Archive for September, 2009

Massacre in Guinea: Putting down the bauxite rebellion

Guinean army forces have massacred over 150 unarmed people who were protesting on Monday against the country’s unelected leader. The head of the military Moussa Dadis Camara leads the Western African country. He seized power in a coup following the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conté in December. Protests broke out in the capital Conakry after it seemed likely that Camara would stand as a candidate in a presidential election postponed to January. Opponents are demanding he honour a longstanding pledge to stand aside and transition Guinea to civilian rule (photo of arrest in Conakry by AFP via Al Jazeera).

Though Camara has not formally declared his candidacy, his supporters have been actively promoting his chances. They were allowed a peaceful rally on Saturday in the city of Labe. But when the opposition tried to launch their rally on Monday, all hell broke loose. Political and civil society leaders had called the rally at Conakry’s main football stadium two weeks ago but authorities banned the meeting.

Despite the ban, thousands assembled at the 25,000 seater stadium pushing past military to gain entrance to the ground. They carried placards reading “No to Dadis” and “Down with the army in power” before police eventually stopped the crowds from gaining entry. Suddenly soldiers drove into the stadium. They descended from their vehicles and shot first into the air. Then they began to open fire on demonstrators and beat them up.

By the middle of the afternoon Donka Hospital in Conakry had admitted hundreds of people with bullet wounds and injuries from beatings. A number of women taking part in the demonstration were stripped naked and sexually assaulted by security forces who also went on a looting rampage across town. The usual suspects such as the UN, the EU, the AU and the US all expressed their condemnation of the massacre but none are likely to act against what is usually deemed “a domestic matter”. Of more interest is the attitude of the the international mining companies who stand to make large amounts of money in the country.

Guinea has the world’s largest concentration of bauxite (aluminium ore) with 30 percent of the world’s reserves. US Giant Alcoa in partnership with Canadian Alcan have exclusive rights to mine bauxite in Guinea’s Sangaredi Plateau. Together they run Cie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG) the world’s largest bauxite mine. Bauxite is used in cement, chemicals, face makeup, soda cans, dishwashers, siding for houses, and other aluminum products and is highly profitable industry for the two multi-nationals.

But Guinea’s relationship with the Russian giant UC RUSAL is not so healthy. Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s company are in a row with a Guinean court which has taken ownership of a mine away from them. The court cancelled the sale in 2006 of the Friguia refinery which UC RUSAL had bought for $20 million, far below independent valuations of $250 million. Russia is claiming the refinery is now their legitimate property.

Rio Tinto is also in trouble with Guinea. It is still challenging a decision the government made last year to take away control of an important iron ore project. Government told Rio its licence to mine has been rescinded. The mine at Simandou is one of the world’s largest undeveloped iron ore deposits, with the potential to generate more than $10 billion a year. The mine is crucial to Rio to ward off takeover threats from BHP Billiton and analysts say Guinea’s move is an attempt to get a better bargaining position at a vulnerable time for the buyer.

But the latest protests have made Guinea vulnerable too. Camara is playing for high stakes. Though the country remains an economic basket case, he and his cronies can earn millions in company kickbacks. But he needs the big companies to stay. If he cannot control the streets they will take their mining dollars elsewhere. For Guinea’s millions of desperately poor neither outcome will help them much.

September 30, 2009 at 12:57 am Leave a comment

Keeping up with the ipjones: buying an Iphone

I am recovering with a glass of Irish whiskey after a day of technological terror. It’s the fault of a phone.

No doubt subliminally inspired by the weekend’s lamentable isnackery (I can’t believe it’s not beta butter), today I rushed out and bought an iphone. It’s a luxury item that will cost me at least $1,300 or thereabouts to Telstra over two years. But I’d been meaning to buy one for some time so I felt the rushing was justified. It was going to give me more communications options which would become a useful part of my outdoor armoury. (pic is either my new phone or that mysterious stone from 2001: A Space Odyssey)

The purchase and its aftermath were stressful events, if neither unexpected. I found the whole commercial experience of choosing and then buying a phone very difficult.

Part of me hates change because it means I have to unlearn old ways of doing things. Not being part of the igeneration, I was quite happy to hold on to the old phone even though it was well out of contract. But inertia was eventually overcome by the idea of communicating on the run. The ability to send text and pictures to the Internet in near real-time was immensely appealing.

This was my second attempt to buy an iphone. Last time I went to my local Telstra shop they told me there was a four week delay so I didn’t bother. I would have had it by now. But today there was no waiting period. Choice was limited – I wanted a sedate black-backed phone but there were none in that colour. Impatient to wait, I chose a more attention-grabbing white cover.

Technical spec was not as much a big deal for me. Knowing about Moore’s Law and resource-hungry apps I should have gone for the 32 meg disk phone instead of the 16. But that was going to cost $200 more and I didn’t think it was worth it. I will repent my stinginess at leisure. I paid an extra $10 a month for 150 meg of monthly download time. Time will tell if that amount is too big, sufficient, or too small. I forgot to ask how many megapixels the camera is but found out later its 2 MP.

When I took the phone home I panicked as I could find see my contacts list of telephone numbers anywhere. I shuddered what that would mean if it was gone. I rang the shop who patiently assured me they had copied them across to the new SIM but I would have to import the damn things.

It took me a while to find out how. Neither the “Finger Tips” document nor the Iphone 3GS “Important Product Information Guide” were much use as a user manual (and the text in the latter “important” document was so small, it could have been borrowed from the Rosetta Stone). But with much trial, error, and liberal Saxon slang I found the import screen on the phone. My contact list was back, to great relief.

If that all went ok in the end, the same cannot be said for iTunes set-up. The first thing I wanted to do was download the free Twitter and Facebook apps. In order to do that I needed an iTunes account which I did not have already. I went through the longwinded account set-up (including spending forever to decide on my “secret question” – but I’d have to kill you if I told you what that was). Apple asked me for a credit card number which they nicely said they would keep for later transactions. I baulked at this option – I was only there for a free app.

But even still it was a slow process. Accompanied by several loud oaths, my tedious attempts at club-footed typing was struggling on a small and unfamiliar keyboard. Several times I misspelt the userid or password or had to go off to another screen to find the underscore (in my mail address) or the at-sign. Whenever I made an error, which was common, I’d try and correct but often would accidentally send myself to some other screen and I’d have to start from scratch again. In short it took me a while to find the “return” key.

Eventually I created my account and quickly found an email in my inbox. I tried clicking on this link from the phone itself but it insisted the link must come from a computer. When I did try on the laptop, the verification email took me to this screen (shown right) which told me I was “just a few steps away” from downloading music, HD TV shows, movies, and more from the iTunes Store.

Just a few steps away? But all I was doing was verifying. Why was this so complex? It didn’t look like a verification screen to me and there was nothing there that said I was verified or needed to do something else. I tried to re-download the Twitter app but no surprise, it was still telling me my account was unverified.

After several repeat attempts (complete with more spelling mistakes and misturns) I decided maybe nothing was happening because I didn’t have iTunes installed.

But when I tried to install it, the windows installer crashed. This was the signal the Gods were against me today I eventually gave up none the wiser as to how to download free apps. I can possibly blame the devil’s own defective code of my Vista operating system for the installer problem. But Apple’s own support procedures are poor too. The material sent out with the iphone is abysmal and there is no contact information on the “do not reply” verification email.

I had cursed KafkApple enough and was still anxious to try out Twitter on the phone. I logged onto my twitter homepage via the phone’s Safari brower and typed in a test message. But my fingers were taking some time to get used to the smaller keyboard. So the initial tweet read “testing from ipjone”. Happy that something worked first time, I barely noticed the typo. But others did. Stilgherrian was quickest to respond: “Your ‘ipjone’ seems to be working perfectly,” he reassured me.

If only he knew. Call me Ipjonah. Here’s hoping this technophobe fares better in the morning.

September 29, 2009 at 10:11 am Leave a comment

Guinness at 250

Guinness celebrated its 250th anniversary with a party in four countries on the weekend. Festivities were at their peak in the beer’s spiritual home Dublin on Thursday, but the anniversary was also celebrated with concerts in Lagos, Kuala Lumpur, and New York. On 24 September 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the St James’s Gate brewery in Dublin and began a beer brand that is the best known in the world. The anniversary party kicked off at 5.59 pm (17:59) in Dublin with a toast to Arthur Guinness, before carrying on long into the night in the other cities (photo of McDaids of Dublin by Derek Barry).

One of the reasons for Guinness’s worldwide success is the quality and quantity of its advertising. Britain’s World War One government can take some of the credit. It passed legislation to reduce the alcoholic strength of beers to promote the war effort. Guinness was hurt more than most by this as it needed the strength to preserve the quality of its extra stout. Guinness consumption decreased so badly by the mid 1920s, the company hired SH Benson advertising agency to turn it around. Benson toured Dublin pubs where most people said they drank it because “Guinness is Good for You”. They also asked thousands of British doctors who confirmed that the beer was a panacea for any ailment under the sun.

While the success of the subsequent campaign was legendary, Guinness’s health claims continued to be argued throughout the years. The company is now careful to make any medical claims for its drinks. It has not been able to use the “Guinness is Good for You” slogan since the 1960s and it has not appeared on a poster since 1937. However 2003 research from the University of Wisconsin found that a pint of Guinness at mealtimes is good for the heart, unlike a pint of lager. It found that Guinness was full of flavonoids (also found in dark fruits and berries as well as red wine and chocolate) which reduce damage to the lining of arteries.

But Guinness is more than about health. In 2004, a British survey named the Guinness can widget as the greatest technological invention of the last 40 years. It was invented in the 1980s by a Guinness brewer named Peter Hildebrand who created a jet of foam instead of a jet of air inside a can. The plastic molded device that sits on the top of each can with a small amount of beer and nitrogen, trapped in the widget. When the can is opened, the nitrogen is forced out through the beer, which creates the creamy head. The resulting Draught Guinness in Cans saw the brand take off again in Britain and had the side effect of increasing pub sales too.

Guinness is now brewed in almost 50 countries, with ten million glasses drunk around the world every day. It is made from four natural ingredients: barley, water, hops and yeast. Its dark colour and distinctive taste come from the roast barley. The Guinness family have not been directly involved in the management of the company since 1992 although they retain a financial interest in the business. In 1998 Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, now the largest drinks company in the world. Among the brands owned by Diageo are Smirnoff, Baileys, Johnny Walker, J&B, Gordon’s, Captain Morgan, Bushmills and Bundaberg Rum.

The background of Arthur Guinness is shrouded in mystery. Although a Protestant, he appropriated the coat of arms from an aristocratic Catholic family named Magennis. Through this sleight of hand, it allowed his family to inherit the title of Earl of Iveagh which gave later family members great prestige. Guinness began in 1759 by brewing several beers and ales at St James Gate in Dublin. On a visit to London he saw porters enjoying a new drink which was a mixture of beer and ale and named after their occupation. When porter was introduced to Ireland, Guinness decided to beat the British at their own game and brewed his own version. It took decades to establish but he eventually abandoned all his other products to concentrate on the porter he named after himself.

He exported the first shipment of Guinness to England as early as 1769 but the stout did not travel well. By the 1830s British factories had taken over the bottling and distribution and helped turn it into an international brand. By the 1890s, Guinness began to get serious with its brand and insisted all its products had uniform labelling and trademarks. By then, the Guinness brewery in Dublin was the largest in the world, and the company, Arthur Guinness and Sons was floated on the London Stock Exchange. But it wasn’t until 1950 that Guinness gained control of its global export business. They had immediate results and increased sales of its export product from 35,000 barrels to 300,000 barrels in ten years.

The name Guinness remains indelibly linked to Ireland in general, and Dublin in particular (rebel city Cork prefers Murphy’s stout or Beamish). When renowned writer and frequent Guinness drinker Brendan Behan was asked “hasn’t Guinness been good to the people of Dublin?” he supposedly replied “haven’t the people of Dublin been good to Guinness.”

But Behan left unanswered the question whether Guinness taste better in Dublin than anywhere else. This writer is one of the many who think it does (for what its worth, my favourite Guinness pub is Mulligans of Poolbeg Street). But as Mark Griffiths writes in “Guinness is Guinness”, I and countless others are probably wrong. He quotes Guinness Ireland Brand Controller Mark Ody who says it is a myth, up to a point. “A pint in Dublin might not be a week old [whereas] in England it can be two months in the chain,” he said. “It’s pure myth and speculation – but fresh is fresh is fresh”. No matter, wherever you are having a Guinness this weekend, enjoy. Here’s to the next 250 years. Sláinte go léir.

September 27, 2009 at 11:27 pm 2 comments

Half way house

I’m currently half way through an 18 month master’s of journalism at QUT. I am actually slightly over the exact half-way mark as the mid-term break that arrives next week is strangely week 11 out of 14 (something very Irish about that!). Mine is a three semester course-work degree, so the end result will not be treated as highly as if were a research masters. However a third of my work is thesis. That will be due in late May 2010 and I want that to be treated and examined as if it were a full research thesis. (pic: QUT Kelvin Grove “Education A Block Building” by Derek Barry)

Though I’ve yet to nail down a decent journalism-related research question for the thesis, I have chosen to broadly situate the study within blogs and their place in the world, But whatever the question will eventually be (and I’ll need to get that sorted by the end of this year) it makes sense to discuss it within the context of my own blogging. Reflective analysis means applying an honest blowtorch to my own work prior to making any grand statements about the wider world.

So this post is the first attempt to publicly verbalise the journey. I will be trying to do this on a weekly basis between now and June 2010 (though there might be a few weeks off between semesters). It will be as open and self-critical as I can make it. This won’t be easy – I made the decision to discuss blogs back in February and for reasons I cannot yet easily explain I’ve been dragging my heels on mentioning it in my own blog.

Or blogs plural. I currently spend several hours every day running three blogs (or two and a half to be more accurate). I maintain two versions of Woolly Days. The original started on Blogger in September 2005 and a new one started on WordPress in February this year. The two are almost exactly alike in article content. My third site is Irish I’s which I started in June 2007 to post jokes, pics, and oddball stories I stumble upon on a daily basis. Irish I’s is also on blogger (though is possibly an ideal candidate to move to a newer platform such as Posterous).

But Woolly Days is my major preoccupation and I can often spend four to six hours a day putting to a post together. I am currently persisting with two versions of Woolly Days because I cannot decide which one to go one with. I like the more professional look of WordPress Woolly Days but I’m still fond of Blogger Woolly Days on the Google-owned platform that gave me a public voice four years ago. So I put up with double-entry bookkeeping (though typographical errors fixed up subsequently in one are not necessarily retrofitted to the other). If I were unsentimental I should be seriously considering leave the Woolly Days brand behind and start blogging under the label of Derek Barry or else at some other “Days”. This might well happen when I physically leave Wooloowin (where I’ve lived since 2004).

I don’t think it would greatly matter wherever I publish next because it is the blogging form that matters not the brand. It is as a blogger I think I am establishing an authentic, articulate and unorthodox voice that is slowly getting recognition in the wider community.

That pleases me because blogging is important. Don’t be deceived by the claims that it is so 2004. The fact that the early adopters have moved on means is that it is a maturing product with tens of millions of active exponents. These people blog because it gives them as a long-form and free platform of communication on the Internet. If democracy could be defined as the freedom to express your opinion widely, then the rise of the blog is a good thing. For me that means over a thousand articles and a million words over four years at a rate of six or more posts a week.

So is anyone listening to this widespread distribution of opinion, is anyone paying attention? Who is reading my million words?

To answer these questions, I need to analyse some audience metrics for my blogs.
After 20 days this month (approx 3 weeks), my sites have received the following number of hits (in brackets number of hits a day)
Woolly Days Blogger 32, 927 = average 1,646 hits a day
Irish I’s 1, 319 = average 66 hits a day
Woolly Days WordPress 378 = average 19 hits a day.
For a grand total of 34, 624 at an average of 1,731 hits a day.

Hits aren’t humans and I don’t have breakdown of hits to visits on a monthly basis. However on a daily basis the number of visits averages between 65 and 90 percent of the hits total. If we go with the lowest figure of 65 percent that would mean an average total of 1,125 human visitors come to my blogs every day in September 2009. The actual figure that read my work is higher than that as Woolly Days blog content is also available to read in Facebook (to 94 people) and all are available as RSS feeds (to 42 subscribers on Google Reader and an unknown number on other RSS readers). But lets assume however this number is low and adds merely another 75 or so visitors, to give a nice round total number of 1,200.

This means I am talking to about twelve hundred people every day. But nowhere near this total are listening or indeed reading the same material. Far fewer still are actually talking back, but I might have to save the analysis on that for a later time. Because I wanted to concentrate on how people get to my site now. Why, when there are tens of millions of blogs to go to, do they come to mine?

90 percent of my traffic arrives serendipitously – well, its pleasantly surprising for me, anyway. But most of these people aren’t interested in Woolly Days at all. Four out of every five people come from Google Images (and increasingly Bing). They’ve clicked on the picture and may or may not stay to read the text in the lower pane. I’m reasonably high in a surprising number of Google image searches in my increasingly long tail. The most popular page at the moment on Woolly Days is a 2006 article on Magna Carta. For reasons entirely unknown to me, it is currently number in Google Images for that search.

I thank Google for their algorithms but it is the one in five that don’t come for the picture that are most likely to pay attention to the words. Half of these come from Google searches (10 percent of the entire total). These searchers usually do not hang around for long once they found an answer (or a lack of answer) to the question they have asked Google though occasionally are hooked in to explore a bit further.

The last 10 percent are people who come via bookmarks, links, Twitter, Facebook, RSS and other recommendations. It is these 120 or so people who come regularly to the site as part of their regular media consumption who are most likely to be reading what I’m currently writing. Given that most of the posts here at Woolly Days break the cardinal rule of short blogging and are often quite dense and political, it is likely that at least two thirds of these will not have the time or inclination to read this far into the post. Let’s assume then that there are just 40 readers left at this stage.

I humbly thank this mathematical derived forty that have stayed the course and hope that they find the rest of this journey interesting. I would also love to hear back what people think about blogging or what they think might be an interesting research question. I would like this quest to serve as much meaning as I can cram into it. But if it there is no meaning or if none of this matters, I’d like to hear about that too.

Next week I’ll be looking at how much journalism is in my work.

Cheers
Derek Barry

September 27, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Facebook and the media: Opening the gated community

One guaranteed way to make a newspaper headline writer’s day is to find an event that has some tenuous connection with Facebook. If there is a remote chance that technology can be blamed for something, it will be. So it is hardly surprising that in the last few days alone we have Facebook murders, Facebook crime, Facebook rescues, Facebook bandits, illegal Facebook parties and even “Facebook for the dead”. This is all very lazy journalism though understandable that the media should want to tap into the Internet’s biggest phenomenon. (photo by jurvetson)

Facebook’s growth shows little sign of slowing down. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg said he still had big plans for the application when he announced last week Facebook now had 300 million users which would make it the fourth largest country in the world. It is not difficult to believe it will soon overtake the US with its 3.1 million citizens to leave only China and India ahead of it. Zuckerberg is so confident, he thinks the company may even make money in 2010!

Zuckerberg says his company mission is “to make the world more open and transparent by giving people the power to share information.” But while many have praised Facebook as part of the democratising trend of new media, there is a social exclusion aspect to it also. Facebook is easily the largest gated community in the world. Author Robert Putnam told fan culture guru Henry Jenkins that while engagement with Facebook was primarily a social activity, there is a real “participation divide” that creates varying degrees of Internet engagement. Putnam found that Facebookers practice what cultural anthropologists call “gating,” that is, the tendency to build physical/virtual, social, and cultural walls that are exclusive.

But within their own communities social network users are very generous. Zmags’ Joakim Ditlev found Facebook is easily the most popular sharing tool among digital readers with 38 percent using it to forward content with Twitter well back in second place on 9 percent. This also means readers are more likely to pick up content from Facebook. Ditley says Facebook’s casual way of communicating “seems to apply well” for sharing digital content.

Facebook’s wide range of communication tools are also eating away at time spent on email, instant messaging and discussion groups. Activities that used to take place in email, such as posting videos or holiday photos are now migrating to Facebook. As ReadWriteWeb says Gen Yers “don’t even think of email as the place to connect with friends and family – that’s what social networks are for.”

But people are leaving an enormous trail of data that could eventually come back to haunt them. While embarrassing photos are an obvious problem, a look at a friend list can also reveal a great deal about the person. An experiment at Boston’s MIT found that simply by looking at a friend list, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction. As the Boston Globe puts it: “if our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.”

In Australia, the notion of privacy has been challenged by a court case against prison officers who used a Facebook group to protest against changes in their industry to privatise prisons. In October last year, six NSW corrections officers created a private group called “Suggestions to help big RON save a few clams”. But when Big RON – the NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham – found out about the suggestions he wasn’t happy and threatened to fire them for “bullying” and “harassment”.

It did not take long for the media to label them The Facebook Six (though for some reason they preferred the more alliterative Facebook Five for a while). Last week Industrial Relations Commission decided their cases needed to be reheard after concerns of procedural unfairness so their fate is on hold for now. But the lesson to be learnt about Facebook, as academic David Perlmutter stated recently, is that it is “a particularly dangerous weapon for self-injury because more than with many other social-networking sites, it is so easy to share an embarrassing admission or offensive quip.”

Despite the pitfalls, there are some who believe Facebook makes its users smarter. According to Dr Tracy Alloway from the University of Stirling in Scotland, the soc-med site is doing “wonders for working memory [and] improving…IQ scores”. While it is doubtful that the thousands who sign on every day are doing it to become smarter, its versatility is one of its most attractive features. The downside is that it gives news editors even more things to place next to “Facebook” in their next headline.

September 25, 2009 at 11:59 pm 1 comment

One-day strike action affects Qld unis

Industrial action affected three major Brisbane universities last week in an education union’s national campaign to seek better terms and conditions for its members. [Photo: Derek Barry]

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) asked its 3,000 members at the University of Queensland (UQ), Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to join 13 other tertiary institutions across the country in a 24-hour strike last Wednesday.

Union national organiser Michael Evans said agreement was reached with a fourth Queensland university – James Cook University – prior to the action and the NTEU is now “close” to agreement with Griffith University as a result of the strike.

Evans said the union has yet to conclude negotiations with UQ and QUT.

The NTEU is seeking pay rises of between 16 and 18 per cent over three years and also an end to the casualisation of staffing at universities, which Mr Evans says is affecting job security.

One QUT striker who did not wish to be named said the big issue was removing the WorkChoices provisions from the enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) and ensuring fair workloads for workers, as well as more employment security.

The EBA expired in 2008 but continues to be in effect while negotiations for a replacement continues.

Evans said the union was looking to regain rights it had lost in the last round of EBA changes under the previous federal government including the right to represent staff in disciplinary actions.

UQ executive director of operations Maurie McNarn told the Courier-Mail last week the impact of the strike would be minimal because the NTEU represented only 5 per cent of the workforce.

Evans acknowledged that Griffith University and QUT also experienced minimal disruption due to the action.

But he also said there was anecdotal evidence that car parks and campuses were emptier than normal and many classes were cancelled.

“Academics rescheduled classes for other days to ensure that students would not be disadvantaged,” he said.

Evans said the one-day strike was valuable publicity for the union campaign and sent a message to the institutions that members were prepared to forego a day’s pay to show how serious they were about the issues involved.

But Australian Higher Education Industrial Association executive director Ian Argall said Evans was “too optimistic” in his assessment of the industrial action.

He said the strike did not make any difference and that negotiations were likely to drag on for many months to come.

“There has been no agreement with any Australian university beyond 2009 except with New England University,” Argall said.

He denied the workplace changes made during the Howard administration had impacted unions’ rights to represent their members.

Argall said the issue for universities was how to organise the performance management and workload of staff.

“Unions have not been pushed out but don’t have an automatic right to be involved” he said.

***
This story was originally written for the new QUT magazine Sub-Tropic

September 25, 2009 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

Dust storm over Brisbane

Brisbane turned positively Martian today and the northern suburbs got an unusual light show.







September 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm 1 comment

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