March 10, 2008

DIARY OF A CABBIE : June 05, AU Edition

DRIVING AMBITION
Lousy hours, bad tips, the threat of not making a penny – what is it that keeps a cabbie going?

Cab driving is a funny game (to paraphrase a well-worn cliché). Regardless of what mood one starts a shift with, it can instantly change to suit a particular passenger.

On Saturday night I went to work late, tired and dispirited, due to a small personal brush fire. To start some four hours late on a 12-hour shift is largely a pointless exercise. Barely worthwhile. I was resigned to just making my pay-in, gas and dinner money, and little else. Plus the forecast of a quieter-than-average night only served to compound my dejection. I figured I would simply go through the motions.

In keeping with my mood I opted for a dead rank at Ashfield station, rather than head for the City. A young couple approached and immediately I was wary. Why? The girl had given me a friendly wave from some ten metres away. As no one ever does this, my cynicism sprang to the fore. Was I being set up, I wondered, lulled into a false sense of security?

These things ran through my mind as they climbed in the back and started questioning me on my night, my hours, my localities, and so on. ‘No’, I replied, ‘I’ve only just started but I should’ve started at 3 pm. I’m being just lazy tonight’. Jaded as I was, I played the proverbial dead bat to their questions.

It turned out there was no need to worry: she was a local girl and he an Irish/Canadian, and both very much in love. They were happy and drunk on the intoxicating power of new love. It wasn’t long before their friendliness had rubbed off on me and I warmed to their conversation.

So much so, by the time I delivered them to a City hotel, introductions were made and we exchanged handshakes. They were complete strangers when they boarded the cab yet in the space of 20 minutes, we parted company promising to make further contact. This is a big reason I drive cabs. It reminds me that despite my lousy mood, an overwhelming majority of people are innately kind and decent souls. Hence in this game, passenger encounters are frequently positive and sometimes therapeutic.

I explained as much to a woman last night, off to work the graveyard shift at the taxi base. She had inquired why I still drove cabs, when like so many drivers I’d only ever intended it to be a fill-in job. ‘I was seduced’, I replied, ‘as much by the freedom and flexibility of the job as by the positive interaction with passengers’. It certainly wasn’t for the money.

Earlier I had elaborated on the subject with a passenger traveling from the Airport to Kings Cross. He was an Irish comedian on tour of Australia with an international comedy troupe. After traveling all day from rural Victoria he boarded the cab tired and flat. Yet he sparked up when I mentioned my cab stories. ‘Though it’s ironic…’, I laughed. ‘Now I’m making a name for myself, I’m often asked will writing allow me to quit driving. Yet all my content comes from driving!’

Given that both of us worked creatively from social and personal interactions, we swapped stories. Once again, the conversation had commenced in a perfunctory manner only to terminate on a high. He gave me a tip he couldn’t afford and I slipped him a copy of Investigate. After which we both parted with a warm farewell.

There are plenty more stories along these lines from a weekend which threatened to be boring, depressing and a real chore. Sure I’m tired after a long night’s work, but it’s a contented tiredness. Made all the better knowing I have regular readers logging on and keen to read my stories. Without these readers I would simply be talking to a void, working just another job. So it’s g’day to you and goodnight from me.

I thank you all.

Read more of Adrian the Cabbie at www.cablog.com.au

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:43 PM | Comments (0)

langercovershot.jpgHe’s been called the greatest batsman in the world. Now, going on 35, he’s about to head off to England to defend the Ashes trophy. He’s Justin Langer, and he sat down with Investigate’s Sport Editor, JAKE RYAN, to share the secrets behind his training, life on tour, and why we’ll shut out England

4-0

INVESTIGATE: How do you rate the new breed of Poms?
LANGER: To be honest, they are a very similar side to the last time we played them. They do however have a few new players that add strength to their squad. Strauss is a good player. I played with him at Middlesex, and he possesses great character and a strong will to succeed. He is also an excellent person, and I think that when you put people with strong character into your side, it only makes it stronger.

Flintoff is also a good player. I don’t know him personally, but he is aggressive and has a go so we will have to watch him.
I think we need to put them under a great deal of pressure early. There are definitely some old scars there, and if we can get on top early and apply the blowtorch, then hopefully we can open them up again.

INVESTIGATE: How’s it feel to get a bit of a break between New Zealand and the Ashes, and what do you get up to?
LANGER: It’s extremely important to get some time off from playing and traveling and get home to refresh. During the season you just work on trying to maintain fitness, but with the break you can really build on it and set yourself up for another big year. It’s a good chance to help the back out by doing some Pilates and yoga, and really test the back out as during the season you can’t do that – you have to tip-toe around it – and make sure you’re not pushing it to hard in case you miss matches. It’s also a good time for development. Doing some strong work in the nets, and trying a few things you don’t get a chance to do during the year.

It’s a great time just to spend with family. I’m away anywhere between six and eight months a year, so I cherish the time to spend with my wife and kids. I like to do the normal things I miss out on, like making the kids brekkie, putting them to bed at night, taking them for a holiday. A lot of people take these things for granted but they are very important to me.

INVESTIGATE: How serious was the back injury that you suffered going into the Boxing Day test?
LANGER: I did it at training three days before the start. I bent down to pick up a footy in the warm up, and I couldn’t get back up. I couldn’t walk, and I thought, jeez, this could be it. I’m very lucky we had a great physio, and from the outset I was absolutely committed to play. It taught me a valuable lesson, that if you have an absolute ruthless attitude and totally commit to something, you can overcome anything. I got worked on for sixteen hours a day for three days, and probably had a five per cent chance of playing. [Pakistan’s] skipper, Inzaman Ul Haq, pulled out with a back injury, and I was determined to
show him up.

I still look at Steve Waugh four years ago when he played his last test in England with a seven-centimetre tear in his calf. It was one of the most phenomenal efforts I have seen, and just shows that if you have the right attitude, you’re desperate, and you have great support, you can overcome the pain and get out there and play.
INVESTIGATE: You have captained a few of the sides you have played in, including the Australia A Side. How big an honour is it?
LANGER: Yeah, it’s a massive honor to captain an Australian side, and I was very privileged to do so, however I hold the West Australian captaincy right there beside it, and am very proud to have been bestowed such an honor. I also captained Middlesex in England and that was fantastic as there is a lot of prestige and tradition surrounding the county clubs.

Another honor that I hold up beside the captaincies is that I now do the team song in the Aussie team. It’s a tradition that has been handed down from Geoff Marsh, to Ian Healy, to Merv Hughes, to Ricky Ponting and when Rick got the captaincy he handed it down to me. A lot of people might think it’s a bit of a wank, but it’s a very special thing amongst the boys involved, and I’m very proud of being able to do it.
INVESTIGATE: You’re turning 35 this year and still playing amazing cricket. Have you had any thoughts about when you’re going to give it away?
LANGER: Of course I’ve thought about it, yeah. I mean, I am 34, but I can honestly say that I’m enjoying my cricket more now than at any other time in my career. I have been around for a long time now and virtually seen it all, so I no longer have any fears or doubts about my batting. I have no fear about different situations, different bowlers, and that’s a great feeling to head out to the middle with a clear mind, and without fear of failure.

I don’t have those insecurities that dog younger and less experienced players and it’s great to be able to play without fear, or the fear of failing, and as long as that remains and I’m still enjoying what I do, than I will be playing for a while yet.
INVESTIGATE: You grew up alongside fellow West Australian Damian Martyn. How close are you guys?
LANGER: Me and Damian have known each other since we were 13 years old, and I probably see more of Marto than I see of my brothers. I’m very proud of Marto and what he has achieved. He virtually had to draw a line in the sand and turn his career around six or seven years ago or he was gone, and he did just that. He made the decision to put his cricket first. He got fitter and works as hard as anyone in the squad. He was the most talented youngster I’ve seen. At 18, 19, 20 he was the best going. I rated him better than Lara, but I’m just wrapped that he got it together, worked his bum off got it right, and now he will end up being one of Australia’s great batsmen.
INVESTIGATE: And what about your relationship with opening partner and that amazing maroon, Queenslander Matty Hayden.
LANGER: Let me guess Jake, you’re a bloody Queenslander.
INVESTIGATE: Was I that obvious?
LANGER: No, couldn’t really tell mate. No, it’s amazing. I describe it to people as it’s like going to work with your best mate everyday. We first opened together against the Poms four years ago and we haven’t looked back since. Our careers are very similar. We both had to work hard for our opportunities, and had our fair share of setbacks early on. We help each other out both on the field and off, and he’d do anything for you. He’s a great fella, and like I said, I’m lucky to go to work with my best mate everyday.
INVESTIGATE: You have hit 21 centuries and a great 250, what would you say however was your favorite or most important innings?
cricket3.jpgLANGER: There was the 100 I scored against Pakistan in Hobart. I was under the pump and a few people were calling for my head, so I dug a nice one out when I really needed it. It was a big relief and gave me some much-needed confidence and released a whole heap of pressure that id been under.

The 250 against the Poms. Boxing Day Test at the MCG in an Ashes series it doesn’t get much better. You dream of that stuff as a kid, so that was pretty amazing, and then the 190, and 97 I scored against the Pakis just recently. Facing the world’s fastest bowler Shoaib Akhtar on the world’s fastest and bounciest wicket and playing on my home deck at the WACA in front of all my family and friends was pretty special too.

However I think the best stat is that I am one of only four players that played in every test when we set the record of 16 straight test match victories. To know I had contributed to every one of those victories, and that I was lucky enough to play in every one, is very special to me.
INVESTIGATE: Do you think that even though you haven’t played in the Australian One Day side since 1997, you could still be an addition to the side as they head towards the world cup?
LANGER: Look, I’m pretty realistic about that. You know with Gilly opening it takes away that specialist batsmen position, so probably not. It’s very frustrating, and it’s been a disappointment through my career, but I love being a test player, and I’ve really enjoyed my test career, so I just concentrate on the things that I have control over and leave the rest to the selectors.
INVESTIGATE: How hard is it to have to hit the road and leave your family behind?
LANGER: It’s the hardest part of the job, no question. You know I’ve faced Muralitharan, Wasim Akram, been able to see the world and enjoy some amazing experiences, but it’s very tough to leave them behind. I suppose the novelty has worn off a little. I have three girls and my wife is pregnant with another, and they mean everything to me, so it’s getting harder to leave every tour now.
INVESTIGATE: Your still heavily involved in the WA community and are involved in a lot of charities and guest speaking. Is that a career path that you will pursue when you leave cricket?
LANGER: I think so. My public speaking has developed a long way since I did my first speech in 1993. I filled in for Terry Alderman in Esperance in WA and really enjoyed it. Since then I have improved and gone from strength to strength, and now when I’m home I can do up to five talks a week. There’s a lot of financial reward in it as well, and it’s great to be able to pass on some experiences and give some tips about how to be successful and stay on top of your game.
INVESTIGATE: Tell me about Zen Do Kai, and what has it taught you?
LANGER: Zen Do Kai is a form of martial arts that has been a huge influence on me. As a youngster, I was a bit of a loud-mouth, a smart arse, so it was good in putting me in my place so to speak and teaching me a lot of discipline. I used to go to the sunrise dojo at 6am, and that took a lot of discipline, especially as a young bloke. I also learnt a lot about respect. I once headed onto the mat before my master and bowed, and next moment I was face up on the mat. I turned around and asked what that was for, and he replied, ‘You disrespected me, this is my dojo and im the teacher, and you walked in front of me. You show respect and allow me to go in front’. Fair to say I never did that again, and to this day still let people older than me to pass in front of me first!

I also love boxing and enjoy the discipline and the hard work that involves. There is no-one fitter than a boxer and it’s the ultimate sport of power and endurance. The other great thing is that it’s just like batting. It’s very technical and you need to keep a level head when the pressure is on. There’s no where to hide when your boxing, so you need courage as well. It’s like all combat sports.
INVESTIGATE: You’re renowned for your grit and ability to dig in and just keep scoring when the pressure is on. What gives you that mindset and determination?
cricket2.jpgLANGER: I’ve always lived by the motto, ‘the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender’. Like I said earlier: I now play without fear, and that comes from the fact that I know I have put the work in, and I don’t want to waste it. Concentration is another part. The ability to block out all distractions and just concentrate on what I need to do. You know, watching the way the ball comes out of the bowler’s hand, seeing it off the pitch, my footwork. It’s the ability to be able to do the same things, the right things, over and over again. I find that the fascinating thing about cricket, just trying to master the mind and be in a place of total concentration, because that is a battle in itself. I think you can learn to be resilient and hard-working. I believe that the pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment. That just makes you want to keep working, as you never want to leave yourself short, and you never want to lie to yourself. At least if you know that you did everything in your power to get your preparation right and didn’t leave a stoned unturned than you can always be happy with your result.

I think constant improvement is another reason. I’m always looking for ways to improve my game, and when I see young guys hit a plateau, I say to them to try something else. What can I change and do differently to improve my results. If you keep doing the same things, you will keep getting the same outcomes. I was born into a family of extremely hardworking people so I suppose you can so it’s in the genes, and I knew that if I wanted to achieve anything, there was only one way to go about it. I think the other thing is that you need to smile into the face of pressure. People get tense and tighten up when they’re under the pump, and that can lead to their downfall. You need to relax and enjoy the competiton if you want to perform. Like Bruce Lee said, ‘Tight mind, loose body’.
INVESTIGATE: Justin, where do you get your inspiration?
LANGER: I get it from a lot of different people. I admire successful people and always surround myself with successful people. It can only make you more positive and want to keep achieving and constantly improving yourself and your performance. These people are leaders and inspire you to keep working. I admire the guys in the Australian cricket team. Not only are they hard workers and talented players, but also they are also all great people.

The kids I meet with cancer and their families. These people are having to deal with some terrible issues, but the way they smile and attack it head on, and the strength and love that their families provide is unbelievable, and I take so much away after seeing those people. And of course my family. They drive me to successes, and are always there for me when I come home.
INVESTIGATE: Who were your idols growing up?
LANGER: Number one was fellow West Australian Kym Hughes. He captained his country and was a fantastic batsman. Dennis Lillie was intense, and Alan Border was a genius. I also loved Graham Wood and Rod Marsh. Rod has been a mentor of mine growing up in WA, and has been a great help to my career. I also love Viv Richards. I remember stories of Viv being this massively strong gladiator, and he was an amazing batsmen.
INVESTIGATE: How do you prepare for a game, and do you have any weird superstitions?
LANGER: I like to pad up in the nude and walk around the hotel practicing my shots! No, I have no weird superstitions. I’m pretty relaxed and try to stick to the same routine all the time. I use a journal and try to stick to the same things in my lead-up that allow me to play well. The day before I watch a DVD of one of my 100’s I’ve hit for reinforcement. It just allows me to relax and be positive, knowing that I’ve done it before. I have cues that I run off, and I make sure that I’m doing them all right. Like hitting the balls in the nets, just making sure everything’s in the right order and being confident and relaxed. I always listen to music and try to stay relaxed the day of a game. I don’t eat much breakfast, just enough to get me through, and just concentrate on staying loose and relaxed and not worrying to much about batting. When I do worry too much, I tense up and get a little agitated and go back into my shell, and then I don’t play well. If I’m happy, relaxed, laughing, and enjoying myself than I will play good cricket.
INVESTIGATE: Who are the funniest teammates?
LANGER: When I first started Merv Hughes was the man. He was an absolute larrikin, and a bloody great bloke. Always great for a laugh. Glen McGrath would have to be the biggest idiot as well, and the most annoying. But he is the best bloke, a great fella. Now I’ve read a bit of the Bible, and it’s full of stories about miracles, but if you want a miracle you don’t have to go far past Glen’s 50 against NZ. I tell you, that’s the next story in the Bible.
INVESTIGATE: Who do you hang out with on tour?
LANGER: I hang out a lot with Matty Hayden and Damian Martyn. We like to get down to a Starbucks and grab a coffee and just talk shit really. Haydo’s a great fisherman too, so if we get a chance we sneak down and throw a line in.

I enjoy golf, but we don’t get a lot of chances to play. If we do I usually have a hit with Punter [Ricky Ponting]. It’s changed a lot though in recent years as a lot of the guys bring their wives on tour and don’t have as much time to spend with the boys.
INVESTIGATE: Any good stories?
LANGER: After we won the first test against the Sri Lankans we sang our song on the Gali lighthouse, which is no longer there after it was destroyed in the tsunami. After the second test in Candy we had to take a bus back to Colombo, which is an eight-hour bus ride. We organized with local police to stop on the bridge at the border and sing the team song. We were given exactly two minutes and there was traffic backed up as we pulled out the eskys and sung the song on the border. That was pretty special.
INVESTIGATE: Who do you see as the next big thing in Australian cricket?
LANGER: I think Shaun Tate from South Australia is very good. He’s very much like Jeff Thompson as he bowls with that slinging action and is very nippy. Dan Cullen, also from S.A., is an off spinner who looks pretty good. West Australian Shaun Marsh is very promising, and Shane Watson, who we have already seen a bit of, has plenty of ability and has the ability to be the next Jacques Callas.
INVESTIGATE: Who do you see as the next
nation to stand up and challenge the Aussies?
LANGER: Tough question. I suppose we will see how the Poms shape up very soon. India is the next- best team at the moment and we just beat them over there, so I don’t really know. I think you will see that the Aussies will probably drop back a little in the next few years as players retire. You know when you haven’t got McGrath and Warne teaming up, and once-in-a-lifetime players like that bowing out of the side, the pressure will be on the players coming in to maintain and build on that standard.
INVESTIGATE: Have you accomplished the goals you set yourself as a youngster, and what are the goals that you still want to achieve?
LANGER: I suppose eight years ago I had played eight tests and got dropped and it looked like I would struggle to get back in. Even my wife thought that was it, so to get back in was great. I played another 40 and got the chop again, before I worked my way back in and now I’m on 88. One of my goals is to get to one hundred test matches, so I need to maintain my workload and my form and get the twelve needed for my hundred and then keep going from there.

I’ve achieved a lot more than what people have expected, but not what I have expected, and I knew that if I did the work and kept believing in myself than I could play great cricket. I’ve learnt, however, not to look to far ahead. Just concentrate on what’s in front of you, do the right things, and the results will take care of themselves. My next goal is to play in the first test of the ashes at Lords. I’ve never played there and it’s 81 days till the first day of play, so I’m very excited about playing there as its always been a dream to play at the Lords. It’s steeped in tradition and prestige and it will be great to make my debut there in the first day of an Ashes series.
INVESTIGATE: What about Brett Lee. How stiff is he, and will he get his chance?
LANGER: Look, he probably is a bit stiff, but it’s all about timing. He is doing everything right, and will be the next to go in if Dizzy (Jason Gillispie) or Kaspa (Michael Kasprowicz) go down. Dizzy and Kaspa have been brilliant and you can’t drop them. I mean, that’s why we are so good. We suffocate the opposition with our attack, and if you were to drop one of those boys they would be even stiffer.
Undying credit has to go to Brett. He has trained that hard, his fitness would be equivalent of an Olympic athlete, he’s done everything right. He is a great role model for persistence and if he gets his chance his going to come in and play some great cricket.
INVESTIGATE: What about the famous ‘Wall of Quotes’ you have at your house?
LANGER: I always read, and have always written things down. My wife was horrified when we moved into the new house and I started writing on the walls. I have my own room out the back were I have a gym and a few bags hanging up. I hang my memorabilia on the walls as well as quotes, and it’s just a great place to go to. Whether it’s to chill out and relax, or do a workout, you can’t help but feel something when you’re in that room.
INVESTIGATE: What about hoolios and nerds? What are you?
LANGER: I think I’m a nerd. I’m married, I have a family, I like to read, but the boys keep roping me into the hoolios. So at the moment I’m a hoolio but I think I should be in the nerds.
INVESTIGATE: Finally, your prediction for the Ashes?
LANGER: Four-zip.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:31 PM | Comments (0)

ADVENTURES: June 05, AU Edition

Bike3.jpgWHEELY GOOD TIMES
Looking for a good time? Check out the new breed of pit bikes, advises Jamie Kaye and Ben Wyatt

When I was a teenager the thought of doing anything remotely dangerous filled me with excitement. Every night I would sit in the park with my mates talking about all the insane things we would do if we were old enough and had enough money, free fall, bungy jump, snowboard, scuba dive, you name it and we wanted to do it. As things were back then, the nearest to danger and excitement we could ever get was to ride my friend Paul’s grandfather’s 50cc moped around a field.

As with most people when I was old enough and had enough money to do the things I spent so many evenings talking about, life just kind of got in the way. Time and money never seemed to stretch far enough to accommodate my childhood dreams of extreme adventures while also leaving enough cash in the kitty to buy beer and take perspective wives out for dinner.

Or maybe I just forgot all of my thrill-seeking plans.
That was until just recently while walking my dog one evening I spotted a Thumpstar in the window of a local motorbike store. The minute I got home I jumped online to find out as much as I could about these mean looking little machines. It wasn’t long before I discovered that I wasn’t the only thirty-something bloke to have had his eye caught by these pocket-sized monsters.

In every state in Australia there is now a Thumpstar club of some description, with regular race meets where anyone who owns one can rock up and race. It really amazed me just how big this little sub culture of seemingly normal every day office types had become, it was at this point that the decision was made, I simply had to try one.

My Thumpstar arrived last Wednesday. I immediately threw it on the back of my mates ute and headed for the hills. At this point it is important to note that I had not ridden a motor bike since my teenage years. Once started the noise that came out of this deceptive little toy was so exciting, it was like turning over a Harley, and suddenly this little bike didn’t seem so little!

We hurtled through the forest and fields for the entire afternoon. I hadn’t had that much fun for years. It was very easy to ride, anyone whose ridden a motorbike before can jump straight on it and go and for anyone whose not ridden before it really is a piece of cake to learn, the real beauty of it is, its so small that if you do manage to fall off you dont have far to fall.

The Thumpstar mini bike will sure help you abandon any lingering frustrations you might have. This is a neat little off road mo-torbike; one that you just look at and know it will be a lot of fun!

Tim Hunter, director of the company developed the first model and now deals with one of the largest production lines in Taiwan, which produces 2.2 million motorbikes per year. This 215,000-square metre factory operates six production lines with one solely for the Thumpstar model.

Stoney Creek is the main dealership in Australia distributing to 115 outlets throughout the country. Cameron Newman reports that the first interest came from motorbike events and competitions where organisers and the professionals would need to get around the often large arenas, so small customised bikes were used. The term ‘pit bike’ is Thumpstars true description, and still sales in this particular area hold a strong percentage of the market.

For anyone wanting to relive the careless wildness of their teenage years, this could be the answer: ‘These bikes are kids’ bikes beefed up for adults to race around back yards all over our country, and with mini race tracks popping up all over the place, our sport that was basically unknown now gets the same attention as a national motocross event’, says Andrew Reid, president of the mini bike association.

These bikes are for people who know how to have fun, and for those who don’t want to break their bank balance. With the bike priced at $3,000, this is an affordable piece of equipment. Being small almost gives them a jovial slant on motorbike riding. ‘When you watch an event you come away with aching cheeks’, Cameron tells me, ‘with a lot of close racing, barging and hilarious wipe-outs.’ Being low to the ground and small bikes limits the damage caused by otherwise heavy crashing metal.

Greg ‘The Godfather’ Timmons is one of Thumpstars most experienced team riders. He won the 110cc 10hp Import Class of the Mini Bike Motocross Titles, Gold Coast 2004. He explains that the pressure in competing in this class is far less, ‘because there’s no training involved, whereas if your riding big bikes, rigorous commitment is necessary.’ It’s an open class event and anyone can enter, making the events ever-increasing spectacles. ‘We would put races on, 20 to 30 riders would turn up and we were excited at the turn out. In 2003 we had a race and 80 riders came, it blew a lot of the people away to see that many minis in one place and little did we know it would turn out like this!’, explains Reid.

Now in 2005 a five-round event takes place from Sydney to Brisbane. There are to date 300 entries for the Australian title. The sport has also gained exposure and recognition through the ‘Gold Coast Bike Week’, which is held in September with 250 entries last year racing round a man made mini motocross track. ‘There was an over under bridge, two wooden ski jumps, a 6-metre finish line table top jump, and technical layout to challenge the best of rider and machine. Twenty riders race at a time battling over four to five laps. The racing is promoted in a fun way so we don’t take things too seriously’, Reid says. ‘We try to cater for most people and 90% of riders are there just to do battle with their mates or the get the feel of racing dirt bikes.’

The Gold Coast Bike Week will be held on the 3rd and 4th of September, so any potential enthusiasts should turn up to see what this sport has to offer. Mini biking seems to be set to become a great new hobby that allows everyone to enjoy the exhilaration, excitement even competition of an adrenaline fuelled sport. Watch this space.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:25 PM | Comments (0)

MUSIC: June 05, AU Edition

NOT-SO-FRESH PRINCE
$20 million still can’t buy Will Smith respect, but Tracey Thorn’s remixes more than satisfy

ws.jpgWill Smith
‘Lost and Found’, Interscope
2 stars

On his ninth CD, Will Smith takes on the intersection of Hollywood and Philadelphia as if jovially taking on another amiable movie role. Mostly, it’s business as usual.

The stutter-tronic ‘Switch’ is the party track.In accordance with hip-hop law, Snoop Dogg appears. ‘Here He Comes’ features a patented Smith sample gleaned from our childhood, the SpiderMan TV cartoon theme, with chunky beats by ex-partner Jazzy Jeff.

Big Willie makes merry about getting dissed by Eminem, blabbing happily about getting reamed by rap radio. So what, right? With more than one reference to making ‘20 mil’, you can’t help but think that Smith is giggling all the way to his broker.

But listen harder. Smith ain’t feeling quite so jiggy.

‘Sometimes y’all mistake nice for soft, so before I go off...’ spits Smith on ‘Mr. Niceguy’, taking on haters through bucking rhythms with the sort of veiled threats his Shark Tale co-star Bob De Niro usually proffers. When not busy taking the offensive on being defensive, Smith wails on religious hypocrisy, star-stalkers, and the rap game’s relentless copycatting (from Smith, yet, goes the boast of the title track) with a sneer to match his cheer.
Reviewed by A.D. Amorosi


ebtg_aod.jpgEverything But the Girl
‘Adapt or Die (Ten Years of Remixes)’, Atlantic/Blanco y Negro
2 stars

Someday, perhaps, there’ll be a new Everything But the Girl album. Until then, aficionados of Tracey Thorn’s smoky, sensual purr of a voice will have to settle for this delicious set of remixes.

To recap: Vocalist Thorn and guitarist (and now DJ) Ben Watt emerged from Britain as a haircut band in the 1980s, then suavely evolved into masters of chilled-out electronica after Todd Terry’s remix of ‘Missing’ became an international hit in 1995. ‘Adaptor Die’ gathers a decade’s worth of reinterpretations of the duo’s fetching pop songs, with DJ Jazzy Jeff and King Britt among the knob-twiddlers, along with Terry, Adam F, Brad Wood and others.

It works perfectly, with Watt and Thorn’s compositions – plus a seductive version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” – reinvented but not unrecognizable, and Thorn’s soulful, contemplative vocals leaving you yearning for more.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca


sean_costello.jpgSean Costello
“Sean Costello”, Artemis
2 stars

Though he started out as a precocious blues-guitar hotshot – releasing his first album at 16 and backing fellow up-and-comer Susan Tedeschi before he was 20 – Sean Costello seems more interested in emulating Eddie Hinton than Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Hinton was the great Muscle Shoals session guitarist who was also a superb singer and songwriter. Like the late Hinton, the 25-year-old Costello has a soulfully rough-hewn voice and is mostly content to make his guitar one element of a taut, earthy R&B sound.

Here he covers Al Green and Bob Dylan, among others, but for the first time he focuses on originals. From the punchy soul of ‘No Half Steppin’’ and ‘Hold on This Time’ to the roadhouse urgency of ‘I’ve Got to Ride’ and the anguished balladry of ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, Costello shows that his lyrical are catching up to his formidable musical talents.
Reviewed by Nick Cristiano


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:18 PM | Comments (0)

June 05, AU Edition

dad and me.jpg

FAMILY TIES
What is driving the quest for millions of dollars in compensation for the woman Australia wrongly deported?
JAMES MORROW reports

When it was revealed that the federal government had mistakenly deported 42-year-old Vivian Alvarez, an Australian citizen, back to her native country of the Philippines four years ago, the media had a field day: commentators wasted no time in suggesting that the deportation was based solely on racial grounds, and that non-white Australians had better carry their identity papers with them at all times lest they suffer a similar fate.

Never mind that Vivian was mentally ill and had been using at least three other different last names (including Solon, Young, and Wilson) at the time of her deportation, making her identity tough to establish. Or that, according to diplomatic cables, she had married a man in the Philippines in early 2001 and re-entered Australia on a Filipino passport with a tourist visa six months before being kicked out of the country.

But as the saga of Vivian Alvarez has played itself out in the media, all these facts have become irrelevant. Add to the mix a gang of Australia-based family members that suddenly appeared for tearful reunions in the Philippines, and lawyers talking of millions of dollars in compensation claims, and the waters become even more muddied.

Enter Rina Quistadio. Rina, a 21-year-old divorced single mother, is in a unique position to shed light on the saga of Vivian Alvarez and her family, and the legal struggle that could cost the taxpayer millions of dollars in legal and compensation costs. Rina, you see, is Vivian Alvarez’s half-niece, and it is her parents – whose house she left when she was just sixteen years old, never to look back – who have been at the forefront of the quest for compensation for Vivian.

‘All of us are waiting for an answer, an explanation’, Henry Solon, Rina’s father and Vivian’s half-brother told ABC Radio recently; Solon has also filed a complaint with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, saying that the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs discriminated against Vivian on the basis of her race, and led the charge for legal representation and compensation. (Vivian has not sought compensation herself, and has forgiven the government for what she has termed a mistake).

But Rina is skeptical of the motives behind her father’s and other members of her estranged family’s quest for compensation for Vivian, and alleges that it is more dollars than a desire for justice for a family member that is pushing them.

‘When I first saw my dad on the news, and then hopped on-line to find out more about the story, I thought it was a bit of a joke’, Rina says, recalling when she first found out it was her aunt who was at the centre of a media and political firestorm. (‘First I recognized the set of encylopaedias, and then I recognized the sofa, and then I thought, “Hey, that guy looks a lot like my father!”’, she laughs, remembering the moment a few weeks ago when the story broke).

‘As far as I know my parents had seen Vivian exactly once in my entire life,’ she adds. ‘About nine years ago, I remember she contacted us at our house, and she brought her two kids and a boyfriend, I don’t remember his name. But she seemed a bit mentally sketchy at the time. It was all pretty emotionless, but that’s the kind of family we were. I was excited about having two new cousins whom I’d never met before, and I remember that Vivian asked my mum and dad if they’d look after her kids while she sorted herself out, but my parents said no.’

‘My mother was working as a daycare mum at the time and was already looking after kids. I was just young and didn’t know what the family budget was, but I assumed at the time mum and dad wouldn’t take the kids because Vivian couldn’t pay them’, she adds.

rina2.jpgAfter that brief meeting, which Rina recalls lasting a couple of hours, there was no contact whatsoever between Vivian and her parents. Rina left home two days after Christmas in 2000 – she chafed under the family’s strict traditional structure, which forbade her from doing any of the normal things Australian kids did. Barely six months later, Vivian was detained and deported by the Department of Immigration.

‘I think it is ridiculous that they are all fighting for the rights of a woman they barely knew’, says Rina, who alleges that her family is more concerned about sharing a compensation payout than caring for their relative.

‘She was only there once for a couple of hours nine years ago, and now they are pushing for all this money for her. I don’t think this incident was one bit troubling for my family – it has been for Vivian – but not for them.’

(For the record, Henry Solon has denied that he is trying to ‘cash in’, and when questioned on ABC Radio about why he moved so quickly to retain lawyers when he heard of Vivian’s plight, responded, ‘I had to move quick, you know what I mean? Otherwise, I would…Vivian, not me, Vivian would miss out.’)

Rina also has harsh words for those, including her father, who has tried to turn the deportation into a racial issue. ‘I just don’t know why they care so much now, and why it took four years for them to speak out about it. It doesn’t look like they’d made a massive effort to look for her before this.’

‘I found it a bit rich that it is being insinuated that this is a racially motivated bungle, because we’re living here and Australia has given us everything we needed and wanted’, Rina continues. ‘I hate to see Australia get a bad name and get called a racist country, because it’s not, because it’s one of the most welcoming countries in the world. I think that’s one of the best things about this country. The really ironic thing is that growing up, my family always said that if you marry a white man you’ll look like a mail-order bride!’

‘Every institution is bound to cock up. My thing is that Vivian didn’t make it easy for herself to be found and verified as an Australian citizen, and she seemed pretty scattered when they found her’, says Rina.

‘From what I’ve read, the government did what they were supposed to do as per procedure. They thought she was here illegally and they sent her back – she must have said something to make them think that. Whether she was in the right frame of mind or not, they thought they had good cause.’

One of the biggest problems Rina has with her family’s story is that they seem to have made no effort to find Vivian before she was discovered by the media, though it fits with a pattern of estrangement from the family that has played out in her own life. Says Rina, ‘the whole story was preposterous the first time I read it. Then it hit me that this was really a big thing. Then I asked myself, “why do they care so much?” There’s just no caring in that family, and if they do care so much, how come they don’t get in touch with me? If they cared so much for Vivian when they first met her nine years ago, she would have become part of our lives.’

Although Rina doesn’t care to see her family, or Vivian, she is concerned that she get back to Australia, get the treatment she needs, and be reunited with her children. She says it would be a shame for Vivian’s sons not to get to know their mother, something she can identify with, having been cut off from her own parents for the past five years.

‘When I first left home, I sent them letters until Christmas of 2001, but never got a response’, Rina says. ‘After I had my daughter I went up to Brisbane and put a photo album of pictures of my daughter in their letterbox and I still never heard a thing from them.’

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:14 PM | Comments (0)

TRAVEL: June 05, AU Edition

june05travelart1.jpgJEWEL ON THE NILE
Ellen Creager discovers an Egypt that is both incredibly fascinating and ridiculously well-policed

GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt – Inside the Great Pyramid, Egyptologist Samid Abdalin climbed swiftly toward the king’s tomb. Right behind him, I excitedly followed the low, narrow tunnel up the steep incline, toward the pink granite room where delicious ancient secrets hid.

And right behind me? A panting bodyguard from the tourist police.
Since 1997, when extremists killed 58 Swiss and Japanese tourists in Luxor, Egypt has gone overboard to keep travelers safe. No tourist has been harmed in seven years. Egypt is the most tourist-safety-conscious country in the world.

Although it’s rare for them to follow tourists inside a pyramid, the tourist police do come in handy. They can help you cross the street in Cairo, an exuberant city of nearly 10 million without a single crosswalk or traffic light. They will push to the front of the line at the Egyptian Museum, where their friends wave them – and you – through. My first day in Cairo, one officer in suit and tie hurried after me in front of the Helnan Shepheard Hotel as I strolled toward the sunny Nile.

‘Do you need to come with me?’ I asked. He nodded. So we walked – me with my digital camera, him with his automatic weapon. When I ate, he smoked. When I went to a museum, he waited outside.

The moral of the story: If you desire to see Egypt’s treasures, don’t let fear stop you.

On the other hand, unless you speak Arabic or plan to stay for weeks, Egypt is best seen for the first time on a package tour or with a knowledgeable guide and driver.

Why? In Egypt, it’s all about whom you know. A guide with connections can smooth the way through the melee of traffic, chaotic lines, ticket windows and airport bureaucracy. A good guide who is also an Egyptologist can tell you what the hieroglyphics mean and point out what’s new or amazing among the 235,000 objects in the Egyptian Museum (The Niagara Falls Mummy! Tutankhamen’s underwear!). A guide can point you to restaurants that won’t upset your stomach, find scrupulous drivers, and give tips on haggling in the market.

Most of all, they can help you see highlights in the short time you have.

But the best things are those your guide might show you by accident. A sudden shower in Cairo sent us scurrying into a shop near the famous Khan Al-Khalili bazaar and up the stairs, where guide Wahid Moustafa Gad asked for a dessert called umm ‘ali, ‘Mother of Ali’. It arrived, steaming bread pudding with cream, raisins, coconut, pistachios and butter – hot, delicious. “Shukran – thank you,” I said, then tasted it. Eyes wide, I smiled. “Ah, shukran.”

In Egypt, visitors are jolted by how much the present and past are jumbled together. Cell phones and camels. Satellite television and rug makers.

Just outside metropolitan Cairo are villages of mud huts, rich fields plowed by oxen, and donkeys carting loads of sugar cane and fruit. In Saqqara, carpet schools teach boys such as 13-year-old Samir Ead a trade. In a big, airy room he sat hunched over a silk rug, his fingers flying and tying a pattern of threads. It takes him seven months to make a 5-by-7-foot rug that sells for thousands of dollars at the shop upstairs. How long has he been at the school? ‘Five years’, he said.
Amid the grandeur of the Medinet Habu temples in Luxor, 450 miles south of Cairo, Egyptologist Ahmed Ali Temerik pointed out one thing that wasn’t so ancient: Egyptian TV actor Hamdi, out for a holiday and surrounded by fans. At the Ramsis Coffee Shop nearby, he introduced Rede Jaher, a watercolor painter who is a fixture there.

Back in the modern part of Luxor, the tourist police had curiously disappeared and I walked the street on my own. Women hurried past carrying packages on their heads. Foreign couples from cruise ships strolled arm in arm. On street corners, groups of regular police in green wool uniforms and carrying assault rifles laughed and talked. Along the river, vendors begged tourists to buy their wares, take their carriage rides or sail the Nile in their boats. (When I
ignored one pushy vendor and strode away, he actually shouted, ‘You look like European, but you walk like Egyptian!’)

Here are some more things to know: Upper Egypt, where Luxor is, is south of Lower Egypt, where Cairo is. Nobody queues except tourists. Tipping is expected everywhere for everything, but prices are incredibly low; five Egyptian pounds are worth $1. At the Mercure Hotel in Luxor, I gave a $10 tip to an excellent waiter one night and he ran after me protesting that it was too much.

In addition to having a guide and driver, I had another connection in Egypt. I saw Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt’s department of antiquities speak recently, and invited he me to visit the recently closed Nefertari’s Tomb in Luxor’s Valley of the Queens.

I thought I was special until I got to the fragile tomb and found 25 other tourists inside, all exhaling artwork-damaging breath like me.
Who were all these people?

‘Zahi has a lot of friends’, the guide explained.

Egypt has big plans to improve the tourist experience. A new museum is planned near the Giza pyramids to contain the breathtaking Tutankhamen treasures. Also on the drawing board is a new museum in Cairo that will showcase the history of Egypt. The Coptic Museum, detailing the history of Christians in this largely Muslim nation, is scheduled to reopen soon.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian resort town Sharm al-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula’s Red Sea has become a hot destination for European vacationers and divers. It’s only a one-hour flight from Luxor.
On my trip, I flew from Cairo to Luxor, Luxor to Sharm
al-Sheikh, then was driven – with the tourist police as escort – up the Sinai Peninsula, past the stark Mt. Sinai, where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments.

At Nuweiba, a small port on the Gulf of Aqaba, men sat watching an American TV movie on a tiny set in an outdoor cafe. They drank strong mint tea while goats wandered the streets. They stared at me; who could blame them, with so few foreign tourists around? I tied a scarf over my head. At a tiny restaurant, a boy grilled shish kebab on open coals and I ate it gladly, sharing morsels with a stray calico cat under the table.

In Egypt, everyone uses the Arabic word ‘inshallah’. It means ‘God willing’, as in ‘Inshallah, I will cross the street safely’, or ‘Inshallah, the sun will shine’. Before I came to the Middle East, my travel agent, Ihab Zaki, said the best way to navigate the region was ‘gracefully and gratefully’.

As I left Nuweiba on the speedy ferry headed for Aqaba, Jordan, I kept thinking that perhaps more tourists, inshallah, would
pluck up their courage and follow their dreams to see Egypt in just that way.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:03 PM | Comments (0)

MOVIES: June 05, AU Edition

SAME OLD SCHTICK
Woody Allen’s routine is growing old, but Samuel L. Jackson’s still got it

melinda.jpgMelinda and Melinda
Released: May 26, 2005
Rated: M
2 stars

I just don’t get the fuss over Woody Allen. I think the man’s films all suffer from dialogue diarrhea.

The characters just talk and talk and go on and on (and on). And they are always horribly highbrow Manhattanites discoursing over incredibly important topics and appreciating fine music. I can guarantee none of his characters has ever watched Desperate Housewives! If I was invited to a dinner party with people like that I’d probably end up plucking my eye out with a fork.

So keeping that in mind, here’s what I thought of Melinda and Melinda. The story starts across a restaurant table, as two writers debate whether life is essentially comic or tragic. To prove their respective sides they each take a tale about an uninvited guest and put their own spin on it. So for the rest of the film the audience is flipping between the comic version and the tragic version of Melinda’s life. The trouble is the comedy isn’t funny and the tragedy isn’t tragic so it’s easy to get lost. My hint is to follow Melinda’s hairstyle: straight=funny, curly=sad.

Although the script is weak a couple of the performances are strong. Rhada Mitchell is mesmerising as Melinda. She’s in nearly every scene and carries the film with ease. But no matter hard she works at her character it’s distracting when she’s sprouting lines like, ‘The subject of infidelity is completely out of the question. You were correct in your assumption.’ This sounds like Jane Austen, not present-day New York.

Woody Allen didn’t cast himself in this film (be thankful for small mercies) but he did make a strange decision for who would play his usual neurotic lovelorn character: Will Ferrell. And weirdly, the comic actor pulls the role off fabulously. I have always thought Will is amusing but not romantic lead material, but in this film the romantic lead is wracked with insecurities, guilt and jealousy, so it works.

Others were more disappointing: Chloe Sevigny and Amanda Peet simply play themselves again and again.
Yawn.

If you’re a Woody Allen fan ignore me and check it out. If not, I’ll pass you a fork.


CCarter.jpgCoach Carter
Released: May 26, 2005
Rated: M
4 stars

Coach Carter is a clichéd sports flick. But it’s a great clichéd sports flick that is based on a true story. Coach Carter (Samuel L Jackson) inherits a bunch of trash-talking, selfish high school basketballers who end every sentence with ‘dawg’. He makes them sign contracts to maintain their grades and respect each other, then whips them into shape with a kabillion pushups and enforced teamwork. Soon no-one can beat them and the state championships are well within their grasp.

That is, until the teachers reveal half the team is actually failing. So Coach Carter puts a lock on the gym and benches the entire team. The players, school and parents are furious. But Coach won’t budge; he points out young black men are 80 per cent more likely to go to prison than go to college.

Cue inspirational speech and swell motivational music. I know it’s formulaic but I couldn’t help it, I was sitting there grinning and urging them to study so they could make something of themselves…oh and win basketball scholarships…and sort out their off-court relationships…and still win the championship.

Samuel L. Jackson smolders with intensity. He carries the film on his capable shoulders. He’s commanding, powerful and likeable. A strong cast of young actors portrays the players in sad but believable situations.

It’s a true story that rings true. Hooray for clichés.


woodsman.jpgThe Woodsman
Released: May 05, 2005
Rated: M
2 stars

Sometimes I love seeing a movie I’ve heard nothing about. I walk in with no expectations and no idea of plot and let it wash over me. This was not one of those times. The Woodsman is a story of a pedophile. I think with a subject like this I would have liked some warning.

Kevin Bacon plays the lead role of Walter. Even before it’s revealed he’s a child molester Bacon shows his character is uncomfortable in his own skin. He’s withdrawn and living with the stigma of being just released from jail. Imagine how much worse it is when people find out what he did to get twelve years in the slammer. The editing of the movie splices unrelated scenes together making you feel disjointed and uncomfortable. It makes you see things from Walter’s point of view.
The Woodsman follows Walter and watches what happens when he tries to re-enter society. He honestly says he wants to be a “normal” person but at the same time is driven with a deep compulsion.

He gets a job at a timber yard with a bunch of rednecks and as an ex-con the only apartment he can rent is a rundown shoebox that happens to be across the road from a school. Demons follow his every thought.

Although there are other actors in the movie you almost don’t need them. It’s all about Walter and the battle of his will. Bacon is superbly restrained and subtle and acts with all his might in the many silences.

Will he lapse?

Not recommended as a first date movie.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:03 PM | Comments (0)

FIRST DRAFT: June 05, AU Edition

MATT HAYDEN
Our exclusive first look at the Mark Latham diaries...

November 22, 1999:
Bloody hacks. Just read another story about my ties with Gough and how I’m the ‘anointed one’. Bugger that. Sure, Dad is a total legend. But I’m my own man too, you know...

July 13, 2001:
Maaate. I am so piSSeD. YO wouldn’t believe wha jus HAPpennd!!! Cabbie nicked my moolahh.Butt I shOWED himmdintI!!!
OOhsh. Feeelin queesy....thinkI’m gonna CH ...

July 14, 2001:
Ugh. My bonce is as heavy as a bloody bowling ball. And my left knee feels like a croc took a piece out of it.
That cabbie’s probably feeling a good deal worse, though. I did tackle the bastard pretty hard. Hope he’s okay...re that: what if the hacks pick up on it?

Still, they never found out about that flower pot man I decked yonks back in Liverpool, eh! Old bastard was about ninety not out then. He’s probably carked it by now.
So, it should be sweet. Not worth worrying about.

June 30, 2002:
‘Arse-licker.’ It’s just a word. OK, maybe two. Why all the outrage?
Now the Tories are pushing this line I’ve got some kind of bum obsession. How wrong is that?
Anal fixation my arse!

Talk about the potty calling the dunny brown. I mean they can talk; they are totally, scrotally obsessed with the contents of my pants.
That Mad Monk and his “missing manhood” jibes. If he brings that up again I’ll deck ‘im!

And anyway, he’s the one who’s always wussing out and walking away.
Actually, he’s such a wuss I’m amazed he even fathered the sprog. About the only thing he could sire is a fart. (We’ll probably find out the ponce had nothing to do with it. That’ll be a cack, eh!)

Bloody Tories. They’re such a pack of girls. I might be shy a cod, but I’ve still got more balls than the lot of them.

February 5, 2003:
Mate, what is it with this joint? It’s full of bloody blushing violets. Now they’re going spacko over that ‘conga line’ line!
Gawd. You’d think I lobbed it out right in the middle of Question Time and performed genital origami or something.

They’re still spewing over ‘arse-licker’ – not to mention that (very accurate) description of Tony Staley.

Then there’s the ongoing saga over ‘skanky ho’. Hell, I only said it to get the yoof vote. That’s a pick-up line in some quarters, you know.

What’s wrong with a bit of colourful language? I mean, for f..k’s sake!

Anyway, in all those cases I was being quite bloody restrained. Imagine how they’d have reacted if I’d really cut loose...

September 16, 2004:
Mate, sometimes I read what I’ve written here and wonder why I keep doing it.

Then I remember: Yonks from now, long after my epoch-making, ball-tearing stint as PM has transformed the nation forever, these scrawlings will be worth their weight in gold. I’ll be the new Great Man then; kicking major freckle on the speech circuit; holding court like Dad does now. People will give their eye teeth to know what was really going down all those years ago.

It’s timing, see.

Before then? Not a snowflake’s chance in hell.

Why would they be interested?


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:01 PM | Comments (0)

FOOD: June 05, AU Edition

CM076.JPGFIT TO BE FRIED
Eli Jameson writes that cooking is just like defending a besieged castle: sometimes, it’s done best with boiling oil

Pity the carnivore in love with the vegetarian. All of a sudden one of his most cherished loves – all things meaty and on a plate – is called into question by the new love in his (or occasionally her) life. Can a relationship last when two parties disagree on something as fundamental as whether or not the children’s song ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is cause for hunger pangs? Or if tempeh is actually yummy, or something sent up to torture us from the depths of hell?

Samuel Jackson’s hit man in Pulp Fiction summed up the dilemma perfectly when he chowed down on one of his more hapless victims’ fast food order: ‘That is a tasty burger! Me, I can’t usually eat ‘em ‘cause my girlfriend’s a vegetarian. Which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.’

Now my wife is a vegetarian, but nowhere near as doctrinaire as Jackson’s movie girlfriend – the most flack I ever cop for frying up a load of bacon and slapping it on some toasted bread with good mayonnaise is caused by health concerns, rather than moral ones (‘are you sure one packet is meant to be eaten by just one person?’). Still, though, I know men whose vegetarian partners would leave them if they found out they regularly went to steakhouses for lunch. One friend’s vegetarian girlfriend even uses meat as a weapon: if things are going well, and she’s happy with the way she’s being treated, beef is on the menu. If not, the poor man is sent packing to the salad bar.

Since we set up housekeeping together a few years ago, I’ve had to figure out ways to cook dishes that satisfy both my wife’s moral code (apparently pancetta is not allowed, even if it’s pretty much dissolved in the final product) and my love of rich food. And in truth, cutting out meat has made me a better cook in a lot of ways: I’m much more conscious of the quality of ingredients, and have learned that vegetables have more of a role than as a creative garnish to a really good piece of meat. No longer do I believe a meal is balanced if it has been sprinkled with parsley.

In terms of technique, this newfound emphasis on cooking with things that grow on the ground rather than run around on it has taught me a renewed love for deep-frying. Perhaps it’s an atavistic masculine thing: if I can’t cook manly things like ribeye steaks, at least I can cook in a manly (i.e., dangerous) way that involves high temperatures and the potential for serious injury. Sort of like the way some guys cloak their creativity by expressing it through the medium of power tools. And unlike those wimps, I don’t even wear safety goggles.

Back in the days before I left my butcher for my wife, I still enjoyed the whole frying process – but never to the point where I would put a bench-top Fry-o-lator at the top of my Christmas list. But with a vegetarian to keep happy, deep frying preserves domestic harmony while also horrifying the health police. It’s also a great way to handle leftovers: golf balls of the previous night’s mushroom risotto can be coated in an egg and parmasean mix and fried in olive oil for a particularly decadent take on the Sicilian classic arancini.

But two of my favourite deep-fried treats involve that late-summer treat, the zucchini flower, and that winter delight, the artichoke heart. The former is my go-to, make-ahead starter course whenever the things come up in the local farmers market (good food retailers like the David Jones Food Hall also stock them - keep an eye out when the time is right); the latter, a fun way to bang and clatter around the kitchen and wind up with something that is, almost literally, heart-stoppingly good.

zuc_flow.jpgSTUFFED, BEER-BATTERED, DEEP-FRIED ZUCCHINI FLOWERS

Three flowers makes for a good first-course serving; my supplier sells in packets of ten, so we generally tend to have five per person at my house. Waste not, want not, right? The goal here is to make the lightly-battered, delicate zucchini flower the perfect vehicle for an incredibly rich packet of warm, melted cheese and herbs.

You’ll need:
• 12 zucchini flowers, preferably with zucchini stems attached
• 150 grams mozzarella cheese
• 150 grams fresh parmagiano reggiano or grana padano
• 1 bunch chives, finely chopped
• 150 grams flour
• 200 ml beer
• Cayenne pepper
• Good sea salt
• Black pepper
• Olive oil
• Butter
• Lemon (optional)

1. First, make the batter: a good flour-based batter needs at least half an hour to rest and come together. In a wide bowl (you’ll be dipping in here later) mix the beer and the flour together, adding a dash of cayenne pepper, salt, and fresh-ground black pepper. What you’re looking for is a lightish consistency, not a heavy, gloppy batter.
2. Then, make the stuffing. Mix up the two cheeses, most of the chives, and some salt and pepper in a bowl (taste to make sure the balance is to your liking). Take the zucchini flowers and, being careful not to tear the leaves, open from the top and with your little finger or a small spoon pop out the stamen from inside the flower. Fill with stuffing, and twist shut, laying aside on a plate. These can sit in the fridge until you are ready to cook.
3. Get a good, heavy-bottomed pan out and fill with a centimetre’s worth of olive oil, and a good whack of butter to boot. Allow this to get quite hot – test it by dripping some batter into it; if it doesn’t immediately set to sizzling, the oil is too cold. Working in batches, dip the flowers into the batter using a turning motion that works with the direction in which you closed them, to help keep them sealed during frying. Place in the oil, and, turning occasionally, fry until golden brown. Set aside on paper towel, sprinkling with salt, until all the flowers are cooked. Place three on each plate, sprinkle with some of the leftover chives, and a squeeze of lemon juice (optional). Serve immediately.
Serves four.

FRITTERS2.jpgARTICHOKE HEART FRITTERS

Adapted from Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ New Basics Cookbook, this recipe hails from Chicago’s celebrated Gordon Restaurant. Apparently this was a classic from the day the eatery opened in 1976, and the whole thing does have a bit of a wonderfully haut-1970s feel to it.

You’ll need:
For the béarnaise sauce:
• 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons dry white wine
• 1 tablespoon chopped eschallots
• 1 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
• 125g room-temperature unsalted butter (for this sort of sauce, it pays to buy some good-quality butter, like Lurpak)
• 3 egg yolks
• Salt and pepper

For the fritters:
• 1 cup flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 cup milk
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 3 cups corn or peanut oil
• 10 artichoke hearts, halved, rinsed, and dried

1. Make a batter by mixing the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper together in a bowl, and then combining with the milk, egg, and olive oil. Let this rest for at least a half-hour.
2. Knock up a quick béarnaise by boiling down the vinegar, wine, eschallots, and tarragon until reduced by half, and then allow to cool. Then, get some water to near-boiling in a double-boiler (or just use a steel bowl over a pot like I do), and in the top part, combine the vinegar mixture with the egg yolks, giving it a good whisk. Bit by bit, add the butter until the sauce thickens, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
3. Working in batches, dip the artichokes in the batter and then fry in hot oil. Drain on paper towels, and serve on plates with a daub of béarnaise on each fritter.
Serves four.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:56 AM | Comments (0)

TOUGH QUESTIONS: June 05, AU Edition

daily mirror4_cropped.jpgIAN WISHART
Why God needs a rottweiler

The newspaper front pages said it all when Pope Benedict XVI ascended the throne in the Vatican late last month: “God’s Rottweiler”, “Panzerkardinal”. Here in New Zealand, Newstalk ZB’s Larry Williams tried to suggest to Bishop Pat Dunn that the Catholic Church had “missed its chance to enter the 21st century”. As if, somehow, the church has to reflect modern secular attitudes to stay relevant.

There’s news for many of the media commentators and fringe lobby groups who resent another conservative at the helm of the papacy, and that news is all bad: Christianity doesn’t have to stay relevant to survive in the modern age – instead, citizens of the modern age need to return to Christianity to survive.

That modern liberals seek a religion that reflects their own views and behaviour, rather than core values, is no surprise. That desire explains the massive rise in Eastern and New Age beliefs in the West, where people are soothingly reassured by spiritual snake-oil salesmen that “there are many paths to God, find what works for you”. For a generation that has trouble getting out of their armchairs to change a TV channel, such anything-goes religion is non-threatening, easy to comply with and really cool if you love mung beans.

Pope Benedict himself wasted no time declaring that Western secularism is the biggest threat to Christianity.

“We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” the new Pope warned.

The idea that religion should change itself to reflect human trends, rather than God, is almost a given in some sectors of society these days – usually the sectors who would never darken a church doorway even at Easter. No longer having faith, they would prefer the Church join them by abandoning its faith as well, “lightening up a little”, and what’s wrong with abortion as a form of contraception anyway?

But the times they are a changing. Few could have failed to note that many of the mourners for Pope John Paul 2, and many of those who cheered at the news of Joseph Ratzinger’s election as the new pope, were young. Many of the cynics and critics are baby-boomers. There is not just a culture clash underway on religion, there is an intergenerational clash as well. The children of the baby boomers think their parents are immoral, inept and bereft of basic values. While mainstream liberal protestant churches in the West are dying a horrible death, Pentecostal protestant churches are booming, as Gen-Xers return to the faith their parents abandoned.

Pope Benedict knows this too. His choice of the name Benedict is significant for a number of reasons. The Benedictine order of monks were primarily responsible for the Christianisation of Europe during the dark ages. The original evangelists bringing light to the world. Many observers say this Benedictine papacy will be a battle for the hearts and minds of Europe again.

Yet it will be a battle without compromise. Pope Benedict staunchly resists the notion that Christianity should somehow be watered down to appeal to Western liberals. Better, says the Pope, to remain true to your core beliefs than set yourself adrift in the sea of relativism where truth is meaningless.

If that means the Catholic Church continues to shrink in Western Europe (it is exploding in Latin America and Africa), then so be it, as Britain’s Independent noted.

And there is another fascinating twist to Ratzinger’s choice of “Benedict”. Back in the year 1140, a monk known to history as St Malachi is said to have received visions from God of 112 future popes.
According to those visions, the man just elected will be the second to last pope:

“111. The Glory of the Olive. The Order of St. Benedict has said this Pope will come from their order. The Olive branch is a sign of peace and he may be a peacemaker or dark skinned. It is interesting that Jesus gave his apocalyptic prophecy about the end of time from the Mount of Olives. This Pope will reign during the beginning of the tribulation Jesus spoke of. The 111th prophesy is “Gloria Olivae” (The Glory of the Olive). The Order of Saint Benedict has claimed that this pope will come from their ranks. Saint Benedict himself prophesied that before the end of the world his Order, known also as the Olivetans, will triumphantly lead the Catholic Church in its fight against evil.”

According to Malachi’s prophecy, this pope will have a short reign, marking the start of the tribulation leading to Armageddon. At 78 years old, Pope Benedict XVI will not remain in power for long.
The liberal wing of the Catholic Church, which tried to mobilize against Ratzinger in the conclave of cardinals but failed, now has a few years to regroup and be better placed at the next conclave, perhaps within a decade, to give us a Pope of enlightenment and liberation from the shackles of the past.

Which brings us to the last of St Malachi’s prophetic visions.
“112. Peter the Roman – This final Pope will, it is argued now by theologians, likely be Satan, taking the form of a man named Peter who will gain a worldwide allegiance and adoration. He will be the final antiChrist which prophecy students have long foretold. If it were possible, even the very elect would be deceived. The 112th prophesy states: ‘In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Petrus Romanus, who will feed his flock amid many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people. The End’.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Malachi’s visions and end-time theology, there’s no doubt the man now at the helm of the Catholic Church will be a defender of the faith from the erosion of postmodernism, in a Europe fast losing its Christianity and returning to paganism.

God needs a “rottweiler” for times such as these.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:55 AM | Comments (0)

LEFT HOOK: June 05, AU Edition

DAN DONAHOO
Australian energy policy is far too crude

President George Bush has asked Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to reduce the pressure on oil prices. It is a short-term, politically expedient solution to the problem and demonstrates a lack of understanding of one of the most serious economic and development issues of our time. Managing the decline of oil must begin now and our leaders need to pull their head out of the sand and start talking about it. The short-term political issue may be the price at the pump, but the medium to long-term issue is the lack of oil into the future.

Keeping prices low is not going to help anyone. Even motorists who demand lower prices will only face more dramatic increases in the future. The oil markets are doing us all a favour.

Australia has very low energy prices, yet we have the audacity to complain about them. A government legacy that future generations would look back on and appreciate would protect the future economy from more dramatic falls would be to encourage less consumption of petrol and conserve it for future generations.

As much as President Bush would like to think increased global production would bring the price of oil down, it may not. Even the current $50-plus dollars for a barrel of crude is based on speculation, not availability. Currently, there is enough oil to go around, but buyers and analysts are not sure for how much longer. Some suggest the price is over-inflated by over $20 dollars. This is a naïve view.

The market is actually protecting us because like it or not, we are running out of oil. We have been running out since we started extracting it from the ground. Oil is a fossil fuel and by its nature there is only a certain amount.

How much?

The British Oil Depletion Analysis Centre predicts the Earth’s original oil holdings were around 2000 to 2400 billion barrels. About only half of this is left. And, it is only in the last 30 years we have really become serious oil users. This is what peak oil is all about and what the markets are waiting for.

Peak oil refers to the point in time when extraction of oil from the earth reaches its highest point and begins to decline. We won’t be able to say when we have reached peak oil until after the fact.
Kenneth Deffeyes is a geologist at Princeton University and an expert in the work of Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert. Hubbert successfully predicted peak oil production in the US almost 15 years before it occurred in 1970. Deffeyes has used Hubbert’s work to analyse global oil supplies and estimates that global peak will occur sometime this year.

This is what is keeping the markets on edge. With more experts coming forward and predicting we are close to peak oil, prices are starting to reflect nervousness about scarcity.

When peak oil kicks in it, the decline will become obvious. We are on an exponential curve where oil consumption is concerned because the oil supply is decreasing and demand shows no sign of slowing.
At a federal level politicians need to start discussing the impact of oil decline on our nation. They need to begin debating what alternatives are required and where investment should go to support those alternatives.

Prices can’t be kept low, but our consumption can be changed and alternatives can be sought. But we need to start acting now.

Daniel Donahoo is a fellow at OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:50 AM | Comments (0)

RIGHT HOOK: June 05, AU Edition

ANN COULTER
Ever have one of those millennia?

It’s always important to get liberals to stop complaining long enough to make a hard prediction. This month we will review liberal predictions on the Iraqi elections. When they weren’t claiming the Iraq elections would not take place at all, liberals were telling us that if we let those crazy Arabs vote, the Iraqi people would elect extremist mullahs hostile to the United States.

Well, the Iraq National Assembly has completed filling out the cabinet, and it can now be said that this was liberals’ laughably wrong prediction No. 9,856. (Or No. 9,857 if you count their predictions of ruinous global cooling back in the 1970s, which I don’t because that could still happen.)

Iraq’s first democratically elected government in half a century has a Shi’a prime minister and a Kurdish president and several Sunni cabinet ministers.

Fat Muqtada al-Sadr saw his radical Shi’ite movement humiliated in the January elections. According to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute, two-thirds of Iraqis say Iraq is on the right track.


The minority Sunnis, who once held sway under Saddam Hussein and were told by American liberals to expect major payback from the Shi’ites under a democracy, were chosen by the majority Shi’a government for four cabinet positions – including the not insignificant position of defense minister.

What we’ve learned from this is: Talking to liberals is much more fun now that we have Google.

In a Nov. 9, 2003, news article, The New York Times raised the prospect that ‘democracy in the Middle East might empower the very forces that the United States opposes, like Islamic fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.’

Democracy in the U.S. might have put John Kerry in the White House, too, but you’ll notice they didn’t abandon the idea.
One difference is that the Islamists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt were not democratically elected. Still, the Times said that ‘something similar’ happened in Iran when ‘domestic pressures’ installed the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By ‘domestic pressures’ in Iran, I gather they meant ‘the Carter presidency’.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin claimed to be talking about ‘grim Iraq realities’, explaining to her readers that if elections were held, the new Iraqi government ‘will likely be dominated by religious parties. If the economy stays bad, radical Islamic parties could do well’. So you can see how leaving the tyrannical Hussein dynasty (slogan: ‘We’re the rape room people!’) in place was preferable to that.

Winning the category of Most Wrong Predictions, Lifetime Achievement Award, Katrina vanden Heuvel (Queen of the May at America’s fun-loving Nation magazine) said invading Iraq would lead to ‘more terrorist retaliation, undermine the fight against al-Qaida and make America less secure and possibly unleash those very weapons of mass destruction into the hands of rogue terrorists in Iraq’.

What weapons, Katrina? (Katrina lied, kids died!) Hey! Wait a minute! How can rogue terrorists in Iraq detonate bombs? They’re all too busy flying kites with their children! Hasn’t she seen Fahrenheit 9/11?
After we invaded Iraq, Katrina predicted the U.S. would stay in Iraq as a colonial power – as the only non-imperialist superpower in the history of the world is wont to do. As we paved the way for elections, she said, ‘You know, if there are elections in Iraq, it’s very likely it will not be secular democracy’.

But it’s not fair to quote Katrina. She still thinks the Soviet Union’s planned economy failed because the farmers had 70 years of bad weather.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:47 AM | Comments (0)

SPIN CITY: June 05, AU Edition

june05spincityart.JPG

ALAN ANDERSON
The Liberals’ states (and territories) of confusion

Swept up in the excitement of federal issues, one can be forgiven for stifling a yawn at the mention of state politics. Liberals, in particular, might prefer not to reflect on this unprecedented spell of Labor domination. Yet just as the long federal drought is undermining the political viability of Labor, the Liberals face a bleak future if they do not soon regain the initiative at a state level.

The status quo puts the Liberals one defeat away from electoral oblivion. If it suffers a federal defeat in 2007 without first making gains at state level, the party will lose almost all the resources, influence and staffers that are critical to maintaining political and intellectual capital.

While the federal government is important to business generically, as it has prime influence over the nation’s economic climate, state governments are in a better position to assist particular businesses, especially property developers. This makes control of state governments a lucrative proposition for political parties, one which Labor has not been shy to exploit. It is an under-appreciated fact that the Liberals, not Labor, are the party that is playing catch-up in political funding.

What are the prospects of a Liberal resurgence? In New South Wales, Bob Carr’s tough-on-crime rhetoric has been exposed as just that by the repeated humiliations of his police force at the hands of riotous thugs. Sydney’s transport system is reminiscent of pre-Mussolini Italy. Yet for all that, the Brogden Opposition has failed to achieve the sort of ascendancy in the polls that might presage a change of government.

In Victoria, the shine has worn off Steve ‘Good Bloke’ Bracks. His constant refrain of ‘we’ll look into it’ has become a standing joke, while his unscrupulous revenue grabs have alienated many Victorians. But while there have been some promising polls for the Liberals, the sentiment in the party – and on the street – is more consistent with a respectable recovery next election from the total rout of 2002, not a miracle turn-around.

I tried to elicit comment from the party’s Queensland division, but they were both out. Nor are Liberals knocking on the doors of power in South Australia, Tasmania or the Territories.

In Western Australia, Colin Barnett went to the people with the most exciting election promise since Russian fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky pledged to build giant fans to blow radioactive waste across the Baltic states. I preferred Zhirinovsky’s plan; at least it might have worked. Voters consigned the mighty Barnett canal to the ash heap of history, to the relief of all thinking people.

To lose one state may be regarded as misfortune; to lose six plus two Territories looks like carelessness. A trend this strong must have an explanation.

The most thoughtful one was proffered by Laurie Oakes. He suggested that Australians look to Canberra for policies to sustain economic prosperity and defend national security. The states, by contrast, are seen as service providers, responsible for schools and hospitals. Thus the hard-edged issues which favour conservatives are concentrated at a federal level, while the touch-feely issues at the state level are Labor’s strong suit.

Centralism, which has seen Canberra steadily strip the states of responsibility since Federation, is partly to blame. State governments today are little more than service administrators and contract managers. It was not always so. This trend has also exacerbated the problem of finding decent candidates to run at state level.

The GST has also propped up incumbent state governments. Peter Costello is right to be frustrated by the ease with which the states have squandered their GST windfall, despite increasing their dependency on gambling revenue, outrageous traffic fines and obscene levels of property tax.

But politics is about results, not excuses, and the state Liberals produce far too many of the latter and not enough of the former. Why, in an age of growing hospital waiting lists, functionally illiterate school-leavers and widespread dissatisfaction with transport infrastructure in our major cities, have the Liberals failed so conspicuously to capture the public imagination in these areas?

A quick look at the average state campaign yields the answer: the Liberals aren’t trying. While the rampant vote-buying of federal campaigns is tempered with some issues of principle – asylum seekers, war, mutual obligation – state campaigns are wholly non-ideological.

In an age of few fiscal constraints, all that leaves is bribes to the electorate. State campaigns consist of a bidding war between politicians using taxpayer money. Even at its most feckless and patronising, the Liberal Party is never going to win that fight.
If spending like a drunken sailor isn’t the answer, what is?

Continuing the alcoholic analogy, the first step to solving your problem is realising that you have one. The logical corollary is that Liberals need to convince the voters that taxpayer money is being wasted, and that Liberals could do more with less.

I’m not talking about attacking the Premier’s twenty-grand ‘fact-finding’ mission to Hawaii, or the ministerial office furniture bill. The Liberals have already mastered those stunts. In a time of plenty, most voters ignore the politicians’ snouts in the trough, so long as they themselves are kept in gravy.

Liberals must undertake a more fundamental reappraisal of the big ticket items of state spending. They must convince voters that the problems with our health and education systems do not flow from absolute funding levels, but from structural failures.

Education is the most fertile ground for this argument. It is received wisdom in most “Howard battler” households that schools are failing to teach ‘the three R’s’. Educationalists and their unions have provided a treasure trove of quotes and documents displaying an obsession with politicising our children and a contempt for the importance of basic literacy and numeracy.

Attacks on curriculum would be political dynamite. Increasing access to private schools with a voucher system would empower parents and provide a tangible benefit. Similarly, Liberals should explore avenues to introduce greater consumer-focus into the health system.

Right-wing think-tanks, here and abroad, have produced a library of ideas on how to decentralise service provision and increase stakeholder control. While federal Liberals borrow heavily from the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs, their non-ideological state cousins have demonstrated little interest in radical reform.

After years in the wilderness, it is shameful that state Liberal oppositions have done so little to build the intellectual capital needed not just to return them to power, but to make their future governments a success. The Liberal Party cannot afford more insipid, pork-barrelling campaigns, nor a repeat of Barnett’s giant boondoggle in the West. To those cynical state Liberals who claim that a reform agenda cannot win elections, I say simply: GST.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: June 05. AU Edition

KILLERS, GREAT AND SMALL
From September 11 to Alexander the Great to hapless would-be crims, a range of books that looks at murder and its consequences

extremelyloud.jpgEXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
By Jonathan Safran Foer
New York. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. ISBN: 0618329706. Available on import and currently stocked by unusually good book shops. To be released by Penguin Australia in July 2005.

To write a second novel after the first has been a bestseller is famously difficult. Many never manage it at all. After To Kill a Mockingbird, nothing. The author was said to have begun writing a new book the very next year but nothing else ever materialised from the pen of Harper Lee.

With a seven-figure advance on his conscience, Jonathan Safran Foer must have been under enormous pressure when he set to work on his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It probably didn’t help that Foer’s debut, Everything is Illuminated, (winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2002) was hailed as work of genius. It can’t be easy to follow that.

Foer decided to up the stakes and raise them dramatically. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is based on a child’s experience of September 11, possibly the most provocative subject a contemporary author could address. Has Foer stolen the emotional pull of September 11 in a desperate effort to produce another powerful work of fiction?
Salman Rushdie says the book ‘completely earns the right to take on the Trade Center atrocity. The powerful emotions generated feel deserved, not borrowed.’ A good book, or an honest book, creates its own power whereas a bad book tries to claim its power from external sources. And so it goes that a good writer can elicit more feeling from a sneeze than a bad writer could ever hope to glean from a sunset.

Employing big themes to cover up small writing doesn’t work. Readers already have intense feelings about the attack on the World Trade Center so while many books have previously approached the subject, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the first to become a best seller.

Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about the same age as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Foer chooses a similar method of approaching a grave issue through the eyes of a child. Foer maintains that he writes out of a need to read something rather than a need to write something and has contrived Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a non-political response to the tragedy.

A crazy coffee-drinking kid whose father died in the World Trade Center tragedy, Oskar’s grief sets him off on a journey to find the lock that fits a mysterious key he has found in his father’s room. Obviously traumatised, he invents many things that might help avert catastrophe. There’s a birdseed shirt in case you need to make a quick escape and a big sign for the top of ambulances flashing messages like ‘IT’S NOTHING MAJOR!’ or ‘GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE!’

Oskar speaks a bit like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye (another one-hit wonder) over-using the phrase ‘heavy boots’ to talk about being depressed:

On Tuesday afternoon I had to go to Dr Fein. I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots then you need help. But I went anyway, because the raise in my allowance depended on it.

The word association test that Dr Fein conducts during this meeting is very funny. Critics in New York have been quick to accuse Foer of ‘getting cute’ about the atrocity, reminding me of one of the characters Oskar meets on his journey. Ruth Black, a tour guide, hasn’t left the Empire State Building for years, not since the death of her husband. In conversation with Oskar, ‘she let out a laugh, and then she put her hand over her mouth, like she was angry at herself for forgetting her sadness’. Reactions to Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud become more positive the further one gets from Manhattan.

Foer’s writing falls into the category of magical realism, a mode of literature that commonly surfaces when a government overrules its people. In our culture, magical realism it is often mistaken as an attempt to be amusing, whimsical or surreal. As a form, it seems well-equipped to accommodate the pluralism required to describe a complex and mythic city like New York, now also a site of intolerable pain.

Flipbook style, the novel concludes with a series of images of a man falling from the World Trade Center, but the order is reversed so it appears as if he is bouncing back up again. My feeling is that Foer’s decision to pepper the book with photographs doesn’t quite work. The German writer W.G. Sebald uses photographs in his texts to majestic effect, so by no means is it a technique destined to fail, but these photos seem to dilute the book rather than enhance it.

Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud doesn’t need to bank on the gravitas of September 11. Oskar could have lost his father under any circumstances and given his perculiar leanings need not have lost his father at all before embarking on this strange journey. If you take away the references to September 11, you are still left with a whole book.

Nothing stems ability half so well as weighty praise and the burden of high expectations. Remember Ian Thorpe flopping into the pool at the trials for the Athens Olympics? He went on to take out the gold again, but not before embarrassing himself in front of the nation. Like Thorpe, Foer finds the gold, but not where you might expect.


optimists.jpgTHE OPTIMISTS
By Andrew Miller
London. Sceptre, 2005. ISBN: 0340836555.
Structured like a brilliant photograph, The Optimists is Andrew Miller’s best novel to date. Clem Glass, a successful photo-
journalist, is struggling to overcome the trauma of a massacre in Rwanda. Though accustomed to harrowing assignments, Clem returns home to London unable to resume his life. Miller writes as a perceptive photographer might record, knowing that the edges of a scene are often far more interesting than the scene itself.

Genocide is not the theme here for The Optimists is about salvation. His inability to detach from the wickedness he has witnessed obstructs Clem’s quest for redemption. Throughout the novel, he carries three images around with him in his wallet: an early portrait of Sylvestre Ruzindana, the man responsible for the massacre; a picture of a ravaged classroom showing the legs of upturned desks and a whitewashed wall sprayed and smeared with blood; and a girl called Odette Semugeshi, 10 years old, standing in front of her bed at the Red Cross hospital and staring into the camera ‘with a gaze of the quietest imaginable outrage.’

The experience in Rwanda has awakened Clem’s innermost fears – that the soul of mankind is ruthless, heartless, evil. ‘Drawn increasingly to every manner of portent’ Clem searches for proof to the contrary. He visits his father who, after the death of his wife, has withdrawn to a monastery where the monks keep a vigil in the chapel, each taking a two-hour shift:

‘Can I ask what you pray for?’

‘Me? Oh, for understanding.’

‘Always that?’

‘Yes,’ he said, smiling to himself and slipping his hand again under his son’s arm as they came onto the road. ‘Always.’

Although his previous novels demonstrate an ability for sumptuous prose, Miller’s writing draws little attention to itself in The Optimists. Clem chases down Frank Silverman, the journalist with him in Rwanda, but Silverman’s losing it too and instead of offering consolation, he hands Clem a brown envelope full of heavily corrected notes. Both disturbing and beautiful, Silverman’s fractured account provides a vivid contrast to Clem’s paired down, straightforward narrative.

‘Fear is a darkroom where negatives develop’ said Usman Asif, and almost everyone in this book is afraid of the dark. The notes Clem is handed describe Silverman’s terror of the unlit city where all that is unseen threatens.

Still unable to return to work, and thinking about giving up on photography completely, Clem retreats to the country with his sister, Dr Clare Glass. Clare, an esteemed art historian, has sunk deep into depression after suffering from a bout of malign hallucinations. One night during their stay in Somerset, a fuse blows and the cottage is plunged into darkness. Similarly haunted, Clem is almost as frightened by the experience as his demented sister.

Before she grew old, Clem’s mother went blind and Clem becomes increasingly concerned about his vision. As keenly aware the eye’s sensitivity as a photographer would be, Clem is tormented by the fear that witnessing such atrocities could have irredeemably damaged his retinas.

Like the rest of us, Miller’s ‘optimists’ are trying to make sense of a world where so many bad things happen. They are not optimistic fools but characters who strive towards a positive perspective, battling against the painful and the discouraging, never content to blank it out.


Reviewed by Michael Morrissey

books_sunset.jpgSUNSET
Penguin Australian Summer Stories
Penguin Books, $22.95, ISBN 0143002724
I believe all books should have identified authors/editors, so why then an anonymous compiler? Or did the authors select themselves? If so, who invited them? With no editor, there is no introduction which is, or should be, a necessary part of any compilation; it offers guidelines to the anthology’s intention.

The collection as a whole disappoints – the editor hiding his/her shame, perhaps? The problem is, too many stories here have the same even kind of tone, which is warm but somehow bland. Possibly this is a conscious/unconscious strategy: summer is a time of relaxed warmth (let us say), so let’s have stories with a relaxed warm tone, stories that give a suntan without skin cancer. However, there are some gems.
With the exception of veteran story teller David Malouf’s novella-length contribution, the best stories are in the earlier part of the book. First up is Gabriel Lord’s ‘Surprise Lunch’, a chilling little tale of an intended murder that backfires. This has the kind of sting-in-the-tail punch we might associate with Roald Dahl, modern master of the horror-terror tale derived from the inventor of it, Edgar Allan Poe. This is the kind of story that - apart from the great Luis Jorge Borges – has been unfashionable in literary circles for some time, but damn it, I enjoyed it.

Peter Goldsworthy’s ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’ brings a sharper and more contemporary note with its forbidden tape in a possibly stolen camcorder. Marion Halligan’s ‘Irregular Verbs’ defiantly breaches the almost uniform tone with a luxuriantly descriptive stream of consciousness technique.

By and large, these are coastal or suburban rather than outback stories. No billabongs, kangaroos or snakes – though an echidna makes a guest appearance. There tend not to be professionals in crisis, more ordinary folk in a jam, such as the lady in Andrea Mayes’s ‘The Bag’. With possibly an outsider’s perspective, I wondered about the absence of well-known Australian denizens like sharks, snakes, and blue-ringed octopuses. Casting on eye back to (say) Coast to Coast, a collection edited by Frank Moorhouse when summer-oriented hippiedom was at its height, I felt a tinge of nostalgia for some of the authors current at the time – Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Michael Wilding – and wondered about their absence. Frank, I would guess, has thrown away his swimming trunks and became an unabashed winter-loving Europhile. After many a summer, can autumn be far behind?


books_inside hitler's bunker.jpgINSIDE HITLER’S BUNKER
By Joachim Fest
Pan Books, $25, ISBN 0374135770
It’s interesting to read a biographical study, albeit a short one, focused on the last days of Hitler by a German historian, rather than what is more typical for most English readers, one by a British historian. Fest’s cool, cogent overview of what is most probably the greatest drama of the twentieth century offers a fascinating view of the necessities of military crisis – permission was given to Goebbels to set up a battalion of women soldiers – an unthinkable idea in the earlier triumphal days of the Third Reich. This book contains some of the familiar photos of Hitler’s last days but some touching new ones – including a fifteen-year-old youth alongside a much older man: the last futile strategy – to defend doomed Berlin.

What Fest’s study shows clearly is the extraordinary contradictions in Hitler’s personality. On the one hand, clutching at chances of last-minute victory (hoping that Roosevelt’s death would split the alliance), while on the other, seeming to exult in a dramatic and final destruction – a gotterdammerung of his own making. While he had become a pathetic shambling physical wreck with a ‘pathological craving for cake’, Hitler could still convince generals who knew the situation to be hopeless that it was nevertheless possible to save it at the last hour – Gauleiter Albert Forster in Danzig had but four tanks to face 1100 Russian tanks, yet after a brief time in Hitler’s study he emerged ‘completely transformed’.

Fest argues forcibly that German soldiers felt swept up in a great cause – ‘called on ..to be the participants in the final act of a great tragedy’. Further on, he maintains, ‘An infatuation with hopeless situations has long been one of the characteristics of at least one strand of German thought.’ Hitler is portrayed as a fanatical exemplar of this kind of infatuation. This psychological-Zeitgeist theory makes a lot of sense and would explain what British historian A. J. P. Taylor found inexplicable, namely, why German soldiers and Hitler went on fighting when the cause was hopelessly lost. Fest’s analysis also helps rebut the tiresomely glib explanation of the phenomenon of Hitler – that he was simply mad.

Hitler’s epic rages are vividly described yet Fest doesn’t try to explain them as amphetamine-fuelled - though certainly the drugs he was taking wouldn’t have helped. Ultimately, Hitler’s personality contradictions remain an enigma, but Fest’s acute analysis, more than most, helps us decode it.


books_alexander the great.jpgALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Robin Lane Fox
Penguin Books, $22.95,ISBN 0141030768
The recent justly-panned film about Alexander the Great, history’s greatest general and conqueror of the then-known world, has prompted a re-issue of this magnificent one volume history of the enigmatic Macedonian. According to some critics, it is the finest history so far written and, though I am not a professional historian, I am inclined to agree. A scholarly work, it has 50 pages of microfiche-sized footnotes. In the main text, it’s all here in dazzling detail: the fantastic siege machines that stormed the island fortress of Tyre, the wheeling feints and massive concentration of attack that defeated every military adversary, the brutal methods used to defeat King Porus’ elephants (javelins in the eyes, hamstrings cut with axes, hacking off trunks with razor-sharp scimitars) plus the founding of cities, the grand Hellenic vision, the spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity, the ruthless treatment of enemies, not to forget alcoholic and sexual indulgence.

Historians like Schachermeyer, Tarn and Hammond praise Alexander while others like Badian, O’Brien and Green condemn him. Depending on one’s cultural and historical perspective, Alexander’s life and deeds lend themselves to either favourable or denunciatory interpretation. Among ancient historians Callisthenes, Aristobulus, Arrian, and Plutarch praised Alexander while Curtius Rufus and Cleitarchus were harsher in their assessment. Plutarch saw Alexander as a civilizer of barbarians – an attitude with which we no longer feel comfortable. When Fox writes warmly of the spread of Hellenic or Greek culture, I am tempted to ask, isn’t this Plutarchian praise in a more sophisticated form? On balance, Fox admires Alexander and there are numerous incidents of his nobility of character as well as the darker side. At times, so overwhelming is the mass of Alexander’s achievements, both cultural and military, in such a short life, one feels a kind of admiring historical vertigo. Did the man never sleep? Apparently, very little.
Fox writes with angelic erudition throughout his closely detailed book. He excels in outlining military technicality but is even more outstanding when he offers intensive psychological analysis – the exact motives and circumstance of Cleitus’s murder by Alexander; the acute examination of the controversial proskynesis or homage with prostration paid to social superiors; the intelligent consideration of Alexander’s “godhood” – are all masterly, superb.

Now for some brickbats: the maps are ridiculously poky affairs and printed in such a way that it is hard to read place names. Also the maps show only Alexander’s journeys, not his battles. Why such an important omission? The new issue – save for a changed cover – is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago, surely a missed chance to
improve and extend the maps as well as an opportunity for Fox to update his views.

Fascinatingly, Fox was historical consultant to Oliver Stone’s recent film and made a non-negotiable’ demand that he be included in the front ten of every major cavalry charge on location. Fair enough. By now, of course, Fox is as old as the hardy veterans of Alexander’s concluding campaigns – nearing 60, yet still a champion horseman. But why oh why did he apparently sanction a major rewrite of history in the film? King Porus is shown as wounding Alexander with a spear, whereas in actuality Porus was captured by an unwounded Alexander.
Prior to Jesus Christ, Alexander was probably the most famous and written-about of men. Curiously, no one has ever doubted that Alexander existed even though nearly all the original documents written about him were lost and recast some three to four hundred years after his death. The consequence is that many of his famous (and infamous) deeds exist in variant accounts. Thus he has become partially mythical though indisputably a real figure. In the case of the Gospels, they are all written close together, soon after Christ’s lifetime and are consistent with each other. Yet some nineteenth historians suggested that Christ never existed. The same theory applied to Alexander would never have gained an inch of traction. Such are the paradoxes of history.


books_the full catastrophe.jpgTHE FULL CATASTROPHE
By Edna Mazya
Picador, $22, ISBN 033044215549
Thrillers are like fast food – they fulfil a need with suspicious ease but leave you undernourished. On the other hand, there is the deeper psychological thriller more or less invented by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, one of the world’s greatest novels. This wonderful first novel by Israeli playwright Edna Mazya aspires more to the Dostoyevsky ‘genre’ than the usual airport trash. As in the great Russian novel, we know who the murderer is – it’s the main character, Professor Ilan Nathan, who kills his wife’s lover, not with a knife, gun or heavy object but with – you’ll never guess – his pipe. If the unlikely death of Oden Safra is black humour, it’s difficult to mourn the demise of such a callous smug bastard.

What is gripping about this book is the way Nathan keeps drawing attention to himself, his guilt is an inner motor that drives him to perpetrate the most infelicitous of actions. He leaves a trail of self-incriminating evidence that a blind man could follow. The superbly detailed sequence where Nathan keeps trying to dispose of the body is both nail-bitingly suspenseful and blackly funny. This book, along with countless movies – including Unfaithful, which it strangely parallels – makes one thing perfectly clear: never take a stiff to the rubbish tip.

Apart from the expert plotting, black humour and acute psychology, the novel’s outstanding feature is its unusual style. The sentences are disconcertingly long rolling affairs, yet once you get used to their rhythm they carry you along like giant surf. This eminently readable yet in depth novel is a good antidote to the trashy Hannibal Lecter books. I’ve never quite believed in Hannibal but Ilan Nathan is more credibly human – complete with an unemotional mother who loves him and saves him in the end. Just how, you will have to find out by treating yourself to the book.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

THE WATCHER: June 05, AU Edition

tampa.jpg

ALAN RM JONES
In paranormal news…

On the north Welsh coast there is the little village of Abergele, where locals claim a ghost ship, the Gwennon Gorn, appears from time to time. According to legend, the Welsh Prince Madoc sailed her to America in the 6th Century – nine centuries before Columbus – and ventured inland as far as present day Kentucky. Show me a bottle of Welsh bourbon and I’ll believe it.

Another mythical ship was sighted recently in the UK during the election there – the MV Tampa. British voters probably hadn’t been thinking much about Norwegian container ships, at least not until a raft of Australian Labor Party has-beens and wannabes washed up in the pages of the UK press. Beware, they cautioned, of sinister antipodean political assassins – namely former Liberal campaign director Lynton Crosby and pollster Mark Textor.

In opinion pieces, which coincidentally appeared on the same day, Shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan (in the Independent), and Cheryl Kernot (in the Guardian) – remember her? – lashed out at their nemeses. Swan, feeling ‘an overwhelming sense of déjà vu’, claimed the British Conservatives were mimicking the themes of ‘Crosby’s 2001 Australian election campaign [which] was perhaps the most despicable waged in Australian political history’. The Australians, Swan said, were ‘deadly to progressive parties’ by ‘exploiting fear and race’.

If Kernot was to be believed, the presence of the Aussie duo in the UK election posed more of a threat to Her Majesty’s Realm than Guy Fawkes: ‘Crosby’s tactics represent a truly serious threat to… British democracy’, she forewarned. And even worse, the subversive Aussie would go after the media: ‘BBC, take note!’ Crosby would, she warned darkly, ‘conduct a war of attrition’ against the British broadcaster and accuse it of ‘bias and unbalanced coverage’.

Oddly enough, only three days before Kernot’s dire ‘predictions’ the London Telegraph reported that the Beeb had been ‘plunged into a damaging… row after it admitted equipping three hecklers with microphones’ and sending them into a Conservative campaign meeting being addressed by party leader Michael Howard.

In her familiar understated way, Kernot even went so far as to imply that she was herself a refugee, due to the insidious tactics of Messrs Crosby and Textor. ‘[B]ut thanks to [her] Scottish grandparents, [she’s] been fortunate to have lived and worked in the UK for two years now.’ Well, at least we now know where Kernot lives, because it sure looked as though she wasn’t living in her own home-away-from-home Dickson electorate when she lost it in 2001.

After digesting Kernot’s theories, I suspect most Brits agreed with the Crosby-Textor Conservative slogan, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ And I also suspect most – even Guardian reading, tofu-chomping Volvo drivers – were more concerned about another potential British debacle – the forthcoming Ashes series – than the 1000-year edifice of Westminster democracy being swept away by a couple of sinister Aussie political operatives.

Sounding like Looney Tunes’ hapless duck, former prime minister Paul Keating waddled ashore in the last week of the campaign, also warning Guardian readers that, ‘Prime Minister John Howard had run a despicable election campaign against asylum seekers’ and to expect the same. Australia’s ‘moral compass now lacks the equilibrium it had and the underlying compassion has been compromised,’ the failed piggery owner lamented.

This from the former head of a government that in 1992 stated that ‘rejected asylum-seekers have no claim to remain in Australia…’; won a unanimous High Court backing for Labor’s mandatory detention policy (the Migration Reform Act 1992); and, from the Coalition Opposition, enjoyed support for “the right of the Government… to determine who shall and who shall not enter Australia”. (Sound familiar?)

In its last year, the Keating Government cut off immigration intake at 82,500 places. This year the Howard Government will allow into Australia between 110,00 and 120,000 new immigrants, including a doubling of refugees – a 45 per cent increase from when Keating stood on the welcome mat. In 2004, the top countries of origin for resettled refugees our morally diminished country accepted included Sudan, Ethiopia, Iran, Congo and Somalia. And, on a per capita basis Australia now has one of the most generous refugee programs on the planet. Not exactly a record you’d expect from a government that was accused in 2001 by its detractors in the New York Times of playing the ‘race card’.

If Keating wanted to measure compassion in dollar terms, he need look no further than the $1 billion donated by the Howard government in the days after the Boxing Day Tsunami. And, at one point after the disaster, Australians were donating privately at a rate of $750,000 an hour. Total private giving topped $200 million. Speaking of the generosity of the Australian people, Howard said: ‘Our home is this region and we are saying to the people of our nearest neighbour that we are here to help you in your hour of need.’

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley had every opportunity to insulate himself from the Tampa factor in 2001. But he failed to appreciate that most Australians were offended by the negative fainéant and continuous media reprimands of self-appointed custodians of national morality. Changing chameleon-like as he did on refugees and border security, Beazley’s voice was indiscernible from the white noise of the sniggering intelligentsia – whom have shown about as much responsibility and constructive alternative thinking on these issues as a bunch of garden gnomes.

So why would ALP figures want to dig up all these old ghosts now? It was hardly to lend a hand to their Labour brethren, whom they happily jettisoned over Iraq; rather, perpetuating the Tampa myth serves to reassure the Labor party’s base that they were robbed in 2001. That is, were it not for Howard’s base appeal, the Coalition would have been beaten senseless by Beazley’s ‘noodle nation’. The Tampa is the ALP’s Potempkin legend, which must be repeated, mantra-like, at every opportunity. And foreign media and their less Aussie-savvy readers are an easy mark for a reprint run, which will – and did – get a nice little run back in the Australian media.

This legerdemain, kept alive by ALP, the left’s leadership caste and some segments in the domestic media, may keep the home fires burning for the Labor rusted-on. And it certainly sustains the indulgences of the far left, upon which Labor has prostrated itself over terrorism, border security, the environment and industrial relations, to name but a few. But it has little currency where it counts: among the electorate at large, particularly among swing-voters, who aren’t buying.

It’s a hard sell that insults large swathes of the Australian electorate, with whom the ALP must make its peace if it is ever to regain power. Keating, who referred to Australians as ‘yobs with cans in their hands’ in urgent need of cultural re-education and thinks that Australia, with its current form of government, is the ‘arse end of the earth’, probably doesn’t advance that goal very far, whatever he’s shilling.

Sustaining the myth, with the help of an indulgent media, also prevents the party from tackling internal party reform. Remember the post-2001 ALP reform fight? Does the party look, act or sound any different today than it did in the 2001 election? Spotting the difference is like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’ without Wally. The ghost ship in the piece is the Labor party itself; adrift, without any sense of what it’s about or where it’s going. Until the ALP stops believing its own media stories, every election will, in the immortal words of American baseball legend Yogi Berra, be ‘déjà vu all over again’.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:31 AM | Comments (0)

HEALTH: June 05, AU Edition

burger-pounder.jpgNOT SO FAT
New numbers from America suggest obesity isn’t as dangerous as previously thought. But don’t reach for that Big Mac just yet

Obesity is the second-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, and it’s only a matter of time before we catch up. Unless, that is, you use their newly-revised statistics, which place obesity way down at number seven in the leading preventable cause of death in the US. In which case Australia’s death rate from obesity is now almost four times higher than that of the Americans! C’mon, that can’t be right. How many fatty-fatty fat-fats are keeling over, here and abroad? I want answers – and a burger, stat!

Well, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. There is no universal formula for working out something as complex as how many people die from diseases caused by obesity. Working out how many people die from guns is relatively straightforward. As far as I know, the leading cause of gun deaths is guns. But what about cancer? It might be related to obesity, but the obesity isn’t required for the cancer. Skinny people die of heart disease, as do the, ahem, big-boned. If someone has a heart attack and dies, and is also overweight, there may be correlation. But since we know that skinny people have heart attacks too, how do we know if their chubbier cousin would have died of a heart attack anyway, irrespective of his weight?
To use the example of the Australian state of Victoria, their “Burden of Disease” statistics show that in 2002, 650 overweight or obese people died from cardiovascular disease, 450 from type-two diabetes and 300 from cancer. Catch the trick? That’s how we get our statistics down under. If a fat person dies from something that can be related to excess weight, it’s an obesity- related death. No statistics are available on how many of those people might have died anyway.

An example: Let’s suppose that one of those people was called Dazza. Dazza had a heart attack at a family barbie and died in rural Victoria died in 2002. At the time of his death he had three charred steaks, mounds of potato salad and eight or nine beers on board. He also snuck off behind the shed and had five or six Winnie Blues with his brother, but his wife didn’t catch him, so they don’t count. Always the clown, when old Daz grabbed his chest and fell down, it was six minutes before “get up, ya retard” turned to panic. The ambulance took fifteen minutes to arrive. Now although Dazza died of a heart attack, his passing also counts as a weight-related death and a tobacco-related death. Of course, the delay in treatment contributed. Having a father and two uncles who died of heart attacks before 50 also contributed. Now if Dazza died at 65, he’s doing well, compared with his ominous family history. The statistics fail to take these nuances into account.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in April 2005 that too much weight accounted for 25,814 deaths a year in the United States, 14 times less than their January estimate of 365,000 deaths. Now the same number of people died, and the same number were overweight or obese. What the CDC did to get the new figures was to improve their statistical analysis. They took into account a range of factors, some of which may seem surprising.

Much of the problem comes from the use of the Body Mass Index, or BMI. You can easily calculate your Body Mass Index, which is your weight in kilograms (kg) divided by their height in meters (m) squared. So if I am 178 cms tall (from memory) and 59 kgs (distant memory), my BMI is 59  1.782, which makes 18.62 and places me at the low end of the healthy weight range (BMI of 18.5 – 25). If you are very fit (muscular), under 18, experiencing the effect of age (losing muscle), or pregnant, the BMI may not be accurate. The World Health Organisation also recommends different cut offs for south-east Asians, so if your genetic heritage is such, the BMI may not be accurate. If you have recently had a baby, you should substitute the lowest weight you’ve ever been for your actual weight, as I did (just for fun).

Generally 25-30 is considered overweight, and over 30 is considered obese. Further confusing the matter, the cut-off may change between countries and over time. For example in 1998 the US National Institute of Health changed their cut-off for “overweight” from BMI 27.8 to BMI 25. 30 million Americans, previously “technically healthy” became overnight “technically overweight”.

With limited variations this is how the statistical bodies know if you’re an obesity or weight-related death. Because of the limitations of the BMI I prefer the LBM assessment (Look in the Bloody Mirror). It should be abundantly clear (unless you have a body image disorder) whether you are healthy, overweight or obese. And I have to say, being obese is defiantly not good for you, there aren’t two ways about it. It will put you at risk for a lot of things (cancer, heart disease) that will shorten your life (you’ll die). More so than if you were trim and terrific. If you are merely overweight, however, it’s not so clear.

How many people do you know (often women, but not always) who go to the gym, swim twice a week and do yoga on Saturdays and are still “big boned”? They probably have good muscle tone from the exercise, but you may not see it for the soft curvaceous coating. I personally spend a good deal of time participating in toddler aerobics and I believe you could bounce a penny off my “abs”. If you could find them under the squishy layer of stored energy, which you can’t. So if people are overweight, are they automatically at risk of overweight related death?

A study in 1996 confirmed earlier research which showed that for adults over 35 attempted weight loss is associated with lower all-cause mortality, regardless of whether or how much weight is lost. So trying to loose weight is beneficial for your health, even if you don’t loose weight. It’s common sense: an overweight person who works out and eats well should be much healthier than a lazy, unfit, skinny person. Fitness generally seems to mean cardiovascular fitness, which is achieved through cardiovascular exercise, which leads to a healthy heart. If you happen to exercise until you can talk, but not easily (a useful rough definition of effective cardiovascular exercise) for 40 minutes at a time 3 times a week, you should know for yourself that you are healthy. You may, however, still be overweight.

Have a look at the people in your family. Scientists have not yet discovered the gene that causes a craving for breakfast at McDonalds, but they have discovered a small number of genes for obesity. And there are probably more. As in all things, some people are better at some things than others, even at a physiological level. Some people don’t get enough iron in their diet, but their body is very good at using what they get, and they just never get anaemic. Some people are just efficient fat burning machines, eat badly and do no exercise yet stay skinny. Not healthy, mind you, just skinny. Some people just have a hard time losing weight, but if they are doing all the right things, they could well be healthy. If a 10-metre sprint for the bus leaves you breathless, I don’t care how you look, your health is in trouble.

You can be fit but overweight if you try because for all the books on weight loss out there, the whole thing is simpler than you’d think. If the energy you take on is more than the energy you expend, you gain weight. You burn calories/ kilojoules/energy (synonyms for popular purposes) all the time, to breath, to sleep – perchance to dream – to walk to the shop. And you intake energy all the time. If it’s not water and it goes in your mouth to your stomach, it counts as energy.
The more energy you expend (all common sense; walking burns more energy than watching TV etc) the more energy you burn. You could get fat eating apples if you ate a lot of them and moved as little as possible. So if you are overweight, you need to eat less or exercise more. Of course, if you exercise more, you will be fit, which is good. If you just eat less, you could be skinnier but no healthier.

Bottom line, fitness counts for more than weight. We don’t really know how many “overweight and obesity related” deaths happen. I’m not sure what it matters. Being overweight may cause (indirectly) death, being unfit is a better target.

We shouldn’t (alas we do) judge this on how you look. It doesn’t matter what the stats are, I tell you this; if you can’t run for the bus, you’re in trouble.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:25 AM | Comments (0)

THE ARENA: June 05, AU Edition

june05arenaart.jpgJAMES MORROW
Forget Supernanny. What Australia needs is Superteacher

If there is one show that is appointment viewing in our house – OK, besides Desperate Housewives – it is Supernanny. While most ‘reality TV’ is pure schlock of the worst kind and about as divorced from most peoples’ lives as Kim Beazley’s pledge to block tax cuts, Jo Frost’s Supernanny speaks to the inner what’s-the-matter-with-kids-these-days crank in all of us, parents or not.

Of course, child psychologists and other self-appointed experts, who have spent decades turning families into dictatorships where the kids are in charge, hate the idea of an uncredentialed glorified babysitter like Frost telling parents to take control again. Sydney University academic Stephen Juan, for one, criticised her as a ‘devil version of Mary Poppins’, adding that the show’s approach represents ‘the outmoded view of the controlling parent … it seems to be so anti-children. It puts the needs of the parent first.’

No matter that in every episode, none of the needs of the parents, whether for sleep or rest or intimacy were being met; according to Juan, to borrow the phrasing (and pronunciation) of Frost, discipline is ‘not esseptible’.

But while parents of pre-schoolers have been singing the praises of Supernanny to the point where adults now regularly joke about sending each other to the ‘naughty corner’, once the kids hit school, there’s no buxom British nanny around to keep order. This isn’t the fault of the kids; rather, it’s the fault of educators.


I’ve been reading the recently-released collection, Education and the Ideal: Leading Educators Explore Contemporary Issues in Australian Schooling (New Frontier Publishing, 2004), over the past few evenings, and one thing has become clear: the people responsible for educating Australia’s children need to be sent to the naughty room to have a good long think about what they’re doing to the country. As the various contributors to the book reveal, the past four decades have seen every half-baked left-wing fad and cause turned into a trendy ‘study’ of some sort or other (i.e., ‘peace studies’ during the Cold War, ‘environmental studies’ today, et cetera).

The book paints a disturbing picture of schools where children are taught a watered-down version of history that extends earlier than the 20th century for no other reason than to teach that Captain Cook’s landing represented an ‘invasion’. Where literature students are taught that an episode of Neighbours is just as valid a ‘text’ as a Shakespeare sonnet. And where Marxist thinking, dead everywhere in the world except academia, informs everything.

As a result, the book notes, students are going on to university and entering the workforce with no comprehension of how to string together a proper English sentence – much less diagram one. Barry Spurr, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney notes that his institution has been forced to initiate a ‘first-year unit of study, “University English”, to attempt to deal with students’ grammatical incompetence. The imposing title is followed by a less-exalted course description where it is indicated that there will be provided “practical writing tasks and work designed to strengthen the students’ knowledge of the basic English grammar” … that the schools are failing to achieve this competence, even amongst their brightest matriculating students, after twelve years at school, remains a national scandal.’
In other disciplines, the problems are the same: while there are plenty of competent and dedicated teachers out there, their ranks have been infested by leftist hacks and has-beens who, unable to otherwise succeed in a competitive market economy, seek to bring it down from the inside. As much as possible, this means cutting students off from the vast traditions they inherit in a Western Anglosphere country such as Australia. Much easier to rubbish the achievements of an explorer like Cook and the people who built modern Australia out of virtually nothing than to teach the great dramatic sweep of civilization that makes us what we are today.

Even science hasn’t been spared: in the 1960s rush to dethrone any expert at all, the teachers unions banded together to get ‘science back from the scientists’.

Not surprisingly, the chickens are starting to come home to roost. According to a study recently released by the Australian Council of Educational Research, Australian kids were less literate and numerate – that is, competent with words and numbers – at the end of the 1990s than there were at the end of the 1970s. This despite a doubling in the amount of school funding per pupil in the same period of time. So what’s going on?

Experts point to a number of factors, from low teacher salaries to a lack of competition in the public school arena. But surely the revolution in the Australian curriculum over the past thirty years must take most of the blame: rather than made to learn facts, students are now taught to adopt attitudes (recycling good, corporations bad, the world will end tomorrow, and America is the great Satan). Combine that with a vast number of extras loaded into students’ days, and it’s no wonder that their critical thinking skills, and their ability to read and write and add and subtract is faltering.

As Naomi Smith writes in the introduction to Education and the Ideal, ‘Educationists who have broken radically from tradition … have presumably done so because they think this will result in a better result for society and the individual, one closer to the conception of the ideal. But there is a real danger in all of this that much that was good about our education system – the product, after all, of an inheritance that dates back 2,500 years to ancient Greece, and which was further enriched by the Judeo-Christian tradition – will be lost.’
And that’s something no amount of time in the naughty corner can get back.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:24 AM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: June 05, AU Edition

05.jpgORBIT OR OBIT?
There’s a lot of talk of space tourism after Spaceship One, but not much about the risk, says Pat Sheil

So a privately-funded manned flight has finally made it into space. Some see it as the greatest breakthrough in transportation technology since the Wright Brothers. Others deride it as the ultimate toy for the obscenely rich – the most expensive roller coaster ride of all time.

The reality of Spaceship One and the much-heralded dawn of commercial space flight lies somewhere between these two caricatures. These sub-orbital hybrid rocket planes are technically brilliant machines which serve no real purpose other than to break records and impress the socks off techno-heads. And just possibly make money – not as serious working vehicles, but as the wildest fairground ride ever to make it from the drawing board to the ticket booth.

Spaceship One is the brainchild of radical aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan. Radical? Well, a spaceship powered by burning rubber in compressed laughing gas has to qualify as an extreme machine, but it works. Rutan’s team claimed the US$10 million X Prize in September by being the first re-usable piloted vehicle to reach space twice in a fortnight.

The prize was established in 1995 by a group of space enthusiasts and business groups in St. Louis in an attempt to kick-start commercial space flight, in much the same way that the funding of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis 1927 trans-Atlantic flight encouraged investment in aviation through the 1930s. The twice-in-a-fortnight stipulation was made to guarantee that the winning craft was genuinely re-usable.

Spaceship One’s victory was not exactly a commercial triumph in itself, given that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen poured twice the prize’s value into the project. But ever since, the hype merchants have been letting the world know that the age of affordable private space travel has finally arrived.

The boosters have now gone into overdrive with the announcement by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson of the formation of his new ‘spaceline’, Virgin Galactic, which is already taking expressions of interest from hundreds of well-heeled space cadets for the first commercial flights.

Branson talks of a son-of-Spaceship One, a craft already being designed, which will carry five passengers instead of two, and blast thrill seekers into the void for as little as US$200,000. Incredibly, he says that this could all be up and running as soon as 2007.

That mightn’t sound like a cheap ticket for a four hour journey into space, but by today’s aerospace standards that’s exactly what it is. Branson estimates that there are at least 3,000 people in the world with a lazy 200 grand lying around and a hankering for a few minutes of zero-G, more than enough to make to make the project workable.

However you cut the numbers, space tourism is certainly cheaper than it was – the first billionaire to ride in space as a paying customer, Dennis Tito, paid around $US20 million to the Russians for the experience in 2001. Tito made a fortune with the finance company he founded after leaving NASA in the 1960s, and while he was the 415th person in space, he was, at 60 years of age, the first paying customer.

Hardly a cheap ticket, but Tito spent days in actual orbit, 300 kilometers up, on the International Space Station. Branson’s rocket planes will reach 100 kilometers – the official if somewhat arbitrary boundary of space – and fall back to earth without getting anywhere near earth orbit. (This is what the X-15 rocket planes of the ‘60s managed to achieve before they were abandoned in favour of the moon program’s heavy multi-stage booster rockets and the space shuttle. Still, you do get the zero-G experience, and the view’s pretty good from 100 kilometers…)

The view was also pretty good for another bunch of wealthy thrill seekers on May 6, 1937, as they approached Lakehurst, New Jersey, aboard what was then considered the grooviest, hippest travel experience on earth. Thirty-five seconds after an orange glow was spotted near the tail section, the Hindenburg, and the age of the airship, lay in a twisted pile of flaming wreckage, only two hundred metres from the landing mast.

It’s hard to imagine that the consequences of a fatal accident on a Virgin Galactic jaunt would be much different. Unlike commercial aviation, space joy rides have no utility, and thus a very low level of acceptable risk.

And just because they’re the ones taking the risk, does that make it OK for wealthy adventurers to blast themselves holus-bolus into the ionosphere? Ferris wheels that collapse aren’t acceptable. What’s the difference, apart from the scale of the ride? Part of the problem is that when space shots fail, they can fail spectacularly, and come down just about anywhere.

The nub of the problem was simply expressed by Senator Bart Gordon of the US Senate’s Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee in July last year. Industry representatives had appeared before the Committee to insist that the US Government indemnify the industry against such disasters. ‘Commercial human space flight may be an idea whose time is about to come,’ said Gordon.

‘However, if it is to succeed, industry and government need to enter into a serious dialogue on the issues of appropriate safety standards and the extent to which it is appropriate for the Government to indemnify the companies against the consequences of launch accidents.’
In other words, ‘We’re none to sure about all this - leave it with us for a while.’

One-time exo-tourist Dennis Tito suggested to the committee that once there had been several sub-orbital launches, that would be sufficient to establish a ‘record of safety’. The committee was dubious about this.

Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace is a possible Virgin Galactic competitor, as are a few of the twenty-odd teams who originally registered as X-Prize competitors and are still working on their launch systems. Greason unintentionally revealed the cavalier nature of the industry’s approach to safety when he breezily reassured the senators that ‘it’s safe enough when customers start showing up’.

Branson’s web site is unclear as to the insurance arrangements for Virgin Galactic, though it appears at this stage that he’s hoping to get away with a simple passenger waiver of all rights against Virgin in case of mayhem. Whether such a document would stand up in court, against the well-advised relatives of very rich victims, is another thing entirely.

The Canadian da Vinci team, who had hoped to snare the X-prize with their Wild Fire rocket, came up against this very problem – as well as a few technical hitches – last month when their Government baulked at indemnifying them against launch accidents. It’s not just the passengers and crew, either. They can take their chances, but ploughing a crippled spaceship into a crowded shopping mall is a different thing entirely.

Nonetheless, there is a sense of inevitably about all of this. Spaceship One has proved that it can be done, and when it comes to new technology, nine times out of ten that means it will be done, in one form or another. And if the International Space Station manages to justify its multi-billion dollar price tag on the waffly argument that we must ‘maintain a human presence in space’ (as George W. Bush puts it), taxpayers will probably be happy to see the work contracted out to private operators if they can do it at a fraction of the cost.
In the hope of long-term budget relief, NASA will next year announce its own version of the X-prize, the Centennial Challenges, which will make awards of up to $20 million for private companies who first achieve feats like robotic moon landings and asteroid sample-return missions.

The Centennial Challenge program manager Brant Sponberg said recently that the agency would have to get approval from Congress first.
‘We can only make awards of up to $250,000 at the moment. Starting next year we hope to have legislative authority to award purses above this level.’

There are politicians in the United States who want NASA to make big money available for private projects. One senator on the Science, Technology and Space Committee, Republican Sam Brownback, is proposing that NASA award $200 million for the first private manned orbiting mission – a lot more than the $10 million X Prize for sub-orbital flights, and a good indication of the work private launch operators have to do before they break into the big time.

But whatever the financial incentives, and no matter how careful the players and strict the rules, inevitably, over time, there will be accidents. It’s just a matter of whether they are bad enough to stop one or two spacecraft, or bad enough to kill an industry.

Engineers and legislators received a salutary reminder of this on October 15 this year. The Chinese had announced that an unmanned test shot of the FSW-20 ‘recoverable satellite’ had ended successfully. By this they meant that the capsule had been retrieved. They didn’t - at first - admit that it had crashed into a four storey apartment building in the town of Daying, miraculously without loss of life, as all the residents were off shopping at the local market.

No real harm done to the Chinese space program, either. But Richard Branson, and those who come after him, won’t be running the Chinese space program.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:12 AM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: June 05, AU Edition

sonyericsson.jpgCALL BAITING
Mobile phone phishers will always have Paris, writes Chris Cobb. Will they have you too?

Paris Hilton may have unwittingly provided us a glimpse of a new technology menace when telephone numbers from her personal address book appeared on the Internet in February, after her mobile phone was apparently hacked.

It appears as though she may have company in the not-too-distant future, Internet security experts say.

The proliferation of ‘smart’ phones, which are mobile phones with the brains of a personal computer, means users increasingly will confront the same risks as desktop and laptop Web surfers and e-mailers – including spam, worms, viruses and phishing.

Phishing, an e-mail ploy to trick computer users into revealing personal data such as credit-card numbers and passwords, has grown dramatically in the past year to become the scourge of the wired world.

The number of phishing messages jumped dramatically in the second half of last year – 300 percent to 1,000 percent by various counts – and the total continues to grow, says Alfred Huger, senior director of engineering for Symantec Security Response, a Cupertino, Calif., maker of anti-virus software and other security products.

The cost of phishing scams to consumers and corporations – estimated by one expert at several billion dollars – is hard to determine precisely because financial institutions are reluctant to provide such sensitive data, but phishing is on the increase and becoming more sophisticated.

‘The low-hanging fruit has been swept up’, Huger says, ‘but people are having success at it. More people are coming into the game.’
Phishing hasn’t shown itself to be a serious threat yet on mobile phones, but it may be just a matter of time.

‘As more financial applications, like shopping and banking, become accessible on mobile phones, they will be targeted by hackers,‘ says Stephen Cobb, a St. Augustine, Fla., information-security expert and author.

Along with the threat of phishing, mobile phone users likely will have to deal with worms and viruses, which could steal private information, delete files or worse, experts said.

‘It hasn’t happened yet, but when it hits it, it could hit spectacularly’, says Richard Ford, a research professor at the Center for Information Assurance at Florida Institute of Technology.

‘One nasty cell-phone virus could bring down an entire network.’

One bright spot is the diversity of operating systems in the smart-phone arena. Unlike the PC world, where Microsoft Windows is the dominant OS, the mobile sector is home to several distinct OS.

‘That makes it more challenging for hackers’, says Philip Marshall, an analyst for the Yankee Group, a tech research firm. ‘They can’t attack as many systems with a single virus. They have to modify the virus for different phones.’

Wireless-industry officials said steps are being taken to try to head off such problems.

‘We’ve learned from all the worm and virus attacks on PCs, and we’re aware of what can happen,’ said Eric McGee, spokeswoman for Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group.

‘The problem will get worse before it gets better’, says Stephen Cobb.

‘The consumer has been sold the Web as a wonderful place to bank, shop and meet with friends, but without appropriate disclaimers as to the dangers.’

‘Phishers exist off the gullibility of the average user.’


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

Money, June 05, AU Edition

june05moneyart.jpgGOAL SCORING
Playing the market is still a good move – if you have your priorities in order

You would be forgiven for thinking that we are in the middle of a depression if you read the headlines on the newsstands: to hear the papers tell it, the share market is crashing and we all should be hording gold under our beds. Being a glass half-full sort of person, I wanted to investigate this a bit further and see if things are as bad as others are making out. Could the media possibly be talking the market down further? Perish the thought!

Over half of all adult Australians own shares either directly or indirectly through managed funds. This is a staggering figure when you think about it: more Australians own shares than don’t. It is not a secret club anymore and that means that share ownership now seems much more safe and secure given the wide spread of equity within Australian families. More importantly, Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) research reveals that most small investors remain loyal to the shares that they own. So, in racing parlance, it seems that shares, in general, are a safe bet. The question remains, of course, as to how exactly to place one’s bets. I’m no Clarence the Clocker but let’s look at the share market race.

WHERE TO FIRST?
The first step you need to take to take before you even open the finance pages of your newspaper is to be SMART. Get a paper and pen…go on, do it now while you are reading this. Now write down your own personal vision, mission, and goals. I am not trying to sound like some sort of American motivational speaker, but all successful people in all walks of life will tell you they write down their goals – and no, keeping them in you head does not count. So let’s remind ourselves about what I am talking about:

Vision: This is a written statement of your fundamental aspirations, and purpose. Your vision usually appeals to your heart and not just your mind. This is your dream of where, and what, you want to be.

Mission: Your current purpose or reason for existing. Your raison d’etre, so to speak.

Goals: What you are committed to achieving? Your goals should enable the achievement of your mission and vision. More importantly, your goals must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-constrained (SMART). If your goals are not SMART then they are not goals.

Your written goals will set a framework and give you direction on how to approach your investment decisions. Do you want long term capital growth? How long term is long term? Do you want regular cash flow? Do you want positive or negative gearing? Do you want to be a million dollars richer in three, five or ten years? Remember, goals should be realistic. How speculative do you want to be? Do you want security or to live on the edge? Do you want to access cash in an emergency?

These are only some of the questions you need to answer in order to write down your SMART goals. Now if you think this is all a bit silly, remember: the common link between all successful and professional investors is that they write down their goals. It also requires you to better understand yourself and what your priorities are at the moment. If you already have a vision, mission, and goals written down, remember, it doesn’t stop there. They need to be reviewed and rewritten at least every twelve months.

GOING DOWN?
The share market at the moment is going through a ‘correction’, which is marketese for ‘it went too far in one direction and now it’s coming back a bit’. This is what I call the Pendulum Principle. Another definition of a ‘correction’ is ‘losing money quickly’. Always remember that you do not lose any money at all until you actually sell your shares. Until you sell, it is all just lines on paper.

So if we look at the current state of the All Ordinaries it is fair to say that we are on a downward tend – i.e., we are in a bear market.
So does that mean that times are grim and we head to the door screaming out ‘sell, sell, sell’? Well no, not really. In reality it means that there are bargains to be bought if you are careful and thoughtful in your selection of shares. Indeed, many people have made their fortunes as a result of their buying during a bear run.

Let’s look at things on a wider perspective: if you look at the All Ords going back to 1980 you will see that there have been many corrections, but also that the general trend is upward. Furthermore, after every downward spiral there has been a subsequent upward trend.

The trick with all of this is the selection of shares that you buy, and this is where I must cut out of this particular dance. There are many methods and many ‘experts’ that can advise on selection of specific shares. My own approach is methodical, mathematical, and painfully drawn out, but it has served me well. I will spend weeks or even months researching specific shares before I part with my hard-earned. In my opinion, the only way to select and build a share portfolio is to understand and look at all the performance indices and build a mixed portfolio that represents all sectors.

The one method that I can actively discourage is the ‘My uncle/friend/boss/milkman/second cousin twice-removed knows of a sure thing’.

As with horse racing, there is no such thing as a sure thing in the stock market. And like horse racing, for every hundred tips from people in the know only one usually comes good. Finally, like horse racing, you only hear about people’s winners and never their losses. The sharemarket is partly a gamble but that should not be the main driver in your decision process. The real secret is hard work and research.

My approach to the current climate is, first, don’t panic. And definitely don’t sell shares that you already own, unless there is a good reason to do so. My own opinion is that the harbingers of doom that declare the dream run is over and warn that we must prepare for a bumpy crash are looking exceptionally short term and have not fully evaluated the opportunities.

More importantly, treat a bear market as an opportunity. Do what the big boys do: look for bargains and analyse scientifically. John Mars (owner of the Mars Corporation, which claims to be the largest privately-owned company in the world) once said to me over dinner, ‘Son, if you want to be rich don’t do what everyone else does. When they buy, you sell. When they sell, you buy. And don’t waiver.’

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO...?
A bit of an update. For those that read my column in the April edition on the latest tricks used by credit card providers to turn your plastic into their gold: I gave a real life example of a Mr J who had been corresponding with the National Australia Bank to try and get some answers to some very reasonable questions about a problem with a credit card transaction. At time of writing he had exchanged twelve emails since last January, at a rate of about one a week. Most said that his questions were being escalated to the next level. The last email he received stated, ‘I have no details as to what your enquiry is about. Should you have any further queries do not hesitate to contact us’. Looks like he was escalated right out of the bank.

We will keep following the plight of Mr J because he himself is not going to let bureaucratic chicanery stop him from getting basic customer service. Watch this space. But have you had similar experiences to Mr J? Have you got so fed up with the run-around from your bank that you just gave up? Mr J’s experience with bureaucracies going into their corporate shell was with the National Australia Bank. What institutions have you dealt with that sacrificed basic customer service in favour of an attitude that says, ‘Work would be fulfilling if it weren’t for the customers’? If you do have any experiences that you would like to discuss, aired publicly, or investigated a bit more, send me a letter with your story. Address it to: Peter Higgins, Money Editor, Investigate Magazine. PO Box 602 Bondi Junction NSW 1355, or e-mail australia@investigatemagazine.com.

Remember, you have nothing to lose except your Terms and Conditions Manuals.

See you around the traps.

ALL ORDINARIES (ALL ORDS)
The index is made up of the weighted share prices of about 500 of the largest Australian companies. Established by ASX at 500 points in January 1980, it is the predominant measure of the overall performance of the Australian sharemarket. The companies are weighted according to their size in terms of market capitalisation – i.e., the total market value of a company’s shares. The All Ords, therefore, is a good measure of how capital growth of the overall market is performing.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:50 AM | Comments (0)

June 05, AU Edition

hibbert2.jpgShe lost a brother to suicide, and a dad to cancer. Tragedy almost knocked her off her game, writes DAN DONAHOO, but for Australian female basketballer Katrina Hibbert, nothing will stand in the way of her

HOOP DREAMS

Diamond Creek is the outer northern suburb of Melbourne where Katrina Hibbert grew up. Back then it was still considered ‘the bush’; there wasn’t a McDonald’s for miles and everyone had a paddock to play in. Life in Diamond Creek was about primary school, sport and the annual town fair – full of first kisses and fairy floss. Katrina’s folks owned the local milk bar and she remembers walking the streets with all her friends when parents worried less about things like that.

It was an idyllic childhood, but everyone grows up and things change. Diamond Creek isn’t a semi-rural backwater anymore. Now, Katrina Hibbert is probably the best Australian female basketballer never to play for her country.

Katrina loves sport. As a kid she didn’t care who was playing or what game it was. She was there – centre court. She still is.

I remember her in the long red sleeves of our footy jumpers. She’d play full forward or forward pocket changing first ruck. She was our secret weapon. The other teams never saw her coming; she was the best player on our primary school team.

All of Katrina’s sporting life she has been under-estimated. But not for much longer.

This year, Katrina was named the Australian Women’s National Basketball League Most Valuable Player.
‘Maybe nobody looked outside the borders’, she says in reference to being completely ignored by national selectors until a couple of months ago.

There was no invitation to the Australian Institute of Sport. So, Katrina went abroad and had a great American College basketball career at Louisiana State. She scored the first two points for American WNBA team Seattle Storm where she was in the starting five.
After one season in the US, life called a few fouls and Katrina didn’t go back to the US.

Small town gossip travels long distances, and even though we’ve both moved far from home, she knows I know about the tragedy in her life. But I don’t ask straight away. Instead we talk about who is married and how the February rain in Melbourne flooded the Diamond Creek. Katrina informs me that ‘the footy ground became
a lake’.

We are in a café near the townhouse that Katrina shares with a team-mate. It is modest and daggy. Katrina digs into a high protein breakfast. I order a coffee.

She is tanned, fit and beautiful, no longer the tomboy who was always picked first for sports teams.

‘Yeah tomboy, I guess so because I love sport.’ She agrees. ‘But I kicked all you guys in the butt at football.’

She is right. She could command the forward line like Wayne Carey or James Hird.

‘My biggest concern was that I didn’t have earrings and I had short hair in a bowl cut. I always feared being mistaken for a boy and that has probably traumatised me my whole life – hence the long hair.’ She wraps her hands around her ponytail.

Katrina recalls the transition from primary school to high school was hard.

She was so good at sport suddenly a lot of boys felt threatened.
‘I got hassled a lot. There was one guy who called me “Balls” because I beat him all the time. And because you are young it is quite hurtful.’

She looks up to the roof and recalls that her brother Adam ‘took care of him’.

I confess that I don’t know that much about Australian women’s basketball. Katrina laughs and says that I’m not alone. She is acutely aware of the lack of attention women’s basketball receives compared to the men’s.

I did watch a game once, on the ABC; I’d heard her name mentioned and wanted to see her play. Familiarity usually draws out the Australian predisposition to sport. It is like the way country towns with a population of less than one hundred claim gold medallists. They put up signs at the town entrance: ‘The birth place of Jo Bloggs – 1972 gold medallist in the Men’s Freestyle Relay’.

Diamond Creek could put up a sign for Katrina. ‘The birthplace of Katrina Hibbert. Scored the first two points for the Seattle Storm.’
Diamond Creek adores its sporting heroes, Katrina included: ‘Everyone comes to the game every now and again’. Katrina says. ‘People who you wouldn’t think to see at one of your basketball games come to support.’

Support is something Katrina and her family are familiar with. It is something they’ve needed a lot of.
I grit my teeth and ask about how it felt when her brother Adam committed suicide.

hibbert1.JPGKatrina’s eyes water, but she insists it is OK. She says she can talk about it now without falling apart. I feel like I should reach out and offer my hand – just to make sure.

‘A complete shock. And because it is suicide you don’t stop thinking. You think back to his behaviour and what you’ve done and what you have said. I don’t remember much of that period of my life. Not long after that dad went into hospital – he was in and out of hospital.’

In the space of a few years Katrina lost her brother, and then her father, to cancer. Events that would cause many to throw their basketball career.

Female basketballers barely get paid in Australia and the struggle of coping emotionally while playing overseas would test anyone. Katrina actually lives off what she earns in the US and Eurpoe.

Despite the aching, the hours visiting her dad in hospital and allowing the grief to flow through her and the family, basketball was her lifeline.

‘It took my mind off it’, she says.

As the conversation shifts slightly away from the topic, the room loses some of its tension.

‘My best friend asked me this, and I don‘t know if you should write it, but I told her that when I was drunk or when I was exercising was the only time I wasn’t thinking about it. So basically she’d be taking me to the court or the pub a lot during that time.’

Amid it all Katrina says she has learnt great things from her mother, who she respects and adores. ‘My mum is a damn strong women. There were no excuses or feeling sorry. It was like life goes on. Somehow you have to keep going.’

Katrina has grown in strength during those years when just surviving was the ultimate priority.

‘You learn a lot about yourself during that time of your life and I was a bit insecure about myself and I learnt to not give a shit about what people thought.’

Since she has stopped caring about other peoples’ opinions, people have started to sit up and take notice, but it isn’t like Katrina isn’t part of the basketball pack.

‘You all grow up playing against or with each other so you are all good friends. Then, when you play overseas and there are only a couple of Australians.’

Stuck for company in foreign countries helps bind many of our international sports stars. Katrina is especially close to on-court rival and Australian women’s basketball superstar Lauren Jackson.

‘It is a weird connection. Her mum played at Louisiana State 20 years before I got there. She was like the first Australian to go over and play college and do all that.

Lauren ended up playing at Seattle and we hung out together. When Adam died, she came back to Australia and really helped me through that time. It is hard to maintain relationships, but when we are in the same country we catch up and hang out.’

The season just gone would have to be Katrina’s best. The Most Valuable Player Award, a call up to the Australia squad and an offer to go and play in the US again – where a female basketballer can make some money. Still, Katrina isn’t completely satisfied. She was gutted when her team, the Bulleen Boomers, missed out on playing in the grand final.

‘We had a wake at Cheryl’s (Bulleen’s coach) on the Sunday after our semi-final. Everyone was just sitting there in disbelief. I went blonde on Monday.’

Some women get dumped by their boyfriends and change their hair colour. Katrina misses the grand final and changed hers, ‘so I couldn’t be recognised.’

Katrina reflects that you are never far from criticism. ‘Everyone keeps saying, “Congratulations on your MVP, but what happened in the second half of the semi?”’

It is obvious, by the way she laughs about it, that it doesn’t really matter what happened in the second half. What matters is what happens outside basketball and how you deal with it.

She is a strong and confident sportswoman. One Australians should keep on eye on when the next Olympics roll around.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 01:14 AM | Comments (0)

June 05, AU Edition

birdflu4.jpg

Bird flu: It’s on the rise in Asia, and experts agree it’s only a matter of time before it – or another killer flu – shows up in Australia. How ready are we? Is any preparation enough? As SHAUN DAVIES discovered, the world is overdue for a flu pandemic, and even the best preparations could leave Australians

FULLY SICK

For post-war generations unused to death on a global scale, it’s not easy to comprehend the enormity of a disaster like the Spanish Flu. The worst health disaster since the Black Plague, in 1918 and 1919 it killed an estimated 40 million worldwide – more than twice as many people as died in World War One – and infected around twenty per cent of the global population. Originating in the US, the virus spread to every corner of the globe. In India alone it killed seventeen million, while in Fiji fourteen per cent of the population was wiped out in two weeks. Australia got off comparatively lightly with 12,000 deaths, but there were still massive disruptions to everyday life. Authorities closed cinemas, schools, public transport and churches.

One town in the US even banned its citizens from shaking hands.
The Spanish Flu was not the only influenza pandemic of the twentieth century. The Asian Flu of 1957, which started in China and spread to every continent, killed at least one million worldwide. Just 11 years later, in 1968, the Hong Kong flu caused a relatively mild pandemic that killed 750,000 people.

In fact, for at least the past 200 years we’ve averaged an influenza pandemic once every 20 to 30 years. Seeing as it’s more than 40 years since the Hong Kong Flu, experts are worried that the world is overdue. The World Health Organisation’s regional director for the South Pacific, Dr Shigeru Omi, warned this year that ‘the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic’.

The reason for all this alarm is a deadly strain of avian influenza called H5N1. This is the virus that has devastated Asia’s poultry industries. More than 140 million birds have died or been destroyed and the combined losses to GDP in affected nations is estimated at between US$10 billion to US$15 billion so far.

But H5N1 also has a nastily efficient knack of killing humans, and that’s what’s got authorities in a spin. Through unsanitary wet markets, undercooked food and other means, the virus is known to have made the leap from bird to human 89 times since January 2004. In 52 of these cases the infection was fatal – a kill rate of 58 per cent.

At present, H5N1 can’t jump from human to human. But in a process called ‘antigenic shift’, it can exchange genetic information with other influenza viruses, forming completely new strains. If H5N1 came into contact with another virus in a human host it could potentially gain the ability to move easily from one person to another. And if that happens, a new pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Flu could be imminent.

Dr Ian Gust is the chairman of the WHO Influenza Collaborating Centre in Melbourne. He would play a vital role in co-ordinating the global response to a pandemic, tracking the progress of the virus, advising the director-general of the WHO and providing governments around the world with up-to-date information.

‘The reason many people are concerned about the current situation is that something very unusual has happened in the bird population,’ he says. ‘We’ve seen almost simultaneously in Asia major outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, killing initially thousands, then millions and now probably tens of millions of birds. It’s become endemic, certainly in ducks, in much of Southeast Asia.’

H5N1 is asymptomatic in ducks - and Professor Gust says this is a big problem. Because people can’t tell which birds are infected and which are healthy, the risk of a viral leap is greatly increased. The more times H5N1 crosses to a human host, the more likely it is to swap proteins with an ordinary influenza virus.

If the virus did gain the ability to jump from human to human, modern transportation would spread it around the world far more quickly than in 1918. ‘Then it essentially went at the speed of individuals, horses, trains and ships. Now infected individuals are likely to be moved around the world quickly by aeroplane ... so one would guess that the spread is likely to be quite brisk.’

But just how likely is this much-feared mutation or recombination in H5N1? Are we a hair’s breadth away from disaster? Or are the scenarios being played out in the media exaggerated?

‘The answer is we don’t know, other than that the probability is low,’ Dr Gust says. ‘Over the last 15 months you’ve had tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of people living closely beside infected birds, which you would think gives a significantly increased risk of this rare event occurring... This tells you that it is a low-risk phenomenon.’

Even if a worst-case outbreak of avian flu is statistically unlikely, Australian authorities are on high alert. Australia’s Health Minister Tony Abbott recently said that an H5N1 pandemic could be a ‘worldwide biological version of the Indian Ocean tsunami’, and the Federal Government has dedicated $133.6 million over five years to preparing for a pandemic.

birdflu3.jpgOver the past year, Australia has amassed the single largest stockpile of antiviral drugs in the world. These ‘neuraminidase- inhibitors’ prevent infection in healthy people and cure infected people if administered during the onset of symptoms. They’d be our frontline defence in the event of an outbreak, administered to essential service workers and groups deemed most at risk from the virus.

The government has also entered into contract with pharmaceutical companies CSL and Sanofi Pasteur to supply 50 million doses of any pandemic flu vaccine that became available – enough to protect every Australian citizen. However, it would take up to six months for a vaccine to be produced and distributed in large numbers, and some experts say that by that stage the virus will have already worked its way through the population.

The director of the communicable diseases branch of NSW Health, Jeremy McAnulty, would help co-ordinating the health response to an influenza pandemic in NSW.

He says that the states have been hard at work creating influenza pandemic action plans that complement the national approach.
‘Early on what you’d do is try to identify each case individually, rapidly if possible, and isolate them and then identify their contacts to try and prevent further spreads’, he says. ‘We’d be looking out for cases as they came into the country, you’d be sending out communications to all doctors, and we’d put people in isolation and we’d have certain powers that allow people to be held for certain diseases.’

There would also be attempts to trace the networks of people the infected individual had been in contact with. Double-checks to ensure correct diagnosis would be mandatory, and infected people would be interviewed and counselled. But the strategy would change if the situation became worse.

As numbers increase further you use other strategies such as looking after people at home and community caring for people. At some stage, depending on the numbers involved, it would involve cancelling routine operations in hospitals.

There could also be closures of football stadiums, cinemas and schools, as well as cancellations of public events. The states would be required to keep essential services running as absenteeism shot through the roof. Hospitals would be overloaded and community centres converted into isolation wards.

‘If it does happen it will be something that our country will not forget in a hurry’, Tony Abbott said at a recent press conference. But he also claimed that Australia is ‘better prepared than probably any other country in the world.’

Professor Peter Curson, director of the Health Studies program at Macquarie University, does not share Mr Abbott’s confidence. He has just completed a paper for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which sharply criticises the government’s pandemic action plan on numerous points.

‘There is no comment anywhere [in the action plan] about how they’d handle fear, panic or public reaction’, Professor Curson says. ‘I’ve spent 25 years looking at public reaction and human behaviour in previous epidemics in Australia and there’s no doubt that people have an underlying fear of contagion, of infection, particularly when there’s no specific cure or specific treatment.’

‘Official measures put in place like increased surveillance, quarantine, limited supplies of antivirals, masks, restricted travel and so on will heighten public fear and panic, and that’s not mentioning the role of the media of course, who undoubtedly would play a major role.’

The government has a basic duty to protect Australians from outbreaks of disease, says Professor Curson, pointing out that in the event of a major pandemic there would be nowhere near enough antivirals to protect all Australian citizens. It would be six months before a vaccine became available – leaving a huge proportion of the population unprotected.

‘The priority plan says antivirals will be delivered to high risk groups, and by that they mean the old, the young and the people suffering from chronic illness’, he says. ‘But if you take out the one million health-cum-service workers, there are about two million people aged over 65, there are one million kids aged under two or three, well that won’t leave anything.’

But a spokeswoman for Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor John Horvath, rejects Professor Curson’s criticisms. She says a revised action plan, which will soon be released by the Federal Government, does contain provisions for the handling of public fear and the other matters that Curson raises.

The Health Department also points out that there are limits on the global production of antivirals, which means the government can’t provide protection for every Australian, even if it wants to. ‘With current technology and manufacturing processes, obtaining enough antivirals to protect 20 million people for six months would be almost impossible at any price’, Tony Abbott said at an infectious diseases conference in May.

There’s another ethical issue at stake in the bird flu debate - what level of support should Australia provide to its neighbours in the event of a pandemic? On one hand we have the world’s largest stockpile of antivirals; on the other there’s not enough to go around. Would we be generous to our neighbours, as we were during the Indian Ocean tsunami? Or do we only give when we have nothing to lose?

‘Should a pandemic occur next year or this year, only those countries that have got either a national manufacturer or have a guaranteed supply agreement with one of the existing manufacturers would be able to access vaccine’, says Dr Gust from the WHO. ‘For most countries in the world, vaccines and antivirals are only something they can dream of and they’d have to rely on conventional public health measures.’

birdflu1.jpgThe WHO will soon broker a meeting where countries with large stockpiles of antivirals (including Australia, Japan, the US and the UK) will be asked to make their drugs available to stamp out a small outbreak of a novel virus in small village in Cambodia, for instance.
‘My hope is that (these countries would) make a tremendous effort to put out that spot fire, to prevent it becoming a bush fire that spreads widely, so there would be a major attempt to quench the infection using international stockpiles’, Professor Gust says.

‘Clearly Australia is a key participant in that discussion and has an opportunity to take a lead in that area. I can’t foreshadow what the government’s view would be, but I hope they would be generous.’
Whether H5N1 is the culprit in the next global outbreak of influenza remains to be seen. But experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before the world faces a new pandemic. If the outbreak is severe enough, no amount of preparation would be enough to prevent a disaster - and that’s a frightening thought.

SARS killed just 770 people. But it did an estimated $15 billion worth of damage to the economies of Southeast Asia. In a worst-case scenario, H5N1 would cause tens of millions of deaths. What damage would that do to the global economy? Could we ever be ready for the devastating effects of a pandemic?

‘We’ll never be able to sit back and say, “Well, we’ve done it now, let’s bring it on”,’ says NSW Health’s Jeremy McAnulty. ‘Unfortunately it will never go away and our preparation will always be there, and if a pandemic hits then we’ll have to start preparing for the next one. It’s an ongoing process.’

But Professor Gust from the WHO believes that it’s too early to start panicking. He says that to have a doomsday scenario, the virus ‘has to escape and retain its existing virulence’ – a fairly unlikely prospect.

‘In North Vietnam the virus has already become less pathogenic for birds and less pathogenic for humans,’ he says. ‘A mutation or a recombination that enabled the virus to spread could equally, easily, result in a virus which spread rapidly but had relatively low pathogenicity.’

‘The scenarios that you keep seeing painted in the newspaper are absolutely worst case scenarios. And as we know from history, the most probable scenario is rarely the worst case scenario.’


While the world waits for the next flu crisis, JENI PAYNE meets an Australian on the frontlines of another age-old epidemic

On a visit to the US to see her host families and life-long friends she made as a high school exchange student, Jenny heard about the massive worldwide scheme known as PolioPlus. ‘Then when I became a member back in Australia, I decided that’s what I wanted to get involved in.’

India gave Jenny her first taste of work as a volunteer and she returned three times to help immunize its population. Then followed holidays spent working with communities in Ethiopia, Botswana and this year, Pakistan.

‘Two drops on the tongue is all it takes. A child can be protected against polio for as little as sixty cents worth of vaccine.’
In 1985, Rotary International launched the PolioPlus program to protect children worldwide from the cruel and fatal consequences of polio. Since that time, Rotary’s efforts and those of partner agencies, including the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and governments around the world, have achieved a 99% reduction in the number of polio cases worldwide.

From the launch of the global initiative in 1988, to the eradication target of 2005, Rotary’s Centenary Year, five million people, mainly in the developing world, who would otherwise have been paralyzed, will be walking because they have been immunized against polio. More than 500,000 cases of polio are now prevented each year.

But complacency is the enemy. According to the UN, the number of polio cases has been reduced from an estimated 350,000 cases in 1988 to just under 700 reported cases at the end of in 2003 – a greater than 99% reduction. At the same time, Indonesia has just suffered its first polio outbreak in ten years, and UN officials suggest that worldwide eradication this year may in fact not be possible.

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. It spreads rapidly by unsafe water and hand-to-mouth contact, especially in overcrowded conditions where sanitation is poor and faecal contamination prevalent. Houseflies also contribute, by transferring virus from faeces to food. Toddlers not yet toilet-trained transmit polio readily even in hygienic environments. Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs.

One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Among those paralysed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

The tragedy is, polio mainly affects children under five years of age and there is no cure, it can only be prevented. Polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life.

‘Polio is generally caused by poor sanitation, so kids in underdeveloped countries are most as risk’, says Horton, adding that currently, the coalition against polio is facing a crucial time in the program.

In 2004, there was a cessation in the immunization program in Nigeria, due to political circumstances. It led to a blow-out in numbers locally and threatened to spread to neighbouring Sudan.

‘Polio is passed on so easily. Only 1% will catch it, but the rest are carriers.’

It was this exposure to the poignant plight of third world children that inspired Jenny to save all year for working holidays as part of Polio Plus. ‘It’s lucky I have a supportive boss! I never want to see children suffering. In India I saw children with flaccid legs.

Sometimes it’s too much. It’s an awesome, terrible reminder of the disease. No child deserves to live like that. If we can do something to help, why wouldn’t we?’

As part of a so-called ‘STOP team’, consisting of 36 people from 22 countries, including medical professionals and Rotary volunteers, Jenny makes a difference in countries that are desperately in need, most recently Pakistan.

‘Pakistan has never broken transmission. There were 103 cases in 2003 and now there are 46. There’s a new government now and it’s supporting the initiative, working very hard with immunisation campaigns every six weeks.’

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:54 AM | Comments (0)

June 05, AU Edition

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In America, it’s ‘no glove, no love’. Across the Tasman, the rule is, ‘no rubba, no hubba’. In parts of Australia, the message is, ‘safe sex, no regrets’. So with all the money being spent pushing the message that condoms are a cure-all, why are many sexually transmitted diseases on the rise? As JAMES MORROW finds out, the safe sex ad campaigns are only telling half the story – which begs the question,

IS SAFE SEX REALLY SAFE?

Here’s an interesting but little-known fact about condoms that may just win you a meat tray down at the pub Thursday night: the use of condoms dates back at least as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. Not only that, but archaeologists have discovered early cave paintings that seem to suggest (appropriately enough) that pre-historic Frenchmen may have discovered the things thousands of years before the New York Times ran the first-ever print ad for ‘Dr. Power’s French Preventatives’.

Looking for more condom trivia? Before the latex condom was invented, condoms were made by hand-dipping molds into rubber cement (hence the slang term). But in 1919 an inventor in Ohio by the name of Frederick Killian figured out that latex was a much better material for the purpose, and by the mid-1930s, at the height of the Depression, American manufacturers were producing 1.5 million condoms a day.

Oh, and here’s one more interesting thing about condoms: contrary to popular belief, they are not hugely effective in preventing an incredible variety of sexually transmitted diseases – from HPV, or human papilloma virus, which is linked to more than 90 per cent of cases of cervical cancer and also causes infertility, to herpes.

How can this be? Since the mid-1980s and the discovery that AIDS could be prevented by condoms, ‘French letters’, ‘rubbers’, and ‘raincoats’ have stopped being something that people whispered and tittered about and instead become deadly serious business. Around the world public health authorities, looking for a way to keep AIDS from spreading out of control, have been promoting condoms in earnest for nearly two decades now with a variety of advertising campaigns.

And at least in terms of AIDS prevention, it seems to have worked, especially in Australia: since the all-time high of 953 newly-diagnosed AIDS cases in this country in 1994, the number of new patients has been steadily trending downwards. In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, there were just 290 diagnoses of new AIDS cases. With an incidence rate of just 1.5 people stricken per 100,000 population – compared to far higher rates in many other Western countries, including the United States, where the rate is ten times higher – Australia could truly seem like the lucky country, sexual-health wise.

But all is not happy and healthy in Australia’s bedrooms. While the number of AIDS cases is admirably low, the rates of many other infections are on the rise – and while none are necessarily the death sentence that an HIV infection represents, they have potentially huge consequences, including cancer and infertility. Public health experts have seen a tremendous increase in cases of diseases like chlamydia and syphilis; in the state of Victoria, the situation is so bad that Chief Health Officer was compelled this past March to issue a formal Health Alert to general practitioners telling them to watch out for the sudden uptick in syphilis cases. That sort of warning is not an everyday occurrence: the last time the Chief Health Officer issued such a bulletin was in 2003, warning doctors to be on the lookout for SARS.

There are many factors behind the rise in various STDs, but one has gone all but unreported in a culture where, officially at least, condom use has taken on an almost sacramental nature: studies conducted over the past few years show that, far from being the be-all and end-all in sexual protection, condoms only offer limited protection.

In other words, when the emperor has no clothes on, a condom is of limited, if any, use in protecting him from a host of diseases.
Back in 2001, the United States’ National Institutes of Health published a series of findings that were shocking, both because they completely overturned long-held conventional wisdom on a very important topic, and also because they received virtually no coverage. Indeed, the Washington Post at the time reported that ‘some health officials considered keeping the report private’, adding that ‘some family planning advocates said they feared that the new report would be used to put pressure on the FDA to change condom labels to reflect the conclusions.’

As one commentator put it, ‘It’s like hearing that Grandma died and immediately asking if Grandma will be making brownies for the funeral. The reality of the loss just hasn’t sunk in yet.’

Among other things, the study found that when one partner is infected with herpes, using condoms cut the risk of transmission by only about forty percent. Meanwhile, with regard to human papilloma virus, by far the number one cause of cervical cancer, ‘the Panel concluded that there was no epidemiological evidence that condom use reduced the risk of … infection’.

And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the misuse, or irregular use, of condoms: according to just one study of high school students in NSW, 68 percent of those surveyed who said they were sexually active admitted that they didn’t use condoms every time they have sex, despite the fact that virtually every kid in the state’s schools is given lessons in how to use the things. And even among adults, condom usage can be irregular, or start too late in an encounter, to prevent the spread of many infections.

condoms3.jpg‘The term “safe sex” needs to be examined in detail’, says Dr. Caroline Harvey, Medical Director for Family Planning Queensland. ‘We give people many mixed messages depending on whether we are talking about preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections or HIV. In my dealings with clients, I’ve found that when they ask about safe sex, you need to talk to them and pull apart what they’re talking about.’

‘Viral infections like herpes and HPV do spread from skin-to-skin contact’, she adds, something that many people who come into her office are unaware of. According to Harvey, depending on what the client is looking to prevent, the options may be very different – something that doesn’t always come through in media campaigns such as NSW Health’s recent ‘Safe Sex, No Regrets’ effort.

Still, ‘condoms are useful’, maintains Anna McNulty, Director of the Sydney Sexual Heath Centre, when asked about diseases that spread despite the use of condoms. McNulty adds that the increase in the rates of infection various sexual diseases – chlamydia rates have trebled in NSW alone in the last five years according to one estimate – could come from a variety of factors, including the lack of access to health care among young people.

The problem, says McNulty, is that ‘people use them some of the time but not all of the time’, and admits that while a great way to prevent things like AIDS and unintended pregnancies, in terms of preventing herpes and the genital warts that can lead to cervical cancer, ‘they are not as effective.’

An added challenge is that fact that many diseases such as chlamydia can be asymptomatic, especially in men. ‘It can be silent for a long time, but it can cause significant damage’, says Dr. Harvey.

Despite this, many of Australia’s state governments and other public health bodies are delivering a mixed message. While, for example, South Australia’s Health Department’s web site frankly states that ‘condoms will give you some protection from most sexually transmitted infections, but some, like herpes, crabs and genital warts, can spread through skin-to-skin contact’, it is a message that often gets lost when it is boiled down to a catchy slogan – such as ‘Safe Sex, No Regrets’, the message currently being pushed in NSW Health ad campaign.

Featuring a variety of television and print ads, the ‘Safe Sex, No Regrets’ campaign shows groups of healthy, happy, good-looking young people – straight and gay and of various ethnicities – in different social circumstances. The copy on the print ads says things like, ‘Tonight I’m picking up chlamydia’ or some other disease, with the name of the disease crossed out the word ‘condoms’ printed underneath it – the implication being that condoms are all one needs to have what the tag-line calls, ‘no regrets’. In one ad specifically targeting Aboriginals, readers are told that ‘sexually transmitted infections … can affect anybody who has unsafe sex.’

condoms6.jpgWhich is absolutely true, but again fails to mention that condoms are not foolproof against disease – and that ‘no regrets’ is a pretty broad statement that implies something close to 100 per cent reliability. Yet very little is ever 100 per cent when health and medicine are involved (and in the sense that condoms are used to prevent the spread of disease, they have a medical component). If the maker of any other device with as many caveats as condoms have attached to them ever tried to advertise in a similar way, they would be shut down by the authorities sooner than the casual couples featured in NSW Health’s campaign could wake up the following morning with a splitting headache and serious misgivings.

But while the campaign does not tell the whole truth about condoms, McNulty says that ‘you have to keep the message simple, and the “Safe Sex, No Regrets” campaign did a good job as it targeted both young heterosexuals and gay men.’ She concedes, though, that even with 100% condom usage, people are not fully protected against skin-to-skin infections.

So what to do about all this? A national strategy on sexually transmitted diseases is due to be released in July, and according to McNulty, it will definitely have an emphasis on chlamydia and the sudden spike in infection rates, and will push for increases in screening. Easy tests now exist to detect the infection, and treatment is normally a simple antibiotic treatment. But the campaign will also continue to emphasize ‘safe sex’ – something which is far as it goes, but which is not a be-all and end-all solution. The problem is that sex is a much more complicated thing than people on all sides of the debate care to acknowledge, which is why diluting information about condoms to a happy, easily-digestible slogan that inspires false confidence is an irresponsible position for public health authorities to take.

Yet that is exactly what campaigns such as ‘Safe Sex, No Regrets’ does by telling young people that using a condom is as simple a way to have a good time while preventing misery down the road as, say, advising them to only drink bottled water when they’re backpacking up some gorgeous Third World coastline.

While it may not be as sexy a message, so to speak, states should instead work to tell people of all ages in the community that despite their best efforts, behaviours – especially risky ones – can have consequences. The campaign wouldn’t have to be prudish or paranoia-inducing, either, but simply give people the facts: condoms are great for certain things, but there are still risks involved with having sex with people you are not sure the history and health status of. No one would dream of running an ad implying that wearing a helmet was all one needed to stay safe when riding a motorbike; there are plenty of other factors involved that keep one safe on the road, and people are well aware of this. The same sort of truth needs to be told about condoms.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:39 AM | Comments (0)