The Pencil Guy: Hourann's illogical blog

Some matters around Perth, and Google in the fray

Thursday 21 June 2007 at 11:45 pm

Revised ING and Fremantle Ports proposal for Victoria Quay; Creative Commons licence doesn't apply to this image

  • This is the revised development proposal for Victoria Quay in Fremantle, and it’s a clear improvement on the original. But it’s still drawn the ire of Fremantle’s heritage lobby (including the deputy mayor) for being too big; it’ll apparently “drain energy” from the surrounding area. Comparing to ships and harbour cranes, this opposition makes so little sense that I can only guess these folks really don’t want anyone spoiling the view from the Port Authority building.
  • Speaking of resistance to change around Perth, Charles Landry is back in town and will be speaking with Carol Coletta (of the American group CEOs for Cities) at His Majesty’s next Thursday. The topic is “what Perth can offer the global community — in particular the dynamic, innovative and highly mobile 20 to 30-somethings”. Details here.
  • Ten points to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for stating the obvious in their report: those same young Australians are disillusioned with politics, partly ’cos they’re ill-informed, but mainly because they don’t trust politicians. The report goes on about civics education, but nothing short of Orwellian brainwashing will do unless MPs start reaching out to young people and, you know, actually responding.
  • It’s interesting to watch as Google develops to be (in some ways) more like a traditional corporation, such as by engaging in political lobbying. But when you’re the darling of the Internet, you use a method that will reach out to the young and the busy — a blog littered with YouTube videos.

Aunty’s news service moves into the modern era

Monday 18 June 2007 at 10:07 pm

Screenshots of the old and new ABC News sites

The ABC News site has traditionally done things well before our “yes we’re with the times honestly we are!” commercial news services, but they’d been slipping a bit lately with their clunky six-year-old design. As of today, they have a new design with more efficient use of whitespace, better searching, and fun AJAXy features. Oh, and it validates now, too.

But just like The Guardian, which dropped its mid-90s look last month to vocal consternation among the supposedly more loyal members of its audience, this move has wrought a rash of negative comments on the site. A few criticisms are sensible — it is annoying to not have lists of headlines from each news category on the front page, and I was fond of the old Politics category. But some are just silly: “I have to learn a new interface all over again, and I hate that … I might as well use MSN now”.

(From a user-experience point of view, this is not surprising: learning new things has a high cognitive cost and it’s a rule in interaction design that users want this minimised. But from a stop-and-think perspective, you’d seriously stop reading the ABC in preference to the unbiased quality of nineMSN?)

Not only does the new design bring ABC News up-to-date with current best practice, it leapfrogs the commercial sites with new techniques. One small example is that they’re integrating Google Maps with some stories, which isn’t much use in a story about Melbourne but is great for events from small country towns.


A summary of what happened in Gaza this week

Saturday 16 June 2007 at 8:35 pm

Rubble and apartment buildings in Gaza City, 2004
Gaza City in 2004; photo by excauboi

Up until earlier today, I could tell that something significant had happened in the Middle East, but I’d never properly understood the conflict — so here’s a super-simplified summary of what I’ve learned.

The territory around Israel controlled by the Palestinian Authority is broken in two: the tiny Gaza Strip on the west coast and the West Bank to Jerusalem’s east. In elections last year (required by the 2002 peace deal), the Western-supported Fatah party were trounced on the back of perceived corruption, leaving its main opponent Hamas in charge. Foreign leaders tried to cut Hamas off, since it most frequently appears in the Western media for organising suicide bombings.

Despite efforts to form a unity government, tensions between the two parties rose last year and a civil war has raged for much of this year. This culminated in a battle this week for control of Gaza, and as of last Thursday, Hamas claims control of the Gaza Strip.

It’s not clear what’ll happen next, but I’m not particularly optimistic, and there’s already talk of the Palestinian cause fragmenting into two. Fleeing his Gaza City office, president Abbas tried to dissolve parliament and declare an emergency, with Israel stating interest in dealing with a Fatah-led West Bank. But it’s not clear whether Abbas will be able to consolidate power, and the result may be yet more instability.


More ‘slow inevitability’ than ‘controversial debate’

Thursday 14 June 2007 at 11:45 pm

HeLa cells with blue nuclear stain

The current debate about using embryos for science is, in my estimation, primarily made up of hot air rather than any real hope of changing the minds of MPs who are already in favour. Indeed, most of the ink-spilling has been about Catholic leaders in Sydney and Perth (and in the latter case, the intent probably was just to describe the official contradiction in being pro-cloning and Catholic — but then, some Catholics use condoms).

Ever since the Federal ban on embryonic stem cell research was dropped late last year, there’s been a new impetus for complementary State rules. The bill to do this in NSW comfortably passed through their lower house last week, while WA’s bill is currently being discussed in the lower house. The Victorian parliament approved their bill back in May.

As far as I can tell, the other states haven’t much moved — for instance, Queensland’s bill seems stuck in the hands of the folks drafting it. Internationally, somatic cell nuclear transfer is legal in the UK, several other EU countries, much of East Asia, and the US (although Americans have to contend with a patchwork of state regulations and a federal funding controversy).

Since I’m generally in favour of abortion (specifically, the argument that a foetus isn’t human enough for its rights to override those of a fully-fledged human), it seems logically inconsistent for me to oppose therapeutic cloning. And I’m hardly alone in supporting it — while I’ve no data for the public at large, the counts that newspapers have done of how MPs intend to vote suggest a majority acceptance that’s in line with the international consensus. So it strikes me as just a matter of time (and impassioned bluster) before stem cell research is legal nationwide.

(Incidentally, it would be consistent to say that stem cells at 14 days aren’t human while a foetus at 28 days is, and therefore therapeutic cloning is OK but abortion isn’t. I’d like to see someone seriously make this argument, but I’ve only seen newspaper letters that didn’t-quite-embrace it.)


Two steps back … and half a step forward?

Saturday 9 June 2007 at 2:12 pm

Angela Merkel and George Bush at the G8 meeting in Germany; Creative Commons licence does not apply to this image

  • Yesterday’s announcement from the G8 meeting sounds awesome: US$60 billion! For the Global Fund! Tackling the worst diseases facing Africa! Yet although this is good news, it actually represents only a little bit of new funding, and it’s being directed to programmes that have an annoying tendency to draw the focus away from other public health concerns (i.e. yay your town is HIV-free! but no we won’t fix your crumbling hospital).
  • Among the other announcements from the G8 summit (including a very American-sounding statement about intellectual property) is an even greater non-event: on climate change, they’ve promised to enter discussions about what to do when the Kyoto Protocol expires, seeking “substantial global emission reductions” (which is as strong as the document gets). By normal standards of diplomacy I’d call this a success — but problem is, by the time normal diplomacy is finished, the battle may have already been lost.
  • Unrelatedly, here I was thinking Paul Murray’s column on Thursday was bad. Today he highlights that newspaper’s endemic lack of clue towards the Internet: whilst pretending he knows what he’s on about, he waffles about “credibility” before selectively quoting The Assault on Reason (taking an entire sentence to dismiss why Al Gore thinks the Web is good for democracy), and froths at the mouth about celebrity gossip without noticing that the Internet is a wee bit bigger than the home pages of Australia’s commercial news services.
  • Murray’s page was taken up yesterday by an infinitely more sensible article from former MP Phillip Pendal (who’s no saint, having once been anti-railway). He points out that the State Government ought to stop sitting on its hands with the Old Treasury Buildings and restore them to government offices, their original use. This really does make a lot of sense, particularly given how much office space the State rents and how horribly expensive that is in the current market. But its sensibility is exactly why I fear his proposal will be ignored.
  • From today’s report about the not-yet-released masterplan for the Amarillo site, I observe that there’s basically nothing new. It’s a huge area of sprawled housing in a region with more new housing estates than you can poke a stick at, there’s suggestion of a dense centre that might be kinda cool (maybe), and there’s the mention of “possible light rail” that has accompanied every development south of Fremantle for as long as I can remember.
    Update 14/6: I’d not noticed that the master plan has been buried on the DHW site for some days now.

Paul Murray: “people on trains scare me”

Thursday 7 June 2007 at 2:56 pm

A train at East Perth Station

I’ll talk stem cells sometime soon, but for now here’s a shorter version of Paul Murray’s column in today’s West Australian. (Annoyingly, it’s not online, but the editor had the gall to plug it on the front page mere days after the nation’s worst railway accident in years!)

So rarely do I lower myself to the level of public transport, I’m surprised to discover that trains don’t suck and are used by real, living people. But my copyeditor suggested throwing in the term “strap-hanging” so I’d look like one of the cool kids.

Not only have I never heard of the social psychology idea of conformity; I also have trouble distinguishing between London and New York, calling the latter’s subway the “Underground”, and will make a hand-waving argument to dismiss the fact that peak hour on their systems is socially no different to ours.

And since I don’t have a real job, I fail to understand why people who do might be tired when coming home, and therefore might take advantage of the chance to relax when someone else is driving.

(Oh, and by the way Paul, electrifying the Fremantle Line was the work of the Lawrence government, not Allanah MacTiernan.)