Category Archives: Politics

The economic (non)sense of hunting in Victoria

hunting fool

98 per cent of hunters in Victoria are blokes

This week, among the many silly press releases that arrived in my inbox, was one from the Victorian government, titled: “Hunting’s $439 million boost to Victoria”

It proceeded to explain how much recreational hunting is worth every year to the Victorian economy, how it supports the equivalent of 3,500 full-time jobs and that those who hunt (the 46,000 game licence holders in Victoria) contribute to local economies across the state as they buy “hunting and camping equipment, food, fuel,and other supplies related to their pursuits”.

Reading through the government’s PR spin, it became apparent that this was  really nothing more than a thinly disguised election year publicity stunt, designed to garner a few more votes from would-be rambos running around bushland shooting at things.

“The Victorian Government will invest $17.6 into game management over the next four years and the new Game Management Authority, an election commitment from the Coalition, comes into effect on July 1,” said Agriculture minister Peter Walsh in a pledge to the trigger-happy rifle brigade.

The economic benefits highlighted in the press release were based on a detailed 116 page report commissioned by the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) and undertaken by three private consulting firms. RMCG, EconSearch and DBM Consultants.

The report followed some very bad press for the hunting fraternity and the government after the Box Flat duck massacre at the start of Duck hunting season. This was the illegal slaughter of 800 ducks by hunting louts in the state’s north west, their carcasses left to rot in the water. The victims included 104 freckled ducks, one of the world’s rarest duck species.

What’s really silly about the press release is the implied logic: that hunting is good because it makes economic sense:.

Such reasoning could be used to justify any number of socially abhorrent activities that make money but have virtually no societal benefits such as plundering wildernesss areas for mineral deposits or manufacturing illegal drugs like heroin or ice and selling them to addicts.

That hunting is an absurd blood sport offering little benefit to wider Victorian society (except allow the 46,000 licensed hunters to ruin the natural calm of he bush with gunshot and blood) is abundantly clear in the findings of the survey by the consultants in the same government report.

More than 90 per cent of the 1000 hunters surveyed said they “strongly agreed” with the statements that hunting “let them enjoy nature” and helped them “connect with nature”.

Perhaps they interpreted “connect” to mean the moment a bullet connects with deer or duck brain matter?

Even the economic benefits of hunting are minimal.

Hunting is in fact a tiny part of the Victorian economy and represents well under 5% of the $9 billion of revenue derived from tourism activities every year.

The $17.6 million set aside for game management could easily be directed to encourage economic and socially beneficial outdoor programs that support nature conservation and eco-tourism.

And hunting is not popular among the wider electorate: In a 2012 survey, more than three-quarters of Victorians opposed the shooting of native water birds, an activity which is being banned in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia.

In the UK, the cruel but traditional sport of fox hunting with hounds – favoured by rich landowners and Tories – has been banned since 2004. A survey this year found that more than 8 out 10 Britons supported the ban, after British prime minister David Cameron considered removing it.

The Australian (and Australia’s) propaganda war against boat people

boat peopleI was dismayed – no gutted – to read a story in The Australian newspaper last week.

The story ran under the headline “Lowy Institute poll shows strong support for asylum-seeker policies”.

It’s first paragraph said: “More than 70 per cent of Australians support the Abbott government’s Sovereign Borders Policy, including the idea that boats should be turned back when safe to do so.”

This information was correctly reported and seemed to confirm that, depressingly, most Australians have bought the propaganda – dished out regularly from both sides of politics about asylum seekers.

This is, that asylum seekers are queue jumpers, possibly terrorists and that if they want to come to this country, they should get in line and wait their turn – regardless of the circumstances in their home country. If they arrive by boat, they should be sent back to where they came from.

This sentiment was spelled out 13 years ago when former prime minister John Howard said in his election victory speech: “We will decide who comes here and the circumstances under which they come.”

He was referencing the Tampa affair, where a Norwegian freighter carrying rescued asylum seekers was denied access to Australia. This hard line attitude has been stamped into the heads of the voting public ever since.

But The Australian article conveniently forgot to mention another finding of the same Lowy Institute survey.

This was that the majority of Australians (57%) polled disagreed with the former Rudd government and current Liberal Party government policy that ‘no asylum seeker coming to Australia by boat should be allowed to settle in Australia’.

This statistic is nowhere to be found in Rowan Callick’s article – and which, if it were included, might have led to a different headline or at least told the full story.

Now, the margin of error in the poll was 3% so it could be that as many as 60% of Australians believe that asylum seekers who arrive by boat should be allowed to come and live in Australia, should there claims be genuine.

At worst 54% of Australians are opposed to the policy which is seeking to settle asylum seekers who arrive by boat on Papa New Guinea, Nauru or possibly even Cambodia in grubby cash-for-people deals.

So the end result is that I feel a little bit better about my country (of adoption) and my fellow countrymen.

But then again, reading numerous other articles and following the social media conversations, it is clear there are many Australians who feel like I do – that we are behaving abominably to the most desperate and needy in society.

For more balanced views, try:

Sadly though too many people appear to have been brainwashed following years of propaganda and believe – against all factual evidence – that asylum seekers arriving by boat are the first wave of potential invading hoards.

boatproportion

Source: Crikey.com.au

This is in no part due to the aforementioned article in The Australian, but also do to News Corp popular columnists like Andrew Bolt who regularly rounds of his tirades against Labor, the ABC, Fairfax, the Greens etc with thoughts like: “it is grossly irresponsible to allow thousands of illegal immigrants from countries very different from our own to crash our borders when we know it exposes Australians to extra risks they don’t want and never accepted.”

Or comments like this: ” Tens of thousands of ‘refugees’ would swarm each year through the Greens’ open door, more than we could safely accept, and the thousands rejected as refugees would not just go home.

All designed to stir up fear and hysteria of invading hoards and keeping John Howard’s 2001 message alive and well.

Reject the propaganda and form you own, educated view. Don’t be an ignorant fool.

(For more of my articles on this topic, go here.)

Drugs, sex and boredom: A review of “Scar Tissue” by Anthony Keidis

ScartissuebookAbout the most interesting revelation in the 460 odd pages of “Scar Tissue”, the autobiography of Red Hot Chilli Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis,  occurs about 330 pages into this tedious, self-centered tale.

It’s when Keidis talks about the Chilli Peppers playing as the opening act for the Rolling Stones in the late 1990s.

He writes that opening for the Rolling Stones is a “shite job” despite the opportunity to play with the second greatest band after The Beatles:

“I can’t recommend it to anybody…the fact is the Rolling Stones audience today is lawyers and doctors and CPAs and contractors and real estate development people. This is a conservative wealthy group. No one is rocking out.”

He goes on to describe it as “like going to the Rolling Stones mall”, a “horrible” experience where you play as “85,000 wealthy, bored-out-of-their-minds fans are slowly finding their seats”.

Keidis talks in the same candid, straight-forward style to describe his journey from reckless teenager to petty thief, confirmed junkie and lead singer of one of the biggest rock-funk bands in the world.

It’s an honest, seemingly truthful recollection (as truthful as possible given the amount of drugs consumed along the way) but the problem is its repetitious nature, built on a cycle of drug binges, failed attempts to get clean, and more drug-taking, interspersed with accounts of chaotic relationships, typical rock ‘n roll sexual encounters and tour bus stories.

It’s the complete cliché: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Sadly, there is very little revealed of the creative process – this mainly involves Keidis disappearing into a room by himself to write songs about his drug-fuelled personal experiences.

As a book about drug use and addiction it offers very little in the way of insight into the problem – apart from the obvious of it being very hard to give up. Many of the observations glamorize drug use, while others sound like the speech bubbles of a true stoner-idiot:

After fifty days of being sober, I thought, ‘That’s a nice number. I think I should honor that number’. I decided it was a good time to do drugs.

On a visit to New Zealand, he bemoans the fact that the country is too small to satifsy his drug requirements. Countless times he smuggles drugs onto planes undetected.

The only things to truly marvel is that Keidis somehow emerges out of his heroin/cocaine/crack/speed addiction and reckless to the point of almost suicidal lifestyle, not only alive, but rich and famous too (and still with that famous six-pack stomach).

Keidis, it seems, is the classic narcissistic celebrity who believes that if you throw in anecdotes about meeting the Dalai Lama, some syrupy thoughts about spirituality and the occasional bouts of healthy living and yoga exercise that you’re actually a decent guy.

Instead, he appears to lack basic humility even after surviving countless week-long drug binges in seedy motels, crossing paths with drug lords and avoiding arrest by police officers.

It got so bad that half-way through the book, I had to stop reading and put on a couple of Red Hot Chilli Peppers CDs to remind myself that they really are – as musicians – an incredibly original blend of funk, rap, rock and have produced countless great songs over the past  almost 30 years.

(For worthwhile, insightful accounts of heroin addiction read: Junkie by William S. Burroughs, Monkey Wrench by Helen Garner, In My Skin by Kate Holden or Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – you can find reviews of all of these books here.)

 

 

 

Edward Snowden vs the NSA: who do you believe?

edward snowden2Conservatives, spy chiefs, President Obama, right-wing administrations, the Abbott government: they were all choking on their corn flakes when the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism, was handed to the UK’s The Guardian  and the Washington Post for their articles about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.

Even more galling for them would have been that the Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the category of “public service” for the newspapers’ “aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy” – since they consider Snowden to have done a great disservice to the public, even putting unnamed lives at risk.

It is hard to think of a figure that divides public opinion  more than Edward Snowden: “hero”, “whistleblower”, “traitor”, “treasonist”. These are the words used to describe the 30-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA contractor, now in hiding in Russia.

The US government has charged him with espionage and revoked his passport, at the same time Norwegian parliamentarians Snorre Valen and Baard Vegar Solhjell have nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Australia’s attorney general George Brandis called Snowden “criminally dishonest, treacherous and having put Australian lives at risk” in a speech in parliament. In response to Brandis, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called Snowden a “whistleblower who I hold in highest regard”.

Where you stand on Edward Snowden defines your views on things like individual freedom, the right to privacy, the role and responsibility of government, access to information and democracy itself.

The Snowden leaks uncovered a hidden world of secret government activities in the US, UK and Australia including:

  • the bulk collection of phone records of US citizens by telecom Verizon including calls made to other countries, regardless of whether they are suspected of wrong-doing.
  • that the UK and US governments had access to user data held by Google, Facebook, Intel and others, including audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.
  • that the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders including German chancellor  Angela Merkel, – a supposed Western ally
  • That the Australian government listened in on the phone conversations of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s and his wife.
  • that the NSA “spied on the staff of prominent human rights organisations” including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch;
  • that there were programs like Prism or  XKeyscore, clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining programs, which use sophisticated techniques to screen “trillions” of private communications.

These leaks highlighted the secret activities of the NSA, depicting it as a shadowy government organisation resembling “Big Brother” as described in George Orwell’s hugely influential 1949 novel “1984”. It was this book which coined the adjective “Orwellian” to mean official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation.

It is not that surprising then that in the wake of the revelations about the NSA, sales of Orwell’s prophetic dystopian novel skyrocketed.

I regard Edward Snowden as a hero, an incredibly brave man who has sacrificed his own personal freedom to expose a government organisation obsessed with power, secrecy, data and control. Were it not for Snowden, the full extent of NSA activities and those of its UK and Australian counterparts would never been known.

But what of the other argument – the one that beats its fists against its chest proclaiming Snowden  a thief, traitor and criminal?

My own newspaper, the Australian Financial Review published an interview with General Keith Alexander, a spy and former head of the NSA, who not surprisingly slammed the Edward Snowden leaks.

This of course is the equivalent of asking the CEO of McDonald’s if he agreed that hamburgers were healthy.

According to General Alexander, the NSA is a “noble organisation that is “protecting our civil liberties and privacy” and that saves lives.

He says the very reports that won The Guardian and Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize are wrong and that it is a “fabrication” and “misperception” that the NSA is “listening into everyone’s calls, and reading everyone’s emails”.

General Alexander says the NSA has been “demonized” and painted as a “villain” by these very articles. when in fact the NSA is full of “honest, well-intentioned, hard-working, and patriotic people”.

The actions of Edward Snowden and the subsequent reports by The Guardian and the Washington Post, General Alexander says “have put so many lives at risk”.

The job of the NSA, General Alexander says, is to “stand watch” over our safety, which he says it does within legal means.

Of course he cannot actually tell us  the details of what the NSA is doing because that would compromise its role. In essence, we just have to trust him and the NSA.

Or if not him, then perhaps UK foreign minister William Hague who said in an interview that reports British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was gathering intelligence from phones and online sites “should not concern people who have nothing to hide” – a phrase that could have come straight out of an Orwell novel or perhaps the East German Stasi or KGB.

So do you believe General Alexander that the NSA is acting responsibly that the “overwhelming evidence falls in favour of the legality and legitimacy of what NSA has done”?

Or do you believe Edward Snowden, when he says the NSA is intent on “gathering intelligence where ever it can, by whatever means possible”?

There is of course a third view  – that you accept that the NSA  and other secretive government agencies are – as Snowden says – acting way beyond their remit, but in the name of protecting its citizens, that the end justifies the means.

But if you do, then you must also accept that your right to individual privacy is gone and that you are comfortable with the idea of a “Big Brother” watching over you as you type your email or make a phone call.

Perhaps it’s worth remember these chilling words of O’Brien, a member of the inner party who attempts to trick Winston Smith, the doomed hero of Orwell’s 1984:

There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’

 

A very grainy Penfolds grange confession

grangeI confess, I once accepted a bottle of Penfold’s Grange at a business lunch.

Unlike former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell I do distinctly remember the occasion and the circumstances of receiving the Grange.

It was in the winter of 2007, a year or so before the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers that ignited the US sub-prime mortgage crisis and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), when money was still flowing like…err…fine wine.

The venue was La Grillade, an upmarket restaurant in Crow’s Nest on Sydney’s North Shore famous as much for its succulent steaks and extensive wine list as for being a favourite venue for the big wigs media execs from nearby Channel Nine.

“Let’s get a bottle of Grange” I remember the already sloshed media man proclaiming as he flashed an intoxicated grin around the room and his gold-plated corporate credit card.

There were four of us at the table at the back of the restaurant and large amounts of alcohol had already been consumed.

This was back in the days when the long, boozy lunch was still part of a journalist’s weekly repertoire, before concepts like “the 24 hour news cycle” and “social media’ ruined all that.

The group consisted of myself  (very drunk), my colleague at the same North Shore publishing company where we edited our respective mortgage broking titles (also drunk) and our hosts, the very cheery media man (pissed, loud and notoriously bad at holding his alcohol) and his client, a gold-watch-and-necklace-wearing businessmen of Eastern European extraction, a classic self-made Aussie battler, riding the wave of easy money.

It was one of those gray, Sydney winter’s days when the thought of spending the afternoon carving into a perfectly cooked steak in a cozy expensive restaurant with someone else footing the bill sounded like a good idea.

Our host’s line of work? He ran a mortgage broking outfit targeting credit-impaired borrowers via ads which ran on the horse racing channel – classy!

The point of it all? A big boozy lunch hopefully in return for a favourable article about our host’s mortgage business, a modus operandi not uncommon in the ethically challenged world of trade publishing.

The bottle of grange made its star appearance late in the proceedings. Plied with countless beers beforehand, it was wasteful gesture in the extreme. More so because not only was I unable to appreciate the expensive drop, but I distinctly recall leaving the table without finishing my glass or helping our hosts polish off the bottle (surely a worse crime than denying ever receiving the bottle in the first place, Barry?).

Even more bizarrely, the last thing we drank was Sambuca, a licorice-flavoured liquor, which would have washed out what little my taste buds remembered of the dark red Grange nectar.

So I have no recollection of how good it tasted. For all I know, it could have come out of a cask. Still relatively new to the excesses of corporate lunches (I would soon learn) I also knew nothing about this so-called mystical Grange. All I comprehended at the time was the price – about $1200.

As the sun sunk from view, the cheque was ordered and duly paid. We said our goodbyes amid back-slapping, laugher and nudges and winks from our hosts.

My colleague and I made our way grimly back in the cold to our St Leonard’s office, an uphill walk after an over-indulgent meal with expensive steaks sloshing uneasily amidst the alcohol in our stomachs. I confess I felt out of it.

The irony: neither of us wrote a word about our host and his mortgage broking company that advertised on the racing channel. Or about his office lined with sporting memorabilia. Or his desire to be a larger-than-life mortgage lender in the mould of Aussie John Symond.

Later in that same year I bumped into our host at another function, the Melbourne Cup. It was another boozy affair. Bob Downe was the host and did his “Kevin 07″ impression. It was a different era.

Two years later with the financial crisis in full swing, I read on the NSW Fair Trading website of a mortgage broker that had narrowly avoided going to jail after being found guilty of taking advantage of his clients and pocketing huge commissions for each home loan he granted. His business was placed in the hands of administrators and was eventually wound-up.

It was our host and Penfolds Grange purveyor.

The latest edition of Penfolds Grange, the 2009 vintage, was recently released for sale.  According to Penfolds chief marketing officer Simon Marton the Barry O’Farrell fiasco increased its luxury cache. Wine experts say it’s still a good drop (you’d hope so at $785 a bottle) – but not of the quality of previous vintages.

Clearly, it’s also not in the same league ast the 1959 bottle that brought down a NSW Premier.

But is it any better than the 2003 vintage I drank six years ago at a long lunch in Crow’s Nest. I wish I could tell you.

(A further note to this sordid tale – the restaurant La Grillade didn’t fare so well either. It shut it’s doors in December 2011 after apparently losing the patronage of its media clientele. It re-opened under new management and still bears the same name. A marbled wagyu steak sets you back $55).

Killer sharks on screen: dissecting fact from fiction

shark_hermanus_backpackersIn 2004, soon after arriving in Australia, I took a boat from Cairns out to the Great Barrier Reef with my then girlfriend.

An hour or so later, seemingly in the middle of the ocean, the boat stopped and dropped anchor next to a floating platform.

We donned our wetsuits, flippers and goggles and plunged into the vast, bobbing ocean. In the back of my mind and I am certain in the back of the minds of everyone in the water that day was: Is there a shark out here?

For the next hour or so we snorkled among the reef, enjoying the colourful fish that swam past and the corals waving in the currents. But try as I might,  I could not get the idea out of my head, that somewhere in that enormous expanse of blue water lurked a perfectly designed grey and white torpedo shaped creature with lots of teeth, who might find a recently arrived pasty South African a tasty entree.

Assurances by the tour operator that large sharks stuck to the deeper channels of water did not re-assure me. After all, what was stopping them from doing a bit of exploring out of their comfort zone on this very day? And what if someone in the water was bleeding? Or splashing about madly?

In the end I was relieved when we hauled ourselves back on the boat, removed our wetsuits and tucked into the buffet spread before the engines were revved up and we headed back to Cairns harbour.

Almost 10 years have passed, but I still remember the feeling of complete helplessness, floating about with nightmarish thoughts circling in my head and the constant need to come to the surface to scour the waves for the familiar dorsal fin.

This week, while hunting for something to watch, I came across the movie “The Reef” on the ABC’s iview.

Made in 2010, it’s about five friends who get stranded in the ocean when their boat hits the reef and capsizes. Four of the friends attempt to swim to an island in the hope of being rescued only to be stalked – and for three of them to  be eaten – by an enormous great white shark.

It is, in my opinion, one just three classic movies made about sharks (excluding those amazing documentaries on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel).

The other two are of course  Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, made in 1975 about a rogue great white shark killing swimmers in the beach side town of Amity Island and the three men (brilliantly played by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Richard Shaw) who set off to kill it and Open Water made in 2003  about an American couple abandoned in the middle of the ocean after a diving expedition and who become the prey for hungry sharks.

A still from Open Water

A still from Open Water

Alongside them are litany of terrible, stupid and silly shark movies usually incorporating D grade special effects (the cult film “Sharknado” the pinnacle of silliness), unfathomable plotlines and wooden acting performances that provide stiff competition for the computer-generated sharks.

The Reef  though is one of the scariest and most suspenseful movies I have yet seen, placing the camera in the water as the four suntanned helpless heroes bob about while a huge great white shark circles silently and menacingly, waiting for its moment.

This “in the water” film-making is also employed in Open Water, leaving viewers gasping and shuddering when a fin cuts across the screen.

In both these films, the sharks are all very real compared with “Bruce” the mechanical shark used in Jaws, which famously broke down continuously, forcing Spielberg to use it sparingly, which in the end cleverly added to the suspense.

Jaws is also  pure fiction – based on a best-selling novel by Peter Benchley (he is said to have got the idea from a series of famous shark attacks on the Jersey Shore in 1916) while Open Waters and The Reef purport to be based on or inspired by real events.

Open Waters is based on the true story of Louisiana couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who disappeared off the Great Barrier Reef in 1998, after a diving company accidentally left them behind.

Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Tom and Eileen Lonergan

However, that is where “true” part of the story begins and ends.

Investigations of their disappearance found no evidence they were taken by sharks. There were wild, unsubstantiated theories they either committed suicide or had hashed some kind of insurance scam, but the official Queensland police was they perished at sea. Dive equipment believed to have been worn by the couple washed up later, but without any evidence of bite marks.

Grahame Connett, of the Port Douglas Marine Tour Operators Association, who ran the Port Douglas Dive Centre told The Age newspaper in 1998:

“There is no indication at this stage that they have been killed at sea . . . There are no bodies, the equipment found has not been shredded. It is almost impossible for them to be taken by a shark. There are not big sharks in the reef area where they were. There are white tip reef or black tip reef sharks. They are docile two-metre sharks . . .

The Reef stands on more solid ground.

It is based on real shark attacks that occurred off the coast of Townsville in 1983 involving trawlerman and lone survivor Ray Boundy and two others who perished.

395553-ray-boundy

Ray Boundy with a photo of his deceased friend Denis Murphy

Mr Boundy told the Courier Mail in 2010, when the movie The Reef was released, that the prawn trawler he was working on capsized with himself, deckhand Dennis Murphy, 24, and cook Linda Horton, 21 on board. The date was July 25, 1983.

They were left in the ocean a day and a half.

Denis Murphy was the first to go in eerily similar fashion to what happens to the character Matt (played by Gyton Grantley) in the film, who after he is attacked yells out “My leg’s gone.”

Mr Boundy said Denis yelled out: “The bastard has got my leg”

The original 1983 article about the attacks

The original 1983 article about the attacks

The shark or sharks that killed Denis Murphy returned later and killed Linda Horton and also attacked Ray Boundy, who was later rescued by helicopter after swimming to a nearby reef. He  was treated for his shark bites in the Townsville Hospital.

“I knew it was going to be one of us. And then Ms Horton was gone,” he told the paper.

Of course the film is a highly fictionalised and dramatised account of what happened: Pretty girls in bikinis, a romance sub-plot and the wrong species (great white in the film, tiger shark according to Mr Bound). Te film makers also take liberties when purporting to tell the truth, as in final lines at the end of the film

“Kate was rescued the next day by a fishing boat and rushed to hospital…no remains of Warren or the yacht were ever found”

None of which is true. But then again, it hardly matters.

It’s all about primal fear.

Fear, and of course deep respect – something the Western Australian government could learn a thing or two about.

stats

Protests against shark culls in Perth in January this year

 Further suggested reading:

ABC’s Fact File: Protecting people from shark attacks.

The Conversation: Western Australia’s shark culls lack bite (and science)

The making of Jaws (Youtube video)

Have you paid too much for your iPad?

ipadFinancial institution CommSec recently published an interesting global retailing index called the iPad Index.

The index ranks the cost of a buying an Apple Air 16 GB wi-fi iPad in 51 different countries converted into US dollars at prevailing exchange rates, mirroring The Economist’s much more famous Big Mac index.

The latest iPad Index shows Australia slipped from 4th cheapest country to purchase the popular computer tablet in September last year to 13th on the latest list – still (surprisingly) one of the cheapest places in the world to buy the gadget.

The fall down the list reflects a decision by Apple to lift local pricing rather than currency fluctuations – the Australian dollar was around 94 US cents when the index was compiled, hardly changed from an exchange rate of 94.3 US cents in September last year.

Untitled

The Apple iPad Index

Malaysia at $494 is actually the cheapest place for Australians to buy an iPad, saving you around US$68 off the Australian price ($562). Canada and Japan both add sales taxes to their purchases, pushing their iPad prices well above $500.

As the index shows, you certainly wouldn’t want to buy an iPad while visiting  Brazil for this year’s Fifa World Cup while much of Europe is also a no-go zone for cheap iPad purchases, mainly because of high taxes.

Alternatively, if you’re a Kiwi heading over to Australia for the Bledisloe Cup, you could save yourselves around $90 by purchasing an iPad over here.

Even if you’re not planning any overseas trips, the fall in Australia’s iPad Index ranking is interesting for a number of reasons:

Firstly, it could be interpreted to reflect Apple’s gouging of its Australian customers at the same time as its also gouges those who purchase songs and movies on iTunes (ABC show The Checkout highlighted this recently and provided a way around it), whilst gouging the Australian Tax office by shifting all of its taxable profits offshore. If you’re not feeling the Apple love, perhaps a Samsung or Google Nexus device will do instead.

Secondly, in the word’s of CommSec chief economist Craig James the index reflects why “on-line shopping sites and the power of travel are putting pressure on Australia retailers to remain competitive”. “If local pricing isn’t responsive to exchange rate changes then Aussie shoppers will increasingly look overseas to purchase imported items,” James says.

Thirdly, for investors, the current index could be interpreted to mean that the Australian dollar is overvalued if you compare it with the cost of an iPad in California ($543) but undervalued if you compare it with what it costs in China ($578) where all iPads are manufactured.

Fourthly, the higher price may also reflect higher Australian freight costs, tariffs and mark-ups.

So it’s a useful index both for retailers who want to remain competitive and for consumers, if they’re planning a holiday in the coming months and want to upgrade their tablet.

Alternatively, if you’ve got a friend visiting from Argentina or Brazil or Europe, a visit to an Australian Apple store might be a good suggestion.

Gerald Durrell’s idyllic Corfu childhood: a review of “My family and other animals”

My_Family_and_Other_Animals_BookI had hardly thought of Gerald Durrell, the author and naturalist until my wife bought me his boyhood memoir “My family and other animals” as a gift.

It tells the story of the four years he spent from 1935 to 1939 as a young boy living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu.

The family left the dampness and cold of London for the fresh air, sunshine and open spaces of the Greek island at the behest of Lawrence Durrell – Gerald’s oldest brother, who himself would go on to be a famous novelist, essayist and travel writer.

Picking up the book, I recalled a childhood memory of Gerald Durrell from a television show he presented that ran on South African television in the 1980s: a short, plump man with a white beard who appeared on television to tell us fascinating things about exotic animals. I looked at photos of him online and my memory served me well for he was indeed, short, plump and bearded.

gerald durrell older man

Gerald Durrell as I remember him from my childhood

The book is a wonderful account of an idyllic childhood for a young boy fascinating with nature. It’s one of the most entertaining books I have read, full of wonderful anecdotes about Gerry (as the family called him) and the animals he collects and brings into the family home.

These include: an owl, snakes (that end up being kept in the bath tub), frogs, a pigeon called Quasimodo, a tortoise and scorpions (that scatter one day across the floor during dinner) to name just a few.

Gerry Durrell is part Steve Irwin – unafraid to pick up creatures to see them up close – but more so Sir David Attenborough, with a wonderful eye for the details of nature and how it works plus the skills of a gifted novelist to bring it all to life.

In one scene he describes a gecko who has come to live in his room, which he names Geronimo:

He would sit on the window sill gulping to himself, until it got dark and a light was brought in; in the lamp’s golden gleam he seemed to change colour from ash-grey to a pale translucent pinky pearl that made his neat pattern of goose pimples stand out and made his skin look so fine that you felt it should be transparent so that you could see the viscera, coiled neatly as a butterfly’s proboscis, in his fat tummy. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm, he would waddle up the wall to his favourite spot, the left hand outside corner of the ceiling, and hang there upside down, waiting for his evening meal to appear.

This wonderful gift for describing a scene and revealing the wondrous details and idiosyncracies of nature is found throughout the book.

It is a mix of boy’s own adventure (Gerry accompanied by his faithful dog Roger exploring the island with almost unlimited freedom in which “all discoveries” filled him with “tremendous delight”) accompanied by hilarious tales of family life – Larry and his arty friends invading the island, his diet-obsessed sister Margo and the adventurous, gun-mad Leslie.

The other wonderful aspect of the book are the lovable eccentric local characters: There’s Spiro, the Durrell’s taxi driver, “guide, mentor and friend” – a “short, barrel-shaped man” with a unique grasp of the English language and who adored the family, the tremendously fat and cheerful Agathi who taught Gerry peasant songs and the immaculately groomed, sparkly eyed, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s guide  to the natural world plus a parade of doctors, housekeepers and tutors.

Gerrald Durrel with 'Spiro' on Corfu

Gerald Durrell with ‘Spiro’ on Corfu

Durrell writes of an afternoon spent with Agathi outside her “tumbledown cottage high on a hill:

Sitting on an old tin in the sun, eating grapes or pomegranates from her garden, I would sing with her and she would break off now and then to correct my pronunciation. We sang (verse by verse) the gay, rousing song of the river, Vangelio and how it dropped from the mountains, making the gardens rich, the fields fertile and the trees heavy with fruit.

By the time I finished reading the book, I yearned for just a few days of Corfu sunshine and a walks among its hills, valleys, gently swaying Cypress trees and olive groves.

I challenge you to find a more charming, magical account of a childhood we should only dream of giving to our children.

Mexico is indeed “gentle and fine”, Jack Kerouac

lonesome_travellerIn Lonesome Traveller, he’s poetic, mystical, sometimes incomprehensible account of wanderings and odd jobs in the mid-1950s, the beat writer Jack Kerouac writes of a trip to Mexico:

“There is no violence in Mexico, that was all a lot of bull written up by Hollywood writers or writers who went to Mexico ‘to be violent’.”

Kerouac continues:

“I know of an American who went Mexico for bar brawls because you usually don’t get arrested there for disorderly conduct, my God I have seen people wrestle playfully in the middle of the road blocking traffic, screaming with laughter, as people walk by smiling – Mexico is generally gentle and fine, even when you travel among the dangerous characters as I did – ‘dangerous’ in the sense we mean in America – in fact the further you go away from the border, and deeper down, the finer it is, as though the influence of civilizations hung over the border like a cloud.”

I recall the warnings from well meaning friends and family – There’s still time to change your plans/It’s not safe/It’s a dangerous place/Don’t go – before we boarded a New York flight in Christmas 2010 for a month long Mexican bus sojourn from Cancun all the way west to Guadalajara.

Though the notion of Mexico as a violent place is indeed “a load of bull” but still seemingly engrained in the American psyche more than fifty years after he wrote about it, Kerouac’s description of Mexico as “generally gentle and fine” is wonderfully precise.

There is little violence south of the shady border towns where the stories of gangs, beheadings, shootings and drugs garner garish headlines in American newspapers and stoke the flames of fear.

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A fruit stall, Mexican style

As travellers, we found the biggest danger in Mexico to be from a falling coconut while snoozing under the shade of a palm tree on an unspoilt sandy beaches on Isles Mujeres or Tulum.

Or perhaps from one of those mad windy bus journeys – where brakes are unnecessary accessories – up through the mountains to postcard perfect town like San Cristobel de las Casas, where the only sense of danger are the dolls, paintings and postcards for sale in souvenir shops depicting the Zapatista rebels with guns criss-crossed across their chests (and scary steely stares).

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The colourful, quite streets of San Cristobel de las Casas beneath the mountains

I write in my journal of a day spent in this oasis of bright colours, cobbled quiet streets and lazy wanderings:

“Students and tourists abound.The streets are lined with brightly painted mainly single story houses and shops in shades of yellows, reds, blues and oranges and with slanting roofs of Spanish-style red tiles…the perfect place to wander, sit and sip a coffee or beer and people watch.”

In comparison to the constant pleadings, coercions and tourist tricks and traps in Thailand, India, Morocco and Egypt (all places I nonetheless loved), Mexicans are so laid back they hardly bother when it comes to approaching tourists.

On Isles Mujeres, the little island off Cancun, this lack of savvy was perfectly captured by a man offering boat trips to see whales:

“Wanna go on a whale ride?” he enquired as we strolled by one afternoon.
“No gracias,” we replied.
Silence, then he said sleepily:
“Lotta whales…”

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Ice creams in the park, Valledolid

No one harasses you in Mexico. Not in the small, sleepy afternoon siesta towns like Valledolid (where we visited the ruins of Chichen Itza and swam in the underground Cenotes) and not in sprawling, bustling Mexico City, the world’s best functioning mega-sized city.

Are there dangers in Mexico? Of course. I would not be so naive as to suggest otherwise. But the risks are small unless you’re smuggling drugs, heading for the seedy border towns or in the words of Kerouac going there “to be violent”

The Mexico I remember is that of little black haired men with moustaches; their plump wives pulling chihuahuas on leads, climbing steps to find churches painted in brightest pink and orange, wandering streets in shades of yellow and red, the little taco stands sizzling away by the side of the road, poodles sleeping in hammocks, glorious, colonial Spanish architecture, the boulevards of Mexico City, the murals of Diego Rivero, Frida Kahlo’s sad paintings in the blue house in Coyoacán, ancient Mayan ruins overlooking beaches and azure oceans.

Alive in colour, light and smiles. A sentiment Jack Kerouac would have agreed with, I think.

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Confessions of a cricket tragic

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa's number one ranking

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa’s number one ranking

To be a South African cricket supporter residing in Australia is to be a true cricket tragic.

As we slid to another home series defeat against Australia in Cape Town, I dashed off a tweet about the last Test side to beat the Baggy Greens at home, a team know as the “Invincibles” which white-washed Bill Lawry’s tourists 4-0 way back in 1970. A colleague replied: “Oh come on, Larry, nostalgia is the last refuge.”

Perhaps he was right. Perhaps it was a foolhardy attempt to prop up my spirits after yet another home series failure against the old foe; the only blight on an exceptional record that has seen South Africa rank as the No. 1 Test side in world cricket for many years and unbeaten in 14 Test series dating back to 2009.

No defeat hurts more than to lose against Australia (the 1999 World Cup semi-final still haunts me), no victory is more sweetly savoured.

When we finally did win a Test series against Australia in 2009, away from home, and then again 2012, also away from home, it was indeed a sweet moment for a biltong-eating expat like myself.

But a home Test series win against Australia has eluded us in seven attempts since we returned to world cricket in 1992 with just two draws and five defeats.

Back in 1970, just prior to being cast into the sporting wildness, South Africa was a dominant side with a host of superstars in the making. Top of the pile was Graeme Pollock, considered by many to be the finest left-handed batsman the game has produced. In a career of just 23 Tests, Pollock scored 2256 runs at an average of almost 61. I was lucky enough to see Graeme Pollock bat in the early 1980s, when he was approaching 40 and in the twilight of his career. It was at the “Bull ring” – the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, where Pollock would come into bat at number 4 for provincial side Transvaal, known then as the “Mean Machine” and packed with star players including West Indians Alvin Kallichirran and Sylvester Clarke (relics of earlier “rebel” tours). The side was captained by the handlebar-moustached all rounder Clive Rice, whose rich talents sadly coincided with our period of isolation, meaning he never played a single official Test. I’d sit there with my dad in the wooden seats, long before they knocked down the old grandstand, eating a chicken mayo sandwich, binoculars trained on the pitch, watching the bowlers run in.

When it was his turn to bat, Pollock would lazily stroll to the wicket Viv Richards-style and take his guard nonchalantly. When in form, he was a sight to behold, able to clip a fast bowler off his toes for six with just a flick of his bat. I still have his signature in a little green autograph book I kept as a lad. Others in that 1970 Test side that never got the opportunity to fulfil their burgeoning talents included opening batsman Barry Richards, who scored 508 runs against Australia at an average of 72 (in what was to be his only Test series), all rounder Mike Procter, who picked up an incredible 26 wickets at 14 a piece and captain Ali Bacher, whose record against Australia was seven wins from eight matches (he was also part of the team  that beat Australia 3-1 in a home series in 1966-67, captained by Peter van der Merwe).

Softly spoken, calm and diplomatic Ali Bacher was a constantly on television. As our leading cricket administrator, he organised the rebel tours in the 1980s that kept cricket alive during isolation and in 1992 led the country back into world cricket. Of course,  I remember everything back then – the smell of boerewors wafting up from braais (barbeques) around the stadium; the colourful match programs packed with statistics about my heroes; walking across the field to inspect the pitch with my dad during the lunch break – from the viewpoint of a privileged white upbringing.

I was too young and naive to understand the country’s cruel reality: that apartheid robbed generations of black, Indian and mixed-race South Africans of participating in the game.

Thankfully, that’s all changed and our team is a now a better reflection of the ‘‘rainbow nation”, with players of colour like Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Alviro Peterson all households names. Just last month, a junior South African side packed with players of all colours beat Pakistan to win the under 19 World Cup. Perhaps they will one day guide us to a home series win against Australia. A World Cup win would be nice too.