Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Whitlam Years

In 1972, the Australian Labor Party formed government in Australia for the first time in 23 years. The government lasted just two elections and three years before being dismissed in the most controversial event in Australian political history. But the legacy of those three short years was immense. Australia was a vastly different country in 1975, although the electorate didn’t necessarily appreciate it and kept Labor out of office for another eight years.

Back in 1966, previous Labor leader Arthur Calwell had suffered his third successive election defeat (it was Labor’s seventh straight loss since 1949.) The following year, Labor turned to Edward Gough Whitlam to lead the party. Whitlam was Melbourne born and educated in Sydney where he studied law. He was admitted to the NSW bar in 1947. He was elected as a federal Labor MP in a 1952 by-election for the seat of Werriwa. He became deputy leader when Calwell became party leader. The Liberals crushed Calwell in 1966 on a pro-Vietnam war policy (PM Holt’s catch-cry was “all the way with LBJ”) forcing him to resign. Whitlam defeated his rival Jim Cairns in a party leadership ballot.

Whitlam immediately changed key Labor policies to remove the White Australia Policy and allow universal health insurance and state aid for religious schools. Whitlam brought a fresher, optimistic and socially liberal stance to the role of leader. He proved to be a natural TV performer and gifted campaigner. In his first election in 1969, he lost narrowly but gained a 17 seat swing from the government. The Liberals appointed a new leader in 1971 Billy McMahon who proved a disastrous Prime Minister. McMahon attacked Whitlam for recognising The People’s Republic of China but this strategy backfired when Nixon announced his visit to China. He proved to be a poor TV performer especially in comparison to Whitlam and with inflation rampant and the media against him it was no surprise when he lost the 1972 election.

Whitlam campaign slogan was “Its Time”. He set forth a vision of what he called the ‘New Nationalism’ a platform based on three planks: independence in world affairs, increased cultural activity and nationalism in the economic sphere. As well as Prime Minister, Whitlam appointed himself foreign minister and pronounced Australia ready to take advantage of Nixon’s Guam Doctrine and set Australia on a more independent course. The first step was to take Australian troops out of Vietnam. China, North Korea and East Germany were officially recognised. Major links with Britain were also removed. He replaced the British honours system with the Order of Australia and the national anthem was changed from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair. Appeals of law would no longer be sent to London’s Privy Council as the ultimate legal arbiter.

Whitlam was the first Prime Minister to recognise Aboriginal culture as having a prior claim on the landscape. He saw treatment of Aboriginals as a ‘stain on the national honour’ and increased funding was a key policy plank.

In the area of law, Whitlam’s attorney general Lionel Murphy enacted the Family Law Act. It overhauled Australia’s family laws and allowed for ‘no fault’ divorce despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and other conservative bodies. Whitlam appointed Murphy to the High Court in 1975 and unwittingly sowed the seeds of his own destruction. The Liberal NSW premier used his right to appoint an independent senator in place of Murphy. Having breached a precedent, the notorious Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen repeated the move when another Labour senator died in office. The balance of power was thus fatally changed in the upper house.

Prior to this, Whitlam had won a second term of office in 1974 but his double dissolution election failed to achieve his aim of an upper house majority. Economically his government was running into trouble. They were having difficulties funding some of their more ambitious electoral promises such as universal health care and the abolition of university fees. Whitlam appointed his longtime rival Jim Cairns as Treasurer in 1974. Cairns claims his appointment occurred just after the Loans Affair when Labor tried to borrow several billion petrodollars (dollars earned from oil exports) from the Middle East through an intermediary, a shady Pakistani banker named Tirath Khemlani. The deal went sour and Khemlani was never able to deliver the money. Khemlani disappeared to obscurity but not before leaving his nickname “old rice and monkey nuts” (due to fact he traded in commodities not money) as a Google Bomb gift to current Melbourne Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt.

Cairns’ role in this was not helped by a scandal which enveloped his love life in 1975. Although married, he had an affair with his Chinese born and Philippine educated secretary Junie Morosi. The fact that Morosi and Khemlani were ‘foreigners’ was used by the Opposition as they tried to turn the screws on Whitlam’s government. Their primary tactic was blocking supply. This meant that the hostile Senate would cut off supply of Treasury funds. Whitlam wanted to face down the Senate and borrow money from the banks. Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser was determined to keep the initiative and urged Governor-General Sir John Kerr to act. Kerr, although a Whitlam appointee, had developed a grudge against Whitlam due to perceived slights against him and his wife. The Chief Justice of the High Court advised Kerr that Whitlam’s loan moves may be illegal and told him it was his duty to dismiss Whitlam.

On November 11, 1975 Kerr gave Whitlam merely a moment’s notice before revoking his commission to govern. He installed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister until a federal election could be held. He then accepted Fraser’s advice to call another double dissolution election. Whitlam delivered his famous impromptu address to the in front of the steps of Parliament House where he told the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, well may we say 'God Save the Queen', because nothing will save the Governor-General."

Unfortunately for him, despite outrage over the dubious nature of the dismissal, media and public opinion had gone against him. The string of ministerial scandals, the economic effects of the 1973 Oil Crisis and heavy tariff reductions all took their toll and the December election was a landslide defeat for Labor. Whitlam lost one more election in 1977 before resigning as leader.

His government’s legacy is immense. Most of his achievements still stand: the no fault divorce, Aboriginal rights, the Trades Practices Act, removal of tariff barriers, end of military conscription, universal health care and relations with China. Despite his brief stint in the sun, Gough Whitlam deservedly remains a giant figure in the Labor movement.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Betty Friedan’s legacy

A few months ago Betty Friedan died on her 85th birthday, 4 February 2006. Friedan was one of the most important feminist activists and writers of the 20th century who changed the way the world looked at women with her most famous book “The Feminine Mystique” written in 1963. Mystique was a landmark work which stated that women were victims of an all-encompassing system of values that urged them to find their fulfilment and identity only through their husbands and children. The book debunked the myth that women were happy only in their family roles.

In 1921, the year after American women won the right to vote, Friedan was born as Bettye Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois. Friedan called her hometown “the middle of the middle of America”. Her father Harry was a jeweller. Young Bettye's family was comfortably middle-class and Jewish. Her mother Miriam worked for as a women’s pages editor for a local newspaper until her career was ended by married. Miriam suffered from various ailments unti she was forced to run the jewellery business when Harry Friedan became ill. As a result, her own health problems disappeared.

Young Bettye got involved in journalism at college. She went to Smith College, Massachusetts, the largest women’s college in the US. There she edited the college newspaper and she mixed with Marxist and Jewish radicals before graduating in 1942 with highest honours. Then she went to Berkeley for one year before leaving to work for leftist journals. She married Carl Friedan in 1947 and took on his name as well as dropping the second e from Bettye. They had three children and their marriage lasted 22 years until divorce in 1969.

While pregnant with her second son, she was sacked from her role as editor of UE News, the journal of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. When she attended a 15th year reunion of Smith college alumnae, she ran a survey of her classmates. Her article on the survey and how most of them never reached their college potential was rejected by every editor she submitted it to.

She decided to rewrite the article in the form of a book and The Feminine Mystique was born. It was published in 1963 and became an immediate bestseller. In 1966 Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was dedicated to achieving equality of opportunity for women. She led the 500,000-person Women's Strike for Equality in New York in 1970, on the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. As a result, she helped found National Women's Political Caucus (1971) which campaigned for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She wrote The Second Stage in 1981 which assessed the status of the women's movement. By the 1980s feminism had ceased being her primary focus, and she spent her last decades focused on issues of aging, families, work and public policy. The Fountain of Age (1993) covered the psychology of old age and countered the notion that aging means loss and depletion. She published her memoirs Life So Far in 2000.

Friedan was one of the first women to question Sigmund Freud’s theories in relation to femininity. In Chapter 5 of The Feminine Mystique she pointed out how hysteria was a problem of Freud’s time irrelevant to 1960s America. She dismissed ‘penis envy’ as an homme manqué theory based on Freud’s Victorian attitudes. Friedan argued that the feminine mystique itself was elevated by Freudian theory into a scientific religion which ultimately stifled women’s prospects for growth and independence.

She was controversially opposed to gay rights and disliked "equating feminism with lesbianism." In 1969 she coined the term Lavender Menace to describe the threat she believed they posed to the Women’s movement fearing stereotypical “man-hating" lesbians would give many the chance to dismiss the movement's relevance. By 1977 however, she no longer saw them as a threat and pledged her support for the lesbian rights motion at the Women's Conference held in Houston, Texas.

Friedan was known for her abrasive personality. Germaine Greer believed that Friedan had a very high opinion of herself and brooked few disagreements. Greer may be guilty of a snarling envy here but while acknowledging her breakthrough role in women’s liberation, Greer didn’t agree with her ethos: “What Betty saw as sexuality, I saw as the denial and repression of female sexuality.” Others too have taken a revisionist position on The Feminine Mystique. One anonymous thesis on the book gives it plaudits for its groundbreaking and pioneering positions before pointing out 79 statistical deficiencies around women’s status as wives and mothers in the book as well as their participation in higher education and the labour force.

Friedan’s leftwing past has also come in for some criticism. A Smith college professor Daniel Horowitz wrote a book entitled "Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique" in which he questioned her background as a typical suburban housewife. He states her descriptions of suburban life which she described as "a comfortable concentration camp" had more to do with her Marxist hatred for America than with any of her actual experience as a housewife or mother.

The organization she founded, the National Organisation for Women, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Current NOW president Kim Gandy says, "She sparked a movement that is larger and stronger than ever — made up of women who expect equality and equal opportunity for ourselves and our daughters, and the men who stand with us."

In her Washington Post obituary, she was praised by Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation: “(Friedan) was a giant in the 20th century for women and most significantly was a catalyst for change in the American culture…She defined the problem, and then she had the courage to do something about it."

Monday, May 29, 2006

Timor in crisis

Timor Leste is the official Portuguese name of the country most English speaking people know as East Timor. Timor Leste became independent in 2002 after a long history of colonisation by the Portuguese and Indonesia. Like many newly post-colonial independent nations, it is now struggling to come to terms with its own identity and is in the middle of a political and humanitarian crisis. It is a crisis whose roots are steeped in the history of the country and is in many ways an inevitable consequence of that history.

Timor-Leste is one half of the island of Timor. Timor is a variant of the Malay word ‘Timur’ which means east and gets its name from the fact it is the most easterly of a chain of islands such as Bali, Lombok and Flores collectively called the Lesser Sunda islands. All these islands and the western half of Timor itself are part of Indonesia.

The earliest people to inhabit the island were Australoid people who fanned out through the islands over 40,000 years ago on their new way to New Guinea and Australia. A second wave of Melanesians arrived 3,000 years ago on their way out to conquer the Pacific. Proto-Malays also arrived and between them a fairly advanced system of government emerged under local chieftains speaking a language called ‘tetum’. Modern Tetum (also called ‘Tetun’) was greatly influenced by Portuguese and is still the language of 85% of Timor’s modern inhabitants.

The Portuguese first arrived on the island in the 16th century and commenced trading the precious sandalwood with the local tribes. Timor had the highest quality white sandalwood in the Indies. The Dutch East India Company founded in 1602 was also heavily involved in the area. The Dutch government had given the company the right to run the business of exporting spices to Europe as an effective state from their capital Batavia (Jakarta). The Dutch took slaves from Timor to work the nutmeg and mace plantations in Banda. Portugal fought running battles with the Dutch throughout the 17th century as they sought dominance of the lucrative trade routes. After 50 years of destructive struggle they signed a treaty in The Hague to formalise the territories they both occupied. The Portuguese were forced back to Timor and took formal possession of the island with the arrival of the first governor in 1702. Portugal largely neglected the colony which allowed the Dutch to colonise the western part of Timor. A second treaty was required in 1859 to fix the new border on the divided island.

Portugal was neutral in World War II but Australian and Dutch troops invaded East Timor in December 1941 in anticipation of a Japanese landing. After protest from the Portuguese governor, the Dutch force returned across their border. The small Australian force was overwhelmed by the Japanese who landed in the capital Dili in early 1942. They retreated into the mountains and fought a guerrilla campaign known as the Battle of Timor. The Australians, aided by locals, held out for two years before being evacuated. Some 40,000 to 70,000 Timorese civilians were killed in this campaign.

After the war, the Dutch East Indies, including West Timor, won its independence from the Netherlands as Indonesia. East Timor remained Portuguese until 1975. Portugal was ruled by the fascist dictator Antonio Salazar from 1932 until 1968. He kept his country neutral in the war so that he could retain Portugal’s colonies. In the sixties, his African colonies of Angola, Mozambique and others rebelled and East Timor became forgotten about once more. After Salazar died, the regime quickly collapsed and his successor Caetano was overthrown in the bloodless ‘Carnation revolution’ of 1974. Portugal had its first free elections one year later – the same year in which most of its colonies, including East Timor, proclaimed their independence.

The party of independence was FRETELIN an acronym for Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor). Fretelin incurred the wrath of neighbouring Indonesia due to its supposed links to Communist China. Indonesia had long coveted East Timor, just as they coveted West Papua which the Dutch relinquished in 1962. With Jakarta raising the spectre of communism, the US and Australia turned a blind eye while the Indonesia military prepared to invade. In February 1975 Indonesia staged a mock invasion of East Timor in South Sumatra. In October special forces began to infiltrate secretly into East Timor to provoke clashes to provide the pretext for a full-scale invasion. These cross-border incursions included the murder of five TV journalists despite the Australian Whitlam government having advanced knowledge of the attack.

The full invasion was launched in October after Indonesia president Suharto received assurances from the White House that the US would not intervene. The territory was declared the 27th province of Indonesia in July 1976 as Timor Timur. Portugal (and the UN) never formally recognised this. The Timorese took their resistance into the hills and fought a guerrilla campaign for the next 25 years. They inflicted severe casualties on the Indonesia military who took revenge on the civilian population.

Two of the worst massacres were the 1991 Dili massacre where almost 300 people were killed when the military opened indiscriminate fire at a student funeral and the 1999 Liquica Church massacre when soldiers opened fire in a Catholic church killing 200 people who were seeking refuge. Estimates vary but somewhere between 100,000 to 250,000 people were killed out of an initial population of about 600,000 Timorese since 1975. The Dili Massacre did start to turn world opinion as the Communist ogre was now past and journalists had smuggled footage of the killing to show the world.

In 1999, the UN sponsored an agreement between Indonesia and Portugal which allowed for a referendum on independence. But before the referendum took place, pro-Indonesian militias commenced a large-scale campaign of retribution, killing, looting and destroying the countries fragile infrastructure. Australia led a UN peace keeping force INTERFET to end the violence. The referendum was passed and on 20 May 2002, East Timor, soon renamed as Timor-Leste, was internationally recognized as an independent state.

The honeymoon of nationhood is now over. Unrest started in the country in April 2006 following the riots in Dili associated with protests over the dismissal of around 600 army soldiers for desertion. The riots exposed a political divide. Factions gathered around Catholic president Gusmao and his Muslim prime minister Mari Alkatiri. The UN estimated that 75% of the capital's population fled the violence and sought refuge in surrounding mountains. The sacked soldiers who ignited the protests were predominantly from the western part of the country, and they had regularly complained about discriminatory practices in the allegedly eastern-dominated national army. The police force is similarly split. There are also tensions over the fact that Portuguese, the language of the elite, is the official language ahead of Tetum. And now the foreign armies are back to bring order to the streets of Dili.

As former government adviser, Lora Horta, says “The early days of nationhood are never easy”.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair was a fin de siecle political scandal that embroiled France for over ten years with major repercussions. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was the highest-ranking Jewish artillery officer in the French army in the 1890s. He was arrested in 1894 for passing military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. He was convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Although evidence was scanty, the military authorities fast-tracked the prosecution and trial of Dreyfus for fear of stoking up the anti-Semitic French press. Four years later, the famous writer Emil Zola exposed the affair with his open letter entitled ‘J’accuse!’ This was the touchstone for a campaign to release him. He was pardoned a year later and fully exonerated in 1906.

The affair has had longstanding and profound effect on French politics. The start of the affair can be dated back to the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Prussia had emerged from the patchwork quilt of German states to become the leading power under the guiding hand of Otto Von Bismarck. France viewed this development with apprehension and Bismarck encouraged the rift in order to gain the support of the southern German states. The Germans found a pretext over a Prussian claim to the Spanish throne. This goaded the French into declaring war which caused the southern German states to fight on the Prussian side. The Germans were led by General Moltke, a military genius. The Germans made quick progress and marched on Paris. They soundly defeated the French at Sedan. The French emperor Napoleon III was captured along with 100,000 of his men. Paris was besieged for almost a year before succumbing in near-famine. The French sued for peace at enormous cost, a $1 billion indemnity and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine.

The war’s effects included the establishment of the Third French Republic and the German Empire. Desire for revenge guided French policy for the following half-century. One of the military organisations established afterwards was the Intelligence Department whose principal occupation was to keep close eye on the German embassy. Although the German ambassador had sworn his attachés would abstain from bribing the French officers or officials, the French were aware that the new attaché in the 1890s Colonel Schwarzkoppen continued to pay spies and liaise with the German War office. The French Intelligence Office used an embassy charlady Madame Bastian to collect every scrap of paper from the waste-paper baskets and fireplace of Schwarzkoppen's office. In 1894, it was emerging that there was a traitor in the French ranks. Madame Bastian found a note with which had details of a fortress in Nice given by an informant known as “that scoundrel D”.

In the summer of that year, a more serious document arrived at the Intelligence Office. It became known as the ‘bordereau,’ the French word for memo. It torn in two from top to bottom but otherwise intact. At the time, it was believed that Mme Bastian had found this evidence. The bordereau contained a number of points related to French military activity including the working of field artillery pieces, a troop plan and the proposed conquest of Madagascar. Intelligence staff assumed it must be the work of someone who had worked in several branches of the military. They compiled a list of such officers and Colonel Alfred Dreyfus’s handwriting seemed to match that of the bordereau.

Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure captain in the French army, came from a Jewish family that had left its native Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed that province in 1871. In 1880 he attended the Fontainebleau artillery academy. He expected to do well in his college examination and win an appointment with the general staff. However, one of his markers, General Bonnefond, lowered his score under the pretext that "Jews were not desired" on the staff. Dreyfus and fellow Jewish officer Lieutenant Picard complained of their treatment to the director of the school. The director expressed his regret but did not change the outcome. The protest counted against Dreyfus and seemed to add to evidence of the bordereau that he was unpatriotic.

The case against Dreyfus was brought to the attention of deputy chief-of-staff General Mercier, a known anti-Semite. Mercier sought the advice of Prime Minister Dupuy and his cabinet who advised him to proceed to enquiry. He sought the help of an expert graphologist who advised the anonymous letter might be from a person other than the one suspected. Unhappy with this answer, he sought a second more compliant answer from a lesser Police source, who gave him the answer he was looking for. Dreyfus was ordered to appear before the minister of war. They forced him to write out the contents of the bordereau before charging him with treason.

They kept the arrest secret while they searched in vain for more evidence. The case remained based on handwriting samples on which experts disagreed. The case was finally leaked to the press. The newspaper Libre Parole announced that a Jewish officer was arrested and declared they had, "absolute proof that he had sold our secrets to Germany" and he had "made a full confession." Mercier couldn’t drop the case now. Dreyfus was already condemned in the court of public opinion. They condemned the minister of war for keeping the arrest a secret in the hope of being able to hush up the affair. The gutter press said he was in league with "the Jews". The trial took place in December 1894 and lasted four days. The handwriting was analysed and the “scoundrel D” message brought as evidence. He was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life in Devil’s Island the infamous penal colony in French Guiana, which was protected by the piranhas of the Moroni River.

Before he was imprisoned, he underwent a bizarre and humiliating ceremony where he was publicly stripped of his military honours. He cried out, "You are degrading an innocent man! Long live France! Long live the army!" as the adjutant on duty was tearing off his stripes and breaking his sword. He repeated the shouted while passing before the crowd, which was calling for his death. The assembled media called him a ‘Judas’. Germany, meanwhile, denied all knowledge of Dreyfus.

Dreyfus was taken to Devil’s Island in March 1895. While he rotted away in his tropical prison, Major Georges Picquart questioned his guilt back in France. Picquart was appointed head of Intelligence. He found that the leakage of information from the German embassy was still continuing. Suspicion fell on a Major Esterhazy who initially was thought to be a new traitor. When they found samples of Esterhazy’s handwriting, they were startled to find strong resemblances with that of the 1894 bordereau. Picquart was prevented by his embarrassed superiors from exploring the link. Picquart was then removed from his post under a pretext.

But others took up the cause. Dreyfus’s fellow Alsatian, Senator Scheurer-Kestner and his brother Matthew Dreyfus worked on the Esterhazy link. Dreyfus publicly denounced Esterhazy who was acquitted from a farce of a court-martial in which the bordereau was not examined.

The press hammered the case causing Premier Méline, to declare “there was no Dreyfus affair," and the Chamber of Deputies to denounce "the ringleaders of the odious campaign which troubled the public conscience." This did not stop the press. Esterhazy publicly declared his links to the German Schwarzkoppen but described them as purely social in character.

Finally novelist Emil Zola took up the gauntlet. He published in "L'Aurore," under the title "J'Accuse," an open letter to the president of the republic, an eloquent philippic against the enemies "of truth and justice." It created a tremendous stir. Zola was brought to trial for his defamatory phrases. The trial was sensational, Picquart turned up to aid the defence, the infamous bordereau was requested but not produced. Zola was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. But he fled to England instead.

But the reputation of several of the conspirators against Dreyfus was fatally damaged. His proof of guilty was adjudged a forgery. The forgerer Colonel Henry committed suicide. The anti-Dreyfusards fought bitterly to the end opposing re-trial attempts in the courts, the newspapers and parliament. The case was referred to an appeals court in September 1899 which ordered a new court-martial. There was worldwide indignation when the military court, unable to admit error, found Dreyfus guilty with extenuating circumstances and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. For several days the ministry hesitated as to what course to pursue. Finally he was pardoned by presidential decree.

In 1905 the Radical party, emphasizing the role of the Catholic leadership in the Dreyfus case, succeeded in passing legislation separating church and state: “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion."

A Jewish-Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl wrote on the trial and many believe his experiences here led him to conclude anti-Semitism was a stable and immutable factor in human society, which assimilation did not solve. He thus started the ball rolling with Zionism and called for introduction of the Jewish state of Israel.

Dreyfus himself returned quietly back to France. He was mobilised for the defence of Paris in WW1 and served on the frontline with distinction in 1917. When he died in 1935 aged 75 his funeral cortege passed the Place de la Concorde through the ranks of troops assembled for the Bastille Day National Holiday.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Aussie company takes over Eircom

Ireland’s largest telecommunications company is about to become Australian owned. The banking company Babcock and Brown have had a bid of €2.4 billion bid ($Aus 4.1 billion) accepted by the Eircom board. The bank already owns more than 50 per cent of Eircom in conjunction with its bidding partner, eircom's Employee Share Ownership Trust (ESOT.)

Babcock announced that Pierre Danon, a former executive of UK telecom BT, will become executive chairman if its bid is successful. He will take over from Irish media baron, Sir Tony O'Reilly.

The private company Eircom rose from the ashes of the state run Telecom Éireann when it was privatised in 1999. Like many ex-state Telco’s internationally, its network connects most homes and businesses in the country. Also as in other countries, Eircom is legally required to provide wholesale products to other operators and to switch calls onto other phone networks. Many resellers offer broadband resales of the eircom product.

The initial company was created by the Postal & Telecommunications Services Act, 1983 by the Fine Gael / Labour Party coalition government under Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald.

The Minister for Posts and Telegraphs had been responsible for Ireland's postal and telecommunications services from 1924 to 1984. This hugely bureaucratic department was one of the largest in the country. The reform of the sector and department began in 1978 with the creation of the Posts and Telegraphs Review Group. In 1979, the department was split up into the Interim Board for Posts (An Bord Poist), chaired by Feargal Quinn, and the Interim Board for Telecommunications (An Bord Telecom), chaired by Michael Smurfit. These two boards were replaced the state sponsored bodies An Post and Telecom Éireann, respectively in 1984.

In 1986 Telecom Éireann set up its first mobile phone division called Eircell. The company introduced a Minitel system into Ireland in 1992. This was an eighties French videotex online service using dumb terminals which was successful in its homeland but did not transfer well to Ireland. It died a quick death thanks to the wonderful new invention by Tim Berners-Lee, called the World Wide Web, which revolutionised the internet.

The EU instituted new laws in 1995 which forced Ireland to commence privatisation of its telecommunications network. In July 1999, the new company was listed as eircom on the Irish, London and New York stock exchanges. In May 2001, they completed the demerger of its mobile telecommunications business, selling eircell to Vodafone. In the same year, they were delisted from the stock exchange after a takeover from the Valentia consortium led by Irish media magnate, former rugby international, and ex Heinz chairman Tony O’Reilly.

Eircom relisted again on the stock market in 2004. Babcock and Brown first registered interest in October 2005 buying a 12.5% stake in the company. They gradually increased this to a majority share, Babcock itself owning 28.8 per cent with employees through ESOP own 21.6 per cent.

Babcock and Brown is a global investment company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange since 2004. It has operations in 19 offices across Australia, South East Asia, US, Europe, UAE and South Africa. According to their 2005 annual report, they made a net profit of $AUS 251 million in 2005. Their share price has outperformed the ASX Top 100 index by almost 80% in the 2005 calendar year.

Eircom re-entered the mobile market this year by taking over Meteor Mobile Communication at a cost of €420million. Meteor has 14% of the Irish mobile market.

They have big challenges ahead. According to Forfas, the technology policy and advisory board, there are framework issues to be resolved such as poor bandwidth, quality of service and slow broadband takeup (Ireland is ranked 25 out of the leading 32 countries).

Despite the current sluggishness of Telco’s worldwide, Babcock and Brown are upbeat about the takeover. Executive director Rex Comb said: "In contrast to Telstra in Australia, Eircom has an increasingly superior market position and an outlook for top line growth with its re-entry into mobile. Eircom's market position is more like that of Telecom New Zealand."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith died on April 29, aged 97. He was one of the most influential and controversial economists of the 20th century. He was a towering figure in more ways than one, standing six foot eight inches. Many of his phrases — among them "the affluent society", "conventional wisdom" and "countervailing power" — have became part of the language. He had a gift for quotable sayings and once quipped that “under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.”

Galbraith had an impressive CV. He served in the administrations of four American presidents, all Democrats - FDR, Truman, JFK and Johnson. He taught at Harvard and was president of the American Economic Association. He published almost fifty books and over a thousand articles. He was a member of the Order of Canada and received America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, twice.

Galbraith was born in the isolated town of Iona Station, in South-West Ontario. Iona’s one other dubious claim to fame is as the site of Ontario’s worst mass murder. In April this year Bandido biker Wayne Kellestine and four others killed eight fellow members in what was described as an “internal gang cleansing.’

Galbraith's Scottish father was a teacher and farmer involved in local politics. They lived in an area known as "the Scotch" and Galbraith was brought up in a strict Calvinist community. He graduated from Ontario Agricultural College with a science degree in 1931. He emigrated to California and went on more academic honours at UC Berkeley gaining his Science masters and a PhD in Economics in 1934. That same year he went to work for Harvard as a tutor.

In 1937 he took a year-long fellowship at Cambridge where he fell under the influence of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes had just published his “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” a year earlier. The book was the single most influential economic treatise of the 20th Century. It changed the way the world looked at the economy and the role of government in society. Keynes’ general theory showed how ‘aggregate demand’ (the total demand for goods and services in a certain timeframe) caused recessions and advocated interventionist government policies to mitigate their effects.

Galbraith went back to the US in 1938, where he went to work first at Princeton and then for Roosevelt’s New Deal government. He joined the Office of Price Administration in 1941 won a reputation from Roosevelt as America's "price czar” for his efforts in keeping inflation from crippling the war effort. He was successful in keeping prices down but drew a constant battery of industry complaints. "I reached the point that all price fixers reach," he said, "my enemies outnumbered my friends." He quit in 1943.

At the end of the war he carried out research that showed that America’s strategic bombing had no effect in shortening the war. He also served as editor of the prestigious Fortune (home of the Fortune 500 index) between 1943 and 1948.

Galbraith’s war experiences deeply impacted his thinking for the rest of his life. He sought to use the wartime fiscal controls (price controls and anti-inflationary measures) after the war to create a more just society. He strongly believed in central management and criticised the unacceptable gap between "private affluence and public squalor". He supported Keynes who was the driving force of the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. Delegates from 45 countries gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire to discuss proposals for the creation of new international financial institutions to stabilize exchange rates and boost international trade after the war. The Bretton Woods agreement created two international institutions: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank).

Galbraith saw the widening gap between the richest and the poorest as the key threat to economic stability, and proposed significant investment in infrastructure such as parks, transportation, education and other public amenities. These policies were widely criticized by conservatives and libertarians wary of public expenditures or increased government influence.

Galbraith wrote his groundbreaking book in 1958 “The Affluent society”. Galbraith outlined his view that to become successful, post-World War II America should make large investments in items such as highways and education using funds from general taxation. Although the thesis was not new, his attack on the myth of "consumer sovereignty" went against the prevailing views of mainstream economics and the so-called "American way of life" and earned him criticism and praise in equal measure. According to the New York Times, The Affluent Society was “one of those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values”.

JFK and Galbraith were long-term college friends. When Kennedy became president in 1960, he offered Galbraith a senior economic post. Instead Galbraith requested the role of ambassador to India. Galbraith loved India and did much to encourage trade and understanding between the two countries. He became friends with Indian president Jawaharlal Nehru who ruled from independence in 1948 until his death in 1964. Galbraith advised India on economic policy and ensured America took a pro India view in its 1962 border war with China. He kept Kennedy constantly informed with his analysis of America's role in Asia. He was an early opponent of military involvement in Vietnam. "War," Galbraith informed Kennedy, "remains the decisive human failure." This viewpoint caused him to fall out with Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson.

He continued to advise Democrat presidents in Carter and Clinton but he was increasingly seen by these administrations as a maverick. Nonetheless while his role in the Democrats was waning, his overall influence had gained a worldwide appeal. In 1977 he presented a 13 part series called The Age of Uncertainty for the BBC covering the history of economics concentrating on the problems of industrial society and how economics influences political, social and cultural decisions. The TV programme was hugely popular and cemented his reputation internationally.

In retirement, Galbraith continued to write vigorously. His astringent wit and clever phrasing meant often he could brilliantly sum up the most complex social problem. He remained always a supporter of strong government and progressive public expenditure. Most economists, including fellow liberals, did not share his views on production and consumption, and to his personal disappointment he was never regarded among the top-ranked theorists by his peers.

He remained acerbic to the end. Nearly 40 years after writing "The Affluent Society," Mr. Galbraith updated it in 1996 as "The Good Society." In it, he said his earlier concerns had only worsened: that if anything, America had become even more a "democracy of the fortunate."

Monday, May 22, 2006

SMH 175

The Sydney Morning Herald broadsheet is 175 years old in 2006. It is Australia’s oldest surviving continuous published newspaper and has published over 51,000 editions.

The SMH preaches to the Sydney “AB demographic” (the highest demographic in terms of education, income and occupation.) Politically it is a soft right voice and has supported the Liberal Party (or its historical equivalents) on nearly all of the 100 or so elections during its 175 year history. It has never supported Labor at state level and federally supported Labor just twice. It supported John Curtin during the war election. Then in 1961 the Herald recommended voting for the ALP's Arthur Calwell over longterm Liberal PM, Robert Menzies (Labor lost) while in the most recent Federal election in 2004 it remained neutral (and again Labor lost.)

The Sydney Morning Herald began its life as a weekly newspaper in 1831, the Sydney Herald. It only had four pages and a circulation of 750 copies. The paper was founded by three English gentlemen, Alfred Stephens, Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie. The paper was named for the Glasgow Herald. The lead story in the first edition was "the undermentioned prisoners of the Crown have obtained Tickets of Leave about or on this day of publication".

They were often in hot water for libellous activities. An early court case occurred in 1834 when Stephens and Stokes were hauled in front of the NSW Supreme Court for criminal libel reflecting on the character of W. B. Halden, reporter to the rival Sydney Gazette.

After ten years, the newspaper was bought out by Charles Kemp and John Fairfax from Frederick Stokes for £10,000. Their first activity was to turn it into a daily newspaper, which they did in 1840. Two years later, they changed the title to The Sydney Morning Herald. Its editorial policies were based "upon principles of candour, honesty and honour. We have no wish to mislead; no interest to gratify by unsparing abuse or indiscriminate approbation."

John Fairfax’s tactic was to cover the front page with classified advertising. That, in the words of ABC’s Gerald Tooth, was a “revenue stream (that) eventually grew to be the rivers of gold that have, until now, kept the famous masthead afloat.” John Fairfax was born in Warwick, England. He worked as printer, bookseller and stationer before emigrating to Sydney aged 34. Fairfax was a member of the Congregational church but his paper was kept free from religious bias and sectarianism. Business was his real religion. When a young member of his staff told John Fairfax that he was studying the bible, Fairfax replied "That's right, my boy, that's right! To learn what great things God has done for mankind in the past, read your Bible. And to learn what He permits to be done today, read the Herald."

In 1853 SMH became the first Australian newspaper to be printed with steam. In 1872 the news agency Reuters was starting to flex its global muscle and they entered into a contract to provide international news for the SMH. The evening edition was established in 1899. All that tradition counted for nought in 1990 when Fairfax went into receivership, ending the relationship with the family. John Fairfax's great-great grandson Warwick had squandered his inheritance in the greedy eighties and put the company into receivership. The major stake went to Canadian Conrad Black and he sold on to the New Zealand based Brierley Investments in 1996. Fairfax Holdings bought back their stake in 1998. They still own the SMH and the Melbourne Age as well as the Australian Financial Review, the Sydney Sunday Sun-Herald and a number of provincial and NZ newspapers. The SMH publishes 210,000 copies daily (March 2006) Monday to Friday and the circulation increases to 365,000 for its Saturday edition.

SMH’s impressive advertising revenues are now under threat from new digital challengers but current SMH editor Alan Oakley talks up the future of the paper in his interview with the ABC on April 20: “Initially I think print saw online as a threat; I think that's no longer the case. What we talk about now in Fairfax is an integrated approach to news, an integrated approach to how we gather that news, and an integrated approach to how we disseminate it whether that be through online or in print or through mobile technology, through podcasting.”

The Sydney Morning Herald will probably survive to see its 200th birthday but whether it will be in broadsheet form or via some sort of digital medium will be the challenge for Fairfax and Oakley.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Singapore Censorship

Samuel Huntington is an American political scientist whose most famous book is the Clash of Civilisations. This book was written in 1993 just after communism had been defeated and the West was triumphantly setting out its new world order. Francis Fukuyama had just written The End of History and the Last Man where he argued that the end of the Cold War had signified the end of the progression of human history. Huntington disagreed with Fukuyama and argued in the Clash of Civilisations that the temporary conflict between ideologies is being replaced by the ancient conflict between civilizations. The dominant civilization decides the form of human government, and these will not be constant.

Huntington admired Singapore for what he saw as the one exception to the rule that the least corrupt countries in the world are Nordic, Scandinavian, or English-speaking. He attributed this to the long-term political leadership of Lee Kuan Yew who was determined to create a non-corrupt society. Huntington quoted Senator Daniel P Moynihan "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

But this uncorruptible society came at a cost: rigorous and total censorship across all areas of society. Singapore ranks a poor 140th out of 167 in the Reporters Sans Frontieres worldwide Press Freedom Index 2005. Movie censorship is governed by the Film Act of 1981. The Act proscribes racial or religion vilification, "party political films", anything that threatens the national interest, or depictions of hardcore pornographic, offensive or deviant sexual activities.

Singapore has been ruled by a single party since 1959, the People’s Action Party. Their initial victory was greeted with dismay by the western world due to its links with the Communist Party. However the Communist wing split over the proposed merger with Malaya which happened in 1963. But that only lasted two years. Malaysians rioted in the streets fearing Singapore’s economic dominance would shift power away from Kuala Lumpur. Chinese dominated Singapore was expelled from the union in 1965.

Singapore embarked on an economic growth program to allow it compete successfully as an independent nation. The price was an authoritarian government.

Its press, including the flagship Straits Times is mostly run by the government. Malaysian newspapers are banned and foreign publications are strictly vetted for anti-government articles. TV is also run by the government and high profile programs such as Sex and the City have been banned in the past for their licentious conduct.

But it is in the area of Internet where Singapore is most vulnerable and therefore has made the most efforts to control it. Singapore’s policy makers want to turn the island’s economy into an information hub but they have no intention of surrendering political control in the process. Singapore is a world leader (after China) in attempts to restrict freedom of expression of thought on the Internet. The ISPs are forced block websites containing material that may be a threat to public security, national defence, racial and religious harmony and so called “public morality.” Police have wideranging powers to intercept messages online. Government agencies have used threats and ligitation against bloggers and other Internet content providers.

Singapore’s principles of censorship are: First, materials for homes are more heavily censored than those for businesses. Second, materials for the young are more heavily censored. Third, materials considered artistic are less heavily censored. Finally, materials consumed by fewer people are less heavily censored. Some of these principles come into conflict in the practice of censorship, especially censorship of the Internet.

Guerilla groups have provided advice to users on how to defeat these censorship provisions. These include getting a proxy address outside the country and changing the browser’s proxy setup.

The Singapore model has been influential among authoritarian states in Asia. In 1996, ASEAN concluded an agreement to collaborate on devising restrictions on Internet communication. Although the agreement did not include a regulatory framework, only the Philippines rejected the idea of political control. The Singapore model is not foolproof, and there is criticism from within the country on its censorship model. However Singapore has shown that technology can and will be harnessed to consolidate a climate of government controlled propaganda, fear and intimidation.

Huntington’s clash of civilisation is valid for this scenario: The fault lines between civilizations will be the battlezone for the the control of information.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Black Pioneers

In the early years of the twentieth century, a legend was established about rural Australia: the pioneer legend. It differed markedly from the bush legend. The bush legend emphasised itinerant workers and the nomadic masculine spirit of Waltzing Matilda; whereas the pioneer legend was one of land owners and settler families. It emphasises hard work, perseverance and individualism ahead of the she’ll-be-right laid-back mateship of the bush legend.

This image of Australia was constructed by the poet Frank Hudson in his poem “Pioneers” (which was on the Victorian school syllabus for 50 years.) One verse goes
“We wrought with a will unceasing
We moulded, and fashioned, and planned
And we fought with the black, and we blazed the track,
That ye might inherit the land”

It is a celebration of courage, hard work and doughty enterprise. It is an heroic ode to the European settlement of the Australian bush. But as Whitlock and Carter said in their “Images of Australia: an introductory reader in Australian studies” (1992) the legend is instructive as much as what it leaves out as it includes. Pioneers' enemies were "drought, flood, fire, sometimes Aborigines; never low prices, middle-men, lack of capital, or other pioneers.”

The pioneer legend is much beloved of conservatives. It encourages reverence for the past, individuality and land ownership. The only problen was, the blacks were excluded from this compact.

Henry Reynolds wrote the “Black Pioneers” in 1990 (initially under the title “With the White People”) as an attempt to put them back in the picture. Reynolds explores the role of Aboriginals and Islanders in the development of colonial Australia. He debunks the notions that indigenous people didn’t contribute to the pioneer spirit and that modern Australia is based on a purely European foundation.

Blacks worked in roles across a wide spectrum of 19th century occupations: trackers, domestic servants, stockworkers, police troopers, horsebreakers, gardeners, miners, timberworkers, interpreters, labourers and pearl-divers. They worked with and for whites. It wasn’t a “hard, clean, bloodless conquest of the land.” The law was not applied equally across black and white when it came to a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. White women didn't have it either but “The gins”, the Aboriginal women, were at the bottom - treated as sexual objects to be enjoyed and tossed aside when finished with. Black children were chattel bought and sold without compunction. Aboriginal parents were loosely attached to their offspring and so would be better off raised in Christian civilisation. No care or attention was given as to whether parents and childran might miss each other.

"Black Pioneers" discusses the contribution made by Aboriginals to the exploits of the early explorers. Their knowledge of the land and of bush food was invaluable to Thomas Mitchell, Ludwig Leichhardt and John Oxley as they beat their paths through the difficult lands of the interior. In ‘The Future Eaters’, Tim Flannery showed how the Aboriginal practice of firestick farming kept the bush vegetation vibrant for thousands of years in a nutrient poor environment. Reynolds said firestick farming moulded the configuration of Australia and created the vast expanse of open, lightly wooded grasslands that pioneers were later to exploit. Explorers used Aboriginal tracks which George Grey compared to English pathways. Aboriginals showed white travellers the locations of waterholes and bush food and also acted as ambassadors when dealing with hostile tribes.

Pioneer squatters followed the explorers into the new lands. White people were initially few and far between and blacks played a large part in property life. Even in 1886 they comprised half the workforce in the Queensland pastoral industry. They had advantages over whites; they were cheap labour and always at hand. They rarely needed to be paid, they would sleep anywhere they could and they were plentiful. They quickly picked up the industry skills and were skilful horse and cattle handlers. The women were ‘maids of all work’ as well as nurses, cooks and child carers.

Aboriginal knowledge of their environment got them jobs as troopers, the Native Police. Their bushcraft was ideal for law enforcement in wild country. They were initially used to track runaway convicts but later mostly employed to brutally end Aboriginal resistance to white settlement. There was no love lost between tribes and the troopers were deliberately put together with non-kinsmen so that no favouritism could occur. With their white officers they were a law unto themselves and usually took to their tasks to extinguish opposition with brutal relish. They were in Reynolds’ words ‘an ideal vehicle for the execution of a policy that could never be openly admitted and that was always of doubtful legality.’

From the earliest days, whites had few compunctions in kidnapping young Aboriginals to make them become personal lackeys. They came cheap and received no salaries. Children could be passed on to others with little regards for their feelings on the matter. Settlers leaving to go back to Britain would leave their Aboriginals behind to fend for themselves. They were expected to work for long hours for no pay, and inadequate food and clothing. They were often beaten. Girls had an additional worry; molestation usually began at an early age. Many children died due to illnesses to which they had no immunity such as measles, influenza and whooping cough.

The new towns attracted Aboriginals in large numbers in search of food, work and excitement. They usually became fringe dwellers in camps outside town. The bigger towns had two or three such camps. They were usually out of town and several kilometres from the nearest houses well away from the town’s water supply. Whites became concerned at the wildness and nakedness of their neighbours and the stealing of goods that accompanied them. Many jurisdictions imposed curfews on blacks forcing them out of town between sunset and sunrise.

But the camps were tolerated as they were a pool of cheap labour that whites could draw on. It was the white working class that most looked down on the blacks as they saw them as competition, undercutting them in the race for employment. Aboriginals were never accepted into white society. Communities across the country resisted the entry of Aboriginal children into state primary schools. They were not permitted to learn trades or own land. The social Darwinism of the 1920s led to a state policy to ensure full-bloods would die off and half castes be assimilated into white society.

Reynolds said the fact the importance of black labour in the pioneer story was still resisted, was itself is a form of residual racism. It is a story of two great themes; confrontation and collaboration. He sees these as living issues that will continue to dominate the indigenous debate in Australia and he does not know which theme will prevail. “If they are to be reconciled, it will be by future generations, in circumstances at present unforseen,"  Reynolds concluded.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Going, Going, Falun Gong?

Qigong is a system of exercises, meditations, and teachings that renew the body and mind. It is an aspect of Chinese medicine which involves the coordination of breathing patterns with physical postures and motions of the body.

The Mandarin word gong means work or technique and qi is the breath so qigong is ‘breath work.’ It has been a Buddhist meditation practice for two thousand years. More recently many cults have exploited the religious aspect of qigong. The most notable example is the Falun Gong (also spelt Falon Gong) and is also less commonly known as Falun Dafa. Falun Gong’s worldwide popularity grew to the point that the Chinese government banned their practice outright in 1999. Amnesty International says at least ten followers died in custody in the year following the ban. China's crackdown on the Falun Gong has turned what was a little-known group, into an international cause celebre.

Falun Gong means "Practice of the Wheel of Law (or Dharma)." In May 1992, Li Hongzhi introduced it publicly as a qigong exercise in the northern city of Changchun. Li Hongzhi is a former trumpet-player from and is known as "Living Buddha" to his devotees. The Chinese government do not number among these devotees; they call him a leader of an "evil cult" and a dangerous charlatan and have ordered his arrest. Luckily for him, he is now beyond the clutches of Chinese officials having fled to New York in 1998 where he owns two houses bought on the proceeds of his religious earnings.

Li himself would appear to be several bricks short of a great wall. He says that he is a being from a higher level that has come to help humankind from the destruction it could face as the result of rampant evil. He also believes aliens walk the Earth and he has reportedly said he can walk through walls (Chinese or otherwise) and make himself invisible.

Nonetheless the Chinese authorities take his religion deadly seriously. In 1999, the government estimated the number of followers as 2.1 million in China(the movement itself claims 70 million). The crackdown started after 10,000 practitioners assembled in peaceful protest at the Beijing Central Appeal Office in April that year. This was staged directly outside the Beijing “Kremlin” Zhongnanhai, the complex of buildings that form the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party. They were protesting against beatings and arrests made at an earlier protest against a university that published a magazine criticising qigong practices. Though the Zhongnanhai protest ended peacefully, the government were alarmed at such a large protest in their backyard. Then President Jiang Zemin was particularly concerned and is believed to have given the order to make the organisation illegal in June 1999.

This was quite a fall from grace. After he first introduced Falun Gong to the world, Li Hongzhi was granted several awards by Chinese organisations to continue promoting what was then considered to be a wholesome practice. In the first few years after 1992 Li toured the country lecture circuit to large audiences. Falun Gong’s popularity grew thanks to word of mouth and the growing power of the Internet.

Now the Communist Party has destroyed books and other materials about Falun Gong, and blocked access to internet resources about the topic. Li Hongzhi is blacklisted by the Great Firewall of China. According to a 2004 Amnesty International report, "detained Falun Gong practitioners, including large numbers of women, were at risk of torture, including sexual abuse, particularly if they refused to renounce their beliefs."

In April 2006 A Falun Gong protester used press access issued to the New York based Epoch Times to shout over Chinese President Hu Jintao at the White House. "President Bush, stop Hu Jintao's persecution of Falun Gong! Stop the killings!" Wang yelled before being escorted away. The newspaper denies any direct ties to Falun Gong. ”We are not funded by Falun Gong, we don't speak for Falun Gong, and we don't represent Falun Gong," said Epoch Times spokesperson Stephen Gregory.

Falun Gong protesters can be seen in many big cities, including Brisbane, every day. They are extremely vocal and creative and may yet prove to be an Achilles heel for the Chinese government. China will be anxious to keep them quiet in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, but they have proved resourceful and have a knack of keeping in the public eye. Falun Gong claims up to 100 million adherents, while the Chinese government says 2 million. It's impossible to verify either way, but these millions of once law-abiding citizens are now outlaws. As their open letter to Bush attests, they have the ability to create a public relations nightmare for Jintao.

Li Hongzhi may yet have the last laugh on his old friends in the Party.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Cyrus Field and the Transatlantic Cable

In 1812, British soldiers

Cyrus West Field is a giant figure in the history of international communications. In 1844 Samuel Morse said a telegraph line would be established across the Atlantic linking Britain and the US in real time. It was to be over 20 years before Cyrus Field could prove him right.

Ten years before Morse's prediction, the 15-year-old Field was starting his working life as an office boy in New York’s first department store, A. T. Stewart. Co. Cyrus did well enough that his salary was doubled each year until he left to join a paper manufacturing company. By 1839, aged 20, he was a partner in the paper wholesaler E. Root and Company. He proved an extremely savvy paper merchant. Profits from business ventures allowed him to retire at 33 with a quarter of a million dollars. His wealth allowed him to concentrate on a sudden burning passion: laying the first telegraphic cable across the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1854, he was approached by Frederick Gisborne, the developer of the cross-Newfoundland telegraph line. Gisborne’s company was in financial strife and he tried to persuade Field to invest in the company. Field was not keen but the meeting did produce an epiphany. As his brother Henry Field reported after Gisborne left the meeting, "Mr Field took the globe which was standing in the library and began to turn it over. It was while thus studying the globe that the idea first occurred to him, that the telegraph might be carried further still, and be made to span the Atlantic Ocean."

The globe showed Field that it might be possible to link Europe and North America via the two nearest land points: Newfoundland and the west of Ireland. It would shorten the time for messages to cross the ocean by two weeks.

Any cable living on the bottom of the ocean would need good waterproofing and electrical insulation. Samuel Canning had recently identified Gutta-percha, a resin from the Isonandra Gutta tree in Malaya as a suitable insulating material.

Field also knew that the transatlantic project would require an enormous amount of capital. From his home in Gramercy Park, he galvanised his wealthy neighbours and created what he called a “castle cabinet”. His first stop was neighbour, industrialist, and inventor of jello, Peter Cooper. Cooper was intrigued by the project and said it offered the possibility of "a mighty power for the good of the world”.

Field obtained other crucial backers in Gisborne himself, the banker Moses Taylor, the shipowner Marshall Roberts and his long-term ally from the paper business Chandler White. These were all powerful men who could the financial value in urgent cross-Atlantic communication. The final member of his castle cabinet was Samuel Morse himself. Morse was feeling particularly vindicated as the US Supreme Court had just confirmed his sole patent of the electric telegraph.

On March 10, 1854, the cabinet agreed to take over Gisborne's company. They formed a new company called the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company (N.Y.N.L.T.C., or given the difficult of remembering the initials called simply "the Company"). They managed to raise the extraordinary amount of $1.5 million in private funding for the project, an amount equal to roughly 2.5 percent of what was then the total expenditure of the US government. Yet this colossal amount wasn’t enough and Field was forced to travel many times to Britain to drum up more support.

By July 1857, all 2,500 nautical miles of the first transatlantic cable was manufactured and ready to load. No single ship could shoulder the entire load so the British and American navies provided one ship each carrying half a cable. They went to the middle of the Atlantic where their cables were spliced and set off in opposite directions. The USS Niagara was a modern ship and much faster than the ancient hulk of HMS Agamemnon. But it was the Niagara that hit trouble. It had laid 400 miles of cable when a huge wave struck and snapped the cable.

Field took this defeat in his stride and tried again twice in 1858. The second voyage failed again with a snapped cable. But the third time they got lucky. Once again it was the Niagara and the Agamemnon who faced off across the Atlantic. This time the cable held and the two ships successfully made shore. North America and Europe were linked.

This was an occasion of great, if shortlived joy. In August 1858 Field arranged for Queen Victoria to send the first transatlantic message to President James Buchanan. The Queen's 99 word message to Washington took almost 18 hours to transmit. Despite the slowness, New York erupted in celebrations, lauding Field, Morse, modern technology, and American ingenuity in general.

Compared to 2 weeks, 18 hours was a vast improvement. But it was still a work in progress. Field posed for Mathew Brady, who would achieve greatest success for his realistic Civil War photography. Brady added two key props for his portrait of Field - a length of wire cable and a globe.

But the cable would provide Field's undoing again. Victoria's message took too long to transmit and it was getting worse. The cable finally broke after three weeks. Celebration turned to anger. The Boston Courier newspaper suggested that the entire project had been part of an elaborate stock fraud and the cable had never worked. Their front page screamed a conspiracy theory headline: "Was the Atlantic cable a humbug?"

When the British cable in the Red Sea failed a year later, a committee of enquiry was asked to find out why underwater cables were humbug. Field and his electrician Dr Edward Whitehouse gave evidence. Serious problems emerged from the design of the cable. The cause was twofold. The first cause was the hastiness of the project due to Field’s relentless monomania, proving both a plus and a minus to the project. The second was Whitehouse’s excessive voltage to the cable. Whitehouse was trying to overcome the problem of low current which slowed down the operation.

Scottish physicist William Thomson solved that problem with his mirror galvanometer. The mirror galvanometer was a long distance receiver which could detect signals a thousand times fainter than other receivers.

But the cable project was put on hold for five years by the Civil War. A new attempt was undertaken in 1865 with much-improved material. This time just one ship was used to lay the cable, the massive SS Great Eastern designed by Brunel. New since Field last laid the cable, it was the largest steamship in the world. The Brunel completed the job in July 1866. The new connection was successful, more durable than before and many times faster. Even more public confidence resulted when a second cable was established shortly afterwards. The modern age had safely begun.

Field's finest hour would herald an astonishing downfall in his fortunes. With the profits from the Atlantic Cable company, Cyrus Field invested in New York’s elevated railroad. The railroads were successful, but Field was double-crossed by business partners, Jay Gould and his friend Russell Sage, who had well earned their nicknames of “robber barons”. Field suffered the ultimate indignity when his remaining fortune was stolen by his son. Field died in 1892, almost penniless.

But his cable had profound impact. It brought London and Wall St into each others sphere of instantaneous communication and influence. News and information could now spread quickly across the world from San Francisco to Singapore. Field is generally forgotten now and he remains relatively unknown but his transatlantic cable was one of the major birth pangs of the global village.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

US breaks its Gaddafy duck

On Monday 15 May, 2006 US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the US was “normalising” relations with Libya. Rice hailed "tangible results that flow from the historic decisions taken by Libya's leadership in 2003 to renounce terrorism and to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs".

But normalisation began two years earlier. The US lifted its economic embargo in 2004. Six US companies resumed exploration for oil suspended since 1986 when the US bombed Libyan targets in the capital Tripoli and Benghazi, President Ronald Reagan called it self defence due to “terrorism aimed at America" such as the bombing of La Belle discotheque in West Berlin which killed many US soldiers.

100 people were killed in the 1986 Libyan attacks. These including Hanna Gaddafy, the adopted baby daughter of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muamar Gaddafy when his residential compound took a direct hit. Libya has been ruled by Gaddafy (or Gaddafi or Khaddafi or Qaddafi or any one of 32 different ways to spell his name) since he seized power in 1969. His rule set back a county that seemed to be an African standout.

In 1951, Libya was the first country to achieve independence under the auspices of the UN. It formed a constitutional monarchy under the pro-allies wartime leader King Idris. Idris stayed pro-western even after Britain precipitated the 1956 Suez Crisis which enveloped Libya’s powerful neighbour Egypt.

The young army officer Gaddafy took advantage in typical third world style of Idris’s Turkish medical treatment trip in 1969 to seize control. He took inspiration from Nasser’s power grab from an absent King Farouk in Egypt in 1952 and the new regime promoted a Nasser-like interpretation of socialism that integrated Islamic principles with social, economic, and political reform. Gaddafy rejected communism as atheistic. Nonetheless he destroyed the power of the Sanusi, the Islamic movement which was Idris’s power base.

Gaddafy moved quickly to close British and American military bases. In 1972 he convened the first National Congress of Al-Ittihad Al-Ishtiraki Al-Arabi (the Arab Socialist Union) at Tripoli. Later he issued a government decree prescribing the death penalty for belonging to a political party other than the Arab Socialist Union. Libya was formally a one-party state.

Gaddafy began to assert Libya on the world stage and saw himself as a champion of "oppressed peoples". Tensions with America grew through the seventies and exploded in 1981 in the Gulf of Sidra incident. Libya had earlier declared Sidra to be territorial waters and a “line of death” which if crossed would invite a military response. On August 9, two US aircraft flying combat patrol intercepted two Libyan fighters and shot them down after evading a missile strike. The election of Reagan in November exacerbated tensions between the countries due to Libya’s support for Palestine. The US placed a petroleum embargo on Libya in early 1982. Clashes in Sidra continued in 1986 giving Reagan the excuse to authorise the bombing.

In 1990, British investigators announced they found an electronic chip that linked Libya to the Lockerbie bombing. In November 1991, Scotland's chief law enforcement officer issued warrants for the arrest of two Libyans. One was Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, a member of the Libyan Intelligence Services and the station officer of Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta. The other was Abdel Baset al-Megrahi a senior officer in the Libyan Intelligence Services and head of Libyan Airlines security. Gaddafy argued for nearly eight years the suspects would not receive a fair trial in a Scottish court. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya that cost an estimated $33 billion. In 1998, after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and South African leader Nelson Mandela intervened, authorities agreed to Gaddafy's condition the trial be conducted in a neutral third country, Netherlands. Al-Megrahi was found guilty though calls remain to convict his superiors. Libya was forced to pay $2.7 billion to the victims' families in 2003.

With sanctions lifted, Libya adopted market reforms and liberalised the socialist-oriented economy. Libya is an oil-based economy which accounts for 90% of its exports. Libya is the largest oil producer in Africa with low production costs and proximity to European markets. Italy, Germany, Spain and France account for 74% of Libya’s exports. Despite 50 years of production, Libya remains largely unexplored with vast oil and gas potential.

The US moves announced by Rice is also aimed at tapping into the Libyan business boom. The black market and petty corruption have shrunk due to custom tariffs reform. Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem said reforms were positive steps towards turning Libya into a regional trading hub like Dubai or Hong Kong. Though Ghanem was replaced in March (possibly for controversial comments he made when he said Libya had ‘bought peace’) there appears to been a smooth transfer of power. As always Gaddafy is there behind the scenes, pulling all the strings.

The American decision to fully resume diplomatic relations see Libya turn full circle from the ‘rogue state’ of the 1980s. Gaddafy is now seen as a humanitarian and a senior African statesman. It is a remarkable makeover for one of the world’s most durable leaders if unpredictable leaders.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Gaia goes nuclear

James Lovelock is an ex NASA scientist and founder of the Gaia hypothesis.

He was a darling of the green movement until in 2004 he made a sensational announcement: nuclear power was the only solution to global warming. He went further in January 2006 and said “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

Lovelock is a lifelong inventor and has created many scientific instruments some of which have been adopted by NASA in its program of planetary exploration. It was while working for NASA that Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis. Probably his most important invention was the Electron Capture Detector in 1957 which can detect tiny amounts of chemical compounds in the atmosphere. This discovery provided the hard data for Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 environmental book, "The Silent Spring," which launched the international campaign to ban the pesticide DDT. Later, it made possible the detection of Chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) as pollutants of the atmosphere.

His most persuasive and controversial idea is Gaia, the concept of Earth as a single living bio-organism. He developed this in the 1960s and then expanded upon it in collaboration with the American microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the New Scientist magazine in 1975 and then in his 1979 book: Gaia: A new look at life on Earth.

The Gaia hypothesis was based upon Lovelock’s study of the atmosphere of Mars. In his own words “thinking about life on Mars gave some of us a fresh standpoint from which to consider life on Earth and led us to formulate a new, or perhaps revive a very ancient, concept of the relationship between the Earth and its biosphere.” Lovelock came to the view that Earth's atmosphere is actively maintained and regulated by life on its surface: the biosphere. Life first appeared three and a half billion years ago and the fossil record shows that the Earth's climate has changed very little. Yet the output of heat from the sun, the surface properties of the Earth, and the composition of the atmosphere have almost certainly varied greatly over the same period. Lovelock argued that it was life itself which kept the climate steady. His friend, the Nobel prize winning author William Golding (they were neighbours in Wiltshire in the 1960s) recommended that this phenomenon be called Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess also known as Ge, from which root the sciences of geography and geology derive their names. The goddess Gaia was described as the giver of dreams and the nourisher of plants and young children.

The theory is not without its critics. Among some scientists, "Gaia" carries connotations of lack of scientific rigour and quasi-mystical thinking about the planet Earth. Oxford University's Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene," has condemned Gaia theory as a "profoundly erroneous" heresy against Darwin's theory of natural selection. Lovelock himself defined it as “a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.” Operating with a Darwinian philosophy, Lovelock has had difficulties time explaining why life manipulates the environment in the first place and the theory has been accused of being teleological. It was looking dangerously like a quasi intelligent design.

To overcome this, he came up with the model of Daisyworld in 1983. Daisyworld is a computer simulation of a hypothetical world whose temperature is slowly increasing. There are only two lifeforms: black daisies and white daisies. In the beginning, the planet is cold and only a few a few black daisies survive. The black daisies absorb heat from the sun which causes the temperature to rise. This causes the number of black daisies to rise. The heat allows a small amount of white daisies to thrive also. The white daisies cool the planet and eventually it reaches temperature equilibrium. A remarkable stability occurs, a process known as homeostasis. The daisies modify the climate to make conditions more hospitable for themselves. Lovelock ran the model to include other species (eg rabbits and foxes.) He found that the greater the diversity, the greater the temperature regulation.

In 1990 he quarrelled with Mother Theresa about which was more important: humanity or the health of the planet. Lovelock's premise is that if we take care of the Earth, humanity's problems will start to take care of themselves. Mother Teresa insisted that taking care of people will solve the Earth's problems.

In 2004 Lovelock got himself in hot water with many in the green movement over his advocacy of nuclear power, and also his criticisms of renewable energy wind farms. In May that year Lovelock wrote an article for Britain’s Independent newspaper. In it he argued that global warming was a worse problem than terrorism. Then he made his controversial statement “only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy.” He argued that opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fears fanned by Hollywood fiction, the Green lobby and the media. He concluded by saying “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear - the one safe, available, energy source - now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.”

The backlash wasn’t long in coming. Shawn-Patrick Stensil, Greenpeace Energy Campaigner, spoke at an anti-nuclear power rally in Toronto “Nuclear power is a turkey. It’s dirty, dangerous, expensive, and cannot be built fast enough to meet our energy needs over the next decade,” He spoke to a background of a giant inflatable turkey. Others reminded the world of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. The dangers of storing nuclear waste were cited. Many isotopes have a half-life of thousands of years. The critics also point out potential environmental dangers associated with uranium mining and criticise the policy of transporting waste to less developed countries for storage. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) argued “The entire commercial chain of processing nuclear materials produces a highly toxic legacy for thousands of years to come. Moreover, the creation and handling of highly toxic nuclear products and the unsolved issue of safe storage of waste demonstrates the unsustainability of the technology".

Lovelock is unmoved by these arguments. In his latest book The Revenge of Gaia (2006) he argues that because of global warming the world population should brace itself for the inevitable: most of the planet will become uninhabitable by the end of this century.

Lovelock argues that the deathrate in Chernobyl was greatly exaggerated and only 75 people died. He states “I do not see nuclear energy as a panacea but as an essential part of a portfolio of energy sources.” He warns of complacency and “the imminent danger of a climate storm whose severity the Earth has not endured for 55 million years”

Whether he is correct or not about nuclear power, he does continue to ask the question no one wants to face up to “in the cities the party goes on; how much longer before reality enters our minds?”