Wednesday, 5 November 2003

The Slashdot Effect

I work for a mob called Software Improvements.

On Monday, Salon wrote a rather complimentary article on our eVACS® electronic voting system, an article that was then picked up by Slashdot.

We got hit by the Slashdot Effect, which in our case amounted to 33,000 hits in a few hours. Fortunately, our ISP's server coped. It appears that we got more hits in the last 2 days than in the previous 2 years.

Tuesday, 4 November 2003

Normal Service will be resumed Shortly

I've got a hefty assignment to complete by the 15th, and an exam on the 18th to study for, then there's work, and my 2-year-old son, Andrew... so blogging will be very intermittent for the next 2 weeks.

But in the meantime, courtesy of Steve Jackson's Daily Illuminator, there's the Octodog. $16.95 plus postage.

From there's Smallpox: A Musical, with the unforgettable refrain
The Halls are Awash, with the sound of Mucus"...

And from Jihad Watch, via LGF, the Pakistan Christian Post publishes an open letter from the "Grand Prior" of the Knights Templar to one Osama Bin Laden, challenging him to single combat.
We doubt that you really believe there are any Crusaders left, as we doubt that you really believe in God. You would not taunt Crusaders if you really believed in them, because you are a craven coward who cherishes his own flesh while admonishing your followers to blow themselves up. You are an infidel, because no one who truly believes in God would sanction the killing of innocent men, women, and children. Your actions show you to be both a coward and an infidel, because you ask your followers to do what you are afraid to do, and you don't believe there is a God who will condemn you for your vile actions against Islam and humanity.
.... to prove to the entire world that you are a coward and an infidel, this Knight Templar challenges you to single combat in the sands of Pakistan. I challenge you to meet me with scimitar or sword, to be pitted against myself and a holy sword consecrated to our Order-a sword that was forged to destroy evil.
If the Grand Prior is a member of the SCA, I'd lay 2:1 odds on him. 20:1 if armour and shield are allowed.

Sunday, 2 November 2003

Weathering the Storm

Fedsat booster separationBack in 2001, I had the pleasure to head the On-Board Software development team for FedSat, Australia's first Satellite for 30 years. The recent Solar Storms have caused all sorts of problems for many satellites, but FedSat is still humming along. In the days before the storms hit, a patched version of the software was uploaded to the satellite, ending in pass 4574 or thereabouts, when over a megabyte of data was transmitted to FedSat. Quite a bit more had been transmitted in the immediately previous passes. This corrected a minor problem with the transmission of program data to the Communications payload, and enabled the ground crew to successfully upload a new version of the software for the Comms payload experiment (theres quite a few separate computers on board, each prgrammable independently). I don't know what the problem was, but as the code upload worked perfectly for the other payloads, I suspect it was some duff parameters to do with where in the Comms payload's memory the data was supposed to be put.

Anyway, you can see a summary of the lastest data from Fedsat on the web. Battery voltage is still pretty good after nearly a year in orbit, better than expectations. You can see where the voltage drops due to the high power drain when communicating with the ground station. Our goal was 12 months of full functionality, another 2 years of almost-complete functionality, then maybe another 2 years of partial functionality. It looks as if we may get quite a bit longer.

I had an e-mail interview with a Journalist at the Age newspaper, and he did superb job of condensing my ramblings (and others) into a neat, tidy article. Here's a quote:
Only 58 centimetres square and weighing 50 kilograms, the tiny FedSat satellite is packed with five scientific experiments and all of the instruments required to communicate with Earth during its anticipated three-year life. At the heart of the satellite is a 10MHz ERC-32 processor - a SPARC-based 32-bit RISC processor developed for high-reliability space applications.

The ERC-32 sacrifices processing power for durability and reliability. It uses three chips to process a modest 10 million instructions per second and two million floating-point operations per second - less than 1 per cent of a Pentium 4's capabilities.

The pay-off is reliability: the ERC-32 uses concurrent error-detection to correct more than 95 per cent of errors.

Power-hungry microprocessors such as the Pentium 4, which runs a standard office PC bought off the shelf today, would be an intolerable burden on the solar-powered satellite. The ERC-32 consumes less than 2.25 watts at 5.5 volts.

Designed to survive extreme radiation bursts from solar flares, the ERC-32 can tolerate radiation doses up to 50,000 rad. This is 100 times the lethal dose for humans.

Low-Earth-orbit is "a cruel place to put a computer", says software engineer Alan Brain, who is responsible for FedSat's data-handling system.

It will orbit at about 803 kilometres above the Earth's surface and will circle the planet every 100 minutes.

"The radiation will cause random bit-flips and can even fry components," Brain says. "The vacuum boils the volatile gasses out of normal chips, making them useless and coating everything nearby with conductive gunk. In the Earth's shadow, temperatures make Antarctica look balmy, and in the sun's glare it's hotter than the Simpson Desert. On the way up, the vibration of the rocket would shake most normal circuit boards to pieces."

Spaceflight avionics software development is not for the faint-hearted either.

"The question for software developers is not, 'Are you paranoid?', the question is, 'Are you paranoid enough?' " Brain says. "Every software module, every function, procedure or method has to assume that information coming in may have been spoilt by a malfunction and be prepared for the worst. The system must be ductile - bending, not breaking - when things go wrong. In space no one can press Control/Alt/Delete."

A team of Australian programmers developed FedSat's onboard software, building on work done in Britain. It is written in Ada-95, a programming language designed for embedded systems and safety-critical software. All it has to work with is 16MB of RAM, 2MB of flash memory for storing the program, a 128K boot PROM (programmable read only memory) and 320MB of DRAM in place of a hard disk that would never survive the launch process. All essential data is stored in three physically different locations.

Along with controlling the satellite, this software must interface with the satellite's five experimental payloads. These are designed to study UHF and Ka-band transmission characteristics and coding methods, the Earth's magnetic field, Global Positioning System applications, high-performance computing and the stars.

Along with power restrictions, the main constraint on FedSat's designers is its limited contact with Earth.

The FedSat ground station will control the satellite via an S-Band bidirectional radio link using a dish on the roof of the Signal Processing Research Institute building at the University of South Australia's Mawson Lakes campus.

Owing to FedSat's orbit, the ground station will only be able to communicate with the satellite during two 20-minute periods each day.

As such, a large component of the software's work is logging data to be downloaded and storing commands to be executed while the satellite is out of contact.
The Unquiet SunPretty Cruel is right. As John Hohl told the BBC :
Commenting on the solar events of the past few days John Kohl of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the US, said: "It's like the Earth is looking right down the barrel of a giant gun pointed at us by the Sun...and it's taken two big shots at us."

"The Sun is really churned up. The timing of two very large X-class flares aimed directly at the Earth, occurring one right after another, is unprecedented.

"I have not seen anything like it in my entire career as a solar physicist. The probability of this happening is so low that it is a statistical anomaly."
And as I said, "The Question is not 'Are you paranoid?' but 'Are you paranoid enough?'. <gloat>I beefed up the memory error-checking and automatic correction way beyond the spec, just in case, and because with the design I'd come up with it was actually easier to go a bit overboard than restrict the checking to something less aggressive.</gloat>

Thursday, 30 October 2003

Enterprise at Mach 5

Actually Mach 5.2
Enterprise in Wind Tunnel
The good people at the University of Queensland's Laser Diagnostics centre ran a Fascinating Experiment to see how aerodynamic the NCC-1701A shape was. It turns out that it's surprisingly good.

Wednesday, 29 October 2003

Greetings, Visitors from Samizdata.Net

I usually navigate to Samizdata.Net via the long list of Anti-Idiotarians put out by LGF. Along with Lileks, Den Beste, Tim Blair, Silent Running and of course Instapundit, the site's on my daily scan list.

So yes, I'm chuffed to pieces to be mentioned by that site.

Some previous posts that may be of interest to you:

The Long-Term Chinese Space Programme
The Great Tolkein Society Putsch including a link to "Gollum Sings the Blues" (Student Politics in the 70's)
The Ethical Treatment of Animals
M.I.T's Open CourseWare (with Pork Brains and Milk Gravy)
Who Armed Saddam?
A little-known chapter of WW II : Operation Safari
Design your Own Hell
Short-Circuiting the Brain Part II
The Protocols of the Elders of Barnum
Short-Circuiting the Brain Part I
A Guide to the Australian Political Ecology

And along the way you'll see things like "Blue Suede Shoes" in Klingon, and articles on Cyborgs. Visit the whole archives to see more
"Intermittent postings from Canberra, Australia on Software Development, Space, Politics, and Interesting URLs.
And of course, Brains..."
Hope you have fun.

Computer Security

For the less-than-expert Computer User.

That's the challenge posed by an article in The Register.

Anyone connected to the Internet, especially if they have Broadband, and doubly especially if they're using a Microsoft Operating System (that is, "Windows" of any description), should have a Firewall. No exceptions.

But how do you explain what a Firewall is, and why it's needed, when your audience really doesn't care about their Computer except as a means to do things like surf the Net? My interest in cars is much the same - does it go from point A to point B, is it easy to park, does it have enough space inside for my usual needs, what's the fuel economy, is it reliable, is it easy to drive. I don't care if it has Electronic Fuel Injection, Macpherson struts and a double-overhead cam with shimmied flunge-sprockets. Or not.

From the article mentioned above :
We can't just ignore the problems with insecurity that our non-IT friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances have with their computers. If their machines are compromised, we feel the effects, whether we realize it or not.

We feel the effects when we end up spending several hours each week doing pro bono IT work at the homes of the people we know (I've tried sending my Mom a bill, but she never pays, the deadbeat).
Been there, done that.
We feel the effects when the Internet slows to a crawl due to a sudden explosion of traffic caused by a particularly-virulent virus or worm.

We feel the effects when we get even more spam, sent from compromised zombies to everyone else on the Net, or when those zombies are used in DDOS attacks on anti-spam Web sites.

We feel the effects when zombies owned by our unknowing friends and family are used to secretly host scams, or porn sites ... or worse.
The solution? Education.
...I can't teach my students everything, but I try to teach them something. Every security professional needs to do the same. We're at the forefront, like it or not, and it's up to us to help lessen the myriad of problems we see around us. Like it or not, we need to become educators - permanent educators - or we may find ourselves refloozling those hossenblobbets with tinklewickets one too many times.
I've already mentioned a free online Virus scanner in a previous post. And the Firewall I use is Zone Alarm.

I urge any reader who wants an explanation of what a Virus Scanner is, what a Firewall is, and why they're so important - and how to install them - to e-mail me.

Tuesday, 28 October 2003

A Contrast in Style, A Contrast in Substance

The most reviled form of Government in recent times has been National Socialism. With Good Reason. The two most famous - or infamous - National Socialist parties have been the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei - National Socialist German Workers' Party) AKA "Nazi" party, and the ANSP (Arab National Socialist Party) AKA "Ba'ath" Party.

But... a bad form of Government executed by Good People is better than a good form of Government executed by Bad People. therefore present for you a contrast in styles, of two "National Socialist" movements, though one of them didn't call itself that. Judge for yourself.

Flies and BombersNational Socialism often conveys Public Service messages in Militaristic terms, but not always.Signposts
Civilian Conservation CorpsA Favourite theme is the Heroic Industrial Superman, forging a new National Pride.You are the Front
NRA EagleThey seem to have a thing for Eagles as emblems. On Restaurants, on Posters for "World Peace"...Nazis For Peace
NRA RecoveryThey're good at showing how Decent, Normal Folk are on the way up from Misery and DespairWinter Relief
NRA EagleDid I mention about the Eagles? Oh, and the paperwork, the licencing, the bureaucracy...Nazi Eagle
Work Promotes ConfidenceOf course, not all National Socialist Regimes are created equal. Sometimes the differences are what is important, not the similarities.Arbeit Macht Frei
National Socialism per se is not what made the Nazis, and the Ba'athists, evil. It was their penchant for attacking neutral countries, and for engaging in the wholesale slaughter of innocents. Auschwitz would have been an abomination regardless of the political system that created it. Whether feeding the families of political opponents into shredders or into ovens, that's just a matter of style. What's important is the matters of Substance, like the very real differences that existed between the Franklin&Eleanor team and Adolf.
Did I mention about the Eagles?Iraqi Eagle

Monday, 27 October 2003

The Borg Hypothesis

The subtitle of this blog is
Intermittent postings from Canberra, Australia on Software Development, Space, Politics, and Interesting URLs.

And of course, Brains...
So it's interesting to see an Interesting URL which encompasses Software Development, Space, and Brains. A quote:
For long-duration space missions, we must approach Borgification from two directions:
  • Machines, as we know them today, must become more biological in certain respects. They must possess functionalities such as self-repair and self-defense, for example. (Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are already working on systems that can train themselves to become new circuits.) Not just when the machines are in use, but also as they are created and decommissioned, processes must be more biological -that is, more like growing and recycling than manufacturing and discarding.
  • Bodies, as we know them today, must become more machine-like in certain respects. We are already on that path, but taking it further, wouldn't it be nice, for example, to fix our bodies so that radiation and low gravity do less harm? Computational technology also holds great and perhaps more immediate promise, for instance, using artificial intelligence technologies inside us.
For long-duration space missions, we may have to put intelligent technologies inside of us. Brave new worlds are usually described in a context implying choice, choice of paths that might lead either to utopias or to hells. Perhaps humanity made its choice already, eons ago when creatures first began wondering at the stars.
One of my first posts on this blog was "Computer, Heal Thyself" (you'll have to scroll down to it). FedSat's High Performance Computing Experiment demonstrated exactly this biological-like "self-repair" capability when damaged by Radiation. This stuff is not too far away, we should be thinking about the ethical implications now.

Sunday, 26 October 2003

Weird Wide Web

The Iron ChefImagine, if you will, a TV program that is an unholy hybrid of Pokemon, The Galloping Gourmet, Pot Black, and Sumo Wrestling.

There you have "The Iron Chef", where each week a challanger gets to take on the Three Gods of Cooking, the Iron Chefs!

Who can forget when one of the usual Judges, Dr Hattori, took on the Master of the Japanese School, Iron Chef Michiba.

"Iron Chef Michiba, I choose you!"

Today's ingredient.... Truffles! An ingredient so subtle, so rare, that just a hint can make all the difference to a culinary masterpiece. So of course they provided a whole basketful of them. There was Truffle Ice-cream, sliced Truffle in Port Wine, Spring Rolls with Truffle Jelly...

From one of the many(!) Fan Sites :
Get ready for the seaweed and giant eels to start flying as Ultimate Fighting Champion meets Julia Child in this Japanese cult hit. After the surprise ingredient is revealed, the challenger and the Iron Chef face off in a frenetic culinary battle against each other and the clock. The guest panel judges the menus to determine who is victorious and who is vanquished.

If you haven't seen the show, Iron Chef is a Japanese variety/cooking show of sorts. Known in Japan as "Ryori no Tetsujin" (Cooking Iron Man), it is produced by Fuji International TV. It started airing in 1993 until 1999 when the show ended its run. 1 or 2 specials are still usually produced in a year.

The concept of the show is that a flamboyant gourmand, portrayed by Kaga Takeshi, lives in his castle with his "Iron Chefs." These Iron Chefs are the top chefs in the culinary fields of Japanese, Chinese, French and Italian cooking. Each week, Kaga will choose a challenger chef (from anywhere on the planet) to "do battle" against his Iron Chefs. Kaga will present a theme ingredient and each chef will then be charged with preparing a multi-course meal that utilizes the theme ingredient in each course.

The chefs have one hour to cook. Then, Kaga and four judges taste the food and pronounce winner. Sometimes there are ties and a cook-off battle will need to be held. The great appeal of the show is its meld of sports commentary with a cooking show. There is a sidelines announcer, Ota Shinichiro, who provides a play by play commentary on the dishes as they are prepared. There are also two announcers, Fukui Kenji, who provides most of the announcements and Hattori Yukio, who is the "color" man and fills in the viewers with tidbits of culinary knowledge.
ACME Earthquake PillsIn the Grand Tradition of all Talent shows, the Judging panel consists of one person who actually knows something about the subject, one bon-vivant/raconteur, and one brainless bimbo. The specimens of the latter genus appear in Kimonos, and have less evident intellect than most of the ingredients. Perhaps more than some of the asparagus spears, but certainly less than any of the vertebrates, or even shellfish. About even with the Cabbage.

If you've never heard of it, seek it out. The Universe is a stranger place than you can imagine.

And then there's the Original Catalogue of ACME products! Why wait? Make your own Earthquakes! Loads of Fun!

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This site is certified 31% EVIL by the Gematriculator Or, if you prefer, This site is certified 69% GOOD by the Gematriculator

Friday, 24 October 2003

Hu's on Second?

After yesterday's visit by US President Bush, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao's speech to Parliament came as a bit on an anticlimax. Well, a lot of an anticlimax. All the CNN and Fox glitterati and Presidential camp-followers had departed for fresher fields and pastures new. Instead of Fighters loaded with live missiles overhead, we only had a few unarmed and mostly harmless observation helicopters.

But then again, China is not at war.

In any other circumstances, the visit by the leader of the world's most populous country, and the 21st Century's emerging Superpower would have been not just a big, but a huge deal. Especially for placid Canberra, stuck away as we are in the middle of nowhere-in-particular, just a useful rest-stop between Sydney and the Snow Fields. There would have been a Media Frenzy, we wouldn't have heard the last of it for months. But as it is, we've barely heard the first of it.

Going in to work today, there were a number of Chinese flags alongside Australian ones. A bit more helicopter air traffic than usual. But that was about it.

The Full Text of Premier Hu's speech (courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald is quite interesting. A few quotes:
Let me begin by expressing, on behalf of the Chinese government and people, my best wishes to you and, through you, to the courageous and hard-working Australian people.
Courageous? Hard-Working???!!! He really should visit here more often if he's under such misapprehensions...
Though located in different hemispheres and separated by high seas, the people of China and Australia enjoy a friendly exchange that dates back centuries.

The Chinese people have all along cherished amicable feelings about the Australian people.

Back in the 1420s, the expeditionary fleets of China's Ming Dynasty reached Australian shores.
A Ha! They do remember Zheng He! (See previous post)

For centuries, the Chinese sailed across vast seas and settled down in what they called Southern Land, or today's Australia.

They brought Chinese culture to this land and lived harmoniously with the local people, contributing their proud share to Australia's economy, society and its thriving pluralistic culture.
Harumph. Conveniently swept under the carpet is Australia's shameful record of mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century - and the almost equally shameful "White Australia Policy" of the first half of the 20th. He should have mentioned it, as we're going to politely enquire when China's going to stop the cultural genocide in Tibet. And the harvesting of prisoners' organs. And the jails which are slave labour factories. True Friends should be able to criticise each other - without emnity.
How should countries go about their relations with one another in this complicated and diverse world?

It is a question that is on the minds of many people.

We are of the view that for a smooth conduct of state-to-state relations and for lasting peace and common prosperity, all countries should act in compliance with the following principles:

First, politically, they should respect each other, seek common ground while putting aside differences and endeavour to expand areas of agreement.
And not be so impolite as to mention Tibet in public. OK, no mention in public. Private is another matter - we would like some deeds, we're not out to score points.
Our world is a diverse place like a rainbow of many colours.

Civilisations, social systems, development models, as different as they may be, should nonetheless respect one another, learning from each other's strong points to make up for one's own weakness amid competition and comparison and achieving common development by seeking common ground while shelving differences.

By mutual respect politically, we mean that the political system and path of political development chosen by the people of each country should be respected.
Really don't mention any of this 'Human Rights' stuff, OK?
We have stepped up the building of rule of law in China, making sure that there are laws to go by, that the laws must be observed and strictly enforced and that violators must be dealt with.
This is one of China's great advances, though they still have a very long way to go. Until quite recently, the Law was basically whatever the local Communist party cadre said it was. In 20th Century China. 18th Century Russia, 17th Century France and 13th Century England, the whim of the local Aristocracy held the ultimate power over people's lives. This is now changing, and changing fast. In no more than a few decades, the Communist Party and the Guomintang in Taiwan will be indistinguishable from one another, if the rate of progress continues to accelerate. (Few people realise just exactly how Marxist the Guomintang is, and always was. Taiwan is not exactly "free" by contemporary standrads, even now).
As China-Australia relations prove, so long as they understand and treat each other as equals and respect their respective national conditions and circumstances, countries with different social systems may very well become partners of friendly cooperation with constantly increased common ground.
Let's not let Tibet come between us, OK? Fair enough - as I said, Australians don't wish to embarress China. Just see some justice done, with whatever face-saving is needed. And he's right - with increased contact comes increased understanding. This can lead to increased friction, when we understand exactly how different our societies are. But it can also lead to one or both partners deciding to change themselves for the better.

Having studied Chinese history, especially the Tai-Ping rebellion ( a civil war with a Loony Christian Sect which slew over 100 million people in the 19th century) - I can understand the repression of the Falun gong. To understand is not neccessarily to condone, but I'll be darned if I can think of a way of preventing a recurrence of Crackpot Religious Cult-ism without such an evil policy. I'm glad I'm not Hu, to have so much power over so many people scares the fertiliser out of me. I'd probably be far worse.

Anyway, I'd recommend people read the whole speech.

The reason I haven't commented on Bush's speech of the day before is because the whole thing should reaaly be read first. And unlike speeches by Chinese politicians, where nuance and indirection is everything, it's a speech by a Texan. Bush may not always speak plainly, but he has of neccessity to give that impression. Whatever the reason, his speech should also be read in full, and I'll be commenting on that later.

A thought has crossed my mind though: how better to arrange a China-US "understanding" about dealing with North Korea except by using a mutually trusted go-between who has a personal interest in seeing a solution formulated? Sorry, I've done some data analysis in the past - usually diagnosing bugs in complex systems - and getting such "hunches" on very tenuous evidence is a habit. As is being right worryingly often, maybe once in ten times. Pure speculation on my part, anyway.

Thursday, 23 October 2003

Look Out! There are Llamas!

No, not Tibettan Abbots. From The Australian :
Ambulance crews called to the aid of a 72-year-old farmer who injured himself after tripping over a rabbit hole were left powerless to help him overnight after his herd of stubborn llamas leapt to his defence.

Graham Bailey who farms four South American llamas, called Milo, Bertie, Horatio and Felix, fell in a field on his farm near Kettering, north England, and was stranded for two hours before a passer-by heard his screams.

Attempts to rescue the stricken pensioner were scuppered when the head llama led the animals in a circle and began dancing around to protect him.

"The ringleader Milo stirred the others up," an air ambulance spokesman said.

Observations on the Media

Well, the Bushes have come, and gone. And Canberra feels like it's been rudely shaken awake, has looked about groggily for a bit, then has gone back to sleep.

No more constant roar of fighters in the sky. No more traffic chaos as roads are blocked without warning. The prime security measure was not to tell anyone exactly where the President was at any time, or how he'd get to the next engagement. This meant that you'd be driving along, and suddenly have to take a detour, sometimes of up to 15 kilometres.

By the way, the official scoring rate in the "SPOT POTUS" game was:
For seeing Bush's Head : 50 points
For seeing Bush's Torso : 100 points
For a full-rear view : 500 points
For a full-frontal view : 1000 points
For spotting Bush's Double : 2000 points
For spotting anyone in a Dark Suit with aviator glasses : 1 point
..talking into their cufflinks : 10 points
..using a shoephone : 50 points

This gives you an idea of the gravitas, decorum and respect for authority that is so much a part of Australian society. (Sorry, forgot the <sarcasm> tags)

Anyway, I was able to get into work today with no trouble. Getting home again was another matter, but never mind. Still, I was able to engage in the pastime of "people watching" of all the CNN and Fox reporters who were doing camera shots 1 level down, within 10 paces of the National Press Club Bar.

Some observations:
  • Although the Fox and CNN news-crews do mix socially, yes, there is some animosity. Especially as many of the Fox people are former CNN. The cry "Splitters" was heard when I had a few words with them all together.
  • I went for a quick 10 minute walk, leaving a CNN reporter talking 10-words-a-second on her 15th take or so. When I came back, she'd just finished the last take, and was plaintively asking "Was I OK?", pleading for a little ego-massage from the 4 crew (sound, lighting, script/makeup, video) on her team. I can testify that the characterisations in both "The China Syndrome" and "Groundhog Day" are perfectly faithful to reality.
  • There's nothing so comical as seeing someone staring into a camera, hand to their ear, and nodding earnestly in dead silence. Especially on the third take.
  • At no time was any of the crew more than 20 paces from the bar. Every cliche you've ever heard about TV reporters appears to be true.

Transcripts in the Sydney Morning Herald
George Bush's Speech
John Howard's Speech
Simon Crean's Speech (He's leader of the opposition, popularity rating about 16%)

Wednesday, 22 October 2003

21 Hour Tourism

Canberra's a quiet spot. OK, some people would call it "dead". It's a large country town with delusions of grandeur, and the legislation to back them up.

It's one of the few capital cities where there are prime-time adverts for sheep-dip. (I wish I was joking).

So having the leader of the world's most powerful nation, and the leader of the world's most populated one, coming in within hours of one another is a little bit out of the ordinary.

Air Force One just landed a few minutes ago (I heard the approach, I'm near the airport), F-18s are still buzzing around keeping the flies away, and by now the Bushes should be safely housed in the US Embassy - with a fine view of Parliament House, the Lodge (where the PM resides when he's in Canberra), and much of the Embassy precinct.

I hope he has a good night's sleep. He'll need it.

Canberra "International" Airport currently has 2 C-5A Galaxies, and at least one C-17 Globemaster III sitting on the tarmac, in addition to the 747 that the President and entourage flew in on.

Given that the largest aircraft ever to fly in here before was 1 C-5A a few years ago (which severely damaged the place), and a Thai Airways DC-10 that landed here a few months ago, they must have done some serious upgrading. The place is about the same size as the one in Bremen, Germany. Rather smaller than Leeds-Bradford in the UK. Cleveland, Ohio's is comparatively huge. As I said, Canberra's a country town.

Getting to work tomorrow is going to be problematical: the firm I work for is in the National Press Club building (Organised Chaos there today, 10 Busloads of Journalists came in at Lunchtime, plus some fairly large Groundstations for Satcoms). And that's in the precinct known as the "Parliamentary Triangle". Which will be closed off for much of the day. A few hundred metres away is Old Parliament House, whose back-lawn has been reserved for anti-Bush demonstrators. Those with a season-ticket can go back the next day and protest against the Chinese premier too. Given the sad state of Human Rights in China, I for one am glad that a minority at least is being consistent.

As for Journalists, they've been given access. Of a kind. There's exactly one opportunity to take photos, when the Bushes go and meet the Governor-General (the ceremonial Head-of-State). Government House is in a nice little park, so a Bus service will be provided from the Press Centre, at 8am. They should get there by 8.30. The photo-opportunity will be at 9.30, so they'll be cooling their heels for half an hour after setting up. No Bus service is provided for the return trip, they'll have to walk a few kilometres to get back to Civilisation. Bearing all their gear.

Someone's way of expressing their displeasure at the massive bias shown in reporting, no doubt.

As for Mr and Mrs Bush, they'll only be here for 21 hours, so it's unlikely I'll get to see them. Canberra's a sleepy, quiet place, but 21 hours isn't enough to see much of it. Pity.

Hopefully the Chinese Premier will get to see more of the place, but he's probably going to spend most of his time in Sydney. Most people wouldn't blame him.

Tuesday, 21 October 2003

Latest from London: Leopards De-spotted

Some evidence that the BBC might - I say might - be returning to Objective reporting is over on The Command Post.

Time will tell.

UPDATE : My Favourite Marxist, Prof. Norman Geras has noticed similar evidence.

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Much Ado in Canberra

Yesterday, the skies of Canberra were filled with the sound of Military Jet Aircraft. A 50-km Exclusion Zone has been established, in preparation for the near-simultaneous visits of US President Bush and Chinese Premier Hu Jintao.

I might just pop over to the airport and have a squizz at the C-17s that are bringing in all the US Not-so-Secret-Service people. Traffic on Thursday will be difficult, as I work rather close to the Parliamentary Precinct, quite near the area set aside for anti-Bush demonstrations. Carmel and I might take the day off to wish Bush well, and congratulate Hu Jintao on China's first step into Space.

Hope they both like the place. It's usually a bit quieter.

Monday, 20 October 2003

Sunday, 19 October 2003

Australia and Malaysia

A piece brought to my attention by Little Green Footballs. From News Limited :
Malaysia's controversial leader, Mahathir Mohamad, continued his war of words with the West yesterday when he vowed to treat Australia as a "terrorist" if it acted like a US sheriff in the region.

Dr Mahathir - already under fire for remarks this week in which he said that "Jews rule the world" - was responding to reported comments by US President George Bush saying Australia was America's "sheriff" in South-East Asia.

"I can assure Australia that if it acts as a sheriff in this country it will be treated as a terrorist and dealt with as a terrorist," he said.
Here's what Australia's PM, John Howard, said, quoted in the same article:RAAF Butterworth Crest
"The more co-operation there can be, the better," Mr Howard said before he left Sydney.

"In many ways, co-operation between Australia and Indonesia and Singapore and other countries in the region is a template for what the wider world should do."
Note the omission of a certain country beginning with "M"?

Sometimes what's not said is more important as what is said.

Australia, unlike the USA, the UK, and France, has only got one foreign base in the world. One. To have a foreign base on one's own soil requires a rare degree of trust. Australia's one foreign base is RAAF Butterworth, near Penang, in Malaysia.

I repeat, sometimes what's not said is more important as what is said.

Who knew?

The Thing is JewishThe Thing

Something is Rotten in the State of France

There is an ancient and honourable pastime in much of the Anglophone world. It's called "Frog-Bashing", and consists of poking good-natured and not-so-good-natured fun at France and all things French. The French, bless their little hearts, do much the same thing against "Perfidious Albion" and "le Rosbifs".

From an outsider's viewpoint, France and the UK have so much in common - compared to, say, the Thais and the Chinese - that it's no wonder that the similarities lead to "sibling rivalry". In Germany, for example, English is classified along with other "Latin" languages such as French and Spanish. In France, no doubt, English is looked upon as a Teutonic language, such as German or Danish.

I've been known to engage in this pastime myself. It's racist, but as long as the French give as good as they get (and they do), and no-one takes it too seriously, it's relatively harmless.

But this post is not "Frog-Bashing". It's rather more serious.

Firstly, we have Jacques Chirac (currently evading criminal charges) pronouncing that any criticism of the Malaysian PM's recent Judnehass has "no place in the EU". He has a point - but if so, then the recent pronunciamentos by the German Foreign Minister, and Chirac himself, also have no place. No, this is the same attitude that led to the collaboration with the Nazis in annihilating French Jewry, from the same people that brought you l'Affaire Dreyfuss. It's no surprise that the unspeakable Le Pen and his blackshirts - sorry, his Front National came second in the last presidential elections.

Secondly, we have this little gem, quoted from The Australian :
Two people were injured as protesters disrupted a live prime time French television show, forcing the popular talent contest show off the air.

The injured people were hospitalised and three protesters arrested, a police spokesman said today.

A hundred protesting arts technicians and performers, angered by planned welfare cutbacks in their industry, invaded the stage during the live transmission of the "Star Academy" show in which pop-star hopefuls perform.

Three of the protesters were arrested for violence and public order offences by police in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of eastern Paris.

During the protest "there were skirmishes. Two people had to be hospitalised".
No minor scuffle, this.
A hostess of the TF1 channel had her arm broken while the other casualty was one of the protesters. Several others ended up with cuts and bruises, the police said.
Here we have a country that prides itself on its Culture. And the guardians of the culture, the "bleeding Hearts and the Artists" take their stand by publically beating up women and breaking bones. And why?
The actors and technicians have been protesting for months over controversial welfare reforms for the arts industry. Their action forced the cancellation of the summer season's two most prestigious cultural festivals.

An agreement reached by employers and three moderate unions in June was intended to safeguard a unique system, under which performers and technicians in the arts have social protection during long periods without work.

The regime is used by around 100,000 people but it runs at an annual deficit of around $A1.4 billion, and under the changes workers would have to contribute for longer and for less benefit.

Two hardline unions CGT and FO have led a campaign of strikes and demonstrations against the accord.
Such an "income equalisation" policy seems perfectly rational - Australia does much the same with Farmers, taking more money when times are good, and doling it out in times of drought. (It's actually done by allowing farmers to pay tax on their "average" income) But it's revenue-neutral. Over the long term, you can only get out what you put in.

The problem with the French "panem et circenses" is that they have not been adequately funded, because not enough money has been raised from those who dine at the public trough. This privileged elite naturally wish to remain in their aristocratic position, subsidised by the peasants. And they are willing to commit any form of mayhem in order to get their own way.

Students of French history in the late 30's will recognise the situation. The malaise is recurring.

They used to call it "The English Disease."

Friday, 17 October 2003

Lunar Colonisation

I've been considering the Chinese Space Programme, and the more I look at it, the more I think the Devil is in the details.

There's been a lot of pooh-poohing of the latest Chinese space exploit. As well as a lively debate (and a real stinker of a pun) on what it all means:
For the Chinese it's a very historic event, said Marcia Smith, a policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C. "It demonstrates that they have the technological ability to put humans into space. Where it all leads, I think it's still up in the air," Smith said.
Ouch! Well I warned you about the pun. To continue:
The Chinese have discussed plans for their human spaceflight program, Smith said, that includes building space stations and maybe, some day, even sending people to the Moon. "Those are very expensive endeavors and time will tell whether or not they consider that to be a worthwhile investment."
I think Matt Bille is closer, but still not quite on-target:
"It has been 42 years since the last time a nation put its first human into space," said Matt Bille, a space historian and analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"The Chinese have clearly done this very methodically, developing their technology step by step and testing the spacecraft four times before now," Bille noted. "I suspect we are going to see a logical program of building up their capability in low Earth orbit to do long-term stays and focus on earth science, industrial applications, and other capabilities that have some payoff for their economy as well as national pride," he said.
Yes, they've been methodical. This is not some flash-in-the-pan Space Spectacular for no more worthy a goal than National prestige. It's not a Space Race as such - because a Race implies that they're competing against some other entity. No, after consulting my Crystal Ball, taking the auguries, and examining the entrails of a goat, I think they're in it for the long term. I'm not talking about Scientific missions to Mars, or even Exploratory missions to the Moon. I'm talking about setting up a permanent presence. Not next year. Not next decade, nor the one after that. But certainly within the next 50 years. I think that they have a plan. A flexible one, that will adapt to changing circumstances and unforeseeable problems, but a plan nonetheless.
There was no funding for lunar projects in the ten-year space plan approved in 2001. By July 2001 a Chinese aerospace magazine indicated that Chinese scientists had drafted a much more modest four-phase long term plan.
Phase 1, by 2005: Lunar flyby or orbiting satellite missions, perhaps using the DFH-3 bus.
Phase 2, by 2010: unmanned soft-landing missions.
Phase 3, by 2020: Robotic exploration using surface rovers.
Phase 4, by 2030: Lunar sample return missions.
Only after 2030 would manned flights and construction of a lunar base begin.

The Shenzhou manned spacecraft provides the Chinese with the required hardware to pursue a lunar program whenever they make the decision to go.
It would surprise me if the schedule didn't slip. But no matter, there's no hurry. The last sentence in the quote above is important, and it's one of the details I mentioned intially.

Unlike the primitive Mercury "capsule" that Alan Shepard and John Glenn went up in, or the bigger but even more primitive Vostok that Yuri Gargarin orbitted in, the Shenzhou design is almost certainly the most advanced manned spacecraft ever flown.
Remember, the ambitious and hi-tech Shuttle is a 1970s design with some 1980's electronics. The latest Soyuz spacecraft is still only incrementally improved on a 1970s design. And the Apollo - hasn't changed since the mid 70's. We're talking very primitive electronics indeed.

The Shenzhou is obviously similar in many ways to the latest Soyuz (Soyuz TMA). But the differences are quite large when examined in detail. Firstly, it's a whole heap bigger. 13% bigger.
The spacecraft strongly resembled the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and like the Soyuz, consisted of a forward orbital module, a re-entry capsule, and an aft service module. The configuration was very much like the original Soyuz A design of 1962 (itself, in turn, alleged to be very similar to the US General Electric Apollo proposal of the same period). Orientation instruments, evidently consisting of horizon, ion flow and/or stellar/sun sensors, were located at the middle bottom of the service module, as on the Soyuz spacecraft. Two pairs of solar panels on the service and orbital modules had a total area of 36 square metres, indicating average electrical power of over 1.3 kW (nearly three times that of Soyuz and about that of the original Mir base module). Unlike the Soyuz, the orbital module was equipped with its own propulsion, solar power, and control systems, allowing autonomous flight. In the future the orbital modules could also be left behind on the 921-2 space station as additional station modules. A stretched version of the orbital modules was also evidently under consideration as a space station element. The basic spacecraft was capable of manned missions of up to 20 days, with autonomous missions of the orbital module of up to a year.
-Encyclopedia Astronautica

Consider this plan, formulated in the US in the early 90s, using "off the shelf" Apollo hardware to make a relatively swift and cheap return to the Moon. Shenzhou could be even more suitable - not as swift, but even cheaper.

Along the way, the Chinese will have to build a space station, practice Earth Rendezvous, send up and construct a Lunar mission out of a number of smaller payloads, and develop a "kicker" booster to take the whole thing to the Moon. Something along the lines of the US Centaur E. They'll also have to develop landers, firstly robot ones, and supply vessels. Probably some lunar orbitting satellites for pinpoint navigation and communications.

But they then get to do a bit of colonising of their own.

This is not going to be all that expensive, providing the long-term view is taken, and there's no radical urgency to be short-term penny-wise and long-term pound-foolish, or gain a few weeks on the schedule by drowning problems in a sea of dollars. And, as a "spin-off", China gets prestige, more hard currency from launching commercial satellites, a significant military recon capability, independence from relying on GPS, and who knows, maybe money from space tourism. Technologies that they'll develop along the way may well spur Chinese industrial capabilities too, as they did in the US and USSR.

My Crystal Ball says that the Chinese remember Zheng He, () and won't make that particular mistake again.

I could easily be wrong, but I calls 'em how I sees 'em.


I got a good chuckle out of your calling my post about China's First Human
Spaceflight "pooh-poohing." I believe that is the first time in my life I
have ever been accused of pooh-poohing something. While I would personally
call my attitude towards the event ambivalence, you definitely wrote about
an aspect of the story that I missed: What the future plans of the Chinese
are (or could be) in space.

I always enjoy reading your writing. Keep up the good work.

::Mark Oakley

Thursday, 16 October 2003

My Opia

Last time I saw an Ear-Nose-and-Throat specialist, he showed me how to read the CAT scan that I'd had, pointed out where the abnormalities in my sinusses were, and cheerfully concluded that I was a Mutant.

Well, I knew that.

I can still hear sounds of over 19 Khz, when most people lose the ability to hear much over 15 by the time they're in their twenties. And my eyes are sensitive to the near Ultra-Violet, so I can see patterns in Daisies that other people can't, and can see really well on cloudy days. This last condition is surprisingly common.

But it has its downsides. My eyesight has been visibly (sorry) deteriorating over the years, and it was about time I visited an Optometrist. He didn't take long to make a diagnosis. -1.25, -1.00 x 75 in one eye, -1.25, -1.00 x 105 in the other. Still safe enough to drive without glasses, but not by much.

I was intrigued by the prescription. What do those numbers mean? Well the first one (-1.25) says that I have mild myopia. Things at less than 1 metre I can see really well (useful if you're spending most of your day at a computer screen, like I do). But at 2 metres, there's a barely noticeable difference, and at 20 metres, a noticeable one.

The second number (-1.00) says that I have mild Astigmatism. That means that I see things wider than they really are. The other numbers specify the orientation of the distortion of my cornea.

There's a good simulator of myopia and a simulator of astigmatism on the web. Adjust the slider to about mid-way between "normal" and "moderate" to see what I see without glasses.

Of course normal people get less myopic as they get older. In fact, many get so long-sighted they need reading glasses. I have the opposite problem. *sigh*

Now for a swift digression on Optics and the way the Brain works: Examine the picture below : blind spot test

Watch the bee travel from the flower to the edge of your screen.

Now close your LEFT eye, and line up your right eye so it's looking straight ahead at the flower, about 30 cm (1 ft) away.

Keep looking...

The Bee will disappear at one point, and reappear later.

This is because of you "blind spot", an area of your vision where you can't actually see anything - what happens is that your brain automatically "fills in" the missing area by just extending the things around it. In this case, the bee vanishes, and the brain uses the grey line to fill in the place where the bee is.

Wednesday, 15 October 2003


Smoke trail over the GobiFrom the ABC :
China has launched its first manned space flight, becoming only the third country to put a man into orbit.

Lift-off from the Gobi desert was at 9:00am local time (11:00am AEST), the start of a mission that it is hoped will rocket China into the exclusive space club pioneered by the former Soviet Union and United States four decades ago.

A Long March 2F rocket called the Shenzhou V - "divine ship" in Chinese - carried a single "taikonaut" named Yang Liwei, 38, following a trail blazed by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American Alan Shepard in 1961.

"I feel good and my conditions are normal," Xinhua quotes Lieutenant-Colonel Yang as saying.

Chinese state television says the spacecraft has entered Earth orbit.

The rocket is to orbit the Earth 14 times before returning after about 21 hours.

Weird Wide Web

Paul McCartney at different agesConclusive proof (with lots of graphics) that Paul is Dead

And Smeagol Sings the Blues

That leads me to reporting a discussion Carmel and I had while watching snatches of "The Two Towers" in between tickle games with Andrew over the weekend.

On one side, you have the oppressive landed Aristocracy, on the other side the beginnings of an Industrial Revolution. One based on renewable energy resources, such as forests and water wheels. Some Hi-Tech genetic engineering. All Appropriate Technology. The "Powers That Be" want to keep the status quo, while there in Barad-Dur, all Sauron wants to do is recover Stolen Property.

Which reminds me of the Great Tolkein Society Putsch at Sydney University in the late 70's.

> They all sound like communists to me. But then again,
> I can't tell the difference between Trotskyites and
> Stalinists either.

Oh I can. Came in handy during my university politics days, when a bunch of us got fed up by the antics of the looney
and rather violent left who were running the local student union (and running it into the ground).
I won't go into the details - just that Tony Abbot's ultra-conservative but conventional Liberal party machine (the main opposition to them) was left out in the cold, and the Tolkein Society staged a putsch. Ah, the days of getting the Maoists to fight (sometimes literally) the Spartacists, while the Tolkein-George Formby-Formalin-Gay Lib secret alliance quietly gathered the numbers...
Truth is stranger even than SJ's Illuminati game when lots of otherwise apathetic people get prodded into action.
And the professional demonstrators and rent-a-thug political meeting disruptors hadn't got the Tolkein Society
on their scopes. Let alone the George Formby Appreciation Society.
I still can't believe that a nebbish like Tony Abbot could possibly become a senior Govt Minister BTW. But there he is.

The Two Follow-Ups are even more weird, But true.
We basically ignored student politics, until our (compulsory) union fees started being diverted to the PLO to buy guns. The Student's Union had a turnover of about $6 million at the time - big bucks in the mid 70s.
And who cared what they said, as long as the student facilities weren't allowed to fall into disrepair. But soon they were. The money was going elsewhere, in large amounts. Well, maybe OK, as long as it was to a good cause, like students welfare.
But when they proudly announced the proportion going to the PLO and No longer a joke. Time to act. It wasn't just the AJS (Australian Jewish Students) who were unimpressed.
The Goon Squad the Trots sent to "make sure the people's voice was heard" by the electoral returning officer were physically blocked by a much, much larger crowd of Gay Activists, Militant Ukelele-players singing "When I'm Cleaning Winders", and people wearing "University of Mordor" or "Crush Elvish Imperialism!" T-shirts. The ballot boxes remained unstuffed and un-tampered-with.
The incoming Student's Union president was vice-president of the TolSoc, and the new SU vice-president was the head of Gay Lib.

The president of the TolSoc? He was the electoral returning officer.(jeez, what did these people think we were, stupid?)


What are these groups? Dramatis Personae:

Gay Lib - In the middle 70s, prejudice against homosexuals was at least as common as racial prejudice in the 1920s. It was often expressed in bashings, or even jail sentences for private acts between consenting adults. Gay Lib was a group (ultimately successful) that campaigned for at least tolerance, if not full acceptance. It was thanks to their efforts that the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras came into being - one of the world's great annual parties. Gay Lib provided us with a solid power base - about 5% of the student body.

Tolkein Society (TolSoc)- Founded in the 60's, even before JRRT became popular with the hippies in the US, the Tolkein Society ran (and still does AFAIK) the annual "Tolkeinfest", a play performed in the University's Great Hall. Often "Farmer Giles of Ham" or one of JRRT's lesser known works.
With the release of the new movie LOTR, there'll be a blaze of T-shirts, caps, all the usual commercial hoohah. But the "University of Mordor" T-shirts showed the University's crest, subtly changed (the centre star replaced by a lidless eye), and were homemade silkscreen jobs. The "Crush Elvish Imperialism" ones were similar, showing a hord of Orcs protesting against Lawful Goodness. D&D was new then - it hit Australia in 1975 - and only a few knew about it, or played it. It sure confused the radical leftists, they weren't in on the joke.

The TolSoc was the "Illuminati" of the picture, controlling the putsch (did I say the head of Gay Lib was a senior member of the TolSoc?). People who played RPGs as Chaotics were really good at figuring out how to hornswaggle the radicals.

Formalin - "To preserve the University Union" - an extremely Conservative or rather Conservationist party, who just wanted student facilities to be preserved intact, not sold off to get money to send to radical causes overseas. This was both a cover for the others, being a recognised political party and thus able to propose candidates for election, and a honeypot to attract the attentions of the Trots, Maoists, Anarchists and others who had a habit of barging in and interrupting meetings. Often the hecklers, stooges and infiltrators were the only participants at the official meetings, as far as I can tell. Never attended any, myself.

George Formby Appreciation Society - I'll see if I can find a URL. GF was an entertainer of the late 30s and early 40's, who strummed a Ukelele and sang such classics as "Imagine Me in the Maginot Line, sitting in a mine in the Maginot Line", and "When I'm cleaning Winders", his signature tune. This was the second level of cover, between Formalin and the TolSoc.
Ah, the world of Student Politics. And now Carmel (who works in the Department of Health) has as her Minister... Tony Abbot. As my good mate Spider Robinson says, "God is an Iron".

Tuesday, 14 October 2003

Any Day Now

Chinese Space Pop-ArtAs mentioned in several previous posts, China's about to send its first crewed space mission up. From Space Daily :
China began drumming up nationalistic sentiment Monday with days to go before its maiden manned space flight, as leading officials said it was just the first step to greater achievements.

The state-controlled media floodgates appear to have been opened by China officially acknowledging late Friday that it would join the United States and Russia in sending a man into orbit this week.
More details, also fromSpace Daily :
After months of secrecy, China confirmed Friday it will launch its maiden manned space mission next week with a flight that will orbit the Earth 14 times.

The Xinhua news agency cited an unnamed official in charge of the country's manned spaceflight program as saying Shenzhou V will blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the northwest between October 15 and 17.

He said the craft would orbit the Earth 14 times, suggesting the flight will last 21 hours.

This would distinguish China from the former Soviet Union and the United States, the only other nations to send a man into space, whose maiden flights in the 1960s lasted 108 minutes and 15 minutes respectively.
China has appeared caught in a dilemma over the imminent launch as it tries to balance the secretive needs of its military with the overwhelming propaganda mileage and national pride that would accrue with a successful mission.

Experts believe just one astronaut will make the trip, selected from a team of 14.
The Jiefang Daily, quoting chief designer for the Shenzhou spacecraft Qi Faren, said all possibilities had been factored in.

"The craft may land in the ocean or in the forests in a hostile environment," said Qi in comments picked up by a host of Chinese websites.

"For the safety of the astronauts, they will take a lot of things with them like a pistol, knife and other rescue equipment including a tent and liferaft so they will be able to deal with wild beasts, sharks and other dangerous animals or enemies."

If all goes well, Shenzhou V is expected to land in the vast plains of Inner Mongolia in northwest China.

Four unmanned Shenzhou capsules have so far been been launched since 1999.
Best of luck. Zhu nin hao yun.

Monday, 13 October 2003

Internet Time

Here's a story from Yahoo News, quoted by the Wall Street Journal on Opinion Journal "Best of the Web", also the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and many blogs. Not forgetting Overlawyered.
A teenager was disciplined for sharing medication used to treat asthma, but he said it saved his girlfriend's life, News2Houston reported Wednesday.
Andra Ferguson and her boyfriend, Brandon Kivi, both 15, use the same type of asthma medicine, Albuterol Inhalation Aerosol.

Ferguson said she forgot to bring her medication to their school, Caney Creek High School, on Sept. 24. When she had trouble breathing, she went to the nurse's office.

Out of concern, Kivi let her use his inhaler.

"I was trying to save her life. I didn't want her to die on me right there because the nurse's office (doesn't) have breathing machines," Kivi said.

"It made a big difference. It did save my life. It was a Good Samaritan act," Ferguson said.

But the school nurse said it was a violation of the district's no-tolerance drug policy, and reported Kivi to the campus police.

The next day, he was arrested and accused of delivering a dangerous drug. Kivi was also suspended from school for three days. He could face expulsion and sent to juvenile detention on juvenile drug charges.

The mothers of both teenagers are angry.

"My son will not go to jail. This is ridiculous," said Theresa Hock, Kivi's mother. "I believe he shouldn't be punished at all because he was helping her. She was in distress."

"If he hadn't helped her, she would have passed out or died or something because her asthma's been really bad this year," said Sandra Ferguson, Andra's mother.

The school principal said he couldn't do anything about it since Kivi not only broke school rules, but also allegedly violated state law.

"It's simply a matter that it's classified as a dangerous drug. It's an inhaler form, but yet, if it had been in pill form or any other, it's still classified as a dangerous drug," said Greg Poole, the Caney Creek principal.

"Would Caney Creek had want Andra to have died rather than my son to help her?" Hock said.

Poole said the nurse never considered Andra to be in a life-threatening situation.

The school district will hold a hearing on the matter Friday.
Well, before I started commenting, I thought I'd do a bit of checking. So I wrote an e-mail to the School Principal. Within a few hours, I got a very courteous reply. Here's a quote from it, used with explicit permission:
  • No student was ever in any life-threatening situation. Student confidentiality does not permit us to be specific but it has already been reported in a Houston paper that the student in question went to the clinic for a minor headache. During both incidents, three clinic personnel were present including a registered nurse.
  • No student was ever expelled. We had a mandatory expulsion hearing where we could finally use discretion. Our decision is that while the student's actions could have been harmful, it does not merit expulsion. So why was it portrayed as an expulsion? State law requires an automatic expulsion hearing when dangerous drugs are involved.
  • No student is "in jail". The police are forced by mandatory
    requirements to send the case to the juvenile system but they did not accept the case based on our expulsion hearing.

Is this much ado about nothing? No. It is sad that our nurses and police do not have more discretion without violating the law. Where is the common sense? Our answer is that common sense did prevail. It just did not happen with internet-like speed. The system is set up to err on the side of caution when drugs are involved. It is also sad that many have labeled our school because of erroneous information.
There's a man who can take the time and trouble to write a courteous note to someone all the way in Australia, while putting out the fires of a blaze of publicity at home. And be tactful in telling me I was full of it. If ever he gets tired of being principal of a Texas High School, I'd suggest the rather less demanding job of Secretary of State. Good on you, Doctor Poole.

It's an interesting world where an overly-hyped story can get out so quickly, but also where someone on the other side of the planet can do some checking and myth-exploding, all within less than a week.


While contacting one of the interested parties in a dispute is certainly worth doing, doesn't it usually get called "getting the other side", rather than "fact checking"? It's not as though the Principle of the school is a disinterested observer, after all...
::Brett Bellmore

Sunday, 12 October 2003

Next Year's Ignobel Prize for Physics

I'm not a betting man, but if I was, this is what I'd bet on for next year's Ig Nobel Prize for Physics. From Loughborough University :
A PhD student from Loughborough University has discovered why biscuits sometimes break-up after being baked. Published today in the Institute of Physics journal Measurement Science and Technology this discovery will help manufacturers work out how to make the perfect biscuit and also avoid the costly exercise of having to discard biscuits that don't meet the high demands of their customers.

Biscuits such as the ?Rich Tea? type sometimes develop cracks spontaneously up to a few hours after baking, making the biscuit liable to break under the application of small loads such as being packaged or transported to supermarkets. Consumers often misinterpret this as due to mishandling. Qasim Saleem and his colleagues set out to understand exactly why these cracks occur in order to help biscuit manufacturers avoid this costly phenomenon.

They used an optical technique called 'digital speckle pattern interferometry' to look at the surface of a biscuit as it cools to room temperature after baking. This technique involves illuminating the surface of an object with a laser beam, studying the scattered light this beam produces, and is sensitive enough to detect the very small deformations that evolve as a biscuit cools.

They found that as a biscuit cools down after coming out of the oven, it picks up moisture around the rim which causes the biscuit to expand while at the same time loss of moisture at the centre of the biscuit causes it to contract. This difference results in the build-up of strain and associated forces which act to pull the biscuit apart, and which ultimately can be released by developing cracks or final break-up. These cracks make the biscuit weaker than it ought to be and so very easy to break apart when handled, moved or packaged. Manufacturers currently tackle this by removing the offending products before they reach the customers, but no quality control system is perfect and so biscuits with these minor cracks often end up in packets of biscuits that reach the customer.

Qasim Saleem said, "We now have a greater understanding of why biscuits develop cracks shortly after being baked. This will help biscuit manufacturers adjust the humidity or temperature of their factory production lines to change the cooling process in such a way that the biscuits won't break up due to normal handling and hence producing the perfect biscuit".
Remember, you read it here first.

Remembrance of Bali

One year ago, today. From Redgum's song :

Tourists from Holland, Britain and France
Late night puppet shows, leg on dance
Want to see my slides?
I've been to Bali too.
We may forgive - if repentance is shown. But we won't forget.

88 of the 202 known deaths in the bombing of the Sari nightclub in Bali were Australian. More Balinese may have gone home to die, and not been recorded. But there were another 450 burns victims too, some of whom still haven't made as complete a recovery as they're going to. Some of whom are missing legs, or arms, or eyes.

Proportionately to Australia's population, Bali was very much our 9/11. Pretty much everyone here knew one of the victims, or lived on the same street. Even now, when I last posted an article overseas, I heard two people in the queue discussing how a friend of theirs was doing.

My 2-year old son Andrew had to wait several months for some corrective surgery, because every single plastic surgeon in the country was busy treating the hundreds of burns victims. We stayed up with him, night after night, as he cried in pain. Pain that grew worse, day by day.

He's fixed up now. But I'll never forget.

It may take 20, 50, 100 years, or even longer, but we intend to make radical Islamofascism extinct. The planet isn't big enough for the both of us.

We've started by financing hospitals in Bali, to say "thanks" for all the help the locals gave us.
We've started by financing educational facilities in Indonesia, as an alternative to the Saudi-financed Madrassas that spawned the Islamofascist movement in SE Asia.
We've started by giving professional forensic help that gave the Indonesia police the evidence they needed to decimate JI.
And we've started by sending in the SAS into Iraq - going after the "Safe Havens", with malice aforethought. Terror knows no bounds, but neither do we.

It's a start.

Dear Leader.....

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". After reading "the Lost Art of Correspondence", I decided to write my own letter to Kim Jong Il, using the convenient page the DPRK provides on the web.

To: Esteemed Dear Leader Kim Jong Il
Democratic People's Republic of Korea
11 October 2003 (Juche 75)

From: Alan Edwin Brain
Position: Moderator, Immortal Juche Study Branch, POEE
Country : Australia

Fraternal Greetings to the Dear Leader who is truly like a Big Brother to us.

We follow in your footsteps: Leader Command, We Follow You.

All goodthinking peoples here appreciate the new highs in Society that have
been produced by importation of the DPRK's finest processed agricultural
, all due to the inspiration and selfless devotion of the Dear Leader.

Our Breatharian Party here has adopted the scientific insights of the
General Secretary's inspirational agricultural policy that has done so much
to put the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the situation it is in
today. The Internationally-acclaimed Prize for Literature that our Sister
Jasmuheen was awarded in 2000 more properly belongs to the Dear Leader whose
insights guided her work. All followers of Juche are informed by the Dear
Leader, Kim Jong Il about every particle of knowledge. As we say in the Australian
idiom "All Goodthinking Followers of Juche are particularly Il-Informed".

The Capitalist American Running-Dogs of Oppression boast of their
"Shock and Awe" agression against the peace-loving peoples of the
world. But their "Awe" is nothing, less than nothing compared
to our Saviour, the Dear Leader, without doubt the most Awe-full leader
the world has ever seen.

Sincerely, Alan E Brain
And I truly mean that.