Monday, July 11, 2011

Five percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020: Too little, too late?

Staring into the climate abyss

Can we avoid the tipping point or, as the Mayans predicted, is mankind once again on the path to near extinction?

While the debate concerning the role of CO2 as a factor in current and future climate continues to rage, a majority of those scientists with the capacity to understand climate change who have put their views on record favours the view that present climate variations are both anthropogenic in origin and directly proportional to the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere. There are, however, significant dissenting voices which cannot be discounted as mere cranks or tools of the petro-chemical industry.

The proposed Australian carbon tax appears to target the so-called ‘big polluters’, energy companies whose fossil fuel technology ensures that they are also major producers of CO2. The carbon tax presents a number of dilemmas which have not been fully explored by other than devoted followers of the climate change debate. It is these problematical issues which have been poorly presented to the general public by the media, politicians and spokespersons for the scientific community. This accounts in no small measure for the doubt, scepticism and confusion in the public arena regarding climate change.

The carbon tax itself appears to be a blunt edged instrument designed to force the big polluters to change their ways. Energy producers relying on fossil fuels cannot retool their entire industries at the drop of a hat. The notion of even a nation such as Australia, with abundant sunshine, wind and the space to site large energy gathering structures, relying entirely on renewable energy seems like pie in the sky.

Major changes to the way in which energy is produced seeming unlikely in the short term, the cost of the carbon tax to producers is likely to be passed in its entirety to the consumers, ordinary businesses and households. The government has foreseen this and is talking of rebates or subsidies for lower income households. In so doing we are creating, to borrow a phrase from the ABC, a ‘money-go-round’ where the first people to fall off are likely to be those most vulnerable to higher electricity costs, ordinary householders and small business operators.

While some time could be spent envisaging the economic, if not outright physical, pain likely to be suffered by ordinary Australians before they begin to curb their use of electricity to the point that the producer-polluters sit up and take notice, an elegant solution to the likely greatly increased cost of electricity presents itself. By all means tax the major CO2 emitters if there is a genuine belief in the role that manmade carbon dioxide plays in climate variation.

Fossil fuels produce many toxins and pollutants which present a more immediate threat to human life and the environment than otherwise inert CO2. No matter what is happening to our infinitely variable climate, we do need alternatives to fossil fuels, not least because so much of the world’s petroleum is locked up in other countries, many unstable and potentially hostile to the free West. Australian has plenty of coal, but its mostly brown coal, less efficient and not as clean burning as the highly prized black coal.

Be that as it may, how does Australia encourage big energy producers to look at other options without engaging in the pointless exercise of taxing producers, who charge consumers more, the consumers in turn being compensated by the government using the revenue raised from the producers. At every stage of the ‘money-go-round’ there will be compliance and administration costs, perhaps even requiring the creation of yet another government department.

One solution would be to give energy producers the option of offsetting the carbon tax against measurable direct investment in a combination of emissions controls, technology enabling – in the short term – cleaner combustion of fossil fuels and, most importantly, renewable energy sources. Producers claiming deductions against the carbon tax would need to demonstrate that they had not passed any part of the tax onto consumers.

While the United Kingdom, for example, is investing in gas fired power plants, making it heavily dependent on imported natural gas, it is debatable whether the burning of natural gas, or any combustible fuel – however ‘clean’ by comparison with coal and oil – actually produces less CO2. This, presumably, would depend on the efficiency and thermal capacity of the fuel being used in relation to the amount of CO2 produced during combustion. In layperson’s terms, does natural gas give more electricity in return for less CO2 and other pollutants? If so, should we be selling our natural gas to other nations as fast as we can extract it? Is there not a case for taxing the exporters of fossil fuels at source before the fuel disappears overseas and we have no control over the manner in which it is used?

Regarding nuclear, the less said the better. Suffice it to say that no engineer or scientist can, with a good conscience, guarantee the absolute integrity and safety of a nuclear power plant. We might be able to adapt to climate change; we cannot live with radiation at toxic levels which destroys all life exposed to it.

In short, a tax on producers who simply pass to the cost on to consumers, many of whom do not have the capacity to pay more for electricity or the capacity to modify their environments so as to use less energy and/or contribute to ‘green’ energy production, seems both unfair and unlikely to do much to change the status quo in the short term. According to climate theorists, the long term is not an option.

What is needed is a tax on producers who will, in turn, be encouraged to invest directly and immediately in more efficient power generation with lower emissions as well as in renewable energy. A producer who can claim offsets or tax deductions against such investment will not be eligible to ‘double dip’ by passing the entire tax on to consumers/customers.

Lower income households particularly need encouragement to invest in improved insulation, evaporative air conditioning systems rather than energy hungry reverse cycle units, gas heating, solar hot water systems and solar panels connected to the grid. There is no reason why small wind turbines, known as ‘wind chargers’, used extensively to power low voltage electricity systems in rural areas in the not too distant past, should not become a feature of our suburbs. The many large buildings, including government complexes, in Australia which rely on air conditioning 24/7 should long since have been sporting solar arrays. This sort of investment by individual consumers and businesses should be rewarded by tax deductions rather than by the imposition of a punitive indirect tax on consumers.

Further to the point about insulation, as a long-time resident of an area prone to sub-zero winter nights, in a standard brick veneer home ceiling insulation helps but is not enough. Ideally walls, floors would be insulated and windows double glazed, especially if those who say the world will start cooling again are right.

A final note about people renting who cannot easily modify their environment to save on energy costs. Something needs to be done to encourage landlords to make their properties more energy efficient. In a tight rental market, so-called market forces are as likely to encourage landlords to neglect their properties as anything else.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the emissions reduction campaign has been the focus on an invisible, largely inert and – if one discounts the greenhouse effect – harmless natural element, viz. Carbon dioxide. Climate change, climate alarmism and climate doubt are all fertile grounds for misunderstanding and confusion. The other toxic, health damaging and environmentally degrading by-products of the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels are plain for all to see, whether its miners dying a slow and painful death from lung disease, brain-damaged children in polluted urban environments, oil-soaked sea-birds or, as so movingly portrayed in “The Last Mountain”, the destruction of an entire community and the ecology which supported it, are plain for all to see.

We do need to break the stranglehold of fossil fuels on our community. The only questions to be answered relate to the best and most effective manner to wean ourselves onto green energy. A graduated tax appears at first glance to be an inefficient response; too little, probably too late. We need to cut emissions now and we have to be prepared for the changes to our lifestyle which this will entail. Until we take real, practical action we shall remain slaves to the technology which threatens to destroy us.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions: Tax households, or target polluters?

Whatever the merits of Australia's proposed carbon tax in terms of CO2 emissions reduction in the long term, in the short term it is - quite simply - a consumption tax.

The lion's share of the direct tax will be borne by electricity producers and suppliers who rely almost entirely on coal fired generating plants. Australia's coal, cheap and abundant as it is even given the high wages - by world standards - paid to our miners, is brown coal, high in sulphur and not particularly clean burning by comparison with quality black coking coal. Be that as it may, faced with a choice between absorbing the tax and passing it on to consumers, there is little doubt that the net effect of the carbon tax will be higher prices for ordinary households across the entire range of household expenditure, not least of which will be an inflated electricity bill.

Shops open until late seven days a week in air-conditioned malls, the proliferation of household appliances and electronic gadgetry, office workers putting in unconscionable hours in heated, air-conditioned, brightly lit buildings which never close as cleaners and maintenance workers move in overnight; as a nation we use electricity prolifically. A tax on electricity consumption is, ultimately, a tax on almost everything Australians do, use, buy and sell.

Without entering into the detail of the controversial climate debate, one fundamental question must be asked of this new tax.

Will Australia's carbon tax succeed in reducing CO2 emissions, assuming other nations adopt equally effective measures, in time to arrest climate change before the Earth's atmosphere reaches the hypothetical tipping point where human activity becomes, as it was perhaps in the distant past, irrelevant to the natural course of events? The threat presented by this is that, once nature reasserts itself, it will do so in a manner inimical to life on Earth as we know it. Even now every natural disaster, or incidence of extreme weather, is singled out by some as further evidence of human induced global warming and the dire consequences thereof if unchecked.

A carbon consumption tax carries with it the expectation that, in the long term, energy producers will move away from fossil fuelled generators in an attempt to avoid the tax. In the short term coal burners will not be able to do this, so the cost will be passed on to consumers who can do one or both of two things: try to use less electricity - which is a challenge for most - or spend less on other things such as food, clothing, travel & entertainment to keep the household budget balanced. The government says that some of the proceeds from the tax will be used to compensate lower income households, but where is the incentive for both households and energy producers to invest in clean energy?

Other than forcing up the cost of living for all Australians, and marginally adding to the government's tax coffers when net of hefty administration and compliance costs along with compensation payments, it is difficult to envisage any short term impact on the volume of CO2 emissions. Producers cannot alter their mode of production overnight. Consumers may choose to reduce spending in other areas without moderating electricity consumption. Households may actually use more electricity if people with less disposable income, thanks to increased costs, choose to spend more time at home.

A blanket consumption tax of this nature may motivate people to rethink the manner in which they both source and consume electricity, but where is the incentive for both consumers and producers to make the switch to clean, green energy sooner rather than later? Only those companies and individuals with a surplus available for investment in new technology will be in a position to act. Everyone else will be playing catch up as the cost of living increases. People living and working in rented premises may not be in a position to substantially modify their energy environment. Those wealthy enough to absorb higher costs without changing their lifestyle may choose to carry on as usual without any substantial leverage for change.

Economists who, rather than scientists, are behind this tax believe in the power of the market to change individual behaviour. It may be asking a little too much of the market to expect a simple, but nevertheless all encompassing, tax to force people to make the necessary changes in time to avoid irreversible climate change.

If the scientists are right, only immediate, dramatic and far-reaching modifications to our lifestyle can avert a looming catastrophe. At this point the political will to make such changes is lacking almost entirely. Short-termism is the disease of the modern world. We lack both foresight and hindsight. For the me generation, now is everything. Few of our leaders are immune from this moral and intellectual myopia, be they politicians, economists, or business moguls. Elsewhere carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes have been distorted and perverted in the name of financial gain for banks and financial institutions. As a species we seem incapable of right thinking and meaningful action even when our very survival is at stake. According to the Mayans, human beings have destroyed the world before now. Will we do it again?

Returning to the everyday, the question arises whether anyone has seriously contemplated the manner in which a carbon tax will operate and its likely impact on our lives. So far the political debate has revolved around the real or imaginary perils of climate change and the fear of being left behind in the race to reduce emissions. The Gillard Government appears to be asking for a blank cheque from the electorate to deal with the problem in its own time and as it sees fit. Details have yet to be announced.

In the absence of informed debate it was refreshing to find an article, aptly titled "Carbon Omissions" by Canberra Times reporter Rosslyn Beeby in the June 4th edition. Although she devotes considerable space to rhetoric from our own Ross Garnaut, material which has been widely mentioned in all sectors of the Australian media, the meat of the article is derived from United States sources. It is these which I found most convincing and from which I have no hesitation in borrowing, placing my trust in Beeby's rendition.

In the United States the Centre for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, the Bipartisan Policy Centre and the Economic Policy Institute all argue that a carbon tax will help to reduce the national debt. That in itself should be enough to convince the likes of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey that Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd are right about the carbon tax. If the tax does nothing else, reducing a nation's debt in these uncertain times is a laudable objective.

The Centre for American Progress takes it further by arguing that a necessary component of a CO2 reduction package must be an import tax on oil from other parts of the world. So, presumably, the aim is not only to burn less oil but to make sure that its our own and that we are the only beneficiaries from its extraction, refining and consumption. Low and middle income earners would be compensated not by direct payments but by reduced income taxes, the short fall in revenue met by the carbon tax and the energy import duty.

To this point the American proposals have much in common with our own. They are fiscal and rely on making the use of fossil fuels more expensive as an incentive to cut consumption and reliance on imports. There is no direct encouragement for people and organisations to embrace renewable energy other than an understanding that common sense will prevail and individuals will seek to meet their energy needs in the most cost effective ways accessible to them.

An impressive departure from what may loosely be termed mainstream thinking on emissions reduction is the proposal by the Brookings Institution for a direct, rather than indirect, approach by targeting the Big Polluters directly. This would take the form of a National Clean Energy Standard as an alternative to carbon pricing. Clean up the energy industry, and there is no need for anyone else to reduce their electricity consumption with all that that entails for the individual and the economy as a whole. The choice between an all encompassing, expensive to administer tax which may hurt people more than its helps the environment, and cutting emissions at source, seems to be a no brainer.

According to Harvard University economist Michael Greenstone, the weakness of a carbon tax is that it would "raise energy prices in a visible way, even though the money goes back in [some] consumers' pockets through tax credits". Greenstone proposes legislating a 'technology neutral' clean energy standard forcing all United States electricity generators to cut carbon dioxide emissions. The standard would become more rigorous over time aiming for a 50-percent reduction in emissions per megawatt hour by 2035. He goes on to mention a number of ways in which emissions cuts could be achieved.

Greenstone is one of the few commentators to factor in the real cost of emissions from fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is 'clean' and relatively inert at normal atmospheric pressures, harmless to animals and beneficial to plant life. It is this quality of CO2 as much as anything else which attracts the attention of those who downplay its role in climate change. For the past half-century or more, however, we have been aware that fossil fuel emissions are harmful to human beings and to the environment in ways almost too numerous to mention. Of all the products of fossil fuel combustion, CO2 is arguably the least harmful in the short term.

A reliance on fossil fuels in general, and imported fuels in particular, is seen as impacting both on national health and national security. In time to come the wars in the Middle East may be seen as less about human rights, freedom and democracy than about oil security. It is scarcely reassuring that so much of the world's oil is found under the sands of the planet's least evolved and most unstable oligarchies and that the revenue from the sale of this oil to Western nations is used to fund international terrorism and Islamic radicalism.

Closer to home, the United States Academy of Sciences recently estimated the "total non-climate change related damages associated with energy consumption and use at more than $120-billion ... nearly all of which resulted from the effects of air pollution on our health and wellness".

Greenstone: "We estimate it costs about 3.2-cents for an existing coal plant to produce a kilowatt hour of electricity. This appears to be a bargain but the reality is that this kilowatt hour causes 5.6-cents of damages to our well being". Our energy sources, says Greenstone, "Only appear cheap because their costs to our health, the climate and national security are obscured or indirect". Take climate change out of the equation, and we still face the deadly impact of pollution on human and other life forms, and the irreparable environmental impact of certain types of mining.

In Australia we can look forward to a future where satellites may be used to monitor emissions on a global scale, leaving nowhere for polluters to hide, and our trading partners may raise barriers against imports from non-carbon-regulating regions. We must tackle emissions, but is this best done by curbing emissions at source, a direct approach as outlined by Greenstone and others, or an across the board carbon 'consumption' tax, an indirect approach with unforeseeable consequences.

Ross Garnaut has argued that even a $26 a ton carbon price will achieve only a 15-percent reduction in emissions by 2020, and that with the proviso that the balance after compensating households is directly invested in renewable energy. This is the weakness of the indirect approach where a substantial proportion of the revenue raised is swallowed up in administration costs and compensation payments. There is no guarantee that any part of the compensation to households will be applied constructively to reduce energy use and/or embrace renewables.

It is time for Australians to turn off the political noise and turn on to thinkers like Michael Greenstone. We can choose to tinker with the economy, possibly to the detriment of all with no benefit to the environment, or we can take direct action to change the way in which we live and work. The Federal Government could make a start by pressuring New South Wales to get behind the solar panel subsidy, and to look for ways to encourage landlords to enable their tenants to embrace green energy. While politicians posture for the cameras and pander to the likes of Murdoch, precious hours of sunlight are being wasted.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

No Future For Set Top Boxes

Australia has been broadcasting television in both digital and analogue formats for ten years since 2001. TV began in Australia in 1956 and PAL colour broadcasting began in the early 1970s.

Australian made equipment can be used in South Africa, but needs to be retuned by a technician since South African analogue broadcasts use a sound-vision separation standard found nowhere else other than the Irish Republic. This was done, apparently, to protect local manufacturers from cheaper, more attractive imports.

Although digital television receivers have been available since 2001, and new analogue sets have not been sold for some years, the Australian government became concerned that, particularly older, Australians on pensions, benefits and otherwise limited incomes might find themselves not able to watch television in 2013 when the analogue transmitters will be shut down.

To this end, a number of households have been deemed eligible to receive - at taxpayer expense - a 'free' digital terrestrial receiver (set top box) or digital receiver providing analogue output compatible with the AV input terminals found on all but the oldest television sets still in service.

As someone with more than a passing interest in technology, my reaction was that this was good money after bad. If really concerned about indigent members of our community, surely the $300 per household budgeted for the STB programme would be better spent on a new digital television?

What follows is the text of a letter I composed to my local member who responded promptly with a wealth of information about the programme. For better or worse it has been running for a while and the government is pressing on with it.

My concern is that, by 2013 if not sooner, a significant number of those who have benefited from the programme could find themselves stuck with a fancy set top box connected to an obsolete analogue TV receiver at the end of its useful life.

As we all know, a cashed up government in search of political advantage never allows common sense reality to interfere with what it perceives as a vote winning agenda.

This is an edited version of a letter I wrote following the budget announcement. At the time I was not aware that the set top box (digital terrestrial receiver) programme was already under way.

I stand by my contention that the programme is not necessary at this point, while analogue broadcasting is to continue for a further two years, and that the amounts from $308 - $350 per household mentioned as the likely installation cost are excessive.

If the object of the exercise is that every low income, technically challenged household should start receiving additional free-to-air digital channels immediately, there may be some point to it, bearing in mind that almost all popular content is available via analogue transmissions. I have a digital television, as well as a digital tuner coupled to a conventional television, but 90% of what I watch is available on analogue.

My set top box is connected to a 12-year old analogue television. Its a moot point which device will die first. The STB receives all free to air digital channels, was very simple to connect and activate, and cost about $50 retail from Dick Smith who would have been pleased to explain to me how to install it had I needed their assistance.

Ongoing support is not an issue since no one bothers to repair cheap devices such as STBs when they break down. With labour costs in the electronics industry greater than $100 per hour, and a shortage of technicians, this is hardly surprising.

1. By 2013, if not earlier, the majority of Australian households will already be receiving digital television by one means or another. For the federal government to provide assistance will not be necessary, any more than it was for innovations such as colour television, the video cassette recorder, the home computer, the mobile telephone, the DVD player or the digital camera. Australians love new technology and have consistently enjoyed one of the highest per capita uptakes of new devices in the developed world.

2. $350 per eligible household is an excessive amount for a device which is both simple to install, currently retails from $50 - $100, and is becoming cheaper by the day. Connecting and installing a set top box is not rocket science.

3. Flashing this sort of money in front of third-party contractors who can source these devices for next to nothing from China, & install them in less than ten minutes, is setting the government, and the taxpayer, up for yet another rort which will do nothing for employment and manufacturing in Australia.

In support of the propositions above:

• Analogue/CRT television sets have not been sold for some years. Analogue television sets currently in use are nearing the end of their useful life and the number still in service by 2013 is likely to be small. The life expectancy of an analogue/CRT television set is between ten and 15-years, with the cheaper brands often failing inside ten years.

• As conventional television sets age, the picture quality declines. The addition of a set top box will do nothing to enhance the picture quality or longevity of older sets. All analogue television sets still in service by 2013 will be “old”.

• Small digital television sets are available for less than$400 and getting cheaper. If the Federal Government is determined to assist needy households with $350, then this money is best spent in the form of a rebate against the purchase of a new, digital television receiver.

• Set top boxes are not designed and built to withstand heavy use or last a long time. Regardless of the manufacturer’s label, most are sourced from the same factories in South China and intended as a stopgap measure pending the purchase of a digital television receiver. I have bought five different STDs from reputable retailers since 2005. One failed during the 12-month warranty period and was repaired, not replaced. Two developed faults outside the warranty period and had to be junked.

• At today’s prices, and getting cheaper, $350 is almost enough for a modest personal video recorder (HD PVR) with built in digital tuner that can be used with both analogue & digital television sets. This is a much better investment of $350 than a set top box.

• Of all consumer electronic devices to reach the market in recent decades, the set top box is one of the simplest to install and use. If you can connect a DVD player to a TV, you can connect a STB. Tuning is automatic; there is nothing to do as long as one’s TV has AV terminals, preferably more than one set of terminals or the DVD player or VCR will have to be disconnected to make way for the STB and/or an additional switching device to enable STB, DVD player & VCR to be connected simultaneously. The oldest analogue television sets, and some sets do last between ten and 20-years, do not have AV terminals and here the only way to connect a STB or DVD player is through a VCR or other conversion device. In other words, connecting a STB to an analogue television more than about ten years old is possible, but not recommended.

• Digital television reception does not require a new aerial in good reception areas. If one’s existing antenna system works adequately for analogue reception it will be perfectly satisfactory for digital reception, no matter what installers hungry for business tell one. In many areas with uncertain analogue reception, digital reception is superior – again without the need to upgrade the antenna unless its already faulty.

In short, most households are likely to have at least one new digital television set by 2013. For people who find that their analogue receivers are still performing satisfactorily, installing a set top box is both cheap and simple. In the not too distant past both television sets and video cassette recorders had to be tuned manually, channel by channel. Most people managed perfectly well using the supplied instructions. Many of us routinely have to resort to the manual twice a year for the purpose of resetting the digital clocks found in so many household devices. This is a chore, but its manageable.

Many elderly people, it is true, do struggle with technology such as mobile phones, computers and the internet. Communities, for the most part, already have support in place. It has never hitherto, to the best of my knowledge, been suggested that the government should supply these devices to pensioners, install them in their homes, and provide ongoing support. A significant number of older people can relate to being shown how to use a mobile phone by, for example, grandchildren.

I believe that there would be no shortage of volunteers forthcoming to assist elderly people in the change from analogue to digital television, including radio amateurs such as myself, CB radio operators and the like. Our first digital television receiver was delivered and installed by the retailer who set it up in our house at no extra cost.

If there are indeed households in Australia so disadvantaged that they do not have a television receiver, then perhaps we should be looking at supplying them with one although, as I have pointed out, the government has not to my knowledge previously directed social security payments – for this is what the programme amounts to – towards particular household items.

The latest JB HiFi catalogue features a 22” Teac digital television receiver with built in DVD player for less than $300 while the taxpayer is expected to contribute more than $300 for a cheap and nasty set top box which, with a bit of luck, will last at least as long as the ageing analogue television receiver to which it is intended to be connected. This simply does not make sense, and I can’t help feeling that our parliamentarians – as busy as I know them to be with a wide variety of issues – have been very badly advised concerning the current state of consumer electronics.

Finally, should the government’s set top box scheme go ahead as planned, then – perhaps - it should be looking at using paid volunteers, as in the case of the forthcoming census, rather than third party contractors. I know that I would be more than happy to go around installing set top boxes, not that I anticipate much demand for them, at a rate equivalent to a day’s wage.

Thank you for your interest and, in particular, the work you are doing regarding the highspeed broadband network, another area bedevilled by misconceptions and misinformation. To know how the WWW works one needs to spend time on it, and I welcome your presence on Twitter which helped to inspire this letter.

Monday, June 13, 2011

And did these feet ...

In the noise surrounding the Middle East conflict, and the entire Middle East - for one reason or another, not least being the despotic, sexist and anachronistic nature of its various regimes - is mired in conflict, it is easy to forget the historical origins of the region formerly known as Palestine and how it came to be divided between two groups of people with an equally valid claim to some part of it.

A Palestinian of my acquaintance, no friend to Israel since his family left Haifa in 1948, who grew up a Christian in Lebanon said, "We were all Jews once, you know. We are the same people".

The accursed legacy of the process that began during the Second World War was the removal and relocation of entire populations, voluntary sometimes but mostly forced, thanks to the racist ideology which divides people along ethnic, cultural and religious lines and conflates all with "nationalism". Nationalism, not to be confused with a natural love of one's place of birth and upbringing, is the wretched doctrine in the name of which unparalleled atrocities were committed in Europe and elsewhere in comparatively recent times.

Although the forces of nationalism began stirring in the 19th Century, most European nations prior to 1914 were polyglot, multicultural and multinational. People other than those who emigrated to the new world tended to live their lives close to where they were born, irrespective of who happened to be ruling that territory at that time. For the most part linguistic and cultural differences were tolerated, although there might be tension between catholic and protestant, Jew and gentile. People were defined by occupation and religion rather than language and culture per se. The evolution of nationalism was a two-edged sword: useful and positive in pursuit of liberty and democracy; unspeakably evil when wielded in the cause of avarice and power.

The geographical expression that is Palestine has become one of those areas of conflict in which evil is done in the name of good, and murder is committed in the name of justice. There is a belief that the former Turkish subjects of Palestine should have become independent after 1917, something on which most agree; but no consensus concerning who the rightful owners of the land, if any, truly are. Paramount for those of the Jewish faith was the need to have absolute control over their affairs in a land where, for the first time since the Roman invasion, they were once again a majority. It was felt, with considerable justification, that nowhere in the world where Jews had been in a minority since the Diaspora had they been able to live in peace and security.

The defeat of the Turks in 1917 meant that once again people of the Jewish faith might aspire to living in a home of their own, for many their ancestral homeland; for many more their spiritual home. That was, and still is, a problem for those Palestinians who were Islamic, or Christian. It was not a problem for their former Turkish rulers who practised their own form of multiculturalism and tolerated all who did not challenge their overlordship at a time when nationalism was not the divisive force it has since become.

Our knowledge of the ancient land which the Romans called Palestine begins with the Old Testament. In the centuries before the birth of the Jewish sage whom so-called Christians have taken to be their own, a number of Greek colonies shared the land with the Kingdom of the Hebrews. Large numbers of Greeks settled in Palestine and Greek was a common language alongside Aramaic and Hebrew. In time the Greek cities states, for there was no Greece, and their respective colonies fell to the Romans. Palestine became a Roman province with a Jewish puppet king. Most of what followed has been the subject of generations of scripture lessons.

About seven centuries after the birth of Christ, Islam began to expand in all directions from its birthplace in the sands of the Arabian peninsula, a land formerly populated by pagans, Jews of the Diaspora and Jewish converts from among the indigenous people. Although Judaism is not a missionary religion, Jews were tolerated in Arabia and Judaism was the first monotheistic religion to take root in the region.

At the time of Mahomet's rise to power Judaism was gaining ground in Arabia and had spread as far as India. It would not be drawing too long a bow to say that this was where the struggle between Islam and its progenitors began, for the early followers of Mahomet did not tolerate other religions or beliefs and were part of a nomadic culture that thrived on conflict.

Mahomet built on the teachings of Moses and Jesus, added his own take on things and claimed to be the last and greatest prophet of the God of Abraham. His followers set about the conversion of pagan, Jew and Christian, by the sword if necessary. The peoples of Arabia were not politically united by this process and remained a collection of independent, nomadic and often feuding tribes, ripe for military conquest by a more co-ordinated and focused nation. Such a people were the Turks, themselves former nomads of Caucasian origin who had embraced Islam, although at least one Turkic tribe became Jews and moved north-west into what is now the Russian Federation.

By the end of the first millenium Palestine, which had survived as part of the Graeco-Christian Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of Rome to Alaric's Goths in 410 AD, had been overrun by the Seljuk Turks, about to become a battleground between predominantly Norman knights of the 'barbaric' Christian west and its Turkish overlords. Palestine was a polyglot territory of former citizens of the Greek and Roman Empires, Turks from the Caucasus and the many Hebrews who had not joined the Diaspora after the revolt against Rome. Some had converted to Islam under Turkish rule. Although there were desert nomads, predominantly Bedouin in the south, Palestine was never what might be described in purely ethnic terms as Arab.

Turkish imperial rule lasted in the former Roman province and Hebrew Kingdom of Palestine until 1917, a period of about eight centuries. The Turks were tolerant of other religions and nationalities, profited from taxing pilgrims and visitors to the Holy Land but otherwise neglected the territory which, by the later 19th Century, enjoyed the reputation of being the poorest regions in the imperium, a waste of malarial coastal swamps, semi-desert and degraded farmland barely fit for goats. When European Jews seeking to escape persecution and periodic murderous pogroms in Imperial Russia sought to return to Palestine, the Turks welcomed and encouraged them as a valuable addition to the flagging local economy. That is not to say that the province did not already have a Jewish character in the persons of the many descendants of the original Hebrews who had survived successive waves of invasion, the fall of the Temple, the Crusades to flourish under relatively benign Turkish rule.

During World War I the Allies, principally the British and the French, fanned the flames of nascent Arab nationalism in what is now Saudi Arabia and sought to unite the desert tribes against the Turks. Islamists in Palestine saw this as an opportunity to take control of that territory once the Turks, inevitably, were defeated and driven out, the rump of Turkey surviving in what was formerly the hub of the Greek speaking Eastern Roman Empire. The British, seeking to enlist the aid of Christians, Jews and Muslims, indeed any residents of Palestine not ethnically Turkish, secretly promised a 'free' Palestine to both Jew and Muslim, Christians throwing their lot in with whomever they chose. How this was to be achieved was never spelt out in detail.

In 1919 the fate of territories forfeited by Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Turkey was decided by the League of Nations. Areas such as German New Guinea, Palestine and German South-West Africa, deemed too backward and undeveloped, as well as ethnically diverse, to achieve independence were placed in the care of one or another of the allied nations. Palestine became Britain's responsibility, and an embarrassment, as it had been promised to two groups of people divided by religion if only partly by their ethnic origin.

Most people accept that there is no such thing as a Jewish race. Semitic people originated in the Middle East and followers of all religions are found among them, predominantly Judaism and Islam with large Christian minorities, not surprising in view of the common Old Testament heritage of all three. Thanks to the Diaspora, there are also Asian Jews, African Jews, Turkic Jews and so-called European Jews who themselves fall into two distinct ethnic groups. Much research has gone into unravelling whether there is in fact a Jewish gene. That need not concern us here. Strictly speaking there are no significant biological differences between people and the concept of race is seen as a nonsense by most scientists. What truly differentiates people is culture and social and political development.

The problem, for the British, of what to do about Palestine was overtaken by events in the 1930s. Islamic separatists, thinking that they correctly read the portents, threw their lot in with the Nazis against the Jews not only of Palestine but of Europe and the world. That was their first mistake, one of many leading to the polarisation in Palestine that exists to this day. For strategic reasons, if no other, while engaged in a war to the death with Hitler the British elected to stand fast in Palestine.

During the war years Palestine became a beacon of hope for the surviving Jews of Europe and their supporters in all parts of what remained of a once civilized world. Even Russia, which had its share of Jewish blood, Russian, Ukrainian, Baltic and Polish on its hands, threw its weight in behind the long cherished dream of the restoration of Palestine and voted in favour of a Jewish national homeland in the United Nations.

Once Britain saw that the United Nations, apparently, had the matter in hand it wasted no time in withdrawing from Palestine. The UN had partitioned Palestine along ethnic lines with Jerusalem to be an open city. Israel occupied two islands of land joined by a narrow corridor with only limited access to the sea. It comprised those areas in which a majority of inhabitants professed to be Jewish. It was a land of few resources other than agriculture which had flourished thanks to the introduction by 19th Century immigrants of European and North American technology. In strictly economic terms, the lands allocated to Islamic and other non-Jewish peoples were even poorer, having developed little during the centuries of the Turkish imperium. They did, however, enjoy the advantage of powerful, well disposed neighbours like Egypt and greater access to the sea.

The peoples of Jewish Palestine accepted the decision of the United Nations. They had achieved independence in their homeland for the first time since the Roman invasion more than 1500-years earlier. Their borders were, militarily, indefensible and defended by a home guard armed with little more than obsolete rifles. There were no armoured brigades, machine gun regiments or artillery battalions. There was no air force, and the only naval protection had been provided by the now departed British. All this might have been of no consequence, but for the resolution of Israel's "Arab" neighbours to take control of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard and destroy the fledgling Jewish state. Whatever their motives, it had nothing to do with the well being and future prosperity of those Palestinian residents who had chosen not to become citizens of Israel.

The forces of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan were trained and equipped by the British, those of Syria by the French, although not for the express purpose of demolishing Israel. In 1948 the poorly armed and equipped Israeli Defence Force received no aid from the Western allies who were preoccupied with the Cold War and the necessity of not offending the oil producing nations of the Middle East. As in the Spanish Civil War, military assistance arrived in the form of volunteers, many World War II veterans, from all parts of the world. Material, much of it captured from the defeated Germans in the closing months of the war, was largely sourced from Eastern Europe with - for reasons best known to themselves at the time - the tacit support of the Soviets. Much of it, including former Luftwaffe aircraft, came from Czechoslovakia.

There is a delicious irony in a ruined Germany and a Stalinist Russia atoning in some small way for the millions of Jews who died at their hands. Decades later it emerged that anti-Jewish sentiment was alive and well in Poland and Russia. Israel was seen as the humane solution to their Jewish problem and South-Eastern Europe had itself at various times in its history suffered at the hands of Islamic invaders. As more recent events in the Balkans have tragically demonstrated, the Europeans have long memories.

In 1948, a then puny Israel was invaded from all sides by Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Iraqi forces. The result seemed a foregone conclusion and, in retrospect, it is surprising that at least some nations were not standing by to assist in the evacuation of Israel. What happened next is the stuff of legend, and also the genesis of the some of the current problems in the Middle East.

Initially a defensive war and a struggle for survival in the face of overwhelming odds, an Israeli defence force on the offensive took control of areas necessary for the future defence of Israel. This was regrettably, but necessarily, at the expense of the territory formerly allocated by the 1947 partition to its non-Jewish majority. Many, who had sided with the Egyptian and Arab invaders, fled. Their hosts and former allies rewarded them by settling them in camps and discouraging assimilation and immigration to other parts of the world on the grounds that they would one day return, the day when Israel was finally destroyed.

It was to be another 20-years before an attempt, again involving members of the former United Arab Republic, was made to destroy Israel. This time the invaders faced an army of native Israelis, conscripts trained, armed and motivated in a way that made them the envy of professional soldiers the world over. The invaders, notably the Egyptian forces, also largely conscripts but without the same resolve, were routed and Israel looked to further consolidate its natural defences at the expense of its neighbours. Such is the fortune of war.

The real losers in all this were, of course, the so-called Palestinians. Perhaps the majority of non-Jewish peoples in those lands awarded them by the United Nations in 1947 would have been content with their lot, become part of an inevitable economic union with Israel and even opted, in some cases, to move to Israel and take up citizenship, as many Christians, Muslims and assorted unbelievers have done.

Their neighbours, in a strange melange of religious fanaticism and territorial avarice, made this impossible in the short term. Egypt eventually reached an accord with Israel, but not before a third war in 1973. Iraq, Syria and Iran after 1979 have continued to underwrite assaults on Israeli civilians and to fuel conflict in the regime. Iraq began falling apart after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and was occupied by NATO forces, for better or worse, in 2003; not before Saddam Hussein succeeded in slaughtering thousands of Persians, marsh Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic minorities. Had the League of Nations been prescient in 1919 there probably would never have been an Iraq, an ethnic patchwork which found a shaky unity under the rule of oligarchs and dictators.

Rapprochement between Israel and the so-called Palestinian territories is within reach, but only when nations like Iran and Syria recognise Israel's right to exist as a multicultural nation state and all involved eschew violence against, particularly, civilians as a means to an end which can never be achieved: the elimination of Israel and the creation of a pan-Arab hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ironically, a strong, secure and prosperous Israel is the best hope for an autonomous non-Jewish Palestinian state. Iran and Syria, however, have other fish to fry, and the region will remain at risk until such time as both nations embrace secular social democracy and renounce war, territorial ambitions and support for international terrorism.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Israel - Birth of a Nation

James Stuart came to my attention as a result of reading a post on another forum. What follows are, apparently, his words. I can find no fault with them. That being said, we can never have enough evidence in an historical debate and no interpretation is set in concrete.

Millions of people in the ME can be broadly described, in ethnic terms, as Semitic. This includes most Egyptians and many people with ancient roots in the former Roman Province of Palestine, irrespective of religion.

Prior to the establishment of the Hebrew Kingdom in what is now, roughly speaking, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the peoples of the region were disunited and pagan. Judaism is the world's first, and oldest, monotheistic religion. The Jewish tradition also encompasses the world's oldest, continuous written history, written in a language which is still used today.

Judaism is a religion and there is no such thing as a Jewish race. Today Jews of European, or Caucasian, ancestry outnumber Jews of Middle Eastern origin, in Israel and elsewhere in the world. There are also African Jews and Indian Jews.

The Hebrew Kingdom was the first nation state in the area which became known as Palestine. Over time it attracted a large Greek population since the Ancient Greeks were the world's first great colonizers and had colonies stretching from Cadiz all along the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea where to this day Georgians claim to be of Greek descent. When Greece fell to the Romans, the region became a Roman province and it was the Romans who named it Palestine.

The people of Palestine were predominantly Jewish, with a large contingent of Greek and Roman polytheists. In the time of Our Lord, significant numbers of Greeks, Romans and Jews became Christians although, at that time, Christianity was seen as a Jewish cult, of which there were several, and Jesus as a particularly gifted Rabbi and community leader. The Romans did away with him because they saw him as a revolutionary engaged in a struggle for independence.

Modern Christianity owes a great deal to the Ancient Greeks and the Romans who adapted it to suit their own purposes. Jesus remained a Jew until the day he died and is best remembered as such. Paul (Saul) played a similar role in the evolution of Christianity to that played by Mahomet in the evolution of Islam. Both men modified the Jewish tradition to suit their own political ambitions.

Palestine eventually became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. At that time the inhabitants were mostly Christian or Jew. During the 7th Century the region fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks who were Islamists. Palestine became a Turkish province, with a mainly Jewish and partly Christian population, and remained so until 1917. During the period of Turkish rule some Arabs from other parts of the Turkish Empire settled in Palestine and some Jews and Christians converted to Islam so that they could join the army and/or the civil service.

Palestine was never, strictly speaking, an Arab territory. During the First World War the British whipped up Arab nationalism, persuading hitherto disunited, feuding tribes to revolt against their Turkish overlords. Among the carrots offered to the Arab nationalists was Palestine, a territory to which they had no legitimate claim although there was an Islamic, largely non-Arab, population.

The British also promised to restore the Jewish nation state in Palestine. For the British it was a cynical attempt to enlist all possible sources of aid and support in the struggle against the Germans and their Turkish allies. The League of Nations in 1919 rewarded the British for their ham-handedness by making them responsible for the mandated territory of Palestine, just as Australia inherited New Guinea from the Germans and the Union of South Africa what is now Namibia.

During the later part of the 19th Century many European Jews returned to Palestine to escape persecution in Eastern and Central Europe. They were welcomed by the Turks who were tolerant, if somewhat idle, rulers. Palestine at that time was the most backward province of the Turkish empire, a region of arid drylands, and malarial coastal marshes. What enterprise there was was mainly down to the Jewish citizens, soon to be joined by Jews from around the world.

The movement to return to Israel accelerated through the last decades of the 19th Century and attracted the interest of American Jews who invested capital and provided know-how gleaned from states like Arizona regarding the profitable development of arid lands. This movement continued into the 20th Century and accelerated with the revival of anti-semitism in Europe during the 1930s. At that time Western leaders began to give serious consideration to the idea of an alternative home for European Jews.

There are few who are not familiar with the events in Germany after 1933, the Second World War and the Holocaust which went on for the worst part of a decade from 1936 to 1945. During this time people of the Jewish faith in all parts of the world, in concert with the Allied governments, recognised the necessity for a Jewish homeland or sanctuary. This was never about race, or nationality, but simply about human rights and religious freedom. Historically, and in every other way, Palestine was the logical choice.

During the 20th Century, however, the so-called 'great powers' had become increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Palestine (Israel) has no resources to speak of. Its one of the world's great 'knowledge economies', like Switzerland. The problem was the Arab nationalists, who saw themselves as the rightful heirs of the Turks, not that they had done anything to deserve the fruits of Turkish civilization, and the desire of the British and the French to avoid antagonising the Arabs, thereby compromising their oil interests. Typically, as they did years later in the case of Rhodesia, the British dilly dallied and shilly shallied until the people of Palestine, mainly Jewish, took matters into their own hands.

The British faced a considerable challenge at the hands of the Jewish liberation movement in Palestine, some of whom resorted to terrorism. In the end they surrendered their mandate - it was all too hard for a nation all but bankrupt after its magnificent stand against the Nazis - to the newly constituted United Nations.

The United Nations, in its wisdom partitioned Palestine in 1948 on religious lines, between Jew and non-Jew (Christians and Islamists). All would have been well had the Arab nations, who had no rightful claim to any part of Palestine, accepted the decision of the UN. Israel was invaded by a coalition of Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian troops, most of them trained and equipped by the British. The very recently formed Israeli Defence Force had almost nothing in the way of arms and equipment. At the last minute they were able to source captured German equipment, including aircraft, from Czechoslovakia. The Russians, for reasons of their own, were complicit in this and provided tacit support to the Israelis, as did Jews around the world.

The rest is history. Suffice it to say that the Arab nations, and nations like Iraq (Formerly Persia) which are not Arab, and have no connection with the area later than the empire of Alexander the Great, have sworn to obliterate Israel. This is Islamic fanaticism at its worst, and the only 'rational' objective is surely the Islamification of the planet from Pakistan to Morocco. The only Islamic nation to have any historical claim over Palestine is Turkey, a nation which has long since joined the 'civilized' world and is in line to become a member of the EU. The Turks, needless to say, have more in common with Southern Europeans than the people of the Middle East whom they ruled for the best part of 1200-years.

The present population of Israel have as much right, historically, to be there as any other people in any other part of the world. No country is without a history of migration, settlement and conquest. Most parts of the world have undergone so many changes that so-called racial distinctions are all but meaningless. There are, broadly speaking, certain ethnic types but we all have something of each other in us.

The difficulty faced by the non-Jewish Palestinians, currently struggling for independence, is that their territories are not economically viable. Their future lies in an economic union with Israel. At the moment they are mere pawns in a a game played by fanatics seeking the total obliteration of Israel. That is not going to happen.

Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none.
- William Shakespeare

Sunday, May 8, 2011

That which is not recorded is soon lost ...

That which is not recorded is soon lost, in many cases as if it had never been. That which is not recorded, is not. Memory is fallible. We choose to share only a small part of that which is in our hearts and minds with others, so our memories - those which survive - die with us.

The ancients, many believe, had prodigious memories. Without them they would not have evolved complex languages, mathematical systems and created the first civilizations, not to mention religious lore and creation stories. While writing may have developed concurrently with the first civilizations, its art was the preserve of a privileged few such as, in Egypt, the priesthood.

Our first and most important skill as homo sapiens, sapientior was the ability to listen to others, to process that information rationally and imaginatively, to learn from others in this way, to retain what was learned and, in turn, to share it with others.

To me the importance of writing, and I am not unique in this perception, is that in addition to being an aide memoire and a means of communicating over distance by a more secure method than word of mouth, it is that of the world's first complex data storage medium. That there were other means of leaving messages for posterity, such as the earliest forms of art, I have no doubt. Writing, however, enabled a mass of detail to be recorded permanently in a relatively small space using a medium which could be preserved, with care, for many years. In this way human beings were able to deal with the growth of knowledge beyond the point at which, as it were, the known world could be encompassed by the mind of a single individual.

The historical record appears to show that cultures which were both without writing, and geographically isolated, changed little over the centuries. In some cases such peoples survived into the 20th Century living much as they might have in paeleolithic, or Stone Age, times. Literacy is not, however, a prerequisite for cultural evolution since peoples sharing the same landmass have shown the propensity to learn rapidly from one another. It is a moot point whether writing developed in Mesopotamia and spread east and west from there, or whether the ancient Chinese or one of the Himalayan cultures pipped the Sumerians at the post.

As all who have sat through school history lessons will know, writing remained an art practised only by the privileged until the invention of the printing press made literature more accessible. It is likely that more people learned to read than to write as well, although modern education tends to develop these skills in tandem.

What followed was a very gradual 'trickling down' of literacy with compulsory education for working folk not introduced in most European nations until the 1880s. In the UK there was considerable resistance to compulsory schooling from the working class, engendering attitudes and values which, regrettably, remain with us now and contribute to the relatively poor performance of anglophone nations compared to the Asian 'economic tigers' where education is revered and teachers receive the respect they deserve.

Nothing new in any of this, of course, but it helps to remind ourselves that the world we take for granted is relatively young. Mass education as a public good grew out of the industrial revolution. Land owners and capitalists needed secretaries, clerks and bookkkeepers in unprecedented numbers. Traditional grammar and elite public schools could not meet the demand for literate, well-informed individuals. Universities were inspired to move beyond the classical curriculum to meet the needs of a burgeoning civil service. A significant number of working class people began to see education as a public good in its own right, and as a means of achieving social and economic emancipation. As factory machinery, and machinery generally, became more common and more complex, its operation could no longer be trusted to illiterate former labourers.

The information economy then begins visibly to emerge about a century after the start of the Industrial Revolution in England. It was enhanced by the steam engine, the railway and the steam ship, accelerated by the electric telegraph in the 1840s and joined by the telephone, the typewriter and compulsory education in the 1880s. In all this we should not forget the camera which came into its own during the American Civil War in the 1860s.

Although there were tremendous improvements in all the aforementioned technologies, with the addition of the electric light and the internal combustion engine towards the end of the 19th Century, this was essentially the same world into which my grandparents were born around the turn of the century, our century.

By the time I was growing up in the 1950s many nations had yet to begin television broadcasting and most homes, my own included, had but one radio receiver, an elegant affair in a wooden cabinet in a corner of the living room. Other than the radio, home entertainment might include a mechanical gramophone with a stack of noisy, fragile 78s and/or a piano for those who were musically inclined. Most entertainment was still enjoyed outside the home, the cinema and - later - the drive-in cinema being major attractions. Our information was found in libraries, few having the budget for vast personal collections, magazines, and the daily newspaper which was delivered to many homes. The habit of listening to radio news broadcasts developed during the Second World War, but many countries - my native South Africa included - had only one state broadcasting corporation modelled on the BBC. We did, however, enjoy the magic of short wave radio, the BBC World Service and the Voice of America. Many homes sported some sort of external aerial in the form of a long wire with egg shaped ceramic insulators at each end, a beacon to fellow short wave listeners.

The status quo of the 1950s remained in place well into the 1970s, although there were significant improvements in technology as the transistor, invented in 1948, went into mass production about 1960. Radio receivers became smaller and more powerful and totally portable. The cassette tape recorder appeared around 1965 and record players were replaced by affordable home 'stereo' systems. These changes, however, can be seen as largely incremental and, for most people, computers were mysterious machines glimpsed whirring in the background of James Bond movies.

The real watershed in communication and information technology has to be the rapid evolution of the personal, or home, computer after 1980. Let it be said, however, that these early machines - however fascinating - were time consuming and frustrating beasts with very limited abilities. For many they were little more than toys although the word processor and the electronic spreadsheet were starting to transform our offices. The value of those early machines was to prepare us for the real magic, the ubiquitous internet, the miracle of instantaneous worldwide communication, seemingly limitless sources of information, and the compulsion of social networking with people one has never met and is never likely to encounter outside the ‘virtual’ world.

But how has this changed the way we do things, and have all of these changes been for the better? Are we smarter and better informed, or are we just extensions of the machines on which we have become increasingly reliant? Are there things at which humans are intrinsically better, and better equipped, than any machine? These are open questions which remain open ... just for now.

Friday, May 6, 2011

On the manner of their passing ...

Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
- Matthew 26:52

I was about to ask "What is it about the Australian psyche?", but its not about us, or them - whoever they may be. Its about people, about individuals in situations and the sub-cultures in which they are contained; about upbringing, education, friends, colleagues and the work environment.

You see, some of us think nothing of the police fatally shooting a man brandishing a knife, apparently incapable of overpowering and disarming him, all their training notwithstanding. Others among us, however, inveterate Uncle Sam bashers I have little doubt, call the shooting of Bin Laden an 'assassination', an extra-judicial killing - and this in complete ignorance of what happened when he and a group of armed men not working for Al Qaeda came face to face for the first time since September 2001.

Whether or not we shall ever learn exactly how Bin Laden met his death is a matter of speculation. A man with his history, in his situation, is likely to have been armed and to have resisted apprehension. Whether or not he would have been worth more to his captors alive than dead is a moot point.

Al Qaeda, reputably, does not operate hierarchically or under centralized control. By this time Bin Laden may have enjoyed no more executive insight, or oversight, than a constitutional sovereign, a titular head of state, to be kept in the loop after the event. This, however, flies in the face of reports that his home yielded an intelligence bonanza, a rich supply of data mostly in electronic form. This information must have travelled in and out by courier, since other reports stated that the dwelling was suspect because it was the only one of its type in the neighbourhood without telephone or internet connections.

In my view, uninformed as I am, Bin Laden alive is worth more to his captors than Bin Laden dead. What better place for him, ultimately, than the International Court at the Hague? That his captors would place themselves and their nation at considerable risk of reprisals I have no doubt. Bin Laden alive would have remained a beacon to his followers, but will this be any less so now that he is dead? In the place of the American President I should have wanted to speak with Bin Laden. Not only would this have been the statesmanlike thing to do, but it might actually have been instructive to learn something of the motivations of men who appear to believe that the world, and their respective societies, should revert to some mythical bygone era of domination by sword wielding, God fearing, priest ridden, warrior nomads, forgetting that the great Islamic civilization of the later Mediaeval period grew out of the subjugation of the desert nomads and resulted in centuries of rule by a people who, although Islamic, are essentially European rather than Arab.

Like so many with blood on their hands throughout the ages, Bin Laden occupied a fantasy world in which history, religion, culture and politics are surreal, distorted almost beyond rational comprehension, putting him in the same class - although fortunately far less effective - as men like Hitler and Stalin. Now that he is dead, shall we ever know what went on in that mind?

So, there will be those who say that he should not have been killed, without at this time knowing whether his attackers had a choice and those who believe that he was the victim of a deliberate 'kill' order. In stark contrast are the cases of the many Australians who have been shot down by armed police, often armed with nothing more deadly than a knife which - as any trained soldier will tell you - is worse than useless in the hands of someone not schooled in its use as an offensive weapon.

During a brief period of national service in the defence force of another country, I was taught the principle - to be applied while guarding sensitive installations - of minimum force, and equal force. Our weapons were to be kept unloaded at all times and the magazine supplied, containing only five rounds, was sealed with tape pending authorization from a superior officer. On no account were we to fire unless fired upon. People who approached us wielding knives, clubs, spears or any offensive weapon other than a firearm were to be disabled and disarmed in hand-to-hand encounters in which, as non-professionals eagerly awaiting discharge into civilian life, we had some rudimentary training. As a consequence, even after many years, I feel quite confident of being able to handle myself in most situations, against fellow amateurs, armed with nothing more than a straw broom.

Australia has a much smaller population than the United Kingdom and less crime per capita. British police, for the most part, manage admirably armed with nothing more than telescopic batons, in the use of which they are remarkably proficient. Confrontation with individuals bearing fire arms is the province of specially trained and equipped armed response teams. Fire fights are avoided at all costs. Why are we not prepared to invest in the recruitment and training of our police and to create forces enjoying the same degree of community affection and respect as the Met?

And so the death of yet another deranged, knife wielding individual at the hands of the Victorian Police goes almost without notice, lost in the noise surrounding the endless media coverage of the little we know about the Bin Laden shooting. By, perhaps unavoidably, killing Bin Laden we may have lost - for now at any rate - the opportunity to learn more about a mysterious individual, those who assisted him, and the manner in which they evaded capture for almost a decade.

For those who seek to use Bin Laden's death as an opportunity to castigate 'dastardly' Uncle Sam I have nothing but contempt. You are small people, with minds to match, lacking both compassion and humanity while grinding your puny axes. For our police who feel that their last resort when dealing with the mentally ill is deadly force, I have sympathy. You have been short changed by your recruiting, training, command and control structures. The time for us to stand back and take a long, hard look at ourselves is well overdue.

During the Bronze Age, weapons were scarce and expensive and conflict as much symbolic and ceremonial as actual. Iron, it has been suggested, changed all that by enabling the cheap, mass production of deadly weapons and the creation of huge armies. Since then, it seems, we have been unable to settle our differences without bloodshed, our own and that of others. War has long since ceased to be the province exclusively of a warrior caste, but has involved societies and nations in mass destruction and the killing of innocents on a genocidal scale. Bin Laden was a man from the past projected into the present, his followers without hope of a future.

Cayce files his story on Media Matters ZA

Thank you for making contact.

In order not to compromise my current professional status, I regret that I am not able to provide a photograph. Unlike many media workers, I do not use social media or blogs to advance my career or raise my professional profile. My comments on Twitter, Facebook and in my blog do, however, reflect my sincere beliefs and convictions, not without a healthy degree of scepticism and cynicism meliorated by a natural tolerance and affection for others.

I was born and educated in the Eastern Cape where my late mother, a journalist, was a founder member of Alan Paton's Liberal Party, the Black Sash & the South African Institute of Race Relations. As a young person I grew up in the company of journalists and was privy to news and information which did not always make it into print. Some of our friends and acquaintances were detained and forced into exile.

As a student I was deeply influenced by two books: Robin Cranford's "Leave Them Their Pride" and Arthur Keppel-Jone's "When Smuts Goes". Both dealt in fictional form with likely outcomes for South Africa should the white minority persist in its policies of oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Shortly after graduating from Rhodes in 1971 I left South Africa and have since lived mainly overseas.

As stated in my Twitter profile I studied Law at Rhodes, did post-grad work in History and Education and have since worked mainly in the field of Education and Psychology. In my second year at Rhodes I did a few weeks work experience on the EP Herald, mainly court reporting. In 1980 - 1981, while tutoring part-time in Education at Rhodes, I was assistant editor of Grocotts for some months.

By 1982 I had given up hoping for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in South Africa and settled permanently in Australia. Re-establishing ourselves and bringing up children occupied most of the years that followed.

In 1994, after considerable soul searching, I went to the South African polling station in Canberra and voted ANC. While believing that democracy cannot survive without a strong opposition there seemed, at that time, to be no viable opposition to the ANC other than our old foe, the Nats. Mandela I could support. I first became acquainted with Helen Zille's work while reading for my dissertation and watch the rise of the Democractic Alliance with interest and cautious optimism.

In 1996 we connected to the internet for the first time. In 1998, thanks to a cousin working for MWeb at the time, I became aware of nascent social media which - then - took the form of mailing lists, newsgroups, bulletin boards and interactive discussion forums. I began to follow MWeb's Cape Town Live and Cyberjani's Talkback, although I knew nothing about Jani Allan whose shenanigans had not made it into the Australian press.

Later I joined the Mail & Guardian forums and contributed mainly to them for ten years. Between 2008 and 2010 the Mail & Guardian gradually distanced itself from the forums which had become increasingly reactionary and right wing. South African discussion forums, patronised mainly by so-called 'whites', have long had a problem with hate speech way beyond anything the ANCYL has been accused of.

Early last year MWeb took responsibility for the former M&G forums and I ceased to be a member. After a few months away from social media, a couple of them spent hiking on long distance footpaths in the UK, I decided to join Twitter last October.

Because of my early life experiences, and family connections with four close relatives currently working as journalists, my heart is in newspapers. I believe passionately in a free and responsible media while, at the same time, believing that mainstream media should not seek to duplicate the functions of social media by allowing reader comment, and disputes between readers, to flow unchecked.

Reputable media organisations I believe, should exercise editorial oversight as was done with the traditional Letters column in the print media. So-called free speech and comment is the province of personal blogs and the social networking sites who are better able to support the burden of cranks and idle mischief makers (trolls). FWIW, that's what I believe since newspapers do owe a certain responsibility to their loyal, paying readers, advertisers, shareholders and the broader public. The role of a reputable newspaper has never been that of a soapbox. Certain kinds of "free speech" are best confined to Speakers' Corner where the public can greet it with the derision it deserves.

Regrettably I am not a regular on Facebook and saw your message too late to respond. I stand by all my comments, although always grateful to be found 'wrong', and am happy for anything I tweet or otherwise publish to the internet to be retweeted, repeated or whatever. As I have said, I am not using social media to build a career, a personal profile or a reputation. It is simply my way of following my interests and engaging in my first love - the news.

My late Mom, a social reporter during the week, often manned the Telex room at EP Newspapers in Baakens Street on weekends to earn a little extra.

The Telex was to newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s what the internet is today. Short news items, like Tweets, would arrive on the long sheets of paper spewing out of the machines which chattered like the huge typewriters they resembled. Reports would have to be torn or cut off and delivered to the appropriate in-tray. Discarded paper became my plaything, for drawing, laying out my own version of the news, paper boats & planes. When I tired of this, I wandered the, largely empty on weekends, corridors of Newspaper House. As a special treat on Saturdays we might watch the presses rolling with the weekend edition of the Evening Post and receive a copy of the paper hot from the press.

Thank you for the opportunity to bore you and wallow in nostalgia. Keep up the good work.