, but at the end of the whole thing we finally got – I’m pretty sure I’ve still got the written reply from the ESS – and they were saying again that there’s been 250,000 sold in Australia and they hadn’t had a problem over there, so why should they worry about one problem here in Ellerslie, Auckland.”
“How live were they when you measured the voltage and
“It was a hundred volts from the leakage current back to earth potential, because the stove was directly below and the person was touching it. These sort of things are a bit of a freak scenario, but in saying that it could well happen again in NZ.
“Anything above 50 volts AC becomes dangerous to humans. Yes, that was the measurement we took at the time, and the person getting the shocks had been doing cooking on the stove at the time and had wet hands, so it’s a very serious electric shock situation.
“But whether the ESS have contacted the Tuscany manufacturers back in Italy and told them to improve their design, I’ve got no way of knowing. But that’s what I stated in my report: the design needs to be improved, the electrical safety leaves room for improvement. But I bet nothing’s happened.”
According to EnergySafe there has been some movement, but not much. The Tuscany rangehoods were initially approved for sale in Australia and therefore became automatically approved for sale in New Zealand. Despite the 100 volt electric shocks, EnergySafe’s Bill Lowe says he hasn’t ordered the product to be withdrawn from sale here because Mitre 10 is refusing to agree to a recall.
“No, the product recall process is not simple, it’s a complex legal and technical process and we’re working through one at the moment with another product but we have to be very careful with regard to litigation, and that only becomes a problem if it’s not done voluntarily by the supplier. 99% of them are voluntary recalls.”
“Did Mitre 10 voluntarily take it off sale?”
So in other words, this Investigate article is the first that most people will have heard about a possible safety fault with an Italian rangehood that’s now been on sale for more than a year in both New Zealand and Australia.
Ironically, the fact that a homeowner has been given 100 volt belts by the rangehood is not enough to force a compulsory product recall. That can’t happen in the main unless someone is first seriously injured or killed.
Bruce Gosling says he’s found serious safety faults in other appliances as well – portable residual current devices that are supposed to protect DIYers and workmen from being electrocuted while using tools outside.
“From memory, about 10 of these brand new devices failed out of 20 that were purchased.”
“How did this come to your attention?”
“From a company in Penrose, and Alstom out at the Otahuhu power station – they purchased 10 and they do ‘test and tag’, the same as this company in Penrose, a Fletcher Challenge company.
“What happens is that as soon as they buy an RCD personal protective portable device we test and tag them before they go into service, so as electrical people we take them out of their brand new packets and put them through the appropriate tests, and 10 of these devices out of 20 failed.
“And I can tell you for a fact that the guys out at Alstom were only buying one at a time, because they only wanted one, and it failed so they sent it back and swapped it with another one. Five times they did that before they got one that could be tagged as safe.
“It was just ironic that about two weeks prior to that we’d had a major problem at this factory in Penrose. They’d purchased at least 10, and five of them failed the performance test that we do. Some of them didn’t even trip at all, brand new out of the packet and wouldn’t even physically trip on the pushbutton – you know, they all have a little pushbutton that every user must test before they use them – and even that pushbutton didn’t work.
“So that was totally unsafe, and yet when we complained to HPM in Sydney they just said ‘nah, it must have happened in freight, in cargo, because we test every one before they leave the factory’. And we know for a fact that that’s B/S, absolute. But they still turn around and make those statements, and no one can prove them wrong, so in the end we dropped that issue. That’s the tactics these manufacturers are using,” says Gosling.
It is, to use a bad pun, absolutely shocking. And Investigate’s discovery of faulty RCD devices has made EnergySafe sit up and take notice.
“RCDS are on the declared article list and they require approval from this office before they go on sale in NZ,” says Bill Lowe of the ESS. “And why we get very nervous with RCDS is we specify them as a safety device and I look at them like a parachute when you jump out of a plane. Where you’ve got a device to protect a person and it doesn’t work because it’s defective we’ve really got some concerns, yeah.”
On the strength of Investigate’s information, he’s contacting HPM in Sydney to ask some hard questions. It’s not the first time the Australian company has supplied faulty RCDS. But the real question is why Australian and NZ authorities are not picking these things up before the products go on sale?
Fisher & Paykel’s Brian Nowell would like an answer to that one too. He says there’s a big problem with imported appliances where regulators make assumptions that the product complies with safety standards, rather than force suppliers to prove it before the product goes on sale.
“Rather than showing that you do comply, the system appears to be that if somebody comes across an incident you have to show that you are capable of complying. It’s more or less left to people to grizzle here. Let’s put the ambulance at the top of the fence, not the bottom.”
As to the safety or otherwise of Fisher & Paykel’s fridges, the arguing continues. Investigate spoke to another appliance serviceman about his experiences.
“I can mainly only comment on the earlier ones I saw, they would catch on fire, basically. The heating systems in the back of the defrost system would not cut out on the defrost timer and so then they’d just melt out the whole inside, they’d literally have a fire in the back of them.”
“How many of those did you see?”
“Mainly when I was with John, probably upwards of eight or ten I suppose. Then when I went back out on my own again I probably saw another three or four. The last one I saw was quite recently, no more than about 12 months ago. It was well melted out inside in the freezer compartment. Just an ActiveSmart, I can’t remember which model exactly.”
“I believe John perhaps ran foul of F&P for being someone who was prepared to stand up and say something, and I really honestly admire him for doing that because all these other guys just pushed it under the rug and didn’t want to jeopardize their authorizations etc. And he got bitten on the backside for that, big time.”
“So you were aware of other people who were aware of it?”
“Absolutely! No question, we all used to go to Service School for latest product ranges and that and we’d be talking about all kinds of stuff.”
“They talked about the fridges?”
“More the servicemen would be talking about while they’re all together at Service School. The F&P people would say ‘yeah, we’ve got a little issue and we’re sorting it out’, but in my opinion they never did.”
To which Brian Nowell’s response is, “rubbish”:
“We’re obligated to provide EnergySafe with information and we certainly do. We’re pretty self conscious about those sorts of things because we’ve got authority guys working in this country that influence the thinking and safety standards not only in NZ but also Australia and around the world. We’re actively involved with those guys all the time. We certainly wouldn’t send guys off to meetings with instructions to be ‘mum’ about an event that jeopardized our reputation. We work very openly with these people.”
Fisher & Paykel’s technical team were unavailable to Investigate, and the appliance company hasn’t got any data immediately to hand on whether it has swapped any burnt out fridges for customers under warranty.
We did approach one customer whose fridge was the subject of a report to EnergySafe, and she told Investigate that after John Rogers had highlighted the problem, F&P sent a new service team out to her who reassured her Rogers and Gosling were “panicking” unnecessarily and that her fridge would be alright. That was four years ago, she still has that fridge, but its freezer she says “doesn’t defrost properly” and is leaking water. “Do you think I got fobbed off?” she half mutters to herself.
Fisher & Paykel, meanwhile, are standing on their record. Yes, they say, there are occasionally defective units – which is why they have service agents. But the company rigorously denies that it would put public safety at risk.
In the meantime, EnergySafe and F&P are now liaising on the fridge issue again, and EnergySafe is preparing to further investigate the faulty RCD devices. And John Rogers? Well, he’s given up appliance repairs and now exhibits and sells neon art at home shows. “It’s much less stressful,” he says.
Dec 05, AU Edition
He’s the “reason for the season” as the saying goes, but there’s still a surprising amount of controversy over the historical Jesus. Was He the Son of God, or just the imaginINg of an obscure Jewish sect 2,000 years ago? It’s time to take another look at
A CHRISTMAS STORY
By IAN WISHART with JAMES MORROW
True story: On a recent afternoon in Sydney, the not-particularly-religious mother of a three-and-a-half year old sat down with her son to try and explain what Christmas was all about. She wanted him to understand that there was more to the season than just Santa and presents and a great big tree in the lounge room, but she wasn’t quite sure how to explain it all.
“Well, you see, a long time ago, there was a little baby, and his name was Jesus…”, the mum began.
“Jesus? That’s a terrible thing to call a baby!”, the horrified child replied, having until that moment only known Christ’s name as something “naughty” that grown-ups sometimes said, but that he wasn’t supposed to utter. “That would hurt the baby’s feelings!”
Needless to say, that particular child’s parents have some work to do if they want to give their son religion (though they are clearly ahead of the game when it comes to “Thou shalt not take His name in vain”).
But the story highlights a bigger question – namely, the growing divorce between Christmas the holiday and Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ. Every year – not just in Australia but around the world – sees a series of pitched battles between secularists who would like to see Christmas turn into just another holiday (see sidebar) and those trying to keep at least some tradition and religion in the event.
Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The annual stoushes over watered-down politically correct “seasonal” displays have begun (Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore wisely backed down from her Grinch-like stance of 2004, meaning that Christmas will once again be bright in that city’s CBD); shopping malls have hung up their lights and baubles – even if they aren’t all that Christmasy; and the business pages are full of speculation about the strength of retail sales.
But lost in the annual furore over the growth of grating phrases like “seasons greetings” and whether celebrating Christmas too publicly could offend in a multicultural society is the theological elephant in the middle of a pretty secular room: Namely, the question of whether Jesus Christ, whose birthday we celebrate on 25 December, really was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One, or just an itinerant preacher who happened to come up with what even critics regard as an impeccable moral code?
As Piers Paul Read writes in his study of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar, The Templars, “Even at this distance in time, and if treated as a character in a work of fiction, the person of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels has a powerful effect on the reader. Unlike the books of the Old Testament which demonstrate the majesty of God through ‘the complexity of life, of emotions and desires beyond the range of intellect and language’, the Gospels are spare narratives virtually devoid of characterization that nevertheless persuade us ‘that this and no other way was how it was’.”
Of course, that’s not necessarily good enough for everyone. Last year’s Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ, also enflamed the passions of those looking to denigrate the historical record of the life of Jesus.
“The Bible can be a problematic source,” wrote Newsweek’s Jon Meacham in a cover story on the film last year. “Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance.”
Meacham’s criticism is similar to those expressed by liberal theologians and sceptics everywhere, and naturally in the Newsweek article it goes unchallenged. But is it really true?
“Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events,” he wrote in the anchorpoint to both his paragraph and the entire premise of his article. However, Meacham is just plain wrong.
“Archaeology”, writes William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology and regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in his field, has been unable to “disprove the Bible’s assertions of the meanings of events.” Further, he writes in a scathing critique of liberals who recently tried to claim the Old Testament was a complete myth and there really was no “ancient Israel”, the liberals overlook the fact that the Bible writers “got right virtually every detail [of history] that we can now confirm”. And William Dever is an atheist.
In other words, the Bible has not only survived the heaviest onslaught critics could throw at it during the 20th century, it has passed absolutely unscathed in regard to its accuracy.
Nor is Dever the secular humanist alone in making such claims defending the historical accuracy of Scripture. So too does Norman Geisler, widely regarded as one of Christianity’s leading philosophers and historians.
“Not one error that extends to the original text of the Bible has ever been demonstrated,” claims Geisler, who takes the accuracy of the world’s most popular book seriously. So what would Geisler say to the second part of Meacham’s premise, where he wrote: “The Bible is the product of human authors” – automatically implying not just the capacity for error but also deliberate deception in the comments that followed, even though no errors have actually been discovered? Geisler sets out the logic behind the claim like this:
“Some biblical scholars argue that the Bible cannot be inerrant, through some faulty reasoning:
* The Bible is a human book
* Humans err
* Therefore, the Bible errs.
“The error of this reasoning,” says Geisler, “can be seen from equally erroneous reasoning:
* Jesus was a human being
* Human beings sin
* Therefore, Jesus sinned.”
But of course, there is no indication either inside the Bible or outside it that Jesus Christ ever sinned, and Geisler uses this as an example of where the logic goes astray.
“The mistake is to assume that Jesus is simply human. Mere human beings sin. But Jesus was not a mere human being. He was also God. Likewise, the Bible is not merely a human book; it is also the Word of God. There can no more be an error in God’s written Word than there was a sin in God’s living Word.”
Where Geisler does acknowledge that difficulties can arise is in human interpretation of the Bible.
But Meacham’s chief line of attack against The Passion is that Gibson took the New Testament “too literally” and his film is therefore anti-Semitic. Meacham lays the blame for that not just with Gibson but also the Gospel writers themselves.
“So why was the Gospel story – the story Gibson has drawn on - told in a way that makes ‘the Jews’ look worse than the Romans? The Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt. The writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John shaped their narratives several decades after Jesus’ death to attract converts and make their young religion – understood by many Christians to be a faction of Judaism – attractive to as broad an audience as possible.”
Again, Meacham’s key assumption, that “the Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt” colours his whole approach, as does his subsequent comment that the Gospels were written “decades” after the events in question. In fact, even liberal scholar John A. T. Robinson has gone on record as being convinced that the whole of the New Testament must have been written and completed before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 – less than 40 years after the death of Christ and well within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses who could have contradicted any errors in the Gospel accounts.
However, Meacham goes on to develop the theme further when he accuses the Gospel writer Matthew of being “partisan” for including the line at Matt 27:25, “Let his blood be upon us and on our children” in reference to taunts from the Jewish crowd when Pilate was deciding whether to crucify Christ.
From the end of a phone line 10,000 kilometres away, leading New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg is saddened by those trying to make capital out of alleged anti-Semitism in the Gospels. “They’ve interpreted that as somehow a condemnation of the entire Jewish race,” comments Blomberg – author of the books The Historical Reliability of The Gospels and Jesus and the Gospels – currently based as a Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary, Colorado.
“As a historian, the important thing to stress is that Jesus was a Jew, all his first followers were Jewish, this was an internecine Jewish debate. The crowd was simply using the standard Hebrew idiom for saying ‘we accept responsibility for this person’s death’. In no way is it an indictment of the whole race or even the entire Jewish leadership.”
Like many others, Blomberg is well aware of the anti-Passion spin the media have been creating at every opportunity. He’s also aware that attacking the Gospels has become somewhat of a cause celebre for liberals wanting to redefine and limit Jesus Christ.
In the Newsweek article, for example, there are many pointers to the writer’s hidden agenda.
“The Gospels were composed to present Jesus in the best possible light,” writes Meacham, “and to put the Temple leadership in the worst possible light.” He adds that Matthew must have been writing after the fall of Jerusalem because he presumes the “blood be on us” comment to refer to the Jewish rebellion that culminated in the events of AD 70.
And it is here in the Newsweek story that Meacham begins to proffer his own version of who Christ was – not a spiritual leader but a political one who posed a direct threat to Rome, not the Jews and who, presumably, got his comeuppance.
To back up this line of reasoning, Meacham first argues that the two men crucified beside Jesus were not criminals but freedom fighters.
“In the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified. The crime was sedition, not blasphemy – a civil crime, not a religious one. The two men who were killed along with Jesus are identified in some translations as ‘thieves’, but the word can also mean ‘insurgents’, supporting the idea that crucifixion was a political weapon used to send a message to those still living: beware of revolution or riot, or Rome will do this to you, too.”
Meacham does not reveal the source of his “insurgents” interpretation, but the most authentic ancient texts use the Greek words “kakourgos” – or “worker of evil” – and “lestes” – or “robber, brigand, one who plunders openly and by violence”. The clear context in both cases is of a criminal, “for profit” motive.
In fact, the New Testament provides an ideal contrast in the language it uses to describe Barabbas, a man who was an insurgent and who stood beside Christ as a fellow Roman prisoner when Pontius Pilate asked the Jewish crowd which prisoner they’d prefer to see released on Passover. Luke’s Gospel records Barabbas had been arrested by the Romans for murder and trying to lead a revolution.
“If Jesus had not been a political threat,” writes Meacham, “why bother with the trouble of crucifixion? There is also evidence that Jesus’ arrest was part of a broader pattern of violence or feared violence this Passover. Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus, was, according to Mark, “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection”– suggesting that Pilate was concerned with “rebels” and had already confronted an “insurrection” some time before he interrogated Jesus.
“Clear evidence of the political nature of the execution – that Pilate and the high priest were ridding themselves of a “messiah” who might disrupt society, not offer salvation – is the sign Pilate ordered affixed to Jesus’ cross. The message is not from the knowing Romans to the evil Jews. It is, rather, a scornful signal to the crowds that this death awaits any man the pilgrims proclaim “the king of the Jews.”
The problem for Meacham and liberal critics is that – based on their argument – Pilate would presumably have sent an even stronger message to “the pilgrims” if he’d nailed the more popular Barabbas to the cross, not Christ. There is no suggestion in the Gospels, or outside the Bible, that Christ led “insurgents” in any political campaign against Rome. In fact, every reference to Christ outside the Bible talks more of Jesus’ alleged “sorcery”, and people worshipping him “as to a god”, rather than a political campaign.
“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged”, records a Jewish Sanhedrin document from around 90 AD. “He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy [rejection of orthodox Judaism].”
The Roman governor Pliny, writing to the Emperor Trajan around the same time, records: “[the Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up…”
Now, if that’s a political rebellion in the making then the Moon is made of green cheese.
Another Roman historian, Suetonius, writing of the period after Nero’s great fire of Rome about thirty years after the crucifixion, says, “After the great fire at Rome…punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”
Meacham is right in only one respect, namely, that Rome ultimately had much to fear from the spread of Christianity. But to argue as Newsweek does that Pontius Pilate was fearful back in 33 AD of the impact of a non-violent itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus who might lead an “insurgency” is widely regarded as laughable by many historians.
Meacham writes: “It was as the church’s theology took shape, culminating in the Council of Nicaea in 325, that Jesus became the doctrinal Christ, the Son of God “who for us men and our salvation,” the council’s original creed declared, “descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead.”
But if Meacham is correct here, how does he reconcile his claim that Christ only became “the Son of God” in 325 AD, when the passages above show Christ being worshipped as God virtually from the moment of his crucifixion almost three hundred years earlier?
Even more troublesome for Meacham is perhaps the oldest passage in the entire New Testament, Paul’s dissertation on the divinity of Christ at 1 Corinthians 15:3, where he says:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance – that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.”
Denver Seminary’s Craig Blomberg explains the significance.
“You have somebody like Paul describing Christian traditions and beliefs that were passed on to him from Day 1 of his conversion, which was within two years of the death of Christ! So you have full belief in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus two years, not 325 years, after the death of Jesus.
“Now, can you still dispute the truth of those claims even in that short period of time? Sure, but to say that no one believed in the divinity of Jesus or the exalted view until 325 AD is simply a flat out factual mistake. It simply is a flat-out lie and untrue to history to say that nobody made this claim until 325, when they’d made it long before 50 AD.”
So the liberal claim that Christ only “became God” hundreds of years later because of the Church is a myth with no factual backing, yet it repeatedly goes unchallenged.
“The climax comes when [Jewish High Priest] Caiaphas asks Jesus: ‘Are you the Messiah?’ and Jesus says, ‘I am...’ and alludes to himself as ‘the Son of Man.’ There is a gasp; the high priest rends his garments and declares Jesus a blasphemer… There is much here to give the thinking believer pause. ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ were fairly common appellations for religious figures in the first century. And it was not ‘blasphemy’ to think of yourself as the ‘Messiah’, which more than a few Jewish figures had claimed to be without meeting Jesus’ fate, except possibly at the hands of the Romans. The definition of blasphemy was a source of fierce Jewish argument, but it turned on taking God’s name in vain—and nothing in the Gospel trial scenes supports the idea that Jesus crossed that line.”
If it was quite common for people to call themselves the Son of God, why then did Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin react the way they did?
Meacham may attempt to shrug off the context, but Luke’s Gospel tells a different story:
“At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. ‘If you are the Christ,’ they said, ‘tell us.’
“Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God’.
“They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’
“He replied, ‘You are right in saying I am’.”
And in the Gospel of Matthew, it is recorded this way:
“The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’
“ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: In the future, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’.
“Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy!’ ”
It wasn’t a case, as Newsweek and the Herald imply, of a casual Messianic claim. The exchange between Jesus and the Sanhedrin is electric, loaded and definitive.
Sure, others may have claimed to be Messiahs, but none of them raised people from the dead, exorcised demons or healed the blind at a touch.
Craig Blomberg admits that many of the “Death of God” theologians and leading lights in the Jesus-wasn’t-divine movement are elderly men and women whose own theological training came decades ago when less was known about the New Testament than today. Like tall trees in a forest, their out of date biblical knowledge is overshadowing the real work on biblical scholarship.
“That tide is slowly turning. Certain views are accepted as standard and the time by which a generation of pastors trained under other folks retires and is replaced by new people who are familiar with the new scholarship, that takes time.”
“In many ways they are the ones appealing to an outmoded worldview, going back to [theologian] Rudolf Bultmann nearly 100 years ago when in some of his earliest writings he talked about how modern man in an Age of Science could no longer believe in the supernatural. That’s certainly not what philosophers of science are saying in the 21st century. They’re leaving the question of God very much open.”
In 28 years’ time, it will be exactly two thousand years since the man who claimed to be God incarnate was nailed to a Cross by Roman soldiers, at the instigation of some members of the Jewish high priesthood who wanted rid of “this turbulent priest”. And after 1971 years, Jesus is still managing to do what he predicted all those years ago:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
And as debate rages on, that division has never been more apparent.
Even if Christmas cheer is coming back to Sydney’s CBD, it’s a different story in other parts of the world. Especially England, where the perpetual British fear of causing offense has mated with political correctness, with unbelievable results. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is now being sung as “God Rest Ye Merry Persons” at churches in Wales; many schools refer to the Christmas holidays as “Winterval” to avoid mentioning the dreaded C-word; and a charity that sends out Christmas gifts to poor children has lost the support of Inland Revenue. And that’s not all:
* In Havant, England, town burghers have decided to scrap their annual Christmas decorations for a generic “festival of lights” – even dropping the word “Christmas” – to avoid offending non-Christians, at the cost of 5,000 British Pounds. Of course, no one bothered to ask the potentially offended; even the Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement saying, “This sounds like a case of a local council taking it upon itself to decide what is offensive, rather than consult the community it serves. If the council took the trouble to ask local people what they thought, they would find that people of all faiths do not have a problem with this.”
* Meanwhile, in Lambeth, South London, council officials have engaged in a bit of Orwellian re-branding of their displays; no longer will the area display Christmas lights. By official edict, they are now to be called “celebrity lights”.
* The UK is not the only place to see such silliness: In the United States, the K-Mart retail chain has started selling Christmas trees under the anodyne names “Mountain Trees” and “Snow Trees”. And in the State of Victoria, in a rare bout of common sense, Premier Steve Bracks gave the order that it was perfectly OK to celebrate Christmas in schools after several schools ordered the cancellation of nativity scenes and pageants for fear of offending non-Christians.
Dec 05, AU Edition
GOD IN THE MACHINE
Is Intelligent Design the answer to the holes in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? Or is it a rear-guard action by fundamentalists to mix religion with science? And why are its supporters so scared of speaking up? JAMES MORROW looks at the latest front in Australia’s culture wars
The voice on the other end of the phone is sounding panicked. A researcher and scientist at one of Australia’s sandstone universities, he had just been told that Investigate magazine had dug something up about his past – and wanted to have a chat about it.“Please”, trembled the academic. “You can’t use my name in this.”
What was the terrible secret in this man’s past? Sex, drugs, and rock & roll – or some combination of the three? An illicit relationship with a student? A lurking plagiarism time-bomb somewhere in his doctoral thesis?
No, nothing like that.
The sordid episode which threatened to run a promising young talent off the academic rails involved his public support a few years ago for Intelligent Design, the controversial new rival to Darwin’s teachings on evolution that has made great gains in the United States and has recently become a hot-button topic in Australia’s universities and education ministries. While this lecturer was happy to talk off the record – on what journalists like to call “deep background” – about the topic, the message was clear: Do not identify me, my field of study, or my support for Intelligent Design, or you will wreck my career.
In interviews with both pro- and anti-Intelligent Design (or “ID”, for short) professors, researchers, and lecturers across the country, one theme emerges: There is a new academic orthodoxy afoot in Australia’s universities which says that ID must be uniformly and roundly condemned, and that anyone who even suggests that the theory get a hearing be publicly exposed and denounced like a capitalist roader in Mao’s China. Yet that is not to say that there are not a few big-name scientists who support Intelligent Design in Australia: Dr. Graeme Clarke, inventor of the bionic ear, has publicly pledged his belief that ID demands further research, saying “I want to put a scientific hat on, I want to be fair to the discussion”, adding that there is “a sort of rogue element in me that likes to see if there are other ways of thinking things through”.
Despite Clarke’s endorsement, the subject is still taboo. In the words of one biologist whose research has convinced him of the rightness of Intelligent Design as a way to fill the many still-unfilled holes in Darwin’s theories, “it would be professional suicide for an academic to come out in support of ID, or even advocate that it receive a fair hearing, in a modern science dominated by scientists whose personal philosophy is scientific naturalism”. It’s not hard to believe him, given that on the very public anti-ID side of the debate are an army of academics who march in lock-step on the subject.
“It’s not a theory in any scientific sense – it’s not a scientific idea. It’s not science”, says Prof. Jack DaSilva, professor of molecular evolution at the University of Adelaide says when asked about Intelligent Design, echoing the sentiments of the vast majority of academics who are willing to go on the record publicly on the topic of ID.
“It’s just creationist religion trying to pass itself off as science. Suggesting that there is some magical supernatural behind it all is simply talking about magic”.
While normally one would be tempted to chalk this sort of intellectual in-fighting up to the nature of university life (as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once famously quipped, “academic politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”), the Intelligent Design debate – and the meta-debate over whether it should even be debated – is actually a vital one. Because beyond of the merits of Intelligent Design versus Darwinism are much bigger questions about the ultimate purpose of education, and whether science should exist in a materialist vacuum or admit larger questions of spirituality and that ultimate barbeque stopper, Why are we here?
You’ll Never Make a Mousetrap Out of Me…
So what exactly is Intelligent Design? The phrase, and its initials, have become freighted with meaning over the past few months, ever since the Orlando, Florida-based Campus Crusade for Christ blitzed the country’s schools with a mass-mailing of 3,000 DVDs entitled, Unlocking the Mystery of Life: Intelligent Design. The issue was given a further shot in the arm when Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson suggested that ID could have a place in the country’s science classrooms. These two events sent the scientific community into an uproar.
And, of course, the fact that ID comes out of the United States and is supported by the likes of George W. Bush plays into the hands of normally open-minded academics who worry that their classrooms and laboratories are about to be busted up by gangs of knuckle-dragging Bible-thumping rednecks – DaSilva’s “creationists” – who believe that the Earth is 4,000 years old and that the carbon dating of dinosaur bones is the greatest hoax since the government’s cover-up of flying saucers and the UN’s plan to take over the world with black helicopters.
In fact, according to its supporters, Intelligent Design is a very calm, sober, and scientific way of looking at the world that simply admits the possibility of a sentient creator into the continually-vexing problem of how life began on this planet and why it developed as it did.
Michael Behe, Ph.D., teaches in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, birthplace of the American Revolution. He is also the author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, one of the seminal works on ID theory. And because he has tenure, his career and position is secure, allowing him to speak freely and even testify in court on behalf of Intelligent Design.
“When Darwin first proposed his ideas, he said that evolution had to work through numerous successive slight modifications – in other words, tiny steps over periods of time”, Behe told Investigate when asked to explain the basics of ID. “If things happened too quickly, it would look like something other than random mutations were involved. Darwin insisted that evolution came about by gradual improvement, but if you look at a molecular level you see a number of components that have to work together in order to produce the function – I call these things ‘irreducibly complex’, in that if you take away a part the system won’t work.”
“I make an analogy with a mousetrap. It’s made up of several parts, and all of those are necessary. If one of the parts were missing, it doesn’t work, and it’s hard to see how that would come together otherwise.”
“So there’s this big problem staring Darwinian evolution in the face and no one has explained how these could have come about. If you look at the sort of things that intelligent agents design, they put together things like that all the time. It’s clearly a signature of some sort of intelligence.”
This “mousetrap analogy” is like a red cape to a bull for Darwinists, who say that all the structures the professor describes are simply the result of random chance – a criticism that Behe is familiar with, and which can be easily dealt with by simply crunching the numbers.
“People try to claim these things could happen randomly all the time – it’s a variation on the idea that if you put a million monkeys on a million typewriters, eventually one of them will hammer out the Complete Works of Shakespeare”, says Behe.
“But if you do the math you see it’s mathematically impossible – the time it would take for the ‘random occurrences’ we’re talking about with molecular structures to occur would require time well beyond the lifetime of the universe”.
Behe’s “irreducible complexity” – and its intellectual cousin, “specified complexity” and the idea that we live in a “fine-tuned” universe – is just one side of the Intelligent Design argument. The other side of the coin is the fact that there are indeed large holes in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution – holes which, depending on which side of the Intelligent Design camp one sits, are either windows into the transcendent or gaps in the knowledge which simply require more research to fill.
As the anonymous professor cited at the beginning of this article explains, “the word ‘evolution’ is pretty misused. Evolution is really a hierarchy of three theories: at the top of the pyramid is microevolution, which involves variations within species. No one disputes this, and agriculturalists have been using this for centuries. Then at the next level is macroevolution, which is the view that life as we know it on this planet arose from simple life forms over the course of some slow, gradual process – it’s a working hypothesis, though there is a lot of evidence that throws doubt on it.
Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid is chemical evolution” – the level at which Behe studies things – “which suggests that life arose by a natural mechanism and that a soup of inorganic chemicals became life somehow. In the1950s everyone thought this stage of evolution had been conclusively proven by the works of Stanley Miller, but now his work has gone into a sad state of decline.”
God in the Machine, or God of the Gaps?
So much of the debate around Intelligent Design is not about the merits of the theory, or the holes in the Darwinist model that it is meant to fill. Instead, with very limited understanding of either side of the scientific argument, the ID controversy has – with the help of journalists sympathetic to the academic community – become a stalking horse for so many other issues, and opened up another front of the culture wars that have been raging for years now. The idea of mentioning God – or some sort of supernatural creator – is anathema for scientists who, even if privately religious, exist in a professionally post-Enlightenment environment that believes the lab is not the proper place to examine larger questions of humanity’s origin or place in the universe. Still smarting from what happened to Galileo, the Western scientific establishment is one of the most anti-clerical pockets of thought this side of the French Revolution. And again, the fact that ID comes from the United States and has the support of George W. Bush (a man as hated in academia as Marx and Che are exalted; a recent poll showed the US president polling with six percent approval figures among scientists and engineers in his home country) does not help it any on Australia’s campuses or among notoriously left-wing educators. As Laurie Fraser of East Kurrajong, NSW, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald recently, “Like many other teachers I know, I have begun to teach a response to the Campus Crusade for Christ’s DVD on intelligent design. I am simply instilling in my students the notion that it is impossible to believe in God, that such a belief is irrational and hence intelligent design doesn’t even get a leg-up. Sounds harsh, I know, but if the loonies want to fight dirty, I’m willing to respond in kind.”
This is not to say, of course, that all teachers and academics are anti-ID, or that all Christians are in favour of it being taught. Tim Hawkes, headmaster of the prestigious King’s School in Sydney, told the Melbourne Age recently that after viewing the Campus Crusade for Christ’s DVD, he thought it was “quite legitimate to challenge students to think through the implications of there being a ‘grand architect’ of the universe…there are undeniable weaknesses within Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and these must be acknowledged openly.” Meanwhile, more than one Christian academic Investigate spoke with said they did not believe Intelligent Design should be taught – not necessarily because it was bad science, but because it could ultimately be damaging to the cause of faith.
“The problem with ID is that it is in danger of turning into a ‘God of the Gaps’-type idea”, explains Dr. Robert J. Stenning, a physicist at the University of New South Wales, who is also a believing Christian.
“What we’re saying is that we can’t understand how something works, so let’s put God in there and say He must have designed this specifically, and that it can’t have come about by natural processes, that He must have stuck his fingers in somewhere”, Stenning continues. “My worry is that ultimately this will be detrimental to faith. If Christian kids learn these ideas in school, and then some scientific explanation comes about to change the thinking, it could be very challenging.”
One educator who is convinced of the merits of Intelligent Design is Stephen O’Doherty, CEO of Christian Schools Australia – an association of about 150 schools across the country. O’Doherty believes that ID should be available as an option to be taught in Christian schools (he makes no claim about what government schools should or should not do) not just because of the flaws in Darwin’s theories, but because it allows students to grapple with larger questions in the science classroom – an intellectual activity with a long and noble history in the Western tradition, dating all the way back to ancient Athens. And he believes that the knee-jerk prejudice against Intelligent Design, or even against questioning Darwin, is just as bad science as teaching that the Earth was literally created in six days.
“I was reading an editorial in New Scientist, which is a magazine I really enjoy, incidentally, and they published this editorial recently that conflated Intelligent Design with neoconservatism, and essentially said that these twin forces were going to bring about a new Dark Ages”, chuckles O’Doherty, musing on the current state of the debate. “But it’s really a different story. In our schools, for example, we have the state curriculum which we teach, but we also have the freedom to explore other dimensions to life within the classroom.”
O’Doherty says that “the science teachers association has already compartmentalized life in a way that keeps kids from thinking bigger than themselves, and says that such questions belong in a separate classroom”, a fact that he claims explains the reason why public school enrollments are flat-lining as parents flock to put their children in low-cost religious schools, be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. “In a religious school, these questions can bleed through and be discussed, which is really the original point of education”.
One of O’Doherty’s biggest quibbles with the anti-ID crowd is the way the Enlightenment tradition that modern science is an heir to has become so actively hostile to spiritual questions – and answers. It’s a useful perspective, because it shows that the roots of the still-unsettled fights over Darwin and his theories pre-date the man who explored the world on the Beagle.
“At some point, the scientific community took on a view of evolutionary humanism that has become almost dogma, and if you follow evolution backwards this way, eventually you just say, ‘there is no God, it had to have been chance’. But a Christian sees that same process and says that the evolutionary process shows us the law of God. His character shows through.”
“But this is also the same problem that people who talk about a ‘God of the Gaps’ get into. You’re still talking about a dichotomous arrangement which arrays science and reason against darkness and hocus-pocus. One’s view of the universe has to be big enough to understand one’s place in it”, says O’Doherty, which is why he thinks Intelligent Design is a good option to have in the classroom.
“You can’t divorce this discussion from kids, whether it happens in a science classroom or not. If you take a dogmatic view that you cut children off from the search for meaning is a violation of the meaning of education, which ultimately has to do with the question of what it is to be a human being”, he adds.
“The empirically-centered educationalist who says it is about downloading a certain set of idealized facts has a very narrow view of education. In the view of Christian schools, education is about the growth of all facets of the individual, including the spiritual dimension. This is an idea that goes back to ancient Greece.”
While Intelligent Design has a long way to go before it is taught in government-run classrooms – Brendan Nelson’s hat-tip aside – it will surely be a touchstone for the culture wars for some time to come, regardless of its scientific merits. But supporters of ID believe that it is only a matter of time before establishment academia opens its doors to the possibility of a creator who has revealed Himself through the laws of the universe and the development of life on Earth.
“When the Big Bang theory was first proposed in the 1930s, an awful lot of scientists thought it smacked of a religious idea, and really hated it as a result”, says Michael Behe. “It might have had religious overtones because it dealt with the origins of the universe, but it was based on observable data. I see Intelligent Design as being in the same ballpark: it may have religious overtones, but it is still based on data.”
FIRST DRAFT: Dec 05, AU Edition
The address we like to imagine Dominique de Villepin almost gave France…
A POET SHALL LEAD US!
Noble citizens of France, I address you as your Prime Minister and as a humble poet ... Many have baulked at our use of emergency powers to quell the riots. Unfortunately, they have been, how you say, necessaire. We are now down to the usual figure of 90 cars torched per day acrossFrance. Normality, she has returned.
However, we must still reflect on what has happened, non? Our great President Chirac has identified – and bemoaned – a ‘deep malaise’. Sadly, that is not all; there is also an epidemic of existential nausea. (And a literal form, too, as anyone who has walked the streets of Aulnay-sous-Bois knows only too well. Merde, quelle pong!)
So, who do we blame for such sickness, both spiritual and gastronomique?
The American culture of fast food and Hollywood violence has taken its toll. (We all saw those armies of rioters in their ‘hip hop’ fatigues, did we not?) This imported junk has poisoned our great nation’s soul. The body politic is aching for sustenance. So, at this grave hour, I seek spiritual food from our literary canon. (Unlike the barbarian Bush, who finds fodder for his military cannon!)
Pilgrim-like I plod through the furrowed fields of Gallic knowledge. Presently I encounter the philosopher Rousseau. Gay sparrow perched atop his head, leopard purring contentedly at his feet, he offers his wise counsel: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
Yonder kneels Voltaire, trowel in hand. “Dominique, let me be Candide,” he says. “Cultivate your garden.”
It is all so clear! We must make our savages noble once again. We, the intelligentsia, must spill from the salons and travel to our cities’ outskirts to nurture nature in those concrete caverns. We must plant trees therein; make the deserts of the destitute bloom – even at the risk of soiling our smocks!
Then I think of those smouldering Citroens and wonder: but why such hate? It is so not Nice.
Pondering this dissonance, I muse: Yet is ze hate not ze love denied? And does a flame not create as well as destroy? ’Tis true, this fiery river of gall flows from the angry liver of Gaul. But we must not douse this flame; we must harness its heat; create a crackling conflagration in the hopeful hearth of the heart! (Is good analogy, non?)
So, what will ignite this bold new night; consign the ire to a purer pyre? What will hatch this matchless match, to make our suburbs superb?
Blaze moi! I have it: poetry itself!
Let us fight poverty with poetry. Poetry lifts the fallen man; inspires him to build an empire only within himself.
And so to my answer to our great predicament: From this day forth every household in the nation will receive a copy of my collected works. Nightly reading is compulsory.
Vive la France!
TOUGH QUESTIONS: Dec 05, AU Edition
Exorcism – when belief becomes reality
Hollywood has a long history of milking the religious and/or supernatural veins of our culture for material, and usually it’s a blockbuster. Last season Mel Gibson’s The Passion became a worldwide hit, even in Muslim countries. Thirty years ago who can forget little Damien, his Dobermans, and a bunch of powerless priests in The Omen and its sequels? This summer’s offering to moviegoers is no different: The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The movie tells the story of a Catholic priest facing negligent homicide charges after his exorcism of a young woman goes fatally wrong.
In the 21st century, is belief in demonic possession something we threw out with the Dark Ages, or is it part and parcel of a global spiritual ‘quickening’ that’s manifesting itself in everything from terror attacks, to the battle over Intelligent Design, or who should sit on the US Supreme Court?
I’m arguing strongly that it’s the latter. The battle over religion may appear at first blush to be a battle of ideas. At a deeper level, however, it’s a battle for the soul of every living human on the planet.
The liberal latte set in Balmain or Ponsonby may have trouble with that particular concept, and they’ll sit there making loud scoffing noises over a panini, but those same people will then go home, read their horoscope, do a little yoga, make sure their city abodes have appropriate feng shui, and probably swap dinner party stories about things that went bump in the night at the last inner city villa they inhabited.
Intriguingly, a survey just out in Britain shows more people believe in ghosts (68%) than believe in God (55%). What that tells me is that a substantial portion of the British population are cretins. The moment one accepts the possibility of any supernatural, by definition one would have to accept the possibility of the existence of God.
Otherwise, what created the spirits? The survey goes on to reveal that more than a quarter of Britons believe in UFOs, and almost as many in reincarnation.
The UFO bit is interesting, because it leads directly back to the exorcism issue. I remember reading about a decade ago how the head of a UFO research group in the States suddenly twigged to the fact that what we think we’re seeing in the night sky may not be what we assume, Spielberg-like, a UFO or alien actually is. This particular researcher began praying to Jesus Christ when he and his team encountered apparent UFO visitations, and the apparitions vanished. Exorcised as it were.
Think about it for a moment. Back in the Dark Ages, people, even respectable people, saw monsters. Literature and historic accounts, even from ancient historians whose work we value, abounds with tales of monsters being seen here, there and everywhere.
Culturally, we encountered demonic spirits in monster form because that was what was relevant in the day. In modern times, we’ve explored the world, we know there are no monsters, but we’re culturally prepared to see spacecraft and aliens. There is a growing body of people who now suspect the UFO phenomenon is nothing more than the monsters of the past reappearing in modern form.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Linda Morris notes “the idea that people could be possessed by spirits predates Christianity and is found in many other religions.” Indeed it is, but only Christianity actually cures the problem. And if you go to the heart of Africa, and the spiritual battleground between Christianity, Islam and Animism (primitive spirit/witchdoctor religion), you’ll find demonic possession is not scoffed at but accepted as part of life. They don’t see UFOs, they see spirits and weird creatures.
In Mexico, recently, Indians in remote parts of the Yucatan have being going crazy over “the Wolfwoman”, a werewolf type creature they reckon has been stalking villagers and killing livestock, while in remote parts of Chile it is the “Chupacabra” they’re talking about:
“It had the body of a kangaroo…deep set red eyes…and two large fangs protruding from its upper jaw,” recounted a Chilean news report quoted on a paranormal website in the US.
Only in South America, perhaps. Apart from Warren Zevon, the rest of us don’t generally see werewolves in London anymore, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain.
Then, from the same paranormal website, the report of the human sacrifice of a one year old baby boy in Peru, apparently in a renewal of ancient Indian religion. The child had been beheaded, and his heart torn out on the peak of Torre Torrni in the southern Andes.
Do we really dismiss child sacrifice as just a manifestation of normal religious belief, or do we harbour a nagging suspicion that perhaps primitive religions truly were started by satanic entities, and that this evil is on the move once more?
Why does Christian prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit, break those strangleholds? I can tell you now that Christianity hasn’t become the fastest-growing religion in the world this decade because a whole bunch of liberal Unitarian ministers have convinced Africans and Asians that going to church is a good thing and George Bush is a bad person. No. Hundreds of thousands of Africans and Asians are converting to Christianity every week because they’re seeing supernatural miracles performed in front of their very eyes, just like Christ did in the New Testament. Exorcisms are not rare, they’re routine. And let’s face it, if your religious baggage includes worshiping half man/half beast gods, chances are you’re going to need deliverance.
In the West, our demons are not so much things that go bump in the night as things that make us hurt others, or harm ourselves. We have a growing disbelief in the supernatural, and with it a disbelief in Jesus Christ. And if you were Satan and your job description was to keep people away from Christianity, you’d look at Western culture and say you’d done a pretty good job. You don’t actually need a Carnivorous Skippy bounding down Pitt St in search of a soul-tie. In fact, such a supernatural occurrence might actually be counterproductive in the West.
Even so, truth is, in Sydney or Auckland, far more deliverance and even exorcisms are performed than either the Herald or the Catholic Church is aware of. Mothers whose daughters cut themselves because “the blood releases my pain” have found psychiatrists a waste of time. Christian prayer, on the other hand, coupled with a conversion to Christianity, often works where the best of western medicine and psych study draws a blank. There are diseases of the body that need medicine, and there are afflictions of the spirit and the soul that ultimately only God can heal, not man.
None of which negates the fact that in Christianity you can still get quacks like the rogue Korean pastor who killed a young Auckland woman during an exorcism four years ago by throttling her, and a similar case in the US, where those concerned felt they needed to fatally beat the proverbial out of a child during ‘deliverance’. But those cases are so rare that’s precisely why they do make headlines. You don’t see Jesus in the Bible strapping on a Ghostbuster-style vacuum cleaner, using a gun with a silver bullet or slinging some garlic around his neck, much less going 15 rounds with a possessed man. He simply ordered the spirit to leave its victim, by the authority of his name.
If you feel you need deliverance, or you’d just like someone to pray for you, ask at your local church and experience it first hand. Your head won’t swivel, you probably won’t hit the ceiling, but you might feel a weight lift off your shoulders.
RIGHT HOOK: Dec 05, AU Edition
MELINDA TANKARD REIST
RU-486 is not the solution for women in crisis
In her campaign launch to bring the abortion pill RU-486 to this country in last month’s Medical Journal of Australia, Cairns obstetrician Dr Caroline De Costa tells the story of a young mother, eight weeks pregnant and seeking abortion. The patient had two small children, both born early due to severe pre-eclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure) and her partner was “unsupportive”. She couldn’t get an abortion and her baby was delivered at 26 weeks but did not survive. For De Costa, there is a simple way to avoid this tragic ending: RU-486.
No need to ask why her partner was unsupportive. We don’t know if it was she who really wanted the abortion or if alternatives were discussed. No questions were raised about why the pre-eclampsia wasn’t better managed or whether precautions were taken against premature labour. If only she had taken RU486 when she was two months along, everything would have been OK.
De Costa – and others in the RU-486 cheer squad – are silent about the not-so-neat and simple side of abortion-by-mouth. Such as that the young mother might have delivered the foetus (or “uterine contents” as De Costa so delicately puts it) at home, causing severe psychological distress, or may have bled for weeks and needed a transfusion.
That she may have had “retained products” (foetal parts) and needed a surgical procedure as well - as do 10% of women who take RU-486 - also appears unimportant. One young woman told the New York Times what it was like: “I felt like I was dying...it hurt so much...I couldn’t stop trembling and I felt so hot.”
These medical risks belie claims by Liberal MP Dr. Sharman Stone that RU-486 is the magic panacea for women who don’t have access to medical facilities. Airdropping RU-486 on country women would be a disaster.
Another claim is that chemical abortion is less traumatic. However, questions have been raised about the psychological effects of being completely aware during the abortion, seeing the result of the abortion, and the fact that the woman - rather than her doctor - is essentially carrying out an abortion herself. In fact, some research suggests that this is more traumatic than a medical abortion.
RU-486 carries a high risk of infection, according to Professor Ralph Miech, Molecular Pharmacology professor at Brown University. The drug suppresses the immune system which, in combination with the growth of bacteria, can result in fatal septic shock.
At least eight women (the ones we know of anyway) have died after taking RU-486 – they bled to death, suffered septic shock or other infections. The consent forms for a Canadian trial in which one woman died did not mention infection.
When abortion supporters call for more choice, it seems only to mean more methods of abortion. But research shows many women want choices other than abortion. Significant political will needs to be directed to providing pregnant women with positive and pracitical support and real alternatives rather than just more ways of getting rid of their pregnancies.
Telling women to open their mouths and take their poison pill like a good girl fails them. Women deserve better than that. They deserve creative initiatives which address and ameliorate the myriad pressures which lead to abortion.
Melinda Tankard Reist is Founding Director of Women’s Forum Australia and author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion (Duffy and Snellgrove 2000) and the forthcoming Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics.
SPIN CITY: Dec 05, AU Edition
State Libs need to look for trouble – not avoid it
Liberal Party faithful attending a recent function in the “dead red” North-western suburbs of Melbourne got more than they bargained for when Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Kroger opened fire on the ineffectiveness of members of the party’s state parliamentary wing. He went on to outline his own view of the source of Labor’s state successes across Australia, and the problem with the Liberal response.
The impotence of state Liberal opposition is so permanent a feature of the political landscape that the concern of federal colleagues has given way to a sort of benign neglect. Ultimately, this means the party is only an election away from political oblivion.
Kroger holds out little immediate hope for state Liberals, stating that they will not win back government unless they are able to break the new Labor paradigm of state government. This Labor paradigm involves turning the states into a “new local government” which the voters are simply too apathetic about to motivate them to change parties.
“Think about local government”, says Kroger. “As long as the rubbish is collected and the streets are clean, no one really cares who is running it. How many of your local councillors can you name?”
Kroger argues that Labor has managed to manufacture a similar community attitude towards state government. “There are two rules they follow”, Kroger explains. “First, run a budget surplus”.
The availability of an ever-expanding revenue stream from the GST has made this possible for even the most profligate and irresponsible Labor governments.
“The second rule”, Kroger explains, “is not to ofend anyone”. Kroger offers the example of Morris Iemma in New South Wales, a politician whom no one had ever heard of before he ascended to the Premiership. There Labor sought the most bland and unexciting leader possible, a leader who would not attract the public’s attention to state politics.
So how does the Liberal Party, currently stripped of its traditional mantra of Labor’s fiscal incompetence, go about winning government from these cardboard Premiers? Many state parliamentarians seem to have privately concluded that there is little choice but to wait for Labor’s profligacy to outstrip even the growth of the GST – not an unrealistic hope in the medium term. Yet such defeatism will lead to still more demoralising defeats in the near future, threatening the viability of the Liberals’ state divisions.
Kroger is no such defeatist. “The answer is to fight Labor on values. They want to make state politics so boring that no one listens to the news about it. We have to counter that by making it interesting”.
The “culture wars” over the values that should underpin Australian institutions are an integral part of the Howard Government’s strategy at a federal level, but this is turf state Liberals have been reluctant to fight over.
Yet the great strength of John Howard lies in his ability to pick the right fights on values. On aboriginal land rights, immigration and anti-terrorism laws, Howard has mastered the art of provoking the most hysterical extremes of the Left.
Further, Howard’s willingness to stand firm in the face of impassioned opposition generates an image of toughness and consistency that has proven resistant even to the reality of craven political compromises. This is attractive even to those who disagree with Howard on specific policy issues.
The message from both Kroger’s analysis and Howard’s success is that state oppositions should stop dodging a fight and start looking for one.