20 December 2011

Reflections on the North Korean regime change

The international tension associated with feelings of “what’s next” associated with the presumed accession to the North Korean leadership by Kim Jong-il’s little-known son and nominated heir Kim Jong-un, has been accompanied by a well-meaning statement (see here) by Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, addressed no doubt to Beijing, that

It is vital that all those with influence on Pyongyang reinforce the need for calm and restraint.

Best of luck.  I am reminded of a somewhat more direct appeal to the Chinese leadership in relation to North Korea when I visited China as a member of Bob Hawke’s delegation in February 1984.  This was just four months after the notorious Rangoon Bombing in which the North Koreans made an assassination attempt against South Korean President Choon Doo-hwan, who was visiting Rangoon with a large delegation.  Choon was to lay a wreath at the Maryr’s Mausoleum to commemorate Aung San, architect of Burmese Independence (and father of Aung San Suu Kyi), who was assassinated in 1947.

A bomb concealed in the roof of the mausoleum failed to kill Choon, but it killed 21 people, including three senior South Korean politicians and 14 Presidential Advisers, and injured 46 others.

Our last port of call had been Seoul, including a meeting with the intended victim of the Rangoon Bombing, and we had flown directly from Seoul to Beijing in the RAAF B-707 – a rare event in those days of minimal contact between China and South Korea, and we had been escorted to the limits of South Korean air space by South Korean fighters.  In the meetings with the Chinese leadership the subject of our time in Seoul was touched upon and Bob Hawke took advantage of the opportunity to urge the Chinese leadership to attempt to prevail upon the North Koreans to respect the norms of civilised international behaviour.  The Chinese leaders didn’t say anything much by way of response – no quotable quotes – but the way the roll of the eyes, the shrug of the shoulders and the upturned palms told you everything you needed to know.  The Chinese were claiming no influence over the behaviour of the North Koreans.  All that was almost 28 years ago, but I don’t think that situation has changed.

During our stay in Beijing we were quartered in a couple of villas in the Diaoyutai State Guest House, a large compound with a series of detached villas set in nice gardens with ornamental pools etc.  Every evening in that safest of cities that 1984 Beijing was, the PLA man on the front gate locked the gate, after which you needed a pass to come and go.  As it happened the only other guests in Diaoyutai at that time were the North Korean Foreign Minister and Party, in an adjacent villa.  I couldn’t help remarking to Bob and my colleagues one evening that the only people in Beijing who might possibly have a go at us were locked in with us.

14 December 2011

The summer holiday drive

Driving home this afternoon I heard part of ABC Radio National’s Australia Talks, on the subject of that great Australian summer holiday ritual, the drive to wherever the Christmas-New Year holiday is to be spent.

The consensus was that, in spite of the vast improvement in our roads, modern, time-poor city folks don’t want to spend more than about three hours in the car to get to where they are going.  This caused me to reflect on the summer holiday drives of my childhood and youth.

I grew up in Armidale and from 1948 until I left home at the end of university in 1966 we went every year to Port Macquarie for three weeks from a few days before Christmas until the first week in January. The drive was quite a business – in those days the New England Tablelands were very isolated by the bad roads which lay in every direction, including, I can dimly remember, the New England Highway to Sydney having eighty miles of unsealed road between Tamworth and Singleton.  Those were the days when you had to book ahead to get a seat on the train.

There were three possible ways of driving to Port Macquarie.  The most direct route was via Kempsey, down the road through Bellbrook.  I don’t actually know anyone who went that way, although I have seen photos taken on that road before the Second World War by an Armidale Greek family.  In the post-war years it was definitely 4WD territory, but even then it was not always passable.  I travelled some way along it a few times in my early secondary school days when an American student at UNE (David Werner, inevitably known as “Hank the Yank”) used to invite me to accompany him in his searches for specimens in the rain forest at the edge of the escarpment. Stunning scenery, and the leeches were friendly, but the road was definitely not in good shape.

The road of choice in those early years (late 1940s to mid-1950s) was the Oxley Highway, a 158 mile journey that included 108 miles of unsealed road between the outskirts of Walcha and the entrance to Wauchope.  This included a stretch of narrow winding road that wound its way down the mountain through state forest from which timber (the last of the cedar, I fancy) was being harvested, so one would inevitably come up behind a timber jinker and eat its dust for the rest of the journey, there being no possibility of passing it. The 158 mile journey typically took about eight hours in our 1948 Ford Anglia tourer, and one arrived caked with dust.

So when some time in the late 1950s the road to Dorrigo was sealed, it was no contest. The journey via Dorrigo and Bellingen, picking up the Pacific Highway at Urunga, was a longer journey, but faster, safer and definitely cleaner. And by that time we had graduated to an Austin A40, which at least nominally kept the dust out.

Now the roads are all sealed and Google Maps tells me that the journey time from Armidale to Port Macquarie (247km via the Oxley Highway) takes 3 hours and 14 minutes.

Nevertheless, it was exciting doing it the hard way in the little old car, to end the day lying in bed at the Beach Park Holiday Cabins with the sound of the surf crashing onto Flynn’s beach just a couple of hundred yards away.

Jonathan Pollak on the death of Mustafa Tamimi

In the 13 December online edition of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Jonathan Pollak, one of the founders of the Israeli organisation Anarchists Against the Wall, published an opinion piece on the death of the young Palestinian Mustafa Tamimi at the hands of the Israeli Defence Force.  Tamimi was killed by a tear gas canister fired at his head from close range from the rear of an armoured vehicle, during the weekly demonstration at his home village of Nabi Saleh, a demonstration against the theft of their water and land by the nearby illegal settlement of Halamish.  The settlers at Halamish have appropriated for their exclusive use the water from an important natural spring belonging to Nabi Saleh villager Mr Bashir Tamimi, and denied the villagers of Nabi Saleh access to their land.

Under the headline A courageous Palestinian has died, shrouded in stones, Pollack writes:

The army spokesman was right. Mustafa died because he threw stones; he died because he dared to speak a truth, with his hands, in a place where the truth is forbidden. Any discussion of the manner of the shooting, its legality and the orders on opening fire, infers that the landlord is forbidden to expel the trespasser. Indeed, the trespasser is allowed to shoot the landlord.

Mustafa's body is lying lifeless because he had the courage to throw stones on the 24th anniversary of the first intifada, which begot the Palestinian children of the stones. His brother Oudai is imprisoned at Ofer Prison and was not allowed to attend the funeral, because he too dared to throw stones. And his sister was not allowed to be at his bedside in his final moments, even though she is not suspected of having thrown stones, but because she is a Palestinian.

Mustafa was a brave man killed because he threw stones and refused to be afraid of a soldier bearing arms, sitting safely in the military jeep covered in armor. On the day Mustafa died, the frozen silence roaming the valley was only slightly less chilling than the shrilling sound of his mother's laments which fell upon it occasionally.

Read Pollack’s full piece here.

One can understand the empathy Pollak feels for Mustafa Tamimi and his family.  Apart from his support for their cause, he has been the victim of a remarkably similar attack.  Amongst the numerous injuries he has suffered at the hands of the IDF while demonstrating on behalf of the Palestinians, on 3 April 2005 an IDF soldier shot him in the head with a teargas canister from an M-16, from a distance of approximately thirty metres, at a protest against the Wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in (see here).

13 December 2011

Vale Jock McDiarmid, MM, C de G

I was very sorry to hear recently from one of his relatives of the death in 2009, at Tugun, of Jock McDiarmid, former School Sergeant at The Armidale School in northern NSW.

Jock had a very distinguished military career during World War II, which is touched upon in some earlier posts – see Jock McDiarmid, MM C de G, Jock McDiarmid’s MM commendation and On the trail of Jock McDiarmid – and was a fine School Sergeant, someone I feel honoured to have known.

I now have little more information about Jock, and by courtesy of a relative a photo of his Croix de Guerre citation, so in due course I will post a roundup of all the information I now have about him.

Possum on Australian Exceptionalism

A superb essay on Australia’s economic performance over the period since 1985 has been posted on the ABC’s The Drum website.  Written by Crikey blogger Possum Comitatus (twitter handle @Pollytics – well worth a follow) it was first posted last week on Pollytics, his Crikey blog (see here).

Possum analyses the OECD data over the period and finds our economic performance to be nothing short of amazing.

He begins:

"Australian Exceptionalism"… let that phrase roll off your tongue.

Now stop laughing for a moment if you can!

There's something about that phrase that just doesn't sit right with us. We're not only unaccustomed to thinking about ourselves that way, but for many it's a concept that is one part distasteful to three parts utterly ridiculous - try mentioning it in polite company sometime. Bring a helmet.

We'll often laugh at the cognitive dissonance displayed by our American cousins when they start banging on about American Exceptionalism - waxing lyrical about the assumed ascendancy of their national exploits while they're forced to take out a second mortgage to pay for a run-of-the-mill medical procedure. That talk of exceptionalism has become little more than an exceptional disregard for the truth of their own comparative circumstances.

But in truth, we both share that common ignorance - we share a common state of denial about the hard realities of our own accomplishments compared to those of the rest of the world. While the Americans so often manifest it as a belief that they and they alone are the global benchmark for all human achievement, we simply refuse to acknowledge our own affluence and privilege - denialists of our own hard-won triumphs, often hysterically so.

Never before has there been a nation so completely oblivious to not just their own successes, but the sheer enormity of them, than Australia today.

He then goes on to unpack a story that needs to be read in full and savoured, not summarised, with some very compelling charts.   In the process he demonstrates the how our economic achievements have delivered worthwhile social achievements, not been at the expense of social achievement. Indeed, I think our social values have played an important part in our economic performance, but that is a story for another day, to be written by someone with more expertise in this area than I have.

Access Possum’s article here.

08 December 2011

Avner Cohen: Israel’s Iran dilemma

In a recent opinion piece in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, Avner Cohen, Professor of Non-Proliferation studies and senior fellow with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and author of two authoritative histories of the Israeli nuclear program (see below), writes that recent statements by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on the Iranian nuclear issue only drove home the need for a real public debate on the subject.

The essence of Cohen’s piece, an edited version of a lecture he gave at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, is to be found in his last two paragraphs:

The idea of an independent Israeli attack at this time on the nuclear facilities in Iran is both irrational and megalomaniacal. If somebody thinks that Israeli military might can in itself put an end to the ayatollahs' nuclear ambitions, he is daydreaming. Just as the destruction of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 only bolstered Saddam's desire for the bomb, so a military operation against Iran would only strengthen the rule of the ayatollahs and their desire for nuclear weapons.

In the final analysis, only a renewed peace process, on both bilateral (Israeli-Palestinian ) and multilateral (Israeli-Arab ) tracks, a process that would include also delegitimization of nuclear weapons, all nuclear weapons, can ultimately remove the nuclear threat from the Middle East.

The full opinion piece may be accessed here.

The video of the lecture on which it is based may be accessed here.

Avner Cohen is the author of two important books on the Israeli nuclear program, both published by Columbia University Press:

- Israel and the Bomb (1998) – more information here
- The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb – more information here

03 December 2011

What to do with those old colour slides?

I have literally thousands of colour slides – probably 8,000-9,000 of them, from times which range from when my father bought his little Voigtlander Vito B in about 1955 until I took my last colour transparencies in the 1990s.

The question is what to do with them all in the time poor digital age.  How often would one get out the projector and set up the screen, manually load the slides into the projector’s magazine, and settle in for a slide evening?  Answer: effectively never.

Clearly the answer is to harness the technologies of the digital age and digitise the lot.  To that end, in about 2001 I purchased a transparency adapter for my HP flatbed scanner, and produced some acceptable digital photos from some of my favourite slides.  I was pretty happy with this at the time, but it is a process that has couple of downsides It is very labour intensive, and as the scanner is focusing through the screen onto a transparency that is sitting above the glass, its focus will tend to be thrown off somewhat by backscatter from the surface of the glass.  Acceptable resolution is achievable but high resolution is not, and the process struggles to produce a file that will allow a print larger than 15cm x 10 cm.

Also, good old Hewlett Packard decided not to release drivers for that particular scanner for operating systems post Windows XP.  I found some third party software that would allow me to continue to use the scanner but it will only scan at a resolution of 1200 x 1200 dpi, and while it offers a range of post-scan processing options it does not permit the simple option of scanning the slide as is and not mucking about with it.

So after a bit of homework on the I web imported from the United States a specialised slide scanner, a Pacific Image Electronics PowerSlide 5000, which as its name suggests scans at a magnificent 5000 x 5000 dpi. This appears to be a clone of a German original made by Braun; I could not find on the web any sign of an Australian retailer for either the Braun machine or the US equivalent.

The machine comes bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0, and there are options which enable files to be sent to that software for processing, but as I have a copy of Photoshop CS3 I prefer to take the scans as JPEG files exactly as they come off the scanner, and make any tweaks I want to as a separate step.  Any slide with the right exposure will be acceptable without further processing, but the wonderful thing about digital technology is that those very important under- or over-exposed slides of family occasions or long departed friends can be very considerably enhanced and seen as intended.

The slides are fed into the scanner from a standard slide magazine which holds fifty slides.  They can be scanned at any resolution up to 5000 dpi, to either TIFF or JPEG files, using 8-bit or 16-bit colour, with two or three quality options.  After a bit of experimentation I am systematically scanning the whole collection at highest quality in 16-bit colour at full resolution.  This means I am not having to make decisions about which treatment to apply to which slides, and I also have the maximum opportunity subsequently to crop a slide heavily and still have a good quality photo of the reduced field of view, or a detail of the photo.

This approach is not for the faint hearted because it is very heavy on storage; such high quality scans produce files in the range 13-15MB, which means that you are looking at about 500MB to scan one 36-exposure roll of film. 

Scanning at this quality is a pretty slow process – it takes about 4-5 minutes per slide, but as they feed automatically into the scanner it is possible to load up a batch and then go and do something else – as long as that something else is not a process on your computer that requires more than a modicum of RAM, as the process is pretty heavy on memory.

There is a downside to everything of course, and the downside of scanning at such high resolution is that your scans come up with a magnificent high resolution image of every biological colony that has made a home for itself on your slide collection over the course of half a century.  That is where Photoshop CS3’s spot healing tool comes in – it really does a great job of cleaning scratches, smears and the spots of bio-debris from the image.

This of course is only half the story – after putting all this effort in you have gone from having boxes of slides that you never get around to looking at to having hundreds of Gigabytes of files on a hard drive somewhere.

I have two solutions for this, to get me to the point where I actually see some of these precious images.   The first is that I keep as many of them as I can in a master folder on the hard drive of the laptop which I carry backwards and forwards between home and the office.  I point the screensaver to that master folder, so that every time the screensaver cuts in I get a random display of all of the photos in the folder.  As I use an external monitor at both locations, I get to see a selection of my slides in a high quality format quite regularly.

The second (more systematic viewing) solution is that I recently purchased an Apple TV unit for about $139. This plugs into my TV via an HDMI cable, so I can view any chosen subfolder of the master folder simply by firing up iTunes and transmitting the images to the high definition TV screen over the home wi-fi system.  Works a treat.

Expect more pictures on Aussie Observer.