Bracing for the big one

The map is uncannily similar to today’s: a spray of black dots showing the recorded sightings of a foul grey haze spreading across Europe, from Helsinki to Naples, from Heligoland to Majorca, and reaching eventually to Aleppo and Damascus – all of it caused by clouds of ash from an immense volcano erupting far across the sea in Iceland.But this was a map made from data collected in 1783. The volcano was called Laki, it erupted for eight dismal months without cease, ruined crops, lowered temperatures and drastically altered the weather. It killed 9000 people, drenched European forests in acid rain, caused skin lesions in children and the deaths of millions of cattle. And, by one account, it was a contributing factor (because of the hunger-inducing famines) to the outbreak six years later of the French revolution.Great volcanoes have a habit of prompting profound changes to the world – much greater in extent than the most savage of earthquakes and tsunamis, even though the immediate lethality of the latter is invariably much more cruel. Though ground-shaking events are generally fairly local in extent, their potential for killing can be terrific: 250,000 died after the Tangshan earthquake in China in 1975 and a similar number died in the Indian ocean tsunami of 2004. Volcanoes seem by contrast relatively benign: the accumulated total number of deaths in all of the great volcanoes of the past 300 years has probably not exceeded a quarter of a million: the total number of casualties from a hundred of the biggest recent eruptions has been no more than those from a single giant earthquake.But there is a significant difference. Earthquakes, once done, are done. Volcanoes, however, often trigger long-term and long-distance ill-effects, which generally far outweigh their immediate rain of death and destruction. Emanations of particles from the tiniest pinprick in the Earth’s crust, once lifted high into the skies by an explosive eruption, can wind themselves sinuously and menacingly around the planet, and leave all kinds of devastation in their train. They can disrupt and pollute and poison; they can darken skies and cause devastating changes in the weather; they can bring about the abrupt end to the existence of entire populations of animals and people.Earthquakes and tsunamis have never been known to cause extinctions but volcanoes and asteroid collisions have done so repeatedly – and since the Earth is still peppered with scores of thousands of volcanoes ever yearning to erupt, they and the dramatic long-term effects of their eruptions are in fact far more frequent, far more decisive, and far greater than those that are triggered by any other natural phenomenon on the planet.It is worth remembering that ours is a world essentially made from and by volcanoes. They are creatures that will continue to do their business over the aeons, quite careless of the fate of the myriad varieties of life that teems beneath them and on their flanks. Including, of course, ours.There is perhaps no better recent example of the havoc that a big eruption can cause than that which followed the explosive destruction of Mount Toba, in northern Sumatra, 72,000-74,000 years ago (which, in geological time, is very recent indeed). The relics of this mountain today are no more than a very large and beautiful lake, 100 kilometres long and 800 metres deep – the caldera left behind by what is by most reckonings the largest volcanic explosion known to have occurred on the planet in the past 25 million years.On the widely used volcanic explosivity index (VEI), Toba is thought to have been an eight – meaning that in the unusually flamboyant official language of vulcanology it was a super-plinian type eruption with mega-colossal characteristics (Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull is by contrast listed as a strombolian type, with its characteristic regarded as merely gentle, and having a probable VEI rating of just two).About 2800 cubic kilometres of rock were instantly vaporised by the super-eruptive blast of Toba, all of which was hurled scores of thousands of metres into the air. This is what did the lasting damage, just as Iceland’s high-altitude rock-dust did in Europe. But while we merely suffered a large number of inconvenienced people and a weakening of the balance sheets of some airlines, the effect on the post-Toban world was catastrophic: as a result of the thick ash clouds the world’s ambient temperature plummeted, perhaps by as much as 5 degrees – and the cooling and the howling wave of deforestation and deaths of billions of animals and plants caused a sudden culling of the human population of the time, reducing it to maybe as few as 5000 people, perhaps 1000 breeding pairs. Many anthropologists believe that the event caused a sudden evolutionary bottleneck, with genetic implications that linger to this day. Put more crudely, humanity was nearly wiped out by Toba, and only by the merest hair’s breadth did our ancestors of 72,000 years ago manage to cling on and bequeath to us our existence.Mercifully, from humanity’s point of view, there have been very few Tobas known in history. They are probably so large that they reach the upper limit of the kind of eruptions that can physically occur on Earth – one VEI-8 event occurs only every 100,000 years or so. Yet of those known to have occurred, two have taken place in Britain (mainly because Britain has such a vast variety of geology, with almost every age of rock known in the world found somewhere between Cape Wrath and Dover). They are comfortingly ancient: both – the volcano that created Scafell in the Lake District, and the other that gave us Glen Coe in the Western Highlands – took place more than 400 million years ago.But others of the 47 known VEI-8 volcanoes are more alarmingly recent. Taupo in New Zealand erupted with mega-colossal force some 22,500 years ago. The newer of the great eruptions that helped form the mountains of today’s Yellowstone National Park in the United States took place just 640,000 years ago, and all the current signs – from such phenomena as the rhythmic slow rising and falling of the bed of the Yellowstone River, as if some giant creature is breathing far below – suggest another eruption is coming soon. When it does, it will be an American Armageddon: all of the north and west of the continent, from Vancouver to Oklahoma City, will be rendered uninhabitable, buried under scores of metres of ash. (I mentioned this once in a talk to a group of lunching ladies in Kansas City, soothing their apparent disquiet by adding that by ”soon” I was speaking in geologic time, and that meant about 250,000 years, by which time all humankind would be extinct. A woman in the front row exploded with a choleric and incredulous rage: ”What?” she said. ”Even Americans will be extinct?”)Ratcheting down the scale a couple of notches, to the only slightly less gigantic eruptions that are classified as VEI-7 and VEI-6, and a host of more familiar eruptions come into view. These include Santorini, the Aegean volcano whose destruction around 4000 years ago may have triggered the collapse of the Minoan civilisation; Laki, the 1783 Icelandic volcano mentioned above, and which most obviously parallels today’s events at Eyjafjallajokull; the Javan volcano of Krakatoa, which erupted so infamously in August 1883; and the rather more profoundly world-affecting eruption of 1815, also in the Dutch East Indies, of the huge stratovolcano on Sumbawa Island, known as Tambora. Each of these had massive effects, and all were global in their extent.Tambora is the most notorious, not least because it was so immense: almost 170 cubic kilometres of pulverised Sumbawan rock were hurled into the sky, which darkened, cooled and polluted a world that, unlike in Toba’s day, was already well populated and widely civilised. The consequences ranged from the dire – a lowering of temperature that caused frosts in Italy in June and snows in the US in July, and the failure of crops in immense swathes across Europe and the Americas – to the ludicrous: Irish migrants, promised better weather in New England, found it on landing to be every bit as grim as the Connemara and Cork they had left, and so either went home, or pressed on in hope to California.Krakatoa’s immediate aftermath was dominated initially by dramatic physical effects – a series of tsunamis that were measured as far away as Portland Bill and Biarritz, a detonation that was clearly heard (like naval gunfire, said the local police officer) 5000 kilometres away on Rodriguez Island, and a year’s worth of awe-inspiring evening beauty as the sky lit up with dazzling colours.There was an important legacy to Krakatoa’s eruption not shared by the other giant volcanoes of the time. Close mapping of the spread of the 1883 sunsets showed them girdling the Earth in a curious set of spirals, the stratospheric aerosols evidently being borne around the world on high-altitude winds that no one at the time knew existed. An atmospheric scientist in Hawaii mapped them and decided to call the air current the equatorial smoke stream. It later became, more elegantly and economically, the jet stream. There has to be some irony that the jet stream that drove this month’s Icelandic dust so dangerously over Britain and mainland Europe is a phenomenon that was first discovered as a direct consequence of the study of Krakatoa.And yet, of all the consequences of the truly great volcanoes of the past, the phenomenon of mass extinctions of life must surely be the most profound and world-changing of all. Between two and five major extinction events occur in the world every million years or so. Humans have not been privileged to observe one of them – hardly surprisingly, since they would probably occur so slowly as to be barely noticeable. However, with painstaking care, palaeontological evidence is being amassed to link sudden and catastrophic changes in world climate, changes that promote such extinction crises, with the known major eruptions of the past, and with what are known as flood basalt events (such as those that have been triggered specifically in the past by eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull and her neighbouring volcano in Iceland, Katla, which is itself well overdue for an eruption). It is a study that opens up a fascinating speculative possibility.For what if the kind of event that we have seen this month, and which caused such commercial inconvenience, is in fact not just a minor volcanic hiccup, but the beginning of an event that causes in time a mass extinction of some form of earthbound life? And, since we know from the history books that the massive eruption of Santorini once had the power to destroy one proud part of human society, what if the extinction we might be beginning to see turns out to be what will one day surely occur, and that is the extinction of us?Guardian News & MediaSimon Winchester is a journalist and author of Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded.
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America’s gaping hole: thousands queue up for free medical care

LOS ANGELES: They began arriving before dawn on a cold, misty morning, people of all ages lining up by the hundreds, some in wheelchairs, others hobbling on crutches, many of them missing teeth, all of them seeking the same thing: free medical care.It was a scene that could have been playing out in a Third World country or perhaps some place like post-hurricane New Orleans. But it was unfolding in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and the hundreds who showed up were mainly working people without health insurance.Kenny Gillett, 47, a welder, had not seen a doctor for two years, since losing his job and insurance when his employer went broke.Adriana Valenzuela, a self-employed and uninsured beautician, brought an eight-year-old son with a mouthful of cavities. Frank Carodine, 57, in a wheelchair, said he had lost parts of both legs to diabetes, which was now ravaging his right eye. He needed glasses. ”I’ve got coverage for my diabetes, I go to a clinic, but it doesn’t cover eye exams,” he said.Outside in the cold, several hundred people, some balancing toddlers on their hips, waited for their turn to enter the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Inside were hundreds of volunteer doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, chiropractors and other professionals, all brought together by a Tennessee non-profit group, Remote Area Medical.On this first day of the seven-day clinic, Maria Shriver, the wife of the Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, visited and said she was humbled by the scope of the volunteer effort.”What you’re seeing is a lot of Middle America here,” said RAM’s flamboyant founder, Stan Brock. ”Healthcare in this country is a privilege of the well-to-do and the well-insured.” At last year’s clinic 6000 were treated. More were expected this time.Jesse Serna, 51, a disabled warehouse worker, was waiting to get an aching tooth fixed.Referring to national healthcare reform, he said: ”We need it badly. We send people overseas when there’s a disaster. This is a disaster right here.”Associated Press, Los Angeles Times
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India accuses one of its diplomats of spying for Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: The Indian government has accused one of its own diplomats of handing secrets to Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency.The Indian Foreign Office said on Tuesday that Madhuri Gupta, 53, a second secretary at its high commission in Islamabad, had been charged with espionage.Ms Gupta, who had worked in the press and information section for three years, was arrested on Friday after being called back to New Delhi on the pretext of discussing a regional summit in Bhutan this week. She was charged in court on Monday.”We have reasons to believe an official in the Indian high commission in Pakistan has been passing information to Pakistani intelligence officials,” said Vishnu Prakash, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. ”The official is co-operating with our investigations and inquiries.”The Press Trust of India reported that the head of India’s intelligence agency research and analysis wing in Islamabad was also under investigation.Indian officials did not elaborate on the nature of the secrets allegedly stolen by the junior diplomat. But the revelation is a big embarrassment for India’s diplomatic service on the eve of the Bhutan summit, where peace talks between the nuclear-armed rivals are high on the agenda.The arrest was not expected to derail a meeting between Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, due to take place today. But it may dampen expectations of a resumption of peace talks, which collapsed after the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which more than 170 people were killed.India blames Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group with historical ties to the ISI, for the atrocity, accusing ”state elements” of orchestrating the carnage.The two countries, which have fought three wars, have a history of skulduggery and periodically engage in tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, usually at times of political or military tension.But it is rare for a diplomat to be accused of spying and analysts were divided on the political significance. Some felt it was unlikely to damage relations because the accused is an Indian national; others saw it as an ominous sign for an early resumption of peace talks.Guardian News & Media
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Stories with a happy ending

THEY’RE the forgotten victims of crime – the little ones lying in bed wondering why mummy is in ”hospital” and can’t read them a bedtime story.Now a pioneering program in one Sydney jail will bring the voices of female inmates into the bedrooms of their children, many of whom are placed in care during the length of their mother’s stay behind bars.Prisoners at the Emu Plains Correctional Centre are being allowed to record stories on CDs and have them delivered to their children as a way to maintain the bond between mother and child.NSW Correctional Services Minister Phil Costa has given his backing to take the Story Time Program statewide.Sharlene, a 22-year-old Aboriginal inmate from Moree, said she had chosen How the Kangaroos got their Tails to send to her five-year-old daughter Heather.”It’s a book that I read on Reconciliation Day when I was younger so it’s special to me and I hope it’s going to be special for her,” said Sharlene, who has completed three months of an eight-month sentence, but could be home in five weeks. ”It’s been really hard knowing that every day she’s wondering where I am. It helps to know that she’ll be able to hear my voice.”Another inmate, Elizabeth, has spent 11 months away from her two boys, four and five, who are being cared for by their father.She said: ”It’s an awesome thing to do for the kids because when they feel like they’re missing me they can hear that I’m still there. I try to read the books really calmly to help them get to sleep.”Female prisoners said they told their young children that they were in hospital rather than jail.With the help of four publishers, children are sent a book with the CD of their mother’s voice. The CDs have a picture of their mother.Mr Costa said: ”This program is the first of its kind in NSW and allows mothers to share a bedtime story with their children and build their literacy skills at the same time.”As a parent I know how important bedtime stories are to nurturing your child. This program ensures mothers do not lose the opportunity to read to their children at night while they are incarcerated.”
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Debt makes hospital a sick choice

The hospital that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier Kristina Keneally chose as the location to trumpet health reforms is labouring under a budget shortfall of nearly $12 million and a spiralling surgical waiting list.Documents leaked to The Sun-Herald show Blacktown Hospital was in the red by $11.94 million in January, making it one of the sickest establishments within the Sydney West Area Health Service (SWAHS).Separate documents show Blacktown’s waiting list nearly doubled from 570 patients in December 2008 to 921 in December last year. Mr Rudd and Ms Keneally visited the 350-bed Blacktown Hospital last week to announce just 18 new beds as part of what they described as their ”historic health and hospital reform”.A week earlier, Blacktown’s Labor MP Paul Gibson told a local newspaper: ”We need another 110 beds, and we need them yesterday.”About one in five patients now being treated in nearby Westmead Hospital have been referred by Blacktown due to a bed shortage.A fortnight ago it was revealed that the 13 hospitals in the Sydney West region had combined debts of $18.9 million at the end of the last financial year. SWAHS, which serves 1 million people, has been accused of failing to pay suppliers of medicines and diagnostic tests due to financial constraints.Opposition health spokeswoman Jillian Skinner said Blacktown’s financial woes were ”highly embarrassing” for Mr Rudd and Ms Keneally. ”Their announcement won’t fix the $12 million budget blowout, it won’t cut the waiting list which has more than doubled since 2006 … Blacktown Hospital … will now be in cost-cutting mode because of Labor’s failed management of our health system.”A spokesman for Health Minister Carmel Tebbutt said Blacktown’s budget shortfall varied by less than 5 per cent from its budget.He said the hospital is $5 million over budget.”It is the waiting time, not list, that is important and Blacktown has recently received enhancement money for surgery from the Area Health Service and is on track to meet its target of all patients being treated within clinical benchmarks by June 2010,” he said.
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Get high-tech and be in style

TECHNOLOGY seems to be the new black when it comes to this year’s Australian Fashion Week, which begins tomorrow.The Ellery and Ksubi spring-summer 2010-2011 runway shows will be streamed to the internet. It will be the first time this has been done in Australia.Designer Kym Ellery will stream her show to sites including the fashion shopping site The Grand Social, Yahoo!7 and Grazia magazine’s site.”It is more or less in the vein of what overseas shows are doing, like Burberry did during their show,” Ellery said. ”We just wanted to be able to share the night with unlimited people.”Ksubi’s live stream will be broadcast on the Harper’s Bazaar website at 8pm on Friday. Straight after the show there will be limited-edition runway pieces available for purchase. ”We’re excited to be streaming our 10-year anniversary show live to a potential audience of millions,” Ksubi’s George Gorrow said.”The shows have limited capacity, and this way it’s not always about who goes to the show, its also about who gets to see it in the end. Customers can even purchase key limited-edition pieces immediately after the show from the new collection.”Camilla and Marc Freeman, of camilla and marc, are also on the technology wave and have developed an application for BlackBerry. They are the first Australian designers to have developed such an application. It will be launched today and contains a diary section with news, a store and wish list.Marc Freeman said: ”Technology and fashion are both major parts of our lives, so together they are a natural fit.”We are avid BlackBerry users so the idea of an app just came into place. It was a fun project to create something in that digital space that is exclusive to our fans and customers.”The biggest development is that they will transmit images during their show on Tuesday to customers. The customers will be able to order limited-edition pieces from the debut jewellery line, which will be launched during the show.Marc Freeman said: ”It will provide exclusive content where you can view collections and be able to select images from the collection to make a wish list.”There will be functions to get updates of what’s happening with us around Fashion Week.”AUSTRALIAN FASHION WEEK: MY MUST-SEE EVENTSDION LEE Thursday 9am,Northern Foyer, Concert Hall,Sydney Opera House.We were blown away after Lee unveiled his debut collection at Australian Fashion Week last year, and there is little doubt that he will live up to this year’s expectations.CAMILLA AND MARC Tuesday 9am, 467 Pitt Street, Haymarket.Sydney-based brother and sister Camilla and Marc Freeman have come a long way since launching their brand in Fashion Week 2003. They are on trend to impress again.ALEX PERRY Tuesday 8.30pm, Sound Stage 7, Fox Studios, Moore Park.His parade will be the biggest show Australia has seen – the runway is 65 metres long and 1000 people have been invited.ROMANCE WAS BORN Wednesday 9.30pm, MacLaurin Hall, Sydney University.Romance Was Born delivers more than just a parade; it’s a whole creative experience. Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett are known for staging full-scale art productions.ELLERY Tuesday 9.30pm, Byron Kennedy Hall, Moore Park.Kym Ellery keeps going from strength to strength and her collections never fail to impress. In this year’s Zodiac-themed parade, it’s set to sparkle.KSUBI Friday 8pm, Royal Hall of Industries, Driver Avenue, Moore Park.Putting financial troubles behind it, Ksubi has is the final show of the week and designers Dan Single and George Gorrow are sure to end Fashion Week with a bang.
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TV gardener lives the green good life

PRIME MINISTER Kevin Rudd may have done an about-face on climate change but householders are enthusiastic about reducing their carbon footprint and living sustainably, says an expert who walks the walk.Jerry Coleby-Williams has had ”green thumbs” since the age of four, when he lived in England, inspired by his family of gardeners and farmers.He’s come a long way since then. Coleby-Williams, a presenter on Gardening Australia on ABC1, settled at Wynnum on Brisbane’s Bayside in 2003 and transformed his century-old timber Queensland home, Bellis, into an award-winning example of ”retrofitted sustainability”.He and the other two householders minimise their impact on the environment by generating solar power, recycling sewage and grey water and harvesting rainwater for inside and outside use. ”Anything we do here can be done at any suburban house in Australia,” he said.The house is connected to mains water but it is rarely needed. ”We are 90 to 98 per cent self-sufficient and only need to turn on mains water after months of no rain,” Coleby-Williams said.The trio use only about 117 litres each a day from their water tanks, compared with Queensland Water Commission figures showing south-east Queenslanders averaged 152 litres per person daily last week.The back garden boasts a magnificent array of fruit, vegetables and herbs – all grown organically – and feeds three people using only 350 litres of recycled water a day.The 300 square metres of land provides about 70 per cent of the trio’s fresh food.Coleby-Williams knows most of his neighbours, who regularly drop in for tips and pass the information on to like-minded friends.”Word spreads and it’s wonderful how many people are converting their small suburban blocks into their own version of what we’ve got here,” he said.When he had an open day last year, the garden fed 150 people who walked to the local bowls club where the four-course meal was cooked.The front garden has ornamental subtropical plants suited to predicted climate change. The plants were watered six times to establish them but have not been watered again since 2004.The property has no hard surfaces – it has a porous driveway and paths, and a pit to capture stormwater, which also gets reused.Coleby-Williams practises crop rotation and his collection includes many rare and endangered species, the seeds of which he collects to replant.He came to Queensland via a circuitous route, qualifying in horticultural estate management, arboriculture, landscape design, horticultural and botanical sciences at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England.In 1982 he was awarded a Kew scholarship to study the flora of Western Australia and said he was so captivated by the people, plants and places, he decided to emigrate.Postgraduate work included managing horticultural enterprises in Britain and Australia, including nurseries, inner-city parks and gardens. And he helped establish Sydney’s Mount Annan Botanic Garden.He has worked as a consultant in Sydney, including for the Darling Park business complex, Central Station, St Mary’s Cathedral, the Conservatorium of Music and the international airport. For 11 years, he managed the horticultural estate for the city’s Royal Botanic Gardens.Last year Bellis won a prestigious savewater! Alliance award. The group works with businesses and governments on water conservation programs. Entries for this year’s awards open on May 17 and close on August 9.Get more tips
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Our mentally ill suffering in silence

More than 1.6 million people in NSW are silent sufferers of undiagnosed mental health conditions, according to a report that highlights long-term dangers associated with delayed treatment.The Wesley Mission report, Keeping Well: Mental Health Is Everyone’s Business, reveals community attitudes towards mental illness remain so negative sufferers are ashamed to admit how they feel. Consequently, they were reluctant to seek help and, over time, their illness worsened and became irreversible through repeated untreated episodes of depression or psychosis.The study has prompted renewed calls for an overhaul of the mental health system.Brain and Mind Research Institute executive director Ian Hickie said “concerted pressure” was needed for a co-ordinated response to deal with mental illness when it usually began – between the ages of 15 and 25.”Seventy-five per cent of problems start in this age group but we don’t typically see someone reporting mental health problems until they’re around 40 and have had issues for 20 years,” Professor Hickie said.”Historically, services have focused on those who are already seriously ill. Contrast that, for example, with breast cancer where the services deal with the issue at all stages of the problem – early identification, treatment if needed and palliative care.”Believe it or not, 30 to 40 years ago we had to educate people to the fact that cancer treatment was not a waste of time. Today, everyone accepts early intervention gives you the best possibility of long-term survival.”In January Wesley Mission surveyed 2012 people over the age of 18. It found that during their lives 77 per cent of people in NSW would experience, or be personally affected by someone who suffered from, a mental illness. More than a quarter of respondents claimed to be suffering some form of mental health problem, with depression and anxiety the most common conditions.The research indicated a third of people who feared they were depressed did not seek treatment, and 50 per cent suffering from anxiety failed to take the key step.Almost nine in 10 self-reported phobia sufferers failed to seek help.The main reason for people suffering in silence was social stigma.The survey also demonstrated how deep negative attitudes continue to run, with less than half the population feeling comfortable around people suffering depression. Typical comments that highlight misconceptions are: “People who are depressed are dangerous” and “It’s acceptable for someone with cancer to be unavailable at work because they are undergoing chemotherapy but not for someone with depression”.The superintendent of Wesley Mission the Reverend Dr Keith Garner said: “It’s clear from the report that a great amount of social stigma still exists around mental illness and that’s fed by fear and misinformation. We, as a society, need to become more open to this issue because the numbers of people affected are enormous.”MIND READING53 per cent of people in NSW will experience a mental health problem.Compared with physical illness, people with a mental health condition are more reluctant to seek treatment.The most common mental health problem people report suffering is depression, with one in four believing they may be affected.Three in 10 believed they have suffered some form of mental health problem during their lives for which they did not seek treatment. This translates to more than 1.6 million hidden sufferers across NSW.
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Lessons in toxic overload

BUILDINGS being constructed under the federal government’s schools stimulus program are riddled with safety hazards, from slippery tiles and toxic carpets to poisonous fumes from unflued heaters.Environmental scientists, building industry experts, health groups and the NSW Teachers Federation have raised concerns about the potential risks associated with buildings in the $16.2 billion program.The NSW Integrated Program Office for the Building the Education Revolution program has maintained the buildings are of high quality, sometimes exceeding building code standards.But schools have complained of dodgy workmanship, including incorrectly fitted light switches and fans, temporary foundations, leaking water tanks and lifting carpets.With winter approaching, schools and health groups have raised the alarm about the installation of 3000 unflued gas heaters.Studies have shown that the heaters release a potentially poisonous stew of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and formaldehyde. They are being phased out of schools in every state except NSW and Queensland.”These are new buildings going up at significant cost to the taxpayer,” NSW Teachers Federation president Bob Lipscombe said.”Heating is a very small component of the overall cost of building work. It would not cost a huge amount to put alternative heating in these new buildings. The Department of Education is not acting in a reasonable way at all.”The NSW Department of Education and Training says the heaters are safe, provided doors and windows are kept open to provide ventilation. Schools in cold-climate zones say this is impractical.Berridale Public School, in the Snowy Mountains, has an unflued heater in its new $900,000 library.”We have been constantly told the library is of a very high standard,” Berridale School Council’s Fiona Suthern said. ”It’s a building that cost close to $1 million. An unflued gas heater is not a high-standard heating device. We’re not asking for something flash – just something safe.”Richard Kalina, from the Campaign Opposing Unflued Gas Heating, said: ”I feel it’s bordering on criminal. When parents take their children to school, they should expect their children will be in a safe environment. They are not safe.”A 2007 Commonwealth health report on unflued heaters found exposure to the fumes they emitted causes increased respiratory symptoms in children with asthma, and were also associated with new asthma cases in children.About 11 per cent of children in NSW have asthma. The Asthma Foundation NSW has called on the Department of Education to remove the 51,000 existing unflued heaters in NSW schools and stop ordering new ones.A NSW Department of Education spokesman said there was ”no substantiated instances” of heaters causing illness when properly operated.The combination of exposure to unflued gas heaters, as well as fumes emitted from paint, new carpet and building materials, could cause toxic overload in children, according to environmental scientist Jo Immig of the National Toxics Network.”We are concerned about the overall toxic load,” she said. ”This is particularly important as far as children are concerned because they are much more sensitive to toxins than adults.”We recommended that schools undertake building work or renovations when children are on school holidays to minimise the risk of chemical exposure.”New buildings also posed a risk of volatile organic compounds being released from carpet, paint and new furniture, Ms Immig said. ”Carpets are potentially one of the most toxic things in the indoor environment.”Professor Margaret Burchett from the University of Technology, Sydney, said it could take months for indoor air quality to improve. ”If you smell that newness smell in a building it’s a nice smell but it’s also toxic.”Murdoch University environmental toxicologist Peter Dingle said the rooms should be allowed to air before being used.”If the teachers and kids walk into a new classroom or hall and there is a smell in the room they should not go into it,” Dr Dingle said.Tile supplier Richard Earp and slip resistance expert Carl Strautins have raised concerns about the type of tiles used in toilet blocks, canteens and entrances, which they say can lose their grip over a short time and become a slip hazard.A department spokesman said all floor tiles used were certified anti-slip in line with the relevant standard.
Nanjing Night Net

Killer cut power: nurse came home to ambush

The killer of nurse Michelle Beets waited in the dark for her to return home after cutting power to the premises.Detectives confirmed last night they were checking the hospital’s personnel records, in particular an incident in which a staffer had been sacked after Ms Beets reported the theft of drugs.Police now believe the murder was planned, and that robbery was not a motive for the attack.Ms Beets suffered multiple stab wounds to her chest, throat and head after being set upon on the verandah with no time to open the door to her house last Tuesday.But detectives said Ms Beets, 58, and her lawyer partner David Grant had never received any threats to harm them, nor had any other staff at the hospital.The cutting of power at a junction box near the front door of Ms Beets’s home in Holland Street, Chatswood, shortly before 6.20pm, immobilised a sensor light system on the eve of the verandah to the front yard, and caused loss of power to the house alarm.The private home security company monitoring the alarm immediately rang the house to check, but got no reply. The company rang Ms Betts, to no avail, then contacted Mr Grant on his mobile phone, who said he was on his way home and would check it out.When he neared the home police were already there, having been alerted to the attack by people walking dogs who saw a man running north down the street, wearing a green hooded jacket and carrying a small backpack.She had stepped on to the verandah carrying shopping from her car which she bought a short time early from Chatswood Chase shopping centre after finishing work as the senior nurse at the Royal North Shore Hospital Emergency Casualty unit at 4pm.As police await the results of DNA tests on blood samples taken from the footpath outside the home – in the hope the killer also may have been cut during the frenzied stabbing – they continued to search nearby streets and gutters yesterday for the knife used in the attack.Police ruled out blood found in a toilet block in a nearby park as being linked to the scene.They believe that blood came from a football match injury.Royal North Shore Hospital has been inundated with condolences and flowers for its former staff member, including a bouquet from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.A hospital spokesman said a staff memorial service would be held for Ms Beets. Many people are expected to attend her funeral on Friday.Ms Beets’s older brother Marty, who lives in New Zealand, said the family had not decided where Friday’s funeral would be held, but hundreds are expected to attend.”The amount of people in Australian and New Zealand who have been ringing and sending cards and flowers has been amazing. It’s fantastic that she has touched so many hearts,” he said.Mr Beets said he would arrive in Sydney on Wednesday, and his sister, Robyn, would be arriving tomorrow from the Gold Coast and their other sibling, Yvonne, from Britain later in the week.His father, Robby Beets, 87, will be brought from the Sunshine Coast by friends in a few days.”Dad is pretty devastated because he and Michelle were very close.” Mr Beets said the family were waiting for a breakthrough. Mr Beets said he last communicated with Michelle, whom he described as a ”bubbly” person via email, updating him on their father’s health.He said he still hadn’t spoken to Mr Grant, who is staying with friends.with PETER HAWKINS
Nanjing Night Net

Rags-to-riches boxer takes fighting spirit into the political ring

MARBEL, Philippines: Manny Pacquiao is used to the frenzy. Tens of thousands of fans throng feverishly in front of the stage in the heavy, sticky heat of a tropical night. Young and old, rural and urban, devout and secular: all are eager for a glimpse of the man who is undeniably the Philippines’ most famous sporting hero.”I would not be where I am today without you, and now I want to help the Philippines,” he declares. ”What is important is my relationship to God and to the Filipino people.”Pacquiao’s rise from poverty to superstardom is a narrative that resonates with many Filipinos. But as the campaign for the May 10 election intensifies, the man considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters the world has seen is facing a greater challenge than just another welterweight slugger in the ring.In running for Congress in a rural province of Mindanao, Pacquiao joins a group of athletes who have sought to make the leap to politician.”Boxing is about honour,” he says in a pool bar that he owns in General Santos City. ”Now I want to be known as a good public servant. I want to be known as a generous person.”Politically, it is a seductive message – 40 per cent of Filipinos live on less than $US2 a day. Pacquiao has been drawing on a personal fortune estimated at more than $US40 million ($43 million) to support projects in his province such as providing water to impoverished areas.And guards at his mansion say he rarely leaves home without giving cash to the crowds of destitute people who gather there each day. His electoral pitch is that he would lobby for the most basic needs of the 600,000 people in his district: livelihood programs, free education, healthcare and medical assistance.”That’s the major problem right now,” he says. ”Do they need money? No. They need livelihood, to feed their family. They will not ask the government to help them if they have work.”The fever surrounding ”Pacman”, as he is known, is heady. But some sceptics note that sports stars do not always fare well in politics.The economist Winnie Monsod, a professor at the University of the Philippines, does not doubt his sincerity, but she says: ”I am not ready to translate that sincerity into actual deeds, because the other politicians he associates with do not exactly have the highest reputation for integrity.”Pacquiao has aligned himself with the presidential candidate Manny Villar, an outside chance, who is taking on a colourful slate of candidates.Among these are the son of the former president Corazon Aquino, Benigno Aquino, and the disgraced former president Joseph Estrada.Pacquiao’s failed attempts at an acting and singing career may also indicate people’s lack of readiness to accept him in a new role.”They love him as a boxer but may not be ready to take him in any other capacity,” Dr Monsod says.Guardian News & Media
Nanjing Night Net

Indonesia goes to ground for energy

JAKARTA: Indonesia’s president has launched an ambitious program to tap the country’s famed seismic volatility and become the world’s leading producer of geothermal energy, one of the cleanest renewable sources of power available.Indonesia wants to accelerate its economic development but is beset by chronic electricity outages and shortfalls. Its ability to provide industry with the energy infrastructure it needs to expand is one of the country’s most critical challenges.It has also pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade by at least 26 per cent below ”business as usual” levels, making the energy objective even more demanding.In a speech to the World Geothermal Conference in Bali this week, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Indonesia aimed to be the world’s leading geothermal nation by 2025. ”Nations are striving to liberate themselves from over-dependence on fossil fuels,” he said.”And to many countries, including Indonesia, a large part of the solution to that problem is the successful tapping of vast resources of geothermal energy.”Geothermal energy works by pumping water beneath the surface, using the high temperatures below to turn it into steam and drive turbines. It is more or less carbon neutral. Indonesia has 40 per cent of the world’s potential geothermal resources and 265 potential sites for plants, thanks to its string of volcanoes.The underground heat is relatively easy to exploit in Indonesia because it is close to the surface and does not require deep drilling. The country’s geothermal reserves are believed to amount to 28,000 megawatts, or the equivalent of 12 billion barrels of oil. But it taps only 1200 megawatts at the moment.Under Dr Yudhoyono’s plan, 44 plants will be built by 2014, more than tripling geothermal capacity to 4000 megawatts. By 2025, it wants more than 9000 megawatts of geothermal power on stream.”It’s a big challenge,” said Asclepias Indriyanto, the executive director of the Indonesian Institute for Energy Economics. ”It will require collaboration between different arms of the Indonesian government and new regulations.”Getting its notoriously inefficient and insular bureaucrats across different levels of government to co-operate is always problematic, but the main barrier to achieving its geothermal goals is likely to be cost.The first phase of expansion to 2014 alone will cost $12.9 billion.The government wants the money to come almost entirely from private sources, primarily foreign investors. But exploration costs are high and geothermal plants cost roughly twice as much to build as coal-fired power stations, although the continuing operation and maintenance of geothermal plants is cheaper.Almost half of the country’s potential geothermal sites are in conservation forests, although one plant has already been built successfully in a protected zone.The state-run electricity monopoly fixes the price at which power is purchased. Many are calling for the price to be raised for geothermal power.On this front, the government has indicated it is prepared to remove the price ceiling while a new law to come into effect later this year breaks down the monopoly power of the state-owned electricity utility.Indonesia had hoped to fund its geothermal expansion by selling carbon credit offsets, but the collapse of climate change talks in Copenhagen and the apparent demise of a significant, global emissions trading scheme seems to have put paid to that.One possible for solution, at least in the long term, is for the government to pare back its immense subsidies for petrol and re-direct part of the savings into geothermal energy. Its cheap petrol scheme costs the government about $16 billion a year and studies, including one recently by the World Bank, show it favours the rich far more than the poor it is supposed to benefit.
Nanjing Night Net

You’ve come a long way, baby: Shanghai finds its big feat

SHANGHAI: China has spent $48 billion – even more than it devoted to remake Beijing for the 2008 Olympics – to mount an elaborate World Expo and give its second city, Shanghai, the same coming-out party that the Games were for Beijing.It hopes Expo 2010, which features exhibits from 189 countries, including Australia, will showcase a polished, vibrant Shanghai that it envisions as a financial capital for the region, even the world.Everything about the expo, which opened last night on the banks of the Huangpu River, is large, most prominently the China Pavilion, a red, upside-down pyramid with floor space equivalent to more than 26 soccer fields. That makes it about 30 times the size of the US showcase, which is tucked away in a corner of the main expo site.Last night’s opening ceremony featured an elaborate fireworks display. ”Only we can hold such an expo,” said Fang Xinghai, director general of the Shanghai Financial Services Office. ”There’s a bit of national pride in it. We want the world to come and admire our success.”Preparations have been nothing short of monumental. After winning the bid in 2002 to host the event, Shanghai began clearing 2.6 square kilometres along the Huangpu River. That involved moving 18,000 families and 270 factories, including the Jiang Nan Shipyard, which employs 10,000 workers. Today the site is crowded with national pavilions, sculpture gardens, shops and a sports arena and performing arts centre shaped like a flying saucer.With 25 million tickets sold, city officials are projecting more than 70 million people could attend the 184-day event, which would shatter a record set in 1970 when 64 million people visited the expo in Osaka, Japan.Shanghai has trained more than 1.7 million volunteers and adopted Olympic-level security measures, adding metal detectors to subway entrances and screening cars entering the city.Last week police detained 6000 people they said were involved in street crimes such as theft and prostitution.In January the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, visited the Australian pavilion, the only international one in his expo tour.According to expo authorities, Australia’s pavilion has been a favourite with visitors during six days of final testing. More than 120,000 visitors joined long queues to see the pavilion and its mascot, a kookaburra called Peng Peng. And lamingtons were in hot demand with more than 1000 sold in one day, twice what was expected.GOING BIG  China expects about 400,000 daily visitors to consume 547 tonnes of food each day during expo.The site is twice the size of Monaco and 20 times bigger than the 2008 event held in Zaragoza, Spain.The expo theme is ”Better city, better life”.Chinese have been urged to queue better, spit less and not wear pyjamas in public.The 3500 police on patrol are forbidden to eat garlic or anything else that would make their breath smell.Agencies
Nanjing Night Net