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Friday, July 27, 2007

speakun Orstraylian

'Oh. Ohh. Neoh!" Mrs Halliday says when introduced to the painter Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector. "Neoh" is her stab at a Queen's English pronunciation of "no" and Patrick White mocks it heartily. The culture White knew was still joined umbilically to British culture. These days Australian snobs have their own rules of engagement.

Changes in Australian pronunciation, while underscoring pretention and bullshit, also mark our increasing cultural autonomy. Where once the ocker accent may have been genuinely stigmatised, the broad accent of the "howzat, nah, c'mon mite" variety has become a bit of a "celebrity accent", like some strands of black and Cajun English in the US.

The broad accent is something to wheel out for TV spots (The Footy Show), tourists (ever been on the Sydney Explorer bus?) and festive occasions (family barbecues). For many, it's not a mother tongue so much as a party trick we perform as needed - to be funny, to belong, to make a point and, most of all, to avoid being identified as someone who feels superior, even if in truth we do.

Once, people went to university to get rid of their twang. But now it's suburban migrant accents that voice the scary underclass and fade with education. I've heard a few lectures delivered in a bit of an Aussie drawl but I can't imagine one sounding like Habib from Fat Pizza.

This is a revolution in prejudice. There is now the uniquely Australian cachet of not sounding too big for your boots. The agreement seems to be that speaking Strine is a vaccination against wankery.

Unimpressed by overt social class, it is men who have most enjoyed such half-secret vocal handshakes. The ladies have their own game. As one teacher at an exclusive private girls' school told me, eastern suburbs dads may modulate their speech up and down the scale but the mothers are pretty strict.

For evidence of this gender asymmetry, consider Julia Gillard. Born in Wales, a lawyer, very brainy, still she speaks with an exaggerated drawl. This may work in the Labor Party boys' club but the public itches to know why she sounds like a lesbian ex-junkie.

Upwardly mobile Australian women are more likely to hypercorrect. They alter their speech to imitate an accent perceived as more prestigious but overshoot, miss the target sound, and end up making a whole new noise.

In Kath & Kim Prue and Trude, two snobby women working in an expensive homewares shop, do this all the time. They move vowels around in the mouth to show they're old money. Or rather, they do it in order not to sound like Kath and Kim. Broad Aussie "hi" rhymes with "hoy", so they say "haa" instead.

When speaking of Noosa, "Newsa", high up and in front with little mouth articulation, sounds a bit cheap. So we get that bizarre "oor" sound in "Noorsa", which is forced back into the pharynx with exaggerated lip-rounding.

Everything can be sacrificed, even comprehensibility. The freakish way Australian snobs say "Hellooruw" is unique in the world.

Kath and Kim also hypercorrect themselves. Like Prue and Trude, they say their final "t"s funny from time to time. Pauline Hanson did it as well. You know, that kind of breathy sound? It's called hyperaspiration, and it's a classic case of hypercorrection. These women, real and fictional, are on the run from the broad Australian "t", which sounds like a "d", as in "budda" for "butter", or gets dropped at the end of phrases. Some do it more flamboyantly than others. Prue and Trude say "great" as "grayshsh" and "beautiful" as "beyoushshiful". And Kath says: "Yis, I am hoigh maintenance and, frankly, I enjoy ishsh."

Hanson hyperaspirated her "t"s in direct proportion to how nervous and defensive she was. "I don't like it!" had a very windy final consonant. Supposedly a battler against the class system, she still tried to talk noice in her way. When relaxed, she sounded relatively normal.

On the other hand, very few Australian men would ever hyperaspirate and say something was "grayshsh", except maybe a few footsoldiers of the pink mafia - definitely not the generals.

We make up who we are through the way we speak. The accent system in Australia has no equivalent to the extreme regional and class differences in Britain. We play by different rules Down Under, rules shrouded in open secrecy.

.. stolen from smh


South Korea vs. Iraq: Soccer at Bukit Jalil

check out my photos from the night.
If you want that is, no pressure.

3 sides of KL

froggies awaitin' a-cookin'

.. a late night dip in the complex pool

store your baby's stem cells today!
.. Seen at Times Square

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Austin Powers - the rocket

.. classic stuff.

Low-cost carriers to launch cheap flights out of KLIA

KUALA LUMPUR: For less than RM10, passengers can fly from here to Australia come early September when low-cost carriers AirAsia X and Jetstar begin their separate operations.

AirAsia X, the country’s first long-haul budget airline, is expected to start its first flight between here and an Australian east-coast city on Sept 8.

Insiders said the Malaysian airline is expected to start its promotional one-way fare at RM9.90.

A day later on Sept 9, Jetstar - the low-cost subsidiary of Qantas - will start its operations from Malaysia to Sydney.

For starters, Jetstar is offering fares from RM88 for one-way travel in September and February. This does not include taxes and surcharges, which come to a total of RM409.50.

The offer is valid till 10pm today and travellers can book online at www.jetstar.com or call 1800-813-090.

Jetstar’s one-way fare for October and November is RM488 excluding taxes and surcharges.

Jetstar will also offer 36 business-class seats, and the one-way fare for the route is RM1,488, excluding taxes.

“Our fares will be about 20% cheaper than those offered by full-service carriers,” Jetstar general manager for marketing David May told a press conference yesterday.

For comparison, the cheapest return economy fare on Malaysia Airlines is RM2,734.80.

FAX chief executive officer Azran Osman-Rani said, “On the average, our fare will be about 30% to 50% cheaper than the full service carrier.”

AirAisa X is likely to announce its first destination tomorrow, he said when asked about the announcement of Jetstar’s flight between here and Sydney.

The thrice-weekly Jetstar flights will operate out of KLIA on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, departing Sydney at 12.15pm and KLIA at 8.15pm.

Though Jetstar is a low-cost carrier, May said they had opted for KLIA because the “price difference in landing and parking charges offered by the Malaysian authorities was too insignificant to the LCCT.”

Jetstar’s Australian operation is wholly owned by Qantas but is managed separately, and operates independently with its Australian headquarters in Melbourne.

Its intra-Asian operation is a Singapore-based partnership involving Qantas (49%), local businessmen Tony Chew (22%) and F.F. Wong (10%) and Temasek Holdings (19%), with the hub in Singapore. Besides operating a domestic service in Australia, Jetstar also flies to six international destinations – Bangkok, Phuket, Ho Chi Minh City, Denpasar, Nagoya and Osaka.

Flights from Sydney to KLIA are just the start of Jetstar’s journey into Malaysia.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Qantas to offer Web access in the Air

Qantas says its new Airbus A380 planes will offer passengers both wireless internet access and laptop power sockets in every seat, including economy.

USB ports, also built into every seat, will potentially allow passengers to access multimedia content from music players and portable hard drives through the seat-back screens.

The high-tech features are part of Qantas's new inflight entertainment system, to be installed on each of the airline's 20 A380 planes.

The airline said it would also upgrade its existing 747-400 international fleet with "premium economy" cabins, with each seat offering laptop power sockets.

Qantas expects to have the A380 fleet in operation from August next year; a spokesman said the planes would first fly the Melbourne-Los Angeles and Sydney-Los Angeles routes, before being offered on other routes "as the aircraft come online".

The 747-400 planes retrofitted with premium economy cabins will fly to London, Hong Kong and Johannesburg from February next year, and Qantas said it would add more routes once the A380 planes were introduced.

John Borghetti, Qantas's executive general manager, said the new A380 entertainment system would, in addition to internet access, feature wide-screen monitors in all cabins and a selection of 100 on-demand movies, 350 television shows, 500 audio CDs and 30 "PC style" games.

Further, the system would offer "online duty free shopping" and all seats would have built-in USB ports.

The Qantas spokesman would only say the USB ports were for "viewing of content on the IFE [inflight entertainment] screens and charging", and would not say whether they could be used for connecting the entertainment system to MP3 players like the iPod.

"There has never been anything like this onboard a commercial aircraft," said Borghetti.

Passengers could access the internet and email using a laptop computer or through the seat-back entertainment system. Laptops without wireless connectivity could plug into the network using a regular networking cable.

Qantas said it had not yet been decided whether the airline would charge extra for internet access or offer it for free.

.. from smh

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

New low-cost carrier eyes Aussie destinations

New long-distance budget airline Air Asia X says it will announce its first Australian destination within days, and its promotional fares to London will be as low as $11.30.

The carrier - an offshoot of Asia's biggest low cost airline Air Asia - hopes to fly to Australia for its inaugural flight from its Kuala Lumpur base in September.

It expects to offer Australians standard fares 30 to 50 per cent cheaper than its competitors, to the Malaysian capital, and then a host of far flung places, including the UK, Middle East, India and China.

The meanings behind some common phrases


Meaning: Ask someone a question they can’t answer
Origin: Actually refers to tree stumps. “Pioneers built their houses and barns out of logs … and they frequently swapped work with one another in clearing new ground. Some frontiersmen would brag about their ability to pull up big stumps, but it wasn’t unusual for the boaster to suffer defeat with a stubborn stump.” (From I’ve Got Goose Pimples, by Marvin Vanoni)


Meaning: Spend a wild night out, usually involving drinking
Origin: “This colorful term … probably originated on the frontier. In the nineteenth century the section of town where brothels and saloons were located was known as the ‘red light district.’ So a group of lusty cowhands out for a night on the town might very well take it into their heads to make the whole town red.” (From Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins Vol. 3, by William and Mary Morris)


Meaning: Keep something away, albeit temporarily
Origin: “A stave is a stick of wood, from the plural of staff, staves. In the early seventeenth century staves were used in the ‘sport’ of bull-baiting, where dogs were set against bulls. [If] the dogs got a bull down, the bull’s owner often tried to save him for another fight by driving the dogs off with a stave.” (From Animal Crackers, by Robert Hendrickson)


Meaning: Do something with little or no preparation
Origin: “Originally comes from the theater. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it refers to the hurried study of the role in the wings of the theater.” (From The Whole Ball of Wax, by Laurence Urdang)


Meaning: Carefully and thoughtfully consider something
Origin: In previous centuries, it was customary for judges to put a cap on before sentencing criminals. Because judges were respected thinkers, it was referred to as a “thinking cap” (From Gordon’s Book of Familiar Phrases)


Meaning: Stretch the truth or meaning of words or rules, deceive or trifle with someone
Origin: This term dates from the 16th century. It comes from a game called “fast and loose,” which was played at fairs. Operators rolled up a strap and left a loop hanging over the edge of a table. To win, a player had to catch the loop with a stick before the strap was unrolled. But they never won. Cheating operators rolled it up in such a way that the feat was impossible. (From Have a Nice Day – No Problem! by Christine Ammer)


Meaning: Repair badly
Origin: “In old England, bodgers were peasant chairmakers … They produced, by traditional handicraft methods, simple and serviceable objects. When chairmaking was transformed into high art, the bodgers was correspondingly downgraded to ‘bodge’ or ‘botch,’” which came to mean an item or service of poor quality. (From To Coin a Phrase, by Edwin Radford and Alan Smith)


Meaning: Broke; have all of your belongings in a pawn shop
Origin: Comes from the Old West. In a common gambling card game called “faro,” “the last card [to be played] was called the hocketty card. It was said to be in hocketty or in hock. When a player bet on a card that ended up in hock he was himself in hock, at risk of losing his bets.” (From The Whole Ball of Wax, by Laurence Urdang)


Meaning: Try a different strategy
Origin: “Sailing ships could not move directly into the wind but had to tack – zigzag back and forth with the wind first on one side, then on the other. If a skipper approaching harbor found that his vessel couldn’t make the harbor mouth on the starboard tack, he was obviously on the wrong tack, and would have to take the other (port) tack.” (From Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, by Robert Claiborne)


Meaning: Escape punishment
Origin: “In the thirteenth century, scot was the word for money you would pay at a tavern for food and drink, or when they passed the hat to pay the entertainer. Later, it came to mean a local tax that paid the sheriff’s expenses. To go scot-free literally meant to be exempted from paying this tax.” (From How Does Olive Oil Lose its Virginity?, by Bruce Tindall and Mark Watson)


Meaning: A hidden cache of money used for illegal or corrupt political purposes
Origin: “Derived from Scandinavian words meaning ‘slops,’ this phrase is derived from the nineteenth-century shipboard practice of boiling up large pots of pork and other fatty meats. The fat that rose to the top of the kettles was stored in vats and then sold to soap and candle makers. The money received from the sale of the ‘slush’ was used for the crew’s comfort and entertainment.” (From Eatioms, by John D. Jacobson)


Meaning: Humble someone who is self-important and conceited
Origin: “The expression probably originally referred to a ship’s flags. These were raised or lowered by pegs – the higher the position of the flags, the greater the honor. So to take someone down a peg came to mean to lower the esteem in which that person is held.” (From Get to the Roots, by Martin Manser)


Meaning: Buying something sight unseen
Origin: “The poke was a small bag (the words pouch and pocket derive from the same roots), and the pig was a small pig. As related in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundredth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1580), the game was to put a cat in the poke and try to palm it off in the market as a pig, persuading the buyer that it would be best not to open the poke because the pig might get away.” (From The Dictionary of Cliches, by James Rogers)


Meaning: A risky, precarious situation
Origin: “Dates back to the days of stagecoaches, whose drivers were often intensely competitive, seeking to charge past one another, on narrow roads, at grave danger to life and limb. If the vehicle’s wheels became entangled, both would be wrecked; if they were lucky, the wheels would only touch and the coaches could still go.” (From Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, by Robert Claiborne)


Meaning: Leave work for the day
Origin: “[This phrase] originated in the days of slave galleys. To keep the oarsmen rowing in unison, a drummer beat time rhythmically on a block of wood. When it was time to rest or change shifts, he would give a special knock, signifying that they could knock off.” (From Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins Vol.2, by William and Mary Morris)


Meaning: Does that sound familiar?
Origin: “Old-fashioned carnivals and amusement parks featured shooting galleries, in which patrons were invited to test their marksmanship by shooting at a target – often with a bell at the center: if something was right on target, it rang the bell. Similarly, to say that something ‘doesn’t ring a bells’ means that it doesn’t strike any ‘target’ (evoke any response) in your mind.” (From Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, by Robert Claiborne)


The meaning behind some common phrases

Meaning: Avoid punishment for wrongdoing
Origin: “It is likely that this slang Americanism originated in anther expression, take the rap, in which rap is slang for ‘punishment,’ facetiously, from a ‘rap on the knuckles.’ One who takes the rap for someone else stands in for the other’s punishment. Beat the rap … often carries with it the connotation that the miscreant was actually guilty, though acquitted” (From The Whole Ball of Wax, by Laurence Urdang)


Meaning: Be honest
Origin: Comes from card playing. “Board is an old word for table.” To drop your hands below the table could, of course, be interpreted as trying to cheat – by swapping cards, for example. “But if all play was above board this was impossible” (From To Coin a Phrase, by Edwin Radford and Alan Smith)

.. from neatorama

Sunday, July 22, 2007

.. The Monkey steals the peach ..

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The many benefits of office plants

Indoor air pollution and low humidity are now ranked as one of the top five threats to public health. Everyday while at work in our offices we are constantly bombarded with toxic fumes, from carpets, furniture, office cleaning products, computers, printers and photocopiers. Exposure to these chemicals can result in a general feeling of being under the weather, dizziness, nausea, blurred vision and respiratory complaints - or even severe allergic reactions. Unless combated this can often lead to poor concentration and increases in sick leave.

Most people recognize the importance of spending some time in nature--living closer to nature can actually help you to live longer--but when it comes to bringing plants indoors, the importance is often overlooked. Plants do much more than just brighten up a room; they have real benefits to your health and living environment. Whether in the home or office, plants can be used strategically to improve air quality, ease asthma symptoms, increase your energy and creativity.

"There's now a growing body of scientific evidence that proves plants are good for workers and the working environment," explains Kenneth Freeman, international technical director at Ambius, the world's largest interiorlandscaping company. One study from the University of Washington found that workers in a windowless office who were surrounded by plants had a 12% quicker reaction time in computer tasks, and that their blood pressure readings were lowered.

Research conducted on workers at the Norwegian state oil company showed plants caused a reduction in health problems, with symptoms of fatigue falling by 30% and headaches by 20%. As Freeman explains, "companies are now seeing that plants have signifi cant benefits, not just the touchy-feely benefits but things which make a tangible difference."

There are several reasons why plants make such good colleagues. Not only do they exchange the carbon dioxide we breathe out for oxygen, purifying the air around us, but there is also evidence to suggest that plants can filter volatile organic compounds such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from the atmosphere.

Forget about allergies - research from the Finnish Kuopio Institute found that plants can even reduce the level of allergens in the air, because they attract dust particles. If that wasn't enough, the leaves of plants also help to decrease noise pollution and, on a localised level, can restore balance in humidity.

Put a Plant on Your Desk

Adding greenery to your office is one of the easiest ways to become more productive and less fatigued at work. Studies have shown that people who work at computers for more than four hours a day feel better when they have a plant on their desk.

Modern office buildings are typically full of synthetic materials like carpeting, paint and furniture, which give of various toxic emissions. Plants are able to absorb pollutants from the air, making it cleaner and more pure. The following plants are particularly effective for air purification:

* Palms
* Ferns
* Peace lilies
* Spider plants
* Chrysanthemums
* Ivy
* Dracaena

Hospital patients who have a view of nature recover from illness and surgery more quickly than those who don't. Even if you are facing an illness at home, surrounding yourself with plants is an excellent way to improve your mood and speed your recovery time. Generally speaking, the more plants you have and the healthier they are, the better the effects will be.

Indoor plants can also reduce your chances of getting sick. One study found that houseplants reduce fatigue, coughs, sore throats and other cold-related symptoms by more than 30 percent.

Cleanse Indoor Air

Indoor air can be up to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air, but adding plants can actually help to make the air cleaner. Just some of the potential toxic vapors that can contaminate indoor air include:

* Formaldehyde
* Benzene
* Xylene
* Toluene
* Ammonia

According to NASA scientists, houseplants can actually extract volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from the air. According to one study, one six-inch houseplant per 100 square feet of indoor area acts as a decent filter for the air, and another U.S. government study found that 15 to 18 houseplants in six- to eight-inch containers helps to improve the air quality in an 1,800-square-foot house.

Contemporary buildings are sealed tightly to increase HVAC efficiency. Inside those sealed environments man-made articles such as paints, plastics, insulation, plywood, carpets, synthetic fabrics and detergents emit up to 300 harmful pollutants. However, leafy green help is available. NASA-funded studies directed by Dr. B. C. Wolverton, a 20 year veteran in horticultural research, proved that plants commonly used in interior plantscaping cleanse the air of many harmful pollutants. Material distributed by the Plants For Clean Air Council (PCAC), demonstrates that plants remove pollutants in varying quantities depending upon the species. The PCAC recommends one potted plant for each 100 square feet of floor space.

When the air is too dry, people are susceptible to colds and flu. When the humidity is too high, people can develop other ailments. Through their natural processes of transpiration and evaporation, office plants add moisture to the dry overheated air often found in sealed office environments. At the same time, studies show that plants do not add moisture in significant amounts when the air is already moist. A study conducted at Washington State University, suggests that plants help regulate humidity. When plants were added to an office environment, the relative humidity stabilized within the recommended “healthy” range of 30 to 60%.

If you're not sure what to grow, then the plant selector utility at www.plants-inbuildings.com is useful for choosing specimens that are suitable according to a range of factors. Surprisingly, even unforgiving environments such as unheated spaces with low light can still support attractive plants such as Pink Quills (Tillandsia cyanea). If you're keen on growing plants for their beneficial aspects such as the air purification, then research by Nasa shows that some plants are better than others: peace lilies, bamboo palm, Chinese evergreen, English ivy and gerbera daisies are good for cleaning the air, and schefflera, bamboos and hemp can help to solve humidity problems.

Desktop edibles

If you're after a more edible return, there's no reason why you can't turn your desktop garden in to a mini-allotment. "In many ways offices are perfect environments for growing shoots," explains Richard Vine who grows shoots and salad plants for Gordon Ramsay among others.

"You've got temperatures around 20 C, so that's your germination sorted, most offices have air conditioning so that's your air circulation sorted, and there should be enough light, although if you're near a window that would help. You could grow these shoots in jam jars or if it's a posh office in a little kilner jar with some cotton wool at the bottom.

"When the shoots get big enough just get a pair of scissors and harvest them. There are some amazing things like red mustard shoots - in fact any of the sprouting mustards would be a doddle to grow. You could have a go at growing some mizuna, baby pak choi, chive shoots or baby leek shoots, which are lovely because they've got a subtler flavour. You could even try a tray of watercress and then when it comes to lunchtime, you snip some off and it will grow back again.

Some houseplants can be poisonous so be careful which varieties you choose, especially if you have small children or pets.

Safest Seat on a Plane:
.. Popular Mechanics Investigates

In the wake of nearly 200 passenger deaths in a Brazilian airliner accident, Popular Mechanics takes an exclusive look at 36 years’ worth of NTSB reports and seating charts. The best way to live through a disaster in the sky? Move to the back of the Airbus.

MYTH: It Doesn't Matter Where You Sit

"It's like a lottery to pick your seat."
-Nora Marshall, passenger survival expert, National Transportation Safety Board

"One seat is as safe as the other."
-Boeing Web site

"It's an age-old question. There's just no way to say."
-Federal Aviation Administration spokesman

"There is no safest seat."

REALITY: It's Safer In the Back.
The funny thing about all those expert opinions: They're not really based on hard data about actual airline accidents. A look at real-world crash stats, however, suggests that the farther back you sit, the better your odds of survival. Passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front.

That's the conclusion of an exclusive Popular Mechanics study that examined every commercial jet crash in the United States, since 1971, that had both fatalities and survivors. The raw data from these 20 accidents has been languishing for decades in National Transportation Safety Board files, waiting to be analyzed by anyone curious enough to look and willing to do the statistical drudgework.

And drudgework it was. For several weeks, we poured over reports filed by NTSB crash investigators, as well as seating charts that showed where each passenger sat and whether they lived or died. We then calculated the average fore-and-aft seating position of both survivors and fatalities for each crash.

We also compared survival rates in four sections of the aircraft. Both analytical approaches clearly pointed to the same conclusion: It's safer in the back.

In 11 of the 20 crashes, rear passengers clearly fared better. Only five accidents favored those sitting forward. Three were tossups, with no particular pattern of survival. In one case, seat positions could not be determined.

In seven of the 11 crashes favoring back-seaters, their advantage was striking. For example, in both the 1982 Air Florida accident in Washington, D.C., and the 1972 crash of an Eastern 727 at New York's Kennedy Airport, the handful of survivors were all sitting in the last few rows. And when a United DC-8 ran out of fuel near Portland, Ore., in 1978, all seven passengers who died were sitting in the first four rows.

Oddly, the five accidents that favored front-cabin passengers all occurred between 1988 and 1992. In the 1989 United DC-10 accident in Sioux City, Iowa, for example, the majority of the 175 survivors sat ahead of the wing.

There was just one crash in which passengers in the front had a pronounced survival advantage. The only two fatalities in a 1989 USAir runway accident at LaGuardia were both sitting in Row 21 in the 25-row Boeing 737-400.

Where detailed seating charts were available, we also calculated survival rates for various parts of the passenger cabin. Again, the trend was clear: The rear cabin (seats located behind the trailing edge of the wing) had the highest average survival rate at 69 percent. The overwing section had a 56 percent survival rate, as did the coach section ahead of the wing. First/business-class sections (or in all-coach planes, the front 15 percent) had an average survival rate of just 49 percent.

So when the "experts" tell you it doesn't matter where you sit, have a chuckle and head for the back of the plane.

found here

Ghost trains:

The rail network that never was

BURIED under Sydney's feet lies a railway mausoleum: rough-dug tunnels, abandoned lift wells, massive concrete sidings. These are the remnants of a grand network, dreamed up a century ago but never opened. Trains may never grace these dark tubes, which go nowhere - and stand in testimony to a transport vision that has gone missing for decades.

In 1937 the Newcastle flyer to Sydney took two hours and 26 minutes - five minutes faster than today. In 1955 NSW Railways moved 280.5 million people around the network - 5 million more than last year.

The city has grown enormously since the '50s, but only two more lines have been built. More than seven major rail projects have been shelved or even stopped mid-construction.

In 70 years, only 13 kilometres of new railway has been built in western Sydney, but its population has grown fivefold. The only new tracks laid down since the 1950s are the eastern suburbs line to Bondi Junction - a tortuous political accomplishment - and the privately-funded airport line which cost taxpayers $800 million after the Airport Line Company went into receivership.

Treasury has razored links between Strathfield and Hurstville and Parramatta and the city. Fast rail services to Wollongong and Newcastle have been quietly dumped.

"They achieved a capacity of about 26 trains an hour in the old days, which is one every two minutes," says John Brew, the former chief executive of State Rail. "Now, they have it back to 12 or 13 trains an hour." There is a plan afoot to tackle Sydney's maze of suburban lines. And there are $8 billion worth of new lines planned for the north-west and south-west. But these, too, are yet to begin.

.. further reading here

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Athens Affair

On 9 March 2005, a 38-year-old Greek electrical engineer named Costas Tsalikidis was found hanged in his Athens loft apartment, an apparent suicide. It would prove to be merely the first public news of a scandal that would roil Greece for months.

The next day, the prime minister of Greece was told that his cellphone was being bugged, as were those of the mayor of Athens and at least 100 other high-ranking dignitaries, including an employee of the U.S. embassy.

The victims were customers of Athens-based Vodafone-Panafon, generally known as Vodafone Greece, the country's largest cellular service provider; Tsalikidis was in charge of network planning at the company. A connection seemed obvious. Given the list of people and their positions at the time of the tapping, we can only imagine the sensitive political and diplomatic discussions, high-stakes business deals, or even marital indiscretions that may have been routinely overheard and, quite possibly, recorded.

Even before Tsalikidis's death, investigators had found rogue software installed on the Vodafone Greece phone network by parties unknown. Some extraordinarily knowledgeable people either penetrated the network from outside or subverted it from within, aided by an agent or mole. In either case, the software at the heart of the phone system, investigators later discovered, was reprogrammed with a finesse and sophistication rarely seen before or since.

A study of the Athens affair, surely the most bizarre and embarrassing scandal ever to engulf a major cellphone service provider, sheds considerable light on the measures networks can and should take to reduce their vulnerability to hackers and moles.

It's also a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of one of the most elusive of cybercrimes. Major network penetrations of any kind are exceedingly uncommon. They are hard to pull off, and equally hard to investigate.

Even among major criminal infiltrations, the Athens affair stands out because it may have involved state secrets, and it targeted individuals—a combination that, if it had ever occurred before, was not disclosed publicly. The most notorious penetration to compromise state secrets was that of the “Cuckoo's Egg,” a name bestowed by the wily network administrator who successfully pursued a German programmer in 1986. The programmer had been selling secrets about the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) to the Soviet KGB.

But unlike the Cuckoo's Egg, the Athens affair targeted the conversations of specific, highly placed government and military officials. Given the ease with which the conversations could have been recorded, it is generally believed that they were. But no one has found any recordings, and we don't know how many of the calls were recorded, or even listened to, by the perpetrators. Though the scope of the activity is to a large extent unknown, it's fair to say that no other computer crime on record has had the same potential for capturing information about affairs of state.

Late night tigers and frogs

Well, I was looking forward to a quiet, cozy friday night, particularly after Micah and I went out for dinner Thursday night and got home around 2am after some delicious chili frog and probably a few too many tiger beers (not too mention some really ordinary pool playing). But alas, like all good plans, there were forces at hand that were focussed on upsetting my simple Friday night goal.

It all started coming unglued when I was, against my will, invited to the Havana bar for the characteristic 'beer or two'. I should have seen it coming, but I was helpless, out of my depth, a rabbit in the headlights. I don't know who's idea it was to buy sambuca shots, but I will find them, somehow.

Anyways, the plans were set, we were going to karaoke. So we picked our way up Jalan Bukit Bintang, towards Ktv.
This rabbit in the headlights found himself in a rabbit warren of dimly lit karaoke booth, each equipped with a wild assortment of some of the worst music ever created, performed by someone who in good likelyhood does not even know the song they were re-recording for our group sonic butchering. I'm happy to report that we did not shy away from such a challenge.

We wailed, we crooned, we stood and postured on the table and on the chairs. We drank vodka and coke and attempted at times to sing tunes we had never heard before, and the end result should never be heard again. The lyrics prompt that was meant to be our lifeline seemed to have a mind of it's own, at times hesitating as if not sure if it really ought to go on, and then racing across the screen to catch up to where it was meant to be.

Shocking, but shockingly fun. I don't even want to think what time we got home.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Monster from the deep washes up

A giant squid washed up on the shores of Tasmania has scientists in a frenzy.

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery senior curator of invertebrate zoology, Genefor Walker-Smith, is heading to Ocean Beach, near Strahan, with a team of scientific experts.

They will take samples from the massive creature, which has been identified by Tasmania Parks and Wildlife as giant squid Architeuthis.

The officers have moved the remains above the high water mark to preserve it before being analysed.

The hood of the squid is about two metres long and the body a couple of metres long.

A TPWS spokesman said the tentacles had been badly mangled so their length could not be measured.

Strahan senior ranger Chris Arthur said it is the first time that a giant squid has washed up on the beaches of the west coast, although the giant squid is known to be a food source for sperm whales, which have frequently stranded on the coast.

Found - a perfect baby mammoth

A baby mammoth has been uncovered in the permafrost of north-west Siberia.

The six-month-old frozen female calf is so well preserved that it looks as if it died only days ago, reviving hopes that the hairy beasts could one day walk the Earth again.

The creature, 4ft 3in tall and 110lb, is likely to be more than 9,000 years old - around the time they were vanishing from the grassy plains of the northern hemisphere at the end of the last ice age. The eyes are still intact, the trunk has a notch at the end that is rarely seen, and some fur remains on the body.

The mammoth was discovered by a reindeer herder, Yuri Khudi, in May in Salekhard on the Yamal peninsula. It has been named Lyuba after his wife.

The discovery became the major talking point of a recent mammoth symposium in Yakutsk. Dr Beth Shapiro, the director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford University, said: "This is by far the best that has been recovered."

Alexei Tikhonov, of the Zoological Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, said: "In terms of its state of preservation, this is the world's most valuable discovery," "The mammoth has no defects except that its tail was bitten off."

Larry Agenbroad, the director of the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs in South Dakota, said he knew of only three other baby mammoths: "To find a juvenile mammoth in any condition is extremely rare."

Some scientists have speculated about an attempt to clone a pure mammoth by fusing the nucleus of a mammoth cell with a modern elephant egg cell stripped of its own DNA.

Dr Ian Barnes of Royal Holloway, University of London, believes that, in the light of the new find, it will be possible to clone a mammoth "in my lifetime". But Dr Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum, who was also at the Yakutsk meeting, said that the DNA would be too "shot to pieces" for this to be done easily.

He added that, even if it was possible, the vast expense of reconstructing mammoth DNA would be pointless given the lack of natural habitat. "What are you going to do with them when you have recreated them? Wouldn't it be better to use the money to protect endangered species today?"

The young mammoth will be transferred to Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo where it will be examined by Prof Naoki Suzuki.

Mileage Runners hack air travel for maximum miles

Wired News has a great story today about "Mileage Runners" who tweak the airline reservation system to plot insane (and insanely cheap), multi-hop air trips that accumulate bazillions of air miles.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Q: Why do most snooze buttons only give you nine more minutes of sleep?

A: By the time the snooze feature was added in the 1950’s, the innards of alarm clocks had long been standardized.

This meant that the teeth on the snooze gear had to mesh with the existing gear configuration, leaving engineers with a single choice: They could set the snooze for either a little more than nine minutes, or a little more than 10 minutes.

Because reports indicated that 10 minutes was too long, allowing people to fall back into a “deep” sleep, clock makers decided on the nine-minute gear, believing people would wake up easier and happier after a shorter snooze.

Although today’s digital clocks can be programmed to have a snooze of any length, most stick with nine minutes because that’s what consumers expect.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Movie roundup


Probably close to redefining the term 'action-packed', funnier than I expected, mind-blowingly flawless CGI. I'm pretty sure my friends were laughing at me in the cinema because I was looking at the screen with the excited expression of a five-year old seeing their first ever film. I enjoyed Transformers much more than I thought I would. Except for the standard boring monologue at the end of the film, there is a lot to like about this film.

Fantastic four - rise of the silver surfer

Probably not as many one-liners as the first Fantastic Four movie, but an enjoyable addition to the super-hero movie family. Good, family friendly fun.


A horror film from Thailand, I'm not a fan of the genre, but after being dragged to this movie by my girlfriend, I have to say it was quite well executed. One thing that bummed me out a little about this movie was the twist about 30 mins from the end that, for me, removed a lot of the scare factor. 'Alone' has some genuine creepy, creepy moments in it. I managed to yell out in fear only once during this film.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Thousands of rubber ducks
to land on British shores
after 15 year journey

They were toys destined only to bob up and down in nothing bigger than a child's bath - but so far they have floated halfway around the world.

The armada of 29,000 plastic yellow ducks, blue turtles and green frogs broke free from a cargo ship 15 years ago.

Since then they have travelled 17,000 miles, floating over the site where the Titanic sank, landing in Hawaii and even spending years frozen in an Arctic ice pack.

And now they are heading straight for Britain. At some point this summer they are expected to be spotted on beaches in South-West England.

While the ducks are undoubtedly a loss to the bath-time fun of thousands of children, their adventures at sea have proved an innvaluable aid to science.

Roswell aliens theory revived by deathbed confession

EXACTLY 60 years ago, a light aircraft was flying over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, at a height of around 3000m.

Suddenly, a brilliant flash of light illuminated the aircraft.

Visibility was good and as pilot Kenneth Arnold scanned the sky to find the source of the light, he saw a group of nine shiny metallic objects flying information.

He estimated their speed as being around 2600km/h - nearly three times faster than the top speed of any jet aircraft at the time.

Soon, similar reports began to come in from all over America.

This wasn't just the world's first UFO sighting, this was the birth of a phenomenon, one that still exercises an extraordinary fascination.

Military authorities issued a press release, which began: "The many rumours regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence officer of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc."

The headlines screamed: "Flying Disc captured by Air Force".

Yet, just 24 hours later, the military changed their story and claimed the object they'd first thought was a "flying disc" was a weather balloon that had crashed on a nearby ranch.

The key witness was Major Jesse Marcel, the intelligence officer who had gone to the ranch to recover the wreckage.

He described the metal as being wafer thin but incredibly tough.

It was as light as balsa wood, but couldn't be cut or burned.

These and similar accounts of the incident have largely been dismissed by all except the most dedicated believers.

Astonishing new twist

But last week came an astonishing new twist to the Roswell mystery.

Lieutenant Walter Haut was the public relations officer at the base in 1947 and was the man who issued the original and subsequent press releases after the crash on the orders of the base commander, Colonel William Blanchard.

Haut died last year but left a sworn affidavit to be opened only after his death.

Last week, the text was released and asserts that the weather balloon claim was a cover story and that the real object had been recovered by the military and stored in a hangar.

He described seeing not just the craft, but alien bodies.

He wasn't the first Roswell witness to talk about alien bodies.

Local undertaker Glenn Dennis had long claimed that he was contacted by authorities at Roswell shortly after the crash and asked to provide a number of child-sized coffins.

When he arrived at the base, he was apparently told by a nurse (who later disappeared) that a UFO had crashed and that small humanoid extraterrestrials had been recovered.

But Haut is the only one of the original participants to claim to have seen alien bodies.

UFO pieces handed around

Haut's affidavit talks about a high-level meeting he attended with base commander Col William Blanchard and the Commander of the Eighth Army Air Force, General Roger Ramey.

Haut states that at this meeting, pieces of wreckage were handed around for participants to touch, with nobody able to identify the material.

He says the press release was issued because locals were already aware of the crash site, but in fact there had been a second crash site, where more debris from the craft had fallen.

The plan was that an announcement acknowledging the first site, which had been discovered by a farmer, would divert attention from the second and more important location.

The clean-up operation

Haut also spoke about a clean-up operation, where for months afterwards military personnel scoured both crash sites searching for all remaining pieces of debris, removing them and erasing all signs that anything unusual had occurred.

This ties in with claims made by locals that debris collected as souvenirs was seized by the military.

Haut then tells how Colonel Blanchard took him to "Building 84" - one of the hangars at Roswell - and showed him the craft itself.

He describes a metallic egg-shaped object around 3.6m-4.5m in length and around 1.8m wide.

He said he saw no windows, wings, tail, landing gear or any other feature.

Haug 'saw the alien bodies'

He saw two bodies on the floor, partially covered by a tarpaulin.

They are described in his statement as about 1.2m tall, with disproportionately large heads.

Towards the end of the affidavit, Haut concludes: "I am convinced that what I personally observed was some kind of craft and its crew from outer space".

What's particularly interesting about Walter Haut is that in the many interviews he gave before his death, he played down his role and made no such claims.

Had he been seeking publicity, he would surely have spoken about the craft and the bodies.

Did he fear ridicule, or was the affidavit a sort of deathbed confession from someone who had been part of a cover-up, but who had stayed loyal to the end?

The US government came under huge pressure on Roswell in the '90s.

In July 1994, in response to an inquiry from the General Accounting Office, the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force published a report, The Roswell Report: Fact Versus Fiction In The New Mexico Desert.

Weather balloon 'cover story'

The report concluded that the Roswell incident had been attributable to something called Project Mogul, a top secret project using high-altitude balloons to carry sensor equipment into the upper atmosphere, listening forevidence of Soviet nuclear tests.

The statements concerning a crashed weather balloon had been a cover story, they admitted, but not to hide the truth about extraterrestrials.

A second US Air Force report concluded claims bodies were recovered were generated by people having seen crash test dummies that were dropped from the balloons.

Sceptics, of course, will dismiss the testimony left by Haut.

After all, fascinating though it is, it's just a story. There's no proof.

But if nothing else, this latest revelation shows that, 60 years on, this mystery endures.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Vertical farming in the big Apple

Is this how farms will look in the future?

Downtown Manhattan is hardly a place you would associate with agriculture. Rather, with its countless restaurants, cafes, shops and supermarkets this is a place of consumption.

And so every morsel, every bite of food New Yorkers munch through every day must be trucked, shipped or flown in, from across the country, and across the world.

Now though, scientists at Columbia University are proposing an alternative. Their vision of the future is one in which the skyline of New York and other cities include a new kind of skyscaper: the "vertical farm".

The idea is simple enough. Imagine a 30-storey building with glass walls, topped off with a huge solar panel. On each floor there would be giant planting beds, indoor fields in effect.

And so crops of all kinds and small livestock could all be grown in a controlled environment in the most urban of settings. That means there would be no shipping costs, and no pollution caused by moving produce around the country.

It's all the brainchild of Columbia University Professor Dickson Despommier.

He and his students took existing greenhouse technology as a starting point and are now convinced that vertical farms are a practical suggestion.

Professor Despommier lists many advantages of this revolutionary kind of agriculture. They include:

* Year round crop production in a controlled environment

* All produce would be organic as there would be no exposure to wild parasites and bugs

* Elimination of environmentally damaging agricultural runoff

* Food being produced locally to where it is consumed

And, says the professor, vertical farming would allow some existing traditional farms to be returned to natural forests. Good news in a time of global warming.

"Even if it's not quite natural.... a little bit factory-like in terms of its production, here's what you're going to get back: you're going to get back the rest of the earth. And I'll take that any time."

The plan is to make the whole complex sustainable.

Energy would come from a giant solar panel but there would also be incinerators which use the farm's waste products for fuel. All of the water in the entire complex would be recycled.

Several hours drive north of the city in upstate New York, Ed Miller's 18,000 apple trees are in full bloom.

Like farmers across the world he has lived through decades of constant change and innovation. But he remains, at heart, a man of the soil.

So what does he think of the virtual farm concept? He is, perhaps, surprisingly positive: ''It looks like a fancy greenhouse," he says. "It's fabulous, it will be very interesting. It will be phenomenal."

For now, vertical farms are a virtual concept. But the scientists insist that the theory is sound.

All they need now, they say, is the money to make this a reality.

Flight of the Conchords : She's So Hot - Boom

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