Showing posts with label Australian infrastructure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Australian infrastructure. Show all posts

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bridges that let boats through

As a boy, I used to ride my bike across the two-tiered bridge (road/rail traffic) over the Clarence River between South Grafton and Grafton. So, I often watched the heavy span of our bridge being raised to allow a river boat through.


This mechanical spectacle impressed me greatly, because it involved a degree of tremendous power that had no common measure with the other everyday events of my life. I was incapable of fathoming the means by which this gigantic segment of steel could be raised laboriously—in a litany of metallic creaks, clangs and groans—into a vertical position. The only mechanical engineering devices that measured up to the power of the massive bridge span were steam locomotives, which were a familiar sight at the South Grafton railway station.


After a trip to Brisbane or Sydney in a train drawn by such a locomotive, your hair and clothes were sprinkled with specks of coal dust, and the passenger's grimy body exuded a smoky smell. Having arrived at your destination (often dazed after a night with little sleep), your first wish was to get under a shower and change into clean clothes. I remember the first arrival of a diesel locomotive at South Grafton, around 1952. For the entire community, it was an exciting event. The railroad department invited people aboard for a free return trip across the Clarence River, to the little-used station at Grafton. An aspect of the new train that impressed me immensely was a dispenser of chilled water in paper cups.

My grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] started Grafton's Ford dealership in 1925.


At that date, the bridge over the Clarence did not yet exist. So, vehicles were transported across the river by a steam ferry.


At the South Grafton end of the crossing,  in 1881, my Irish great-great-grandfather Michael O'Keefe [1831-1910] had purchased the Steam Ferry Hotel.


After his death, it was inherited by his son-in-law James Walker. Renamed Walker's Hotel, and rebuilt after a fire, it became South Grafton's best-known hotel, and still stands today.


Meanwhile, train carriages were floated across the Clarence River on a ferry, the Swallow.


The bridge that we know today was opened in 1932. So, one of its earliest users would have been my father, Bill Skyvington [1917-1978], riding his bicycle across to the dairy farm of the family of his future wife, Kathleen Walker [1918-2003], in Waterview, on the outskirts of South Grafton. In those days, there wasn't much vehicular traffic between the northern and southern banks of the Clarence.


This lack of heavy traffic was just as well, since automobiles were likely to drift over the central line when turning around the bridge's two nasty corners, one at each extremity, designed to allow the presence on the lower level of the bridge of a relatively straight railway line. At the Grafton end of the bridge, in Kent Street (where we lived in the '50s), there are two massive concrete viaducts leading up to the bridge: one for road traffic and the other for trains.


That's to say, the low railway viaduct (in the background of the above photo) was aligned with, and at the same level as, the main central segment of the bridge. Motorists, on the other hand, had to turn a corner at the top right-hand point of the higher-level vehicle viaduct (in the foreground of the photo) where it joined up with the main linear segment of the bridge. Here's a view of the southern corner, taken from the level of the railway line and pedestrian crossing:


And here's a view from the southern bank at a time when the Clarence was flooded:


In the following view, looking back towards the bank at South Grafton, you can see that the archaic structure is covered in rust:


The following two photos (which I found on the Internet), apparently taken through the front windscreen of a truck (equipped with a heavy steel protective grid, seen in the lower half of each photo), reveal that the Grafton Bridge is totally obsolete and indeed dangerous with respect to modern road traffic:


Here's an aerial view of this same South Grafton end of the bridge:


The following amateur videos illustrate the unique setting of the bridge:


At the end of this first video, click to view the same author's second video (labeled XPT2), which includes the experience of crossing the bridge in a motor vehicle. Then there's this train-driver's vision of the bridge:


It was recently announced that plans are under way for a second bridge at Grafton. But the existing 80-year-old bridge (whose moveable span ceased to function long ago) will remain in service.

I was reminded of our antiquated bridge across the Clarence when I saw this photo of the fabulous suspension bridge that was opened in Bordeaux a fortnight ago.


The big three-masted barque that was present at the opening ceremony is the Belem, launched in 1896.

POST SCRIPTUM: As if our dear old bendy bridge didn't have enough problems already with its traffic saturation, blocked lift-span and rusty metal, The Daily Examiner revealed an additional ailment here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Urunga nightmare

Three months ago, I wrote a blog article titled In the early hours of an Australian Morning [display] about a fatal accident in which two people were killed on the Pacific Highway at Urunga in northern New South Wales. Like many observers, I had imagined immediately that the underlying blame for this terrible collision was no doubt the deplorable state of the Pacific Highway at Urunga. Everybody seems to agree that major investments would be required to transform the present road into a modern highway, safe for all categories of road users including drivers of giant trucks of the B-double category. And safe, too, for people who live alongside the highway.

Today, in the wake of that terrible night of Saturday, 7 January 2012—terminating at 5 am on Sunday, 8 January 2012—only the empty shells of the tragedy are visible. Here are the remains of the house in which 11-year-old Max McGregor died.


Max, from South Penrith, had been staying there with his parents in their holiday home, accompanied by his 14-year-old brother Bruce, who miraculously survived the disaster.

PHOTOS The above two photos of the destroyed house were taken by Frank Redward.

On January 27, a Urunga resident named Kath Black sent a comment to my blog:
That was our family home. My Dad and Mum moved there in 1937 and stayed there until Dad built the house next door and the granny flat behind. When we were kids, we would play cricket on that road, as there was not much traffic. My nephew owns it now, but the government has not kept up with the amount of traffic that travels that road.
In other words, Kath Black seems to suggest that, in the context of the terrible Urunga accident, the state of the highway was one of the factors at fault.

Here is the carcass of the blue Holden Commodore 1999-model utility vehicle, driven by 38-year-old David Levett from nearby Nambucca Heads:


The driver couldn't get out of that mess alive... and he didn't. But how come that he apparently steered his lethal way wildly, almost with determination, on the wrong side of the road, straight between the front wheels of an approaching B-double?

PHOTOS The above two photos of the blue ute were taken by Frank Redward.

In the case of a tragedy of this kind, before jumping to conclusions, one needs to reconstruct a representation of what actually happened. And a major witness of the terrible final instants of the catastrophe is a miraculous survivor: Trevor, the 51-year-old Queenslander at the wheel of a 2002-model Kenworth prime mover with a B-double trailer full of bananas. That night, Trevor was accompanied by a co-driver, his 31-year old Townsville nephew Tim.

Trevor was no newcomer to the B-double business: he has been driving heavy vehicles for three decades. On the eve of that fateful night, he had been completing his first four hours of driving with a new employer, and the load was 70 tons of bananas.

At around 8.30 pm, that Saturday evening, after picking up Trevor for his first run in the new job, Tim took the B-double out of Toowoomba. Their destination was the south: Sydney. Two hours later, in the vicinity of Dinmore, at the level of Ipswich, Trevor took the wheel. Four hours later, around 2.30 on the morning of January 8, they halted for a 45-minute break at a place I know well: Halfway Creek. (In the vicinity of my unique childhood mountain, Glenugie, Halfway Creek got its dull name because it was located midway between Grafton and the beach town of Woolgoolga.) After a snack and coffee, Trevor checked the tires and lights of his giant vehicle, then he drove off, while Tim crawled into the bunk, to sleep.

Just before entering Urunga, Trevor would have crossed the Kalang River at a picturesque place (whose natural beauty is surely enhanced in the twilight of a summer dawn) where the road and rail bridges run parallel to each other. In the following Google Maps rendition of that place, facing south, you must readjust your vision to allow for the fact that Trevor's B-double was being driven southwards on the left-hand side of the road, whereas the Google vehicle from which this image was taken was obviously moving in a northwards direction.


This crossing has always caught my attention for a roundabout reason. Up in my native town of Grafton, they chose a quite different solution. Road and rail traffic cross the great Clarence River on a curious two-storied bridge.


But I'm digressing. It goes without saying that B-double vehicles could never use the bridge at Grafton to cross the Clarence (maybe a blessing?) for the simple reason that it incorporates a pair of amazing road-traffic bends based upon the geometrical fact that trains can't normally be expected to turn corners, whereas motor vehicles can !

Driving through Urunga, Trevor recalled a slight incline ending in a bend to the left, where he changed gears in order to maintain his speed. I would imagine that the following Google Maps image provides us with a daylight version of Trevor's vision at that crucial moment:


At that point, at 5 o'clock in the morning, Trevor was suddenly hurled into what might be called a nightmare vision. While changing gears, he saw a dark blue utility coming towards him in the north-bound lane (on the right of the above image). When this utility vehicle was about 30 meters away from him, Trevor discovered with stupor that the driver suddenly turned to his right, straight into the path of Trevor's prime mover.

Today, in his memory of those fatal instants, Trevor recalls the utility vehicle on a direct collision course with Trevor's B-double. There was no avoidance on the part of the ute driver or slowing in speed. His vehicle impacted violently with the front of the prime mover, sending the truck on a direct line towards the houses and the people inside.

Trevor was not wearing a seat belt. In fact, many truck drivers prefer not to wear seat belts, saying: "You never know when you might need to get out of the cabin in a hurry." Today, Trevor can claim that he owes his life to the fact that he wasn't belted into his seat, since he was thrown from the driver's seat and out of the way of the timber and other debris crashing in through the driver's window of the cabin. However Trevor's pierced lung and broken ribs meant that he had to spend a week in the intensive care and surgical wards of Coffs Harbour Hospital. Today, he would appear to be recovering his spirits, while awaiting inspiration on how he and his wife Heather might possibly recover—psychologically and professionally—from this accident.

A minor anecdote caught my attention, and moved me concerning the ethical attitudes of this country truck driver who will inevitably live the rest of his life in the shadow of those two individuals who died suddenly in the early hours of an Australian morning. Trevor recalls his anguish, while being bounced about as the prime mover hurtled madly on its uncontrollable path of destruction, by his inability to reach down and access the emergency brakes for the trailers, located in a lower region of the cabin. In the days that followed the accident, Trevor said to himself constantly that, if only he had been able to get at those brakes, he might have been able to avoid the catastrophe. Finally, after technical inspection of the wrecked prime mover, experts told Trevor that the shock of the utility's impact had in fact broken the front axle of the prime mover, and pushed it back some 25 cm, where it cut through the B-double's system of hydraulic lines. So, even if Trevor had succeeded in reaching the emergency brakes, they would have been totally inoperable.

Political decisions will now be made concerning the advantages and possibility of investing in a costly bypass of Urunga. To an outside observer, the sense of this bypass theme is not obvious. At present, the Pacific Highway does not appear to go through the center of Urunga, as can be seen in the following map:


A month after the crash, it was revealed that the driver of the utility vehicle was nearly 5 times over the legal BAC limit [Blood Alcohol Content]. Police said that the amount was 0.245 over the Australian limit of 0.05. This means the driver would have consumed approximately 30 standard drinks before getting into his vehicle and driving off into the night.

Conclusion: In the case of calamities of this kind, the real culprits are surely certain drivers.

——————————————
RIP Max McGregor and David Levett 
——————————————

ADDENDUM: Basic information concerning this accident has appeared in an excellent local newspaper:


Click here for a short moving statement, published in that newspaper ten days after the accident, from Trevor's wife Heather.

BREAKING NEWS (January 11, 2013): Click here to access a fine article in The Sydney Morning Herald concerning the aftermath of this tragedy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

In the early hours of an Australian morning

Urunga is a small seaside town to the south of Coffs Harbour (Australia), not far from my native Clarence River region, and the Pacific Highway runs through the municipality. Over a year ago, I wrote about that notorious road [display], which is regularly the scene of terrible accidents, often due to the presence of giant lorries on a narrow undulating road that was laid out back in the days when the traffic was sparse and lightweight. As I've often said, it was a great road for bike-riding.

Here's a typical curve in that highway, in the middle of Urunga, looking towards the south:


This is in fact a rear view from the Google vehicle, which was actually moving northwards. But let us carry on as if we were driving to the south. As we move into the bend, we notice a white house on the right-hand side of the road.


As we drive past this house, we catch a glimpse of an automobile parked alongside the front verandah. There's a palm tree in the front garden, but it hasn't yet reached the height of the electricity pole near the edge of the road.


A few meters further along, we have a view of the front lawn and façade of the house, behind a small leafy tropical tree with a delta-shaped bunch of slim trunks.


A few days ago, in the early hours of the morning, a giant B-double truck (full of bananas) had been driving southwards and plunging into this bend. Suddenly, the truck driver found himself face-to-face with a north-bound utility vehicle, which had drifted onto the wrong side of the road. A collision was inevitable. The utility was demolished, and its driver killed. Before the truck came to a halt, it had careened off the road and destroyed half of the white house.


A 14-year-old boy, on holidays, had been sleeping in the front corner bedroom of the house. He died instantly, the innocent victim of a real-world nightmare. And the next day, a local politician was quoted as declaring that, really, it was high time to do something about that notorious Pacific Highway...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mining contracts in Australia

I often wonder whether my Australian compatriots are aware of the exact contents of the mining contracts that are enabling foreign capitalists to stuff them today and up until the end of time... unless a revolution were to occur (most unlikely in my conservative homeland).

Maybe they are… but I hear little critical fallout about the reasons why all this fabulous wealth has not yet transformed modern Australia into a prosperous nation (on the contrary) with an impeccable infrastructure and defense system. Sadly, as everybody knows, Australia remains a poor banana colony (not even a republic), incapable of defending herself against the least malicious intruder. But nobody seems to be worried…

Meanwhile, my ex-wife, my dear aunt and friendly observers accuse me of being, through my blog, un-Australian! Shit, I merely want to save the nation—my beloved birthplace—from sinking inexorably into the historical sands of forgettable mediocrity.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Highway called Pacific

In Australia, the major coastal route between Sydney and Brisbane has always been known as the Pacific Highway. As a youth, I used to ride my bicycle along this highway in the vicinity of Grafton. Maybe, these days, it should be nicknamed the RIP (Rest-in-Pacific) Highway, because the antiquated state of this old road has transformed it into a killing field.

Seated comfortably and safely in front of my computer screen in my bedroom at Gamone, I can call upon the amazing Google Maps tool to give me a realistic idea of what it must feel like to be driving along this so-called "highway" in the vicinity, say, of Tintenbar, near Ballina.

In Australia, people drive, of course (because our dominant forefathers were English), on the left-hand side of the road. The typical section of the road seen in the photo is pleasant enough, but it's a bit frightening to see that there's a single lane on that curved descent, and that the road is only visible for a couple of hundred meters.

Let's imagine that the vehicle you're driving looks like this:

That's what they refer to, in Australia, as a B-double tanker. There are lots of them on Australian roads, and a vehicle of this type can carry some 40,000 liters of fuel.

A few days ago, around noon, a tanker of this kind was hurtling along the highway, heading south, in the vicinity of Tintenbar. Imagine that you're sitting in the passenger's seat as the driver dives into that curved descent shown in the top photo. A witness says he heard the vehicle hitting the guard rail. Within a few seconds, the tanker crossed the road and burst into flames that shot 30 meters into the sky.

Hours later, after the intervention of a hundred fire fighters, fuel was still burning in the vicinity of the accident. Police suspected that the driver had disappeared in the holocaust.

Normally, there's more than enough mineral wealth in Australia to supply the nation with superb modern highways, which would surely reduce the likelihood of spectacular accidents of this kind. But the use of that mineral wealth to build decent roads for the people is a political eventuality that is not likely to arise for some time to come. Waiting for the revolution…

ADDENDUM: No sooner had I written that last word, revolution, than I found it highlighted in an amusing and perspicacious Bill Bleak cartoon [display]. Clearly, I'm not the only Australian observer who imagines that the nation needs to break out, politically, of a system of vicious circles. Recently, here in France, our celebrated minister of the Economy, Christine Lagarde, said that Sarkozy's new government was "totally revolutionary", because of its accent on "solidity and professionalism". She went on to explain, bizarrely, that the principle of a revolution consists of turning through a complete circle of 360°. In the great novel entitled The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi, 11th Prince of Lampedusa [1896-1957], the hero refers to the ongoing Italian "revolution" in the following terms: "If we want things to remain as they've always been, then everything will have to change." Maybe that's not a bad definition for the kind of revolution I have in mind in the context of my native land.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Laptops to lead Aussie kids "out of poverty"

I was surprised by a recent article in the Australian press with a shock title: "Looking to laptops to lead Doomadgee children out of poverty". A photo showed a group of kids, mostly Aboriginal, holding up their machines for a corny staged shot.

There were several reasons for my surprise:

• It shocks me to see a newspaper headline stating explicitly that certain Aussie kids are apparently living in poverty. That's a strong word, which outside observers don't generally associate with citizens of Australia.

• The notion that laptops might be capable of "leading children out of poverty" is outlandish, and hard to believe.

• I'm familiar with the project entitled One Laptop Per Child, conceived by the US computing academic and visionary Nicholas Negroponte. I wrote a blog article on this subject, entitled Fabulous educational project [display], back in October 2007. I had always imagined that the children to be assisted by Negroponte's wonderful mission belonged to so-called developing nations. It's an almost unpleasant surprise to find scores of Australian children, throughout the land, included in the bunch of recipients of these low-cost laptops.

Readers should visit the website of the excellent Australian organization handling this project. You'll be able to reach your own conclusions concerning this project in Australia… and I'm aware that you won't necessarily react negatively, as I have done. I'm not suggesting for a moment that there's anything wrong with this plan to hand out cheap laptops to kids in Australia. I'm merely pointing out that it's a charitable enterprise, initially designed for Third-World inhabitants, and that it's weird to see my native land falling back upon international US-inspired charity in order to solve internal educational problems.

The spirit of such an initiative is surely the celebrated Chinese proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." What shocks me, I guess, is that it's not directly the Australian ministry in charge of education—assisted, maybe, by philanthropists and industry—who's teaching these under-privileged kids to "fish" with computers (and the Internet).

ADDENDUM: In my initial post on this subject, I suggested that, in Third-World villages in places such as Africa, electrical power for the laptops could be generated by cyclists. I'm happy to see that there's now a device on the market to meet this challenge.

Admittedly, if poverty has reached the point at which, due to malnutrition, it's impossible to find a sturdy cyclist, then we're stuck with a real problem. I must talk with Lance Armstrong, one of these days, to see if he has any worthwhile ideas on this question...

Friday, July 30, 2010

The answer is a lemon

My ex-wife Christine, who reads Antipodes regularly, seems to imagine that I've built up some kind of diabolical hate-system against my native land, Australia, as if obscure psychological urges were forcing me to rage at my motherland in the style of a psychotic offspring intent upon eliminating his/her genitors. This cursory analysis of my relationship with Australia is ridiculous, and Christine should know better than to talk that way. After all, she has had a ringside seat in all my dealings with Australia, she has known for ages that Australia is a shallow nation, and she should also know a little about the nature of my profound Francophile motivations. Now, having said this, I hasten to add that Christine's criticisms will continue to merit my attention, but they won't stop me from saying anything and everything that I wish to say about my land of birth. What have I to gain from being falsely and insipidly polite?

At present, there have been major political upheavals in Australia (about which Christine, like most French people, knows almost nothing). I have the impression that many Australians have the impression that the entire world has the impression that, somehow or other, a handful of mediocre individuals—named Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Keneally, etc—would appear to be exerting a meaningful influence upon the destiny of mankind. I am not of that opinion. To my mind, individuals of the caliber of those I've just mentioned are trivial pawns whose only aptitude consists of trying systematically (as they say in French) to fart higher than their arsehole. They are not statesmen, stateswomen, merely egoistic puppets, with limited power to impress us. Lemons? Why not?



The thing about my native land that irks me most (and Christine is totally incapable of detecting this facet of my concern) is that I'm convinced that little is likely to evolve there. The rich will grow richer, and the poor, poorer. And the apathetic hordes in the middle will remain firmly in place. Politicians will remain just as superficial and ineffectual as they've always been. The infrastructure (roads, railways, defense) will remain just as lousy as it has always been. The Australian environment will continue to degrade disastrously. Culture will remain eternally just as narcissist (admiration of one's belly button) as it has always been.

I would jubilate instantly if ever I saw reasons to believe in a bright future for my motherland. Honestly (forgive me, Christine, and others), I don't. I find it less and less possible to take Australia seriously as a role model for the 21st century.

I should add that many of the negative "waves" behind the present article were propagated by a trivial article in the French press, this evening, about planned investments for a future French airport on the Atlantic coast, near Nantes. The airport won't become a reality before 2017, but all the investment discussions are being conducted seriously, of course, at present. I ask myself rhetorically: What infrastructure investments for the horizon 2017 are being discussed today in my native land?

BREAKING NEWS: A startling article in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled Parties bet they will lose [display] reveals that Australian punters (including some senior party members) are starting to gamble massively on the outcome of the forthcoming election, even if this means betting on the defeat of their own party. They're encouraged by the dominant role of voter-intention polls in the Australian political domain. To my mind, non-stop polling and gambling create a really weird and unhealthy (indeed insane) slant on democracy… but I've become an old-fashioned French citizen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Repetitive Aussie apologies

Australians are special people. When I returned to my native land in 1985 for a lengthy stay, I was alarmed to discover that many of my compatriots were victims of a mysterious physiological affliction known as RSI: repetitive strain injury. In a nutshell, Australians who had developed the habit of using their hands to perform repetitive manual tasks enabling them to earn their living (a hugely ordinary situation throughout the planet Earth) found themselves stricken down with mysterious painful symptoms that prevented them, alas, from carrying on their work. Having just left France, I was intrigued by the fact that this affliction appeared to exist only in Australia. Was there a demoniacal "magnetism" in the geographical specificity of the Antipodes that was dealing a cruel blow to Aussie workers, and making them incapable of working repetitively at a given task? Maybe it had something to do with Vegemite consumption. I wondered, but I never found an answer to my interrogations. Meanwhile, I returned to France, where people were still working manually as usual...

These days, there's a new epidemic in Australia: a compulsive need to apologize... to accelerate the "healing process" in all kinds of domains. On 13 February 2008, the Australian prime minister apologized formally to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children who were removed forcibly from their family context in order to be brought up in a Westernized environment. On 16 November 2009, the same prime minister apologized formally to a second group of citizens, referred to as Forgotten Australians, designating individuals without parents (for many reasons), placed in institutions... and maybe abused in one way or another.

From my observatory in France, I remain highly skeptical concerning the well-foundedness of the current Aussie media razzmatazz about Kevin Rudd's apology to these so-called "forgotten Australians". It all sounds rather silly to my European ears. Sure, there were sad cases of infants without parents, kids being abused, adolescents without guidance, etc. But was it worse in Australia than anywhere else on the sad planet that emerged from World War II?

To my mind, my compatriots would do better to concentrate upon the sole political problem that faces modern Australia: the fact that our gigantic resources (mainly mineral) have been raped by international capitalists who don't even leave enough in our nation's piggy bank to build a decent infrastructure of roads, railways, defense systems, etc. Australia doesn't need apologies. It needs a violent political revolution of a left-wing kind (maybe with blood) and new republican thinking.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Abandoned Australian outback

I was saddened by a recent press article that evokes a forthcoming Australian report according to which the remote Australian wilderness must now be looked upon as a "failed state". What a terrible expression! There's a sentence about extracted wealth that is not reinvested in local communities. I see the words "poor governance". The article speaks of "the failure of all levels of government to deliver basic services and halt the flight of non-indigenous people to more settled areas". Everything in this short article was frighteningly negative, even to the extent of evoking "possible invasion" from foreign nations. I have the impression that the great Aussie myth of the Outback is crumbling into dust, but I'm amazed that things could really be as bad as that. On the other hand, I've been wondering for ages what went wrong with Australia, and why there are no New Pioneers on the horizon to fix things up. Why aren't our leaders worrying about the Outback, and doing something about this tragedy? To guide Australia, it wasn't enough to be a fan of Donald Bradman, Elizabeth II and George W Bush. And it's obviously not enough to be a polite ex-diplomat who speaks English and Mandarin with the same lack of eloquence. Meanwhile, as I said in my recent article entitled My hilarious motherland [display], a NSW state minister has been dancing in his underpants. And the Outback has been dying...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Musical chairs in Sydney

Europeans who were up at dawn this morning [such as me], browsing through the latest news, would have learned that a political game of musical chairs is going on Down Under in the state parliament of my native state, New South Wales. Insofar as this subject is hardly world-shaking, it now seems to have disappeared from my Google News screen, but the Aussie press continues to talk about it. Here's the cover-story photo from the Sydney Morning Herald:

This banner is bad, incomprehensible, but I'll explain it as best I can. The guy with a contented grin is the new premier, Nathan Rees. The title indicates that this former garbage collector has swept away the old guard, meaning the ex-premier Maurice Iemma, and is ready to shower his total ignorance and inexperience upon the government of NSW. Big deal! As for inset in the banner showing rear views of three or four fellows, I have no idea of its sense, no doubt symbolic.

The wording is revealing about Aussie mentality. How would you feel about a title such as: From garbage collector to brain surgeon? Normally, running a nation should be no less complex than brain surgery. But Aussies seem to see the rise of Rees as a local lad who's just won the premiership lottery. But what a miserable lottery!

Since returning to France from my native Australia two years ago, I've often felt that I've been talking to a brick wall whenever I expressed naively my opinion that what I had seen of NSW in general, during my brief visit, and of Sydney in particular, had an antiquated run-down look and feel, as if it all needed to be rejuvenated with a few new roads, new bridges, new railways, etc. I've never felt like being too explicit about my painful disappointment with Sydney, because a lot of my dismay centered around the observable fact that this great Victorian city seemed to have been transformed overnight (?) into a dull Asian metropolis. I'm convinced that this transformation was, and will be, a lethal ethnic error... but I don't really care about the consequences, because I'm no longer a resident of the Sunburnt Country.

In any case, it would appear that the poverty of the Australian infrastructure is just as bad as what I thought. Here's an excerpt from this morning's Australian press:

Iemma's resignation after three years in power follows months of intense criticism from political opponents, media and the public over the state's creaking transport, infrastructure and hospital systems.

It continues:

The New South Wales government is unpopular after more than 13 years of Labor rule and as the state's aging infrastructure shows signs of wear and tear.

The underlying problem with NSW government is that the potential people to do the job are simply not there. Why not? Because the current sociopolitical environment doesn't bring such individuals into existence. There are no traditions of serious political education in Australia. We have no political academies, no experts in economics and political science, no great orators, no authors who have set out their visions for the future of Australia in books, etc. So, we call upon clowns... such as Michael Costa, who didn't even believe in the planetary dangers of global warming. And now, NSW is calling upon a former garbage collector. Garbage in, garbage out.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Is there a pilot in the plane?

If you want to see some really crazy figures, take a look at the chart of comparative data in the CIA World Factbook concerning the lengths of coastlines of the nations of the globe [display]. According to their data, the total length of Indonesia's coastline is equivalent to that of Russia, and well over twice as long as Australia's coastline. Even the Philippines and Japan have coastlines longer than that of Australia.

The Wikipedia article on this subject provides clues as to what might have gone wrong. Common sense tells us that, if you were to hire a team of surveyors armed with tape measures, and ask them to take into account the curved lengths of every nook and cranny in a section of coastline, they would end up with a much larger figure than if the curved lengths were to be represented roughly by linear segments. Inversely, if a lazy surveyor were to place markers around the Australian coastline at intervals of 500 km, and then obtain the total distance by adding up the linear segments between his markers (which is more or less what happens when you evaluate the length of a coastline using satellite data), he would conclude that Australia's total coastline measures only 12,500 km... which is equivalent to that of the UK in the above-mentioned chart. To obtain the figures in the chart, each nation has been left with the responsibility of calculating the length of its own coastline, using its own particular technique of measurement, but we ignore the so-called scale interval employed by each country... which means that the respective figures cannot be compared. So, we can safely conclude that all that data is a bunch of crap.

Be that as it may, we realize intuitively that the huge island continent of Australia has a very long coastline. Consequently, our nation is faced with a gigantic task of administering all those coastal waters, from the Pacific in the east to the Indian Ocean in the west. Alongside our defense forces, one of the major government bodies in this domain is AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority], whose website [display] states its vision: To be a superior provider of maritime safety, marine environment protection, and maritime and aviation search and rescue. To help them in this challenge, AMSA awarded a contract in 2005 to a private company named AeroRescue, based in Darwin, with a background in pearling.

And the Australian government provided funds of some $200 million, through AMSA, enabling AeroRescue to acquire a fleet of five Fairchild-Dornier 328-120 turboprop search-and-rescue aircraft.

Amazingly, AMSA has just revealed publicly that, a fortnight ago, on Australia Day, all five planes were grounded because of technical problems. In other words, it would have been a nasty moment for vessels that might have run into serious trouble off the Australian coast at that time.

The following job ad, which I discovered on the Internet, makes me wonder whether the Dornier problems were indeed purely technical:

It's no doubt a pure coincidence that applications for this pilot's job closed on the eve of Australia Day: the day on which the entire fleet was grounded with problems. Freaky.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Expensive, aesthetic and nasty

An inspired TV journalist once asked the Dalai Lama: "Can your beliefs in reincarnation and your unbounded respect for all forms of life be reconciled with the case, say, of a mosquito that's intent upon settling on your arm and sucking your blood?" The grinning Dalai Lama said he would try to shoo the creature away. The journalist insisted: "But what if the mosquito fails to go away, because it's determined to bite you?" The Dalai Lama broke into typical laughter and made it clear by a few unmistakable gestures that, in such circumstances, the creature stood a good chance of being squashed to death. I admired the Dalai Lama's suggestion that it's all very well to have lofty principles... but, if an alien creature is attacking you, then it's perfectly normal to exterminate the vicious little bugger. [On the other hand, maybe I totally misunderstood what the wise man was saying.]

I can't say I've ever felt the need to respect religiously all forms of life, because I grew up in an environment where it was quite normal to kill various animals: snakes, rabbits, hens, ducks, etc. It's true, though, that I was overcome by pangs of guilt for several days, at around the age of ten, after having shot an unsuspecting bird with a catapult. [Even today, I remain so marked by that anecdote that I recently wove it into my fictional biography of Master Bruno, the medieval hermit who founded the Carthusian order of Christian monks.] I'm not cynical to the point of saying that rules are made to be broken, but I believe that we have the right—and the obligation, at times—to stretch them to their breaking point... and what the hell if they snap! That's why I like the Dalai Lama's loose attitude towards offensive mosquitoes, as opposed, say, to the dogmatic outlook of many Christian prelates concerning aborted foetuses or human stem cells.

In a neighboring moral domain, I've never been an all-out pacifist, either. For example, I've always been horrified by the alleged "turning the other cheek" principle of Christianity [which, I believe, has rarely been put into regular practice]. If I had been a Christian in one of Rome's martyrdom arenas, I would have used every possible means at my disposal in order to kill the beasts before they killed me.

And that brings me to the subject of the present post: modern machines of destruction. I was happy to see that some privileged Australian military personnel have been undergoing training in France in the context of the purchase by my native land of several Franco-German combat helicopters of the Tiger class. Now, if you haven't seen these diabolical but fascinating beasts in action, you might take a look at the following spectacular video:



Jumping from helicopters to submarines [metaphorically], I feel obliged to add a few remarks concerning the subject I tackled briefly in my article of 2 January 2008 entitled Australian arithmetic [display]. Otherwise, I could be accused of expressing opinions and then leaving them hanging up in the air, without following them right on through. Let me repeat rapidly the essential points of my reflections concerning the high price of Australia's future submarines. The Australian press had announced that our country would be spending 25 billion dollars to build six diesel-powered vessels, and I made the remark that French nuclear-powered combat submarines of the Barracuda class can be purchased for 36% of that outlay: a billion euros per submarine.

At the same time that I made those remarks publicly in my blog, I got into direct contact with Ross Babbage, chairman of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra. He's the man who actually signed the Kokoda paper #4 of April 2007, which was the main source of the media articles that had presented this submarine affair to the public, as explained in my article of 26 December 2007 entitled Australia's submarines [display]. Ross Babbage reacted kindly by sending me (airmail to France) a complimentary copy of his report, along with helpful explanations that clarify the situation considerably. Here are the precise words on this subject from the Kokoda paper #4:

... simply replacing the Collins Class submarines with a new class of six submarines would probably cost $12-$15 billion. Modernising and adapting Australia's total underwater capabilities to meet the needs of potential defence contingencies in the 2025-2050 timeframe would probably require expenditures in the order of $20-$25 billion.

In other words, we are down to a unit price of $2-$2.5 billion per vessel. Expressed in European currency, that's a unit price between 1.2 and 1.5 billion euros. It's still 20% to 50% more expensive than the ultramodern French nuclear-powered Barracuda submarine, but we're down to sensible figures. Incidentally, the expression "Australia's total underwater capabilities" includes, besides the six future submarines, such costly matters as RAN anti-submarine warfare capabilities and RAAF underwater-surveillance capabilities.

Now, the Antipodes blog is hardly the right place to get deeply involved in affairs of this kind. All I wish to say, by way of a conclusion, is that I was rather surprised by the relatively "lightweight" nature of the Kokoda paper, which is a tiny printed booklet of no more than 64 pages. I had been expecting that the so-called "paper" would be a dense fact-filled report stored, maybe, on a set of DVDs. On the contrary, it skims through the domain of submarines with no attempt whatsoever at attaining depth. Astonishing in the case of a report on submarines...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Australian arithmetic

During my short trip to Australia in 2006, I was shocked to discover that there were no trains to a couple of NSW towns that I wished to visit (Braidwood and Byron Bay), and I was further surprised to find that the only way of crossing the river at Grafton was by means of the antiquated bridge over which I used to pedal my bicycle when I was a boy.

Since then, I've got into the habit of asking naive questions about Australia's infrastructures. Why do Australians never stop boasting about the fabulous wealth of their land, while still tolerating old-fashioned infrastructures that are often like those of a developing nation? A friend tried to tell me recently that the respective infrastructures of France and Australia cannot be compared because... there are three times as many tax-payers in France as in Australia. This analysis is rubbish, of course. When Australia sells a mountain of precious minerals to foreign purchasers, her potential income from the deal has nothing whatsoever to do with the number of Aussies paying taxes. It's a matter of complex political, economic and business considerations that determine what percentage of such wealth will return to Australian citizens, and how much will be left in the hands of greedy international capitalists. It's childishly naive to imagine that the quality of Australia's roads, bridges and railway lines depends necessarily and exclusively upon the financial resources resulting from income tax paid by Aussie wage-earners. That is not only bad arithmetic; it's bad politics. And you can't run a country on such idiotic principles. If indeed the mountains of minerals that we're peddling to foreign buyers don't enable the citizens of Australia to take advantage of decent infrastructures, then our nation's leaders should halt immediately the sale of these mountains of minerals, while we do some serious thinking about what has gone wrong.

Let me turn my attention to another kind of infrastructure. In my articles entitled Australia's submarines [display] and Nuclear energy [display], I referred to an aspect of Australia's future defense system that has given rise to articles in the local press over the last few days. All these articles repeat the same huge investment figure: some 25 billion dollars for six future submarines. Now, this is typically the kind of situation in which a citizen, instead of believing naively what he hears, has the right and the possibility to do some independent thinking. Let's talk in euros. The unit cost of each of Australia's future submarines amounts to 2.75 billion euros. And what is Australia going to receive for this sum? An old-fashioned vessel that runs on diesel oil. My God, that's a lot of cash for a diesel boat!

By way of comparison, let us look at the production of one of the world's most advanced nations in the field of nuclear-propelled submarines: France. It just so happens that France, like Australia, is currently planning to renew its fleet of six attack submarines. The future model is known as the Barracuda, and it will be constructed in the Cherbourg shipyards in Normandy.

The Barracuda vessels will, of course, be propelled by nuclear energy. So, they will be intrinsically far more sophisticated than Australia's classic vessels. And the Barracuda's unit cost price? One billion euros. In other words, Australia's classic submarine, to be delivered in 2025, will be 2.75 times as expensive as France's avant-garde nuclear vessel, to be delivered eight years earlier, in 2017.

Is there something wrong with my arithmetic? Or is there maybe something wrong with Australia's political thinking about the nation's allegedly high-priced infrastructures?