Monthly Archives: May 2012

Reading and learning and the internet

I love the way reading on the internet leads to all sorts of previously-unimagined knowledge. This morning I saw an article about a siege in Melbourne: some man wanted for an armed burglary is holed up in a suburban house, but the fact that jumped out at me was this:

When trying to speak to the man (then only a suspect) in a restaurant:

“One of the [police] officers dropped his radio … the man bent down and picked the radio up and made good his escape through the back of the restaurant.”

– Erin Michael, Gunman fires another shot from a house in Keilor East overnight, News.com.au, 22 May 2012

I wouldn’t have understood that the loss of a police radio is bad news, except that some time ago I read an article about the US Secret Service’s protection of visiting foreign dignitaries in New York, which mentioned this:

During the 2010 [United Nations] assembly, a command center, code-named “Broadside,” was set up at the heart of the field office. Here, agents followed the movements of the many dignitaries and their security details in real time, in part by monitoring 16 distinct radio channels set aside for the summit. (This was considered a luxury: radio bandwidth is a precious commodity, and only 12 channels had been available the prior year.) Encryption keys for each channel are supplied by the National Security Agency, and the agents protect their radios as scrupulously as they protect their guns. “If only one radio is lost, we have to rekey every radio,” the agent in charge of this process told me.

Marc Ambinder, Inside the Secret Service, The Atlantic, March 2011, single page

I don’t know whether the police require such a high level of security for their own radios, but I can see that a secure means of communication might be more valuable than a gun to them, and worth a lot to a criminal organisation. The theft of the radio in this siege case might have been just opportunism – the officer dropped it, the suspect picked it up – but presumably the suspect wouldn’t have stopped to pick it up unless he’d understood its value. I expect criminals can get their hands on a gun any day they want, but a police radio? Gold.

The point is: until reading the Secret Service article, I wouldn’t have ever thought about radios at all, and wouldn’t have noticed the significance of the siege man’s theft. It’s only reading and learning which made the significance noticeable, and it was only the internet which made that reading possible in the first place.

In summary, I love the internet. Reading and the internet. Learning and reading and the internet. My own gold.

Pondering good news

In case you haven’t seen this, reader:

Update (May 17): Since this feature went live we’ve had a bunch of feedback and it looks like following comments by default is not a good fit for a lot of bloggers (and their readers) after all. We looked at a few different options, but for now we’ve just changed things back to how they were before. To follow a conversation, make sure you check the box when you post a comment.

– Beau Lebens, Stay in the conversation, WordPress.com News, 15 May 2012

I think that’s great, of course. Yay for WordPress!

But as soon as I saw that update, I started thinking that it might have been a deliberate decision from the start: to introduce a relatively small change which they guessed would be unpopular, intending to later retract it, thus branding the company as being all-round nice and responsive to user preferences. After that sort of set up, you could bring in a bigger change that’s also going to be unpopular but say it’s supported by most users (even if it isn’t) and we users will believe it.

In other words: I’m getting cynical and paranoid, and looking for conspiracy theories even in good news. That’s pretty stupid.

Anyway, well done to WordPress on removing the default. Whatever the reasons behind it (even if there aren’t any reasons behind it), I think it was a good thing to do.

Kind deeds make good people

My parents just rang from Ti Tree in the Northern Territory. Either today or yesterday they rescued a carload of strangers stuck on the Sturt Highway by buying petrol at the next town and taking it back to refuel their empty tank.

I feel really proud when they do things like this. I expect a lot of people wouldn’t have done it, and I’m not sure what I would have done. When you’re driving along a highway it seems hard to stop for anything. There’s just something about zooming along a road that makes you want to keep zooming.

And the area they’re in is very remote – roughly speaking, in the middle of Australia. This is Barrow Creek in a photo from Wikipedia by Adrian Kitchingman:
panorama of the area around Barrow Creek, Northern Territory

It’s known for being the place where Peter Falconio is presumed to have been murdered – after being waved down by a stranger on the side of the road. That was big news back in 2001, and I still remember it.

Barrow Creek is the home community of the people my parents helped, and they’re Aboriginal people. In Australia it means something to say that a carload of strangers is Aboriginal, and that’s because we’re racist. Put it this way: I’m a white Australian and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that a carload of Aborigines had run out of petrol. But if it had been a carload of Indian or Chinese people, or Caucasians like me, that would have surprised me a lot – both that they’d run out of petrol on a highway and that there’d been a carload of them.

Is it reasonable to stereotype people in such a way? Of course not. I do it because of prejudice or bias or discrimination, due in part to overly-biased media reports or something. And taking a wild guess here, I bet my parents think the same way. They’re not so enlightened that they see everybody fairly; I bet nobody is. So, when my parents came across a carload of Aborigines on the side of the road in a remote part of the country, I think they would have had to counteract 200+ years of racist social conditioning in order to make themselves slow down and stop to offer assistance. And that’s what they did.

They’re good people, my parents, and the people they were helping are quite likely good people too. If the positions had been reversed, the Aboriginal people would quite likely have stopped to help my parents. That’s what you do when you live in the country: help each other. And that might be what you do in the city, too; who knows.

And years ago I was helped by two Aboriginal men when the car I was driving lost a tyre. This was on the outskirts of a local town. I’d been driving home when the car started making a weird thumping noise, so I pulled off the road to replace the obviously hopeless tyre. But then couldn’t even remove the tyre, let alone replace it. I can’t remember why; I think either the nuts were screwed on too tightly to loosen, or I didn’t have the right tools for the job. While I was fumbling and worrying, a car pulled up behind me and parked, quite a long way away. The two occupants, two Aboriginal men, sat there and … just sat there, for ages. I didn’t know what they were doing, and started to worry, plus I was already worrying about not being able to replace the tyre, and this was back in the days before mobile phones, so I was actually literally stuck.

After what seemed like forever the two Aboriginal men got out of their car and walked over and asked if I needed a hand. And I said yes, and thank you, and thank you, and they removed the tyre and replaced it for me. I hope I shook their hands, but now I bet I was too shy to do that. They were kind. They were good people. And on the drive home on the newly-replaced tyre I wondered if they’d waited in their car for so long because they’d thought I might be scared of them.

That idea makes me want to cry, now. They were good people, being kind, but maybe they thought prejudice would make me think otherwise.

Then again, maybe they just stayed in their car to wait for me to ask for their help. And thanks to my own traditions, I probably would have waited until the point of starvation before asking – not because of racism, just because of self-sufficient stupidity.

It’s a funny old world we live in, and there’s so much that’s terrible, but when someone like my parents or the tyre-changing heroes do something kind, they make me think that a better world is possible, or may even be here already if we just try harder notice it. Yay for them.

Meanwhile, in the land of idiots

Upwind of me, or it would be upwind if there was any breeze, someone is burning huge piles of discarded coffee trees that have been drying out for a few weeks now. Presumably they could have set fire to them any time over the last week and a half when the weather was clear and dry and windy and the smoke would have lifted straight up into the air never to return. But instead they’ve set fire to them today, when there are clouds developing and showers are said to be possible later (though, to be fair, said showers sure don’t look possible at the moment). The smoke just sits in this weather.

I just walked out to the road to check what’s happening. The fires are a kilometre away, or about that (my distance-calculation ability isn’t great). The smoke rises up in a great sheet above the flames, then drifts over here, to where I live, and descends all around me. There’s smoke in a smog-like expanse all around, on every side, and further away it drifts down into the valleys and then creeps up the hills on the other side.

My throat hurts from being outside for five minutes. And I’ve had a cold for over a week, and now my lungs and nose are hurting too. And I can’t put the washing out on the line because I don’t want it to get smoky, and I can’t do the mowing I was planning to get done today, or any other sort of outdoor work, either, not if I want to go on breathing.

What makes it worse: the coffee trees they’re burning are the ones I helped plant, all those many years ago, when my parents still were dairy farmers on the paddocks that are now being graded for what looks like a new house site, owned by a fast-paced city developer with too much money and no sense. Those paddocks used to feel like they were mine, and they actually were my parents’; and before that, my dad’s parents’. I used to walk over all of that farm, and play there when I was a kid; and all of those coffee trees they’re now burning I had to water, on the old tractor that had almost no brakes, which I once nearly rolled when reversing down a hill and forgetting which pedal was the clutch and which was the brake.

They took out the first paddock of coffee trees a few months ago. I thought they were just bulldozing part of the hill. But then they kept going, and took out all the trees. The whole hill is bare now, except for the two big trees on the top. The history of the place is something that the present owners will never know or care about.

Now it’s all smoke and I don’t want to go outside. It’s one of those days where I just grouch and mope and wait for tomorrow.

If I knew someone called Vera, I’d always be saying “‘Allo, Vera!” and thinking it was funny.