Wednesday, February 28

We remember you, Paul

When I was growing up in Perth, Paul Rigby was part of my life. I'd buy the now defunct afternoon paper, The Daily News (where I was later to be a sub-editor) , and turn to the back page to see Rigby's cartoon, trying to spot the little boy and the dog he always hid somewhere in the drawing. Then I'd read Kirwan Ward, the columnist who shared the back page.

When I became a cadet on the associated morning paper The West Australian, I was entranced by accounts of Rigby's promotion of the bar-room sport of limp falling. From individual limp falls at unexpected moments, the play moved to mass limp falling, and then more difficult moves like the triple pirouette with claret spray.

I've read a lot of obituaries since he died last year – the latest in The Walkley Magazine I received a few days ago – obits which reprinted some of the 15,000 cartoons he drew in a career which took him from Perth to London and New York.

But no-one's mentioned the one I remember best. During the Profumo scandal, Rigby drew two Colonel Blimp characters, seated in armchairs in a gentleman's club, whiskies in hand.

The caption: “Good God! A Negro, a Russian and Willie Astor! Not in that order, surely!”

What's that sonny? You've never heard of the Profumo affair? Well yes, I guess you weren't born then. It was all about shenanigans between very upper class Poms and a bed-hopping young "model" called Christine Keeler. You can read all about it here:

How do our rivers run

[Note added on March 7:

I've re-read my original post a few times and I'm not happy with it. Although it's not a bad idea to try to paint a picture of the Darling River before it was modified by European settlement, I failed to make a strong enough case for its unique environmental needs, and the extent of the disaster which has overcome it with the over-allocation of irrigation licences. It's not just climate change -- although that will bring further worries -- but that even in a good year not enough water gets past the cotton growers to restore the river's health.

Evaporation takes the equivalent of four Sydney Harbours from the cotton growers' storages each year.

Further down, I failed to explain adequately the issues which will confront the Federal Government if Prime Minister John Howard succeeds in his $10 billion move to take full control of the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin. I support the takeover, but I also worry that Howard himself is unaware of the challenges ahead.

It's significant that he announced the move without consulting his Cabinet, nor the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the authority now run by the States and the Australian Government to manage the system. So we don't know how he'll jump when he evaluates the competing claims of environmentalists and the agrarian socialists known as the National Party.

My praise of Dr Mary White's book, Running Down, should have been qualified by my belief that the right answer to these competing claims must sit somewhere in the middle, although I lean towards the ecologists' position.

Fortunately, some recent publications allow me to offer links to people far better informed than me, and by providing them I may be of more service than by rewriting the material below.

Today's Sydney Morning Herald reports on "The State of the Darling", a survey for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. The Herald's report is at:
If you follow the "related stories" link on that page, it will take you to a feature article in the Herald. With that feature is an aerial photo of the Murray-Darling junction at Wentworth, and you can tell there's no water coming down the Darling. Darling water is the colour of milky coffee, and when it flows you can see the two distinctly coloured streams side by side until they go over the weir.

The official report can be read or downloaded as a PDF file at:

If you've read the post below, you'll know that I pleaded that no National Party minister be allowed near the new Federal authority. Yesterday's Herald showed why not -- Nationals Leader Mark Vaile wants most of the money to be spent on improving the delivery of water to irrigators, and not on buying out over-allocations. He didn't seem to mention ecological concerns.

That's the Nationals for you. Taxpapers to provide the capital infrastructure, and to pick up any losses. Nationals supporters to pick up any profits. Read the Herald's report here:

That story also reveals that many constituents in National Party seats are worried that if Labor wins the next election, power to regulate the Murray-Darling basin will pass into the hands of the environmentalist Peter Garrett. I guess they're right to be worried.

With this material available now, I think I can be lazy and not rewrite the blog below.

Additional note added Friday, March 9: The lead story in today's Australian Financial Review is headed "Nats threaten PM's $10bn water ". Vaile and Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran oppose Howard's plan to buy back over-allocations, and want to limit the CSIRO's role in assessing sustainable water allocations. In other words, they don't want any water restored to environmental flows.

The Nats' stance makes me change my mind -- it may be better to leave management of the basin to the existing arrangements. That would leave NSW with the enormous cost of buying back the gross over-allocations on Darling tributaries, rammed through by the late Wal Murray against the advice of staff in his Department of Water Resources. ]

Map shows the extent of the Murray-Darling Basin
Take yourself back to the late 19th century and sit in a pub above the bustling port of Morgan, overlooking the great North West Bend of the River Murray.

Look across the railway – it arrived in 1878, part of South Australia's strategy to capture the Darling River wool trade – and see the frantic activity on the steamboats and barges tied up against the repair yards. Then look a little upstream where labourers are heaving piles of cargo from the high wharves into more barges.

A day or two ago, a message on the telegraph said the river gauge at Walgett, where the Namoi and Barwon rivers join to form the Darling, had risen 16 feet.

Every riverboat man knew the figures – if the Darling is dry, it will take 60 days to “wet” the riverbed at Avoca station, thirty miles above Wentworth and 1200 river miles below Walgett. The Darling falls only three inches in a mile.

If the Walgett level held at 16 feet for one month, then a steamboat master knew that by the time he had enough water to move upstream from Wentworth, where the Darling joins the Murray, he could expect at least 10 feet when he arrived at Wilcannia to discharge his cargo.

He knew too that if he wasted no time, he could get his plant back to Wentworth, picking up waiting cargoes of wool along the way, before the “freshet” ran out.

Today, when you approach Wilcannia from Cobar, you drive across an extensive, but dry , floodplain. This is the Talyawalka. It leaves the Darling above Wilcannia and continues south for several hundred miles before it rejoins the river below Menindie.

In the old days, in years of high flood when stations couldn't get their wool bales to the Darling riverbanks, a few intrepid masters took their steamboats into the Talyawalka to pick up the clip. They'd follow the anabranch creeks until the overhanging trees were knocking bits off the superstructure, then steer across the flooded plain to the woolsheds.

I've never seen the Talyawalka in flood. Probably I never will. Perhaps it will never flood again. And that's my purpose in presenting this historical trivia (which I find fascinating). Now, as in the old days, we have the dry spells, but when it rains, cotton growers – mostly – grab the water which should deliver the floods.

Without those great floods, where water spread over the broad plains and remained for months, there can be little regeneration of the grey box, the river red gum and the coolibah.

To refresh my thoughts for this piece, I grabbed an armful of books off my shelves. If you're interested, my clear favourite is Riverboats and Rivermen (Rigby, 1976), the vivid, detailed recollections of William Drage, who spent almost all his working life on the rivers, and that's where I learned the importance of the river gauge at Walgett. The Talyawalka account came from Ian Mudie's River Boats (Rigby, 1961).

But I have another book about the rivers – not a history of the old riverboat days, but a warning of the dangers we face from degradation of those rivers. A book which says:

The continuing saga of the extraction of massive amounts of water from inland rivers to satisfy the escalating demands of the irrigation industry is Australia's most serious, and ultimately potentially most disastrous water-related issue.

It is a battle between two essentially irreconcilable attitudes to land use.

The quote comes from Mary E. White's Running Down – Water in a Changing Land (Kangaroo Press, 2000).

Dr White is a paleobotanist, whose interest in fossil plants led her to study the changes as the Australian island continent drifted out of the Gondwana land mass, and why a green, well-watered Gondwanan fragment became the driest vegetated continent.

To her study of the geological past, she also studied accounts by explorers, surveyors and travellers which showed how much our rivers have changed since European settlement – “how many of the rivers which now form well-defined, incised systems used to 'die in the plains', or end in reedbeds and swamps, how the connections one to another were across floodplains during big rainfall events.”

Dr White invites us to join her in “on an exploration of the role of water in Australia through the ages, to assemble the background and big picture, so that we may understand the present situation (and because the story is fascinating in its own right).”

Dr White is a scientist, not an irresponsible greenie throwing reckless claims around, and she also strives to be fair to irrigators with their promises of economic prosperity. The book is lavishly illustrated to coffee-table standards. If you can get your hands on a copy, you won't be disappointed.

Should we send a copy to Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, who recently revived the Bradfield scheme to turn eastward flowing rivers back under the Great Divide to give water to arid inland regions?

Dr White lumps the Bradfield scheme in with the old proposals for a canal from the ocean to flood Lake Eyre with seawater, and comments: “Fortunately, because surely we must strive to leave Australia habitable for future generations, none of these schemes were, or are, financially viable. Their implementation would have resulted in hydrological disasters of an unimaginable scale.”

When the Federal Government takes control of the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin, promising to spend $10 billion over ten years, some tasks will be obvious – buying back at least the worst of the over-allocations of water rights, and upgrading the canals and pipes to minimise wastage in delivering the water to irrigators.

It must also find a balance between those essentially irreconcilable attitudes of which Dr White speaks.

I'd like to see one particular core promise from John Howard if he wins this year's Federal election – that he will never appoint a National Party politician to run Australia's water resources. Where do you think the over-allocations of water licences, particularly on the Gwydir and Namoi rivers, came from?

[The map is from Mary E White's book, Running Down ]

Thursday, February 22

Corrrect spellling? Why bother?

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers occur in a word. The olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?

I pinched this off a website a friend sent to me. I'm always carrying on about carelessness in spelling and grammar on blogs and in emails. Is that why the friend sent it to me?

Wednesday, February 21

A turning point in human society

What would get me so excited that I'd write this, as I did to a friend the other day: “Will change dramatically the way humans interact with one another.”

And further, to say we're at “a turning point in human society.”

Would you believe, I've been stimulated by a video – a celebration of Web 2.0.

But what are we celebrating? What is Web 2.0? That's part of the fascination – nobody is really confident of a definition. It's like, “I know it when I see it.”

The World Wide Web, and other services which use the internet, have rocketed ahead in just over a decade. In 1993, only 80 websites existed around the world.

The simple HTML tags conceived by Tim Berners Lee to control how text would display on a computer screen were steadily supplemented and superseded by much more complex coding which can make the tyro's head swim and the website sing and dance – CSS, PERL, Javascript, CGI, MySQL, and all the rest of it.

So, considering the breathtaking history of the WWW's development, what makes Web 2.0 so different that people are numbering it to suggest a whole new generation?

You could define Web 2.0 as a basket of technologies which carry the World Wide Web into a new era. But I feel the excitement comes not from the technologies per se, but from the extraordinary speed at which they are reshaping the Web into a world community which anyone can join without high-level computer skills.

If anything, it's the way that it's now so easy to participate – in two-way traffic – which defines Web 2.0. And this participation is what makes me think we're looking at the one of mankind's biggest social revolutions.

It's a rough analogy, but perhaps we can compare it with what happened after modern nations began extending universal, if rudimentary, education to the lower classes in the 19th century.

Many of the newly and poorly educated people went no further, although they created a mass market for the penny-dreadful press which met their needs – the equivalent of today's readers of "celebrity" magazines.

But others grabbed that basic literacy, then built on it with study in politics, economics and social theories at mechanics institutes, schools of arts and literary institutes.

[To Australia's good fortune, many of them then escaped the ossified class structure of British society – if you were born to a farm labourer's family, you were expected to remain a labourer – by migrating. Check out a biography of Sir Henry Parkes to understand what I'm rabbiting on about. ]

Where once we opened opportunities to entire populations with rudimentary public education plus a self-improvement movement, today we have the Web 2.0 revolution.

As with elementary education, the majority of users will have simple needs – sending news and photos to far away family, or running a Britney fan club. Nothing wrong with that.

Millions of people – idiots, savants, fanatics, as well as sensible people like you and me – are already out there on the playing field. The blog ranking service Technorati ( now tracks almost 60 million blogs. Every day, 10,000 new blogs are created and some 1.3 million entries are posted to blogs. (Puts my little effort into perspective.) Yes, blogging is part of Web 2.0.

I'd like to see a debate about where Web 2.0 may take us. Will we see a mob psychology, or will it deliver the biggest leap in participatory democracy mankind has ever known? Will it encourage a new elite of thinkers and activists to emerge? (I think this is already happening.)

Will an intelligent woman in a Sudanese village, perhaps using a computer costing only a few dollars because of Bill Gates's philanthropy, be able to offer insights into our world because she can connect to like-minded thinkers around the globe?

Will we have to redefine values such as ethics, equity, copyright, love, family, etc? Or, more to my thinking, buttress them against the pressures rising around us all – even if we have to reevaluate the methods by which we sustain them.

Quality and integrity will have to be constantly in our minds, both in evaluating the information we exchange and in our dealings with people who otherwise remain unknown to us. But how do we make sure that happens?

Young people are right on top of the technology, but do we have the right type of teachers and mentors to stimulate and guide their thinking on issues of quality and integrity. (There's more discussion on this in my other blog.)

Who is going to preach literacy, that precious skill which allows civilised people to communicate with precision, with nuanced subtlety or sledgehammer force as the need dictates?

Big questions, worth thinking about. I'm an optimist. I think the answers will emerge along with the technology.

Okay, I've tried to make you read this essay before giving you the link to the video, which is on YouTube (yeah, that's Web 2.0 too). Here's the link. Hope you enjoy it:

If you haven't got your kids around to tell you what to do, this may help. YouTube will open with the video in a small window. You can freeze the video or replay it with the buttons and slider below the image. The button on the far right below the video window will enlarge the video to your full screen

Note: I have an associated blog, Grumpy Old Tutor, in which I have developed some of my ideas about education. You'll find it here.

Thursday, February 8

A toast to my health

GOOD NEWS: My prostate cancer remains under control. I've just learned that hormone treatment has brought my PSA – prostate specific antigen – level down to 0.65 from 2.6 six months ago. A year ago my PSA was 96.3, the result of a prostate tumour rated aggressive and already spreading into my pelvic lymph nodes. Now we'll see how I go with three months off the hormone tablets (sorry ladies, not enough to get me back in action).

Apart from sharing the good news with friends, I'm also posting this to emphasise to you guys the value of screening.

If I'd done nothing until I felt symptoms, it's likely my cancer would have spread into my pelvis and perhaps it would have been too late for any treatment with a good chance of success.

One thing to cloud the good news. The blood test which revealed the PSA fall also revealed diabetes. Damn! I should have listened to my wife about beer and exercise and all that sort of stuff. Still, I'd rather have diabetes than out-of-control prostrate cancer.