April 30, 2015

Horse 1885 - Few Homes On The Market Affordable For First-Time Buyers

Mark Colvin of the ABC and host of the single best Current Affairs program across all media in Australia, "PM", posed the question to Twitter.

To reiterate what that problem was, The Grauniad¹ newspaper in Britain quoted a study by the charity Shelter, stating that:
There are only 43 potentially suitable homes in London currently available that would be “affordable” for the typical young family buying their first property, according to research by Shelter.
 - The Guardian, 29th Apr 2015²

Shelter's criteria to find something affordable, started with the assumptions that "they had saved a 17% deposit and could get a mortgage of 3.4 times their income" and that "Looking at listings of properties with two or more bedrooms on the website Zoopla, the housing charity found that just 0.1% of those in the capital would fall into what they defined as an “affordability threshold”.

So then, those are the assumptions.
- 3.4 times income
- two or more bedrooms

I must admit, I have no idea what the yearly income is for the average young family; nor do I have an idea of how Shelter would have compiled such a figure but I do know that the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Taxation Office publish a figure called Average Weekly Ordinary Time Earnings every six months (it used to be three).

As at December 2014, AWOTE was $1,476.30³
If you multiply that by two (assuming both partners are on AWOTE), then you get $2,952.60 a week.
If you multiply that by 52.178 (being 52.178 weeks in the year) then you get $154,060 a year.
If you multiply that by 3.4 times the income, then you arrive at $523,804.
When you consider that the average house price in Sydney is $671,500, things look a little grim but lo and behold, if you do a search in Domain.com.au, there are 2093 properties for sale found in Sydney Region with two or more bedrooms.

However, the conditions of a single income paying off a mortgage as was the case a generation ago, have for all intents and purposes dried up entirely.
For a single income family where one partner is on AWOTE, then at just $77,030 a year, if you multiply that by 3.4 times the income, then you arrive at $261,902.
Believe it or not, there are in fact a whole 15 properties for sale with at least two bedrooms; with the closest to the CBD being two properties in Stanhope Gardens.

Of the 12,788 properties listed for sale on Domain across the Sydney Region, 16% potentially meet the criteria assuming that both partners are on AWOTE but for a single income family on AWOTE, that falls roughly to that same figure in London at just 0.1%.

There's a problem though, although the official Average Weekly Ordinary Time Earnings is $77,030 a year, around 70% of all tax payers earn less than this. If you decide to include pensioners in the mix, then about 80%  earn less than AWOTE.

Neither the ABS or the ATO publish the other measures of central tendency like the mode wage (the most common) or the median (the one in the middle) because I suspect that they fear that the results will prove what most of us suspect, that the statistics are massively skewed by a tiny number of very high income earners.

¹Yes I know it's the Guardian. Even the Guardian knows that it has a reputation for typographical errors and even registered grauniad.co.uk to redirect to its website.

April 29, 2015

Horse 1884 - A Restaurant Review

I was asked by someone "wouldn't it be fun to write a restaurant review?" and I suppose that yes, it would be fun to write a restaurant review. The problem is that I almost never go to restaurants and when I do, they're certainly not of the sort that you might read about in the Sydney Morning Herald's "Good Food" section. 
I lieu of that, I have written a restaurant review; of an establishment not far away from where I work in Cremorne.

I'm seated in an kind of alcove in this establishment in a sort of semicircular booth, with the tannoy playing top 40 music at a subdued background level; being somewhat curmudgeony, I have no idea who any of these artists are. Lighting is provided mainly by fluorescent tubes which have been tucked away, so that they give forth reflected and diffused light. The coffee sitting in front of me is adequate but not brilliant and I have ample space to casually flick through the newspaper. The walls are varying shades of brown but with those sharp architectural beams as accents which are so prevalent in places that are trying to look hyper modern.

From the outset this is a burger joint but it doesn't have any of the haphazard charm of a roadside diner. The ordering process is followed by a wait off to one side where staff call out your number, which means that it is quite efficient.

The burger itself comes wrapped in a branded proprietary piece of greaseproof paper and the accompanying chips are of the shoestring variety; being cut so thinly that they do not require twice flash frying. The chips are crisp and snap in half, rather than being soggy and because they come in a small box, are allowed to breathe, thus ensuing their continued crispness. The chips are slightly oversalted to my taste but they're catering for a wider public whose tolerance for salt greatly exceeds mine.
The burger is slightly taller than one's fist but not so tall as to need a toothpick or other such device to hold it together. It is small enough to bite cleanly through though and the bun whilst far too sweet, benefits from either being toasted or warmed directly on the contact grill (I can't tell which).

Sometimes the beef in a burger is juicy and at other times the proprietors have their own unique spice mix but this is neither juicy or spicy. As far as the meat is concerned, the tastiest parts are the bits around the edge where a faint char has lent some semblance of flavour. Granted that the meat does fall apart but that's by virtue of it being pulverised and minced beyond all reasonable recognition. If this were the centre of a boxed chocolate, it could be flavoured with peppermint, strawberry, cherry or nuts and still be acceptable and that's truly bizarre for a meat patty. I don't think that if this was made available in the frozen food section of your local supermarket, that it would be a terribly popular line. For a component which lends its name to an entire industry, this particular meat patty named after a German city, is singularly underwhelming.

Iceberg lettuce is the 'go to' lettuce if you want to add crunch to a salad without adding any competing flavours. In this burger, it's used for technical reasons, to separate warm from the cooler components of pickles and onion pieces no bigger than what might come out of a hole punch. In consequence, the poor iceberg lettuce wilts inside the burger; being made to suffer a fate of humiliation. The very thinnest parts of the lettuce, that is those parts of the leaf which are right at the very end, have taken on a sort of slimy consistency; similar to what you'd expect if you decided to lick a piece of cling film.

I'm not sure about the sauce either. The sauce is pleasant enough, it's just that it is suffering from an identity crisis and doesn't know what kind of sauce it is. Most hamburgers will use either tomato ketchup or barbeque sauce and some more adventurous establishments might offer chilli or sweet chilli. This appears to be some sort of mayonnaise which has been added to by bits of gherkin and possibly vinegar. It's not a Dijonaise and nor is it a Perinaise. It's a couple of shades darker than Heinz Sandwich Spread and tastes similar but it doesn't have any of the textured chunky bits that Sandwich Spread does.

The cheese that's on this burger is a tortured soul, just yelling to be heard but failing limply. The cheese is sliced rather than grated and because it was obviously added as a component during the construction process rather than being left to melt on top of the patty on the grill, parts of the cheese in direct contact with the warm meat have changed several shades lighter and melted; whilst those parts of the cheese which hang out the sides, have taken on the form of still malleable thermoplastic. This isn't to say that this is unpleasant; it does mean that it like the burger is blander than a white Toyota Camry parked out the front of 24 Bland St in the electorate of Bland.

Someone somewhere has worked out exactly how to marry up every component in this burger, to render it as inoffensive to as many people as possible. In doing so, all of the punch, all of the wow, and all of the sense of dancing upon your palette have been toned down and eliminated. Yet this place remains vastly popular because they can control and standardise everything to the nth degree.
A burger bought yesterday will practically taste identical to one bought four years ago or one in four years time and whilst this doesn't represent the best value for money, it does ensure a reliable consistent product; this is the reason why it is popular. That and the fact that this particular restaurant has outlets everywhere, an aggressive marketing campaign and one of the most iconic logos in the world.

I am of course, reviewing the Big Mac; something I suspect hasn't been done in a newspaper in well over 40 years.

April 27, 2015

Horse 1883 - April 27: The Day After Tomorrow

Now that ANZAC Day is over and all of the mythmaking appears to have passed us, I wonder if it's time for Australia to commemorate April 27.
"What happened on April 27?" you ask. Only that the Ottoman defenders halted the advance of Allied troops between Helles headland and the little village of Krithia and by nightfall, 3000 Allied troops lay dead.

Were their lives spent needlessly in vain? Absolutely.

I don't doubt for a second, the virtues of courage, of bravery and valour shown on the battlefield but history has shown that in spending the coin of the realm of the battlefield, the commanders and directors who spent much of their time far away from the front lines, were reckless in that spending.

If you look at the difference between a Roman legionary and an ANZAC rifleman, the difference is that a Roman legionary was equipped with mail and scale armour, a scutum which was a big semi-cylindrical shield and a galea which was a bronze helmet; whereas an ANZAC rifleman had a rifle and bayonet and a slouch hat. In all honesty, a hundred of Roman legionaries would have been better equipped to defend themselves, even with 2000 year old equipment than the lads who had to scramble up cliffs; often to certain death.
The result was identical to what would later be mirrored on the western front. The solution to losing troops was in many cases, to add more troops; throwing wave after wave after wave of men at the enemy to precisely the same effect, the destruction of all.

It is telling that on January 8 1916, after the deaths of 252,000 Allied troops and 220,000 Ottoman troops, precisely nothing had changed. The Ottoman Empire had defended its lands, quite rightly, and the Allies fell well short of their goals to capture Constantinople, much less the open the Dardanelles.
Roughly 1800 people died each day and every day, for 258 days. It is questionable how much the campaign would have helped matters anyway, considering that the object of opening the Dardanelles as a supply line to Russia, would have ultimately been in vain because in 1917, the Russian Empire imploded in two revolutions which saw the Tsar Nicholas II deposed and the beginnings of Soviet power.

It is unfashionable to dare to suggest that the myth of ANZAC is overly lionised. I think that it has become worse now that everyone from the First World War has grown old and passed on. The weird thing is that more than five times the number of Australian and New Zealand troops died on the Western Front in the three years which followed the failure at Gallipoli and yet few Australians and New Zealanders today, can even recall the names of Ypres, Pozières, Fromelles, the Somme and Passchendaele.
How the legend of ANZAC has come to stand in place of Armistice Day, when everyone put down their weapons and stopped fighting, when the bloody carnage finally came to an end, is totally beyond me. I think that it is because Australia became a nation through the process of a vote and not a war and New Zealand was granted dominion status and with it autonomy by Royal Proclamation, that there is no grand day of independence like as is the case in the United States, Canada or India.

ANZAC Day might be the day of commemoration to recall those who have fallen but at the time (and as is still the case), the families of soldiers would have rather their sons and fathers be returned to them, than a memorial plaque or even a Victoria Cross; even if it came in a silk lined box.
April 27 is a day which no-one remembers, which no-one would remember. It like the other 258 days, was a day on which lions were led by donkeys, a day on which they were cut down and their commanders remembered them not.

April 24, 2015

Horse 1882 - When It All Comes Down

Without any data whatsoever and playing on the basis of nothing more than a guess, I would say that Town Hall is the busiest railway station in terms of numbers of passengers who pass through in a day; followed by Central (including Sydney Terminal) and then in third place Wynyard. In terms of peak passenger flows though, I would hazard a guess that Wynyard beats them both in both the morning and evening rush hours. Although Central connects with other lines, there's not as much of a reason to go there as a destination, and although Town Hall connects to the shopping district, it is Wynyard Station that gets all the people in suits.
When I see the roof leaking at Wynyard Station, I get worried; partly because its underground and partly because of how its built.

Sydney joined the world of underground railways exceedingly late (though nowhere near as late as Melbourne). The railway network in 1916 when Sydney Terminal was built, came to screeching halt south of the city. It wasn't until 1926 that the line to Museum and St James burrowed its way into the city and opened and Wynyard and Town Hall were built in concert with the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Wynyard and Town Hall share a few aspects in their construction. Both were built using the cut and cover method (I imagine that this would have been quite difficult in the case of Town Hall as it sits directly under George St and more worrying, both are made from steel and wood.
You can see this most obviously at Wynyard where steel beams as well as forming the structure also form the design language of the space. That might have been reassuring more than eighty years ago when it was opened but today, that just screams to me of maintenance that needs to be done and it it doesn't happen soon, the roof will collapse.
No doubt that Sydney Trains probably have sent po faced engineers to pore over everything they can find but when you have governments looking to save money, its usually maintenance budgets which are the first to be skimped upon and I bet that even when problems have been identified, that they will be ignored for as long as they can get away with it. Nobody wants to be left holding the can but if they can kick that can as far down the road as possible, nobody need know... until the roof collapses.

Sydney over the past few days has had one of those patterns of weather that happens roughly once every twenty eight years. With a high pressure system sitting to the south of the continent, a cold front running from Cape York to Bass Strait, and La Nina doing her dance of joy, Sydney has experienced flash flooding and extensive damage.
Even though water follows the path of least resistance and it has to go somewhere, it still doesn't change the fact that Wynyard is an underground railway station and there's one rather singular fact to do with all things underground - it doesn't rain underground. Therein lies the problem. Eighty year old wood tends to do strange things when subject to water. I know that there are Tudor houses made from wood which exist from before the time of Shakespeare but they don't have to support the weight of several hundred tonnes of earth above them, unless there's some ye olde horse of iron with a suite of carts in train which traversed the miles below that I don't know about.

Now that "the storm of the century" as the Sydney Morning Herald hyperbolically put it, has passed over use and drifted eastwards, the roof at Wynyard Station has stopped leaking and so I suspect that it will become a case of out of sight; out of mind. The unfortunate thing about that attitude is that it then becomes someone else's problem to deal with and I fear that the results could be tragic.

April 23, 2015

Horse 1881 - Nerds, Geeks and Boffins: The Three Tribes

Nerds, geeks and boffins - these are three tribes which it is both possible to live concurrently in or singularly and yet there are distinctions. Maybe someone might like to draw a Venn diagram of it all.
By the way, John Venn who was a Yorkshireman was a nerd. I bet that he would have been a right royal laugh riot. He'd have to be a nerd with a paper like "On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings" (1880) for which his eponymous diagram was named.
Who the nerds, geeks and boffins? Let's have a look, shall we?

Theodor Seuss Geisel who wrote under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss and was not a real doctor, is popularly credited with coining the word "nerd" in his 1950 book If "I Ran the Zoo". It is a piece of literary nonsense and to be honest I have no idea of what the word was supposed to mean in context, except to say that it sounded nice:
"And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo
And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo,
A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!"
For whatever reasons lost in the mists of time, the word "nerd" has settled on the meaning of someone who is socially inept and either studiously boring or boringly studious. As with all words which are decided anti-intellectual, it is also used in the pejorative sense; as a term of abuse.

A look in the OED tells me that the word "geek" is specifically used to denote someone who is particularly skilled with computers. I think that it's interesting that the OED chooses to make the distinction between nerds and geeks but words are fluid beasts anyway and I suspect that the OED needs to do this because part of its job is like the job of an entomologist but for words - it pins them to a board and then writes descriptions about each one.

A third word is even more descriptive and has the most colourful story of all - the word "boffin".
Charles Dickens in "Our Mutual Friend" (1865) has one character called Nicodemus (Noddy) Boffin, "The Golden Dustman", who runs into an inheritance and to cover up his very much working class roots, engages in a plan of hiring someone to read to him in the hope of gaining more intelligence and thus hiding his origins.
In J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit¹" (1937) there is a family of Boffins living in the Yale who are quite connected to the Baggins' family, of which Bilbo and Frodo are members.
The world of boffins came into their own during the Second World War when they were employed to create and build increasingly complex military technologies. It was the boffins who were responsible for things like radar, the code breaking computers at Bletchley Park and in the United States, the bomb.

It is entirely possible for the three terms to be concurrent to describe a person and it is also entirely possible for the three terms to be separated. I might be a nerd and something of a minor polymath but I don't really know a whole heap about computers² and although I can rip apart an engine in a motor car, I'm not a scientist and have never invented anything,

I quite admire geeks and am genuinely fascinated by boffins but it is nerds who I find the funnest of the three. Geekery and boffinery are mostly too highly peppered with jargon to make conversation palatable in my experience but if you can find some nerds, they are usually excitable about things; that's brill'.

This brings me to the world of comedy. Comedy shows for nerds tend to include things like "Have I Got News For Your?" or even "Argumental" which are more likely to be made by Cambridge and Oxford alumni; "QI" is in there as well.  "The Big Bang Theory" is not because the writing isn't strong enough to stand up on its own and it even admits this with the inclusion of a laugh track and that indicates that the show is downright puerile.
I honestly don't know how it would be possible to write a comedy for geeks or boffins. Is it actually possible to laugh at computers or people who work with them, or a comedy specifically for scientists? If it is possible, I bet that the nerds will write it for them³.

The three tribes (nerds, geeks and boffins) are quite amenable to each other most of the time. Conflict can arise when there is a direct work related issue such as a computer not working or a deadline for some project which needs a widget or gubbin to be built is late but those sorts of issues occur in every workplace.
We do know that even in the very smallest of organisations, there needs to be at least one element of nerdiness or geekery or the organisation will not run. Every firm requires that someone keep the financial records, even if that means hiring someone outside the organisation to do it for them and that most definitely requires nerdiness.

Yet even though society would fail to function without nerds, geeks and boffins and people who are both studiously boring or boringly studious, no-one really celebrates nerds, geeks and boffins. It is the most frivolous professions of players, buffoons, actors, musicians and singers who society rewards with great wads of cash.
It's a good thing that nerds, geeks and boffins don't complain much.

¹Which is so utterly tedious that the only reason I read it, was to say that I've read it.
²I maintain the network at work and can troubleshoot all sorts of lovely issues such as IP conflicts but there's still loads I can't do.
³Tnetennba: Noun.
A word whose function is purely to attract traffic to a website; a gratuitously used keyword whose presence is aimed at attracting the search engines attention and improving the website’s placement in search results.

April 21, 2015

Horse 1880 - Australia's Prime Ministers - No 16 - Ben Chifley

XVI - Ben Chifley

Joseph Benedict "Ben" Chifley took over the leadership of the Labor Party and with it the premiership, on the 13th of July 1945. Within three weeks of his appointment as Prime Minister, the Second World War came to a close and the business of rebuilding and demoblising the country had begun; and it begun with rapidity.

Famously, Chifley had left school at the age of 15 to become a railway locomotive driver and as a result, joined the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen and the Labor Party. Chifley was probably one of the only Prime Ministers to have a genuinely working class job before entering politics and in the course of representing his union, he learned industrial law from the inside.

Perhaps what Chifley is most remembered for was a government policy which had been floating around since the mid-1930s, an Australian mass produced car. General Motors-Holden's Limited had been in war production making field guns, aircraft, and marine engines. In 1947, the Chifley Government sent an envoy to Detroit and the idea of an Australian car was born.
On 29th Nov 1948, the first Holden 48/215 rolled off the production line and 18,000 people had pre-ordered one, despite never seeing the vehicle before and it costing 94 weeks' wages or £733.

More importantly though, during Chifley's only term as Prime Minister, his government created the Commonwealth Employment Service, the CSIRO, ASIO, founded the Australian National University, introduced the pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, set up funds for public housing, nationalised QANTAS and TAA, started the Snowy Mountains Scheme, set up the Coal Boards and Dairy Boards, expanded the central banking powers of the Commonwealth Bank and set up repatriation funds for returned servicepeople.

Chifley also was able via referendum to extend the Section 51 Constitutional powers of the Commonwealth to legislate for "maternity allowances, widows' pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services".
In just three years, Chifley's government passed 299 Acts, which was a then parliamentary record.

Chifley's government was able to pass legislation which made it illegal to give striking workers financial support and this was seen by the miners' federation and the largely dormant Communist Party of Australia as an attack on them. As a result, 23,000 coal miners went on strike 27 June 1949 to 15 August 1949 and in some mines near Newcastle, 2500 Australian Army soldiers were sent in to break the strike.
Even despite this, in the run up to the December election of 1949, Opposition Leader Robert Menzies was able to exploit this as a Communist "red scare" and in the expansion of the  House of Representatives from 74 seats to 121 seats, Menzies won all 47 extra seats as well as taking away one from Labor (Labor did steal away four seats from minor parties); thus Menzies held 74 of 121 in the new look house.

Chifley would remain as Opposition Leader from 1949 through the double dissolution election in April 1951 but died of a heart attack not long after the election.

April 20, 2015

Horse 1879 - F1: The Silver Streak Continues Continuing (Round 2)

Formula One supremo and very very angry man, Bernie Eccleston, came out during the week and claimed that the sport is too expensive. This of course doesn't change the fact that the deposit which he extracts from teams is $48m, nor does it change the fact that he extracts an absolutely massive set of fees from TV rights.
Eccleston cited that the expense of the sport is what's leading to 'boring' races, when in actual fact, you can almost entirely put that down to the regulations which impose very heavy engine freezes - if you do happen to have a great engine then you're laughing but if your engine is a dud, then that's too bad.

Such is the tale of Mercedes-Benz and McLaren Honda. Mercedes probably doesn't have the best chassis but they certainly have the best engines by a country 1.61km, whilst Honda have proven yet again that you can not make a silken purse from a sow's ear. The Honda powerplant is so monumentally rubbish that Honda's canaries are volunteering to go down the mineshaft. In the Bahrain Grand Prix, Jensen Button couldn't even make the start line because the engine had clagged and Fernando Alonso somehow managed to produce McLaren's best result of 2015, which was still only a pathetically paltry eleventh.

At the front, Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton almost had the perfect weekend; claiming pole position, leading every lap and winning the race. Only the fastest lap eluded him and that was scant consolation for Kimi Raikkonen who was lucky to even score second.

The silver arrows sprinted off into the distance; seemingly never to be seen again. In fact, Hamilton's only worry was during a round of pitstops when after pitting in the lead, he went back out in the lead and gave his engineers a verbal spray over the radio by asking "What happened to my lead?" as well as some other four letter expletives deleted, when he saw Nick Rosberg's Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in his rear view mirror. This is a classic tale of the undercut.
The undercut is when a team pulls in their car earlier than expected, so that they can get better use of a new set of tyres before their opponents. Both Rosberg and Raikkonen had benefitted from this and instead of flailing ten seconds behind, after the pitstops had shuffled their way through, they were only flailing four seconds behind.

The only other tale of import that happened in a race that was otherwise as bland as adding white sauce to white soup, in a white house with whitewalls, was Sebastian Vettel's excursion off track part way through the race. The Ferrari driver was at that stage heading for a podium position behind the two Mercedes when he misjudged a corner and put it into the gravel.  This allowed Raikkonen to claim third place and he sat there for an exceedingly large amount of time. Valteri Bottas was also the happy recipient of fourth place from Vettel's jaunt off track.

Raikkonen would have remained in third place if it wasn't for Rosberg's brakes beginning to fade. On the penultimate lap, Raikkonen pipped Rosberg at the last corner and then when fuel loads were at their lightest, stole away the fastest lap of the race.

Three places behind in sixth,  Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull did make it to the end of the race but only after the Renault in the back decided that it didn't want to be an engine any more and self-destructed. The relationship between Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and Renault is equally on a Mission Impossible to survive amicably. One of Red Bull's title sponsors is Infiniti, which is tied through Nissan to Renault; so this state of affairs is more or less forced to continue.

In the "John Logie Baird: Television Coverage Was Better In 1984 Cup", the year 2015 looks like it might be as much of a domination by Mercedes as 1989 was by McLaren or 2004 was by Ferrari. The silver streak continues to blaze its way out front; leaving all others in the dust.

Race Results:
1. Hamilton - Mercedes
2. Raikkonen - Ferrari
3. Rosberg - Mercedes
4. Bottas - Williams-Mercedes
5. Vettel - Ferrari
6. Ricciardo - Red Bull-Renault

"The John Logie Baird Television Was Better in 1984 Memorial Cup" at the end of Round 2 looks like this:

18 Hamilton
10 Rosberg
6 Vettel
6 Raikkonen
3 Massa
3 Bottas
2 Nasr
2 Riccardo

The Constructor's Championship is thus:

28 Mercedes
12 Ferrari
6 Williams
2 Sauber
2 Red Bull

April 16, 2015

Horse 1878 - Old Man Wagon

On Monday morning, we were finally done with a set of six document boxes (most of which contained reams of completely useless paper which presumably meant something to someone once upon a time but meant three quarters of diddly-squat multiplied by bupkis to us) and so we returned them to the client. They arrived in a Ford Mondeo wagon and although every bone and every nerve in my body was yelling vociferously against it, I thought that the wagon was cool.

What has happened to me? Should I throw out my clothes in favour of an all beige wardrobe? Should I apply to the transit authority for my pensioner's card? Should I just admit that there's no more lead in the pencil, submit to the inevitable and  start driving as the old man in a hat? (Admittedly I've already been wearing hats for ages now.)
Oh howl, howl, howl and calamity. I can't even cry "havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war. The dogs of war have fallen asleep by the fire, after chewing on my slippers.

The thing that I found extraordinary is how much space is in the back of the wagon. Having recently had a washing machine go brain dead despite being mechanically perfect, the repair bill for the computer was less than simply buying a new machine; this meant carting home a big brown box.
This and previous experience has taught me that the sheer utility of owning a hatchback outweighs any style that might be conferred by owning a sedan or coupé; so much so that I'm never going to buy another sedan again.
The Mondeo wagon had in every respect, the advantages of what a hatchback has but more so; so already it outscores the Mondeo sedan. There is a Mondeo hatchback which does exist but that's another story (and it certainly wins over the sedan). What won me over about the Mondeo wagon was the sheer volume of space in the back; I'm talking ridiculous amounts of space. If I were five years old again, the back of a Mondeo wagon could very easily be a fort in which you could hide out whilst fighting off hordes of injuns.
This leads me to an obvious question. If space is the winner, why not go even bigger on the same platform?

There is an SUV cousin to the Ford Mondeo and that is the Mazda CX-9. The thing is that I do know of someone with a CX-9 and this is where the story gets weird.
The CX-9 is as long and as wide as the Mondeo wagon; so it would be logical that it should have even more space in the back. Nope! The CX-9 because it is jacked up, has the top of the suspension towers intruding into the boot space; which means that the amount of flat area in the back is compromised. Now I guess that the sorts of people who buy SUVs don't mind this but as someone who was already biased against them, my  biases have only been confirmed further. I suspect that although the CX-9 might have an overall larger carrying capacity, it is only able to do that by virtue of being taller.
My suspicion is that the Mondeo could fit more boxes into the boot space without having to layer them, precisely because the suspension towers and wheel wells don't intrude into the boot space in the wagon as much. The walls of the Mondeo are pretty well flat but on the CX-9, it is as though there were already two immovable objects in there. Maybe it is an illusion in my mind but without the two cars side by side, I can only guess.
When it comes to flat real estate in the boot of both cars, my suspicion is that the Mondeo is the winner. In the battle against injuns, you'd be kneeling closer to your cowboy comrades; that's a terrible idea if they happen to smell.

Don't get me wrong, in a battle of coolness, the hatchback still beats everything else for me. It's just that the wagon has unexpectedly trumped the sedan in my reckoning. The SUV still comes last... unless you have a proper Four Wheel Drive and are using it to drive on dirt with it; in which case you may as well run with what Range Rover says - they're station wagons.

April 15, 2015

Horse 1877 - Walking On Perfection

What do you see in this picture?
If you said "a shoe on a set of stairs" then whilst I don't question your powers of observation, I do question your powers of imagination. What do I see in this picture? Perfection.

There are some things in life which once crafted, have never needed to be redesigned ever again.
The Bialetti Moka Pot is perfect in its execution of design, functionality and simplicity. With no moving parts whatsoever, it could even be taken camping and still produce a better cup of coffee than the vast majority of baristas working away at complicated machines that cost many many dollarpoundeuros.
Levi's 501s apart from the removal of the infamous groin rivet, have remained basically unchanged since their inception on the Californian gold fields in the 1850s. From humble work wear of gold miners (49ers), the black and then later blue jeans of Californian merchants Levi and Strauss, became the uniform for teenagers and dowdy old people alike (especially those on now cancelled television motoring shows).
However we might like to dress it up or down, the modern business shirt is practically cut the same way as it was at the turn of the 20th century. The business shirt's story does involve the deaths of more than a hundred people in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and did bring about major changes to labour laws in the United States, but that's no fault of the shirts themselves.
I know that this might sound daft, but I think that there are some things which should be praised because of the elegant solutions they have employed. Whether by design or sheer dumb luck, I think that the stairs at Milsons Point Railway Station are practically perfect in every way.

The rise between each stair is perfect. You're not straining to climb up the side of a cliff with every step and the run is also perfect and accommodates a size 9 shoe absolutely perfectly. The width of the stairs is perfect and allows substantial ingress and egress of passage, even when there are trains arriving hither and yon up above. There are also windbreakers at station level, which means that even on windy days, for a train station which is both exposed and almost on top of the harbour, passengers can ascend and descend without copping a battering from the wrath of the elements.
Every single thing about the stairs at Milsons Point Railway Station is so utterly perfect in every conceivable way that its very existence is almost a fluke of history.

Yes there are grander stations in Sydney such as Sydney Terminal with its steel frame, arching cathedral like above; there are the twin jewels of the City Circle, Museum and St James, which are prettier than a chocolate box at Christmas; and there is what's left of the modernist Eastern Suburbs Railway line with its tiles and two-tone colour schemes but only Milsons Point Railway Station has a feature where function trumps form so eloquently.

Yet there is a kind of sadness in this perfection, a melancholia which goes by unnoticed by the general public. Maybe a few of the many throngs who cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge daily, notice this sadness but if they do, they remain silent.
Milsons Point Railway Station is a twin. Its twin died a forlorn death when the Cahill Expressway appeared and then finally when the Warringah Expressway devoured entire streets of North Sydney, the body was disposed of. I refer to the Milsons Point Tram Station which used to stand on the elevated platform where the toll booths and lanes 7 & 8 now run. Trams used to fly over the Bradfield Highway to North Sydney Station and Blue St via a box girder bridge but once the tram lines were unceremoniously ripped asunder, the tram station ceased to have a purpose.
The perfect stairways at the Railway Station were duplicated at the Tram Station and alas they too faced the hand of destruction.
Milsons Point Railway Station hasn't mourned its twin's loss though. As the sole remaining station on the bridge's approaches, it is a glory hog. It has become a prime vantage point from which to watch the New Year's fireworks displays and the bridge itself is still something whose glow it can bask in.

Beautiful perfection; melancholic destruction - What did you see in this picture? If you still say "a shoe on a set of stairs" then I still don't question your powers of observation. You may however, question my sanity because I just wrote a 770 word piece about a set of stairs.

April 14, 2015

Horse 1876 - The New Jerusalem - It's Really Really Big

The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
- Revelation 21:15-22

Mrs Rollo and I have been working our way through the book of Revelation and have come to the conclusion that a lot of it is as confusing as all get out. It's kind of nice to know that even the scholars are as confused as all get out because at very least it says that we're not total doofuses.
The questions that we mainly have are "Does this thing happen before or after that thing?", "Do they happen concurrently?", "What does this mean any way?", "Is this something that exists now, or is this something that is yet to come?".
When reading prophetic books, it's often like staring out across a set of mountain ranges, where you know that there must be different mountains out there and they must be varying distances away but in the fog of your current view point and a road that goes somewhere else before you even get there, arguing about which is which is all a bit academic.
The new Jerusalem though, has a pretty concrete sort of description and one that's relatively understood.

It's big.

The new Jerusalem is measured as 12,000 stadia in length.
If we take the Attic standard, as used by Eratosthenes to calculate the circumference of the earth (or shorter depending on who is arguing at the time), the stadia which was made up of 600 pous (which was 308.4mm) was roughly 185.04m long. A distance of 12,000 of those is 2220.48km.
To give you some idea of how far that is away, from Sydney a distance of 12,000 stadia puts you somewhere on the world's longest straight stretch of road, on the Eyre Highway, somwhere in Western Australia.
In relation to the old temple in jerusalem, a distance of 12,000 stadia puts you in the Italian town of Frosinone, which is about 75km southeast of Rome.
It's also worth pointing out that the new Jerusalem is as wide as it is long; so it would cover an area of 4,930,531 km². By itself, that would make it the seventh largest country in the world by area, relegating India at 3,166,414 km² down a spot.
It's also worth pointing out that the new Jerusalem is as high as it is wide, as it is long. The Kármán line which is the arbitrary line of where space begins is only 100km and at 2220.48km, more than 2100 are in space. This means to say that the International Space Station and all of the satellites whizzing about above out heads at the moment, would still easily fit into the lower half of where the new Jerusalem juts into space.
At 144 cubits thick, we're talking about walls which are roughly 216 feet thick. To put that into perspective, the Aurelian Walls which encircled Rome and built under Aurelian and Probus c.271-275CE are roughly 11 feet thick. Even the thickest parts of the Great Wall of China (which is actually a series of non-contiguous walls) are only about 30 feet think; so the walls of the new Jerusalem are not quite seven times as thick as that.
But that's not even the most impressive thing about the new Jerusalem as far as I'm concerned. For that we need to look at the construction of the old temple.

He prepared the inner sanctuary within the temple to set the ark of the covenant of the Lord there. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty wide and twenty high. He overlaid the inside with pure gold, and he also overlaid the altar of cedar. Solomon covered the inside of the temple with pure gold, and he extended gold chains across the front of the inner sanctuary, which was overlaid with gold. So he overlaid the whole interior with gold. He also overlaid with gold the altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary.
- 1 Kings 6:19-22

The inner sanctuary described here or the The "Kodesh Hakodashim" (The "Most Holy Place") is also described as a cube; being twenty cubits long, wide and high. That works out to be about a 30 foot cube.
This "Kodesh Hakodashim" was considered to be the dwelling-place of the "name" of God.

It's kind of a strange concept to think about that the Temple was supposed to be God's fixed house, if that were possible.
When the nation of Israel wandered throughout the wilderness, they were accompanied by the presence of God himself in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Tabernacle (which confusingly comes from the Latin tabernaculum) was in Hebrew the "mishkan" or "dwelling place". I suppose that once a permanent city had been established, the idea that the kind should live in a nice house and God didn't, seemed somewhat out of place.

In the book of Ezekiel, in chapter 10; following the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, we read that "the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple". I find it particularly chilling that the presence of the Lord in the temple is never mentioned again in any of the Tanakh and only fleetingly in the New Testament.
In as many words, God leaves the house which was built for him and his presence never returns to it.

The tearing of the veil in the gospels is significant because it does spell the return of the ability of people to meet with God but that the temple itself is no longer necessary. When Jesus spoke about tearing down and rebuilding the temple in three days, he speaks about his own body and the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?
- 1 Corinthians 3:16
This however does not in any way even imply that God's presence returns to the twice destroyed temple in Jerusalem.

The new Jerusalem coming out of heaven in Revelation is said to have no need of a temple "because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" but I still can't help notice the similarities between the description of the city as being a giant golden cube, which seems very close in description to the The "Most Holy Place" of the temple that Solomon built.
More impressive than the giant golden cube of a city is the implication that this massive place will once again fulfil the function of the "mishkan" or "dwelling place" of God with mankind. The very point of the giant golden cube city is the embodiment of the words "I will be their God and they will be my people*".
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
- Psalm 23:6

Literally IN house of the LORD forever.

*There are loads of cross references for this. Pick one:
Jeremiah 31:33
Ezekiel 37:27
2 Corinthians 6:16
Hebrews 8:10
Exodus 29:45
Jeremiah 32:38
Ezekiel 11:20
Revelation 21:3
Leviticus 26:12
Zechariah 2:10-11
Ezekiel 37:26-27
Jeremiah 31:33
Hosea 2:23
Revelation 21:7
Jeremiah 24:7
Genesis 17:7-8
Zechariah 8:8
Zechariah 13:9
Ezekiel 36:28

April 13, 2015

Horse 1875 - Streaky Politics

One of the really strange things about humans is that we are pattern seekers. We tend to see patterns in data sets, even if those pieces of data don't particularly lend themselves to having patterns found in them. We also tend to see faces in things and on things sun as the moon, or pieces of toast or even electric power outlets, even though there's not necessarily a particularly good reason for doing so.

Likewise (and this is one of my favourite facts), if you look through the lists of data for successful Republican presidents, that is Republican candidates who have gone on to become president, the last time that there wasn't a successful Republican candidate who became president who didn't have either a Bush or a Nixon on the ticket, was all the way back in 1928.

To wit:
1928: Hoover/Curtis.

1952: Eisenhower/Nixon
1956: Eisenhower/Nixon
1968: Nixon/Agnew
1972: Nixon/Agnew
1980: Reagan/Bush
1984: Reagan/Bush
1988: Bush/Quayle
2000: Bush/Cheney
2004: Bush/Cheney

From 2000-04, it was of course George W Bush who was President as opposed to his father George HW Bush but that list still remains.
There was also one other anomaly in there in that Gerald Ford was President with Nelson Rockefeller as Vice-President from 1974-77 but Agnew had resigned as Vice-President in 1973; which meant that Nixon had to appoint a replacement and then Nixon himself resigned in the light of a near certain impeachment following the Watergate scandal. Thus, Ford became the only man to have become president having never been voted in.

Potentially there is the possibility that this streak might continue as George W Bush's brother John Ellis "Jeb" Bush, has been  has been considered a potential candidate in the 2016 presidential election and George W Bush's son George P Bush might be ready to run in the 2020, 2024 or 2028 election. If that were to happen, then the streak might very well run out beyond a century.

Streaks like this exist in Russian politics as well. With the exception of Georgy Malenkov, who was  Premier of the Soviet Union from 1953-55, Russian leaders have alternated between bald and hairy, all the way back to the beginning of Tsar Nicholas the First's reign as Emperor of Russia in 1825:

Bald - Nicholas I
Hairy - Alexander II
Bald - Alexander III
Hairy - Nicholas II
Bald - Georgy Lvov
Hairy - Alexander Kerensky
Bald - Vladimir Lenin
Hairy - Joseph Stalin
Bald - Nikita Kruschev
Hairy - Leonid Brezhnev
Bald - Yuri Andropov
Hairy - Konstantin Chernenko
Bald - Mikhail Gorbachev
Hairy - Boris Yeltsin
Bald - Vladimir Putin
Hairy - Dimitry Medvedev
Bald - Vladimir Putin

Had I thought through this blog post better I might have had some salient or singular ending for it but I don't. Instead, all I have is an excuse to give you a creepy picture of Brezhnev's eyebrows:

April 11, 2015

Horse 1874 - Migration Amendment (We Want The Authority To Bash People In Immigration Detention Facilities and Cover It Up) Bill 2015

Peter Dutton, the current Minister for Immigration and Border Protection; who took over the position from Scott Morrison, has a history of being unapologetic.
In 2008 whilst he was in opposition, he was the only member of the shadow cabinet to abstain from the parliament's apology to the Stolen Generations. One can only assume that he's not sorry at all.

Presumably he's also not sorry about the use of force against people being held in  immigration detention facilities either, if the decidely Orwelllianly named "Migration Amendment (Maintaining the Good Order of Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2015" is anything to go by.

197BA Maintaining the good order etc. of immigration detention facilities
(1) An authorised officer may use such reasonable force against any person or thing, as the authorised officer reasonably believes is necessary, to:
(a) protect the life, health or safety of any person (including the authorised officer) in an immigration detention facility; or
(b) maintain the good order, peace or security of an immigration detention facility.

This piece of legalise gives an "authorised officer" the use of "such reasonable force against any person or thing, as the authorised officer reasonably believes is necessary" to (and take particular notice of this) "maintain the good order, peace or security of an immigration detention facility".

In 1963, a Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to study the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure, even if by doing so it would conflict with their conscience.
Participants were placed into a room where they were to act as a "teacher" to direct a "learner" (who was an actor) in memorising a series of word pairs. If the learner got a word pair wrong, the teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock to the learner; this would increase in 15 volt increments every time the learner got the word pair wrong. The teachers were also told in advance that the learner had a heart condition.

Under instruction from someone in authority, the teacher would be told to continue, even if the learner exhibited signs of stress, pain, or screamed. They were given four incremental instructions:
1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
Roughly 65% of all participants, when under the instruction of an authority figure, applied what they thought was a 450 volt shock to the learner; such voltages would kill someone.

Milgram's experiment has subsequently been repeated on several occasions and it usually produced results around about 65%, of people who will continue to obey orders from an authority figure, even if it conflicts with their conscience.

If this experiment can be taken as legitimate, then the implications are that if you place people in positions such as being an "authorised officer", they will obey orders to inflict force upon a "person or thing", even if it conflicts with their conscience. Given human nature though and the fact that the proposed changes to section 197BA suggests that the officer "may use such reasonable force against any person or thing, as the authorised officer reasonably believes is necessary, to" "maintain the good order, peace or security of an immigration detention facility", means that this comes down entirely to the officer's discretion. That discretion, as Milgram's experiment proves, might even include killing someone if the "authorised officer reasonably believes" it "is necessary".

If that's bad enough, there's a nifty little wallpaper section which is being proposed to absolve authorised officers if they choose to apply force:
197BD Secretary may decide not to investigate a complaint
(1) The Secretary may decide not to investigate, or not to investigate further, a complaint made under section 197BB, if the Secretary is satisfied that:
(a) the complainant has previously made the same, or a substantially similar, complaint to the Secretary and the Secretary:
(i) has dealt, or is dealing, adequately, with the complaint; or
(ii) has not yet had an adequate opportunity to deal with the complaint; or
(b) the complaint is frivolous, vexatious, misconceived, lacking in substance or is not made in good faith; or
(c) the complainant does not have sufficient interest in the subject matter of the complaint; or
(d) the investigation, or any further investigation, is not justified in all the circumstances.

If force has been used against an someone being held in immigration detention, it is the Secretary of the Department of  Immigration and Border Protection who would be given the opportunity "not to investigate" "a complaint made under section 197BB" if the "the complaint is frivolous, vexatious, misconceived, lacking in substance or is not made in good faith".

This comes down entirely to a matter of opinion and because it would never be investigated, it also would not be subject to the rigours of testing within the courts either. Think about the implications of this - if a person being held at an immigration detention centre were to be bashed, shot or otherwise injured, or if they were protesting their internment, under the act, the Secretary can choose not to investigate the case and pass it off as frivolous or misconceived. Further to that, the Migration Act allows someone being held at an immigration detention centre to be sent to a state or Commonwealth prison or remand centre and this has included maximum security prisons in the recent past.

I think that the "Migration Amendment (Maintaining the Good Order of Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2015" is an evil and horrible piece of legislation that will result in harm. I sincerely hope that the Member for Dickson withdraws the bill or that should it pass the House of Representatives, that the Senate will block it. Upon failing that, I can only hope that the Governor-General refuses assent to the bill. I think that it very much fails the Section 51 requirement of the Constitution to uphold the "peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth".

April 10, 2015

Horse 1873 - Australia's Prime Ministers - No 15 - Francis Forde

XV - Franics Forde

There's sort of a strange legend which grew up around the Premiership of Francis "Frank" Forde.
"The only known photograph of Francis Forde as Prime Minister, is of him in military uniform; standing at a railway station."
The reason for this is that you can basically describe his week long premiership in a few sentences.
John Curtain had died in office. Forde was his deputy and took over in a temporary role. The Labor caucus voted for someone else. Game over.
That story whilst being technically correct (the best kind of correct) is a black and white snapshot of a picture full of colour and depth, and was a technicolor mess.

On the other side of the political divide, Menzies had resigned and Fadden as the leader of the minor of the two parties in the coalition, took over the job as Prime Minister. When two independents crossed the floor, Curtin passed a £1 variation budget and stole supply (and with it government) on the floor of the house. The Australian people confirmed their confidence in his government by giving his Labor party a proper majority at the next election.
Curtain though, like any leader of a large political party, had to deal with the internal factions and posturings within his own party. Curtin who was very much a Labor leftist, appointed Forde as his Deputy who was much further to the right. Curtin's premiership came to sudden and abrupt ending though - he died.
It was pretty well much always assumed that Forde would be the next leader of the party but when this was put to a formal vote just eight days later (13th July, 1945), the caucus decided differently.

Forde lost the leadership ballot against Ben Chifley and Norman Makin but would remain on as Deputy Leader of the party until the 1946 election where he lost his own seat. As Minister for Defence after the Second World War had ended, he was held as the principle actor and reason why troops were slow in being demobilised. After being ousted from his seat in Federal Parliament, he returned to the Queensland state parliament after a period as Australian High Commissioner to Canada.

During Curtin's tenure as Prime Minster though, the landscape had changed on the other side of the chamber. Following a meeting with Menzies and a few key UAP members, a conference was organised in Canberra which brought together 18 different rightist political groups including MPs and the IPA and media owner Keith Murdoch. This meeting would mark the end of the UAP and herald its successor, the Liberal Party. The party was formally announced in the Sydney Town Hall on 31st August 1945.

Had Forde remained as Prime Minister, he would have squared off against Menzies in an election race but that day never came. Labor had jotled to the left and thrown him off the cart. Frank Forde was a victim of circumstance and had the winds of political fortune been blowing in a different direction, Forde's story would have been far grander than just an interesting appendix.

April 09, 2015

Horse 1872 - Is IS A Country?

I want to set aside the murderous and barbarous nature of the Islamic State (IS) for the moment and attempt to answer a question set for me via email; that question is: "Is IS a country?"
The problem with very small questions is that there are often so few parameters to define the question properly, as to render it useless.

With only four words in this question, two of those being particles and one being the subject, the last word in the question, "country" is so hard to define that depending on who you ask, you'll even get different numbers of how many countries there are in the world. These numbers vary from 193 to a shade over 200, depending on how country-like a country is and who thinks that a given country is a country.
Do you include Macau, Hong Kong and Taipei as countries? Macau and Hong Kong are part of China but kind of not China and to further complicate the matter, both of them sent teams to the 2008 Beijing Olympics; which sounds really strange because that might be like Scotland or Nebraska going to the Olympics. Chinese Taipei thinks of itself as a country and most other places think of it as a country, even though China doesn't officially think that it exists.
Do you include Somaliland as country which is pretty well much independent from Somalia? Maybe? Should to include the Vatican City which issues its own currency, passports and what not, even though it might be part of Rome. By most accounts, the Vatican City is a country; whereas a places like Kosovo and South Ossetia aren't (but should they be?)

If the world can't settle on what is a working definition of what a country is, then maybe we could look at what country like aspects IS has and that might be a good way to answer the question.
In their favour, IS has established the rule of law of sorts within the territory it controls, in some places it has undertaken civil infrastructure repair by fixing roads and electricity lines. In that respect, IS is more country like than many places in Syria under Assad. Most visibly, IS maintains a military; which is currently causing the world so much strife.
This then is similar to the United States. At what point exactly was the United States a country? Officially it's taken to be the 4th of July, 1776, but was the place markedly different from the week before on the 27th of June, 1776? Since the actual declaration of independence was never circulated to the British, they wouldn't have said that the United States was a country, even a week later on the 11th of July, 1776. IS might very well argue that they already are a separate state (the name's even in the title: "Islamic State") and they're already fighting in that capacity.

If the measure of how country-like a country is is the indicator of if a country is a country, then this might include membership status to various international organisations. I don't think that North Korea is a member of the United Nations even though it is most definitely a country and we again return to Macau and Hong Kong at the Olympics. IS isn't a member of any international organisation as far as I'm aware but it probably wouldn't be allowed to join anyway. I don't know if not being a member of international organisations makes IS not a country because then you need to look at South Africa, Zimbabwe and Fiji which have all at various times been kicked out of the Commonwealth of Nations; that seems to be more dependent on whether other countries think that a thing is a country or not. I refer you to the United States in that summer fortnight in 1776.

Not even the idea of a defined border helps to determine whether or not something is a country or not. Granted that the idea of marking off territory by the use of landmarks and boundary stones is ancient, and there are some very famous walls and dykes which mark where a country ends but what happens in the case when these borders are nebulous or under dispute? Does a country cease to be a country if it can't define where it is? Does a country become a country if it wants to define where it is? IS currently has borders to the territory that it holds which are both nebulous and under dispute.

Frank Zappa once famously said that: "You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer." 
I kind of like that except that it excludes countries which officially oppose alcohol and there quite a few of those. I think that it would be handy if a country had at least a national sporting team of some sort (though that might make the West Indies a country and the Vatican City not a country), a national anthem, its own currency and postage stamps, a national flag, and at least one chain of shops which are unique to it. When in another country, one of the things that makes it feel like another country, is to be able to walk into a shop which is nowhere else in the world. I don't think that IS has its own currency or postage stamps and as far as I'm aware, there are no shops which are unique to IS.

On balance, I don't think that IS is a country and given their murderous and barbarous method of operation, I hope that they don't become a country either. Being afforded the title of a country, implies a sort of legitimacy and a right to govern; I don't think that IS has either of those things.

April 07, 2015

Horse 1871 - Reclaim Sanity

Rallies and counter-rallies have been held around the country, with one man arrested as opposing groups of protesters confronted each other over issues of extremism and tolerance.
The Reclaim Australia group said its rallies on Saturday were a public response to Islamic extremism and a protest against minority groups who want to change the Australian cultural identity.
- ABC News, 5th Apr 2015

I am confused.
I am not confused about the fact that Reclaim Australia exists because humans generally do not like change and some of them also happen to be predisposed to a severe dislike of people different to them; nor am I confused about the fact that there were counter rallies held in opposition to Reclaim Australia's. What I am confused about is that anyone is surprised that organisations like Reclaim Australia exist, given the history of this nation.

Reclaim Australia (which I didn't even know existed before this weekend; even now I think is an overly glorified dog and pony show) is unashamedly Anti-Islamic. They might also be unashamedly racist if it wasn't for the fact that Islam is a religion which sweeps across many nation states, ethnic groups and racial groups. This is a fact which can not be denied, for five of nine of their bullet points in the section of their website entitled "What we are about" are specifically Anti-Islamic¹, two are daft and one is impossible to enforce.
Across Europe, in nations like Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom and the like, there are groups like this and some of them have solidified into political parties which have gained representation in parliaments. I'd like to suggest that this is unique to the old world powers but groups like this exist it the United States, presumably exist in South Africa, and on the flip side, Anti-Christian policies and groups exist throughout the Islamic world. We only have to look to the twentieth century to find Anti-Jewish policies which once swept across Europe.
I could question who Reclaim Australia thinks that they are reclaiming Australia from, and or what they are reclaiming Australia from but I think that that is kind of obvious. Being Anti-Something and Anti-Someone, appears to be very much an unfortunately normal position for people throughout history.

Yet in a strange sort of way, I kind of like the fact that Reclaim Australia exists. One of their bullet points has to do with freedom of speech and I think that this goes hand in hand with the connected freedoms of religion and expression. I think that people do and should have the right to hold opinions which are vile and repugnant, provided the exercise of those opinions doesn't cause harm and injury to other people.
The right to free speech and freedom of expression has as one of its consequences, the dissemination of people's ideas and opinions. If society has the ability to evaluate and accept or reject those ideas and opinions, then this creates something akin to a marketplace for those ideas and opinions, and because ideas and opinions are free they're not even subject to the forces of supply and demand. As a result of the exercise of Reclaim Australia's right to free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, I can form the opinion that they are a bunch of wingnuts and won't accidentally be duped into voting for them in elections, should they form a political party and run for office.
I might disagree with Islam as a thing but I still very much believe in Islamic people's right to free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression as I hope that they believe in mine.

In the recent leaders' debate in the UK, which was a seven-way rumble on the run up to their General Election, I was able to make assessments about the various political parties based on what was said. Admittedly, I don't get a vote in another country's elections and watched the debate purely for entertainment purposes (yeah I know, it's weird) but the fact that you had Nigel Farage from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) being given a platform to speak, you very quickly realised that apart from one small issue, there was no real plan to organise or run a country. If Reclaim Australia does ever condense with other like minded groups in forming a political party, the fact that they have had the opportunity to speak, means that I won't vote for them because of what they have said.

I find it heartening that there was a set of counter rallies as well. Again because of people exercising their rights to free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, there have been voices as a counterpoint to Reclaim Australia. I know that this might sound ridiculous but one of the greatest contributors to world peace over the past 70 years has been the existence of cheap air travel. I will suggest that companies like Ryanair, Air Asia, Garuda, Aerolineas Argentina etc. have done more for world peace than even the United Nations because they have flown people around the world. Once you meet different people, you start to realise that people around the world have more in common than what separates them. People's concerns about putting a roof over their heads and being adequately clothed and fed, are pretty well much universal. In that respect, the questions of from whom and what Australia needs to be reclaimed from, start to look incredibly puerile.
I also find it heartening that at counter rallies, people were reclaiming Australia from Reclaim Australia because I don't think that Reclaim Australia either represents who we are or who we should be as a nation.

¹http://www.reclaim-australia.com/ - I do not endorse this group. This is link is for you to cast your own judgement.

April 01, 2015

Horse 1870 - Re: Thinking About Rethinking Re:think

Re:think (colon included) is the name of Joe Hockey's new review paper about the taxation system. I'm not sure if you could call it a discussion paper because that would imply that you have a right to reply and that most indubitably is not the case.
The name Re:think is problematic. It sounds to me as if Mr Hockey is replying to an email from one of his friends in business and we've all been accidentally CCd in. "Re" is almost always used in the context of a reply. Even though this was released on the run up to April the First, this paper is definitely no joke and is deathly serious if you happen to be on the wrong end of its policy direction.
Incidentally, the other use of the word "colon" apart from the punctuation mark which is tantalisingly hanging forlorn in the name of the paper, is that part of the intestines between the caecum and the rectum. I could make a joke about where this paper came from but you don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.

The entire of taxation policy boils down to just three questions:
1. How much to collect?
2. Who to collect it from?
3. How should it be collected?
Every single taxation policy ever, in the history of the world, comes down to a combination of these three questions and how to address them. The first question fits into a broader context of fiscal policy and has other implications to do with growing or shrinking aggregate demand because taxation is a leakage from the flow of money. It also fits in with questions of fiscal prudence and whether governments run deficits or surpluses, and on future government debt and borrowings.
For the record, it seems utterly strange to me that ever since Mr Hockey became treasurer, he's been saying the phrase "Labor's debt and deficit" as though the entire federal government was going to come to a giant crashing halt tomorrow. It's almost a case of deliberate amnesia because the Labor government for the period of 2007-13 enacted every single set of tax cuts that were included in the forward estimates when the Liberal Party was in power between 2001-06. To now suggest that the previous government with its plan of tax cuts was irresponsible and to then go on an identical trajectory of more tax cuts after you've been repeating the manta of "debt and deficit" is an hypocrisy of the fiscal kind.

The last two questions though, are mainly to do with the nature of that leakage from the economy and also touch on social policy.
All three questions are in essence fighting against human nature itself because of one of the most basic qualities of mankind: selfishness. Everyone from the grandest duke, from the captains of industry, from the titans of the financial world, to the plebs, to the underclass, do not like paying tax. More generally, it is also true that no one likes paying for anything if they can get away with it. Taxation policy is then not only about fighting human nature but also about fighting human power. When you discuss questions about who to collect taxation from, invariably you're also looking at the reactions of those people from whom you happen to be collecting tax from and whether or not as a government, you think that those opinions matter and if they do, whose matter the most to you.

Re:think appears to fit in with a broader agenda of entrenching a new gilded age of entitlement for a rentier class. During the launch speech, Mr Hockey spoke about broadening the base of the GST whilst at the same time, lowering rates of income tax and company tax. These two shifts in taxation policy taken together are very much concerned with who thee government intends to collect the bulk of its taxation from.
Consumption taxes like the GST are broadly regressive in nature. That is, the burden of taxation falls more harshly on those people at the lower end of the spectrum. Poorer people tend to proportionally spend more of their income, simply in surviving. People on lower incomes generally have less of an ability to save anything and so quite often, their spending rates are pretty close to 100% of their income or sometimes even more in certain periods. This being true, by increasing consumption taxes like the GST, the overall taxation mix becomes more regressive because those people who are able to save more, do not spend their savings (by definition) and aren't faced with a consumption tax on the portion of their income they don't consume.
Income Tax and Company Tax are interesting animals. Nominally poorer people only derived their incomes from wages but people with larger stores of capital which has been parked, have access to other income streams like rent, interest and dividends. Companies are either a collective form of ownership or in the case of very small companies, vehicles to minimise tax and create a separate legal person from the owners. For people in small business and people who have the ability to create companies, there are always strategies which can be developed to minimise tax payable. It is even possible to hire people like me, accountants and financial managers, to crunch the numbers and work out what the best positions are to minimise tax and whether or not that involves paying out wages or dividends. This is simply impossible if you do not have access to the necessary capital to make this worthwhile.

There is also an acknowledgement that superannuation is being used as an upper class taxation rort of sorts and so there are some tinkering to do with the incomes generated from very large deposits from within the superannuation system but I can tell you that as soon as any law is changed that has significant effects, armies of people like me will be ready and waiting with out calculators and spreadsheets at the ready to work out what the new best positions are. For most people who do not have any sizeable funds in superannuation, the existing funds managers will continue to shift numbers around screens as they always have done. Re:think is likely to have zero effect when it comes to retail, wholesale or industry super funds.

Re:think at least on the face of it, appears to be answering questions 2 & 3 by deliberately shifting the taxation mix from the top end of the income scale to the bottom. The reason given for this is supposedly to encourage investment in Australia but given that many multinational companies already pay minimal or zero tax in Australia, I fail to see how it is possible to reduce their taxation burden further. By shifting the burden of taxation from the top to the bottom though, it does kind of address the first question of "How much to collect?" because poorer people have less of an ability to avoid the burden and certainly no ability to shift the domicile of their income in the same way that a multinational company can.

Coupled with other plans to lower penalty rates and abolish overtime rates, Re:think fits quite nicely into a broader agenda of redesigning society itself and pity you if you're at the bottom.