Monday, October 30, 2006

School Chaplains

Believe it or not, I am not against religion, per se. If people have a religion, good for them. I even think children learning about the main religions (not just Christianity) is a good idea. I just don't like it when their beliefs affect me. Hence, I find it strange that our Anglican PM needs to fund chaplains in schools:

Mr Howard yesterday announced $90 million would be made available for individual schools to appoint religious counsellors to help students deal with traumatic events and provide guidance.

The plan provides up to $20,000 a year for schools to employ the chaplains. The Federal Government has urged state governments to match the funding.

Mr Howard has told Macquarie Radio that the Government would ensure the chaplains are not extremists, but he denies that the plan blurs the line between church and state.

For traumatic events? Why? Personally, I'd rather have a trained counsellor looking after my children. But that aside, I was under the impression you could seek religious counsel for free at your nearby church. Not that easy for professional help. My sentiments are echoed:

The Parents and Citizens Federation (PCF) says the Government's plan is misguided.

PCF New South Wales spokeswoman Sharon Canty says schools have a greater need for trained counsellors.

"The chaplains, we believe, are being installed to acknowledge grief and communities in trauma and we'd like to see school counsellors, as they are recognising trauma on a daily basis," she said.

"At the moment there are one to 1,000 ratio in our schools - we see this as a high priority need area."

But not everyone agrees that spending money on trained counsellors is a good idea:

But Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens Association (QCPCA) president Brett Devenish does not agree the $90 million package for chaplains could be better spent on school counsellors who are trained psychologists.

"The local chaplaincy committees tend to appreciate the simplicity of the processes so they can support the youth of their community through a chaplaincy program that isn't bogged down by processes of procedure and things like that," he said

Ah, Queensland - the beloved Deep North. Damn those pesky procedures. Getting in the way of some good old fashion "The Big G will look after you, my child" advice.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Idiotic Sheik

Nice to see this isn't the first time the moronic Sheik Hilali has opened his stupid mouth:

Two decades ago Chris Hurford, immigration minister under Bob Hawke, rejected the cleric's application for permanent residency and attempted to deport him because of his divisiveness. In 1988, he infamously told Muslim students at Sydney University that Jews used "sex and abominable acts of buggery, espionage, treason and economic hoarding to control the world". Despite this, in 1990 Sheik Hilali was granted permanent residency by the Hawke government, thanks to heavy lobbying by senior ALP figures including Paul Keating eager to secure votes in western Sydney and burnish their multicultural credentials.

In 2004, he visited Lebanon and described the September 11 terrorist attacks as "God's work against oppressors" and said that "good lies in evil".Sheik Hilali would later defend himself to the ABC's Geraldine Doogue, saying that the controversy stemmed from errors in translation from his florid, High Arabic style. The Mufti has since showed no desire to abandon these ancient themes of virulent anti-Semitism. In the midst of a sermon last November criticising anti-terrorism laws, the sheik complained that the Holocaust was a "Zionist lie" and asked, "What's that six million all about? Is there six million?". This past winter he described Israel as a "cancer" in the heart of the Muslim world.

The notion that he was lost in translation again is beyond the mortal realms of belief. You can not justify what he said in any way, in any language (see SBS translation). Also, I thought it was common knowledge that rape is predominatly due to men seeking power, not sexual desire. Meanwhile, this academic has landed himself in trouble:

Sheik Hilali did win some support from the chairman of the Prime Minister's Muslim advisory council, Ameer Ali, who compared his contentious remarks to the Pope's comments on Islam.

"He's our spiritual leader and nobody is more knowledgeable about Islam," said Dr Ali, an economics lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth.

"A few months ago, the Pope said some things about Islam, and he was criticised, and now we have a few things being said here, and it's been taken out of context. But all this talk about having the mufti deported, I mean, come on, they cannot be serious."

Can you imagine how many students will be egging his office? Strangely enough, The Age hardly covers the story. Pity. I was waiting for my Leunig cartoon - Leunig being the same clown who asked everyone to give Christmas prayers to Bin Laden a couple of years back. Then again both Leunig and the sheik believe women should stay at home.

Update: Directly addressing calls for him to be stripped of his title as the nation's Muslim leader, Sheik Hilali declared: "My name is Taj, my job is a sheik, my tools are my turban, and I am a servant serving the religion of God. I pray to God ... and I will die attesting to the religion of God. I don't belong to any establishment or to any government. And whoever wants to terminate my wages, let them terminate it"

And yet he had to come to Australia - a country slightly more prosperous than his homeland Egypt. I don't support the revoking of his Australia citizenship but I wish he had never got it in the first place.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Sign in Stone

Mother Nature definitely moves in strange ways. Now if this was a religious figure of some sort we'd have millions of devout followers declaring it a sign. Remember this next time some loon spills tomato sauce on their shirt and tries to claim it's an image of their beloved prophet.

Also, as a mate pointed out it's funny how it's an image of a man with an iPod and not some generic set of headphones because, you know, headphones didn't exist before iPod. Steve Jobs of Apple must be laughing all the way to the bank. Perhaps he had something to do with this geological curiousity?

Strange Condition

This condition could get you into a lot of hot water:

Researchers are struggling to understand a rare medical condition where sufferers unknowingly demand, or actually have, sex while asleep, New Scientist magazine reports.

Research into sexsomnia - making sexual advances towards another person while asleep - has been hampered as sufferers are so embarrassed by the problem they tend not to own up to it, while doctors do not ask about it.

As yet there is no cure for the condition, which often leads to difficulties in relationships.

"It really bothers me that I can't control it," Lisa Mahoney told the magazine.

"It scares me because I don't think it has anything to do with the partner. I don't want this foolish condition to hurt us in the long run."

Most researchers view sexsomnia as a variant of sleepwalking, where sufferers are stuck between sleep and wakefulness, though sexsomniacs tend to stay in bed rather than get up and walk about.

I suppose the doctors usual "stay in bed" advice doesn't apply here. Boom. Tish. I wonder where the research trials are held?

Stone-age Ignorance

Despite what you may hear from various sources, Australia isn't a multicutural country per se, and not all cultures are equal. I'll elaborate. Australia is multi-racial but it is not simply multicultural. I'm multiculural in the sense that I'll eat Thai food, appreciate aboriginal paintings, and watch Turkish belly dancers. However, I have no time for the following ludicrous and misogynistic filth:

The nation's most senior Muslim cleric has blamed immodestly dressed women who don't wear Islamic headdress for being preyed on by men and likened them to abandoned "meat" that attracts voracious animals.

In a Ramadan sermon that has outraged Muslim women leaders, Sydney-based Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali also alluded to the infamous Sydney gang rapes, suggesting the attackers were not entirely to blame.

While not specifically referring to the rapes, brutal attacks on four women for which a group of young Lebanese men received long jail sentences, Sheik Hilali said there were women who "sway suggestively" and wore make-up and immodest dress ... "and then you get a judge without mercy (rahma) and gives you 65 years".

Words. Fail. Me. In what century is this clown living? And this is from an "enlightened" spiritual leader? Why don't we just burn all women who can read as well? Clearly they are witches. As this editorial suggests, it is as though some - I emphasise not all - Muslim immigrants travel forward in time when they arrive in modern Western societies.

I'm not saying we don't have sexist and ignorant fools in Western society. We have plenty. And the abuse and persection of people due to their sex, religion or race were very much widespread in Europe. However, Western society has gone through a number of progressive steps (such as the Reformation and the Enlightenment), and continues to do so. Thusly, I reckon one can say a culture is superiour to another in certain apsects. For instance, I think the Japanese male treatment of women is wrong. Similarly, some Swedish women think Australian men joke in a sexist and offensive manner (which they mask as larrikinism). There is no reason whatsoever why a culture cannot evolve (if you believe in that crazy notion of evolution of course).

What amazes me even more is the fuss that PM John Howard caused a couple months back when he said that certain people in the Muslim society - he stressed it was a minority - do not follow beliefs that pertain to ours in Australia such as the equal treatment of women. Now, you certainly won't find me sending any Christmas cards to the not-so-honest John Howard, but you have to admit he has a point.

Multiculturalism is all good and well, but it doesn't apply to all apsects of a culture. Those of the latte-sipping persuassion who say otherwise should try living in the ethnic slums which litter Europe.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Futile Farming

I spent my first few years in outback NSW in a cotton-growing town where summer days would often reach 40 C. Even with large irrigation canals (a high potential for evaporation) serving the ever-thirsty cotton plants, you'll still be amazed to discover it takes 20 tons of water to produce enough cotton for a shirt and pair of jeans. Still, our farmers receive government funding, much to the chagrin of some:

Dr Hamilton has told the ABC's AM that Australian governments have a long history of bailing out farmers who do not adequately manage their land, thus perpetuating the effects of drought.

"Good farm management means managing for drought," Dr Hamilton said.

"Droughts happen regularly in this country and there is a marked difference between how farmers prepare for drought ... some do it well, some do it badly and if the soil blows away that is a sign of bad farm management."

"It's time we just faced up to the reality that much of the land currently farmed, shouldn't be farmed and by repeatedly bailing out farmers through drought relief, which is erroneously called exceptional circumstances relief, we're only making the problem worse."

The great Australian bush myth, Dr Hamilton says, is behind the community and bipartisan political support for farming subsidies.

"I think the only way to explain why the governments, that otherwise claim to be economically rational bail out families constantly is because they are such an important part of the Australian mythology," he said.

I'm not saying we should abandon all farming or even a significant proportion, but growing cotton, rice and coffee in the world's driest continent when other countries can do it more effectively? After tyres were invented would you have expected the goverment to support the wagon-wheel manufacturing industry? Surely not. The Federal Goverment is pouring money into a dust pit. Like all industries farming has to adapt or perish.

Since my grade four people have been complaining about one drought or the other. The combination of El Niño and climate change (which appears real enough) implies that farming water-intensive crops is simply not feasible. In short, Australia isn't an emerald continent. Something has to give.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

OR at the AWB

Operations research is effectively a branch of mathematics that uses various techniques in order to optimise systems (ie reduce cost, increase efficiency) in various areas including business and logistics. I just received this e-mail from an OR lecturer:

Dear Maths & Stats Students,

Announcing an exciting event: an industry guest lecture to be held in the final class of Applied Operations Research for the semester!

This is an invitation to any students in the Department who are interested: you are welcome to come along, although having some Operations Research background would be helpful.

Find out how the techniques of Operations Research are helping AWB get the best possible result for Australian farmers!

Helping AWB, eh? I can just imagine the lecture now:

We at the AWB decided to develop a new mathematical model to maximise our profits. Effectively, we chose to model the current world wheat trade with a well-established gravity model. Ensuring this, we then promptly paid off a corrupt Middle-Eastern dictator via a Jordian trucking company. Ergo, a handsome profit indeed. Isn't OR fun, boys and girls?

If I was the AWB, I'd be seeking help from the law school for when the Canadian and American wheat farmers decide to sue them.

Seriously. This must be satire. Well, at least they're hiring maths grads.

Homeless Aussies

Last Saturday some vagrant came up to me in the supermarket and asked me for money because he was hungry. I said no, and later I saw him at the checkout with a couple of mates and cask of wine. I can assure you I wasn't impressed.

Having said that, last year I spoke to a 20-something lass on a train (after having had beers at Martini's) who told me she had been homeless as a teenager. She said it can easily happen when you have an abustic household, and it's difficult to prove your identity because your father isn't really your father etc. Hence, as per usual I have mixed thoughts on homeless people. Apparently, us Aussies aren't to concerned:

A new survey says 79 per cent of Australians believe homeless people have only themselves to blame for their predicament.

The Hanover Group, a service provider to the homeless, conducted the survey.

The group's chief executive, Tony Kennan, says the survey results are sad and indicate that Australians are becoming hardened to the plight of the needy.

"I think there has been a rise in individualism, in that ... the thinking nowadays is people fend for themselves," he said.

Mr Kennan says there are now more than 100,000 homeless people across Australia and there are more women and children than ever before.

"There certainly has been a big reduction in public housing and that's one of the problems we face" he said.

"There's been some huge social changes over the last 20 years and that's obviously contributed to the situation.

"The reality is 36 per cent of homeless people are under the age of 24 and almost 50 per cent of those young people are women," he said.

"Ten per cent of the homeless population are under 12.

It amazes me that this can be an issue in our country. OK, we apparently don't have as many unskilled jobs as we once had. But surely there are other options?

I keep telling myself I'll start donating money. Just have to find the right charity.Should I give my money to the guy who might spend it on booze or to the charity that cares for kids in Cambodia?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Help the Fatties

Boo hoo. We're a bunch of fatties:

The Federal Health Minister has told Parliament obesity is one of the most important public health issues Australia faces but he says individuals have to play a role in addressing the problem.

A report by Access Economics estimates the annual financial cost of obesity is close to $4 billion.

The federal Opposition has accused the Government of making a token effort to address obesity.

Tony Abbott has hit back, saying Labor is committed to a nanny state.

"Just as Government has a role, individuals also have a role, and in the end no government can or should try to regulate what individuals eat or the amount of exercise that individuals take," he said.

Please help me. I didn't know eating tons of greasy crap and sitting on my arse all day was bad for me. I was never taught at school which food was healthy? What's an apple?

In other news, I played a gruelling hour of squash today which means I've earnt myself a beer. Or two.

Facial Expressions of the Blind

The nature vs nurture argument is complex to say the least. DNA, it would appear, doesn't have that the room for things like "music taste" or "religious persuassion". On the otherhand, if your parents were talented in a certain area, odds are you will be too, while something like general intelligence is considered largely to be a product of both nature and nuture.

Our general physical behaviour like speech and posture are usually contributed to our environment. It was gernally believed that facial expressions came from those we grew up with. Well, apparently this is not entirely the case according to a recent study:

A blind young man shares his mother's habit of compressing his lips together when puzzled, despite never having seen her face. This is just one of the examples cited as part of a study published online today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA showing that relatives who have never seen one another nonetheless share similar facial expressions--proof that even a grimace may be hereditary.

Even relatives separated at birth shared expressions: The blind young man mentioned above was abandoned by his mother two days after birth and not reunited with her until he was 18 years old, yet they shared at least three facial expressions, which reinforces what Darwin suspected more than 100 years ago. As he wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: "The inheritance of most of our expressive actions explains the fact that those born blind bear them, as I hear from the Rev. R. H. Blair, equally well with those gifted with eyesight."

That Darwin chap was certainly a clever one.

Prosperity in Welfare States

The American economist Jeffrey Sacks who wants to erase all world poverty (invertiew in the Big Issue last year) claims that a country can have both good social safety nets while be economically prosperous:

One of the great challenges of sustainable development is to combine society's desires for economic prosperity and social security. For decades economists and politicians have debated how to reconcile the undoubted power of markets with the reassuring protections of social insurance.

Not coincidentally, the low-tax, high-income countries are mostly English-speaking ones that share a direct historical lineage with 19th-century Britain and its theories of economic laissez-faire. These countries include Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. The high-tax, high-income states are the Nordic social democracies, notably Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, which have been governed by left-of-center social democratic parties for much or all of the post–World War II era. They combine a healthy respect for market forces with a strong commitment to antipoverty programs.

On average, the Nordic countries outperform the Anglo-Saxon ones on most measures of economic performance. Poverty rates are much lower there, and national income per working-age population is on average higher. Unemployment rates are roughly the same in both groups, just slightly higher in the Nordic countries. The budget situation is stronger in the Nordic group, with larger surpluses as a share of GDP.

Apparently, a welfare state can be well-off. This flies against the fact that the socialists in Sweden were recently voted out after 12 years in power because their economy wasn't doing so well. Despite this, Swedish economist Andreas Bergh points out:

...these nations make up for any deleterious effects of social programs on growth by taking advantage of globalization and by embracing the market economy in other areas.

And I thought globalization was evil. Finally, this article discusses how the cultures in Anglo-nations are against dole-bludgers. Reminds me of my days at Woolies when I was criticised for not working hard enough.

Monday, October 16, 2006

ABC Troubles

Some prat tried to tell me a couple of months back that the ABC wasn't biased. If that's the case, why is their union having a cry:

One of the unions representing staff at the ABC says it is concerned about a new 'bias test' to be formally announced later today.

The ABC has come under sustained pressure over allegations of left-wing media bias by some sectors of the Federal Government.

One suggestion to fix the ABC is to privatise it:

The ABC today comprises businesses that include television, radio, 38 retail outlets, book publishing (over 120 titles each year), magazines, videos and DVDs, contemporary music including Renee Geyer and Kate Ceberano and logo licensing. These are all crowded commercial markets, yet Australian taxpayers are subsidising ABC businesses to the tune of nearly $800 million each year. In broadcasting, Australia has 627 operating radio stations and 138 TV stations, plus pay TV. The internet is a further ubiquitous source of information and entertainment. Why is a government broadcaster competing in this mix?

Government broadcasting is favoured by totalitarian states and Islamic theocracies. New Zealand has no government broadcaster and the CBC in Canada gets 60 per cent of its revenue from commercials.

It started out with roughly 50 per cent market share of Australian media in 1932; today its total media market share must be 5 per cent or less. The Government has a clear role to regulate media, but there is no compelling reason why it should own and operate an entertainment business.

Personally, I rarely watch the ABC (even when we had a TV The Bill didn't float my boat) and I never listen to Radio National. I tune into JJJ occasionally Sunday nights. Still, the ABC costs $800 million in tax-payer money (sheepishly, I am currently not a taxpayer - I like to think of myself as an investment).

I don't want to lose a radio station that plays some half-way decent music. Then again, if privatisation of the ABC gets rid of that screeching arse-clown Wil Anderson, I'm all for it. The man is as funny as cancer. Failing all else, axe The Glasshouse.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

UN Resolution

Quite a coincidence that South Korean Ban Ki-moon is elected UN Secretary-General the same week as his crazy communist cousins in the North decide to a test a nuke. As a slap on the wrists for their bomb testing the UN security council has passed a resolution, which, among other requirements, prevents the shipment of all things nasty and death-causing into North Korea. Part of the resolution, courtesy of the US, is the following provision:

UN members are banned from exporting luxury goods to North Korea.

A nice little symbolic up-yours to the North Korean ruling elite by the yanks. Funny though. The North Korean rulers must have skipped the chapter where it says everyone is treated equal in a communist state.

Update: ban all trade in luxury goods, including the lobster and fine French wine cherished by supreme leader Kim Jong-il.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Maths Teacher Shortage

Another article outlining Australia's shortage in qualified maths teachers:

A national study, to be released today, reveals one in five maths teachers did not study maths beyond first year at university and one in 12 did no tertiary maths at all.

Half are teaching subjects other than maths at school and more than a third are aged over 50, raising the problem of an ageing workforce.

Mind you, I ain't going to help but I do wonder if I could be hired part time during my PhD as a "consultant". Additionally, the article points out:

The research highlights the fact almost every Australian student will do maths at some stage during their schooling.

And many fields - such as engineering, agriculture, economics, medicine and business - require a sophisticated understanding of maths and statistics.

My friend studying radiation therapy in Brisbane found that his fellow class mates found a couple of subjects easier since they had done Mathematics C in highschool. However, in QLD some schools teach you Group Theory - a subject that is only used in pure maths majors or higher-level applied maths or physics courses at uni. Victorians were quite surprised when I inform them of this. Then again, Queensland is the Smart State afterall.

Platform shoes and nukes

While the mad North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il spends his country's money on platform shoes and nuclear weapons, his starving people receive foreign aid from countries such as Australia (strange, I thought the West was evil). Interestingly, one of the countries that gives aid to North Korea is its democratic rival South Korea. Anyone who's watched an episode or two of MASH knows full well that these two countries fought it out in the aptly named Korean War (a war which a family member of mine served in for Australia). These countries are technically still at war with each other as only a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1953. A warring nation giving aid to its enemy. Remarkable.

What's even more remarkable is that Kim Jong-il has reportedly large personality cults. No wonder Hitler was able to convince the masses his ideas were so good. The masses, evidently, are stupid.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Call Centre Shenanigans

For one painful week back in 2000 I worked in a call centre trying in vain to sell holiday packages. I can assure you, much to my chagrin, it was nothing like the ones in India, allegedly:

Why does it take so long to get through to an Indian call centre? According to the Catholic Church, it's because everyone is too busy chatting up their colleagues — and maybe worse.

The church is so concerned by evidence that call centres are becoming dens of iniquity that it is offering week-long retreats in the hope of turning staff away from a life of sin.

Most centre workers are young, single and on starting salaries much higher than those of doctors or lawyers, so consequently the booming industry has brought about a social revolution.

"Women come to work with condoms in their handbags," said one call centre worker, Alkesh Dua. "Everyone is doing it. You're together all night in this cool, hip atmosphere, and you end up getting intimate."

This is why it took so long to have my internet connected? The temerity. Well, I suppose it is the land that brought us the classic text Kama Sutra.

Gone are the days when Mother Teresa and her disciples cared for orphans and lepers on the streets of Calcutta. Now, apparently, the Catholic Church has more pressing issues at hand.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Toorak Tractors

The other day I was travelling through a well-to-do middle-class suburb of Melbourne (incidentally, the federal electorate seat for Peter Costello). I found it amusing to see a Range Rover dealership in these parts. Somebody pointed out to me that in Melbourne they call 4WDs "Toorak Tractors" - named after the neighbouring affluent (or perhaps effluent) suburb Toorak. According to The Age, the soccer mums best beware when driving these suburban tanks:

Drivers of four-wheel-drives are more than three times more likely to die in a rollover crash than those in ordinary passenger cars, new research reveals.

A study by Victoria's peak motoring group, the RACV, shows four-wheel-drives are over-represented in high-speed rollover crashes and deaths, with young drivers aged under 30 most at risk.

The RACV wants Electronic Stability Program (ESP) technology to be standard in four-wheel-drives to curb the death toll.

The report, 4WD Drive Vehicle Crash Involvement Patterns, examined more than 660,000 recent crashes.

Now they just need a electronic device to save the pedestrians and people in normal size cars when they are struck by these Toorak Tractors.

Unis and Jobs

Originally, universities were mainly aimed for the idealist pursuit of higher knowledge. You attended these grand old institutions to study such fields as theology, natural science, and the classics (Greek and Latin). In recent decades this has changed as people have begun attending unis in order heighten their chances of obtaining a viable career. Today, with the current mineral boom in Australia and shortage of skilled labourers, the tides have turned. It would appear you're better off doing an apprenticeships if you want to land a decent paying job:

Perth home builder Dale Alcock said his group of companies had taken on 200 apprentices in the past two years and estimated that more than half of them had not completed Year 12.

He said they wore company T-shirts with the slogan "I'd rather be cashing cheques than paying HECS".

Indeed. My HECS fee is currently around the 25k mark. Luckily, maths graduates are in high demand (so I keep telling myself anyway). The Economist, however, offers some promising news, for my area at least:

In a speech at Harvard University in 1943 Winston Churchill observed that “the empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” He might have added that the battles of the future will be battles for talent. To be sure, the old battles for natural resources are still with us. But they are being supplemented by new ones for talent—not just among companies but also among countries (which fret about the “balance of brains” as well as the “balance of power”).

The arrival of an aggressive new superpower—Google—has made it bloodier still. The company has assembled a formidable hiring machine to help it find the people it needs. It has also experimented with clever new recruiting tools, such as billboards featuring complicated mathematical problems. Other tech giants have responded by supercharging their own talent machines and suing people who suddenly leave.

But a large and growing number of businesses outside the tech industry — from consulting to hedge funds — also run on brainpower.

My old man laments about the fact that his qualifications (a diesel engineer via apprenticeship) were never recognised in Australia, consquently he had to do mainly labour work (though he did design stunt cars for a while). Nowadays, I'm not sure which work path would be the right one. Perhaps beer taster?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Google Shirts

Today I saw a guy wearing a shirt (naturally, he's mates with one of the maths PhDers). On the back the shirt read "I'm Feeling Lucky". I naturally sledged the shirt and its owner behind his back. However, couple of the female maths girls said I was just jealous because deep down I longed for one. Not true. But if I did want one, it would say something cooler. Something like:

"You want my number? Google me, baby",

"Feeling lucky? Just google me." ,


"I'm all about the PageRank(TM)."

OK. Maybe that last one is a bit too nerdy. I need to get out of my office. Pronto.

Nuclear Debate

Last night I attended a debate hosted at Monash University entitled "Should Australia Embrace Nuclear Power". I am biased in this debate since I am for the affirmative. However, I do think that nuclear power is only part of the solution. I truly wish that every Australian house had a solar panel but at their high prices and relatively short lifetimes this probably won't happen for many years to come. Incidentally, I don't see any self-righteous hippies forking out vast sums to buy for solar panels. Oh, that's right. Hippies don't own their own houses.

The first speaker of the affirmative was a physicist who outlined the subtle difference between energy and power (the rate at which energy travels), and that energy in some form is all around us. The trick, unfortunately, is harvesting that energy. He discussed the number of solar panels or windmills required to supply Australia (and its ever growing populace) with adequate power, and how these methods are not suitable for supplying a constant (or base) power supply. Essentially, having a solar panel is all good and well, but what happens when it's cloudy for ten days (something not uncommon in Melbourne) or if the aluminium smelter in Gladstone demands vast amounts of power instantly. No amount of worshipping to the sun gods is going to save the day.

The first speaker of the opposition was a university researcher with extensive experience in solar technology. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak for very long and he wasn’t very clear due to his Iranian accent. He made a few unoriginal points about solar power being safe, and that nuclear power is a threat for accidents and terrorist attacks. He also pointed out later in question time that the coal power industry is subsidised by the government.

The second pro-nuclear speaker was a highly experienced nuclear physicist. He pointed out that nuclear waste doesn’t last nearly as long as the opposition claims, and proper reprocessing can allow 95% of the waste to be reused, with the final waste only needing to be stored in the ground for a couple of centuries, which can be done effectively by an Australian inovation called SynRoc. Finally, he claimed that Chernobyl only killed 56 people directly. Even I think that’s a tad ingenuous as the number of indirect deaths (due to cancer) is difficult to count on such a complex disaster. He did point out though that in the Western world such a reactor would have never been built.

The second anti –nuclear speaker was a representative for Greenpeace (not the most trusty worthy organization in my view). In all honesty, he relied upon obnoxiousness, poor humour, and sheer arrogance to get his way through. He wasn’t very technical, and one could tell that he was clearly out of his depth. At one point he claimed that us (the taxpayer) would have to pay for the nuclear power via government subsidiaries. Later on he asked us why should we allow BHP (and other such EVIL companies) make so much money on nuclear power. Which one is it? Either the government is paying for it, or the companies are profiting from it and, hence, are paying for it. I find it very hard to believe that a government would subsidise nuclear power if they didn’t have to. We all know how pro-privatisation the current government is. Unfortunately, this was lost on the people I was attending the debate with. In his defence, he did mention a couple of “near nuclear accidents” that had transpired in the last couple of years. He should have elaborated on them more to make a better point. I think people prefrerred his “debating” (read: sledging) techniques more than his actual argument points.

The final pro-nuclear speaker was a Law/Arts student debating champion who pointed out that the opposition were using scare tactics (seriously, of all the 400 plus nuclear reactors in the world, do you think a terrorist would try to steal uranium from a reactor in Australia – a safe, politically-stable, well-guarded nation – or some corrupt former Soviet Union country?). The final anti-nuclear speaker was some old doctor (his field not mentioned) who spoke about the US government storing uranium in an old salt mine in the sixties. He also read a “potential terrorist attack” section from an old military book written by a former political advisor. Not really up-to-date or relevant for that matter. He dwelled upon the fact that the guy was hired by three presidents. Little tip old-timer: President Ford hasn’t been around for a couple of years.

The debate was good enough and I’m glad I went. Coincidentally, I had listened to a similar debate last week where the opposition made considerably better arguments. It disappointed me strongly that the Greenpeace clown had to rely so heavily upon sarcasm and trendy anti-government sentiments, and that he simply side-stepped or denied certain issues. This person has been protesting since he was twelve. In his mind environmentalism is a religion. Accordingly, I quickly noticed the similarities between his debating approach and arrogant charm to those of American fundamentalist Christians. Ironic, since most of the anti-nuclear audience, I would dare say, would be strongly against their out-of-date beliefs.