I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I recently watched on TV a discussion about the concept of aboriginality. What is it and who should have the right to claim it?

When the whites came to Australia and claimed it for themselves, they almost completely destroyed Aboriginal culture and heritage. They did it in many ways, some of which were blatant and some more subtle. They did it by making a sport out of shooting Aborigines. They did it by taking away from their families those who had a white parent (thereby creating what is known as The Lost Generation). They did it by banning the use of Aboriginal languages and ceremonies. They did it by forcing Aborigines to abandon their traditional way of life. They did it by spreading diseases and alcohol. They did it by mocking and ridiculing black people.

Today, many descendants of the first Australians live in appalling conditions. On average, they live shorter lives than non-Aboriginal Australians. Their unemployment rate is shocking. And they end up and die in jail all too often.

It is not possible to erase what has already happened, but it is our collective obligation to provide to the Aborigines a better than fair chance to progress. I said “better than fair” because, after centuries of neglect and marginalisation, they need all the help they can get. Not as an act of charity, but as an act of justice and hope. They need help in finding ways of helping themselves.

We have in Australia a kind of affirmative action for Aborigines and Torres-Strait Islanders (Torres Strait is between Australia and Papua New Guinea). For example, all applications forms to apply for jobs with any level of Australian government (local, state, or federal) include a box to tick if you can claim to descend from original Australians.

If you are recognised as an Aborigine, you have access to funding and grants that are unavailable to other Australians. This makes some Australians unhappy, but I fully support it. It is in my opinion a must.

That said, the fact that benefits are associated with being recognised as a person of Aboriginal descent clouds the issue of Aboriginality. Inevitably, some claim to be Aborigines to take advantage of the benefits, although they are not. Because of the benefits, the question of whether somebody is an Aborigine ceases to be purely a matter of identity, heritage, and culture.

Who decides whether you are an Aborigine? There are Aboriginal Councils and other organisations that can issue certificates of Aboriginality, but on which basis?

If somebody has the colour and the somatic traits of an Aborigine, speaks an Aboriginal language, and is known by the elders of the clan to which he belongs, there cannot be any doubts about his aboriginality.

Similarly, if one looks white and cannot prove to have any Aboriginal ancestry, there is a good chance that he is not an Aborigine.

But most cases are not so “black and white” (pun intended!)

Some people only have an Aboriginal grandparent and look completely white, even with blue eyes and blond hair. And yet, having grown up in a family that was known in their neighbourhood to be Aboriginal, they consider themselves Aborigines.

Others were taken away from their Aboriginal mother and forcibly adopted by a white couple when they were babies. They might look dark enough (whatever that means), but have sometimes no idea where they were born, and might only know something of what it means being an Aborigine from what they have learned as adults.

As far as I know, in the USA, belonging to a tribe of Indian Americans is determined on the basis of a DNA test. Having a heritage and belonging to a culture has not much to do with DNA, does it? Is then a DNA test what is needed? If not, would it be fair to exclude people who know nothing about Aboriginal culture only because they were forcibly removed from their families?

I believe that we should define clear and measurable criteria and require that at least one of them is satisfied. Obviously, together with the desire of being recognised as an Aborigine, because the last thing we want is to force people into drawers. The first possible criteria that come to mind are:
  1. Traceability of ancestry to an Aboriginal person.
  2. Presence of any Aboriginal DNA detected with a set probability, similarly to what is done in court to determine paternity.
  3. Being recognised as a member by an Aboriginal clan.
Satisfying any one of them should suffice. I certainly left out something, but the point I want to make here is that the decision cannot be left to subjective opinion of people who have no association with the person who’s applying to be recognised. The applicant shouldn’t feel that his Aboriginality is arbitrarily questioned.

Like every law and regulation, also what I propose would be subject to abuse. For example, a single corrupt elder of a recognised Clan (there can be crooks anywhere) could be bribed into signing illegitimate certificates of Aboriginality. And any analysis, including aDNA test, can be faked.

But a clear set of rules would at least be verifiable. I’m convinced that the number of abuses would be reduced.

All this says nothing about who should get support in preference to others, because “greater need” is a fishy concept. But (just for the pleasure of throwing in a cliché) Rome wasn’t built in a day...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Authors' Mistakes #2 - Colin Forbes

I had never read anything by Colin Forbes. Knowing how successful he was and how many novels he had written, when I saw a copy of Double Jeopardy at a heavily discounted price, I grabbed it.

I was keen to read that particular novel because it played in Zurich, where I lived for eleven years.

Anyhow, I soon discovered that I hated his writing style. Compared to David Baldacci’s, to name one of my favourite authors, Forbe’s prose sounded dry and rough. The dialogues were somewhat primitive. I only kept going because, as I said, the story played in Switzerland and the plot promised to be interesting.

Unfortunately, when I completed the third chapter, having only read 38 of the novel’s 373, I gave up.

The first mistake, at the beginning of Chapter 3, was that Keith Martel (the hero of the story), while at Heathrow, learns from his boss that he will fly to Geneva instead of to Zurich but, in the same page, he then lands in Zurich. This was a genuine mistake. It could have not been that Keith had flown to Zurich via Geneva, because then he would have gone though passport control in Geneva, not Zurich.

The second mistake was that Keith, when his plane reached the Swiss border near Basle (80 km before landing in Zurich, when planes usually start their descent), saw the Matterhorn through a window across the aisle. This is impossible for two reasons: Firstly, the Matterhorn is on the Swiss-Italian border, on the Southside of the Alps, while Basle is more than 200 km north of the border. With the Alps in between, even Superman would have had problems in seeing the Matterhorn from the skies above Basle. Secondly, the plane was turning east. This means that Keith, sitting on the left of the plane, would have seen through the starboard-side windows only sky.

I also had a third problem: There is no square in Zurich named Centralhof, and certainly none that fits Forbe’s description. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk being sued by people living at a real address, and invented a realistically called square.

But by then, I was fed up with the “raspy” prose, and decided to give up on the book. Who cares about possibly good plots if the reading is not pleasurable?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Authors' Mistakes #1 - Lee Child

I usually alternate my reading between non-fiction and fiction books. Early today, I started reading Die Trying by Lee Child. I like the Jack Reacher character, so cool and efficient.

Anyhow, I just discovered a mistake at the beginning of Chapter 4. Somehow, it is comforting to know that also the famous authors, despite all their experience and the resources of their publishers, make mistakes.

Here is the opening of Chapter 4.

Right inside the shell of the second-floor room, a second shell was taking shape. It was being built from brand-new softwood two-by-fours, nailed together in the conventional way, looking like a new room growing right there inside the old room. But the new room was going to be about a foot smaller in every dimension than the old room had been. A foot shorter in length, a foot narrower in width, and a foot shorter in height.

The new floor joists were going to be raised a foot off the old joists with twelve-inch lengths of the new softwood. The new lengths looked like a forest of short stilts, ready to hold the new floor up. More short lengths were ready to hold the new framing a foot away from the old framing all the way around the sides and the ends.

Well? Have you noticed anything? I did, as soon as I read the two paragraphs. Come on... Isn’t it obvious? OK, I’ll tell you, as you know I would!

The first paragraph states that a the new room being built inside another room is A foot shorter in length, a foot narrower in width, and a foot shorter in height. Then, supposing that you place the new, smaller, room in the centre of the old one, how much space do you have left around? I should say, half a foot. Right?

And yet, Lee Child’s second paragraph states that the new framing is a foot away from the old framing all the way around the sides and the ends.

It gives an all new dimension to carpentry, doesn’t it?

In the past, I reported such errors, at least the most blatant ones, to the publisher. But I have never received a reply. Their loss, I should say.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


In Australia, like in many western countries, we have speed cameras.

What is odd, though, is that their position is announced in advance with big street signs (at least in the Australian Capital Territory, where I live).  Speed cameras are called here “speed traps”.  But what trap is visibly marked so that the prey doesn’t “fall” into it?

There are some mobile cameras, but very few.  Often, instead of being used by the police to issue speeding tickets, they are connected to big panels that tell you your speed, as if the speedometer mounted in your dashboard were not enough.

Canberrans are up in arms whenever the government announces more speed cameras.  In the newspapers, you read articles accusing the Police of being money grabbers.  It is as if the Police didn’t have the right to fine you when you break the law.  Evidently, the motorists think they have the right to exceed the speed limits.

I say, fill the territory with speed cameras and place police cars with Doppler radars around curves, at the bottom of down slopes, and hidden in the shrubs!  Hit as many speeders as possible and hit them hard for breaking the law in a way that endangers everyone.  Indeed, most accidents occur because people drink & drive and/or speed.  Breath checks are good, but they also slow down the traffic.  Speed checks don’t.

The Swiss do it right: Zurich has dozens of speed cameras, which take very precise measurements of car speeds (how could it be otherwise?  They are Swiss!  :-).  But fines are only issued if the measured speed exceeds the speed limit by more than 5 km/h.  By giving a margin of 5 km/h, they generously take into account tolerances.  I was once fined forty Swiss Francs (about $40) because my speed was 6 km/h above the speed limit.  Fair enough.

Let the speeders be annoyed that they get caught.  I don’t know how much the fines are, because I have never been fined since I came back to Australia four and a half years ago, but I say: make them higher.  Sooner or later, people will start thinking that speeding doesn’t pay.