Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dean Wells argues against states' rights

I went along to QUT Garden’s Point campus in Brisbane tonight to listen to Dean Wells argue the case against state governments. He was speaking at a free Public Lecture organised by QUT's Law Faculty called “Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd: Why we could manage with two levels of government and how we could get there”. Wells is a Queensland state MP so is one of the few turkeys that might vote for this particular Christmas (pic: Dean Wells speaking at QUT).

Wells began by giving his audience a historical perspective. Initially there was only one form of government in Australia, the colonial government which is analogous to today’s state governments. The first local government was founded in Adelaide in 1840 with Sydney and Melbourne following two years later. Brisbane got its first council in 1859 just before the creation of the new colony of Queensland. These councils were deemed to be autonomous of state governments and were free to do whatever they wanted. But they remained a delegation of state governments who could (and did) abolish, segment or amalgamate them as they saw fit.

But the newly formed Commonwealth in 1901 had a different set of powers. Its powers were subtracted from the states but it was an irrevocable creation that the states could not go back on. Its powers were heavily subscribed and anything that was not on the list remained in the hands of the states. Though its powers were supposedly different from the states, there was a lot of duplication. Wells listed seven portfolios for the Queensland Dawson administration of 1899 (the world’s first Labor government) which had increased to 18 portfolios by 2009. Meanwhile at the federal the 1904 Watson administration had nine portfolios which had increased to 30 under Kevin Rudd in 2009.

Wells said there were three reasons for this federal expansion. The first was constitutional change which devolved powers from the states to the commonwealth. But given that most referendums failed, Wells said there was “precious little of that”. The second reason was modernisation and the creation of portfolios for areas that did not exist in 1901 such as social security and industrial relations. But the bulk of the increase, says Wells, is due to the third reason – duplication.

Wells says the Federal Government has two functions: what he calls “core functions” and the non-core operations subsidising the states often in competition to the state’s own functions. He defined the core functions as those of Prime Minister, Treasurer, Immigration, Defence, Trade, Foreign Affairs, Communications and the Attorney-General. He says the non-core functions included education, health, transport, environment, agriculture and resources. There was a major degree of overlap between state and federal departments in these non-core functions. The Federal Government, says Wells, has its fingers in every pie of every state.

Wells listed off the arguments why state and federal separation was a good thing. These included the likelihood that we were better off with a number of different approaches, we shouldn’t tamper with history, and we are running an entire continent. He even quoted Solomon in the Book of Proverbs: “in a multitude of counsel there is safety”.

But Wells dismissed all these approaches as “deluded federalism” and said we needed to rationalise duplication. He said that if we were starting from scratch we would have a system where federal governments would retain control of delivery of services to ensure all citizens have the same standard of living. We would only devolve to state governments all functions that would be better handled at a local level. In today’s world that list would include local economy items such as land registers, development and planning of housing, roads and rail (excluding Intercity), tourism, and local environment. Hospitals and education would remain a function of central government.

But Wells acknowledged that simply abolishing the states would be “dangerous”. There is nothing in the Constitution that would stop it but it would leave local governments as orphans reporting to “the dead hand of State Government”. The solution he said, might be found in Chapter 6 of the Constitution which allows for the creation of new states. Wells suggested that Queensland might break up into super-councils based on geographical location: South East, Central, FNQ, Western Qld and Southern Qld. This change could be done by legislation and would not require a referendum. The only danger, concluded Wells, is that these new entities would create their own councils maintaining the inefficiency of three layers of government.

Massacre in Guinea: Putting down the bauxite rebellion

Guinean army forces have massacred over 150 unarmed people who were protesting on Monday against the country’s unelected leader. The head of the military Moussa Dadis Camara leads the Western African country. He seized power in a coup following the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conté in December. Protests broke out in the capital Conakry after it seemed likely that Camara would stand as a candidate in a presidential election postponed to January. Opponents are demanding he honour a longstanding pledge to stand aside and transition Guinea to civilian rule (photo of arrest in Conakry by AFP via Al Jazeera).

Though Camara has not formally declared his candidacy, his supporters have been actively promoting his chances. They were allowed a peaceful rally on Saturday in the city of Labe. But when the opposition tried to launch their rally on Monday, all hell broke loose. Political and civil society leaders had called the rally at Conakry’s main football stadium two weeks ago but authorities banned the meeting.

Despite the ban, thousands assembled at the 25,000 seater stadium pushing past military to gain entrance to the ground. They carried placards reading "No to Dadis" and "Down with the army in power" before police eventually stopped the crowds from gaining entry. Suddenly soldiers drove into the stadium. They descended from their vehicles and shot first into the air. Then they began to open fire on demonstrators and beat them up.

By the middle of the afternoon Donka Hospital in Conakry had admitted hundreds of people with bullet wounds and injuries from beatings. A number of women taking part in the demonstration were stripped naked and sexually assaulted by security forces who also went on a looting rampage across town. The usual suspects such as the UN, the EU, the AU and the US all expressed their condemnation of the massacre but none are likely to act against what is usually deemed "a domestic matter". Of more interest is the attitude of the the international mining companies who stand to make large amounts of money in the country.

Guinea has the world’s largest concentration of bauxite (aluminium ore) with 30 percent of the world’s reserves. US Giant Alcoa in partnership with Canadian Alcan have exclusive rights to mine bauxite in Guinea's Sangaredi Plateau. Together they run Cie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG) the world’s largest bauxite mine. Bauxite is used in cement, chemicals, face makeup, soda cans, dishwashers, siding for houses, and other aluminum products and is highly profitable industry for the two multi-nationals.

But Guinea’s relationship with the Russian giant UC RUSAL is not so healthy. Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s company are in a row with a Guinean court which has taken ownership of a mine away from them. The court cancelled the sale in 2006 of the Friguia refinery which UC RUSAL had bought for $20 million, far below independent valuations of $250 million. Russia is claiming the refinery is now their legitimate property.

Rio Tinto is also in trouble with Guinea. It is still challenging a decision the government made last year to take away control of an important iron ore project. Government told Rio its licence to mine has been rescinded. The mine at Simandou is one of the world's largest undeveloped iron ore deposits, with the potential to generate more than $10 billion a year. The mine is crucial to Rio to ward off takeover threats from BHP Billiton and analysts say Guinea’s move is an attempt to get a better bargaining position at a vulnerable time for the buyer.

But the latest protests have made Guinea vulnerable too. Camara is playing for high stakes. Though the country remains an economic basket case, he and his cronies can earn millions in company kickbacks. But he needs the big companies to stay. If he cannot control the streets they will take their mining dollars elsewhere. For Guinea’s millions of desperately poor neither outcome will help them much.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Keeping up with the ipjones: buying an Iphone

I am recovering with a glass of Irish whiskey after a day of technological terror. It's the fault of a phone.

No doubt subliminally inspired by the weekend’s lamentable isnackery (I can’t believe it’s not beta butter), today I rushed out and bought an iphone. It’s a luxury item that will cost me at least $1,300 or thereabouts to Telstra over two years. But I’d been meaning to buy one for some time so I felt the rushing was justified. It was going to give me more communications options which would become a useful part of my outdoor armoury. (pic is either my new phone or that mysterious stone from 2001: A Space Odyssey)

The purchase and its aftermath were stressful events, if neither unexpected. I found the whole commercial experience of choosing and then buying a phone very difficult.

Part of me hates change because it means I have to unlearn old ways of doing things. Not being part of the igeneration, I was quite happy to hold on to the old phone even though it was well out of contract. But inertia was eventually overcome by the idea of communicating on the run. The ability to send text and pictures to the Internet in near real-time was immensely appealing.

This was my second attempt to buy an iphone. Last time I went to my local Telstra shop they told me there was a four week delay so I didn't bother. I would have had it by now. But today there was no waiting period. Choice was limited - I wanted a sedate black-backed phone but there were none in that colour. Impatient to wait, I chose a more attention-grabbing white cover.

Technical spec was not as much a big deal for me. Knowing about Moore’s Law and resource-hungry apps I should have gone for the 32 meg disk phone instead of the 16. But that was going to cost $200 more and I didn’t think it was worth it. I will repent my stinginess at leisure. I paid an extra $10 a month for 150 meg of monthly download time. Time will tell if that amount is too big, sufficient, or too small. I forgot to ask how many megapixels the camera is but found out later its 2 MP.

When I took the phone home I panicked as I could find see my contacts list of telephone numbers anywhere. I shuddered what that would mean if it was gone. I rang the shop who patiently assured me they had copied them across to the new SIM but I would have to import the damn things.

It took me a while to find out how. Neither the “Finger Tips” document nor the Iphone 3GS “Important Product Information Guide” were much use as a user manual (and the text in the latter “important” document was so small, it could have been borrowed from the Rosetta Stone). But with much trial, error, and liberal Saxon slang I found the import screen on the phone. My contact list was back, to great relief.

If that all went ok in the end, the same cannot be said for iTunes set-up. The first thing I wanted to do was download the free Twitter and Facebook apps. In order to do that I needed an iTunes account which I did not have already. I went through the longwinded account set-up (including spending forever to decide on my “secret question” - but I'd have to kill you if I told you what that was). Apple asked me for a credit card number which they nicely said they would keep for later transactions. I baulked at this option - I was only there for a free app.

But even still it was a slow process. Accompanied by several loud oaths, my tedious attempts at club-footed typing was struggling on a small and unfamiliar keyboard. Several times I misspelt the userid or password or had to go off to another screen to find the underscore (in my mail address) or the at-sign. Whenever I made an error, which was common, I’d try and correct but often would accidentally send myself to some other screen and I’d have to start from scratch again. In short it took me a while to find the "return" key.

Eventually I created my account and quickly found an email in my inbox. I tried clicking on this link from the phone itself but it insisted the link must come from a computer. When I did try on the laptop, the verification email took me to this screen (shown right) which told me I was “just a few steps away” from downloading music, HD TV shows, movies, and more from the iTunes Store.

Just a few steps away? But all I was doing was verifying. Why was this so complex? It didn’t look like a verification screen to me and there was nothing there that said I was verified or needed to do something else. I tried to re-download the Twitter app but no surprise, it was still telling me my account was unverified.

After several repeat attempts (complete with more spelling mistakes and misturns) I decided maybe nothing was happening because I didn’t have iTunes installed.

But when I tried to install it, the windows installer crashed. This was the signal the Gods were against me today I eventually gave up none the wiser as to how to download free apps. I can possibly blame the devil's own defective code of my Vista operating system for the installer problem. But Apple’s own support procedures are poor too. The material sent out with the iphone is abysmal and there is no contact information on the “do not reply” verification email.

I had cursed KafkApple enough and was still anxious to try out Twitter on the phone. I logged onto my twitter homepage via the phone’s Safari brower and typed in a test message. But my fingers were taking some time to get used to the smaller keyboard. So the initial tweet read “testing from ipjone”. Happy that something worked first time, I barely noticed the typo. But others did. Stilgherrian was quickest to respond: “Your ‘ipjone’ seems to be working perfectly,” he reassured me.

If only he knew. Call me Ipjonah. Here's hoping this technophobe fares better in the morning.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Guinness at 250

Guinness celebrated its 250th anniversary with a party in four countries on the weekend. Festivities were at their peak in the beer’s spiritual home Dublin on Thursday, but the anniversary was also celebrated with concerts in Lagos, Kuala Lumpur, and New York. On 24 September 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the St James's Gate brewery in Dublin and began a beer brand that is the best known in the world. The anniversary party kicked off at 5.59 pm (17:59) in Dublin with a toast to Arthur Guinness, before carrying on long into the night in the other cities (photo of McDaids of Dublin by Derek Barry).

One of the reasons for Guinness’s worldwide success is the quality and quantity of its advertising. Britain’s World War One government can take some of the credit. It passed legislation to reduce the alcoholic strength of beers to promote the war effort. Guinness was hurt more than most by this as it needed the strength to preserve the quality of its extra stout. Guinness consumption decreased so badly by the mid 1920s, the company hired SH Benson advertising agency to turn it around. Benson toured Dublin pubs where most people said they drank it because “Guinness is Good for You”. They also asked thousands of British doctors who confirmed that the beer was a panacea for any ailment under the sun.

While the success of the subsequent campaign was legendary, Guinness’s health claims continued to be argued throughout the years. The company is now careful to make any medical claims for its drinks. It has not been able to use the “Guinness is Good for You” slogan since the 1960s and it has not appeared on a poster since 1937. However 2003 research from the University of Wisconsin found that a pint of Guinness at mealtimes is good for the heart, unlike a pint of lager. It found that Guinness was full of flavonoids (also found in dark fruits and berries as well as red wine and chocolate) which reduce damage to the lining of arteries.

But Guinness is more than about health. In 2004, a British survey named the Guinness can widget as the greatest technological invention of the last 40 years. It was invented in the 1980s by a Guinness brewer named Peter Hildebrand who created a jet of foam instead of a jet of air inside a can. The plastic molded device that sits on the top of each can with a small amount of beer and nitrogen, trapped in the widget. When the can is opened, the nitrogen is forced out through the beer, which creates the creamy head. The resulting Draught Guinness in Cans saw the brand take off again in Britain and had the side effect of increasing pub sales too.

Guinness is now brewed in almost 50 countries, with ten million glasses drunk around the world every day. It is made from four natural ingredients: barley, water, hops and yeast. Its dark colour and distinctive taste come from the roast barley. The Guinness family have not been directly involved in the management of the company since 1992 although they retain a financial interest in the business. In 1998 Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, now the largest drinks company in the world. Among the brands owned by Diageo are Smirnoff, Baileys, Johnny Walker, J&B, Gordon’s, Captain Morgan, Bushmills and Bundaberg Rum.

The background of Arthur Guinness is shrouded in mystery. Although a Protestant, he appropriated the coat of arms from an aristocratic Catholic family named Magennis. Through this sleight of hand, it allowed his family to inherit the title of Earl of Iveagh which gave later family members great prestige. Guinness began in 1759 by brewing several beers and ales at St James Gate in Dublin. On a visit to London he saw porters enjoying a new drink which was a mixture of beer and ale and named after their occupation. When porter was introduced to Ireland, Guinness decided to beat the British at their own game and brewed his own version. It took decades to establish but he eventually abandoned all his other products to concentrate on the porter he named after himself.

He exported the first shipment of Guinness to England as early as 1769 but the stout did not travel well. By the 1830s British factories had taken over the bottling and distribution and helped turn it into an international brand. By the 1890s, Guinness began to get serious with its brand and insisted all its products had uniform labelling and trademarks. By then, the Guinness brewery in Dublin was the largest in the world, and the company, Arthur Guinness and Sons was floated on the London Stock Exchange. But it wasn’t until 1950 that Guinness gained control of its global export business. They had immediate results and increased sales of its export product from 35,000 barrels to 300,000 barrels in ten years.

The name Guinness remains indelibly linked to Ireland in general, and Dublin in particular (rebel city Cork prefers Murphy’s stout or Beamish). When renowned writer and frequent Guinness drinker Brendan Behan was asked “hasn’t Guinness been good to the people of Dublin?” he supposedly replied “haven’t the people of Dublin been good to Guinness.”

But Behan left unanswered the question whether Guinness taste better in Dublin than anywhere else. This writer is one of the many who think it does (for what its worth, my favourite Guinness pub is Mulligans of Poolbeg Street). But as Mark Griffiths writes in “Guinness is Guinness”, I and countless others are probably wrong. He quotes Guinness Ireland Brand Controller Mark Ody who says it is a myth, up to a point. “A pint in Dublin might not be a week old [whereas] in England it can be two months in the chain,” he said. “It’s pure myth and speculation – but fresh is fresh is fresh”. No matter, wherever you are having a Guinness this weekend, enjoy. Here’s to the next 250 years. Sláinte go léir.

Half way house

I’m currently half way through an 18 month master’s of journalism at QUT. I am actually slightly over the exact half-way mark as the mid-term break that arrives next week is strangely week 11 out of 14 (something very Irish about that!). Mine is a three semester course-work degree, so the end result will not be treated as highly as if it were a research masters. However a third of my work is thesis. That will be due in late May 2010 and I want that to be treated and examined as if it were a full research thesis. (pic: QUT Kelvin Grove "Education A Block Building" by Derek Barry)

Though I’ve yet to nail down a decent journalism-related research question for the thesis, I have chosen to broadly situate the study within blogs and their place in the world, But whatever the question will eventually be (and I’ll need to get that sorted by the end of this year) it makes sense to discuss it within the context of my own blogging. Reflective analysis means applying an honest blowtorch to my own work prior to making any grand statements about the wider world.

So this post is the first attempt to publicly verbalise the journey. I will be trying to do this on a weekly basis between now and June 2010 (though there might be a few weeks off between semesters). It will be as open and self-critical as I can make it. This won’t be easy - I made the decision to discuss blogs back in February and for reasons I cannot yet easily explain I’ve been dragging my heels on mentioning it in my own blog.

Or blogs plural. I currently spend several hours every day running three blogs (or two and a half to be more accurate). I maintain two versions of Woolly Days. The original started on Blogger in September 2005 and a new one started on Wordpress in February this year. The two are almost exactly alike in article content. My third site is Irish I’s which I started in June 2007 to post jokes, pics, and oddball stories I stumble upon on a daily basis. Irish I’s is also on blogger (though is possibly an ideal candidate to move to a newer platform such as Posterous).

But Woolly Days is my major preoccupation and I can often spend four to six hours a day putting to a post together. I am currently persisting with two versions of Woolly Days because I cannot decide which one to go one with. I like the more professional look of WordPress Woolly Days but I’m still fond of Blogger Woolly Days on the Google-owned platform that gave me a public voice four years ago. So I put up with double-entry bookkeeping (though typographical errors fixed up subsequently in one are not necessarily retrofitted to the other). If I were unsentimental I should be seriously considering leave the Woolly Days brand behind and start blogging under the label of Derek Barry or else at some other “Days”. This might well happen when I physically leave Wooloowin (where I’ve lived since 2004).

I don’t think it would greatly matter wherever I publish next because it is the blogging form that matters not the brand. It is as a blogger I think I am establishing an authentic, articulate and unorthodox voice that is slowly getting recognition in the wider community.

That pleases me because blogging is important. Don’t be deceived by the claims that it is so 2004. The fact that the early adopters have moved on means is that it is a maturing product with tens of millions of active exponents. These people blog because it gives them as a long-form and free platform of communication on the Internet. If democracy could be defined as the freedom to express your opinion widely, then the rise of the blog is a good thing. For me that means over a thousand articles and a million words over four years at a rate of six or more posts a week.

So is anyone listening to this widespread distribution of opinion, is anyone paying attention? Who is reading my million words?

To answer these questions, I need to analyse some audience metrics for my blogs.
After 20 days this month (approx 3 weeks), my sites have received the following number of hits (in brackets number of hits a day)
Woolly Days Blogger 32, 927 = average 1,646 hits a day
Irish I’s 1, 319 = average 66 hits a day
Woolly Days Wordpress 378 = average 19 hits a day.
For a grand total of 34, 624 at an average of 1,731 hits a day.

Hits aren’t humans and I don’t have breakdown of hits to visits on a monthly basis. However on a daily basis the number of visits averages between 65 and 90 percent of the hits total. If we go with the lowest figure of 65 percent that would mean an average total of 1,125 human visitors come to my blogs every day in September 2009. The actual figure that read my work is higher than that as Woolly Days blog content is also available to read in Facebook (to 94 people) and all are available as RSS feeds (to 42 subscribers on Google Reader and an unknown number on other RSS readers). But lets assume however this number is low and adds merely another 75 or so visitors, to give a nice round total number of 1,200.

This means I am talking to about twelve hundred people every day. But nowhere near this total are listening or indeed reading the same material. Far fewer still are actually talking back, but I might have to save the analysis on that for a later time. Because I wanted to concentrate on how people get to my site now. Why, when there are tens of millions of blogs to go to, do they come to mine?

90 percent of my traffic arrives serendipitously – well, its pleasantly surprising for me, anyway. But most of these people aren’t interested in Woolly Days at all. Four out of every five people come from Google Images (and increasingly Bing). They’ve clicked on the picture and may or may not stay to read the text in the lower pane. I’m reasonably high in a surprising number of Google image searches in my increasingly long tail. The most popular page at the moment on Woolly Days is a 2006 article on Magna Carta. For reasons entirely unknown to me, it is currently number in Google Images for that search.

I thank Google for their algorithms but it is the one in five that don’t come for the picture that are most likely to pay attention to the words. Half of these come from Google searches (10 percent of the entire total). These searchers usually do not hang around for long once they found an answer (or a lack of answer) to the question they have asked Google though occasionally are hooked in to explore a bit further.

The last 10 percent are people who come via bookmarks, links, Twitter, Facebook, RSS and other recommendations. It is these 120 or so people who come regularly to the site as part of their regular media consumption who are most likely to be reading what I’m currently writing. Given that most of the posts here at Woolly Days break the cardinal rule of short blogging and are often quite dense and political, it is likely that at least two thirds of these will not have the time or inclination to read this far into the post. Let’s assume then that there are just 40 readers left at this stage.

I humbly thank this mathematical derived forty that have stayed the course and hope that they find the rest of this journey interesting. I would also love to hear back what people think about blogging or what they think might be an interesting research question. I would like this quest to serve as much meaning as I can cram into it. But if it there is no meaning or if none of this matters, I’d like to hear about that too.

Next week I’ll be looking at how much journalism is in my work.

Derek Barry

Friday, September 25, 2009

Facebook and the media: Opening the gated community

One guaranteed way to make a newspaper headline writer’s day is to find an event that has some tenuous connection with Facebook. If there is a remote chance that technology can be blamed for something, it will be. So it is hardly surprising that in the last few days alone we have Facebook murders, Facebook crime, Facebook rescues, Facebook bandits, illegal Facebook parties and even “Facebook for the dead”. This is all very lazy journalism though understandable that the media should want to tap into the Internet’s biggest phenomenon. (photo by jurvetson)

Facebook’s growth shows little sign of slowing down. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg said he still had big plans for the five-year-old application when he announced last week Facebook now had 300 million users which would make it the fourth largest country in the world. It is not difficult to believe it will soon overtake the US with its 3.1 million to leave only China and India ahead of it. Zuckerberg is so confident, he thinks the company may even make money in 2010!

Zuckerberg says his company mission is "to make the world more open and transparent by giving people the power to share information.” But while many have praised Facebook as part of the democratising trend of new media, there is a social exclusion aspect to it also. Facebook is easily the largest gated community in the world. Author Robert Putnam told fan culture guru Henry Jenkins that while engagement with Facebook was primarily a social activity, there is a real "participation divide" that creates varying degrees of Internet engagement. Putnam found that Facebookers practice what cultural anthropologists call "gating", the tendency to build physical/virtual, social, and cultural walls that are exclusive.

But within their own communities, social network users are very generous. Zmags’ Joakim Ditlev found Facebook is easily the most popular sharing tool among digital readers with 38 percent using it to forward content with Twitter well back in second place on 9 percent. This also means readers are more likely to pick up content from Facebook. Ditley says Facebook’s casual way of communicating “seems to apply well” for sharing digital content.

Facebook’s wide range of communication tools are also eating away at time spent on email, instant messaging and discussion groups. Activities that used to take place in email, such as posting videos or holiday photos are now migrating to Facebook. As ReadWriteWeb says Gen Yers “don't even think of email as the place to connect with friends and family - that's what social networks are for.”

But people are leaving an enormous trail of data that could eventually come back to haunt them. While embarrassing photos are an obvious problem here, a friend list can also reveal a great deal about the person. An experiment at Boston’s MIT found that simply by looking at a friend list, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and made a prediction using statistical analysis. As the Boston Globe puts it: “if our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.”

In Australia, the notion of privacy has been challenged by a court case against prison officers who used a Facebook group to protest against changes in their industry to privatise prisons. In October last year, six NSW corrections officers created a private group called "Suggestions to help big RON save a few clams". But when Big RON - the NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham - found out about the suggestions he wasn’t happy and threatened to fire them for "bullying" and "harassment".

It did not take long for the media to label them The Facebook Six (though for some reason they preferred the more alliterative Facebook Five for a while). Last week Industrial Relations Commission decided their cases needed to be reheard after concerns of procedural unfairness so their fate is on hold for now. But the lesson to be learnt about Facebook, as academic David Perlmutter stated recently is that it is “a particularly dangerous weapon for self-injury because more than with many other social-networking sites, it is so easy to share an embarrassing admission or offensive quip.”

Despite the pitfalls, there are some who believe Facebook makes its users smarter. According to Dr Tracy Alloway from the University of Stirling in Scotland, the socmed site is doing “wonders for working memory [and] improving…IQ scores”. While it is doubtful that the thousands who sign on every day are doing it to become smarter, its versatility is one of its most attractive features. The downside is that it gives news editors even more things to place next to “Facebook” in their next headline.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One-day strike action affects Qld unis

Industrial action affected three major Brisbane universities last week in an education union’s national campaign to seek better terms and conditions for its members. [Photo: Derek Barry]

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) asked its 3,000 members at the University of Queensland (UQ), Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to join 13 other tertiary institutions across the country in a 24-hour strike last Wednesday.

Union national organiser Michael Evans said agreement was reached with a fourth Queensland university - James Cook University - prior to the action and the NTEU is now “close” to agreement with Griffith University as a result of the strike.

Evans said the union has yet to conclude negotiations with UQ and QUT.

The NTEU is seeking pay rises of between 16 and 18 per cent over three years and also an end to the casualisation of staffing at universities, which Mr Evans says is affecting job security.

One QUT striker who did not wish to be named said the big issue was removing the WorkChoices provisions from the enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) and ensuring fair workloads for workers, as well as more employment security.

The EBA expired in 2008 but continues to be in effect while negotiations for a replacement continues.

Evans said the union was looking to regain rights it had lost in the last round of EBA changes under the previous federal government including the right to represent staff in disciplinary actions.

UQ executive director of operations Maurie McNarn told the Courier-Mail last week the impact of the strike would be minimal because the NTEU represented only 5 per cent of the workforce.

Evans acknowledged that Griffith University and QUT also experienced minimal disruption due to the action.

But he also said there was anecdotal evidence that car parks and campuses were emptier than normal and many classes were cancelled.

“Academics rescheduled classes for other days to ensure that students would not be disadvantaged,” he said.

Evans said the one-day strike was valuable publicity for the union campaign and sent a message to the institutions that members were prepared to forego a day’s pay to show how serious they were about the issues involved.

But Australian Higher Education Industrial Association executive director Ian Argall said Evans was “too optimistic” in his assessment of the industrial action.

He said the strike did not make any difference and that negotiations were likely to drag on for many months to come.

“There has been no agreement with any Australian university beyond 2009 except with New England University,” Argall said.

He denied the workplace changes made during the Howard administration had impacted unions’ rights to represent their members.

Argall said the issue for universities was how to organise the performance management and workload of staff.

“Unions have not been pushed out but don’t have an automatic right to be involved” he said.

This story was originally written for the new QUT magazine Sub-Tropic

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dust storm over Brisbane

Brisbane turned positively Martian today and the northern suburbs got an unusual light show. For example, here is the usual view of the city from McLennon Street, Wooloowin.

This is the same street today:

The sun struggled to break through the mist:

But the sunshine was mostly elsewhere today:

What the Kedron Brook bike path would look like if it were on Mars:

But no freakish weather can stop the inexorable March of the Airport Link tunnel interchange at Kedron Emergency Services building.

Or stop the flag from fluttering at the local Anglican church

Finally, the view is equally red looking down my own street:

Rudd’s robust language is not the problem

Two weeks ago Kevin Rudd got angry with a group of Labor parliamentarians who were complaining about a drop in salary. They represented a considerable interest group who were unhappy with the latest cut delivered by the government’s much feared “Razor Gang”’. Lower house members were to have their printing allowance cut from $100,000 to $75,000 (a $3,750,000 saving over 150 members) and while senators went down from $16,667 to $12,500 (saving $316, 692 across 76 members). The grand total is a $4 million saving which will go a little to servicing a $58b debt. (photo by Derek Barry)

But the rebels, who mostly represented marginal seats, didn’t see it that way and sent a cross section of aggrieved interests to visit Rudd. In attendance were Don Farrell, Bernie Ripoll, David Feeney and Michael Forshaw from the Party’s right, and Carol Brown, Maria Vamvakinou and Sharryn Jackson from the left. Parliamentary secretary Maxine McKew warned the outcome for the rebels in advance of the meeting. "To anyone who thinks they can't sell a message on $75,000 a year more than many people earn - then they should go out and argue the case on the 7.30 Report tonight.”

Having had a deputy soften them up, Rudd moved in for the kill when they met. He was in no mood to accede to the delegation’s demands and dismissed them with an imperious “I don’t care what you fuckers think”. The Age’s Misha Schubert reported reported the meeting though she coyly translated Rudd’s words as "I don't care what you think, this is going to be done."

The muckraking (but usually well-informed) Andrew Landeryou then reported that his language was much more colourful than in Schubert’s account. Landeryou quotes one attendee who said Rudd’s performance was “Mount Vesuvius meets Tourette’s Syndrome”. Landeryou thought there was nothing wrong with roughing up the troops a bit when they are straying from the cause of righteousness, but said it made for very ugly listening.

Landeryou got the ball rolling, but it would take the Poison Dwarf of Australian journalism to ensure Rudd’s swearing got the widest audience. In his Sunday Herald-Sun column this week Glenn Milne highlighted it as the most important part of his story about the meeting in his first sentence: “KEVIN Rudd has launched another expletive-laden tirade -- this time directed at Labor's factional bosses, including three female MPs,!” Milne’s news value on a two-week old event was based on the dubious facts Rudd’s audience was mixed and were “shocked” despite being “hardened operatives”.

It is always dangerous to rely on Milne’s litany of unnamed sources – he is not averse to making things up. But amid the manufactured outrage, he does add one fact that Senator David Feeney was at the meeting and it was his question which was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After telling all present they were fuckers whose opinion did not count, Rudd singled out Feeney for personal attention telling him "you can get fucked" and asking, "Don't you fucking understand?"

Feeney would not confirm or deny his understanding. But Crikey’s Guy Rundle (link is unfortunately paywalled) says it is credible. Rundle called Feeney the Cartman of Labor politics “bumptious, spherical, and obsessively concerned with the management of his Victorian right-wing microfaction.” Any encounter with Feeney for longer than 15 minutes, he says “would have most people praising the PM’s Christ-like restraint in sticking to verbal abuse and not stabbing him through the eyes with a biro, so as to better mash his frontal lobes.”

Rundle may not think highly of Feeney, but his question is valid: why does a micro-faction running number three Senator needs a huge mail allowance? However this point was lost in the scrabble to report the f-bombs. A quick check of Google News has found 437 stories (and growing) pontificating about Rudd’s coarse language and what it means for society.

Perhaps the attention is richly deserved given the freakish nature of his own micro-media management. And yet for a man given to opaqueness, Rudd made his own views “absolutely clear” on this matter: “that is that these entitlements needed to be cut back, and I make no apology for either the content of my conversation or the robustness with which I expressed my views." He is right, the robustness is fine - the real problem lies elsewhere in Rudd’s use of English.

It is the sentences where he is entirely devoid of meaning we should watch. At the Major Economic Forum earlier this year, a journalist asked him a question whether there would be any climate change action coming out of the meeting. The response was classic Rudd: “It is highly unlikely that anything will emerge from the MEF in terms of detailed programmatic specificity”. Of course you can’t afford to be seen attacking the futility of the forum so you retreated to your Yes Minister training to disguise it with gobbledegook.

Rudd is a technocrat so providing mannerism fodder for a generation of comics is a small price to pay for commanding the message. But here is where the problem begins: the real message gets lost in the subterfuge and his ego is too big notice it. Perhaps, like the media, he needs reminding about the two inconvenient facts that are the real major news stories at the moment: The people he leads are the world’s biggest-carbon polluters and his neighbours in the Pacific Islands are drowning.

Instead of these inconvenient truths, we hear him leaking low expectations to the hosts about the December climate summit in Copenhagen. But Copenhagen can’t just be pointless like the Major Economic Forum was – it’s time to hear about some detailed specified programs to save the planet. Rudd is talking down the prospect of a victory for renewable energy because he has been captured by carbon storage. Australia remains locked in high carbon solutions after 20 years of climate change talks. That’s not good enough, Mr Rudd, and if you can’t support Kyoto II, then get out of the way of those who will, just like Howard did. Otherwise we’ll all be as fucked as Senator Feeney.

Monday, September 21, 2009

CPJ report condemns Russia’s treatment of journalists

A damning new report from a US-based watchdog says Russia’s treatment of journalists is worse now than it was during the Communist era. 17 journalists have been murdered there since 2000 and in only one case have the killers been caught and punished. Only Iraq and Algeria are more dangerous for members of the press. According to the report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) this represents “a sorry record for a great and powerful nation that embarked on democratisation after more than 70 years of brutal repression”. (photo credit: Argenberg)

The mixed messages on Russia appear in CPJ's report “Anatomy of Justice: The Unsolved Killings in Russia” released last week. It shows secrecy, corruption, lack of accountability, and conflicts of interest routinely thwart justice in the murders of journalists in Russia. As well as expressing outrage, the report offers guidelines and evidence for restarting investigations into unsolved murders. “When journalists are threatened, democracy itself is threatened,” it warned.

The report laments the apathy of the Russian people who seem unconcerned by the murders. CPJ says this is because the vast majority get only government-filtered news, so outrage has been muted. The 17 journalists who died were uncovering the truth in a wide range of topics: organized crime, corporate corruption, bribe-taking among public officials, and unrest in the Northern Caucasus republics. In each case authorities pretended there was another motive involved such as robbery or a personal grudge so as not to investigate the political element of the killings.

Take the case of Aleksei Sidorov, editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye who was killed in the Volga region city of Tolyatti. Sidorov had exposed organised crime and government corruption in the car-manufacturing city (“Russia’s Detroit”) as did the editor who preceeded him, Valery Ivanov. Assailants shot dead Ivanov and 18 months later stabbed Sidorov repeatedly with an ice pick. The official version was Sidorov was killed in a random street brawl after he refused a stranger’s appeals for vodka. As in many similar cases, investigators made no efforts to check out his records, interview witnesses, or visit his news organisation.

The Novaya Gazeta newspaper has suffered more than most for its courage in exploring Russia’s underbelly. Three of its best reporters - Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya – have been murdered. In February, three defendants in the Politkovskaya trial were found not guilty after the evidence presented against was skimpy. Though the case is now being retried, no one expects justice to emerge. “Once again, the state had given the masterminds an easy pass,” said the CPJ. “Only the small fry were in the dock.”

CPJ says the failure to achieve justice reflects shortcomings at every level: political, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial. The poor record of solving journalism-related killings stands in sharp contrast to Russia’s stated record in solving murders among the general population. One of the country’s top law enforcement officials, Aleksandr Bastrykin, has said the vast majority of murders have been solved in recent years. Bastrykin, however, has publicly acknowledged discovering who ordered the Politkovskaya murder would be much harder.

The Kremlin must take a large slice of the responsibility for the problem. It has marginalised critical journalists by barring them from state-controlled national television and obstructing their work through regulations and bureaucratic harassment. Murder investigations are secretive affairs, marred by conflicts of interest and frequently influenced by external political forces. Investigators have failed to follow up on journalism-related leads or question professional contacts while police have concealed important evidence without explanation. It is hardly surprising to find many of those murdered were among the harshest critics of the Kremlin.

CPJ have recommended the Prosecutor General order a thorough re-examination of all 17 cases. It should pursue unchecked leads, track down wanted suspects, and examine professional motives. Where there are conflicts of interest, cases should be reassigned. Investigators and prosecutors should also communicate clearly and regularly with victims’ families. Until this is overturned, the Russia media system will continue to be based on self-censorship leaving many important areas under-investigated or completely uncovered. CPJ said the international community had a role in holding Russian leaders accountable for their record. Key institutions such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe need to resist Russian attacks that claim they should not concern themselves with human rights. The murdered 17 deserve nothing less. Also, it is in their own vested interests to do so. "An undemocratic Russia is a threat to international stability," CPJ said.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Taliban’s Mullah Omar issues warning to West on Afghan war

The Taliban leader says the West lacks the will to fight in Afghanistan and he may be right. Mullah Omar has issued a statement from his hiding place in Pakistan warning of huge casualties and said the West does not have the stomach for the war. Omar said that the more forces the US deploys in the country, the more they will face “unequivocal defeat”. He referred to history when he described the country as a “graveyard for colonial troops”. His statement came as Taliban-linked rebels have intensified use of roadside bombs, particularly in the south. This year more than 350 foreign troops have been killed, making it the deadliest year since fighting began. (picture credit: daviza)

Italy is the latest western country to question its commitment to Afghanistan after six of its troops were killed alongside ten Afghan civilians in a Kabul bomb blast on Thursday. The European nation has 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan and had already started bringing some home before the latest attack which brought its death toll to 20. Now Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is publicly questioning the mission. "We are all convinced it's best for everybody to get out soon," he said.

Berlusconi’s statement will not be welcomed by the White House which provides two-thirds of the 100,000 troops in the Nato-led occupation force. With a new administration in the White House, the US has re-examined their motives for fighting the eight-year war. In March President Obama made a pledge to expand the US military presence in Afghanistan. But as the World Politics Review puts it, the essential question now is not whether the war is winnable, but whether the mission is vital to American national security interests. And from this perspective, says the review, the open-ended strategy fails.

The US administration has acknowledged the new policy raises the stakes by transforming the Afghan War from a limited intervention into a more ambitious and potentially risky counter-insurgency. The statement was made in a Senate Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations which was released last month. The report stressed the importance of a counter-narcotics policy in winning the war. For years commanders on the ground said that going after drug lords was not part of their mandate. But now the US has targeted drug traffickers who help finance the Taliban as a major priority. The report said tens of millions of drug dollars are helping the Taliban and other insurgent groups to “buy arms, build deadlier roadside bombs and pay fighters.”

Afghanistan’s opium industry supplies 90 percent of the world’s heroin and generates $3 billion in profits. But the UN says production is on the decline for the second year in a row. The Americans have targeted 50 of the major drug traffickers on a military hit list to be “killed or captured”. It has also set up an intelligence centre to analyse the flow of drug money to the Taliban and corrupt Afghan officials, and an international task force to pursue drug networks in southern Afghanistan. But stopping the flow of drug money will not be easy. Most transactions are conducted in cash and are concealed by an ancient and secretive money transfer system. The strategy acknowledges that counter-narcotics will not be enough to win the war. The other major aspect of the change of direction relates to the activities of farmers. The Obama administration has admitted a program to eradicate poppies is a failure and emphasis will now be on promoting legal alternative crops.

The report did not dodge two important questions that will impact the success of the change of direction. It asked whether the US Government has the capacity and the will to provide the hundreds more civilians to transform a poppy-dominated economy into one where legitimate agriculture can thrive. It also wondered whether Nato allies be counted on to step up their contributions on the military and civilian sides at a time when support is waning across the Western world. It also asks the questions that Obama’s team will need to honestly answer if the president is to avoid Afghanistan becoming his Vietnam: Does the American public understand and support the sacrifices that will be required to finish the job? And what is the job anyway? Obama and the other western leaders cannot use the hoary “terrorist safe havens” argument forever. And as Mullah Omar reminds us, forever is likely to be a very long time.

Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

A little-known researcher in Moscow’s Gorbachev Foundation has done the world an extraordinary favour when he smuggled secret 1980s Politburo papers out of Russia. Last week Pavel Stroilov published documents that revealed the leaders of the Western World were lying when they said they wanted a united Germany. Stroilov copied more than 1,000 transcripts of Politburo discussions before they were sealed off. Among the many astonishing details there are a meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher where the British PM said he should pay no attention to Nato communiqués. The reality was that Britain and France (and presumably the US too) feared a united Germany even more than the red menace in Moscow. (picture: AP)

But to some people this was hardly a revelation that the West preferred the devil they knew. The Telegraph noted that Thatcher herself alluded to the Moscow lie in her 1993 autobiography when she said she was “apprehensive” about the prospect of a united Germany. Meanwhile Spiked’s Marxist writer Mick Hume says the revelations should only be a shock to those who take “the anti-Soviet statements of Western leaders at face value.”

Hume points to an invariable human failing: the tendency to believe what we see or hear. Information is a valuable commodity but a dangerous one too and it hardly surprising the Russians (like those in power in the West) place an embargo on all sensitive government records until well after the events have taken place and the participants are either retired or dead. But now that this is in the public sphere it has changed from being tacit to explicit knowledge. It can be taken from place to place, it can be internalised, and it can become personal knowledge. Knowledge transfer is a learning process and relies on wide dissemination of information.

It is the role of the world’s media to provide that information fully and fairly. As soon as an English translation is available, Stroilov’s thousand documents should be published in full either in print or online. But as the great 19th journalist Lincoln Steffens found out, some information would never be printed by any newspaper. Steffens was idealistic but would never report on police brutality or political corruption because the complaints were coming from “faddists: co-operators, socialists (a few), anarchists, whom nobody would listen to.” By nobody, he meant his editors, wealthy readers and the city’s elite.

Arguments about what information should be in the public domain are complicated by the current push for media owners to start charging for online content. The push goes against the grain of those who believe “information should be free”. Jeff Jarvis is one of the most strident voices against paying for content. He says it is costly, it impacts branding, there are other free sources and perhaps most important it takes “the content out of the conversation.” No one can talk about something they cannot see.

Jarvis is also a big fan of the power of Googlejuice and that company’s CEO has his own view of whether information is worth paying for. Eric Schmidt told a group of British broadcasting executives last week that general news publishers would find it hard to charge for their content online because too much free content is available. Schmidt agreed with the commonly-held opinion that the information had to have niche value such as business news to work.

There is a good reason why this is so. People will pay for information they think they can make money from. As American essay and programming language designer Paul Graham wrote earlier this month, consumers never really paid for content and publishers never really sold it either. Graham says the price of books, music and movies depends mostly on the format and there is no additional charge for quality or quantity. The content is in fact irrelevant. Selling information is a distinct business from publishing, says Graham. Those who can’t sell their content will have to give it away and make money indirectly or embody it in things people will pay for.

Graham says giving it away is the future of most current media. But those in the business are slow to accept this conclusion. Meanwhile it is giving every indication of a business in crisis. Newspaper jobs have fallen from more than 450,000 in 1990 to fewer than 300,000 today. Jarvis calls the media the first “post-industry.” But as communications theorist Dennis McQuail wrote, the Information Society so beloved of Jarvis has no core of political purpose, just an inevitable logic of its own. In this, there is an ideological bias towards free market outcomes.

Stroilov’s documents don’t fall into the niche business content category. No-one is going to make money from knowing what went on in secret Kremlin meetings in 1989. But they are important for all that. They contribute greatly to the public knowledge about the mendacity of leaders, the problems of ideology and the course of history. Gorbachev and Thatcher were unable to stop the Berlin Wall from falling, and the West could not stop Germany from re-uniting. Despite such diversions that followed such as the Wars on Drugs and Terror, the fall of Communism would eventually reveal the West’s true preoccupation – making money.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The future of news

When the last print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hit the presses in March, there was a great deal of lamenting that presaged the end of an era. Perhaps it did end, but it also heralded in a new one. Though 160 of its 180 editorial staff lost their jobs, those journalists that stayed were re-trained and multi-skilled. They are now no longer called reporters but “news gatherers”. But while their technical skills are new, their investigative ones are not. And both are still required in the 21st century.

There are many shiny tools at the disposal of the new news gatherers. The attraction of Twitter is that it answers the fundamental question “What are you doing?” Its exponential growth has led to a company valuation of one billion dollars despite it not earning a cent in ads. Twitter may not be a viable business yet but with its short, sharp bursts of information, conversation, and real-time search facility, it is an ideal carrier of news. It is no wonder politicians, journalists and PR people love it.

But Twitter is not just the preserve of insiders and the need for news is universal. News speaks to something deep within humans. When the anthropologist Raymond Frith went to the Western Pacific island of Tikopia, he found a Polynesian society with a great thirst for news. Whenever two inhabitants met, they spent most of their conversation swapping news. Indeed the Tikopia word for “news” was the same as the word for “speech”. According to news historian Mitchell Stephens the Tikopia experience is a universal one. Stephens says news can best be described as one of our senses. He calls it a social sense that leaps over synapses between people and provides awareness of the world.

In western society our news is mostly mediated by mass communication. Inventions such as the printing press and television have each transformed the way news is told. Now the Internet is changing it again, providing an almost instantaneous global feedback system. The old one-way broadcasting system is dying but no-one is exactly sure what will take its place. While the people formerly known as the audience now seek a new label to descibe them, intermediaries can still play a vital sense-making role. It remains the primary job of journalists to produce and disseminate information about contemporary affairs of public interest and importance.

But as everyone knows, journalists don’t just interpret news; they also create it. In New York in the 1890s a young ambitious reporter named Lincoln Steffens got involved in a contest with a rival named Jacob Riis to report on sensational and salacious crimes. Both men were egged on by their editors in a newspaper arms race. There was no increase in crime, just in reporting of it. But before long panicked New Yorkers believed they were living amid a crime epidemic. The embarrassed police commissioner (and later President) Teddy Roosevelt knew both Steffens and Riis and called them into his office to explain what was going on. He told them to stop the nonsense. They agreed and New York’s crime wave disappeared as suddenly as it started.

The moral of that story as communication scholar Michael Schudson points out, is not that the journalists made stuff up, but that they created an impression which people believed and responded to. News is vital to the democratic process and a sense of community but it is also capable of trivialising or distorting what is important. The media that produce the news play a wide variety of role: supporting the establishing order, picking holes in the established order, being a forum for political debate and acting as a battleground for elites.

The media is itself part of the elite. It could be argued that news is what makes the media such a privileged social institution. Newspapers may be disappearing but their influence remains vast as they became a prototype of all media that followed it. As noted by the name, news was their central ingredient and radio and television were modelled on the newspapers with news as central to their mission. This may be changing in the 21st century, however. News is now regularly outrated by sport and reality television and radio stations cut costs by hubbing their news or avoiding it altogether. Meanwhile the most-clicked stories on websites barely qualify as news at all.

But the human need for genuine news remains even if the commercial media think they can no longer make money out of it. And its social value is also unchanged. Steffens may have created a crime wave but society depends on news of violations of the law to reinforce their understanding of it and fear punishments if they transgress it. Humans are hardwired to be interested in portents, anomalies, and spicy happenings. The Internet is an immediate, crowded and complex place, but has not changed the nature of news nor has it lessened the need for news gatherers in a functioning democracy. It is gradually replacing television as the new home of awareness of the world. This is why the questions of who pays for it and how are so important.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Uganda calm after a weekend of riots

Uganda appears to be calm again after weekend riots that killed at least 21 people, injured 100 and saw 560 people arrested. The riots broke out after a row between the central government in Kampala and Buganda, one of Uganda’s four traditional kingdoms. The clashes took place mainly in and near the capital Kampala. While unexpected, they were spurred by long-simmering rows over land, power and corruption. Human rights groups said the Ugandan military response was heavy-handed. They used live ammunition on crowds, beat and arrested journalists and shut down five radio stations (photo credit: AFP/Getty Images).

According to London-based media writer Roy Greenslade, a photographer with Kampala’s Observer newspaper named Edward Echwalu was detained and beaten yesterday by security forces for taking pictures during a riot. Echwalu said he was arrested after he "took pictures of military men passing near a dead boy". He then suffered beatings after he rang his boss to complain. Greenslade also said that a Buganda radio station, CBS, went off the air.

Uganda’s four kingdoms, (Buganda, Busoga, Bunyoro and Toro) enjoyed a level of autonomy under British colonial rule but were abolished in 1966 by then-national leader Milton Obote. However, in a move to gain popular support, current President Yoweri Museveni restored the cultural and ceremonial powers of the traditional leaders, who were still revered by their subjects. The kings are constitutional barred from playing an active role in national politics but the law remains vague on many points. Government officials and the Buganda kingdom remain at odds over land, sovereignty and political power.

The latest trouble erupted after the Bugandan monarch, known as the Kabaka was banned from visiting a disputed part of his kingdom to celebrate National Youth Day. The Kabaka had attempted to visit the flashpoint town of Kayunga north-east of the capital on territory claimed by his kingdom. Kayunga is an area where a small tribe called the Banyala has for years agitated to be recognised separately from Buganda. However the central government has been keen to keep a lid on the problem as other tribal areas might follow suit and the system of kingdoms could unravel and with them, Museveni’s support base. Museveni could not guarantee the Kabaka’s security in Kayunga and banned the visit.

But when the Kabaka announced that the trip had been cancelled it triggered angry riots in Kampala and several central towns among Baganda youths, which are Uganda’s largest ethnic group. The riots escalated after local radio stations announced rumours that Buganda leaders were arrested. Rioters burned tyres and cars, set buildings afire and looted stores. They then strewed the streets with the debris of torched cars and burned tyres. Police reacted by firing tear gas and live ammunition. Human Rights Watch’s Africa director Georgette Gagnon said the available evidence raised serious concerns that police used excessive force in confronting demonstrators. "A thorough investigation is needed to find out who is responsible for yesterday's violence,” she said.

Museveni blamed former ally and now opposition leader Kizza Besigye for inciting the riots. The president claimed Besigye, head of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) wanted to see more bloodshed. Besigye rejected the accusation and said the protests were triggered by the government's actions. The opposition said major reforms were essential if the next election in 2011 was to be free and fair. While multi-party elections have only been in place since 2005, Uganda has made a remarkable transition to political and macroeconomic stability after years of civil war during the 1970s and 80s.

Uganda’s economic prospects received another boost last month when the US-based Tullow Oil company announced a major oil find. Tullow said its drilling site in the Congolese border town of Ngassa may contain significant oil resources. It and partner Heritage Oil have so far discovered 700 million barrels of oil in the Lake Albert region of Uganda with estimates that Ngassa could contain three times as much. The oil lies within the boundaries of Bunyoro which could become the epicentre of economic power further fuelling tensions between Kampala and the kingdoms.

Yet Uganda has been relatively stable since Museveni grabbed power in 1986. He won an election in 1996 and two more in 2001 and 2006. He faces re-election again in 2011. Analysts say the president is trying to build tribal alliances and weaken rivals through divide-and-rule ahead of that election. But he is risking a growing underclass of angry, unemployed youth in Buganda or Bunyoro will be alienated. As the country’s Daily Monitor said, "nothing unites them more than poverty and a sense of disenfranchisement -- and that is one war that cannot be fought with bullets.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Google launches Fast Flip as first response to content pay plans

Google released Fast Flip to the world today to mixed reviews. Many reviewers saw it as a throwback to earlier ways of accessing information while others praised it for exactly the same reason. Silicon Republic said Google has initially partnered with three dozen major publishers, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Salon, Fast Company, ProPublica and Newsweek to provide content in fast-loading newspaper or magazine style. They saw it as a way of a good way of avoiding waiting for content rich sites to load when all users want to do is “skim through the paper”.

Meanwhile over at Online Journalism Blog, Paul Bradshaw calls it “an analogue-mindset concept” that will further weaken the news sites that serve it. Google will run ads alongside the Fast Flip articles and will give an undisclosed share of the profits to the news providers. But Bradshaw says that Fast Flip screen shots may be sufficient for a lot of users who will no longer click through to the sites. This may be particularly true when users are on the run - Joshua Gans says its sideways scrolling motion works better on the iPhone than on a computer.

Webware agreed with Bradshaw that it would take advertising away from publishers but called Fast Flip a “platypus of news readers”. The author said it was an intermediate online form which recreated the experience of reading microfiche. “Fast Flip is a good solution for putting a magazine or newspaper online, and it makes scanning even a more modern Web feed really fast,” he said. “But it still feels forced.”

Perhaps it has been forced upon Google in reaction to news paywall plans which are gathering pace. Google have been conspicuously silent on the plans of Murdoch and others but they are surely worth watching as a party with a strong vested interest in its outcome. Google does not rely directly on subscriber services – it makes its money on advertising. In 2008 Google had revenues of $21.8 billion of which $21.1 (97 percent) was advertising. That amounted to a profit of $4.2b which at 20 percent wasn’t bad for such recession year (it is improving again in 2009).

But Google’s founders know how quickly that could change if they don’t stay ahead of the game. In his book “Linked” Albert-Laszlo Barabasi talks about how he met Larry Page in March 2000 when few people had heard of the search engine. The pair were speakers at an Internet Archives workshop in San Francisco. The event attracted an eclectic mix to hear about digital trends. Page gave a short talk about the search engine and bought his audience with a box of T-Shirts that had Google’s tag written on them: “I’m Feeling Lucky”. Barabasi says he tried out his t-shirt when he got home and also tried the search engine. He, like many others after him, became quickly addicted to Google’s product.

According to Barabasi, whose specialty is networks, Google should not have had the success it had as it violated the prediction of scale-free networks. Older sites such as Yahoo and Alta Vista had the advantage of becoming hubs quicker. But Google’s fitness for purpose gave it a commercial advantage that exponentially outweighed the disadvantage of their relative youth. To users, he says Google is easily tens of thousands of times more useful than any one web page.

Google has been busy adding to its stable of products since its t-shirt days. It offers services across a key range of products include email, images, video, blogging, RSS, maps, documents, advertising and news aggregation. With Google News the search engine behemoth faced claims of parasitical activity by the news industry. Google’s response is that it does not sell adverts on Google News, it a the major source of traffic to news websites, and publishers don’t like it they can simply turn off the flow with simple HTML script.

Margaret Simons reiterated that last point in her welcome return to blogging at The Content Makers. She says Google hasn’t broken into news sites. “The newspaper companies have allowed it in – and indeed hung out a 'welcome' sign, and they have done so because it suits their purposes,” she said. “Google has built their site traffic.” They may now decide they want to be paid to access that content but it is also highly likely that companies such as Google will opt to pay for the right to index and link to the content. In other words, Google might choose to be part of the club, and thus bring us all in. One possible way of doing that might be by linking Google News to micropayment systems.

In his book “We the Media” journalist Dan Gillmor said he was a fan of Google News even though it generally doesn’t acknowledge news content from the sphere of grassroots journalism. Google News was the brainchild of Krishna Bharat who realised after 9/11 it would be useful to see news reporting from multiple sources on a given topic assembled in one place. Bharat told Gillmor Google News has one basic rule; news requires editors and Google News is displaying what editors think is important at any given moment. Bharat saw Google News as complementary to what newspapers do. While Gillmor acknowledges it wouldn’t exist without news reporting from elsewhere, he said in 2006 it could become the front page for the rest of us.

From a distance of three years hindsight, that hasn’t yet happened (though it is being increasingly wrapped into products such as iGoogle). But perhaps the announcement of the new product today may yet prove Gillmor right. Fast Flip is a more visual representation of Google News. It also seems to tap into the “tabbed browsing” zeitgeist and as Gans says, is likely to prove especially popular on cell phones. Fast Flip may indeed be a platypus, but it is likely that higher-order products won’t take long to evolve.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Norman Borlaug: forgotten benefactor of humanity is dead

The father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, has died in Texas. He died at his home in Dallas on Saturday due to cancer complications. He was 95. Borlaug was an agricultural scientist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in combating world hunger and saving hundreds of millions of lives. Thanks to the green revolution, world food production more than doubled between 1960 and 1990 and his work was feted in a 2006 book entitled The Man Who Fed the World.

Borlaug was no great fan of the phrase Green Revolution which he described as a “miserable term” but his high-yielding crops saved many parts of the world from famine in the 1960s. Kenneth Quinn, President of the World Food Prize, said the world had lost a great hero. “Dr. Borlaug’s tireless commitment to ending hunger had an enormous impact on the course of history,” he said. “He will be remembered with love and appreciation around the globe.”

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in Saude, Iowa in 1914 to parents of Norwegian stock. Borlaug left the family farm to study at the University of Minnesota where he obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in 1937 and gained some fame as a champion wrestler. Borlaug continued studying and got a PhD in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. During the war, Borlaug worked at a military lab where he helped develop a glue that stopped food containers rotting in saltwater.

In 1944 he went to Mexico to work for an agricultural development program run by the Mexican government with support from Washington and the Rockefeller Foundation. He would spend the next 40 years of his life on this project. Borlaug looked at the problem of cultivating wheat which was susceptible to the parasitic fungus known as rust. He experimented with double wheat seasons and dwarf plants which were disease resistant and gave higher yield. By 1963 nearly all of Mexico’s wheat came from Borlaug varieties. The harvest had grown sixfold in two decades and Mexico was now a net exporter of wheat.

Borlaug’s success attracted interest in the sub-continent. At the time India and Pakistan were at war with each other and both were close to widescale famine. India was importing huge quantities of food grains from the US. In 1965 Mexico exported a large quantity of wheat to both countries with almost immediate effect. Pakistan’s wheat yield doubled in five years and India became self-sufficient in ten. He then took those varieties, and improved strains of rice and corn, to Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa.

For his work, his ancestral nation of Norway awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Accepting the honour, he said the destiny of world civilization depended upon providing a decent standard of living for all. He said "green revolution” was too broad in scope and only wheat, rice, and maize yields had increased. He compared the forgetfulness of the West and its abundance with the underprivileged billions in the Third World for whom “hunger has been a constant companion, and starvation has all too often lurked in the nearby shadows.”

With his reputation safely established, Borlaug continued to press for improvements across the developing world, especially Africa. He helped found the Sasakawa Africa Association in the early 1980s to improve African food production. With the help of local researchers he concluded that the existing products and information could greatly expand the African food production, but the improved technologies were not reaching the smallholders who produced most of Africa's food, and the extension systems were failing to link research to farmers.

But while his work was greatly respected in Africa and Asia, he remained almost unknown in his homeland. Writing in 1997 in The Atlantic Online, Gregg Easterbrook said that the US had three living Peace Prize winners of which two were household names (Elie Wiesel and Henry Kissinger) and the other was Borlaug. Easterbrook suggested that one reason for Borlaug’s anonymity was the fact that his life and work were done in developing nations far from the media spotlight. But he added a second more sinister reason: “More food sustains human population growth, which [critics] see as antithetical to the natural world.” Most of the criticism of Borlaug’s work has been around environmental concerns not humanitarian. These relate to large-scale factory farming which is biased towards agribusinesses as well as issues with inorganic fertilisers and controlled irrigation causing environmental stress. Borlaug never resiled from these arguments and said high-yield farming actually helps preserve natural habitats.

Borlaug remained active in his older years. In 2006 he was awarded America’s highest civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal. His long-time colleague and friend Professor M.S. Swaminathan called him one of the greatest Americans and humanists of all times. In his acceptance speech, Borlaug stressed the importance of continuing the fight against hunger. "We need better and more technology, for hunger and poverty and misery are very fertile soils into which to plant all kinds of 'isms,' including terrorism," he said.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Atheism is apparently not anti-evolutionary after all

Last week The Times splashed a claim that new research by a British psychologist found that belief in God is intuitive and may be hardwired by evolution. The article included quotes from Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, who told the journalists that his research “shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works.” The article claimed human tendency towards supernatural beliefs explains why many become religious as adults, despite not having been brought up within any faith. It claimed scientists believe that the durability of religion is in part because it helps people to bond. (pic adapted from original by stuartpilbrow)

As is often the way with journalism, the article was something of a simplification, not least with the words of Bruce Hood. Writing on his own blog two days later, Hood said he was misrepresented. Hood’s point, which he told The Times, was that humans are born with brains to seek out patterns and infer hidden mechanisms, forces and entities. “That does not make me either religious or a religious apologist,” he said. But Hood’s statements did not fit in with the “Born to Believe in God” angle the paper was pushing and his words were twisted and The Times’s angle was repeated by the Mail Online and the Telegraph.

In the rush to prove that religion was hardwired by evolution, the media glossed over what Hood actually said. He did not say humans evolved to believe in God. Instead, he agrees with Richard Dawkins that religion is a cultural construct. However he doubts that supernatural beliefs can be eradicated by education. The power of beliefs is strong and quite often is a positive force. Life is a balancing act between trusting our beliefs enough to act on them without being so certain about them that we could never ditch them. That predisposes the idea that we act on fallible beliefs. For instance, we cannot wait for all the evidence to come in before we act on global warming.

Nevertheless belief is predicated on a set of assumptions about how the world operates. This construct is central to all of the world’s major religions and has been so ever since humans prayed for rain or sunshine. But absence of belief has long been around as a counteractive force even if atheists were usually treated with scorn, or worse (rhe term comes from the Greek “atheos” meaning “deserted by the gods”). But according to Richard Dawkins we have all deserted the ancient Gods and atheists have simply gone one God further.

But evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson believes atheism is a stealth religion. He dubbed Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens “the New Atheists” and said the movement forming around Dawkins in particular was a religion without supernatural agents. For the new atheists, faith is a heresy that must be stamped out. But in truth they are part of an old tradition that goes back two hundred years to when atheism split between those who are primarily concerned with the pursuit of truth and those who are driven by contempt of those who have faith. For those in the latter camp, the fact that citizens could worship their gods in peace supported by the state was an indefensible concession to superstition and prejudice.

Some Christians have gone on the counter-attack and have attempted to demolish atheism’s intellectual credentials. Among the best known of these is Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. McGrath’s book defines atheism not as a suspension of decision but as a principled decision to live and act on the assumption there is no God or any spiritual reality beyond what we know. He says it was inspired by Protestantism which encouraged people to think of a world in which God cannot be experienced. Atheism thrives when Christians get into power and abuse it. But says McGrath, the 20th century godless world of the Soviet Union eroded the imaginative potential of atheism.

But such arguments are unimportant to secular societies such as Australia. The nation’s census doesn’t ask about atheism but the numbers of those who admit to “no religion” are low. From 1901 to 1971, the figure was almost negligible. But it has been rising steadily since and is now 18.7 percent. But active participation in religion is also low. Just 20 percent of adults participated in religious or spiritual groups or organisations in 2006. What the data shows is that materialism rules in this country though people may not necessarily admit to it in census questions.

One category definitely not on the census list is “soft cock atheist”. This is the odd category the author known as “Godless Gross” chose to describe himself in when writing in yesterday’s newly revamped National Times (though unnamed, it is reasonable to describe the writer as male on the evidence). Gross said he represented a “wishy washy” strain of atheism that could easily be swayed into theism if the right faith came along. The author also claims we are “a religious species” with 86 percent of people worldwide believing in some kind of God or other.

But perhaps what we need to become is more of a secular species. Secularism doesn’t necessarily take a side on religion. According to Max Wallace, head of the National Secular Society, the defining characteristic of secular government is separation of church and state. He says that despite the US’s predisposition for creationism (noted again today by a new British film about Darwin which cannot find an American distributor), that country’s government has a better separation than the constitutional monarchy of Australia. Religions get tax exemptions but atheism does not because it is not a form of supernatural belief. Wallace reminds us our government is a soft theocracy “but with a secular twist according to political contingency.” So which is worse, a soft theocracy or a soft cock atheist? God only knows.