Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, August 30, 2003
    Travel notes
    Yes I found that fortress and made it safely there and back. I arrived in Florence yesterday evening. A big change from Vienna. For one thing the streets are a nightmare for the directionally challenged like me. Very chaotic layout, lots of sidestreets, extremely narrow footpaths, lots of people scooting around on motorcycles just inches to the left or right of you, I got lost 5 minutes after I stepped out of my hotel even with a map. The reason I chose Florence for this quick tour of Europe - the Uffizi, the fact that it's the Renaissance city, thus the historical interest. Lots of old and beautiful churches. However I have to confess I really don't enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Vienna or Salzburg - for one thing I already mentioned how easy it is to get lost and thus hard to get around, and also it's damned hot at the moment. It also seems a dirtier and messier place than Vienna (the layout of cities does matter a lot to my appreciation of the experience). I really don't like walking around in near darkness (streets and sidestreets are not very well lit) at night on narrow sidestreets with very few traffic lights as motorbikes whiz past you left and right, and it doesn't inspire me as much culturally as Vienna or Salzburg did.

    Unfortunately I'm stuck here for another day now - was hoping to catch the afternoon train to Paris tomorrow afternoon but it's been booked out and I have to catch the night train instead at 7:50 pm tomorrow. One other thing - the queues at the train station were one of the slowest I've ever experienced and the service was terrible - you really had to interrogate the ticketing people for them to give you the necessary information compared to the excellent service I got in Germany and Austria where all pertinent information was passed on without prompting. Maybe I just like Kraut culture and Krauts more - actually I do. I really think they should be in charge of all train services and city planning in Europe.
    Topic of Cancer

    On Sunday night at 6pm the ABC is repeating the episode of Andrew Denton's The Money or the Gun on kids with cancer, to be followed on Monday night at 9.30pm during Denton's interview show Enough Rope with the survivors of that show, ten or so years on. I'm not a fan of everything Denton does, but the original 'Topic of Cancer' was an exceptional piece of documentary making - informative, moving and, despite the subject matter, funny. It's well worth watching.

    Friday, August 29, 2003
    My un-docile decile
    Scott Wickstein has solicited nominations for a a list of the Ten Greatest Australians. The list evidently applies to post-settlement Federated Australia. Aborigines and colonists are not eligible as they were subjects of the British Empire, not Australian citizens.
    This is a shame, as Caroline Chisolm is surely worth a guernsey on Darwinian grounds, since she helped gender relations. And the Aborigines who first welcomed Cook and impressed Banks got race relations off to a good start. Governor Maquarie must also be rated highly, for securing the colonies economic future and holding his nerve during Hard Times.
    Hereunder are the Ten Greatest Australians according to me. No apologies are made for the Melbourne-entric bias. Although Sydney has the greater Nature, it is Melbourne that has the greater Culture.
    No apologies are made for neglecting Sporting Heroes, which I am so over. And don't talk to me about Patrick White.
    I do apologise for neglecting the myriad of Australia's back-yard inventors, from Richard & Clarry Smith of Stump-Jump plough fame, through Tom Angove, who dreamt up the wine cask on to Lawrence Hills and his blessed Hoist. The inventors have made life easier for their fellow man, which is the greatest service that anyone can provide.

    One. Scientific achievement is the most important human contribution a person can make, since it is universal and eternal. No science is more important than medical science. Howard Florey's discovery of penicilin enabled the antibiotic industry, which has saved more lives than any other drug.
    Two. War's are the most powerful movers of masses of men. World War I was the Great War until they started numbeing them. General Sir John Monash led the Australian Army Corps to serial decisive victories against the best troops the German Army had to offer during the critical end-game of the Great War. He pioneered the tactics of combined arms Blitzkrieg, which is still the best way to win a conventional war.
    Three. The media business underpins global culture and is, in effect, creating a global society. There is no more important global media magante than Rupert Murdoch, who is regularly named as the most influential businessman in the world. Pound for pound the little Aussie digger packs more punch than any other private citizen on earth.
    Four. The most important domestic social change of the post-war era has been the cultural emancipation of women. Germaine Greer stands head and shoulders above all other feminist intellectuals as a critic, agitator and activist for women's rights.
    Five. A constitution sets the template for a nation's political development. Alfred Deakin did more than any other to ensure that Australia's federal political institutions enshrine the values of freedom, fairness and familiarity that characterise our national culture.
    Six. The Japanese Imperial Army posed the greatest threat to Australian sovereignty. A Japanese landing was on the cards, which would have been a disaster for skittish Australians. John Curtin rose to the challenge and swapped Australia's Great Power security guarantor from the the UK to the US, as well as vigourously prosecuting the war through his own offices. He defied Churchill and deified Macarthur, actions which were in the National Interest.
    Seven. For good and ill, nobody does it better than Gough Whitlam. He insitutionalised universal public health, which has saved countless Australian lives and endless taxpayers dollars.
    Eight. A nations speaks to itself through the medium of it's artists. Barry Humphries is a master of the arts, both thespian and literary, and no artist has got a better measure for what passes for Australia's soul.
    Nine. Music is the most powerful of arts. No Australian musician has been at it longer, farther and harder than Nick Cave. He is King Ink.
    Ten. The intellectual gadfly is the modern equivalent of the prophet crying in the wilderness. No public intellectual was more ostracised, more scientific and more vindicated than my lecturer, and guru, Dr Frank Knopfelmacher.

    Thursday, August 28, 2003
    If it´s possible, Salzburg is even more beautiful and civilised than Vienna. Perhaps it´s the baroque architecture, the statues and other traces of Mozart, the streets named after conductors, the old markets and fountains that does it. Perhaps it´s also the fact that it´s surrounded by numerous hills. There is an old castle called Hohensalzburg Fortress on one of these hills. There is a tour bus there but I eschew such things. There is also a cable car ride up. However for the fun of it, I´m going to attempt to set out there on foot this morning myself as there are a number of footpaths up there. So if you don´t hear from me in a week you know what happened ...
    National Day of Inaction

    The polls suggest that about 70% of people want governments to pay most of the cost of increasing funding to universities (at least when they aren't told about higher taxes as a result), but it’s hard to get people excited about it. The National Union of Students plastered billboards with advertisements for yesterday’s rally for a couple of weeks, but in Sydney only between 1,000 and 2,000 (depending on which newspaper you read) turned up, and received a mixed reception from onlookers. In Adelaide and Melbourne about 400 turned up. NUS’s poster-to-protestor ratio isn't looking good. Only in Adelaide
    did the thuggish behaviour
    typical of NUS demonstrations occur. It’s a stalemated issue. The reformist forces can’t get a consensus for change, but nor can the public funding conservatives get any momentum for their cause.

    Travel notes II
    I am now blogging from a rather posh Net cafe in the heart of Salzburg. I arrived here at about 2pm after spending two exquisite days in Vienna.

    Before I commence my descriptions of both these great cities, another comment on the German mind. When I took the train from Frankfurt to Vienna 2 days ago I read my ticket with incredulity. The trip involved changing at Nurnberg at 12:24 for the 12:28 train to Vienna. 4 minutes for a transfer? Surely this is impossible. Who plans things to 4 minutes anyway? I would normally allow a margin of error of 5 minutes for train times. Alas, I underestimated the punctuality of the German mind. I did not miss my train at all, and arrived at Nurnberg just in time for the switch.

    I was to be further impressed by the Germanic mind on arriving in Vienna. When I arrived, I managed to walk to my hotel unaided by a map, simply by following the signs. Now Andrew who knows more about my disabilities in navigation than most, would agree it would be a near miracle to design a city which I cannot get lost in. My navigational ability works not on a sense of spatial reasoning, which I possess very little of, but on the ability to remember landmarks and to remember to turn left or right at a landmark (according to some brain researchers, this is the "female" way of getting around - you know, women can´t read maps unless they´re turned around the right way, etc - all that applies to me). To this day I still get lost in Sydney which I find a chaotic mess. However I had no problems finding my way around Vienna at all. I checked into my hotel and upon obtaining a map there, spent the rest of the next day locating and visiting in turn the Museum of Fine Arts, the Sigmund Freud Museum, a Beethoven Memorial, the Albertina Museum and the Jewish Museum. The main streets are emblazoned with noticeable signs, they are numbered and the place is studded with landmarks and laid out quite logically. So there you go, the directionally challenged, go to Vienna.

    There was more to Vienna than the excellent layout of course. It lived up to my idealisations of it. There I was in the city of Hayek, Mises, Wittgenstein and Popper. Traces of the old Vienna were still very much alive in the preserved buildings. There were scores of museums and sites to visit from the well established ones like the Museum of Fine Art to the old Beethoven memorial which charged a 1.80 euro entry fee. The Albertina Museum was the most interesting experience of the lot because it was still in the process of being renovated when I visited it. Imagine if you will, walking through an old Hapburg palace looking at Da Vincis while workmen were knocking away on a floor at one corner.

    On the week I arrived in Vienna there was also an outdoor film festival playing at Rathaus Place. The films were of music and opera performances and they were projected onto a screen placed just in front of the Rathaus building. There were beer stalls and international food stalls near the projection area, thus combining the delights of outdoor dining with music. It attracted quite huge audiences. On Tuesday night an old concert of the Berlin Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim was played and I saw two Viennesse nearly come to blows because one was standing in front and blocking the view of the other.

    Anyway, I´m now in Salzburg, arrived this afternoon and upon checking in at the Europa (again, an easy walk from the station) I set out on a pilgrimage to Mozart House and Mozart´s birthplace which I again found very easily with the aid of a hotel map. I came here specifically for the Mozartphilia and Mozart Festival and am attending a performance tomorrow night at the Mirabell.

    Wednesday, August 27, 2003
    Abbott and One Nation

    Am I missing something, or is the current fuss about Tony Abbott's legal fund to cause havoc in One Nation more than a little contrived? Admittedly the name of the trust, 'Australians for Honest Politics', is asking for trouble, but what Abbott did seems to be within politics-as-normal. 'Politician tries to undermine rival political party' isn't much of a story, and if the Prime Minister was involved than all those who back in 1998 were denouncing him for being soft on One Nation will have to do some quick history re-writing.

    As an aside, check out Margo Kingston's take on it all, in particular this paragraph:

    Howard swept from no, no, no to Hanson's policies to beat her off in 1998, to ticking them off as he seduced Hansonites to his party - turning the boats back, temporary residence for refugees, effectively abolishing ATSIC, allowing the states to reintroduce capital punishment.

    Temporary residence - Labor policy. Abolish ATSIC? - Howard has if anything been too tolerant of its appalling leadership. Which states have capital punishment (and they don't need to ask the PM if they do want it)? The SMH editors were dozing at their desks when that one was submitted.
    Travel notes
    Excuse the lack of bloggage recentlzy from me. I´ve been busy travelling. I commenced my round Europe by train trip on Saturday and worked out early on that I´d probably have to pick and choose where to go quite selectively in order to make it back to London for my flight home on the 3rd of September so I narrowed it down to the main cultural centres that were of interest to me. No prizes for guessing which. I first had to catch the train to Brussels however (it was either Brussels or Paris and I was planning on going back to London via Paris anyway and haven´t been to Brussels yet).

    Perhaps the fact that I arrived in Brussels on a Saturday didn´t do it justice but it wasn´t terribly alive. It seemed like a dead town aside, most of the city was very dark at night except for a few restaurants and bars. I saw not many native born Belgian souls which certainly says something for the lack of life - 80 per cent of the people out on the street seemed to be of Arab descent and most of the shops open with the exception of the restaurants were run by Arabs. As an amateur sociologist I tend to notice things such as the ethnic division of labour and one thing I noticed, not having brought my laptop was that all the Internet and cheap phone calls stores were monopolised by Arabs, just as the Internet access shops in Sydney seems dominated by Chinese (I later found the same thing in Frankfurt). Without Arab immigration it seems like most travellers like me would have no Internet access unless they stay in a nice hotel (as I am doing at the moment, typing this from the Internet access point in Tyrol Hotel in Vienna).

    Uninspired by Brussels I decided to leave for Frankfurt on Sunday as I have limited time to travel. Now, the only reason I chose Frankfurt was this was the easiest route to get to Austria and I wasn´t fond of too long a journey so I put up a night there. Again, it may well be that arriving on Sunday didn´t do Frankfurt justice but it seemed like a pretty bland town. I wanted to go to Goethe house but it wasn´t open on Sunday. Just about the only places open were the half dozen sex shops around every corner (what is it about the Germans and porn? is it like the Japanese and porn?there were also not one but two porn channels offered in my hotel room. ) and bars.

    To be continued - next, my rather significantly more favourable impressions of Austria and my now favourite European city, the great Vienna ...

    Tuesday, August 26, 2003
    Contempt of court?

    In a strange move, this morning's edition of The Age ran as its lead story criticism by a previously obscure legal official and academic of the Prime Minister's comments on the Hanson sentence. According to Professor Peter Sallmann (full text here)

    The judicial branch of government is one of the jewels of our democracy. Its strength and independence depend substantially on public confidence. Criticisms from Government ministers, particularly at the level of Prime Minister, are hardly calculated to enhance that confidence. Politicians, in fact, should be supporting the judicial branch of government - not criticising it.

    This is a common enough view in legal circles, but I am not sure that it is right. Judges are given a protection nobody else has - a job until past retirement age - so that they can make decisions according to law, without political pressure. But this does not mean that they should be free of feedback on how they are going. To the contrary, it strengthens the case for criticism of the courts where appropriate, since it is the alternative to other accountability mechanisms that would interfere with judicial independence, such as removing them by petition, as suggested by a former Queensland Premier.

    Arguably politicians should be a bit more circumspect when commenting on decisions by courts within their jurisdiction, since in extraordinary circumstances they can have judges removed from office. Premier Beattie in the Hanson case is in fact defending the District Court that jailed Hanson, though given how difficult it is under Queensland law to dismiss a judge it is unlikely a judge could feel very threatened even if he did join the criticism of Hanson's sentence. But this does not apply to Howard, who can no more remove Patsy Wolfe from the bench than Pauline Hanson can.

    Commonwealth Attorney-General Daryl Williams has long argued that it isn't his job to defend the courts since he comes from a different branch of government. I think this is right.

    Where people like Sallmann go wrong is in thinking this leaves judges unprotected. I can't think of a court controversy in which judges have gone undefended. Sometimes they get overwhelming backing, such as when Bill Heffernan made ridiculous allegations against Justice Kirby. With the Hanson case the defence was more muted, but included high profile politicians like Beattie and Mark Latham. In appropriate cases, judges should be free to make public statements clarifying issues, or defending each other - as Chief Justice Gleeson has done for other High Court judges.

    It would be good if the public had more confidence in the courts, but this will come from strong performance, not suppressing criticism.

    Monday, August 25, 2003
    Misspelling Bee

    The submissions to the Senate inquiry into Dr Nelson's higher education reforms are on the Senate website, and they provide more evidence for my view that compulsory, and in many cases remedial, writing courses should be given to all first year university students. There are a lot of submissions from students, and a large percentage of those I looked at contained spelling errors. A UNSW student who wants to pursue an academic career in political science spells criteria 'criterea', surveillance 'surveillence', entitlement 'entitilement', and 3 times writes effecting when she means affecting (Raven - Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun - as one of my school English teachers used to remind us). An Arts/Law student, also from UNSW, offers us 'devestating', 'palty' (paltry), 'beleive' (twice) and Centrlink (also twice). And she's received scholarships. One young lad managed to squeeze 60 mistakes into two pages, but then he has- as he puts it- dyslexsia, which is at least a reasonable excuse. I know, I know, I am blaming the victim even for those without medical conditions. These kids are the victims of 'progressive' education. But is it so hard to get the computer to check spelling?

    Sunday, August 24, 2003
    Why is this news?

    The Age is yet again reporting Malcolm Fraser's attacks on the Howard government. We've heard Fraser's views dozens of times before, and they don't differ in any susbstantial way from the standard soft left line, so why bother even reporting them? There's no new information and no novelty.

    Perhaps the explanation is that The Age is trying to get something out of its sponsorship of the Melbourne Writers' Festival, but that the pickings there are very slim. In the 1990s I used to fly from Canberra or Sydney to attend the festival, but now it is hardly even worth the tram trip from Carlton. Fraser is pictured with that relic of '60s radicalism Tariq Ali - he was a keynote speaker, which gives you an idea of how bad the rest of it is likely to be.




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