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Book review: Australia Under Surveillance, by Frank Moorhouse

Sleepless: David Irvine said threats to our security were so serious that they kept him awake at night.AUSTRALIA UNDER SURVEILLANCE ByFrank Moorhouse Vintage, $32.99
Nanjing Night Net

I wish I still had that very old Disney comic that showed ducks in raincoats on a beach, hiding one behind the other under a jetty, all peering around the pylons through binoculars. Even before I understood the perennial question, “who will guard the guardians themselves?” I found the idea of spies, counter-spies, and counter-counter spies absurd.

David Irvine does too, he admits, in an interview edited in Frank Moorhouse’s new book. But as he prepared to retire as Director-General of ASIO, Irvine candidly told audiences around Australia how threats to our security were so serious that they kept him awake at night. Then he reassured them with examples of how ASIO was protecting them. I was reminded of a former employee of the US National Security Agency who joked to an audience in Washington that the job of the NSA was to scare people so they would go on paying for it. Australians pay vastly increasing amounts for ASIO.

Shortly before Irvine retired, ASIO and the AFP deployed more than 800 officers in night-time raids on houses in Sydney and Melbourne, which resulted in several arrests but just one prosecution. Was this a fishing expedition that failed, a training exercise, a tactic to scare would-be terrorists, or an anticipatory demonstration of ASIO’s and the AFP’s need for even more powers, which were soon to come before parliament? It may have been all four. We cannot know, because the raid was one of many activities about which we have few details, and ASIO is exempt from Freedom of Information applications.

Two other possibilities: either we are paranoid, or we have learnt from 1949 of enough egregious stuff ups not to trust ASIO. Moorhouse supplies a list of these, and Meredith Burgmann’s 2014 collection, Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files, contains more. An agency screened from public scrutiny, no matter how well intentioned, will inevitably develop contempt for those outside its select community, even while it owes its existence to the public, and is tasked to protect them.

Irvine, Moorhouse points out, sits on the Council of the National Archives, and his former deputy at ASIO is the Archives’ Director-General. The Archives, Moorhouse observes in one of the most disturbing sections of his book, are the only historical record the public has of the workings of ASIO and our five other intelligence agencies. Yet ASIO can refuse requests for release of files on grounds of “national security” even after the normal 25-year withholding period is over. ASIO can destroy information, and can decide which of its records to make available to the Archives. In practice, Moorhouse says, that means none.

So what, after Communism, does ASIO now protect us from? Terrorism, of course, and extremism or fanaticism, we are told. These labels are loose enough to provide the national security agencies with the ill-defined enemy necessary for their perpetual operation. They appeal to moral panic. Terrorism is already “the new normal”, according to Dick Cheney. It is an intractable threat that, Moorhouse observes, seems to excuse democratic governments behaving as badly as some terrorists. Yet in the 50 years to 2005, less than 1000 Australians died from wars and terrorism (Moorhouse cites Paul Sheehan), while 134,548 deaths on Australian roads were not considered a threat to national security. Moorhouse lists nine “terrorist” incidents in Australia since 1970. By my count, of the four deaths that occurred, only one did not involve the security agencies themselves.

ASIO has for long had a negative reputation among Australians old enough to remember the Cold War, to have seen their file, and to know if they lost a job, a promotion, or a government grant because of its contents, accurate or not. Younger Australians, however, may approach Moorhouse with reasonable, contemporary questions: if I have nothing to hide, why should I fear ASIO surveillance? If others plan acts of violence, shouldn’t ASIO intercept them by whatever means? If national security is endangered, isn’t it appropriate to reverse the onus of proof onto the suspect? Doesn’t ASIO need to operate in secrecy?

I hoped for answers from Moorhouse’s book, following his prizewinning Griffith Review essay, The Writer in a Time of Terror (2006-7). I found a discussion of what he calls the Dark Conundrum, the sly behaviour of a democratic government that contradicts its own espoused values, justifying behaviour of dubious legality in the name of political necessity and national security. This since Vietnam has become increasingly obvious to most alert Australians. He doesn’t mention the much more troubling Special Intelligence Operations, about which Australian citizens are not allowed to ask questions, and which journalists can be jailed for unwittingly revealing. He doesn’t refer to the Deep State, a linked intelligence community in the Anglophone countries that, according to Canadian author Peter Dale Scott, operates as an unchallengeable, permanent authority in parallel with impermanent governments. He doesn’t cite Glenn Greenwald or Jennifer Robinson, whose views on private ownership of information would illuminate his Conundrum. He admires the leakers Manning and Snowden, but calls Assange a hacker. In fact, WikiLeaks does not hack, but publishes information leaked to it, just as the news media do (and some of them hack).

Moorhouse burrows into his Conundrum, wandering down the dark passageways of his personal predilections: censorship, the politics of sexual preference, the French Revolution, nihilism, the human condition and more. His research assistant advised him to order his material chronologically, but that thread is abandoned. Every so often he comes up from the mine with a nugget of a question, asking, for example, if a secret agency is needed for the safety of a democracy; and whether a modern state can any longer keep its own secrets, let alone those of its citizens. But these reflections are left dangling, and Moorhouse admits his proposals for reform are unlikely to be adopted. Appending an extract from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he notes that Australia is a signatory, but doesn’t point out that its provisions have not been incorporated into Australian law. Neither have those of the Convention on Civil and Political Rights nor of the Rights of the Child. Australia is alone in the OECD in having no charter or bill of rights, a situation our political leaders show no inclination to change.

As “national security” is increasingly used to justify the erosion of such privacy and liberty as Australians have, many of us, like Moorhouse, are concerned about state surveillance of individual academics, writers, filmmakers, journalists, and particularly Muslims. But as Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has recently argued, the situation of Australia’s democratic institutions is worse: national security is being used to marginalise and overpower the judiciary, to concentrate power in the executive, to allow the armed forces to be deployed as and where the prime minister wishes, and to imprison people without charge or trial. The deep state is the new normal.

Alison Broinowski was a Senate candidate in NSW in 2013 for the WikiLeaks Party.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Book reviews: Strange Country; 100 Moments in Australian Painting

STRANGE COUNTRY: WHY AUSTRALIAN PAINTING MATTERS By Patrick McCaugheyThe Miegunyah Press/Melbourne University Publishing, $49.99.
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100 MOMENTS IN AUSTRALIAN PAINTINGBy Barry Pearce NewSouth Publishing, $49.99.

Two profusely illustrated books have recently appeared, both in one way or another offering an account of the past couple of centuries of Australian art and both, coincidently, limited to a consideration of painting only.

Patrick McCaughey is an art critic, art academic and long serving director of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and of the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Yale Centre for British Art in the United States. His Strange Country: Why Australian painting matters presents a most readable account of Australian painting; one which dips into art historical research, but also has a journalistic flair in the expression of strongly held convictions.

McCaughey was born in 1943, and when he was 17 he saw the inaugural Helena Rubinstein Travelling Scholarship Prize exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1960. From then on, he was hooked on Australian painting. His book commences with a quick overview of the modern Aboriginal art movement and then moves into a broad survey of early colonial painting, in which Nicholas Chevalier and ST Gill do not rate a mention. From here the account moves straight into the Heidelberg School, where we encounter interesting insights, such as the suggestion that the swagman in McCubbin’s Down on his luck (1889) is modelled on the pose of Durer’s Melencolia I (1514), but shown in reverse. Such quirky, but interesting observations are scattered throughout the book.

Although on occasion it is difficult to agree with some of McCaughey’s opinions, it is impossible not to admire the literary flourishes with which he discusses some of his selected paintings. When writing on Hugh Ramsay’s The sisters (1904), he observes “The compression of the composition, the closeness of the sitters to artist, breeds an airless claustrophobia. The alternating alertness and ennui of the sisters, bored by having to dress up in evening gowns in the middle of the day and pose in the over-heated studio, adds to the ambivalence of the painting. Far from being an essay in the feminine, the dying painter/brother is under scrutiny of his sisters, even as they fall under his gaze. A suffocating pall hangs over the work.”

His broad brush approach to Australian art history certainly takes few prisoners. In one sweeping overview sentence he notes “Hall and Lambert are now curiosities; perennial attempts to revive ‘late Streeton’ have petered out, and Heysen is hardly taken seriously outside Adelaide.” McCaughey champions Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams as the two giants of Australian painting and concludes with a rather cursory glance at contemporary art practice and with the tactful statement “all of these painters … they stand as representative for many who must go unmentioned …” Much is unmentioned in this book, but that which is mentioned is discussed with passion and understanding.

Although I was occasionally frustrated by the laconic nature of some of the discussion, as a whole, this account of Australian painting sparkles with intelligent insights and with some very memorable expressions in which wit and perception are united in flowing prose.

Barry Pearce in 2012 retired from his position as Head of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales after 33 years in the job. This book is his personal final tour of the collection, pausing to discuss some of his favourite paintings. Apart from personal preference, the 100 selected paintings present something of a chronological account of the development of Australian art as held at the Sydney gallery, a collection which Pearce help to form and develop.

Except for a single bark painting, Indigenous art is excluded from this selection, in part, because he saw his brief as the curator for “Anglo-European Australian” art, but also in part because he felt that Indigenous and non-Indigenous art don’t really mix and when they are put together they do not really make sense. He writes “The intention [to combine Aboriginal and non-Indigenous art] was worthy, but in the end I believe nothing much was gained, other than a temporary frisson of aesthetic confusion in an attempt to identify similarity”. This is not an argument which I personally find particularly convincing simply because so many Australian artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, draw on each other’s traditions and it is this, that to some extent gives Australian painting some of its distinctive character.

The strength of this book is that it is written by a person who has the eye of a curator, a person who is perceptive, passionate and at times possesses a forensic knowledge of the provenance of a particular painting under discussion. We are given wonderful accounts about the hunt for long-lost paintings involving ingenious detective work leading to profound joy on their rediscovery. There are also many passages of detailed observation of paintings and speculation on their evolution, sources and influences. Take for example the discussion of Ralph Balson’s Portrait of Grace Crowley (1939), where we learn not only the artist’s probable source, Millet, but also where he saw a reproduction of this source, an issue of the Studio magazine in the Sydney Art School library, and the reason of why he turned to this source, Julian Ashton’s teaching.

Pearce writes with passion on the paintings which he admires, for example Hugh Ramsay’s wonderful painting, The Sisters (1904), which the young artist painted virtually from his deathbed. Pearce writes “The Sisters shows not so much virtuosity or glamour in its dazzling render of gold and cream fabric, as a dance with the brush about transient beauty and an underlying sense of mortality.” It is such wonderfully evocative and insightful passages that make this book so rewarding to read.

Australian painting, which only a few decades ago in some of our art schools was pronounced dead and obsolete in the context of contemporary Australian art practice, in Patrick McCaughey and Barry Pearce has found two wonderful advocates who guarantee its high profile and ongoing viability.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Book review: The Peaceful People, by Paul Malone

Stewards of Sarawak: The Penan have survived British and Malaysian invasion of their forests. Photo: Phyllis Webster Only 20 per cent of the Penan people’s forests remain.
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THE PEACEFUL PEOPLE: The Penan and Their Fight for the Forest. By Paul Malone. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, Malaysia. $27.

A theme in world history is Europe’s great colonial expansion and the resulting dispossession of indigenous peoples. Regular Canberra Times columnist Paul Malone documents the ironic variation wrought upon Sarawak’s indigenous Penan. They can “fondly recall” the relatively light touch of British Sarawak on their lands and lifestyle. With the Malaysian takeover of 1963, only 20 per cent now remains of the primary Sarawak forests they used to roam.

Malone had visited a remote Penan group in 1974. Back in Sarawak in 2006, he was talked out of repeating the experience. His inner reporter was galvanised to revisit the Penan the following year. He filed a Canberra Times story about Penan elder Kelesau Naan’s campaign to stop the logging. Naan’s suspicious death months later prompted further visits and ultimately this book.

The title clearly sums up the author’s view of  the Penan. “The world can surely learn something” from their peaceful society and its non-violent protests.

Malone notes the pitfalls of romanticising indigenous groups. But the colonial, ethnographic and missionary records locate the Penan as “starkly different” from other Sarawak tribes. They took no human heads nor animal sacrifices, lived by rotational hunting and sago gathering not rice cultivation, and kept to smallish jungle bands whoavoided rivers andharsh sunlight. They also memorised their significant campsites and gravesites down the generations, but their kind of land stewardship didn’t cut much ice at the land titles office.

Other tribes thought them fair game. Malone recaps several massacres of the Penan dating from as recently as the turn of the 20th century. Things got tough again when logging took off in the 1970s. Short of violence, the Penan used “every available means” of protest and blockade to halt the logging or at least get compensation. Charismatic Swiss activistBruno Manser communicated their cause to the outside world, but the deforestation went on.

Again, Malone trawls the records, re-interviewing Penan who knew Manser. The Penan being generally resistant to outside influence, he disputes that Manser manipulated them. He verifies Manser’s own reports of events.

The Penan have continued to be further displaced by a supply-side development strategy to dam Sarawak for “inexpensive hydropower” to attract industry. In Malone’s current assessment, a few Penan are still nomadic while a few hold good jobs. Most fall in between, their limited access to the cash economy constituting a shaky exchange for formerly self-sufficient lives. Groups that opted for “collaborative” negotiation seem to be better compensated than groups that resisted logging outright. But Malone visits one village that’s going its own way yet going well.

If Australia has a Sarawak, it’s Tasmania, another island economy in thrall to logging and hydropower. Critics looked askance at the cosy relationship between the Tasmanian government and former forest titan Gunns Limited. In Sarawak, critics have focused on the forest and financial interests associated with Abdul Taib Mahmud, long-term Chief Minister and now Governor of Sarawak. Malone re-presents some of this material. It is examined in depth in the Swiss Lukas Straumann’s Money Logging, recently co-launched in Sarawak with The Peaceful People.

Despite the ruthless upheaval of the Penan by capital and development, Malone ends on a buoyant note. To improve the lot of the settled Penan villagers of today, he recommends practical measures in curriculum, schooling, employment and tourism.

Paul Malone will talk about The Peaceful People at the Asia Bookroom on December 1. Lawry Place, Macquarie, 6pm. RSVP by November 30, 625 15191. Gold coin donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Low-ball Calliden takeover in trouble as opposition mounts

Stephen Atkinson, of Adam Smith Investments, has doubts over the Calliden dealInstitutional investor opposition to the sale of insurer Calliden is hardening, with mounting indications the bid by Steadfast may be in trouble, as a shareholder vote on the proposal looms.
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Fund manager Adam Smith Asset Management has gone public with its opposition to the offer, which it deems to be too low. It joined NAOS Asset Management, which earlier expressed the view that the offer on the table for the company “arguably undervalues the company”.

Steadfast is offering 41.5¢ cash a share for insurer Calliden, with shareholders also to receive a 5¢-a-share special dividend.

The offer, via a scheme of arrangement, can be defeated if 25 per cent of the shares vote against it at a shareholder meeting on December 8.

Indicating the poor value of the bid for Calliden shareholders is the fact that Steadfast’s share price has rallied on the bid move, fund managers said.

“We feel Steadfast can  – and should – be paying more this with or without a competing bid,” Adam Smith director Stephen Atkinson said.

“At 46.5¢, the independent expert has ‘low-balled’ the bid.”

The independent expert has assessed the full underlying value of the shares to be in the range of 45.7¢ to 51.1¢, so the 46.5¢ payment per share is at the low end of the range.

However, Calliden has significant franking credits and substantial tax losses that Adam Smith feels have been undervalued. Additionally, the expert valuation has attached a low figure to the worth of Calliden’s insurance underwriting unit as well as undervaluing its insurance broking arm

“We don’t feel Steadfast is paying a very full price for the business,” Adam Smith’s Mr Atkinson said.

Others, such as activist investor Sandon Capital, are also unhappy with the bid price.

“We haven’t made a decision” whether to support the bid, Sandon’s Gabriel Radzyminski said.

“We’ll probably wait until the very end to see if there is a change to the offer.

“It’s a very good price for Steadfast.”

At its December 31 balance date, Calliden had in hand $26 million of franking credits, which will still be sizeable after paying the planned 5¢-a-share special dividend and 1¢ interim payout that will chew an estimated half of this balance.

Since the Steadfast offer was disclosed, Calliden shares have regularly traded 0.5¢ above the imputed value of the offer, although usually with only small volumes traded at the higher price.

This occurred again just over a week ago when a small parcel was traded at 47¢, slightly higher than the theoretical value of 46.5¢.

Under a scheme of arrangement, the proposal could fail if more than 25 per cent of shares vote to oppose the deal. Calliden has a handful of shareholders with large stakes.

Australian Unity holds 13 per cent, with a range of other fund managers such as First Samuel, NAOS, Greencape and Challenger holding  6 to 8 per cent.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Australia’s detention of refugees is forbidden by international law: UN Committee Against Torture

Sri Lanka arrests returned asylum seekersDetainee: I was raped on Nauru
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Geneva: Australia’s detention of refugees, including children, is ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ forbidden by international law, a United Nations report has found.

The report released on Friday in Geneva by the UN Committee Against Torture called on Australia to stop putting asylum seekers into mandatory detention, and to make sure that asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru are treated more humanely, and their claims are promptly and properly assessed.

“The combination of … harsh conditions, the protracted periods of closed detention and uncertainty about the future reportedly creates serious physical and mental pain and suffering,” the report said.

In written observations the committee said Australia should repeal the laws that send all ‘irregular’ arrivals into mandatory detention.

Under the Convention Against Torture, Australia must prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when people are imprisoned or detained.

Claudio Grossman, chair of the ten-person committee and the “rapporteur” who investigated Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, told Fairfax that during his investigation Australia had not provided him with evidence of its compliance with this convention.

He said Australia had failed to show that it was not sending asylum seekers back to countries where they faced a “substantial risk of torture”.

He added it was clear that Australia had “effective control” over the detention centres in PNG and Nauru, and so it was responsible for ensuring that they complied with Australia’s obligations under the convention.

“When there is mandatory detention of undocumented immigrants and children, that runs counter to our interpretation of the convention,” he said.

The committee said it was “concerned that detention continues to be mandatory for all unauthorised arrivals, including for children,” in the report compiled after hearing evidence from human rights groups as well as the Australian government.

“Detention should be only applied as a last resort,” the report said, only when “strictly necessary” in each individual case, and should be for as short a time as possible.

It said it was concerned at Australia’s policy of transferring asylum seekers to processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, “despite reports on the harsh conditions prevailing in these centres, including … overcrowding, inadequate health care and even allegations of sexual abuse and ill-treatment”.

The Committee was concerned “in particular [about] the policy of intercepting and turning back boats, without due consideration of [Australia’s] obligations” under international law.

Anyone who arrives or attempts to arrive in Australia seeking asylum or protection should be guaranteed that their claims are thoroughly examined, and be able to challenge any adverse decision.

“[Australia] should continue and redouble its efforts” to find an alternative to closed immigration detention.

Mr Grossman said the committee was also concerned by the high proportion of indigenous people in jails, and the situation of women in detention facilities, particularly indigenous women.

The committee also welcomed the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, however it said it was “concerned” as to “whether the outcome of its work will result in criminal investigations, prosecutions and compensation for victims”.

It also: – criticised the treatment of inmates at Roebourne Regional Prison- recommended the Australian government consider abolishing the use of tasers- expressed its ‘concern’ over Australia’s counter-terrorism legislation, including the “broad” definition of a terrorist act, and the detention powers of ASIO.

Fairfax asked if an Australian government spokesperson was available to respond to the committee’s report, but has not yet received a reply.

In its appearance before the committee earlier this month, Australia’s delegation said it “takes its obligations under the Convention very seriously. Since ratifying the Convention in 1989, Australia has worked to ensure Australia’s laws, policies and practices are consistent with our international obligations.”

Australia’s permanent representative to the UN John Quinn told the committee that the government had “striven to improve the design and procedures of its migration programmes to enhance fairness, accountability and integrity.

“A robust returns process for dealing with those found not to be in need of protection is fundamental to the integrity of status determination processes.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Well-meaning advice on weight loss does a fat lot of good

Zip it: Well-intended advice can make an obesity battle worse. Photo: Supplied
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Zip it: Well-intended advice can make an obesity battle worse. Photo: Supplied

Zip it: Well-intended advice can make an obesity battle worse. Photo: Supplied

Tempted to tell an overweight friend, lover or family member to think twice about eating another piece of cake? New research suggests you would be doing more harm than good.

Overweight Australians regularly encounter unhelpful stigmas (often well intended) which, it is suspected, exacerbate weight gain.

A recent study of 46 overweight and obese people found that most experience negative treatment related to their weight on a daily basis, such as being laughed at or having a doctor blame an unrelated problem on their size.

The most frequent perpetrators of what has been called “the last socially acceptable form of discrimination” were strangers, spouses or partners, friends, parents and the media.

The research, led by the University of New South Wales and published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioural Science, suggests many overweight and obese people are in a negative environmental cycle that discourages them from losing weight to improve their health.

Previous studies have shown that media coverage presenting negative portrayals of obese people as lazy or overindulgent can encourage unhealthy behaviour. One study found that overweight women who watched stigmatising media portrayals in a video ate more snacks compared to overweight women who watched a control video.

Research has also shown that overweight and obese people face discrimination in the workplace, health care facilities and the dating scene.

Most participants in one survey said they would prefer to date a recovering drug addict, mentally ill person, or someone with a sexually transmitted disease than an overweight person. Another study found employers viewed overweight job candidates as less qualified, less effective, and less trustworthy than their slimmer counterparts.

Public health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity have also used stigmatising images on the premise that if it were sufficiently unpleasant to be obese, overweight people would be motivated to change their behaviour and lose weight.

But UNSW psychologist Dr Lenny Vartanian, who conducted the recent study on 46 people in Sydney, said there was growing evidence this was not the case. He said stigma could cause low self-esteem and depression, and make people feel less motivated to diet and more likely to binge eat.

If people want to help loved ones lose weight, Dr Vartanian said they could propose constructive ideas such as joint exercise or cooking healthier meals together.

“If you look at your partner across the table and say ‘Don’t you think your arse is fat enough?’ That is not going to help. If you’re trying to support people you care about, treat them with dignity and respect and be supportive and encouraging. Help them in their goals rather than thinking you will do any good by demeaning them,” he said.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Ferguson signifies sad end of the age of Obama

Some time before midnight on Tuesday, a peaceful but tense crowd protested before a line of police and National Guard in front of the Ferguson police station.
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It was cold, just on freezing, and the two parties had been facing off since sunset. While most in the crowd were calling for peace, some wanted confrontation, and they were getting bored.

Overhead a police chopper described lazy circles in the sky and it soon became clear its spotlight was fixed on a nearby location.

The result was predictable but grimly fascinating to watch nevertheless.

A few young men broke away and headed off to find the light. Others followed in twos and threes and then, as though drawn by surface tension, the crowd moved, its front ranks breaking from march to canter to run as they turned a corner. It was like a drop of water gathering bulk and pace as it found its way down a windowpane.

In front of the Ferguson City Hall the frontrunners joined a smaller group that had set upon a police car. They shattered its windows with thudding kicks and stones torn from the border of a garden bed. They lifted it on to its side and stepped back before it fell with a sprinkling thud on to its wheels again.

After long seconds police in squad cars and National Guard in armoured personnel carriers arrived and formed ranks marching forward, some spraying mace at those too slow to flee.

The town hall, with its Christmas dioramas silhouetted behind floor-to-ceiling windows, was saved.

This week you could rack a moment like that up as a success for police in Ferguson, but you don’t have to look hard for the metaphor.

The violence followed the police spotlight. Rallying point

It wasn’t meant to be this way. There had been hope that the United States’ election of a black president signalled the beginning of the end of the racial division that has tormented the nation since its creation.

Instead, the president’s race became a rallying point for the most extreme of his opponents, who appeared to believe it rendered him ineligible for office.

For years Barack Obama has ignored the race baiting of elements of the far right, in public referring to it only in jest.

“Let’s face it, Fox, you will miss me when I’m gone,” he said at the last White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “It will be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.”

Laughable as they are, the birth conspiracies and the racism they reflect have cast a shadow over Obama’s presidency.

Soon after coming into office he was to realise that far from helping the US overcome racial tension, his presence had the capacity to inflame it.

This became clear to the world after the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American boy who was shot dead near his father’s home by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

Martin’s killing by Zimmerman provoked nationwide protest among African Americans, not so much for the shooting but for the fact police did not even charge Zimmerman with a crime for six weeks, presuming that under Florida’s “shoot first” self-defence laws he had committed no crime. In the end Zimmerman was charged and found not guilty, a result that prompted outrage and protest, though not riots.

When the President eventually discussed the case, he observed: “I can only imagine what these parents are going through, and when I think about this boy I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together, federal, state and local, to figure out how this tragedy happened.”

And he added: “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

The observation infuriated many conservative Americans. In a comment typical of the tone Newt Gingrich, then a presidential candidate, thundered, “Is the President suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be okay because it wouldn’t look like him?”

Obama must have already known that his expression of empathy for the parents of a dead black child would provoke anger in some.

In the first year of his presidency race had exploded as an issue for the White House in the most unlikely of ways.

The famed African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates jnr had just arrived home and found his front door jammed when a local police sergeant, James Crowley, came across him. Rather than helping him open the door, Crowley suspected Gates of being a burglar and arrested him.

In the ensuing controversy Obama remarked that the arrest was “stupid”. The comment became the first serious blow to his presidency. The outrage that Obama might side with an African American arrested by a white cop was so prolonged and intense that the White House finally tried to end it with a so-called “beer summit” – an excruciatingly awkward meeting between Obama, the cop and the professor at the White House over a beer.

“My hope is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what’s called a ‘teachable moment’, where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity,” Obama said.

It was a teachable moment too, though perhaps not in the way the president had hoped. Obama learnt to discuss race very rarely and very delicately – he barely touched on it again until Martin was shot dead. African Americans learnt that just because there was a black man living in the White House they should not expect rapid change.

Asked about Obama during riots in Ferguson in August, one young man on the street told Fairfax Media: “‘I ain’t got no thoughts on him. Where he at? Where he at?

“Get him the f**k out of here. I still ain’t got insurance. F**k that nigger.” Racial divide

The racial divide in the US is perhaps most easily quantifiable in the criminal justice system.

African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites and make up 1 million of the US’s 2.3 million incarcerated. Obviously the factors that can lead a person into prison are myriad, but one thing is clear – blacks are far more likely than other citizens to come into contact with police.

Over the past decade New York police pursued a strategy of “stop and frisk” to crack down on crime. The policy has been discredited and is winding down rapidly. At its height though the NYPD stopped and searched 500,000 people on the street without cause each year. About 12 per cent of them were white.

Many police forces around the country adopted similar tactics, though not always as systematically.

The impact of the policy on crime is contested, though crime rates across the country have been falling steadily since 1990.

What is clear though is that the constant searches have intensified the fear and mistrust many African Americans, particularly young black men, have for authorities.

In this toxic and hostile environment the explosion of violence after the unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, and again after it was decided the officer would not face charges, is not surprising.

In Ferguson on Wednesday morning Tiffany and Ronald Singleton were standing in the snow across the road from a beauty supply shop that had been burnt to the ground in riots two nights before.

Police watched from the corner as the couple described what a typical stop is like.

“As soon as they get out of their cop cars they are reaching for their handcuffs and they cuff you while they question you and they don’t read you your rights,” Tiffany Singleton, 41, said. “They let you stand there, they call back to the police station and then they might let you go, depending on if you have a warrant or not, depending on if someone at the station wants you.”

Ronald, 34, estimated he was stopped twice a month and he smiled and shook his head in wonder when a reporter told him he couldn’t remember ever being stopped by a police officer as an adult.

Like many in Ferguson, Ronald does not believe Wilson had any cause to stop Brown the day the officer shot him, though evidence shows he recognised him as fitting the description of a young man who minutes earlier had stolen cigarillos from a liquor store.

And the couple believed Brown’s reaction to the stop – apparently one of aggression – was the right one.

Asked what the correct response to an officer in Ferguson was, Tiffany explained: “[You say] ‘f**k you’ and keep walking.”

Roland said: “What Mike did, he did the right motherf**king thing, cos I would have done the same motherf**king thing my damn self. Me being a black American, that’s the right thing.”

During the days of protest and violence after Brown was shot, and again after Monday’s grand jury decision, many observers tried to distinguish between “the real” protesters, who according to this line of reasoning were local and non-violent, and “the trouble-makers”, who had come to town to incite violence for the atavistic joy of it.

That distinction was not made so commonly on the streets.

On the fringe of a rally on Tuesday night Darnell Singleton, a documentary maker who lives in Ferguson and has been protesting and filming since the shooting, explained in front of the police station that everyone in the chanting crowd before us was angry, just that some were more mature than others.

“When you twist the pitch fork in their heart, some of these young men are going to lash out,” he said.

Others said the violence was spurred as much by hopelessness as anger.

“It’s one thing if he [officer Wilson] went to trial and they said he was innocent, but saying you don’t even have to have a trial for shooting a black man, that’s another thing,” student Jashyra Robinson, 22, said. “That’s what hurts me the most.”

The day after the riots and fires in Ferguson the protests spread across the nation. This was no accident. Ever since Brown was shot dozens of protest groups have been gathering and organising under various umbrella groups. Many organisers do not see the movement as simply a reaction to the shooting, but as the next chapter of the ongoing civil rights movement.

Their slogans and evolving tactics reflect that. The crowds still chant “Hands up, don’t shoot”, but as they block the roads in Ferguson they are as likely to be yelling at police, “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down”. Across the country protesters have begun blocking roads as an act of civil disobedience.

Some see hope in the idea of a new generation taking up the civil rights movement, but that optimism is limited.

Professor Cornel West, a leading African American activist and trenchant critic of Obama, was asked his view by CNN this week.

“Ferguson signifies the end of the age of Obama,” he replied. “It’s a very sad end. We began with tremendous hope and we end with great despair.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Surfing on: Little to fear from shark catches

Peter Huggins, at Bondi, sees no cause for alarm over sharks. Photo: Peter Rae Peter Huggins, at Bondi, sees no cause for alarm over sharks. Photo: Peter Rae
Nanjing Night Net

Peter Huggins, at Bondi, sees no cause for alarm over sharks. Photo: Peter Rae

Peter Huggins, at Bondi, sees no cause for alarm over sharks. Photo: Peter Rae

Peter Huggins, one of only a couple of surfers braving Bondi waves early one morning this week, says he isn’t spooked by recent sightings of sharks or the discovery of a couple of great whites in nets off the popular beach.

“I’m sure there are plenty of sharks out there,” Mr Huggins, a regular surfer at Bondi, said. “If I did see one, it would probably give me a bit of a shock.”

Another remarkably warm spring has drawn beachgoers to the state’s coast earlier than usual. Sydneysiders can expect another few balmy days after Saturday’s forecast top of 25 degrees – with a trio of days of about 30 degrees to follow.

The Bureau of Meteorology says odds also favour a hotter than normal summer for virtually the whole country, with the eastern two-thirds also likely to be relatively dry.

As summer beckons, though, expect regular bouts of media frenzy stirred by images of great whites and beach-clearing episodes when a shark is spotted.

The recent discovery of two great whites in Bondi nets was “a complete coincidence”, said Vic Peddemors, a shark biologist with the Department of Primary Industries, adding, “the chance of encountering a shark is extremely slim.”

Five or six great whites are caught each year in what Dr Peddemors calls “fishery forts”, protecting parts of beaches from Stockton, north of Newcastle, down to Wollongong.

“The shark net catch is only about 100 sharks of all species per year and a commercial fisher catches that in a night,” he said. “The white shark catch this year is no higher than any other year.”

Great white sharks have been protected off NSW since the mid-1990s as numbers dived.

“You’d expect to see some recovery but the jury’s still out,” Dr Peddemors said. “These animals are long-lived, slow reproducing, so it takes a long time for shark populations to recover from over-exploitation.”

Little is known about the movements and abundance of many marine species. The use of new tagging devices, including for sharks, will give researchers a better grasp of how changing oceanic conditions, including from global warming, are affecting marine life, Dr Peddemors said.

Immediate conditions are certainly on the warm side. Almost the entire east Australian coast is at least 0.5 degrees above normal, with waters off Sydney 1-2 degrees balmier.

“At 21-22 degrees, it’s almost as warm as Sydney gets on average,” said Ed Couriel, principal engineer at Manly Hydraulics Laboratory.

Mr Couriel, as it happens, is also a regular surfer at Manly, with a keen interest in sharks of late.

Two months ago, his 13 year-old daughter Katelyn was bitten on the hand by a shark while surfing at Town Beach at Port Macquarie.

The bite, possibly by a whaler or a wobbegong, required five stitches. It hasn’t put Katelyn off surfing, even if the family is more wary than before.

“We put it down to a rare event, and she bought it,” Mr Couriel said.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Hot 2015

Hungary, Budapest, Budapest, Central Europe, View on the Parliament over Danube River.
Nanjing Night Net

Hungary, Budapest, Budapest, Central Europe, View on the Parliament over Danube River.

Hungary, Budapest, Budapest, Central Europe, View on the Parliament over Danube River.

Hungary, Budapest, Budapest, Central Europe, View on the Parliament over Danube River.

HOT 2015

PORTLAND, OREGON

Why here: With its craft distilleries, nano- and microbreweries, food trucks and skateboard- and bike-friendly streets, Portland has already hit every hipster’s travel radar. In 2015, two Hollywood films will shine a light on the liberal-minded city and the ruggedly beautiful state. Wild chronicles Portland author Cheryl Strayed’s trek along the West Coast’s Pacific Crest Trail. Instead of faking it, filmmakers rolled their cameras in locations throughout Oregon, including Bend, east of Eugene, and Portland’s Hotel deLuxe. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Wild opens in Australia in January. Fifty Shades of Grey opens here in time for Valentine’s Day. In the book, Ana and Christian’s first liaison unfolds at Portland’s Heathman Hotel. Naturally, there’s a Fifty Shades of Oregon package that rolls the Heathman, coastal and mountain stays, tub dining, beach bonfire, wine/aphrodisiac pairings, town-car transfers and more into a six-night $US7500 romp.

Don’t miss: Powell’s City of Books covers an entire downtown block. With more than a million new and used books, and intriguing staff reviews peppering the shelves, it’s possible to spend days in here.

Insider tips: Tourists flock to Voodoo Doughnut but Blue Star Donuts’ more sophisticated creations include blueberry, bourbon and basil, banana walnut fritter, real maple and bacon, and dulce de leche and hazelnut. Oregon is also home to the largest collection of covered bridges in the US West; most of the 50-plus bridges are in the Willamette Valley south of Portland.

Details traveloregon南京夜网, hoteldeluxeportland南京夜网, heathmanportland南京夜网, powells南京夜网, bluestardonuts南京夜网, covered-bridges.org.

The writer was a guest of Travel Oregon.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

Why here: Long seen as crowded, corporate and a bit dull, South Korea’s capital has thrown off its over-earnest stereotype to reveal a city with a sense of style and fun.

Its identity as a UNESCO City of Design was underlined in 2014 with the opening of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a spectacular building resembling a vast silver spaceship. Containing a museum, a design market and restaurants on the site of a former baseball park and historic fort, it’s a compelling destination for both locals and visitors.

Another recent cultural addition is the city campus of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, next to an ancient palace and showcasing the imaginative work of local artists. Though undeniably up-to-date in execution, its art incorporates many elements of Korea’s culture and history: here a hint of Buddhism, there an echo of the division between north and south.

Seoul’s food also reflects this creative tension between old and new. Though its classic dishes are plentifully available in places such as the busy Gwangjang Market, chefs are also experimenting with modern expressions of traditional cuisine. In the Insadong district, for example, the restaurant Si Wha Dam serves playfully arranged dishes that mimic the appearance of Western staples such as pasta, while retaining a distinctly Korean flavour.

This traditionally tea-drinking nation has also embraced the international passion for coffee. You’ll find home-grown cafes in every corner of the city, even the heritage neighbourhood of Bukchon with its traditional Korean homes and their distinctive peaked roofs.

For more of the modern, hit the Hongdae district next to Hongik University. A hotbed of shops, cafes, bars and nightclubs, it’s an energetic expression of young creative Seoul. It’s the place to hang out at a cat cafe by day, before taking in a live K-pop band by night.

Don’t miss: On May 16, Buddha’s birth will be marked by the annual Lotus Lantern Parade through Seoul.

Insider tip: Don’t miss out on a visit to a jjimjilbang, the traditional bathhouse. Found all over the city, they offer a distinctly Korean cultural experience that’s also supremely relaxing.

The details ddp.or.kr, mmca.go.kr, siwhadam南京夜网, bukchon.seoul.go.kr, llf.or.kr, visitseoul.net, visitkorea.or.kr

Tim Richards

The writer was as a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

Why here: No city suffered more than Kuala Lumpur after  this year’s two Malaysian airlines disasters and its population’s response demonstrated its character.  Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Malays, Indians, Chinese and Tamils all grieved together in this city of blurred ethnicity, where different communities have grown up and live together in relative harmony.

Like Istanbul on Europe’s fringes, Kuala Lumpur  straddles Islamic and Western  sensibilities, but in a way that is “truly Asian”, to coin Tourism Malaysia’s catchphrase. This not only makes Kuala Lumpur an absorbing place to visit, with its fusion of influences and architecture styles, but also an important example of how people from different creeds can happily co-exist. DJ Calvin Harris’s first ever Malaysian gig, shortly after MH370’s disappearance, showed the unity, with groups of mixed ethnicity strolling arm in arm, Muslim girls in headscarves and “party responsibly” T-shirts strutting their dance moves and little sign of drugs or drunkenness.

With Bangkok recently beset by political unrest, Kuala Lumpur’s diverse culture and food makes it an inspiring alternative destination, with endless shopping possibilities in the malls of its central Golden Triangle district.   Luxury hotel brands are backing KL’s potential. A St Regis opens next year, new Four Seasons and W properties are due in 2017 and Harrods is developing its first, seven-star, hotel in the city. 2015 is Tourism Malaysia’s “Year of Festivals” so the focus will be on the city’s multicultural celebrations, including post-Ramadan Hari Raya festivities (September) and the Hindu Deepavali light festival (November).

Don’t miss: Petronas Towers, illuminated at night, viewed from the Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel. shangri-la南京夜网/kualalumpur/traders/dining/bars-lounges/sky-bar/

Insider tip: For authentic local food take the “Off the Eaten Track” tour with foodtourmalaysia南京夜网

The details tourismmalaysia南京夜网.au/destinations/kuala-lumpur

Daniel Scott

The writer was a guest  Tourism Malaysia

SYDNEY

Why here: The high-rise cranes and street-level hoardings radiating from Darling Harbour are a clue that something big is going on (and up). Connect the construction sites and you’ll find Sydney is busy building a multi-billion-dollar “cultural ribbon” that will curve from Broadway to Barangaroo. Among the first attractions to open will be the 250-metre-long Goods Line North, a pedestrian-friendly corridor with elevated spaces running from Ultimo to the Powerhouse Museum (a southern half will connect to Central Station’s Railway Square). The northern end is due for completion in early 2015, coinciding with the opening of “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s first building down under – the University of Technology Sydney’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School. The 11-storey brick creation, which resembles a crumpled brown-paper bag, is already dividing critics. In May, as part of Vivid Sydney, a 500-seat theatre built from shipping containers will pop up in Barangaroo to host Here Lies Love, a disco musical from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and DJ Fatboy Slim about the colourful life of former Philippines’ First Lady, Imelda Marcos. The theatre will sit just south of six-hectare Headland Park, which opens in July at the northern end of Barangaroo near the Walsh Bay theatre district.

The former wharf’s concrete edge has been ripped out and replaced with 6500 sandstone blocks that hark back to the natural shoreline of pre-colonial times. Overlooking the radical overhaul is The Langham Sydney, which had its own revamp this year. Thirty million dollars later, the luxury hotel in The Rocks will reopen on December 2.

Don’t miss: Boat tours on the second Friday of each month offer a duck’s-eye view of the transformation of Sydney CBD’s western edge. The 30-minute tours include commentary from Barangaroo Delivery Authority staff.

Insider tip: Sydney Architecture Walks also explores the CBD’s rapidly changing western edge through its Three Suburbs Central architect-led bike tour (the next tour is January 31).

Details uts.edu.au, barangaroo南京夜网, sydneyarchitecture.org, sydney.langhamhotels南京夜网.au.

Katrina Lobley

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Why here: Finally, LA has a centre. With pedestrian and cycle-friendly tree-lined streets, and hip residents moving into once-boarded-up warehouses, the revitalisation of Downtown Los Angeles is in full effect. At the Ace Downtown LA hotel, big name bands pull up to check in and check out the rooftop bar, complete with pool and DJs as well as the craft coffee roaster downstairs. Next door, the Theatre at Downtown Ace, once the United Artists silent movie house and a televangelist’s tabernacle hosts only the coolest events like An Evening with Patti Smith (Jan 29 – 30, 2015). Up the street, Jay-Z has brought his Made in America music festival to the once-seedy Grand Park.

The rejuvenated century-old Regent Theatre is another former movie palace cum concert venue in the Old Bank District that has just opened its doors with the attached Prufrock Pizzeria and a bar called The Love Song, a dual nod to T.S. Eliot. Nearby, the Tex Mex at Bar Ama and Italian fare at Bottega Louis has those in the know queuing for tables.

Admittedly, the new arrival of wellness store, The Springs, offering yoga, reiki and organic juices with an in-house horticulturalist who sings to the fig trees and palms might be a step too far but among the Banksy artworks and giant H&Ms and Zaras, remnants of the past gladly remain. The 97-year-old Grand Central Market opened 10 new food concepts in the past year and expanded to dinner hours Thursday to Saturday. Potion shop Farmacia y Botanica Million Dollar still sells charms, candles and oils to stave off jealousy, legal troubles and poverty. Now is the time to check out this quickly transitioning area before the big brand flagships well and truly take over.

Don’t miss: The Broad Museum, with an adjacent architecturally designed public green space plaza is set to open in Autumn 2015. Holding contemporary artwork from philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad’s private collection, the museum will feature more than 2,000 individual works by approximately 200 artists. Admission is free, with a charge for temporary special exhibitions.

Insider tip: Be sure to visit the Los Angeles Public Library in the Goodhue Building on Flower Street. You can walk in and take a one-hour tour of the magnificent building with its sphinxes, rooftop pyramid, and eight-storey chandeliered atrium. Renowned writer, Susan Orlean is currently writing a tome dedicated to it. Book and vinyl record lovers should also visit The Last Book Store, a spectacular room selling piles of books and records from a dollar each.

The details  acehotel南京夜网/losangeles, visitcalifornia南京夜网.au, www.thebroad.org.

Andrea Black

The writer travelled as a guest of Visit California.

SANTIAGO, CHILE

Why here: Ay, caramba! This South American gateway, for Australian travellers at least, is often overlooked in the gallop to Peru, Rio, the Andes or Buenos Aires, but if safe, lively, likeable and fantastic value feature in your holiday wish list, the Chilean capital is an essential stopover. As well as a distinguished heritage of Spanish colonial churches, neo-Renaissance banks and public buildings, Santiago brings an artsy vibrance to the traveller’s table, but you need to pick with care from the city’s 32 comunas. Tiny Bellavista is where Santiago wears its skinny ripped jeans, a colourful collage of hipster boutiques, cool cafes, sassy bars  and galleries of avant-garde artworks, and also the former residence of Nobel poet Pablo Neruda, whose home still commands homage. Don’t miss the barrio’s cite with its rows of painted houses arranged along narrow alleyways. Bellavista is also a promising nightlife zone, whatever your taste might be. Barrio Lastarria is an emergent coolzone, populated with students from the surrounding universities and home to cafes that spill across the pavements, and some of the city’s grandest public art galleries, with a sprinkling of fine boutique hotels in the blend. You’re mixing it with dog walkers in elegant Vitacura, and a leisurely class whose primary aim is to be thin and wear the right accessories, but its tree-shaded boulevards and gardens are prime territory for a Saturday stroll.

Don’t miss: The flea market held every weekend in Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro, off Merced Boulevard, Barrio Lastarria.

Insider tip: Emporio La Rosa, ice cream made by angels, in multiple locations. Vanilla with rose, spicy chocolate and mango with green tea are standouts.

The details southamericatourism南京夜网

Michael Gebicki

The writer was a guest of LAN Airlines and the South America Tourism Office.

BREAKOUTS

VALPARAISO, CHILE

Sprawled across a half-Colosseum of leaping hills that rise from Chile’s Pacific shore, frisked by a sea breeze, Valparaiso has become the country’s cultural cauldron, a hubble-bubble of creative energy, vitality, and itchy spirits out to bend the rules. It feels like a Latino Berlin, with sunshine. Temperamentally as well as topographically, there are two Valpos, as residents style their city. El Plano is the plank of the city surrounding the port, a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood better left to its own devices. Rising steeply from El Plano is Cerros, 45 hills that are accessed via ascensores, clanking, creaking, Victorian-era funiculars that hoist passengers from the grid of streets on the city’s ground floor. Where they leave the well-informed visitor is the writhing streets of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion, furnished with a mad and chaotic tangle of Frenchified manor houses, Swiss-style cottages, turreted mansions and creaking iron shanties with Romeo-and-Juliet balconies. Built when Valparaiso was a key player in the maritime trade of the Americas, these were once the houses of merchants, entrepreneurs, shipwrights and mariners. Many constructed their houses from corrugated iron carried as ships’ ballast, tacked onto timber frames, with fanciful touches as their imagination dictated, and painted in Popsicle colours. Chromium yellow, turquoise, pink, lime – no colour was too outlandish. Hard times came Valpo’s way when an earthquake flattened the city in 1906, closely followed by the opening of the Panama Canal, effectively short-circuiting Valparaiso’s importance as a port. Anyone who could left town, but cheap housing, a sunny climate and the louche, anything-goes style of the portenos proved a magnet for writers, artists and musicians. Among them was Chile’s Nobel-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, who celebrated its mad, dishevelled spirit in his Ode to Valparaiso, and whose former hillside residence, La Sebastiana, is now one of the city’s prime attractions. However it is only over the past few years when rehabilitation funds have poured in and the city notched up a World Heritage listing that Valpo has undergone a rags-to-recherche renaissance. Signs of urban renewal are everywhere. The outrageously florid Palacio Baburizza, an art nouveau pile built by a Croatian immigrant made good, has now become the Fine Arts Museum.  Nearby, the French-colonial Palacio Astoreca, teaming a lipstick red facade with white-rimmed window frames, cuts a fashionable figure in the smart hotel lists. The city’s former prison has been repurposed as a cultural centre in an edgy design by marquee Santiago architects HLPS. Threaded through the cultural landmarks is a piquant, raffish assembly of galleries, restaurants, boutiques and bars with the international boho arts brigade a prominent feature. Some of these artists have taken their brushes to the streetscapes, decorating the houses with huge murals that celebrate, criticise, inflame and entertain. A distinctive South American voice emerges in the narrative works that spread wings as they abandon mundane reality – magic realism transported from print to walls, paint instead of pen.

Don’t miss: Evening cocktails on the terrace of the Palacio Astoreca Hotel.

Insider tip: Take a walking tour with Valpo Street Art Tours for an intimate, expert view, conducted by former street kids.

The details southamericatourism南京夜网,

valpostreetart南京夜网

MICHAEL GEBICKI

The writer was a guest of LAN Airlines and the South America Tourism Office

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

When I first came here during the fading days of Communism, Budapest was weary, dirty and dilapidated. Over two decades of repeat visits, I’ve watched this sleeping beauty awaken as its soot-scarred buildings are cleaned, squares are planted with flowers and trees, and residents emerge in newfound energy and the latest fashions. With luxe hotels sprouting like mushrooms, river-cruise ships invading the quays, restaurants at every two paces and budget airlines flying in, visitors numbers have soared.

Budapest has turned itself into one of Europe’s most impressive capitals, confident and ever-changing. The city is abuzz with fashion shows and film festivals, always-evolving boutiques and a seeming over-supply of cafes and eateries; some have garnered Michelin stars for their contemporary reinventions of Hungarian cuisine. Hungarian wine is on the improve too, with city wine bars now providing chic tasting spaces. Lively ‘ruin pubs’ – the Budapest version of pop-up bars – are invigorating disused spaces and derelict buildings.

The improvements keep on coming: the city’s just-launched public bicycle system (bkk.hu) now allows locals and visitors alike to pedal around on green bikes for free, or for a minimal fee if it takes more than a half-hour to get from one bike station to another.

What I also like about Budapest is that the dividing Danube River gives you two cities in one. Hilly Buda has history and disgorges tour groups for sweeping views and looks at the cathedral and royal palace. The painted pastel facades of the old town are lovely. Across the river, flat Pest is the pulsating heart of the contemporary city. It’s also the flamboyant showcase of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Budapest is the epitome of a grand fin-de-siecle European city, topped by Hapsburg eagles and Greek muses, knitted together by iron bridges, graced with neo-Gothic spires like the set of a light opera. It seems a fitting setting for séances and anarchists, carriages and crinolines.

Pest’s buildings are a marvel of neo-classical and Art Nouveau glory, its public baths and cream-cake cafes a wonder of flamboyant Victoriana. Rattling yellow trams make me think of Freud. The curlicue, red-silk, gilt-gaudy opera house is magnificent. In October, the prestigious Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music (lfze.hu) reopened after a two-year overhaul that has seen its lovely Art Nouveau architecture and interior re-emerge, and a new concert hall added. Budapest has always been music mad.

Budapest is a multi-layered city and it isn’t all waltzes and hazelnut cakes. The haunting Jewish neighbourhood has never recovered from WWII, though reconstructed Dohany Synagogue (Europe’s largest) is wonderful, and lately Jewish cuisine has seen a revival in the trendy restaurants of the Seventh District. There isn’t much left from the Communist era except shuffling suburban babushkas, left behind by the new Hungary. But there are interesting exhibits on Communist times in the Hungarian National Museum (hnm.hu). Memento Park (mementopark.hu) is a photographer’s joy: a knacker’s yard of colossal Soviet-era busts and statues removed from around the city.

Don’t miss: Overlooked terrace gardens studded with ornate pavilions and arcades have always tumbled down the hillside from royal palace to river. Now Varkert Bazar has been sumptuously renovated; cultural spaces, shops and cafés are moving in. See varkertbazar.hu

Insider tip: Been before? Then venture away from the city centre into the Eighth District, a former no-go area whose scrubbed-up aristocratic buildings are being transformed with cafes, art galleries and great bars, well away from weekend stag-party crowds.

The details budapest南京夜网

BRIAN JOHNSTON

The writer travelled as a guest of Viking River Cruises.

POINTER

View all the cities – and the rest of the Hot List – from the November 22 edition on traveller南京夜网.au.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Sydney scientists hope for pot boom

Medical potential: Labor is offering bipartisan support for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis use within NSW. Photo: Gary MalerbaMany ill people hope that NSW’s moves toward a medical marijuana trial will eventually bring them relief.
Nanjing Night Net

But some of Sydney’s leading medical researchers hope it signals an opening of attitudes – and funding – that brings Australia into an age of medical discovery and industry via the cannabis plant.

“In coming decades our understanding is there will be widespread applications for a range of chronic conditions, everything from diabetes to asthma to obesity to PTSD,” said Dr David Allsop, a research fellow in psychopharmacology and addiction medicine at Sydney University.

Premier Mike Baird is expected to announce details this week for funding of three clinical trials. The trials, he says, will be an opportunity “to bring together the best minds in medical cannabis research”.

“I see no reason why NSW cannot also lead the world in this field,” he told Fairfax.

That may have perplexed its advocates who point to medical marijuana’s use in Israeli hospitals and legal status in 23 American states, Spain and Canada.

But scientists say NSW is well positioned to lead the way, because of the exciting pre-clinical research already being undertaken here in spite of restrictions and the potential to involve the state’s fledgling but growing industrial hemp crops, legalised six years ago.

But their hope also reflects the fact that in scientific terms, marijuana is novel and unexplored despite its being used casually for millennia.

THC, marijuana’s psychoactive component, was discovered only in the mid-1960s.

The body’s system of biological receptors for marijuana was found only in the 1990s.

The latest discoveries predate the writing of most medical curriculums, said Associate Professor Nick Lintzeris, also of Sydney University. “We’re in the [early stage] of an impending tsunami of medical uses for cannabis once we get over the fear”.

But THC is arguably not its most interesting potential medical component.

There are about 100 other “cannabinoid” compounds in marijuana. Many produce the opposite effect to that which makes recreational users stare at their hands and order pizza.

THC-V decreases the appetite. It has, scientists say, potential as an obesity treatment; a kind of “anti-munchies”.

About 50 clinical trials worldwide are under way relating to the use of another compound, cannabidiol, or CBD, believed to counteract many of THC’s mind-altering effects.

Part of what makes researchers so interested in marijuana is that only about 10 of its roughly 100 compounds are well enough known for trials to be feasible. The scientific potential of the other 90 remains unexplored.

Pre-clinical research is under way in Sydney.

Researchers here recently completed an animal study looking at the compound’s effect on Alzheimer’s.

They bred mice to have similar symptoms to sufferers of the degenerative disease and then injected them with CBD.

The mice showed major improvements in memory; it brought their mental performance back to the levels of healthy mice.

Oxford-educated Sydney University pyschopharmacology professor Iain McGregor is one of Australia’s leading experts on drugs and the brain.

His research has looked at the effects of marijuana compounds on pain, epileptic seizures and appetite.

He thinks treatment for Australia’s growing problem of methamphetamine addiction should be one of the drug’s first applications: something for which there is little treatment other than agonising detox.

“You’ve got something [cannabidiol] that reduces cravings for stimulants and that treats psychotic symptoms.

“It’s a barbecue stopper. Why can’t we do that study now?”

The answer, of course, relates to the burden of researching a drug that is not legal.

Professor McGregor was recently involved in a study that analysed the kinds of marijuana in wide use in NSW.

They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was geared heavily towards THC.

But interestingly, it had very little cannabidiol, the compound credited with so much of its medicinal benefits.

The medical experts advising the NSW government have suggested it allow children with epilepsy, chemotherapy patients and the terminally ill to openly trial treatment for their conditions.

Medical marijuana often comes as a tincture, which can be ingested, or even applied to the skin. It can also be grown to have almost no psychoactive properties; it won’t get you high.

But researchers hope the Premier’s changes will spur the freeing and funding of research into marijuana’s therapeutic value.

“Is this a marginal area that’s only going to affect some minor conditions or are we on the verge of a modern rediscovery?” Associate Professor Lintzeris said. “All the data suggests it’s the latter: We’re talking about a mega-billion-dollar industry.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Under siege: Defence Minister David Johnston feels the pain

Out of sync: Defence Minister David Johnston in the Senate on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares Biggest warship ever: The HMAS Canberra is getting ready to launch. Photo: Christian Pearson
Nanjing Night Net

Out of sync: Defence Minister David Johnston in the Senate on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

Out of sync: Defence Minister David Johnston in the Senate on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

Out of sync: Defence Minister David Johnston in the Senate on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

David Johnston Photo: Christopher Pearce

Defence Minister David Johnston was still simmering with anger when he walked into the Senate chamber on Tuesday afternoon for Question Time.

The 58-year-old former barrister was fuming over what he saw as an attempt by the government-owned shipbuilder, the Australian Submarine Corporation, to sabotage him several days earlier. During a Senate inquiry, Stuart Whiley, the acting head of ASC, had appeared to lowball the price it would cost to build 12 new submarines locally – citing a figure of between $18 billion and $24 billion, roughly half what the government believed it would cost.

Johnston saw this as a direct attempt to undermine the government’s increasing attraction to sourcing the submarines more cheaply offshore, perhaps even from Japan, given the new chumminess between that country’s prime minister Shinzo Abe and Tony Abbott. And it came on top of his mounting frustration over the troubled Air Warfare Destroyer program, in which ASC plays a key role.

Seeing an opportunity on Tuesday to create mischief, Labor senators homed in with a few well-aimed questions. They struck political gold.

Johnston began paying out on the ASC in spades, suggesting it had no more than a one-page document to justify its submarine costings and appearing to mock its staff by suggesting they were just looking for jobs. Goaded by jibes from Labor, he went further, eventually bellowing across the chamber, “you wonder why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe?”

It was a reckless comment from the man nominally in charge of the process. Johnston didn’t stop to think what effect his remarks might have on the morale of ASC’s staff, or on the navy’s submariners, who entrust their lives to the maintenance the ASC performs on Australia’s existing Collins class submarines.

The next morning, facing  a rare censure motion by the Senate, Johnston tried to dismiss his outburst as a regrettable “rhetorical flourish”. Yet  even his supporters were admitting the remarks were plain dumb. South Australian MPs, who face the wrath of voters if the Adelaide-based submarine program and its thousands of jobs are sent offshore, were furious.

More seriously for the government, it brought to the surface long-simmering issues over Johnston’s competence, rivalries within Cabinet and the centralisation of power in the Prime Minister’s office.

Tony Abbott, who went to last year’s election vowing to scrap the carbon tax, stop the boats and balance the budget, has had Defence thrust to the top of his list by international events such as the rise of Islamic State and the downing of flight MH17, and domestic controversies over defence pay, and fresh revelations this week about the scale of sexual and physical abuse inside the defence force.

Those are just the immediate issues. Asia is going through a profound strategic shift to which Australia’s policy makers are still trying to formulate a calibrated response.

The canoe outburst thrust into the open a question many were asking privately: was David Johnston up to the job?

The weight of opinion is that Abbott will soon decide he is not, with many commentators tipping Johnston would be among the first moved in any Cabinet reshuffle. That said, Abbott firmly backed Johnston this week, and government insiders point to the Prime Minister’s track record of making only rare changes to his team.

Still, unfavourable comparisons are being drawn with Immigration minister Scott Morrison’s record. Love or loathe his policies, Morrison has delivered beyond expectations on what Abbott asked him to do – and he is said to want the Defence job.

Johnston, by contrast, has been seen as  ineffectual and gaffe-prone. And this week he notably failed to front for a press conference or interview on two landmark reports brought down on sexual assault and abuse in the military, instead making only a brief statement to the Senate.

Former and current defence insiders describe Johnston as a “nice guy” who is strong on technical detail. He can talk anyone under the table on the intricacies of submarine propulsion systems or the body armour systems worn by Special Forces soldiers.

But he is seen as weak on the bigger strategic picture, and a poor prosecutor of a political case, including to his Cabinet colleagues, and as too easily steamrolled by powerful figures in the Prime Minister’s office.

“He can talk nuts and bolts and serial numbers, but he has never worked out how it all fits together strategically,” says former deputy of the Defence department Hugh White, echoing a view shared by a number of others who would only speak off the record.

Allan Behm, a former senior defence official who worked for Greg Combet when Combet was defence materiel minister, agrees.

“The problem with Senator Johnston is that he doesn’t really understand the dynamics and complexity of the task that Defence faces, both in fielding a fighting force virtually at a moment’s notice, and at the same time undertaking what are very complex and very long-term procurements,” Behm says.

Johnston, he says, “is a very decent man, but he is simply not a breakthrough type person and he is not decisive”.

Another source who has observed Johnston’s style  says: “Almost all the problems that David faces are his fault. He is a talker, not a doer – too often he agrees with the last person he spoke to. In defence, you’ve got to be the boss.”

The big picture stuff is instead being handled by the Prime Minister and his office, particularly by the intellectual driving force on international security, former diplomat Andrew Shearer. Or on the strategic side, it is Foreign minister Julie Bishop who does most of the talking. As it happens, she is also Johnston’s most powerful backer – some say his lifeline as a minister – their close alliance dating far back in Western Australian Liberal politics.

“He is desperately overshadowed by Julie Bishop,” Behm says. “If you saw him in Washington or at the NATO meetings, Julie Bishop does all the talking but these are essentially defence meetings.”

Journalists calling Johnston’s office to ask about Iraq are routinely referred to Abbott’s office.

It’s not unique for the Prime Minister to take the lead on defence at a time of international conflict. Howard’s defence minister Robert Hill during the last Iraq War used to refer to himself acidly as “the minister assisting the prime minister for defence”.

But insiders say it is amplified in Johnston’s case because his standing with the PM’s office is marginal.

“I don’t ever remember a government that has operated this level of control over a senior minister,” one security veteran said.

Does this actually matter? Supporters of Johnston points out that it makes sense for the defence minister to concentrate on the nuts and bolts stuff, that his detailed technical knowledge allows him to hold Defence to account and make a useful contribution to meetings of the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

But there have been some odd ideas floated. Abbott originally wanted to send about 1000 Australian soldiers to Ukraine to help secure the crash site of MH17, but was told such a force on Russia’s doorstep was dangerous. He is also keen on a jump-jet variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, turning the new amphibious warships – one of which, the HMAS Canberra was commissioned in Sydney on Friday – into aircraft carriers. It is widely seen as unfeasible.

To be sure, the wheels haven’t fallen off defence. But the minister’s weakness means things aren’t going as well as they could, some observers say.

“You can get away with it when nothing much is going on,” one well-placed source says. “But this is the busiest national security committee … that we have laid eyes on for a long, long time. They have a lot on their plate, so if you are trying to get to Andrew Shearer or to Abbott , you stand in a very, very long line and, as a result, not much happens. There is no intellectual time left in a lot of these people’s heads.”

Allan Behm puts it this way: “The best counsel for Abbott would be to find a more energetic and confident defence minister.”

It’s also been a rocky road inside Johnston’s own office. Along with several other ministers, he had his first chief of staff, senior defence official Simeon Gilding, imposed on him by Abbott’s office. Johnston chafed at the imposition, clashing with Gilding and eventually demanding a new chief of staff – a move his supporters say shows he can stand up for himself.

Yet Johnston was blocked when he tried to take the task of steering the forthcoming 2015 Defence White paper out of the hands of his own department and give it to prominent defence analyst Alan Dupont. He also chose former defence official Ross Babbage for another key advisory role. But both appointments were overridden in what one observer termed a pincer movement by Abbott’s’s adviser Shearer and Defence department head Dennis Richardson.

“Johnston was unable to prevent that happening, even though he had personally invested his authority in both appointments,” one first-hand observer said.

But the stoush that really spilled over into the public sphere came after former general Jim Molan – who helped draw up Abbott’s boats strategy – went to work for Johnston in August. He clashed with Johnston’s new chief of staff, Sean Costello, and the arrangement lasted just three weeks.

Molan told Fairfax Media that he encountered interference as soon as he took up the job. The first time he visited the office and asked to speak with Johnston, he was told to make an appointment, he says.

Supporters point out that Johnston has had successes: cracking the whip on the beleaguered Air Warfare Destroyer project, and winning a six per cent funding increase this year while other portfolios were slashed.

Other sympathisers point out that its an incredibly hard job, given the size, complexity and peculiar internal culture of Defence. White calls it a “minister killer”.

If there is one achievement that would secure a legacy for Johnston, it is solving the submarine conundrum.  But to steer a course through the high passions, vested interests, political pitfalls and sheer intimidating gravity of the submarine decision requires a strong, focused minister.

Johnston, who speaks some Japanese, was interested in the country’s Soryu Class boats even while in opposition – well before Abbott and counterpart Shinzo Abe hit it off as leaders and set the stage for a sharing of submarine technology.

One seasoned observer says Johnston was too eager to go down that path.  “He got into a pickle by appearing to be less than principled and dispassionate. He vindicated his preference (for Japan) before they had done any proper analysis.”

Now the field seems open again – largely a three way race among Japan, Germany and France with Sweden a distant fourth.

“The world must look at us and shake their head,” says Mark Thomson of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “I talk to the shipbuilders from overseas and the people who want to sell us submarines and they’re frustrated because they don’t know what is going on.”

The right decision on submarines would give Johnston a place in history. But if the rife speculation is correct and he has just months left, that chance has already slipped through his fingers.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

State election result likely to be close

More than 1.1 million people have already voted in the state election. Photo: Jesse MarlowANALYSIS
Nanjing Night Net

For weeks Coalition strategists have been predicting a tightening of the polls. At times, it seemed like waiting for a drought to break.

Then, about half way through the campaign, a few fat drops of rain fell. Napthine’s people started sounding vaguely optimistic.

There was talk of snaring Labor seats such as Yan Yean, to Melbourne’s north, Eltham and Ivanhoe to the north-east and the Ballarat seats of Wendouree and Buninyong. Even the south-eastern seat of Narre Warren North was seen as a possibility.

Then the heavens closed again. In the second last week of the campaign the optimism on the Coalition side seemed to evaporate and a sense of gloom once again settled.

Finally, right at the end of the campaign, the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll shows the long-awaited tightening has now started to occur after a relentlessly negative advertising assault and spending spree in marginal seats.

Labor’s primary vote is down, the Coalition’s is up and, depending on how you measure it, the two-party preferred result is on a knife edge.

The question is whether it will be too little, too late for the Coalition.

First, more than 1.1 million people – representing about 29 per cent of total enrolments – have already voted.

Never before have voters flocked in such numbers to early polling booths.

In retrospect, however, Labor was clever to have launched its campaign well before the start of the caretaker period. In general, Labor has also conducted a slicker, smarter campaign.

Second, if the Coalition’s primary vote really does end at up at 42 per cent as the poll suggests, it is probably still too low to win.

At the 2010 election the Coalition won with a primary vote of 45 per cent, and then it only just scraped over the line with the narrowest of majorities.

On the other hand, according to the poll, Labor’s primary vote is now just 35 per cent, a far from emphatic endorsement from voters. To win with a primary vote like that, Labor will probably need to mop up something like 85 per cent of Greens’ preferences, slightly above the level of the 2013 federal election.

Third, the final result will depend on how things pan out in the key marginals, particularly in the “sandbelt” seats to the south-east. Labor seems relatively confident it will win back one or two of the four seats it lost in this area in 2010, although there are no guarantees. But it is likely to lose the Ballarat seat of Ripon.

In net terms, Labor needs to win just two seats. As things stand now, it will probably achieve this, although things are less certain than a week ago. Chances are it will be close.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Denis Napthine in new grants row

Premier Denis Napthine.Denis Napthine is embroiled in a new regional grants row after his government took just one day to approve a $300,000 grant upgrade for a Warrnambool street where his former horse race partner is proposing the city’s largest apartment complex.
Nanjing Night Net

On October 29, just days before going into pre-election mode, the government notified Warrnambool Council it had approved funds for an upgrade of Gilles St Warrnambool. The council made a formal application for the grant the day before.

Gilles St is also the location for a proposed $20 million, nine-level apartment complex, lodged with the council just weeks earlier by a mystery developer, Baybern Developments Pty Ltd.

Corporate searches reveal that Baybern’s sole director is Colin McKenna, the wealthy Warrnambool businessman, who owns the thriving meat and dairy empire, Midfield Meat.

In April the The Age revealed Mr McKenna and Dr Napthine  jointly owned racehorse Spin the Bottle, sparking a conflict-of-interest controversy around Dr Napthine’s role as Premier, local MP, racing minister and racehorse owner, and public subsidies to booming businesses.

Last week The Saturday Age also revealed that the government approved a regional growth fund grant to assist the expansion of Midfield Meat onto council land, despite advice to Premier Napthine that such use of the fund was “not appropriate”.

Two weeks ago Dr Napthine and Warrnambool mayor Mike Neoh announced the $850,000 upgrade of Gilles Street, in the south of the regional city’s CBD, including the $300,000 grant.

The announcement of the Gilles Street upgrade surprised Cr Neoh’s council colleagues, who have focused for many years on designing, and securing funds for, a separate scheme: a revamping of the central city area.

“It is very curious that this funding has been obtained when a major [apartment] development has now been lodged for the end of this little obscure street,” said councillor and Liberal Party member Peter Hulin.

“I am deeply disturbed at many issues within our council and I have made the Premier aware of my concerns on numerous occasions.”

A spokesman for Dr Napthine confirmed that the grant was in response to a council application, and finally approved by regional cities minister Peter Ryan.

“The Premier was not involved at any stage of the decision-making process.,” said the spokesman.

He said the (first stage) of the project aimed to enhance the northern end of Gilles Street. This is a section of the CBD that has previously been referred to locally as “the Gaza Strip” due to its location between two busy nightclubs, and its reputation as a hotspot for violence, said the spokesman.

He said Dr Napthine had not known that Mr McKenna was behind the proposed apartment development, the biggest residential complex ever proposed in Warrnambool.

On the day of the announcement a senior council officer linked the funding of the Gilles Street works to Mr McKenna’s apartment project, noting that the proposed tower “added to the need for modernising Gilles Street”.

Cr Brian Kelson described the announcement as a “bolt out of the blue”.

“I can’t understand why we’re acting on this at the speed we are with the CBD revitalisation being listed as number one on the council’s priority list, ” he said.

Warrnambool Council failed to respond to repeated requests for comment from The Age.

But it told the ABC it had had been in discussions about the Gilles St grant since January.

Public comment to the council on the McKenna apartment tower proposal closed on October 29.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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