We Have No Choice

Australia has thrown its lot in with the United States in the war against the Islamic State but not everyone is happy.

I say war even though it’s undeclared. It’s a war of philosophy and ideas as much as weapons and like or not it is one we have to fight and win.

In a rare moment of lucidity the Australian Prime Minister described ISIS as a certain type of terrorist organization, which hate us not because of what we do but because of who we are and how we live. The PM went on to say that he hoped how we live, and who we are, will never change. Amen to that.

Unsurprisingly, Australia has agreed to an American request to transport arms and equipment to Kurdish fighters battling Islamic militants in Iraq. The country is facing a humanitarian catastrophe and this is our way of averting that catastrophe.

The move has the support of the other major opposition political party in Australia but not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

One independent Member of the Federal Parliament said that Australia had taken sides and if the country wants to be gunrunners for the Kurds at the behest of the United States then we are part of that war.

This particular MP is a former senior intelligence analyst turned whistleblower. He resigned from his analyst position in protest at Australia’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War.

His remarks were strident and some might say intemperate. I must say it took me by surprise. I guess his opposition to this is to be expected but we are facing a very different set of circumstances in Iraq this time around.

He received fairly predictable support from other left wing Members of Parliament who called on the Prime Minister to suspend all current Parliamentary business to debate Australia’s latest military involvement in Iraq.

Some newspaper columnists have waded in castigating the Government for being ready to do Washington’s bidding. The Government was interposing Australia in a country fighting a civil war and clearly taking sides in that conflict.

The main Opposition party in a rare show of bipartisanship supported the Government’s decision. They acknowledged it was not an easy one to make but made for the best of reasons-humanitarian relief to prevent genocide against the beleaguered minorities in northern Iraq. It is a risk but on balance the greater risk would be to allow ISIS to succeed in Iraq.

Australia has already begun dropping relief supplies to an Iraqi town holding out against ISIS but this latest development will place our military and our air force in harms way. In order to make sure the arms get to the right people Australian aircraft will land on Iraqi soil, risking anti-aircraft fire from the Islamic State. We will be giving the Kurdish Peshmerga rocket propelled grenades, mortars as well as different caliber ammunition.

The Prime Minister said that understandably Australia shrinks from reaching out to these conflicts and I am sure plenty of other countries do as well. But the truth is these conflicts reach out to us whether we like or not. He said 60 Australians (that we know of) are involved in terrorist groups in the Middle East. Another 100 are actively supporting those Islamic extremists. With such a significant number of Australians involved with these groups they become radicalized, brutalized and accustomed to kill in the name of God. And so the logic goes if they think it is right to kill in the name of God in Iraq then it stands to reason those same people will think it is right to kill in the name of God in Sydney, London or New York.

Australia is yet to receive a request from the United States to join air strikes against ISIS but if that request comes I am sure it will be regarded favorably.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a global coalition to stop the spread of what he called the cancer of the Islamic State. For me it brings to mind the frequently quoted Edmund Burke homily: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. In this case doing nothing is not an option.

 

They’re Coming

Just when you thought you had enough to worry about with the effect of climate change on the environment, here’s something that’s bound to give you nightmares.

If you are like me and think spiders are already big enough and scary enough, then you’d better brace yourself. They are getting even bigger.

In Australia, where I live, we have some of the biggest and nastiest critters imaginable. For example we are home to the world’s most poisonous snake, the inland Taipan. Luckily it lives far, far, away from civilisation. Its venom is so toxic, it makes a death adder look like a wimp in comparison.

So the idea that our spiders might be growing even bigger is not exactly good news. Apparently this trend is happening the world over.

The cause of this has something to do with our cities becoming busier and more populated. Researchers have been examining how your everyday garden spider, like the harmless Golden Orb Weaver, is suddenly growing exponentially.

One species of this type of spider has been gaining weight almost at the same time as the city grows. Researchers say the further they are away from bush land and the more concrete there is with a corresponding reduction in leaf litter, the bigger the spider. And we are talking significant weight gain. For example, spiders found in a park away from the city had an average mass of 0.5 grams. But those in an inner city park averaged 1.6 grams or three times the size. Eeek.

Scientists are calling it the urban heat island effect and prey availability. Spiders are very sensitive to temperature. If it’s warmer they grow bigger. And urbanization has been a big benefit. The food or prey the spider eats tend to do well in small fragments of bush land like urban parks. And they do even better if there is lighting at night. So the spiders have more to eat so they can put more energy into growing bigger.

Income also plays a big part. Scientists found that wealthier areas in the city tend to have the largest spiders. The reason for this is less clear. But it might be because they have more parks and more concrete that heats up readily. Now the really bad news is that the trend is across the board. So poisonous spiders like the Australian Redback are also growing bigger. Global warming will encourage spiders to get bigger but they don’t like the really, really hot weather.

All of this has been pretty surprising to the scientific community. They expected that the opposite would be true. An increase in heat usually means an increase in the rate of development. It also means metabolic function speeds up so they mature early at a smaller size. But that is not what is happening.

The scientists do say the relationship between heat and body size is complicated. The heat might be allowing the spiders to hatch earlier giving them a longer growing season.

In any case, a healthy spider population apparently should be celebrated. They eat pests and provide food for birds. Spiders in urban areas should be encouraged. Sure. Anywhere except my backyard.

 

Paying It Forward

Sometimes when you come across random good advice the best thing you can do is pay it forward. So that’s what I’m doing.

Mind you it comes from a man called Siimon Reynolds. And yes that is how he spells his name. I am always a bit dubious about men who spell their name in that completely fake manner. But his advice looks like the real deal.

Australia, and in all probability pretty much everywhere else in the world, is gripped by start up company fever. There are companies that accelerate, incubate, mentor and educate. Young entrepreneurs are being given the opportunity to win coaching sessions and seed money for their next big, bright business idea.

Enter Siimon Reynolds, advertising guru. Well he would be with a name like that. He offers advice that can be divided up along the following lines:

  1. Fake it until you make it. Reynolds says one of the most common mistakes made by business people is to focus on building a business without building a strong self-image. You won’t get anywhere with just a vision of what your company is going to look like you need to be able to see yourself as a great future entrepreneur. You can’t build a company without building you, so fake it until you make it. In other words choose a future version of yourself and then behave as if you already have those qualities.
  2. Forget about the furniture. The most common mistake made by new business owners is they don’t spend enough time marketing their business and the best way to attract customers. Reynolds says a start up needs to spend 70 percent of its time trying to get customers, instead of choosing office furniture or getting the website up and running. According to a study by research company, Dunn & Bradstreet, the main reason why businesses fail across most industries in because of low sales. In other words if you don’t spend most of your time working on ways to generate sales you are going to fail.
  3. Online start-ups rarely get it right. Too many businesses focus on their platform instead of their brand. Start with your brand and work backwards. What is your proposition? point of difference? How can you compete? Here’s an example of getting it right. A fashion retailer partners with a shopping center to offer a click and collect service.
  4. Learn to fail forwards. The risk of doing nothing is always greater than the risk of doing something. Reynolds says the cost of failure now is much lower than it was in the past so literally there is no excuse not to have a go. But that’s doesn’t mean taking a cowboy attitude, a second mortgage or betting the farm. Reynolds says every journey leads somewhere. It might not necessarily be where you want to go at the time but success is rarely a straight line either. Failure is part of that journey. Apparently in Silicon Valley they call it failing forwards. The way to get into the game is to get into the game. Some of the great businesses in the 21st century, like Facebook, Google or Twitter are a long, long, long way from where they started out.
  5. Focus on doing one thing well. Another big barrier for startups is a lack of focus. They start a business with 20 products or try to have multiple businesses at once. They look at people like Richard Branson running 400 companies but they don’t realize Branson had just one company for a decade. Reynolds says the successful entrepreneur is not necessarily the one who chases the shiny object or the shiny market. You have to ask yourself this question. If I were to pick one thing and become the best in the world at it, what would it be?
  6. Throw out the Schoolbook. In order to be a successful entrepreneur you need to throw away everything you’ve learned in traditional education. University degrees don’t build successful businesses. The rules of the game have changed. The rule is there are no rules for how to start a successful business. An MBA prepares you to think in an entrepreneurial way but it won’t prepare you for starting your own business. It won’t ever show you how to market a product with no money. The world is changing fast. You’ve got to change with it and adapt.

So there you go. My gratuitous advice for the day but it carries this disclaimer. I have not personally followed any of these tips or suggestions yet. But if you have or do and it worked let me know. With all the doom and gloom in the world it would be nice to hear about something good.

 

 

It’s All Merde To Me

What I am going to talk about is a load of crap. But that’s understandable because it involves exactly that…done every day….. in the smallest room in the house.

Australians have a love affair with a certain brand of toilet tissue. But just recently there’s been a relationship breakdown. In short there is a danger of Australians washing their hands completely of the brand. So much so they are threatening to abandon it completely. To put it bluntly they have a case of the you-know-whats.

About a month ago, the company, which manufactures the toilet paper, decided to make what it called minor changes to the product.

In a statement which was headed: We wanted to let you know what has changed and why? The company said that manufacturing pressures had forced the label to look for opportunities to increase efficiencies in their operations. Translated it meant the company wanted to cut costs. And part of that cost cutting involved a lighter, smaller toilet roll. The company says it’s all about more efficient packaging, more efficient shipping and storage and less space on supermarket shelves.

But the toilet paper buying public sees it differently. Even though the company says there was no change to sheet size or the number of sheets, consumers believe the exact opposite. Angry consumers have taken to the company’s Facebook page criticizing it for misleading the public. Some have claimed that the quality of the toilet paper has been reduced and that accounts for a drop in weight and a thinner, inferior product. People are obviously upset but the company says it has done nothing wrong.

It says there are still 180 sheets per roll and nothing has changed for the past two years. Any reduction in paper density is due to the way the toilet roll has been wound. The company says it’s about efficiency and nothing more. It means they are using fewer resources to make the product.

The company says its not surprised that some consumers are complaining about the changes. This almost always happens when consumers suddenly discover what they are used to buying looks a bit different.

I guess the company is hoping all of this criticism will be flushed away in much the same way as its product after its been used.

But consumers are a funny lot. Messing with their favorite toilet roll is just the kind of merde they don’t want to deal with.

Ignore Them At Your Peril

Most people in the world will, by now, have heard of ISIS. Why am I wasting time and oxygen talking about a grotesque and barbaric group of extremists? Because we need to take them seriously. Very, very seriously. And, it would be a serious mistake not to. 

Here’s why.

ISIS is wealthier than a small country. They have $2billion in cash and even more in captured assets. With Syria a basket case, ISIS took control of oil fields, electricity plants, and dams as part of its strategy to control key infrastructure. It even continued to collect taxes to fund its invasion of Iraq. Other money making enterprises like ransom payments for hostages have earned millions.

It is better financed than all of the other radical Middle Eastern groups like Hezbollah, the Taliban, Farc and Al Shabaab. ISIS can even pay its fighters a salary.

Right at this moment they are the most dangerous and powerful group of extremists in the world. They have a PR machine, that some observers claim, can rival the slickest Hollywood agency. They have sophisticated strategies and very structured social media tactics and they are growing stronger every day. ISIS produces merchandise including branded T-shirts. Its followers post to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They even produce a glossy magazine that’s posted online and the Islamic State publishes an annual report complete with infographics detailing its operations.

And like any ambitious corporation hoping to get bigger, ISIS possesses a very clear business and marketing plan. Their stated aim is to create an Islamic state in the Middle East and to recruit fighters from all over the world. ISIS has clearly identified its target audience as young Muslims aged between 20 and 30. They are people who feel alienated and frustrated by the society they are currently living in. What ISIS offers is proving to be a very attractive commodity.

ISIS sees itself as an alternative to Western and Middle Eastern governments around the world. Particularly western Governments that have failed to engage with young Muslims. And ISIS has the runs on the board. Potential recruits see it fighting against the leadership in Iraq and Syria with great success.

One academic who specializes in radicalization, criminal behavior and gangs blames Governments in the United States, Australia and the UK for not reaching out to their young Muslim population. He says that failure has led to the group becoming radicalized. ISIS gives these young Muslims the feeling that they belong to something especially if they are socially disadvantaged, isolated and alienated from wider society.

Most disturbingly, they’ve been flocking to radical movements like ISIS by the thousands. The stats speak for themselves. Three years ago, ISIS had only 1000 members. Now it has an estimated 80 thousand fighters from around the world. Its influence is outstripping other terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, which has been forced willingly or not to take a back seat to ISIS in power, size and influence 

Who would ever have thought that al-Qaeda could be considered moderate in comparison to ISIS with Bin Laden’s successor labeling the Islamic group too extreme. 

But clearly extremism does not put people off from joining. In fact the graphic YouTube beheadings designed to goad countries like the United States into sending ground forces has helped ISIS to recruit more fighters.

Counter terrorism laws are great at helping people feel more secure but they are not going to do the job on their own. If ISIS is, as one diplomat put it, the most capable military power in the Middle East outside of Israel, then Governments are going to have to come up with some better solutions and fast.

Getting It So Wrong

I read something the other day that I found quite challenging in a personal sense primarily because someone close to me has been battling breast cancer. The question I am posing is this: Should a Doctor whose misdiagnosis causes the death of a patient, be named and shamed?

This ethical and moral question was prompted by a case in New Zealand where a doctor was forced to apologise to the family of a woman who died from breast cancer because he “forgot” to tell his patient she had the disease.

Here’s the backstory. The woman was successfully treated for cancer in 2003. In November 2009, six years later, she presents herself at a clinic complaining of pain in her left shoulder. Now at this point the alarm bells should have been ringing in any event. Breast cancer can make a comeback and the timeframe for it happening is usually within five or six years.

Her treating Doctor was well aware that she was a cancer survivor. He referred her for an x-ray and the specialist radiologist said it revealed a tendon tear that appeared “highly suggestive of metastasis”, or the spread of cancerous lesions.

As this point the alarm bells should have stopped ringing and treatment begun immediately but that didn’t happen.

The GP saw the woman again several days later. He told her about the tendon tear and gave her a steroid injection, which the woman said was “excruciating”.

But crucially he did not mention the cancer link nor did he refer her to a cancer specialist.

She was told to return in a month if the pain persisted, which she did once in December and again in January before the doctor finally referred her to an orthopaedic surgeon.

The woman was correctly diagnosed with recurring breast cancer in February 2010, after she had changed doctors. Despite several years of aggressive treatment, the woman died.

The case became the subject of a complaint to the New Zealand Health And Disability Commissioner.

The doctor told the inquiry he either overlooked or completely forgot about the radiologist’s comment in relation to a suspicious lesion.

The Health and Disability Commissioner criticised the GP for failing to read his own notes, ask the right questions, or reflect on his patient’s medical history when assessing her.

He said Doctors owe patients a duty of care in handling test results, including advising patients of the need to follow up on those results.

The GP has been referred to the Director of Proceedings for possible legal action.

Clearly neither the patient, nor the Doctor nor the clinic or its location has been identified. I can completely understand not identifying the patient now that she has passed away out of respect for her family.

But the Doctor, I’m not so sure. If we are going to be talking about duty of care, what about the duty owed to all the other women with a history of cancer or symptoms of the disease or even the same symptoms as the woman who died?  They might visit that same Doctor and run the risk of a misdiagnosis. If they knew his name they could make the choice to either see him or go somewhere else.

Or is he entitled to the protection that the medical profession offers Doctors like him who make a mistake? We all make mistakes. Has he paid enough of a price already? Well has he?

 

Justice Seen To Be Done

One of Australia’s longest, costliest and controversial criminal investigations has come to a spectacular end. And not in anything approaching a good way.

There are no winners here. A man has spent 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. A police force and a prosecutor’s office have been left embarrassed and humiliated and a family is wondering if it will ever receive justice.

This story begins in Canberra in 1989 with Colin Winchester the then Chief Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police.

The AFP in some ways could be said to be the Australian equivalent of the American FBI. It is a law enforcement body responsible for the investigation of major crimes like terrorism, organised crime and major drug importations. Winchester is on a day off and returning home after visiting his brother. He lives in a Canberra suburb and his next-door neighbour is a widow who lives alone. She has asked him if he wouldn’t mind parking his car in her driveway. Being a good neighbour, Winchester obliges. He parks the car and as he is exiting a gunman comes up behind him and fires into the back of his head. The first shot is fatal. Winchester is shot a second time through the right cheek, just to make sure. It was brazen and brutal. This was a cold-blooded assassination that shocked the entire country.

As you might expect a crime of this magnitude enraged the AFP.

It quickly established a task force to investigate the murder and the investigating officers were left in no doubt they needed to solve this crime quickly and for the assassin or assassins to be brought to justice.   It wasn’t long before they focused on the perfect suspect. A middle-aged public servant with mental problems who’d made death threats against Winchester. He was the perfect fit. The AFP determined the murder weapon to be a Ruger rifle. And they make a major breakthrough in the case. A witness identifies their main suspect, as having bought the murder weapon. Mind you it took the witness six months to come forward. And when a forensic scientist matches gunshot residue from the murder scene to residue found in the boot of the suspect’s car it was game set and match. There was a trial, a guilty verdict and a sentence of life imprisonment and that should have been the end of the matter. Except nothing was as it seemed.

Cut to 19 years later, and an independent inquiry headed by a senior judge has found that the evidence used to convict the prime suspect was dodgy to say the least. The forensic evidence, and the scientist who gathered it, have been totally discredited. The Prosecution should have disclosed information in discovery that would have assisted the defence case and in all probability resulted in an acquittal. But it was withheld. The upshot is that the conviction has been quashed and the suspect is now a free man albeit on bail. A new trial was ordered but that is easier said than done.

The only evidence against the suspect has been discredited. Witnesses have died. How he can now get any kind of trial, let alone a fair one, is beyond me. If the trial fails to proceed the suspect will be entitled to millions of dollars for a wrongful conviction.

The Australian Federal Police have been made to look foolish. There was a hot, alternative line of inquiry that they never followed. A witness came forward to say that Winchester had been murdered in a mafia hit. The Chief Commissioner had disrupted a major drug operation and the mafia who thought they had paid off a corrupt member of the Federal Police suddenly discovered they’d been double-crossed. They had the motive and could easily have hired an overseas triggerman to do the job. But now that the case against their number one suspect has collapsed, it will be interesting to see if the Federal Police follow this line of inquiry.

By taking a one-dimensional blinkered view of the case they have failed the Winchester family. And it has meant that the real killer has very likely got away with murder.