Francis Vierboom's Blog

A blog about things. Mostly news, ideas, and Sydney

The Gaza thing

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I don’t think there’s that much to say about the Israel boarding of the flotilla that isn’t out there. I think it’s tragic and despicable on its own, but depressingly consistent with trends in Israel’s political demographics, which are increasingly reactionary, short sighted and sometimes outright racist:

an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. Attitudes are worst among Israel’s young….This March, a poll found that 56 percent of Jewish Israeli high school students — and more than 80 percent of religious Jewish high school students — would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.

It’s also shockingly unprofessional work by the IDF, as discussed over at the Interpreter.

I will solemnly say that at least these nine people killed won’t have died in vain, unlike so many thousands of others – mostly Palestinians – in the last ten years of this conflict. Their deaths may in fact bring about serious change in international opinion and real change on the ground for the 1.5 million people of Gaza.

I have read a few other interesting things that I can’t help but re-post here. From the Independent, an excellent article worth reading in full, with a strikingly good but totally not-going-to-happen idea:

Ideally Israel would now rethink a policy which there is every reason for thinking is not only catastrophic for Gaza’s people, but also not in its own long-term interests. But if not, there may be ways in which the international community can shake off its passivity in the face of this unfolding tragedy. For if broadly friendly governments – preferably within the Quartet but if not outside it – were to confront Israel with the prospect of mounting their own, much more official and internationally sanctioned official maritime relief operation, it would be exponentially more difficult for the Netanyhau government to see it off than it has, however messily and lethally, this week’s flotilla.

Implausible as it may seem at first sight, the idea has been discussed at a high level in international diplomatic circles. The only senior UN figure brave enough to float the idea publicly, however, is Unrwa’s Gaza director of operations, John Ging, who mentioned sea access when he argued in an interview more than a month before Monday’s fiasco, that it was time for the international community “physically” to do something about “rescuing” Gaza. While the Israeli claim that an unchecked activist flotilla entering Gaza compromises its security may be understandable, it could hardly say the same about allied or UN ships.

Israel has made the claim that the action was legal because of the well established law of the sea permitting attacks on neutral vessels that are running a maritime blockade. One commentator suggests that might be legally wrong because that rule only applies to ‘international armed conflict’, and this is not an international conflict. But that’s a bit of a technicality. With a more substantive point, albeit one that won’t get much of a hearing in Israeli courts, Ben Saul at the Drum points out the argument relies on the far shakier grounds that the blockade itself is legal:

the San Remo Manual also contains rules governing the lawfulness of the blockade itself, and there can be no authority under international law to enforce a blockade which is unlawful. Paragraph 102 of the Manual prohibits a blockade if “the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade”.

Finally, the most succinct point made so far is by military insurgency commentator Abu Muqawama:


Written by Francis

June 3, 2010 at 4:19 pm

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Fwdworthy on Friday

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Chauncy Morlan, freakishly fat guy, circa 1890– Does it annoy you when people write the imaginary word ‘alot’? This will definitely help. Funniest thing I have read in ages. The rest of the blog is pretty funny too.

– Once upon a time, this guy was considered fat enough that people were willing to pay to see him at the circus.

– Jon Stewart takes down Fox News and Bernie Goldberg. Related: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, the dirtiest phrase ever written in Latin.

– This is how fast the speed of light looks.

– Apparently, if you’re a happier person, you’re likely having more deep and meaningful conversations rather than pleasant small talk.

– Fixed gear bikes have caught on everywhere… except China? According to this article it has something to do with how they just aren’t into irony over there:

“There is a saying in Chinese: ‘Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes,’ ” Juanjuan Wu, a professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Chinese Fashion From Mao to Now, told me. “Hipster fashion only really works by communicating your irony—in other words, someone needs to ‘get it.’ Hipster irony in dress would most likely be misinterpreted in Chinese society as simple poverty or weirdness.”

Written by Francis

April 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm

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Light rail and high density on Parramatta Road: what he said

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I have had a draft blog post for a while about how I think Sydney should grow in the inner west rather than the outer west. For anyone who has listened to me rant about Sydney, it will sound familiar. The basic points are that we need:

  • the M4 east extension, connecting the M4 to the City Westlink, bypassing the Parramatta Rd bottleneck (getting trucks and western Sydney traffic off the route) (see below).
  • re-establishment of light rail along Parramatta Rd from Central to Strathfield, slowing down traffic, encouraging cycling and walking, and making restaurants and shopping accessible
  • high density housing along the whole thing to replace the ugly crappy wasteland that’s there at the moment

However I can now delete this draft, since my exact whole plan was basically laid out by Andrew West in the Herald on the weekend. The Planning Institute of Australia and the Urban Development Institute of Australia have called on the government to have another look at Parramatta Road. Everything in the article is basically what I think too.

For some more info on the options for the M4 east, the RTA has the options paper from 2003 that examined a few possibilities. The short tunnel option exiting at Lilyfield (the yellow line below) seems to be vaguely favoured in the report.

M4 route options

M4 route options, from the RTA options paper

Written by Francis

April 20, 2010 at 12:14 am

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Forster, Australia’s new national capital?

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Canberra at night from Mt Ainslie

Actually it looks rather nice here. CC from Sam Ilic on Flickr

Canberra. It’s not that bad. I was there a few weeks ago. For me there are two obvious things to like about it: it’s a cycling paradise, and it’s home to the two of the safest ALP seats in the country. In other words, it’s home to the kind of lefty public servant/intellecturazzi I one day aspire to eat Saturday morning eggs benedict with.

Of course, this is also one of Canberra’s big problems. To outsiders, it seems like the place is mostly just a bunch of itinerant public servants, perhaps just there for a year or two starting out their career in a government agency. Moreover, there’s a vague sense that it’s somehow ‘artificial’. Because, of course, it is. As we all learned in primary school, Canberra was only conceived because back at the start of the 20th century Sydney and Melbourne couldn’t settle the pissing contest  over which would become the national capital. A design competition was held for a new city, Lake Burley Griffin was excavated, and today the city is one of the world’s great monuments to the traffic roundabout.

The other problem I have with Canberra is that it just isn’t really in a nice spot. All of Australia’s other capital cities are on rivers or harbours. They are all on or near the coast. But Canberra is not on the coast because the design competition specified that the city had to be at least 50 miles from the coast in order to be out of range of battleships and safe from naval artillery. This requirement would have almost been obsolete by the time the parliament opened in 1927, but it had the unfortunate result of removing the capital from the beautiful ocean of the east coast.

Of course maybe I’m just spoiled by Sydney. It really is a stunning city. Of all the cities I’ve been to in the world, only Stockholm seems to me to come close for natural beauty. I perked up a few years ago when Paul Keating suggested that we should just move the capital to Sydney – ‘he wouldn’t care if the capital was in Melbourne, “but if you want to impress the visitors, of course, you come to Sydney”‘ – and put the Parliament on the current naval base at Garden Island looking over the harbour.

This would be nice, and I’m all for it. But seeing as we’re all talking about population these days, and there are multiple calls for new cities to be established in Australia, why not throw in the towel on Canberra, and use the inherent value of the national capital to establish a real nice city, with both something to do (work for the government) and a good reason to live there (a few nice beaches, maybe some lakes, and warm weather).

Sunrise over Forster

Sunrise over Forster, from bass8888 on Flickr

Based on that criteria, and having a quick look at the map, I have picked out Forster-Tuncurry, 4 hours north of Sydney. It’s a nice holiday location, it’s already got some decent road infrastructure, and it’s along a corridor of population where more cities would help make the business case for everyone’s favourite big government project, very fast trains. A Sydney – Newcastle – Forster – Port Mac – Brisbane fast railway line would really liven the place up.

I think it would be a good thing for Australia to create a new city, and an easy way to really get a good one going would be moving the capital there. Of course, Forster being a nice holiday spot already, I’m open to other ideas. Serious studies of where to start a city suggest it should be in the Pilbara or the Kimberleys along the northwest coast of the country in WA, based on rainfall and such, but it’s not going to be practical to have the capital move that far away. Go down the South Coast somewhere towards Melbourne – say just move Canberra east to Jervis Bay – I say it’s too cold. Which is why I am thinking somewhere on the mid-north coast of NSW. But I’m easy. Just move it out of the middle of nowhere.

UPDATE: I know it’s a valuable thing to have some big inland centres, and in some ways it’s good that one of them is the capital. A lot of people like the climate and lifestyle of the inland cities. But probably not most people. Apparently 50% of Australia’s population lives within 7km of the coast. 7km inland still leaves more than half of Sydney.

Written by Francis

April 19, 2010 at 11:44 pm

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Period 4: stir fry studies

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In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

At the moment the developed world is headed for a disastrously overweight, unhealthy, unhappy and expensive (hospital and medical costs) future. This is because of two obvious things: the western diet and the lack of exercise in modern sedentary lifestyles.

The exercise solution is simple – build millions of miles of cycleways and make everyone walk or ride to work and school every day. Easy.

But studies tend to show that diet is the more important factor in weight gain and loss. And the problem creeping around the world is the western diet.  Lots of meat, dairy, sugar, fat and salt, in oversized portions, and a lot of highly processed foods. Or, as Michael Pollan says, ‘edible foodlike substances’.

Pollan’s excellent book ‘In Defense of Food‘ explains the odd and horrible things that have happened in the food industry over the years. As we all suspected deep down, fast food is mostly sugar that has been sculpted and coloured to look like food, and supermarkets are chock full of a huge array of weird processed items. The message of the book is twofold. One is that we should ignore the promises of ‘nutritionism’ – eat low fat, fat free, vitamin b2, anti-oxidants, avoid free radicals, blah blah blah. It’s all basically modern-day alchemy. Pollan wisely suggests that any food product labelled with a health claim (eg ‘98% fat free’) should be completely avoided. Two, the book eloquently makes the case that people really need to focus on cooking a variety of fresh foods, especially vegetables. If you simply cook a variety of natural foods, and don’t eat too much, you really can’t go wrong. As the cover says: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’

Over at The Punch, Tory Maguire has the beautifully elegant suggestion of making cooking classes compulsory in school again. I really, really love this idea. There are few things more useful to learn, and few skills that are more commonly called upon, than knowing the basics of cooking. And there are few more effective ways I can imagine that the government could have a real effect on long term trends in the Australian diet. Instead of takeaway, kids can graduate from school confident in their ability to pick out a few fresh ingredients and feed themselves something reasonable.

I know schools are busy, but one class a week, one period before lunch, would be plenty. 50 minutes is enough time for teams of 3 or 4 to make a stir fry, a curry, a casserole, pasta sauce, a tasty salad etc. It’s not like a huge retraining of teachers will be required, since I’m sure at least half of them fancy themselves decent cooks. There’s a few safety issues involved, but it’s basically the safety procedures required of a science teacher, plus kids with knives. Kids will like it because they get to eat an exciting meal one day a week. And I have no doubt Jamie Oliver or someone like that would love to write the curriculum.

Any teachers reading? What do you think?

Term 1: Italian cooking. KPIs: Making pasta; Using Tomatoes and Garlic; using basil and oregano; using parmesan; using meats and seafood

Term 2: Simple Asian cuisine. KPIs: Making rice; Basic stir fry techniques; using sauces and spices; when to add coconut cream to a curry; controlling chilli heat

Term 3: Core Australian cuisine. KPIs: Using the BBQ to cook steak, sausages, vegetables; cooking roo; marinades; using the Weber; making potato salad

Term 4: French cuisine. KPIs: using tonnes of butter; roux and bechamel sauce; roasting meat and vegetables; using mustard; using wine

Written by Francis

April 13, 2010 at 12:19 am

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Fwdworthy on Friday

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Link goes to drawing tool siteHitler played cricket once, but thought it needed to be made more ‘manly’ by playing without any padding, and replacing the ball with a rock or something. I guess this means that backyard cricket is actually Nazi cricket.

– The extraordinary Flame online drawing tool. My own quick effort produced lots of stylish squiggles and some galaxies, pictured. Some stunning examples – flaming dragons, flowers, etc.

– Matt Yglesias shows off by using nothing more than a Miley Cyrus song to write a rather amusing takedown of some typical right-wing ‘American exceptionalism’ article.

– The new Michael Lewis book on the financial crisis I mentioned on Tuesday thanks “A.K. Barnett-Hart, a Harvard undergraduate who had just written a thesis about the market for subprime mortgage-backed CDOs that remains more interesting than any single piece of Wall Street research on the subject.” This young, apparently genius and rather attractive 24 year old banker is getting a lot of attention for the thesis, which looks at exactly which mortgages caused the meltdown, and what other features were relevant. (Nobody seems to come off well.)

– Do you puke in your mouth a little bit every time you see the Lara Bingle/Michael Clarke story on the news? Then please enjoy Clarke and Dawe in top form.

Written by Francis

March 19, 2010 at 4:08 pm

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The inevitable Gillard

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Someone has put a few thousand dollars on Gillard leading the Labor party at the next election, shortening Centrebet’s odds to $4. This is a crazy bet, because if there is one tenet of Ruddist government that has to date been widely viewed as successful, it’s ‘be as predictable and boring as possible’. There is no chance of a spill before the next election. It just doesn’t fit with the philosophy of ‘government under the radar’. Rudd won the election in 2007 by saying sensible centrist things, which was extremely refreshing at the time, and desperately avoiding Howard wedgies by simply copying his policies. Howard lost the election because policies like WorkChoices showed that the Coalition had become too restless to be trusted. The action-men image of the Howard and co suddenly looked threatening and destabilising; suddenly they were bored old men with nothing better to do after ten years in government than implement their weird ideological policies.

This ‘reassuring’ posture has started to work a little too well. Despite the massive economic stimulus package, there seems to be a general feeling that Labor, at least until recently, has generally not appeared to do much of anything in the last three years. This is partly because on a lot of Rudd’s rhetorical centrepieces – climate change, Aboriginal rights, homelessness, health – there really hasn’t been that much progress.

I have a suspicion that the Government’s political advisers had a good look at Lateline on Feb 16th, when Ticky Fullerton visited the ‘weathervane’ seat of Lindsay to check up on the ‘Western Sydney Bogans Battlers’ theory of Howard’s victories. Fullerton found a woman, Kathy, who had switched to vote for Rudd in 2007, but having been primed by that morning’s Alan Jones show or something, she had stinging words for the government: “Mr Rudd was going to take over the hospitals if they didn’t improve, which they haven’t. He was gonna do grocery watch, fuel watch. They’re non-existent now. Interest rates: they’re going up again.”

Labor strategists would have looked into Kathy’s eyes and felt a deep and unsettling fear that what she was saying rings very true. Rudd did promise to take over hospitals, keep interest rates down, and make groceries and petrol all but free. It’s only a week or two later, at the end of February, that the hospitals plan was released, and a frenzy of activity based on ‘doing things’ has since fired up.

Peter Brent regards the Western Sydney swing voters theory as bogus, given how few swing seats are in Western Sydney, but there is probably something to it. This is if you allow that ‘Western Sydney’ is simply being used as a euphemism for ‘low-information bogans’. The theory goes that, unlike well-off religious North Shore voters, socially conservative old people, farmers, or yuppie city dwellers, these are the elusive ‘persuadables’ who don’t fall neatly into any political party, and are actually relatively easy to pick off. These voters, although particularly distilled in Western Sydney regions, are to be found all over the country.

In the Lateline story, Kathy went on to refer to ‘the tax’ (the ETS) being a key issue, and other vox populi mentioned boat people, and the fact they had only switched in 2007 because of WorkChoices. People who complain about the ETS ‘great big tax’ and boat people seem like they are really natural Liberal voters anyway. But it’s the ‘but what have they actually done?’ critique that feels more likely to stick for the ‘persuadables’ at morning tea with the chelsea bun.

And on the ‘doing things’ front, there is one person in Government who has definitely been in charge of doing things, and that’s been Gillard, the mega-minister for Education and Workplace Relations. There are stories all over the shop now about the waste in the schools program, but as long as nobody gets electrocuted or catches on fire, the coverage is really good news for the Government. People expect cost overruns, and it’s cost overruns on school halls and classrooms etc. It’s activity. It’s what a Labor-led Education Revolution would probably like if you could put one on TV.

Even more importantly, for anyone with a vague recollection of politics in 2008, Gillard was the one who plunged the stake through the heart of WorkChoices (as well as the WorkChoices mousepads).

Rudd plays it too safe to lose the next election, and Abbott plays a little too loose with a little too much baggage. But I think Rudd is likely to return with a reduced majority. [Recall that Howard barely survived 1998 against Beazley, even losing the popular vote.] Gillard has shown herself a far superior communicator, and will play a big role in winning the upcoming election for Labor. If anyone can point me to a $3 bet on a Gillard leading Labor to the 2013 election, let me know. I’ve got $100 ready to go.

(I’d even be tempted by a Gillard/Tanner quinella at $6 in 2013 – even though that’s two members of the Left, apparently it’s worth $6.50 for the coming election.)

Written by Francis

March 19, 2010 at 1:16 pm

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