Great Wall of Mexico

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Dog fence South Australia photo by Bob Wilson

There are precedents for President Donald Trump’s plan to build, or complete, the 3,208 kilometre Great Wall of Mexico The Australian outback features not one but two barrier fences, sprawling the length and breadth of the country.

A guide took us on a sunset tour out to the ‘dog fence’ near Coober Pedy in 2014. The South Australian section of the 5,531km fence, which runs from the SA border to Queensland, is 2,250 kms long.  Built in the 1880s, it’s the longest fence in the world and keeps wild dogs out (or in).

In Western Australia, there’s also the 3,256 kms long Rabbit Proof Fence. Possibly because there’s a movie by that name, it is now known as the State Barrier Fence of Western Australia. Having done our share of outback travel, we can tell you that rabbits are still breeding away and undermining parts of Australia, despite myxomatosis, 1080 poison and vermin proof fences. Western Australia’s fence was completed in three stages in the early 1900s as an attempt to isolate the west from the national rabbit plague.

Just so you all know, dingoes and rabbits were not asked to pay for the construction of these fences.

Yes, it makes you think.

There’s no doubt that well-built vermin fences, extending a long way into the ground, have been successful at keeping rabbits and other pests from undermining Australia and also prevent dingoes from savaging livestock. So the cost is defendable, as is the ongoing expense of sending out boundary riders on weekly repair patrols. Feral camels do the most damage; so not surprisingly, there are plans for a taller (electrified) fence.

So what about President Trump’s great wall between Mexico and the US? Despite the fact that a 1,000 kilometre stretch was completed by George W Bush’s government, this is still going to be a $20 billion exercise. Crikey, that’s about 30% of the US education budget, right there.

And speaking of education, a Pew Research survey found that 61% of Americans think a wall between the US and Mexico is a dumb idea.

Our Albuquerque correspondent, despite living 693 kilometres from the New Mexico border at Juarez, thinks the wall is “insulting, a blight and really bad foreign policy.”

Thanks to Bloomberg and heavyweight sources like the Department of Homeland Security, here’s what we know about the challenges facing President Trump’s wall. The notoriously porous border between the US and Mexico is almost 3,208 kilometres long, two-thirds of it tracking the Rio Grande River. The border passes through cities including San Ysidro (California) and El Paso (Texas), rural farmland, desert, mountains and wildlife reserves. The border features 30+ patrol stations and 25 ports of entry.

Barriers already extend along a third of the border, giving President Trump’s contractors something of a head-start. Most of the California, Arizona and New Mexico borders have existing barriers. These range from 5.5m high iron and corrugated metal fences to what our Albuquerque correspondent calls “pedestrian fencing”.

Bloomberg reports that in 2015, the Customs and Border Patrol claimed an 81% strike rate for apprehending and turning back Mexicans attempting to cross illegally (or should that be irregularly).

No-one really knows how many undocumented Mexicans are living in the US, but informed estimates figure around 11 million. There have been amnesties in the past, but that does not appear to be an option under a Trump administration.

A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in 2015 found that 72% of Americans (including 80% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 56% of Republicans), thought undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay “if they meet certain requirements”.

Most of the existing border fence was built after 2006, when President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fences Act. I hate to be pedantic, but the act specifically says “Fences” not walls. When President Trump talks about his vision, most of us imagine a Great Wall of China or the 8m high sections of the West Bank edifice.

Al Jazeera reports that the West Bank security fence is the largest infrastructure project in Israel’s history. Nearly 15 years old, the 706km long fence costs Israel $260 million a year to maintain.

The “separation barrier” as it is coyly known, comprises mostly 2m high, electrified barbed-wire fences with vehicle-barrier trenches and a 60m exclusion zone on the Palestinian side. But in densely populated urban areas with space limitations, the Israelis built an 8m concrete wall.

Walls built between countries or within countries are always controversial, and, well, brutally divisive.

There’s no space at this time to delve into the tragedies of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Berlin for 27 years, for reasons which now seem specious. History shows that barrier walls built for whatever reason are destined to become decaying tourist attractions,

Visitors to Britain often schedule a visit to Hadrian’s Wall, a fascinating relic of 122AD when the emperor Hadrian demanded a wall be built east from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Hadrian’s Wall was the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years, built by the Roman army (to separate the barbarians from the Romans). Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987.

In 2010 English folksingers Julie Matthews* and Chris While joined a group of songwriters to write songs inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. Their song which emerged from the All Along the Wall project, Rock of Gelt, imagines a bored centurion who has been dragooned, if that is the appropriate word, into “building the Empire’s last frontier”.

There are only a handful of inscriptions to be found along the remains of the stone wall, including a piece of graffiti found in the Gelt Valley. It translates to: “Daminius didn’t want to do it,” which becomes the repeated refrain at the end of the song.

So will Donald Trump persist with a plan to build/complete a great wall that 61% of Americans do not want? No doubt the 39% who want it would argue it will employ large numbers of people, through the building phase, then on maintenance and security.

Maintenance of walls and fences is an ongoing issue – just ask a fencing contractor called in to repair or replace fences wrecked or washed away in floods. The annual maintenance bill to keep the Dingo Fence in sound repair is around $10 million, according to an article in The Conversation. The authors argue for a re-think of the country’s vermin fence policies, including a plan to move a section of the fence to test whether the now endangered dingo can help restore degraded rangelands.

The humanitarian question is, if you must build a barrier wall or fence, should you have to justify the exclusion of a species?

As poet Elvis McGonagall wrote, inspired by the Along the Wall project:

“Walls entomb, walls divide

Walls barricade the unknown

Berlin, Belfast, Gaza

Walls set difference in stone

But the same sun that sets on the west bank

Rises up on the eastern wall

A man’s a man in Mesopotamia

A man’s a man in Gaul.”

*thanks to Julie Matthews for the insights

 

In search of quality news

Maleny-sunset-tree
Where I go to escape the news, fake or otherwise

Some of my Facebook friends have been on a search for quality news – and a way to divert Donald Trump stories and memes from their news feed. There was just too much analysis, too many suspect ‘news’ stories from unfamiliar sources and hundreds of derogatory memes which only serve to confirm readers’ biases.

Australian comedian and folk singer Martin Pearson had evidently had enough too. He shared an insightful infographic (see below) which makes plain where media outlets sit in terms of quality news and partisanship. Pearson shared Vanessa Otero’s media infographic with a plea to his 1,520 friends to check the sources of news, especially if it is about Donald Trump:

“Please, you should all follow SNOPES on FB straight away; you get a good supply of reporter-checked news and fact-checked news straight to your page. And take a look at the info-graphic. If a news story confirms your bias, check its source.”

Vanessa Otero is a US patent attorney who enjoys snowboarding, reading, writing and observing communication patterns. Her infographic, originally posted on Twitter, was re-posted and shared so many times Otero went to her blog to explain in detail the reasoning and methodology.

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News Infographic by Vanessa Otera (Creative Commons)

The infographic places media outlets on a chart which clearly suggests where the publication or electronic media outlet sit in terms of quality news and partisan bias. The ‘utter garbage/conspiracy theory’ news outlets, be they conservative or liberal (that is, left of centre), end up on the extremes of the chart, grouped as ‘don’t read this’ or ‘Just no’. I note with a chuckle Otero places local TV news, US Today and CNN (dressed in partisan blue), as ‘sensational or clickbait’, though apparently relatively unbiased, so earning the category – “better than not reading news at all”.

Otero writes: “I wanted to take the landscape of news sources that I was highly familiar with and put it into an easily digestible, visual format. I wanted it to be easily shareable, and more substantive than a meme, but less substantive than an article.”

That much worked – the infographic was shared 20,000 times on Facebook and viewed one million times on Imgur. Otero said this is evidence that she accomplished the goal of reaching people who hardly ever engage with lengthy editorials. And as she self-deprecatingly acknowledges, very few will read her “boring-ass article” about the methodology behind it.

“Many non/infrequent readers are quite bad at distinguishing between decent news sources and terrible news sources. I wanted to make this chart in the hopes that if non/infrequent readers saw it, they could use it to avoid trash.”

Otero has said that considering all feedback, she’d make some changes to future versions of the chart (like moving The Economist more to the centre).

Otero’s chart is no one-off, though. Business Insider cited the Pew Research Centre to compile an infographic on the most (and least), trustworthy media sources in AmericaThe most trusted news outlets, that is, purveyors of quality news, are British, topped by the BBC and The Economist.

Conversely, BuzzFeed and The Rush Limbaugh Show are at the bottom.

There’s a difference between trusted and most popular, however. Pew polled 3,000 Americans in a random sample to find that they get most of their news from local TV, Facebook, and major networks like CNN and Fox News.

Some Australians who reacted to Otero’s publication wanted to know when someone would do a similar exercise on the highly concentrated Australian media market.

I suspect an Australian version of the search for quality news would look quite different; less crowded and lack the dubious news sources which appear to flourish in the US. There have been attempts in recent years to loosen the stranglehold a handful of media companies hold over Australian media audiences. They include Crikey, The Monthly, the Saturday Paper, New Matilda and The Conversation, the latter a collaboration between academics and journalists. Whatever subject you wish to research has probably been turned over there at least once and if not, send them an email and suggest a topic.

In this article from December 2016, authors Tim Dwyer and Denis Muller explore the concentration of media ownership in Australia.

They cite market research firm IBISWorld’s findings that the industry’s four largest players, News Australia, Fairfax Media, Seven West Media and APN News and Media, accounted for more than 90% of industry revenue in 2015-16. A very small list of owners, notably News Australia and Fairfax Media, publish content that reaches the large majority of Australians.

Since then, 12 Queensland and NSW regional daily newspapers and 60+ non-dailies and 40+ websites were sold to News Corp for $36.6 million.  APN News and Media agreed to sell Australian Regional Media (ARM) last June (News was already a 14.9% shareholder). It was approved by the foreign investment and competition regulators in late December. For Queenslanders, this means that Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd owns every substantial newspaper in the State, from the Cairns Post in the north to the Tweed Daily News in the south and the Toowoomba Chronicle in the west.  News also publishes Brisbane’s suburban weeklies.

Only the Fairfax-owned online newspaper, Brisbane Times, stands out as a daily voice of difference.

The latest iteration of newspaper monopoly in Queensland has received surprisingly little coverage or analysis − much less so than when Rupert Murdoch took over The Herald & Weekly Times group in 1987. That transaction delivered him ownership of every daily newspaper in Brisbane. The competition watchdog ruled that Murdoch must sell one of these to an ‘independent’ owner. So he kept the Courier-Mail, The Telegraph and Sunday Mail and sold the Daily Sun and Sunday Sun.

As for the ARM/News merger, The Australian quoted Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims:

“The ACCC reviewed the acquisition very closely, as News and ARM are the two largest newspaper publishers in Queensland. However, feedback from readers raised very few concerns and suggested that there is not close competition between the paid daily Queensland papers published by News and ARM.”

Having said surprisingly little about this, the ABC’s Mediawatch made its 2017 return on Monday with a special on ‘Fake News,’ a term now so pervasive it has wormed its way into the Macquarie Dictionary (and FOMM).

As Mediawatch host Paul Barry said:

“Fake news is hardly a new phenomenon, nor is believing stuff that defies all evidence.

“But in a world where anyone can set up a website and so many are on social media, it can spread like wildfire. Almost 2 billion people log onto Facebook every month. And Facebook works by giving them the news they want.”

Craig Silverman of National Public Radio (NPR) said in December, fake news works because “we love to hear things that confirm what we think and what we feel and what we already believe.’

“It tells people exactly what they want to hear. It makes them feel very comforted and it gets them to react on the platform. And the platform sees that content does really well and Facebook feeds more of it to more people.

So as Martin Pearson advised, and I concur, be sceptical, subscribe to a source that fact checks (Snopes, The Conversation).

Above all, don’t immediately share something on Facebook or Twitter without reading first, thinking about it and doing some checking.

We can only hope that’ll happen…LOL

http://bobwords.com.au/elephant-captured-nullarbor-plain/

 

Birthday musings about ageing and mortality

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Old man and dog – photo by Bob Wilson

So I’ve picked a table at the combined 70th birthday party, met the woman next to me and nodded to her husband. It’s an outdoor setting for 40 people with five big tables and much background noise from kitchen activities. We say hello to the hosts, and, according to the way their lips moved, they reply “glad you could make it to our birthday”.

After a while, I set my hearing aids to ‘noisy room’ which basically meant I could talk to the person on my right and She Who Sits on My Left. After the main meal I got up and milled about, having one-on-one discourse with people who tended to lean towards me and say things like “Sorry I missed that?”

The birthday girl made a short but gracious speech without benefit of microphone. We were all lip-reading like billyo.

“It’s good to see you all – and as Keith Richards said, ‘it’s good to see anybody,’ ” she quipped.

The birthday boy also spoke briefly and said that while it was lovely to see us all, he doubted he’d ever see all of us again in the same room. It was just the right sentiment for a 70th, where the guests were either approaching that day or had passed it some years earlier.

Crikey, this is becoming a habit, raising our glasses to people crossing the threshold of seven decades. Who’d have thought?

The conversations ranged around ageing, mortality, health scares, belief systems, technology and Donald Trump. I told someone mortality rarely occurred to me these days though when I turned 40 I’d lie awake observing my heart beat and wondering if and when it would stop. Neurotic, yes, but you knew that.

Comedian, actor and writer George Burns, who died at 100, once said “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” Burns also said that when he was a boy, the Dead Sea was only sick. So he carved out a later-life career making fun of his ability to live into his 90s and still smoke cigars.

Making A Movie About Moses

Some people seem able to reach a great age staying mentally supple. I picked up a book in the library by one Herman Wouk, author of the Caine Mutiny, et al. Turns out this book (The Lawmaker, about a new Moses movie), was written when Wouk was 98. He followed up at 99 with: Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author. He described the latter as “…the story of my life, light-hearted because I’m an inveterate Jewish optimist.” It was released in January 2016 to mark his 100th birthday. Wouk married Betty Sarah Brown in 1945. Betty, who was also his literary agent, died in 2011, aged 90.

I felt a surge of guilt about my long-neglected habit of keeping a daily journal when I read that Wouk has been doing this since 1932. What a trove for historians.

Like Wouk, George Burns advocated staving off old age by continuing to work.

“Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old, I’m working,” he said. “I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young.”

Yeh, maybe, but Burns also said the key to longevity is to avoid stress and tension. Just how you do that and keep working is a secret many of us have never learned.

So we of the nearly-70 brigade return to our routines, tucked away in our semi-rural house, fans set on high, watching Breaking Bad and waiting for the next invitation to an event that isn’t a funeral. No wonder so many older Australians buy a road rig, preferably with the bumper sticker ‘adventure before dementia’, and traverse this big red continent.

In our society, siblings resolve between them the decision about caring for elderly parents. Some take care of their parents in their own homes, or under the one roof. Others hand-ball the folks to a retirement village, preferably one with an associated nursing home.

The onset of dementia usually accelerates the decision to admit Mum and/or Dad to an aged care facility. It’s not easy caring for people with dementia and it can only get worse.

In some societies, this outplacement of old folk is not culturally acceptable. Seniors, demented or not, are the respected elders of the tribe and take their rightful place at the head of the table.

Global Agewatch maintains an index which measures income security, health, personal capability and whether elders live in an “enabling environment”. Indicators include life expectancy, coverage by pension plans, access to public transit and the poverty rate for people over 60.

Switzerland is the best place to be if you are past 65 and wondering what comes next. Norway and Sweden are 2 and 3 in this important global index, which is to be updated in 2018.

Australia is ranked 17th, below countries including Canada, the UK and New Zealand. Australia ranks highly in some domains (health, social connectivity) but it ranks lowest in its region in the income security domain (62), due to high old age poverty rate (33.4%) and pension income coverage (83%) below the regional average.

So yes, some societies revere the elderly and there is never any question about one’s parents being moved to a retirement village or aged care facility. In China and Japan there is the Confucian code of filial piety, in essence a system of selfless subordinate relationships. An article by Mayumi Hayashi, however, considers the myths surrounding family care, filial piety and how these systems can break down in urban Japan.

Hayashi says the limits of family care were recognised by successive governments in the 1960s. But public residential care was restricted to people lacking financial means and family support. Other problems with Japan’s system include family ‘care’ that involves neglect and abuse. From the 1970s, large numbers of ‘abandoned’ older people became resident in hospitals, often with little need of medical care. This ‘social hospitalisation’ remains stigmatised, says Hayashi, and an option of last resort, like Obasuteyama.

The latter is a Japanese custom of the distant past where frail aged relatives (usually women), were allegedly taken to remote mountain areas and left to their fate. The practice was said to be most common during times of drought and famine. It was also sometimes mandated by feudal officials (although Wikipedia notes a citation is needed to verify this).

Myths persist of similar practices among other societies – for example the Inuit, placing their frail old ones on ice flows and letting them drift off to a certain death.

The notion of a loving son or daughter propping their old Da up against a tree in his favourite part of the forest has (for me) some appeal. The alternative, 24/7 care in an aged care facility, has none. The denouement is the same.

More reading:

Founder and former chairman of National Seniors Australia Everald Compton, now in his 80s, continues to campaign for seniors.

Kathryn Johnston’s blog Scattered Straws has lately has been focussing on the (financial) plight of the Naked Retiree.

 

Speed dating with Stan

Stan-old-tv-1970s
Photo: Paul Townsend https://flic.kr/p/f9o9TQ

Sometime in December, I signed up for a one-month free trial with a streaming service, just to see how it measured up. A week later I was telling a young friend, “I’ve been speed dating Stan.”

He gave me that WTF look 30-somethings sometimes give their elders: “It’s called binge-watching, Dude.”

And so it is. If you succumb to the marvels of being able to stream TV drama to your mobile phone, iPad, laptop and now even to your big screen TV, you can watch anything, anytime, anywhere.

I rather quickly got caught up in the misadventures of one Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who turns to making and dealing methamphetamine as a way of funding chemo for his newly diagnosed lung cancer.

An implausible premise, maybe, but that peerless actor Brian Cranston, as Walter, pulls it off, in each and every improbable episode. His dunderhead brother-in-law Hank, who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration, continues not to see the forest for the trees.

Binge-watching is an unhealthy past-time, though, earbuds in, snuggling into your bed at 7.30pm ready to watch back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones, House of Cards or Breaking Bad. There is the potential to fragment the family unit more than ever before. Mum’s in the lounge watching catch-up TV episodes of Gardening Australia. Teenage son is downstairs watching who knows what, teenage daughter is Skyping her friends who are backpacking around Europe; Dad’s got his headphones on watching Trapped on his smart phone and Little Dan is playing X-Box in the rumpus room. It’s a long way from the nuclear family enjoying My Three Sons, The Munsters or Mr Ed on a black and white TV.

I rarely watch more than two episodes of Breaking Bad in a night and not every night, but I’m half-way through season two already.

“Have you got to the bath scene yet?” my son asked. Yes I had. And it confirmed the wisdom of my decision to watch this dark comedy alone, as She Who Has an Aversion to TV Violence would have puked.

Oops, I think that’s what they call a ‘spoiler’ in streaming TV circles. Any day now someone will form a covers band and call it The Bath Scene from Breaking Bad.*

Call me a late adaptor, but what drove me to engage with streaming TV was the appallingly sparse fare offered by free-to-air TV in December/January.

Stan’s free trial period expired fairly quickly. I knew this when $10 was deducted from my credit card. Oh sure, I knew they would do this unless I told them not to – but they could have emailed, sent a text?

“Dude, we see you’re a fan of Breaking Bad! Where’s our money, Yo!”

Streaming services offer great value to people who like watching a TV series from beginning to end. The other investment I made, in what amounts to creating in-house entertainment in a time devoid of quality TV programming, was to purchase Google’s Chromecast device. Apple, Amazon and others have their own version of a device which enables you to ‘cast’ a TV programme from your phone or iPad to the big screen at home. These gadgets are inexpensive for what they offer. But most households will have to buy a Wi-Fi extender to ensure the programmes stream and play without buffering or crashing.

If this is old technology, what’s next?

This is already old technology as most “Smart TVs” made after 2014 (obviously not ours), come with Stan and Netflix built-in. So with the variety of ways one can seek out TV content that is not free-to-air (and I have not even mentioned Torrens), commercial TV is seriously up against it. As an extra enticement, most streaming services, unlike Pay TV, can be watched ad free.

Harold Mitchell, chairman of Free TV Australia, launched a campaign in October 2016 lauding the industry’s 60 years of achievements, its 15 million audience reach, stressing how badly Australia needs free TV.

In AdNews, Mitchell defended free to air television, saying it invests more than $1.5 billion in local content, employing 15,000 people.

He warned that commercial TV’s investment in (local) content is under threat from unregulated digital media companies,

 “Australian licence fees are about three and a half times greater than in the next highest market, which is Singapore, and more than 115 times greater than in the United States.”

At its best, free TV offers live events like cricket tests, rugby union, rugby league, AFL and soccer matches, golf tournaments, the Australian Open, the NRL Grand Final, the Olympics, Winter Olympics and, whether it’s your thing or not, 24/7 news.  No matter how generally awful the evening programming is in the summer, if something dramatic happens anywhere in the world, you can be sure the ABC, SBS, 7, 9 and 10 will be right across it, instantly.

Nevertheless, if not for the Australian Open (tennis) or perhaps the Cricket, there would no incentive to turn the TV on in January. There are repeats, repeats of repeats, vapid soapies; Kevin McCloud’s bespoke TV shows about people spending copious sums fixing up falling down buildings, the ubiquitous cooking competitions, and a puzzling show where a man and a woman loll about on a bed in their underwear. I gather there is supposed to be ‘chemistry’. Walter White would give them an F.

A day to mourn dispossession & dispersal

Last night I flicked through TV news to see how Australia Day was portrayed. It was as you might imagine. Flags and more flags, sausages on the barbie, gumboot-throwing competitions, families at the beach, cars with flags fluttering from their windows. Some channels covered the protests in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, the latter ‘erupting in violence’ as one person allegedly set fire to a flag. Tens of thousands gathered in capital cities, all calling for a change of date. Many indigenous people call it “Invasion Day” – the anniversary of the British First Fleet arriving in Australia.

Fremantle Council, despite bowing to pressure from Canberra to hold Citizenship ceremonies, has become a poster child for the #changethedate movement. Council plans to hold a “culturally inclusive” celebration on Saturday (despite WA Premier Barnett urging Councillors to “pull their heads in”.)

Overwhelmed by jingoism, we engaged the ‘casting’ device, which not only allows you to watch Stan or Netflix, but also catch up on ABC, SBS and commercial station programmes. So far we have watched Outback ER, an ABC reality TV doco set in Broken Hill. What does happen when you have a heart attack and you are 500 kms away from cardiac specialists?

We watched Concussion on Stan last night. At $10 a month and no advertising, Stan is a no-brainer option for a media consumer. It is dearer than free TV, certainly, but the options are seemingly limitless.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably have to sign up for Netflix as well, as I see there is a fourth (and maybe even a fifth) season of House of Cards in the wings. I figure I owe Netflix money as I watched all three series of House of Cards last year during my one-month trial (39 episodes).

Now that’s what I call speed dating!

*Cultural reference to a 1990s Melbourne band called The Shower Scene from Psycho.