GREG RAY: Hopes for Kon-Tiki movie  

The Kon Tiki in 1947 on its voyage across the Pacific Ocean. THOR HEYERDAHL
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MARGARET and David have given the Kon-Tiki movie three-and-a-half stars.

Sounds all right, but I don’t know if I want to go see it.

Because my memory of the book, while admittedly a bit hazy after a lot of years, is still pretty resonant. I’d hate to have that ruined, if I don’t like the film.

But then again, if it recaptured some of the exhilaration I felt when I first read Thor Heyerdahl’s incredible book, it would probably be worth the risk.

Kon-Tiki was one of those books that just gripped my imagination, as it gripped the imagination of the world when it appeared.

Most people, I guess, are familiar with the plot of the true-life yarn, but if you’ve never read the book you ought to put it on your list.

Heyerdahl had been fascinated by Polynesia for a long time. As a young man, with his wife Liv, Heyerdahl took the amazing step of leaving civilisation to go “back to nature” on the Pacific island of Fatu Hiva.

It proved to be an education, with the hardships of life on a “tropical paradise” much greater than he’d imagined. He and Liv saw how local people were ravaged by malnutrition and its ailments, and watched in horror as a village was decimated by influenza imported from a copra boat.

Civilisation had many redeeming features, after all, the couple learnt.

When Heyerdahl saw giant stone statues in the forests of the island that closely resembled some seen and illustrated by other people in South America, his mind went into overdrive.

He became obsessed with the theory that Polynesia may have been colonised in the dim past from South America.

But when he tried to share his theory, many established academics wrote him off, which prompted him to attempt the voyage, simply to show it would have been possible.

So he and some other Scandinavians went to South America in 1947, lashed some balsa logs together and hopped aboard to see where they’d end up. The raft design came from some very old drawings by Spanish invaders of Peru, and Heyerdahl insisted that no nails, spikes or wire be used in the construction.

As Heyerdahl had hoped and predicted, they wound up bumping into the islands of Polynesia after 101 days afloat, proving the feasibility his theory to his own satisfaction, if not necessarily everybody else’s.

But it was the journey, not the anthropological musings, that captured the world’s imagination.

I remember reading his book with astonishment at his audacity and boldness. Then I searched for his other books and read them, one by one. The others didn’t make such an impact, except Aku Aku, his wonderful Easter Island book, in which he explains to my complete satisfaction the “mystery” of the huge statues there.

Unlike some academics, Heyerdahl adopted the technique of winning the trust of the island locals and asking them patiently to share their old stories and traditions.

When he was given the folklore account of how the statues “walked” from the quarry to their final locations – and how their funny hats were put on – he asked for a demonstration and one was duly given.

After Aku Aku, I found the other fantastic book about the original Kon-Tiki expedition by Heyerdahl’s raft-mate Erik Hesselberg. Kon-Tiki and I is an illustrated version, much shorter, with hand-written text and lovely, quirky drawings, intended for young readers.

I’d like, some day, to watch the 1990 BBC series – Kon-Tiki Man – that covered the whole Heyerdahl saga, from Fatu Hiva and Kon-Tiki to the Ra and Tigris reed boat expeditions of later years.

In the meantime I have the book of the series, which is so comprehensive and readable that it probably makes ownership of most of Heyerdahl’s own works (except for Kon-Tiki and Aku Aku) unnecessary.

Kon-Tiki is a great, great story. I hope the movie measures up.

OPINION: Iron Lady’s dogma a hard lesson for us all

FORMER British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been called a ‘divisive figure’ in the media.
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This ‘divisiveness’ is merely a front to legitimise her policies in a post-Thatcher world where the swing to the right was mimicked by a number of countries, Australia included, and saw a politics created to benefit a rich minority while punishing the vulnerable.

This kind of politics was in no way ‘‘successful’’ except to benefit a minority and allow that minority to maintain their wealth and political power.

Lauding Baroness Thatcher’s policies is a mistake that we should not make today.

Lady Thatcher came to power promising to unite the country and to govern for everyone.

In reality her policies favoured those already well-off and hurt the already vulnerable. The gap between the haves and have-nots widened as a direct result of Lady Thatcher’s policy, leaving a distinctly un-United Kingdom.

The facts on the ground remain: unwilling to push for an overtly feminist agenda and unwilling to present a social agenda that was progressive in any way, Lady Thatcher pushed politics quite far to the right.

Economically, Lady Thatcher and the British Tory policies doubled unemployment, then pushed unemployed coal miners to register for long-term disability pensions to hide the unemployment figures.

The country’s gross national product fell, and there was never a recovery on the horizon, with top tax rates on the rich cropped from 83per cent down to 60per cent, while the value-added tax nearly doubled from 8per cent to 15per cent, largely hurting the poorer classes in the process, to recoup the revenue loss.

If not for the boom in North Sea oil, Lady Thatcher’s government would probably have been bankrupt in its first years.

Her refusal to co-operate in a greater Europe, her willingness to go to war, and her increased militarisation of the UK pushed international politics closer to crisis rather than further away.

At the same time this militarisation was coupled with a resurgent appeal to nationalism.

Her hostility towards Nelson Mandela, whom she derided as a terrorist, while having a long-lasting friendship with the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, remains a source of embarrassment and marks a shocking lack of personal judgment.

Lady Thatcher’s legacy is a world in which radical individualism is privileged at the expense of any sort of social solidarity or sense of responsibility to anyone outside of one’s self.

If we are to laud Lady Thatcher’s legacy then let us laud our own selfishness and greed as the products of this legacy.

We have seen how tolerating governments supporting dictatorships for the sake of convenience was dangerous in Lady Thatcher’s day and this continues.

Her neglect of the people hit hard by her economic policies, increased drug addiction, destroyed families, and caused enormous social problems in the UK.

If all governments, including ours here in Australia, were to act in such a manner, we would need to ask ourselves what it is that we need government for.

Helping to organise our lives for the better is part of the mandate of all governments, and pressing for positive change on the world stage is part of that. Lady Thatcher’s legacy is a cruel one, and not to be lauded.

Dr Robert Imre is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations, the University of Newcastle. Stephen Owen is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle.

Margaret Thatcher

OPINION: Opposition’s lack of vision for broadband

Fibre optic cable being layed in the Canberra suburb of Gungahlin this week. Photo: Alex EllinghausenTHERE is not much new in the opposition’s NBN policy.
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Critical details on how it will achieve a cheaper outcome even at lower prices remains a big question. The roll-out of FTTN (maintaining the old copper network) is increasingly becoming a less-favourable option.

With the ageing of the copper network, that problem will only increase. Working with an old network means that you will come across many ‘‘surprises’’ in that network that need to be fixed and that will either increase the costs or make it impossible for people to get true fast broadband in.

There are plenty of such examples in Europe and North America.

This doesn’t need to be a major problem as long as there is a policy in place that recognises and address these issues. This, however, is still missing from the opposition, nor is there any recognition of the potential technical problems that might occur.

What will be its path to eventually get everybody in the country (i.e. more than 95per cent) on a network that provides an equal opportunity for all to participate in the rapidly developing digital society and digital economy?

Also, how is it going to entice Telstra and Optus to abandon their lucrative contracts with the government?

How is it going to entice the rest of the industry in relation to the far more complex regulatory issues that will occur if we keep the old Telstra-owned copper network?

One of the most significant problems arising in Europe in relation to FTTN is how to make it an open network in relation to ensure competition (wholesale) over that infrastructure.

While the opposition indicates you can’t trust this government in relation to its NBN, why would we trust it with its plan, as there are so many elements that can cause unforseen costs as well as hard-to-resolve technological problems that could lead to a widening of the digital divide – a problem that is increasingly seen as a major issue in European and North American politics.

True, if you have $5000 or so to spend to upgrade your own infrastructure to FTTH that is fine, but broadband is now seen worldwide as essential national infrastructure and it is seen as critical for the digital economy, e-health, tele-education and so on. The opposition still fails to address and recognise these issues and to formulate its policies accordingly. The question remains why does the opposition want a NBN?

This is clear in the case of the government: it talks about nation-building, essential infrastructure, etc. While there are still many questions that need to be answered by the government, at least it has policies in place, for example, the national digital strategy.

It is good to see that the opposition indicates that eventually FTTH will be needed.

So the question remains, how will the opposition address that issue in five years?

Eventually, for social-economic reasons, all of the network will need to be upgraded in order to run a sophisticated country such as Australia. There is nothing in the opposition’s plan that addresses this issue, beyond its initial quick and cheap fix, still at a considerable cost of $20billion.

There are quite a lot of assumptions in the opposition’s plan that are easy to say but difficult to reconcile.

Looking back over the past 10 years, all internet and broadband-based services have come down in price. If you compare an internet access product that was available 10 years ago, that same product (i.e. internet access at a certain speed) has come down in price more than 200per cent.

The reality, however, is that people still spend about the same as 10 years ago but now have speeds that are 20 or 40 times faster.

The same will apply over the next 10 years. It is highly unlikely that, as the opposition suggests, prices will increase.

There is no technological reason for this to happen and secondly, the ACCC would never allow it.

So, the opposition’s projected increased costs for the NBN (if continued) is scaremongering, as such a development would run against international trends.

There are still no clear policies on the demand side of the NBN (digital productivity). If the opposition doesn’t see the NBN as a socio-economic policy, it should abandon the NBN altogether and leave it to the private sector.

You would only, as a government, intervene if you believe that this was needed for a national purpose.

As a step-one plan, it addresses some of the cheaper and faster issues but it falls short of providing a true vision for the national digital infrastructure for Australia.

Paul Budde is a telecommunications consultant.

EDITORIAL: Fine way to make money 

THE trouble with imposing broadly based fines of any sort, such as those for parking or traffic infringements, is that a temptation soon arises to treat the income as a given in yearly budgets.
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That leads to targets and quotas, which leads to pressure on those responsible for issuing fines, which leads to criticism that the organisation concerned has lost sight of the original reason for introducing the fines and is instead involved in naked revenue-raising.

If that sounds like a description of Newcastle City Council, that’s only because the organisation is so commonly the butt of public complaints about allegedly over-zealous parking fine practices.

Indeed, the council scarcely makes a secret of its expectation of minimum revenue receipts from its squad of compliance officers, although in the same breath it insists its only concerns are safety and support for businesses.

It might be presumed that the city area has now attained such a fearsome reputation as a place to be mercilessly fined that the council is being forced to work harder and cast its net wider to meet its desired revenue targets.

If so, that might explain the heavy and unpopular blitzes around the stadium during big sporting events, and perhaps even the sporadically vigorous activity around the Calvary Mater Hospital.

The council is not alone in its growing reliance on fines to bolster its apparently sick budget.

Other visitor magnets with notoriously poor parking provision are seeing their chance too. Rising stars in the Hunter’s fining stakes are Hunter New England Health and the University of Newcastle.

Parking at John Hunter Hospital is often extraordinary difficult.

That’s why cars are often backed up along Lookout Road and why residents of New Lambton Heights had to lobby for parking restrictions outside their homes.

The university’s case is probably worse, with paid parking permits cynically referred to by their holders as ‘‘hunting licences’’. If anybody cared to quantify the lost productivity due to time spent circling the campus in search of parking spots, the figure would probably be large.

Fines play a part in cutting traffic and maintaining safe practices. Knowing this, few motorists who knowingly park illegally complain.

The clearest indicator that the valuable practical functions of the system may be losing ground to revenue raising is the volume of protest at allegedly unfair penalties. That volume seems loud at present, which should mean something to those in control of the revenue targets.

Danish cabernet, anyone?

That bottle of Bordeaux you put aside may become even rarer in the next few decades if climate change reduces wine-grape production in traditional parts of the world and moves it elsewhere, researchers say.
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Wine-grape production’s sensitivity to climate makes it a good test case for what could happen in the next several decades. And the land suitable for viticulture in current major wine-producing regions could be reduced by 20 per cent to 70 per cent by 2050, depending on the amount of greenhouse gases produced, the researchers said this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An increasingly affluent global population is likely to create more demand for wine and ensure that wine-grapes will continue to be grown in current areas as much as possible, and be grown in new areas as well, the researchers said.

The researchers said they expected a “major global redistribution of suitability” for wine-grape production regions. That has significance for what happens to water resources and animal habitats, said Lee Hannah, an author of the study and senior scientist for climate change biology at Conservation International’s new Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Ecosystem Science.

That could mean that wine-grape production moves from regions such as Mediterranean France to higher latitudes, including northern Europe and the western US. At present, Mediterranean regions, with dry and warm summers and cool and wet winters, are especially suitable.

“The actual extent of those redistributions will depend on market forces, available adaptation options for vineyards, and continued popularity of wine with consumers,” researchers said.

Climate change could drive changes in viticulture that will change the ecosystems of the Mediterranean and threaten native habitats in areas where the industry goes, the researchers said. And a warming climate could force vineyard managers in traditional regions to try to cool grapes on the vine, and bring in more water – affecting the freshwater ecosystems.

The researchers, from several institutions in the US and elsewhere, used more than 100 models to assess potential climate change effects on wine growing. They said agreement using various models was high, both for signalling declines in suitability for wine grapes in the Mediterranean and projecting increases in northern Europe, New Zealand and western North America.

There are some coping strategies available, and others are needed, such as investments in new varieties of grapes that have different climate tolerances – such as withstanding heat stress – and new ways to manage vineyards, the researchers said.

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Hoeft helps put scrum on a firm footing

Could an answer to the game’s most problematic area, the scrum, be on the horizon?
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Just maybe, says former All Blacks loose-head prop Carl Hoeft. And it involves fewer collapses, easier decisions for referees and, crucially, rewards for superior technique.

Hoeft’s voice is important for three reasons. First, he is not long out of his playing career. Second, after winning 30 All Blacks caps he spent six and half seasons in France and understands and respects the scrum mentalities in both hemispheres. And third, he’s at the coal face.

In his job as scrum coach for the Chiefs’ development side he has been working under an IRB trial that reduces the impact of the scrum “hit”.

Hoeft likes what his sees, and his feedback will go directly to the governing body.

“There is a lot less impact in the hit, so in that regard it’s a lot more stable and you’re not finding as many collapses, and it gets the game started quicker,” Hoeft says. “It will take props back to really having to use technique rather than sheer momentum on the hit.”

Hoeft has been mentoring his props in the Pacific Rugby Cup, an IRB competition involving emerging talent from the Australian and New Zealand franchises against development sides from Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

In an attempt to clean up the scrum, which has increasingly left players, coaches and fans confused and exasperated, the IRB has been trying out a new engagement process that requires the props to “pre-bind” – effectively engage – rather than charging at each other like crazed bulls.

“The difference is that you’re a lot closer,” Hoeft says. “On the ‘touch’ [call] you get a pre-bind, so your head is almost half in already.”

The result is simple. The impact of the “hit” has been reduced – significantly. In fact, All Blacks scrum guru Mike Cron recently said 25 per cent of its impact had disappeared, along with all the instability that brought.

Has the new process removed some of the guesswork from officials if a scrum does go down?

“I think so,” Hoeft says. “If you get a bad hit, the way the rules are currently, there’s actually an opportunity for props to take the scrum down. This way it becomes a lot more obvious if you take the scrum down when you’re setting up bound-up already.”

Of course, there will always be suspicions, especially from the northern hemisphere, that any attempt to change the scrum is a sneaky ploy from the south to depower it. But Hoeft, with his respect of French scrummaging fresh in his mind, makes it very clear that he would not endorse anything that would take away the contest.

“At the beginning … any change is a bit hard to take, and you wonder what it’s all about, whether they are trying to depower the scrum, are we trying to make it like a league scrum,” Hoeft says.

“[But] if you are a prop that knows your technique, knows how to work angles, within the boundaries of the law of course, there’s still scope to work there.”

In fact, the new process might even play to northern hemisphere strengths.

“After playing in France for six and half seasons, a lot of work [there] is done after the hit,” Hoeft says.

“They rely on working angles, body positions, after the hit … the same with the English props and Irish and Scottish and Welsh, they have got pretty good technique.

“Over there, scrums probably last a bit longer. In the southern hemisphere they are working on speed of hit, quick feed and gone, where over in the northern hemisphere you’ll find there will be double shunts, triple shunts, holding the ball in. It’s become a bit of a lost art here.

“I can’t see it [the new process] detracting from what the northern hemisphere sides do already, because they are good at working angles.”

Any change to the rules at elite level take time. Often, change occurs at what seems a glacial pace. But Hoeft says it might not be too far away: “From what I’ve heard they may be trialling it at the end of year tour.”

He believes it is an overdue step in the right direction.

“It makes the props become more technical, rather than just working on size and smashing against a brick wall,” he says.

The vast majority of supporters would say amen to that.

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Untimely Logies are letting down the players and the public

Smile for the cameras (but no audience) … Asher Keddie wins the ultimate prize, the Gold Logie. Photo: Malcolm Fairclough Complicating the schedule … The Voice
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When iconic music journalist Molly Meldrum walked onto the stage at the 55th annual TV Week Logie Awards at a quarter to ten last Sunday night, 1.463 million people were tuned.

Appropriately enough, perhaps, it was the peak audience of the telecast.

When the curtain came down almost three hours later, after Bert Newton had handed Asher Keddie the night’s top award, the Gold Logie, roughly a quarter of that audience was still watching: a paltry 387,311 people.

In some respects those numbers, and the almost absurd notion that the night’s most important moment is, by default, watched by the smallest audience, illustrates the heart of the many challenges the Logies now face.

2013’s awards, the 55th held annually since the awards were created by TV Week magazine, have become the watershed in the history of Australian television’s night of nights.

For the second year running, News Ltd has leaked the winner online before the telecast had concluded.

Technical glitches are to blame, but in the new media world of less manpower and more automation, such mistakes are a frustrating reality. In the future, such mistakes will only become more likely.

The fallout from the leaks has pushed TV Week to the point that it will no longer provide print media outlets with the winners list in advance, the so-called “embargoed list”.

The magazine’s publisher, Jayne Ferguson, said she was “extremely disappointed”, particularly because News Ltd had given a guarantee the error would not be repeated.

“In light of this, moving forward, all media outlets will find out [the winners] in line with the telecast,” she said, in a statement issued this week by TV Week’s publishers, Bauer Media Group.

But there is a bigger problem facing the Logies than the battle of print embargoes and the flattering glow of front-page coverage in the nation’s papers the following morning.

The broadcaster of the awards, Channel Nine, no longer uses them as a single program in its schedule for the first Sunday after the Easter non-ratings break. For the last two years the telecast has been bundled with the premiere of The Voice.

There are a number of reasons for that, notably that the audience overall for the Logies, like most TV award telecasts such as the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes, has softened over the years.

But the knock-on effect is that the Logies telecast has been pushed later into the night. Previously they kicked off around 7pm. This year it was closer to 9pm once The Voice and the red carpet package were played.

In the past it look a serious overrun to push the Gold Logie winner announcement past midnight. Now, with a fairly lean telecast – that is, the awards and speeches interrupted only for several musical performances and the In Memoriam segment – the winner’s announcement falling past midnight is the norm.

The pressure will now be on TV Week to make the Logies “live”, rather than the hour (roughly) delay that currently exists, though in real terms that will not solve the major issues, nor deal with the challenge of print coverage, or the warped reality that using social media during the telecast is actually discouraged in an era where it should serve as the engine to the night’s marketing.

In truth, any change to the structure of the night needs to be led by the broadcaster. Nine, whose contract to broadcast the awards runs for at least one more year, needs to start the Logies earlier, air them on a different night, or air them on a different channel.

The government, when not handing the commercial networks back (most of) the money they pay for their licences, has also handed them a wad of free spectrum to launch digital channels. Perhaps among Nine’s suite of sweet little earners, a channel can be found for the Logies?

In truth, however, the whole event needs to be turned on its head.

It needs to start in the late afternoon, and live, like the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes do. The red carpet, which draws a larger audience overall than the telecast itself, needs to be blown out from a paltry package of highlights to a proper multi-hour telecast.

Television is hungry for that kind of content, so why not feed it?

The awards need to start earlier. Some of the awards, such as children’s TV, should be hived off to a pre-Logie night event, to trim some runtime. Think about it this way: the idea of announcing the best children’s TV show at 11pm on a school night – long after the kiddies’ bedtime – is plainly strange.

And the Gold Logie needs to given out when more than a fraction of the audience is still watching. People like to make jokes about the Logies, and the Gold Logie, but if you sift through the nonsense and take an honest look, there is more that is good than bad about them.

The history books record Gold Logies for Graham Kennedy, Bert Newton, Ray Martin and Jana Wendt. Hector Crawford and Reg Grundy, Playschool and Four Corners are in the Logie Hall of Fame. There were Logie Awards for Blue Murder, Sunday, Frontline, Foreign Correspondent, Sigrid Thornton and Maxine McKew.

From this year’s awards alone we can add to that list: Redfern Now, Deb Mailman and Bonita Mabo, Lateline, Brian Henderson and Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War.

That’s a glorious legacy. It’s time to get them right.


8:42pm Bruno Mars sings Locked Out of Heaven 1.33m

8:46pm Hamish and Andy opening proceedings 1.35m

9:02pm Julia Morris delivers the night’s best speech 1.46m

9:15pm Joel Madden collects his Logie 1.34m

9:45pm Molly Meldrum appears on stage 1.463m

10:18pm Mike Munro introduces Brian Henderson 1.24m

10:59pm The award for children’s TV is presented 846,834

11:57pm Deborah Mailman and Bonita Mabo on stage 584,000

12:21am Asher Keddie wins the Gold Logie 548,561

12:27am The closing credits roll 387,311

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Dead mother’s cut wrists ‘not significant’, son tells inquest

Jerry Schwartz: signed his mother’s death certificate. Photo: Supplied Eve Schwartz, left, with her best friend Magda Wales. Photo: Supplied
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The Sydney cosmetic surgeon who signed his mother’s death certificate has told an inquest he omitted reporting that she had cuts on her wrists because he “did not think they were significant”.

But the inquiry has heard that photos were taken on the day Dr Jerry Schwartz allegedly discovered the body of his mother, Eve Schwartz, showing him displaying her injured wrists to the camera.

Dr Schwartz was giving evidence to the ongoing coronial inquest into the August 2005 death of his mother, the co-founder of the Schwartz Hotel Group, which owns more than a dozen luxury hotels and resorts across the country.

The inquest is also examining the death of Magda Wales, Ms Schwartz’s best friend, who died approximately three weeks later.

The inquest has previously heard that 79-year-old Ms Schwartz was suffering from advanced lung cancer, but that her death occurred in “unusual circumstances”, with “slash” injuries to her wrists not reported by Dr Schwartz when he filled out her death certificate, and a certificate for her cremation.

But Dr Schwartz told the Glebe Coroner’s Court on Thursday that when he discovered his mother’s dead body early on the morning of August 21, 2005, the injuries he saw were mere “scratches”, and he did not think they had contributed in any way to her death.

“I did not think they were significant on that Sunday morning,” he said.

The inquest then heard that there were a series of photos of Dr Schwartz holding his mother’s hands with her injured wrists and forearm seemingly displayed to the camera.

There were small stains on the bed sheet in the background which resembled blood.

But Dr Schwartz said he had not requested that photos be taken of his mother’s injuries.

He said that his de facto partner at the time, Liliane Viselle, had instructed him to hold his mother’s hands in this way, but he didn’t ask why.

“I did not arrange for the photos to be taken of my mother’s wrists,” Dr Schwartz said. “I just thought I was having a picture holding my mother’s hands.”

He said that the photos had been among a number of images taken after the discovery of his mother’s body “so that we could have a lasting memory of my mother”.

Among these images, the inquest heard, were pictures of Dr Schwartz and his relatives with Ms Schwartz’s dead body.

In a written statement tendered in the hearing, Dr Schwartz said that photos of his dead mother’s wrists, which showed a series of slash marks, did not accurately depict the injuries.

“If there had been serious [wrist] injuries I would not only have recalled this, but I would have conducted a thorough exam to determine whether or not such injuries were related to her death.”

Dr Schwartz’s barrister has previously asserted that the pictures – which are crucial evidence in the hearing – were digitally altered in a bid to incriminate his client.

The inquest has previously heard that Dr Schwartz, who works as a cosmetic surgeon in addition to leading the hotel group, also signed the death certificate for Ms Wales.

He told the inquest on Thursday that he had been “one of Ms Wales’ treating doctors”. However, he did not believe there were any records of their consultations because his surgery destroyed all records after seven years.

The inquest continues.

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Drug giant to probe deal with CSIRO spin-off

Global drug giant Novartis has confirmed it has begun an “internal investigation” into a five-year deal it signed with a CSIRO spin-off company to buy an anti-counterfeit technology which the CSIRO and its partner knew could be compromised.
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Novartis purchased what it was told was a custom-designed invisible “tracer” which would protect millions of ampoules of injectible Voltaren, widely sold overseas but not in Australia, from the threat of the booming blackmarket trade in counterfeit medicines.

But a Fairfax investigation on Thursday revealed that DataTrace DNA Pty Ltd, a joint venture between the CSIRO and public company DataDot Technology Ltd, instead issued Novartis with widely available tracer material it had bought from China and which it was warned was insufficient for a pharmaceutical application.

Alexandra Suvajac, a Novartis Australia spokeswoman, said the company had a number of measures to ensure the safe use of its drugs which were “not compromised by the allegations around the use of this technology”.

“I can confirm we are undertaking an internal investigation of the matter,” she said. “Novartis is aware of the story reported today and cannot comment further on the ongoing investigation.”

The CSIRO has tweeted that “the allegations raised by Fairfax this morning are new to CSIRO. We’re making enquiries to establish the facts.”

Shares in DataDot Technology have been put into a trading halt until Monday.

The company’s company secretary Graham Loughlin requested the halt as a result of “press coverage today of allegations regarding DataTrace DNA Pty Ltd, a subsidiary company”. DataTrace was half-owned by the CSIRO when it sold the anti-counterfeit technology to Novartis, which had sought a method to protect its injectable drugs, manufactured in Egypt, Slovakia and Switzerland.

In a series of assurances to Novartis, DataTrace had assured the drugs giant that the tracer was manufactured under secure conditions in a CSIRO laboratory in Melbourne.

In fact, the company issued it with phosphor-based tracer it had previously purchased from a lighting supplier in China which was considered sufficient only for low-security applications, such as batch and stock control or sorting industrial commodities.

Organised crime gangs have been dumping bootleg medicines in poor economies around the world at enormous profits in recent years. Last year an Interpol task force arrested 80 people after an international taskforce seized 3.75 million units of fake drugs worth $US10.5 million.

Hundreds of people around the world have died from being administered fake medicines.

“If there is a serious counterfeiting threat to the Novartis ampoules, then this code risks being quickly and easily cracked,” the project’s chief scientist, Gerry Swiegers, warned months before the deal was announced to the market. Dr Swiegers had begun work on the project while still a CSIRO employee, and then after a bitter falling-out with the organisation, he had joined DataTrace full-time.

“Serious questions could then be raised, especially if the successful counterfeiting attack resulted in injury or death.”

Mr Loughlin told the market this morning that “these matters require a response from the parent company”, which is DataDot.

“In order for the facts to be assembled and the response to be prepared we request a trading halt in our shares until the market opens on Monday 15th April or until DataDot Technology Limited makes an announcement to the market on this subject, whichever is sooner.”

The CSIRO remains a minority shareholder in DataDot.

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Hacker currency bursts mainstream

With $US600 stuffed in one pocket and a smartphone tucked in the other, Patricio Fink recently struck the kind of deal that’s feeding the rise of a new kind of money – a virtual currency whose oscillations have pulled geeks and speculators alike through stomach-churning highs and lows.
Nanjing Night Net

The Argentine software developer was dealing in bitcoins – getting an injection of the cybercurrency in exchange for a wad of real greenbacks he handed to a pair of Australian tourists in a Buenos Aires Starbucks.

The visitors wanted spending money at black market rates without the risk of getting roughed up in one of the Argentine capital’s black market exchanges. Fink wanted to pad his electronic wallet.

In the safety of the coffee shop, the tourists transfered Fink their bitcoins through an app on their smartphone and walked away with the cash.

“It’s something that is new,” said Fink, 24, who described the deal to The Associated Press over Skype. “And it’s working.”

No borders, no change fees

It’s transactions like these – up to 70,000 of them each day over the past month – that have propelled bitcoins from the world of internet oddities to the cusp of mainstream use, a remarkable breakthrough for a currency which made its online debut only four years ago. When they first began pinging across the internet, bitcoins could buy you almost nothing.

Now, there’s almost nothing bitcoins can’t buy. From hard drugs to hard currency, songs to survival gear, cars to consumer goods, retailers are rushing to welcome the virtual currency whose unofficial symbol is a dollar-like, double-barred B.

Advocates describe Bitcoin as the foundation stone of a Utopian economy: no borders, no change fees, no closing hours, and no one to tell you what you can and can’t do with your money. Just days ago the total value of bitcoins in circulation hit $US2 billion, up from a tiny fraction of that just last year.

But late Wednesday, Bitcoin crashed, shedding more than 60 per cent of its value in the space of a few hours before recouping some its losses. Critics say the roller coaster currency movements are just another sign that Bitcoin is a bubble waiting to burst.

Mysterious background

Amid all the hype, Bitcoin’s origins are a question mark.

The mechanics of the virtual currency were first outlined in a research paper signed Satoshi Nakamoto – likely a pseudonym – and the coins made their online debut in 2009. How coins are created, how transactions are authenticated and how the whole system manages to power forward with no central bank, no financial regulator and a user base of wily hackers all comes down computing power and savoir faire.

Or, as Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist for the ConvergEx Group, describes it: “genius on so many levels.”

The lynchpin of the system is a network of “miners” – high-end computer users who supply the Bitcoin network with processing power needed to maintain a transparent, running tally of all transactions. The tally is one of the most important ways in which the system prevents fraud, and the miners are rewarded for supporting the system with an occasional helping of brand-new bitcoins.

Those bitcoins have become a dangerously hot commodity in the past few days.

Rising from roughly $US13 at the beginning of the year, the price of a single bitcoin blasted through the $US100 barrier last week, according to Mt. Gox, a site where users can swap bitcoins for more traditional currencies.

On Tuesday, the price of a single bitcoin had topped $US200. On Wednesday, it hit $US266 before a flash crash dragged it back down to just over $US100. By early Thursday, bitcoins were trading for $US160.

The rebel currency may seem unstable, but then so do some of its more traditional counterparts. Some say Bitcoin got new momentum after the banking crisis in Cyprus pushed depositors there to find creative ways to move money.

Fink, the Argentine, favours bitcoins because he believes they will insulate him from his country’s high inflation. Others – from Iranian musicians to American auto dealers – use the currency to dodge international sanctions or reach new markets.

Internet’s dark side

But the anything-goes nature of Bitcoin has also made it attractive to denizens of the internet’s dark side.

One of the most prominent destinations for bitcoins remains Silk Road, a black market website where drug dealers advertise their wares in a consumer-friendly atmosphere redolent of Amazon or eBay – complete with a shopping cart icon, a five-point rating system and voluminous user reviews.

The site uses Tor, an online anonymity network, to mask the location of its servers, while bitcoin payments ensure there’s no paper trail.

One British user told AP he first got interested in Silk Road while he was working in China, where he used the site to order banned books. After moving to Japan, he turned to the site for the occasional high.

“Buying recreational drugs in Japan is difficult, especially if you don’t know people from growing up there,” said the user, who asked for anonymity because he did not his connection to Silk Road to be publicly known.

He warned that one of the site’s drawbacks is that the drugs can take weeks to arrive “so there’s no spontaneity.”

Drug dealers aren’t the only ones cashing in on Bitcoin. The hackers behind Lulz Security, whose campaign of online havoc drew worldwide attention back in 2011, received thousands of dollars’ worth of bitcoins after promising followers that the money would go toward launching attacks against the FBI.

A report apparently drawn up by the bureau and leaked to the internet last year said that “since Bitcoin does not have a centralised authority, detecting suspicious activity, identifying users and obtaining transaction records is problematic for law enforcement.”

It went on to warn that bitcoins might become “an increasingly useful tool for various illegal activities beyond the cyber realm” – including child pornography, trafficking, and terrorism.

The FBI did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Late last month, the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen, announced it was extending its money-laundering rules to US bitcoin dealers and transfer services, meaning that companies that trade in the cybercurrency would have to keep more detailed records and report high-value transactions.

Growing e-commerce usage

Many in the Bitcoin community are frustrated at the attention paid to the shadier side of the virtual economy.

Atlanta-based entrepreneur Anthony Gallippi said the focus on drugs and hacking misses the “much bigger e-commerce use for this that’s growing and that’s growing rapidly.”

Very few businesses set their prices in bitcoins – the currency swings would be too jarring – but an increasing number are accepting it for payment. Gallippi’s company, BitPay, handles Bitcoin transactions for some 4,500 companies, taking payments in bitcoins and forwarding the cash equivalent to the vendor involved, which means that his clients are insulated from the cybercurrency’s volatility.

Gallippi said many of the businesses are e-commerce websites, but he said an increasing number of traditional retailers were looking to get into the game as well.

“We just had an auto dealership in Kansas City apply,” he said.

In March, BitPay said its vendors had done a record $US5.2 million in bitcoin sales – well ahead of the $US1.2 million’s worth of monthly revenue estimated to have coursed through Silk Road last year.

Even artists accept bitcoins. Tehran-based music producer Mohammad Rafigh said the currency had allowed him to sell his albums “all over the world and not only in Iran.”

Gallippi said the cybercurrency’s ease of access was its biggest selling point.

With Bitcoin, “I can access my money from any computing device at any time and do whatever the heck I want with it,” he said. “Once you move your money into the cloud why would you ever go back to putting your money in the bank?”

‘Trading tulips in real time’

Many Wall Street veterans are skeptical – and they may feel vindicated after Bitcoin’s latest tumble.

“Trading tulips in real time,” is how longtime UBS stockbroker Art Cashin described Bitcoin’s vertiginous rise, comparing it to the now-unfathomable craze that saw 18th century Dutch speculators trade spectacular sums of money for a single flower bulb.

“It is rare that we get to see a bubble-like phenomenon trade tick for tick in real time,” he said in a note to clients last week.

One Bitcoin supporter with a unique perspective on the boom might be Mike Caldwell, a 35-year-old software engineer based in suburban Utah. Caldwell is unusual insofar as he mints physical versions of bitcoins at his residence, cranking out thousands of homemade tokens with codes protected by tamper-proof holographic seals – a retro-futuristic kind of prepaid cash.

Caldwell acknowledges that the physical coins were intended as novelty items, minted for the benefit of people “who had a hard time grasping a virtual coin.”

But that hasn’t held back business. Caldwell said he’d minted between 16,000 and 17,000 coins in the year and a half that he’s been in business. Demand is so intense he recently announced he was accepting clients by invitation only.

Some may wonder whether Caldwell’s coins will one day be among the few physical reminders of an expensive fad that evaporated into the electronic ether – perhaps the result of a breakdown in its electronic architecture, or maybe after a crackdown by government regulators.

When asked, Caldwell acknowledged that Bitcoin might be in for a bumpy ride. But he drew the analogy between the peer-to-peer currency enthusiasts who hope to shake the finance world in the 2010s with the generation of peer-to-peer movie swappers who challenged the entertainment industry’s business model in the 2000s.

“Movie pirates always win the long game against Hollywood,” he said. “Bitcoin works the same way.”


This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.