Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Letters from Burma

There are few people in the world who capture my heart and mind more than the wonderful group of Burmese kids I met on the streets of Rangoon in 2004. With a significant language barrier, an unreliable postal service and a lack of email, communicating with them has proven rather tricky. Recently I received a pair of letters from them and thanks to a sensationally helpful Burmese man I met in Bangkok, I've managed to have their letters translated into English.

Whilst the English is far from perfect, and the names have been removed due to my (justified) paranoia about their safety, the letters give just a glimpse of life inside one of the world's most intellectually isolated countries.

Letter # 1:

Dear friend I am wating for you and also i am so happy that i get chance to write letter to you i am always remember to you , now i am not stay in 30 street there is only XXX and YYY.

I have been waiting for your letter long time, lastly i'm get it now and you are still rember .as for me same to you when i remember to you i'm always like to look the map which is you gave it to me , thank you so much for your picture i am so gladden that to make friend ship with you .

the time i know that you're going back to Aus- i am feel sad and i always pray for you and may Almighty God Bless you for ever any thing you do in your life i am very very much wish for you that will be a success ,i pray .

i prayed in Christmas day for my self to get happy and will get life of freedom also for you and your family is well . i will write another letter in January , if you will reply for my letter i will so grade and will waiting for your letter with happiness.

friend ,,,, lots of love .

And letter # 2:

Hi friend , , ZZZ write letter for you i am always remember to you and with all of my friends
do you remember that some of your friend are left in Burma , when you say good bye in time of you leave we are vwey sad and feel like a some thing is loseing from our heart i am always hearing one words in my ear is that..... my name is Ari .. which is you say to me with Burmese language do you remember ?"

i am send it letter to you on 21.12.2005 also i would like to write another letter but the time is my mother was fever and time of my examination is well that is why i did't get chance to go to city , i so sorry for it . now is nearly for time of water fastival i am really need you here for this time cause of water fastival , this is original Burmese New year and playing with water for every body go with alots of friend i hope you will enjoy and happy .

miss you alots from Burma and may God bless you for ever .

Reading these letters, I long for a free Burma more than ever before.

If you fly and write, you're a bloody blogger

The blog-as-travel-diary idea is one that I relish. I made the most of it myself during the summer of 2004/2005, and I still regularly get emails from people who are heading to the same part of the world that I visited.

Now there's a blogging site dedicated to travel blogs: My Life of Tr@vel. Browse away.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Blog's second birthday and (another) Top 10

Last week marked the second birthday of AOTW, an event that went largely unremarked upon, except for a day of public celebrations in Kazakhstan. As I did at this time last year, I've put together a list of my ten favourite posts for the second year, again listed from most distant to most recent. Enjoy!

10. Off the artistic role call. I'm sad to say that this one is still the record-setter when it comes to comments on a post. Having found a rather unfortuante set of facts that suggested The Age had not been up-front with their readers, I chose to publish and my damned. I stand by my decision.

9. What a wonderful world. Welcoming Sasha and Natani Ernest into cyberspace. Surprise, surprise, S and N are not on the verge on their first birthday. Happy birthday, girls.

8. Ten of the worst. Ten of the worst ministers in the ten years of the Howard government. The good, the bad and the very ugly get a run, although mostly it's the lazy, incompetent and basically unnoticed ones who dominate.

7. Africa: Trade or aid? Researching and writing this piece dramatically changed the way I look at the 'welfare state' approach to dealing with corrupt, inept and poverty-stricken regimes. Reading The Shackled Continent later on reinforced my belief that proper governance and self-reliance is far more desirable than having the third world as a heavily subsidised basket case.

6. The 'The Latham Diaries' Diaries. Remember when everyone's favourite slightly crazed former Labor leader had his fifteenth minute of fame? I did my best to publish the best bits of the diaries, although like most people got bored before I made it to the end.

5. "...then your children will be next." In which AOTW endears himself to the creeps and neo-Nazis of this world with a playful little post about the rise of Prussian Blue, a Hitler-loving 'tween pop duo.

4. Scott Ritter: On the trail of WMDs. The biggest interviewee in my fledgling journalism career was formers UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter. Ritter is a formidable and interesting character, although his agenda is often difficult to read.

3. Publish and be fatwa'ed. Four months after the Danish cartoon controvery, it seems clearer than even that free speech must be protected if we are to build the sort of society that encourages frank and open discussion in order to improve itself. Here was my contribution, Mohammad and all.

2. Ari's on the Beat. This post is not significant in itself, but it marks my first (semi-)regular paid writing gig.

1. Transport, tax and the environment. Melbourne, like most industrialised cities, (with a few notable exceptions) is choking on its cars. The problem arises from the massive negative externality that motorists create through their bad habit. Someone should do something. Fine. I will.

Taking childcare to market

In the parlance of modern politics, childcare is a barbeque-stopper: an issue that gets the largely disengaged suburbanite masses talking. Presumably these are the same people who spend much of their time talking to colleagues around water-coolers.

Yet again it's in the news, this time because of the 'problem' of non-working parents taking childcare places at the expense of working parents. Ho hum, yet another way to talk but not act.

It frustrates me that the issue has become a 'we need more Government funding' issue, along with health, education, criminal justice and just about every other manifestation of the welfare state. This is one issue where a market-based solution, rather than a government-centred one, would achieve plenty.

Here are the important facts, as I see it:

1. More and more parents are seeking childcare for their infant children so that these parents can re-enter the workforce.

2. Childcare workers are chronically underpaid.

3. The government pays a large subsidy to childcare centres, thereby artificially lowering the price to the consumer (ie, parent). Without this subsidy, childcare centres cannot charge competitive prices.

4. Strict regulation of the sector has meant that childcare providers have been slow to expand their operations.

And the solution? Let the market set the price. With high demand and limited supply, the price will inevitably rise significantly. This was have several effects.

Firstly, more childcare providers will be willing the enter the market and expand due to the profits to be made.

Secondly, some parents will find the price too high and instead choose to take care of their infant at home. Other parents will be prepared to pay. Logically, the determining factor will be whether the price of a day's childcare is higher or lower than the pay from a day's work for the parent who is otherwise taking care of the child, with a premium factored in for the benefit derived from spending a day with one's child. Or if they really hate the kid, a premium for spending the day with work colleagues instead.

Thirdly, firms responding to the skills shortage will increasingly introduce their own childcare services, either provided on-site or subsidied by the employer, in order to attract and retain staff.

Fourthly, childcare workers will find their pay increasing dramatically. Without an artificial cap on prices, parents will be charged the true value of providing the service including a decent income for the professional taking care of their offspring.

The problem that has pervaded the debate so far is that most critics of the status quo seek to have their hundreds-and-thousands topped cup-cakes and eat them too: they want low prices, high wages and abundant places.

It's a fool's paradise, and an impossibility, too.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Be thankful for small mercies

In November of 2004 I visited Bangkwang Prison and wrote about what I saw there. One of the most heartbreaking stories was that of Michael Connell, a Brit with learning difficulties who was 19 years of age when he was arrested for drug smuggling in 2003 and given a life sentence.

A small but significant piece of good news has come the way of Michael's family:

To: Mr. Derek J. Connell
Re: Michael Connell

Dear Mr. Connell,

We are pleased to inform you that yesterday Michael went to the Criminal Court and the judgement of the Appeals Court was read to him. The said court reduced his sentence from life imprisonment to 30 years imprisonment.

We understand that Michael does not wish to further appeal his case to the Dika Court (Supreme Court) shall have to see him in Bangkwnag Central Prison to have his confirmation.

Yours faithfully,

Bangkok Legal Associates Law Office
Puttri Kuvanonda

Michael Connell
Michael Connell

This may be the first of many pieces of good news this year for prisoners held in Thailand. June of this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the corronation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and it is traditional in Thailand (and many other parts of the world) for significant anniversaries such as this one to lead to pardons and sentence reductions. Of course, all this is contingent upon peace and stability remaining in Thailand, an outcome which is anything but certain given the recent upheaval. If the climate changes, pardoning prisoners is unlikely to be high on King Bhumibol's priority list.

The potential for sentence reductions is yet another good reason to ensure that one of South East Asia's most successful democracies remains so.

A hat tip goes to the tireless Kay Danes of the Foreign Prisoner Support Service for letting me know about the latest update.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A firebrand he aint

Crean came, and Crean went.

Watching him in action this evening at Melbourne University was rather underwhelming. Looking at the body language, the tone and the complete lack of ideas, it seems that Crean still has quite got over being dumped as Labor leader. Despite a promising, although slightly earnest, theme - Young People and Australian Politics - Crean managed to completely lack inspiration. He spent some time rehashing Beazley's budget reply *yawn*, then went on to excuse the utter mediocrity of Labor in opposition. No hopes, no dreams, no inspiring words to give hope the true believers. This was a colour-by-numbers speech.

One of the more frustrating aspects of Crean's talk was an aspect that has long frustated me about the Labor Party - they're critical of the government for its supposed lack of generousity with the spending of the surplus, but completely lack any acknowledgement that the reason the surplus exists in the first place is frugal economic management. Having said that, there's merit to Crean's push for infrastructure spending, a long term investment that will pay long term dividends.

Given Crean's lack of enthusiasm, you have to wonder why he bothered putting up a fight for preselection earlier this year. His chances of being leader again are almost zero, he also seems unlikely to be a senior minister when the ALP return to government, with the post-Keating era MPs the likely stars of the future. Unfortunately he lacks the gravitas to be a backbench intellectual, in the tradition of Barry Jones.

So what does the future hold for Crean? If tonight is any indication, a decent superannuation payout and a lie down is the answer.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Crean speaks... how's his Khmer?

What is it with former Labor leaders, Melbourne Uni and young people in politics?

Info about this event has dropped in my in-box:

Guest lecture by Simon Crean, Federal Member for Hotham, on 'Young people and Australian politics.'
Date/Time: Monday 15th May, 6.45pm
Venue: Public Lecture Theatre, Old Arts Bldg

Anyone care to join me?

Guess who's next.
Guess who's next.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


An SMS received this afternoon...

What do Beaconsfield and Collingwood have in common?
Both killed Carlton on the weekend!

Very very clever.

Comedy Festival Wrap-Up

The Comedy Festival has come and gone for another year and for yet another April I've found myself swearing more frequently than usual. The anecdotal evidence is that the festival was a huge success: plenty of shows were selling out (including a healthy bunch of locals), long queues were sighted all around the Town Hall, and Trades Hall has made a welcome comeback to the Festival scene.

Though some might have devoted themselves to the 20-hour Comedy Lock-In, I was more than content with cracking the dozen (see right) and seeing some quality shows in the process. Working as a reviewer for the second year has been a great opportunity to study the art as well as the humour. When a comic gets up for their 50 minute set, there's a hell of a lot going on that's not immediately obvious. Keep an eye out for it.

The Festival awards were given out last Saturday, with the results available here, although strangely the Barry Award has been left out - it went to Demitri Martin.

But for those who just can't get enough competitive comedy, here are my festival top five, in rank order. I guess that makes these the Second Annual Ariontheweb Ill-Informed Comedy Punter Award:

1. Damian Callinan in Spaznuts. Callinan's show was a comedic and artistic tour-de-force. Cleverly written, brilliantly performed, infertility has never been funnier.

2. Wolfe Bowarte in LaLaLuna. A clever visual show with enough dreamy hyperreality to scare the kids.

3. Mark Watson: 50 Years Before Death and the Awful Prospect of Eternity. A deceptively simple show from an unassuming Welshman who will no doubt go on to big things.

4. Tim Minchin. A supurb musical comedian doing what he does best. Bad taste lyrics, brilliant musicianship, and a sense of style that leaves you gasping for more.

5. Sam Simmons in Tales from the Erotic Cat. Not brilliantly funny, but a perfomer who is prepared to take risks and try new things. Can generate laughs just by looking at him.

Anyone else care to share their favourites?

MICF - The Space Cowboy: Mind Bending

Most of us are hardened cynics when it comes to magic and illusions. We've seen it all, know the tricks behind the trade, and mildly resent some smartarse making us feel stupid. But still we flock to see it, desperate to outsmart the performer. One performer who will take considerable effort to outsmart is the Space Cowboy.

Appearances can be deceiving. When he arrives on stage with less-than-perfect grace, the audience is lulled into a false sense of security. Space Cowboy is not a natural performer, and can at times feel awkward in the glare of the Umbrella Revolution lights. He stumbles over his phrases, occasionally seems to improvise with the order of his tricks and at times looks like an up-and-coming street performer trying to score some silver off passers by at Southbank.

Once he gets going, however, Space Cowboy is captivating. He starts with a gruesome bit of sword-swallowing that is not for the faint hearted (nor the faint of pancreas) and soon follows with his real party trick: mental telepathy.

The concept is simple, but the results never cease to amaze. First up is a scrunched up ball of paper tossed into the crowd. Tossed again. And then tossed again. The final owner is asked a quick rapid fire question, with a seemingly infinate array of answers. But the answer they chose is written on the very ball of paper that's sitting in their hands. Impressive. Then the shows rolls on, much of it with our host blindfolded to within an inch of his life. Despite his blindness, he is still able to (correctly) name the various words, names and pictures created by a mesmerised audience. Incredible.

The structure to the 'mind reading' illusion is much the same each time: Space Cowboy prompts audience member with question. Space cowboy creates some obstacle or danger. Space Cowboy amazes all by anticipating answer. No matter how often he repeats it, however, the routine never grows tiresome.

The show isn't particularly funny. But it is damn hard to look away.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Blue and green should never be seen...

Does anyone really by this?

From the UK Tories in the lead up to local council elections:

Vote Blue :: Go Green

Vote Conservative on Thursday.

This is a great country, and with the right leadership it could be even better.

We’re going to have to wait a bit to make some of the changes Britain needs. The next election may be a few years away.

Conservative councils are greener, cleaner, safer and cheaper than Labour and Lib Dem councils. So voting Conservative on 4 May means voting for better local government.

I think it’s so important that you vote in these local elections on Thursday. If you don’t vote, you won’t have a say.

But if you do vote, you can vote for a cleaner, greener environment in your area.

Vote blue, Go green

David Cameron

Read more about this one on their website. It's a tough sell, and in the short term few will by it. In the long term, though...