Saturday, August 25, 2007

The joy of maps

I am a map-nerd. But please don’t get carried away with my admission. The male nerd gamut – sport, cars, computers, trains, sci-fi, DIY etc – otherwise leaves me cold. So the torque of a passing locomotive exactly matches that of your home-made coffee-table, crossed with a Holden alternator, and multiplied by Bradman’s batting average? Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.

Map-nerdery is a better sort of nerdery than any of the others, IMO. It is definitely useful when travelling – who needs Lonely Planet’s track-beaten and overweight guidebooks (yet another 70s’ boomer relic overstaying its welcome), when a single thin map contains most of what you need to know? I love a good contour and gradient – otherwise known as a view. Urban high ground is, surprisingly enough, generally more expensive. Where you have a tantalising choice of routes, the most indirect one will usually be the most scenic – but if in doubt, always follow a ridge.

The map-nerd’s holy grail is not, however, some distant and exotic place. One only ever goes, physically or in an armchair sense, somewhere that’s been mapped, remember – and that’s pretty much everywhere. Rather, the joy of maps is in discovering something one had previously overlooked in one’s own backyard.

I have made two such discoveries in recent months, although neither through actual map-gleaning. Both came from the writings of Nicolas Rothwell, who seems to be a specialist in finding improbable and numinous corners of Australia, and in telling the compelling human stories of these corners. As a map-nerd, I am naturally primarily interested in the geographic angle, so I should stress that Rothwell is not himself also an apparent map-nerd, but rather a people-nerd – if not a nerd’s nerd (which is a high compliment).

Here’s Rothwell in yesterday’s Oz, writing an extended obituary (aka prose elegy?) for rock-art ratbag Grahame Walsh:

His last wish was to visit tiny, distant Browse Island, in the Indian Ocean, about 200km from the Kimberley coast: the island of mortality in the Wandjina tradition, the place to which the soul flees on death, only to be shocked by the cold water and cast back to land as a rock painting. A helicopter conveyed him there and he duly found it rich in ancient stone arrangements”.

Sure enough, my Reader’s Digest Complete Atlas of Australia (1968) records Browse Island, due north of Derby, and about half-way between Derby (and Broome) and the Indonesian island of Roti.

Browse Island’s geographic significance is probably something only a map-nerd would get, so bear with me. Other than Ashmore Reef and neighbouring Cartier Island, which are part of Indonesia in all senses but legal sovereignty, Browse Island is the only stepping zone, or interim land, between the closely-settled parts of Indonesia (which come nearest to Australia at Roti) and the Australian (Kimberley) mainland, including for present purposes, the large number of islands just off the Kimberley coast. Browse Island is appropriately enough a transit-stop for the dead – it uniquely has a geographic foot in both Asia and Australia, and despite or because of this, it is little-visited, or even known (if a middle-aged map-nerd has never heard of it, that’s obscure).

The other striking place Rothwell has recently written up is what my Complete Atlas of Australia records as Ryan Buttes, in the east Gibson Desert, 700 km due west of Alice Springs:

Deep in* the Hickey Hills, a plateau of dune and mesa north-east of the Gibson Desert Nature Reserve, a pair of ridges twist round to create an enclosed valley system, bisected by a deep trap-rock channel”.

- Another Country (2007) Black Inc p 272

Wow – a painted desert, a la the US-southwest, combined with some improbable kind of gorge. Map-nerds can gorge on gorges – but that’s nothing compared to finding out that Australia has it own mesa and buttes landscape.

Rothwell goes on to describe a location apparently in the vicinity of Ryan Buttes and Hickey Hills as a “kind of terminus for the Western Desert’s most potent ancestral tracks” and a “Grand Central of the sand-dunes”. (Another Country p 280)

All aboard the night-train! (Some things transcend maps, even for a map-nerd, once you're in the general area.)

* "Deep in" is a poetic, but most un-map-nerdy, phrase (unless you're literally referring to going underground). The expression one would use after perusing the Reader’s Digest Complete Atlas of Australia (1968) is that Ryan Buttes are "just north of" the Hickey Hills.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Take a bow, Dr Wafa Sultan

Prominent on page 3 of today’s hardcopy Oz, but strangely not appearing on the Oz website is this magnificent story about a person who manages to be both “an influential Muslim thinker” and a former Muslim, who has explicitly “renounced her religion”. Go figure.

But I’ve taken a shine to her, nonetheless, because of the year of her conversion on the road to, ahem, Damascus. The Oz recounts that Dr Sultan began to question Islam after she witnessed her university teacher get gunned down by Muslim hardliners in Syria in 1979. While I don’t blame her for drawing a line in the sand at such an act, as a former Catholic it has to be said that I have seen worse (than murder), and not in my case by some nutbar fringe element (as I’m assuming her lecturer’s assassins were).

In fairness to Dr Sultan, though, her lecturer’s murder was hardly an isolated act at the time. The Islamic parts of the mid-East were in turmoil in 1979-80 – ironically, or maybe not, as the biggest oil shock of the last five decades was shovelling hard currency into (some of) their pockets faster than they could count it. There was Iran, of course, with the Ayatollah and the US embassy hostages (the latter featuring a cameo by the current Iranian President). But there was also the mosque takeover in Mecca, and the countdown to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

But the real reason I quite like the doctor is, as I’ve said, simply the fact that she has nominated the year 1979 as her turning point. I do believe that, by so doing, she is the First Baby Boomer in History to Admit That Their Generation Screwed Up the World, Starting in 1979.

I admit that Dr Sultan, by the Oz’s account, doesn’t seem to be grinding the axe I think she is grinding all that loudly. But it’s a start.

Next step, maybe the weaselly Iranian President – another boomer, of course – could ‘fess up to his student activism in 1979-80. If he’s not proud of it, and his evasion of the matter since becoming President suggests he’s not, then why not a mea culpa? Hell, he was young at the time, and I believe, or at least hope, that youthful indiscretions are relatively forgivable.

But once the ball starts rolling, there’s no reason why Muslim (or ex-) boomers should occupy the main spotlight. In the West, Reagan, Thatcher and Hawke/Keating should be denounced with the same venom as Dr Sultan reserves for her lecturer’s assassins – although none of the economic fundamentalist trio were boomers personally, they had boomer self-interest, and nothing more, behind them from their beginnings in 1979-80.

And in the music field, we will be able to settle once and for all the great Joy Division vs New Order controversy. New Order was born out of Joy Division’s death in 1980 - the year really says it all, and nothing more need be added. In fairness (again) however, I admit that New Order gave great dance music for a while in the mid-80s - if you were a yuppie robot, that is. But in the mid-80s, who wasn’t? (ahem, talking of youthful indiscretions)

Like New Order, the Reagan, Thatcher and Hawke/Keating fundamentalist revolutions may have seemed, at least for a period in the 1980s, just a logical next step, or the iron-law temper of the times. But more than two decades later, history has recorded its objective verdict.

New Order has recently imploded – I am surprised it took so long for the trio to realise that the 1980s have ended. But I am also surprised the economic fundamentalist counter-revolution of 1979-80, begat in (inevitable and predictable) response to the boomers’ cultural revolution of a decade earlier, has had such traction. But it too will pass – and when it does, I like to think that Dr Sultan will be mighty proud of herself, as the very first baby boomer to desert their generation’s sinking ship.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Kevin Andrews and the secret police

See also:

What advice did Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews receive from the Australian Federal Police on 16 July, when he decided to revoke Mohamed Haneef’s visa on character grounds? And what are the protocols for such advice; i.e. can just any cop, state or federal, with a hunch about terrorism (or even a hunch about any crime?) have a whisper in the Minister’s ear, and have the Minister act accordingly, providing that the suspect has a visa (or citizenship?) that can be revoked?

These question are thrown into sharp relief by two side-by-side articles in today’s Oz. Dennis Shanahan does his usual pro-government grovel, arguing that Minister Andrews was only acting as the AFP’s glove-puppet in his visa decision. Certainly this is consistent with Minister Andrews’ 7:30 Report interview on the day, which deserves to go down in history as a truly Orwellian performance.

Then there’s Cameron Stewart, who writes:

No one involved in the Haneef case, from the prosecutors to the Australian Federal Police, asked Mr Andrews to intervene on July 16, when he arbitrarily revoked Dr Haneef's visa -- thereby extending his detention -- after the Indian doctor had been granted bail.

That action transformed a police investigation into a political trial, triggering a firestorm of public criticism and instantly turning Dr Haneef from terror suspect to political victim.

Mr Andrews' decision, taken after discussions with John Howard and the national security committee of cabinet, caught the AFP by surprise. Investigators had already planned how they would tail a bailed Dr Haneef on the Gold Coast.

It also angered the AFP because it complicated and inflamed the Haneef investigation, putting greater pressure on a case that was already crumbling.

I’d suggest that these two stories can be partially reconciled by throwing into the “discussions” Minister Andrews had “with John Howard and the national security committee of cabinet” the personage of AFP chief Mick Keelty.

In other words, Commissioner Keelty was (I’m guessing) brought in to launder away the smell of pure politicking. That he allowed himself to be used for this role means that Minister Andrews’ job shouldn’t be the only one that is currently on the line. That Commissioner Keelty’s rubber-stamping of the PM Howard (that much is obvious) decision also necessarily tore up the plans of front-line AFP cops makes his intervention doubly odious.

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