Wednesday, 25 April 2007

The Baby Kangaroo Rescue Centre in Alice Springs

I was on holiday last week in Australia's "Red Centre", visiting Uluru (Ayer's Rock) and the town of Alice Springs (immortalised in Nevil Shute's novel, A Town Like Alice).

Alice Springs is home to some uniquely Australian institutions, such as the School of the Air (i.e., students in the far flung Australian Outback taught by teachers through radio and now the Internet) and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

But one of the unofficial tour attractions that I had the pleasure of visiting was Chris "Brolga" Barns's Baby Kangaroo Rescue Centre. For a $5 donation, Brolga lets you into the compound to share a very unique experience - learning to look after baby kangaroos.

Central Australia is extremely dry, not quite a desert, but a kind of savannah. In this arid country, the exhaust fumes from automobiles, funnily enough, are a major source of moisture, and so there is rich vegetation growing along the sides of the highways here. Vegetation attracts grazing kangaroos, and unfortunately, this leads to large numbers of kangaroos being hit and killed by passing vehicles.

Brolga advises that if you pass a dead kangaroo, don't just drive past, because even dead marsupials may often be carrying live young in their pouches, which could perish without timely rescue and care. Stop your vehicle by the side of the road (if it's safe for you to pull over, of course), then examine the dead kangaroo's pouch.

If you find a baby kangaroo in the pouch, make a bag out of a T-shirt or cushion cover, then help the baby into it. (Baby kangaroos often need no encouragement to enter a bag. They somersault into it.) Then, holding the bag against the warmth of your body, take it to a nearby town and ask around for a person who looks after baby kangaroos. There are such kind souls in almost every town. Give the baby kangaroo some water, but avoid giving it cow's milk, as this will not agree with it.

Also, before leaving the scene, try and move the carcase well away from the road, as otherwise, scavengers like the wedge-tailed eagle also become roadkill in turn.

Brolga's work is well-known around Alice Springs. The cabbie who drove us into town from the airport told us about him, which is how we walked into his little centre. One of our tour guides also turned out to be a friend of his and a regular contributor of rescued baby kangaroos.

Unfortunately, the Northern Territory government doesn't seem to be very helpful in supporting Brolga's work. The nearby national parks, surprisingly, don't have any facilities to look after orphaned baby kangaroos, and unpaid volunteers like Brolga are treated with suspicion by the bureaucracy. Brolga says the donations he gets from visitors allow his kangaroo rescue efforts to be self-sustaining, but the effort needs more institutional support, which isn't forthcoming.

If you're ever in Alice Springs, pay the centre a visit. It's very heartening to see the little critters being well looked after, and there's a steady stream of visitors trooping in, having heard of the centre by mere word of mouth.

Update Jan 2013: Brolga seems to have acquired a 90 acre wildlife reserve in Alice Springs, and also has a website, His new email address is

Donations may be made by PayPal or by electronic transfer. The link to PayPal is on the website.

For bank transfers, use the following details:
Bank name: National Australia Bank
Account Name: Baby Kangaroo Centre Pty Ltd
BSB: 085-995
Account: 89 344 3860
SWIFT code (required from outside Australia): NATAAU3303M

Give the man a hand. He's doing great work.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Typing in Hindi

Blogger now supports Hindi (more correctly, the Devanagari script), and I'm curious to try it out.

मेरा नाम गणेश प्रसाद हैयह मेरा ब्लॉग है और मैं यह जांच करना चाहता हूँ कि यह software कितना स्मार्ट होता है
(My name is Ganesh Prasad. This is my blog and I want to find out how smart this software is.)

Not so cool. Either I'm missing something, or Blogger still doesn't know the conventional way to type 'pra', 'ki' or 'smart'.

But I guess I shouldn't be churlish. I didn't have to use the mixed case spelling that has evolved as the de facto Roman script standard to represent Devanagari letters. It'll get better, I know it will.

आज अच्छा है, कल और भी अच्छा होगा
(It's good today, and it'll get better tomorrow.)

Update 23/05/2008: I see that the fonts have suddenly changed, and the words look correct now. The only thing I can think of is that I upgraded to Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) 3 days ago. So maybe it wasn't Blogger that was to blame after all.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Subtle Design - My alternative theory to Intelligent Design

I'll make no secret of where my sympathies lie. My father was a scientist with (still) very ambivalent feelings towards God and religion. I've had too much of a science and engineering background to believe in superstition.

So I'm surprised to see the resurgence of the creationist argument in the form of Intelligent Design. I've dismissed it as another American religious cult phenomenon. But in recent weeks, the Evolution versus Intelligent Design argument doesn't appear to be "either/or" to me anymore.

To the proponents of literal Creationism first: Let's accept that there is a God. Let's also accept that God created the known Universe. Did He really have to go around creating each and every single creature individually? "Here's a Himalayan Panda. Here's a Golden Pangolin. Here's a Boll Weevil. Here's a Reticulated Python..." A really smart God would probably find a more subtle way to achieve the same result.

All that a Really Subtle GodTM would have to do is create an amoeba and a mutation mechanism that created slightly different offspring in each generation. Natural selection would take care of the rest. Vary the environment slightly, and some of the mutations would find themselves slightly better suited to it than others. They would survive in larger numbers, while less-suited individuals would die out without producing offspring. Over time, the species would evolve. There, I said the e-word. That doesn't sound too blasphemous now, does it? Because God could have created Evolution! Evolution is therefore the mechanism that God thought up to ensure that creatures ended up perfectly adapted to their environment.

I know that Intelligent Design says that evolution is possible, but that God is guiding it and it's not a random process. But what if the process was so ingeniously designed that it needed no guiding? Doesn't that reflect even better on its Creator?

I can see God nudging any onlookers and going, "Hey, look at what I did! All I did was create this little amoeba, see? And I made it capable of changing itself a teeny bit at a time, see? Now you see what happens when I up the temperature a bit? Did you see all those little critters appear all of a sudden? Now watch when I make the place more wet. Did you see that? Did you see that? A whole lot of new ones, swimming in the water! The best part of it is, I didn't have to go around creating each one of them by hand. I didn't even have to do any tweaking to help it along. Would've been too much trouble, anyway. So, am I clever or am I clever?"

I'm quite taken by this theory. In fact, I think God didn't even have to create an amoeba to start with. He might have gone, "OK, here's some amino acids, right? Heaps and heaps of 'em. Watch what happens when they combine. There's billions of pools here, OK? Most of them don't do anything interesting, but watch this pool here. See that thing moving? What d'you reckon it is? It's doing stuff on its own, like it's not just a bunch of chemicals. I think I'll call it Life. Yes, life! Hey, I created Life! Am I a genius or am I a genius?"

Come to think of it, God probably didn't need amino acids either. He could have started with just carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and just watched the fun as He whacked them with lightning. He'd have got the amino acids and then proceeded from there.

We can keep backing this up right up to the Big Bang.

In sum, it's possible to imagine a God right at the start of Creation, and a process that He created that required no further intervention from Him ever again. I think I'll call that Subtle Design. Really Subtle Design.

And so the existence of God is once again just a philosophical question best unanswered. It's just too subtle for Creation to understand. Or creationists.

The world - improving by fits and starts

I'm an optimist. I believe we are alive at the best time in history. The world has seen unrelenting progress since the dawn of human civilisation. Yes, there has been dramatic backsliding as well, such as the Nazi holocaust and the Chinese cultural revolution, each claiming millions of lives.

Still, on the whole, our lives have only improved. Slavery, colonialism, apartheid, -- all gone. Women's equality and voting rights, increased awareness and protection of minority rights, increased awareness of child abuse and consequent steps to protect children, a hundred different ways in which our world has improved.

But from time to time, something occurs to remind me that as much as the world has improved, it still has a long way to go. The latest event to my mind has been the hanging in Iran of two gay youths. This was not the work of a homophobic gang. This was the execution of the law of the land, carried out by officials of the state. A quick check of the calendar: This is 2007.

I'm not gay, but I'm not homophobic either. People don't harm others by being gay. Why can't they be left alone? Social opprobrium is bad enough, but legal punishment? And punishment by death? For juveniles? Have people gone mad?

The key to social advancement is education. Little by little, the world needs to understand the value of individual liberty and human rights. Of the humane wisdom behind Voltaire's words, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I'm an optimist, so I believe that one day, the world will learn. I only hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

My Economic Philosophy - 5 (The Greater Freedom, redux)

It looks like the debate about which is the greater freedom (a freedom without restrictions or a freedom that cannot be taken away) is taking place again in the context of blog netiquette.

The incident that triggered this latest debate concerns technology persona Kathy Sierra. (I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Kathy for her excellent book "Head First Servlets and JSP" that helped me achieve my Sun Certified Web Component Developer for J2EE certification. I have also read and enjoyed her other books "Head First Java", "Head First EJB" and "Head First Design Patterns").

A few people left disturbingly graphic insults and death threats on her blogsite, and the pattern of intimidation continued, with similar comments appearing on other blogsites, until she began to fear for her own life. The freedom of speech exercised by those who made the death threats resulted in a very real loss of freedom for Kathy, who felt compelled to cancel a speaking engagement and stay at home out of fear. My heart goes out to Kathy. I hope she recovers from the trauma soon and continues to contribute to technology and the world in general.

I guess this incident mirrors how a laissez-faire market can result in some players losing their freedom through the aggressive actions of others, even though those others may technically be playing within the rules.

Following the Kathy Sierra incident, Tim O'Reilly proposed a blogger's code of conduct, which I think is a good thing. One of the proposals in it concerns banning anonymous comments.

I have been a bit laissez-faire about comments so far, but (inspired by Tim's guidelines) I will ban anonymous comments on both my blogs from now on, and delete uncivil ones (but not comments that merely disagree with my views), in order to be consistent with my philosophy of the greater freedom. Because these are related concepts, after all.

According to a news report, Tim said the guidelines were not about censorship.

"That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make — believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech," he said. "Free speech is enhanced by civility."

Amen to that.

Friday, 6 April 2007

Where I support (gasp) John Howard

I'm no fan of John Howard, but I do support his controversial WorkChoices plan which tries to reform Industrial Relations.

I'm an employee, not an employer. I want a system that makes it easier for employers to fire employees. That's not a typo. I'll repeat it: I want a system that makes it easier for employers to fire employees.

Wait, come back! I'll explain why this actually makes better sense for employees.

Most people tend to think too literally about economic systems, because we're conditioned by the physical world and the pervasive laws of Physics. In Physics, if we want a body to move in the positive x direction, we simply apply a force in the positive x direction, and presto! The body moves as expected.

But Economics works very differently to Physics. If we want a "body" to move in the positive x direction, we must often make it easy for that body to move in the negative x direction! Then the body will move in the positive x direction, of its own accord. Any attempt to apply a force in the positive x direction will in fact cause the body to move in the negative x direction!

Let's say a country needs hard currency (e.g., US dollars). If it passes a law preventing US dollars from being taken out of the country, will that achieve the intended result? More likely, the flow of US dollars into the country will abruptly stop, because there is no way to take the money out again. Plus, the US dollars already in the country will probably get smuggled out. The net result is that the country will end up with even less hard currency than before.

But if the country instead relaxed all constraints on the outward movement of US dollars, that could paradoxically encourage its inflow, because investors would be confident of being able to repatriate their profits back out whenever they wanted.

So when dealing with economic systems, it's better to allow bodies to move in the direction we don't want them to go, so that they move of their own accord in the direction we do want them to go.

That explanation probably makes my support of a hire-and-fire labour market seem less like lunacy. If employers know they can freely fire workers when they don't need them anymore, they'll be more willing to hire in response to short-term demand. Aggregated across the economy, all this additional hiring and firing (which wasn't there before) will contribute to a more liquid labour market (and by now, if you've been reading my blog diligently, you should know my weakness for liquid markets).

So as an employee, I want to see a hire-and-fire regime, because that increases the number of opportunities available to nimble and agile people who keep their skills up to date. The perceived increase in uncertainty doesn't scare me -- I'm a migrant :-). Hire-and-fire gives me a greater chance to up my remuneration.

WorkChoices is not hire-and-fire. It's a compromise, but it narrows the criteria applicable for unfair dismissal and makes it harder to get a tribunal to overturn one. It's a step in the direction of a liquid labour market, and I hope it leads to bolder legislation dismantling the remaining labour market controls that continue to constrain the economy.