May 30, 2011 | Graham

So you think carbon “pollution” is bad now?

Few things annoy me more than the description of carbon dioxide emissions as “pollution”, a pejorative misdescription which has even become enshrined in some laws.

You’re talking about one of the two basic chemical building-blocks of life, the other being water, which is present in the atmosphere in miniscule quantities. If emitting carbon dioxide is pollution, what about the steam that rises off my cooking?

Now I’m not arguing that because CO2 is less than a percent of atmosphere that it has no effect on temperature, but in this whole debate it’s worth looking at the graph below which tracks the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere over the last 500 million years, and plots climate against it.

Not only are we living in a time of carbon drought, but there is no observable correlation between CO2 levels and higher temperature. That doesn’t mean that there is no correlation, just that other factors dominate.


Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations last 500 years

The line represents CO2 concentrations with the grey shadow showing the margin of possible error, and the grey and white bars at the top represent cooler and warmer period. Grey is cooler and white is warmer.

Worth thinking about. Certainly more significant than Michael Mann’s Hockey Stick.

Posted by Graham at 9:49 pm | Comments (46) |
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May 16, 2011 | Ronda Jambe

Mexican surprises

Travel can reinforce or dispel stereotypes. Even personal experience needs to be tempered with constraining factors. Thus, our impressions of Mexico were far better than media scare stories led us to believe. But we only saw a small area, far from the centres of drug related crime.

My guess is that the culture and the general attitudes of the people don’t vary enormously across the wider country. We saw a lot of public canoodling, for example, and a pleasant flaunting of physical beauty. Hard not to feel good about that, even when it took the slightly kitsch form of a fashion extravaganza which combined good looking young students in garishly glamorous costumes vaguely reenacting famous scenes from Mexico’s long and violent history. Cortez in lycra, why not?

This light-hearted ability to exploit even tragic incidents in a joyous way says a lot about Mexico to me. It complements the protests in their plazas, and the seriousness of their approach to politics.

There is also an openness to experiment, and someday soon I hope that Australia’s cities will welcome the diversity of transport options that I saw in Mexico City. What I want is a modern took-took, a covered, motorised three wheel and maybe electric device that is also cool, like these:

Much as I relish the evidence of my own senses and reactions, it is also good to know that someone more knowledgable and experienced has said similar things. This was what happened in Merida, a Canberra-sized city on the Yucatan Peninsula. We stumbled one evening there on a dramatic presentation,  and wondered why the dialogue was mimed. It became apparent that it was a recording of a famous story, and was part of a campaign to encourage reading. ‘Reading doesn’t make you fat’ was one of the posters, cleverly combing two forms of social marketing.

Someone was handing out local newspapers, and an article by a former senior advisor to the World Bank and highly placed international expert on Mexico, Edith Wilson, caught my eye.

Her blogs on Merida can be found at, and she had an article published in the Washington Post about returning to Merida and finding much there that is positive and inspirational. She also noted the feeling of pride, community and culture, of being able to influence their own fate, including their drug crime and environmental problems.

Efforts at recycling in Mexico showed this can-do approach that  doesn’t have to cost a lot. We saw men sorting it at the garbage truck:

At Tulum, a Mayan site in the jungle, a fellow chatted happily while crushing tourists’ drink cans with a bat:

And the bike rental idea, here seen in Mexico City with the Latin American Tower in the distance, has spread in just a few years from Paris. Where is Canberra’s?

It’s always easy to assume that the highly developed first world has all the best answers. But maybe it’s just the willingness to act together that is the real key to progress.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 8:46 pm | Comments Off on Mexican surprises |

May 15, 2011 | Graham

12 X 12,000: An On Line Opinion celebration

Every now and then you pass a milestone that is worth celebrating. Last week we had one of those. It is now over 12 years since On Line Opinion started life as a five articles once a month publication. Now, in our 12th year, we have published article number 12,000. That article was The war on terror – endgame by Kevin McDonald. I mention the article not because there was anything more exceptional about it than any other but because it exemplifies a few of the essential things about On Line Opinion that have helped to make it the most successful standalone opinion and analysis site on the Australian Internet.

One is that it wasn’t chosen to be number 12,000. That’s just where it ended-up when I did the count. So it is a randomly chosen representative of the quality of work on On Line Opinion and it stands up well. We try not to play favourites at On Line Opinion. Every article and every author is treated equally, so it was just luck of the draw that Kevin’s article ended-up where it was.

The article is written by someone with expertise in their area who brings new insights. That was our primary mission – not to reproduce the opinions of blowhard journalists and would-be public intellectuals, but to find and discover ideas that were relevant to readers who wanted to know what was going on, but didn’t have a lot of time to devote to it.

The author published it to his own blog first, but submitted it to us second. This will give the article a bigger audience than it would have had, and also direct increased traffic to the blog, so that in future the blog will also have a bigger audience in its own right. On Line Opinion is a retailer of ideas. We want to form networks between authors and readers, institutions and audiences, citizens and citizens. We can’t pay authors in cash, but we can pay them in kind by bringing them an audience.

This is the second piece we have published by this author. The first was in November 2006. Over the years we have built not just an audience but a community. People come back to OLO, sometimes after long periods, not just because of the ability to publish, but the ability to publish to a community. So far this article has attracted 23 comments, and while some of them are bracing, no doubt the author has got a better idea of what people get from his piece, and perhaps some weaknesses in his argument or his explanation. Writing is a lonely and speculative business, but the community at On Line Opinion can help to make it less lonely and risky for the writer.

As everyone should know, we’ve been experiencing some financial difficulty since we offended a number of activists who then intimidated advertisers by daring to publish an article that objected to gay marriage. We’ve survived thus far partly through the generosity of sponsors who have stepped into the breach, and partly through the work of volunteers who have stepped in to help edit and upload articles.

It’s great to know that there are other like-minded souls who believe that information and ideas should be free, and that even wrong ideas can have their place in the galaxy of argument; and that a society that doesn’t continue to wrestle with the question “What is truth” is one that has lost its soul.

We intend to keep On Line Opinion rolling, providing some small part of the soul of Australian culture, and pressing on towards many more years and many more articles.

Posted by Graham at 9:19 pm | Comments (4) |
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May 09, 2011 | Graham

Make or break budget? Drop me a line.

Tonight’s federal budget is make or break for the Gillard/Swan government. They are close to written-off, but not quite.

Ten years ago John Howard seemed headed for certain defeat, but dramatically changed direction during the Ryan by-election, taking a tax off beer and indexation off fuel excise.

At the time the pundits criticised him for reversing his positions, but the public didn’t care as long as he was doing what they wanted. His polling figures then  started to improve, even before the Tampa headed over the horizon, and by the end of the year he was reelected.

Embracing the Pacific Solution in the form of the Malaysian solution may be a U-turn that the punters are prepared to accept. It’s tougher than anything Howard devised. Malaysia is further from Australia than any of Howard’s off shore detention centres, and while asylum seekers will be allowed to live in the community they won’t be eligible for social security, or allowed to work.

So not only don’t they get to Australia, but they get to starve while they wait for their case to be heard.

Will we see any U-turns like this in the budget?

I doubt it. All the signs are that taxes, prices and government spending will be going up but that the government hopes to convince the public that the reverse is happening.

It’s quite possible for voters to hold two conflicting views simultaneously without cognitive dissonance setting in.

So they may be buying Wayne Swan’s line that this is a “tough” budget at the same time as they are buying increased handouts to electorally vulnerable blocs and a $50 B deficit.

I’ll be doing some polling after the budget to see what voters’ reactions are. On Line Opinion is also looking for articles in response. Short ones are welcome as well as long ones, and if they won’t all fit in On Line Opinion we’ll publish them here. Just drop me a line


Posted by Graham at 9:14 pm | Comments (6) |

May 08, 2011 | Graham

Has the highpoint of Carbon Intolerance passed?

Would Late Night Live have interviewed Willhelm Riple and Michael Kravcik a year ago? These two academics have views on global warming which is at odds with the IPCC consensus.

Ripl’s view of climate focusses on the water cycle and the way energy is dissipated via circulation. He wasn’t saying much that Bill Kininmonth hasn’t been saying for years.

Philip Adams is a strong global warming proponent so these interviews are significant. Particularly when the area in Australia has been dominated by intellectual bullies like Clive Hamilton and John Quiggin who have argued that it is bad journalism to publish articles critical of the IPCC consensus.

You can listen to the Late Line program here.

Posted by Graham at 11:24 pm | Comments (4) |
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May 08, 2011 | Ronda Jambe

When visiting Cuba, mind the gaps

There is so much more to say about Mexico, including my revelation on the road to Veracruz after a chance encounter with a copy of Bjorn Lomborg’s Sceptical Environmentalist. Seeing the spirit and actions of the Mexicans in this regard was part of my awakening. Green doesn’t have to mean gloomy, but more about that another time.

First a digression to Cuba, which punctuated our travels in Mexico. Interest in Cuba was heightened by documentaries we have seen portraying it as a model for transitioning to a lower carbon economy.

When Cuba’s Russian sponsors retreated, oil supplies evaporated. This was the start of what they refer to as the ‘special period’. We did in fact glimpse the community gardens from the tour bus, but this didn’t seem to translate into food on the table. A country which once had 1.2 cows per person now finds it difficult to provide more than powdered milk, and ‘Cafe Cubano’ means black only.

In fact, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality was more than sad. Nowhere was this more evident than in the suspect behaviour of our GapAdventures tour guide. Our somewhat trivial tourism problems are the tip of a much larger iceberg of repression and maladministration. We soon decided the main pastime of Cuban is standing, sitting, or lying in doorways, windows and parks. The Cubans are as hard-working and enterprising as any group, but there is simply no economy.

A traveler’s tale: Day 1 of tour, we arrived in Santa Clara, expecting a ‘home stay’ for the night. This is the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast, set up to take advantage of growing tourism and maybe also offset poverty. Our youthful, good looking guide announced that ‘we have a small problem, or a big problem’. He said he had just been told that the home stay people had not been paid for the past 3 tours and were insisting on a hard currency payment of the amount from each of us or no bed.

The rest of our small group capitulated immediately, as the guide assured us Gap would reimburse. Sure. We two rather more mature and hard-boiled Aussies refused, on the grounds that, like the others,  we had already paid for the tour, and it was his problem, not ours. We told him we were prepared to sleep on the bus, which was kitted out with foam mattresses in the back. Our tour guide didn’t know how to deal with that when he saw us digging in. Spouse read the Economist and I decided there’s nothing like the back of a bus for a bit of impromptu yoga.

After several hours of stand off, a woman came on the bus and explained in slow polite Spanish that we could stay with another family at no extra cost. Problem solved.

Ironically all this happened right after we visited the Che Guevara Memorial and Mausoleum, on what we were starting to call the Cuba Propaganda Tour. Gaps were appearing in the revolution’s  implementation.

The Che Guevara cult in Cuba is out of control, and you can’t turn around without seeing his picture. From what I can gather, he was a violent (but photogenic) meddling thug. Not exactly Cuba’s Gandhi.

In fact, he was from Argentina, and moved on to Bolivia where he was killed, trying to foment another revolution. Not that both Cuba and Bolivia didn’t need regime change. But 50 years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, perhaps the wheel has come full circle. Crumbling apartment buildings tell their own story:

After this incident the tour guide only grudgingly spoke to us. Maybe my confrontational question: ‘Don’t you have the rule of law in this country?’ got up his nose. (Pulling punches spoils the bout.) The others continued to fawn on him and most even gave him a tip at the end, when he produced a free dinner as Gap’s apology along with his handsome wife and child.

Now we have found out that some Canadians have told the same story about their Cuban experience. Anything for hard currency apparently, as theirs is worthless. We couldn’t even change the Convertible Cuban pesos back in Mexico, as no one will accept it.

GapAdventures might not be aware of how their proxies operate in Cuba, but they will, as will the Cuban tourist ministry. The same scam was repeated at the Plaza Hotel at the end of the tour, resolved only by a call to Gap’s emergency number in Costa Rica. The hotel wasn’t going to accept our receipt for additional nights, and claimed Gap in Cuba hadn’t paid and said they had no record of it.

I pointed out in my clumsy Spanish that there was a gap between the hotel’s proud Mission Statement on the wall and their treatment of our claim.

My views are based on just a brief visit, but it only takes one insulting encounter as a tourist (and we had two) to create a bad impression. Of course the value of a country is about much more than a minor annoyance to a few bourgeois visitors. This recent article written by a visiting native explains and expands but does not contradict the above:

Havana: The State Retreats, by Jose Manuel Prieto:

And there’s a big gap between their assertions of freedom and their human rights behaviour. A dissident  died this week in the very city where we were stuck on a bus:

Despite the music and great old buildingslike the one below, I won’t be going back in a hurry. One got the feeling they were just waiting for Castro and his mates to fade away. Neither beatings nor scamming tourists will give them the way forward.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 9:15 pm | Comments (1) |
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May 03, 2011 | Ronda Jambe

Yucatan Dreaming

For two weeks or more it was just too hard to record my thoughts on this trip. Time and access to the Internet were in short supply. We were seeing things you don’t often see in Australia, like this car on fire:

I’ve had a chance now to digest some of my impressions and the overall purpose of such a marathon trip. People travel for many reasons: to catch up with friends and family, to see the places that they only know from movies and books, to admire special architecture, landscapes and paintings, to experience other cultures close up, to practices foreign languages, maybe to be SKIN-heads, and Spend the Kids Inheritance Now, or to enhance appreciation of home and all its comforts. My reasons embrace all these, but for me travel is also a form of research.

I triangulate what I know from other sources with what my eyes and ears and nose tell me. Those who saw my postings about Rajasthan last year know I was not delighted with what I perceived as a negative influence of some silly religious practices.

Preconceptions also did not prepare me for the delights of Mexico. Warnings about drug-related crime and heads in barrels were far from what I found in Mexico City and a brief journey across to the Yucatan Peninsula. Instead, I found a proud and mostly happy society that is actively working for a better life with ambitions of equal opportunity and decency for all.

Smiles, encouragement, politeness, ads that encourage reading and recycling, appreciation of their own and imported culture, and splendid buildings that are admired and looked after, like the Belles Artes in Mexico City:

I found a life around the plazas with a social cohesion that is both relaxed and proud, and a tolerance of the deviance that can never be fully eradicated in a city as huge as their capital. But how could he sleep on the busy footpath?

Along the way I climbed many temples, learning a bit about the Maya and the Aztecs, walking and occasionally cycling through jungles and peering into cenotes, the openings in the limestone plains that provided water for the Yucatan, since it has no rivers. These excursions were enhanced by the excellent archeology museum in Mexico City, which we should have devoted a whole day to.

When we got to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico the pervasive background music took on a distinctly more Caribbean flavour, and perhaps the people were a bit darker skinned. By the time we got to Merida, the spell was cast: we saw a Ballet Folklorico in full enchantment of costumes, choreography and music. Another performance, for free and in the open, celebrated local singers and dancers. The colour of the craft and street stalls was almost an addiction: when everywhere you look is replete with bright light and charming decorations, anything less soon becomes dull.

The Merida town hall features wonderful murals by Castro Pacheco depicting the bad times of slavery in the sugar fields. I was lucky enough to wander into their modernised and very large modern art gallery, and recognised the style of another painter there, who was Pacheco’s acolyte. Another delayed pleasure of travel is that now I will tune in to any news about the areas I visited, and they now have my heartfelt best wishes.

One lasting memory of Mexico that will stay with me was the bakery in Coyoacan, the suburb of Mexico City named after coyotes:

It typified my experience of that city and that country: clean, efficient, wildly varied and totally delicious. I thought this leaves Baker’s Delight in the dust, as I walked the asiles choosing yummy things with tongs, to be wrapped by one set of attendants and paid for at the door. Only the size of my bag and belly limited my cache.

Next stop was Cuba, where such plenitude was not on offer. But that is for another day.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 8:12 pm | Comments (4) |
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