Friday, June 17, 2011

A brilliant and privileged boy

This story has great personal resonance for me. I first heard Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor in my Presbyterian church when I was aged 13 and that transformed music for me. Unlike the boy below, I had no thought that I could ever play it but I knew from that time on that Bach spoke to me musically like no other. You can hear the boy below play exactly that work via a link below. At 13 he does it very well. I hope you will watch and listen and see what power is given to his hands and feet: Truly an enormous privilege

When Tim Williams went to an Easter church service with his grandparents in the US as an eight-year-old, he heard a sound that changed his life. The uplifting strains of a pipe organ awakened his musical passion and he told parents Paul and Shelley that he must learn to play one.

The Williams family, who now live at Tewantin, supported his dream and, now 13, Tim has become the youngest recipient of the Walter Monz Organ Bursary at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. The $2500 prize goes towards lessons with acclaimed musician and mentor Christopher Wrench in Brisbane.

Tim, a member of Sunshine Beach State High's music excellence program, loves the "huge sound" and emotion evoked by the pipe organ.

See Tim playing Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach (YouTube video)

Opportunities are rare for professional organists here, but he hopes to one day play in churches in the instrument's heartland of Europe.

His teacher, Mr Wrench, said Tim had a rare gift for the pipe organ, one of the most physically challenging instruments to play. "It requires the use of both hands and feet and the other great challenge is that each organ is different and you have to work out how to get the best sounds," he said. "Tim has tremendous aptitude and passion for the organ and together these things bring success."

Tim comes from a musical family and his parents, both teachers and writers, play guitar. "He grew up with folk rock, but his love of classical music has inspired us. I've even taken up the violin," mum Shelley said.


World of sham carbon policies exposed

With his usual mastery of critical detail, distinguished Australian economist Henry Ergas comments on Australia's proposed carbon tax

CONTRARY to repeated assertions by the Prime Minister, the Productivity Commission did not endorse an economy-wide emissions trading scheme. Rather, its recently released report on carbon emissions policies models an ETS that applies only to the electricity sector and excludes all trade-exposed industries.

As the commission shows, current policies aimed at subsidising renewable energy incur high costs for pitifully little outcome. No surprise then that its modelling finds that scrapping those policies and imposing a carbon price of $9 a tonne on the electricity sector would cause less harm.

But that is not what the government is proposing. Despite the PC finding that "no country imposes an economy-wide tax on greenhouse gases or has in place an economy-wide ETS", its ETS will extend beyond electricity to the emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries that are at the heart of our comparative advantage. And its carbon price will be three times that the PC models.

As the commission warns, without comparable measures in competitor countries, that could merely shift output and emissions to our commercial rivals.

Moreover, the government has no intention of removing the myriad measures that squander resources on uneconomic energy sources. Rather, it is committed to its Renewable Energy Target, with the changes it made last January further increasing the subsidy it provides. The PC suggests those changes alone will increase NSW electricity prices by 6 per cent, on top of the 4 per cent increase the RET has already caused.

It is important to understand that a carbon tax does not offset these distortions: rather, like turning up the volume on a faulty amplifier, it compounds the loss. This is because it amounts to an increase in the subsidies those schemes provide.

Assume an inefficient subsidy to buses; now impose a tax on using cars. The additional passengers who shift to buses valued cars more than those who shifted earlier, so the loss increases more than proportionately. At the same time, more must be spent meeting that demand, causing further losses as resources move from making cars to buses.

Even in such simple cases, cumulating distortions cause waste to rise exponentially.

Matters are even worse with an ETS because it affects not only what is consumed but how things are produced. As more efficient ways of producing are replaced by less efficient alternatives, a social loss is incurred on every unit supplied.

Nor is that loss trivial. According to a recent study by AGL, a strong advocate of an ETS, the running cost of a base-load gas plant is six times that of Victorian brown coal. Given those cost differentials, changing the generation mix requires swinging penalties on low-cost energy sources, with AGL estimating that a $30 a tonne carbon tax - not even enough to cause widespread substitution - would increase the running cost of brown coal plants by 10.2 times.

That 10-fold increase would not just hit struggling residential consumers. One-third of our direct emissions from electricity generation are associated with electricity use in manufacturing. Our trade-exposed industries would therefore suffer a double whammy as they were taxed both directly and through higher input costs.

The resulting losses might be worth bearing if they materially reduced the risk of dangerous climate change. But it is clear from the commission's report that current global efforts are derisory. True, the eight countries the PC analysed have more than a thousand policies in place, many focused on electricity generation. But in aggregate those policies yield barely 210 million tonnes of electricity sector abatement.

Take China, the world's largest and most rapidly growing emitter, which the Garnaut report says has "pledged large reduction targets, implemented reforms that deliver on its commitments, and set sail on a global mission to dominate new opportunities". But the PC finds China's abatement affects barely 1 per cent of its electricity emissions, while its abatement outlays, at one-third of 1 per cent of gross domestic product, are well below Australia's.

Moreover, the PC's measure of net abatement takes no account of subsidies to emissions. Recent estimates place subsidies to fossil fuel use in China at about 1.4 per cent of GDP. For each dollar spent curbing emissions, China therefore spends $4 promoting them.

Yes, some countries, notably Germany and Britain, devote substantial resources to emissions reduction. But even there, the PC finds high costs for modest impacts. Indeed, as the report notes, the Germans spend $150 to $300 a tonne of carbon securing emissions reductions that under the European Union's ETS are simply offset by increased emissions in Italy and Spain.

That may seem irrational. But the reality is that this is an area whose politics are now entirely symbolic. Notwithstanding sweeping promises in international forums, and regardless of the homilies of climate change's high priests, governments do not believe communities have any stomach to make real sacrifices for a goal that seems ever more illusory.

Trapped between the zealots and that brute fact, they resort to what are little more than bribes, buying, at absurdly high cost, a bit of abatement here, dispensing an exclusion from obligations there, and sprinkling the whole with scarcely credible claims to moral principle. Unsurprisingly, the policies born from this combination of shabbiness of motives and pretence to public spirit are as incoherent as they are socially wasteful. But that does not mean those policies are not privately profitable. Indeed, studies find even the EU ETS increased European generators' profits by some 30 to 50 per cent, as free permit allocations ensured revenues increased by more than costs. Such transfers merely increase the inefficiencies, as profits are dissipated in attempts to secure and protect rents, while those who would bear the costs throw further resources at self-defence.

Only in bad light, and even then only by the weak-sighted, could such policies be confused for meaningful efforts at tackling climate change. That is the sham the commission's spotlight exposes. But none are so blind as those that would not see. Forcing the government to face up to the PC's findings is the task ahead.


The rise of the Green wowser

"Wowser" was originally an American term for "temperance" campaigners. It seems to have died in the USA when Prohibition was repealed. Australia never had Prohibition, however, so the term is still in common use there to decribe killjoys of all sorts

WHEN we survey some of the more controversial incidents of recent times, from the attempts to place restrictions on poker machine players to the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia, there is a connecting thread that almost everyone has missed. This is the return of the wowser.

Wowsers (We Only Want Social Evils Remedied) are traditionally as Australian as meat pies and Holden cars.

They were responsible for Australian institutions such as the six o'clock closing and the shutting of shops on Sundays.

One would have thought that they had receded into the annals of history as Australians became more liberal on these sorts of issues. Shopping is now very much a Sunday experience and Australians are used to the idea of civilised drinking.

But wowserism has never really gone away and, like any great tradition, has bided its time waiting for new opportunities. It has simply changed its spots. Once it had a strong religious colouring; now it is taking on an increasingly secular tone.

Wowsers want to improve people and make them better. To do so they have to prevent them from engaging in activities that they find immoral: be it gambling, eating meat, drinking alcohol, smoking or consuming junk food.

My father used to say that for such people if you were enjoying yourself there must be sin involved.

I have no doubt that behind the ruckus about live meat exports there is a vegetarian agenda, based on the idea that vegetarians are better people than meat eaters. If we limit gambling we can make people better. And, as we all know, it is a fact universally acknowledged that there is not a bogan out there who could not do with some improvement.

In days gone by, the ideals of wowserdom were often linked with those of eugenics. People could be improved if only their habits and lifestyle were changed; if only they lived a more rational way of life.

Eugenics has often been misunderstood. For one thing it was embraced in countries such as Australia by people who considered themselves to be progressive, who we would describe as being on the left. For another it was as much about changing the environment as it was about selective breeding. It was about making better people.

It was not only Nazi Germany that engaged in activities such as sterilising the unfit. Many countries, including democracies, sought to improve their populations in this way.

It was not politics so much as religion that determined whether a government would seek to go down this road. Protestants generally did, Catholics did not. Fortunately, Australia had a significant Catholic minority.

In a slightly different vein it is worth observing that Hitler and his fellow Nazis were very concerned about cruelty to animals and introduced legislation that made Germany a world leader in this area. They restricted their cruelty only to those people whom they regarded as inferior, all in the name of improving the human race.

Wowsers and eugenicists generally go together as they see the key to a better world lying in the creation of better human beings. Eradicate evils and that will be possible.

The idea that it is the task of the government to improve the people who are entrusted to their care is very dangerous. Are people who do not eat meat or play the poker machines really better than those who do? Do we want the state to attempt to create a utopia of good people who have had their bad bits excised?

It is not surprising that wowserism should come to prominence again in tandem with the growing strength of the Greens. The Greens are the latest manifestation of a sort of moralistic puritanism that has been part of Australia since the First Fleet. Australians must change their evil ways. The Greens see themselves as the enforcers who will achieve that change, thereby leading the country into the sustainable utopia.

In such a utopia the status of animals would rise and that of humans fall. It is no longer necessary to sterilise the unfit. With the advance of medicine they can be detected and disposed of while still in the womb.

The only problem is that maybe ordinary Australians do not want to be improved in this way. As in the past, they enjoy their gambling, their steaks and their booze. They simply want to enjoy life.

Wowsers are part of the Australian tradition but they have always been in the minority.

Their grand plans for the people of this country have always run up against the reality that most people are happy to be less than perfect. On that rock the Greens will ultimately founder.


Mining industry blasts plan to quarantine Queensland land for farming

A PLAN to lock away vast areas of Queensland from mining was based on flawed science and would leave public servants to make million-dollar decisions on gut instinct, according to the mining industry.

A scientific and peer reviewed study, commissioned by the Queensland Resources Council, found the Government's criteria for its strategic cropping land policy was not reliable and did not come up with a proper definition of the land it wanted to protect.

The policy was designed to protect the best cropping land from mining development.

The scientists said the process used to develop and test the criteria and thresholds was subjective and risked destroying valuable farming land with inappropriate development or locking away marginal land from being development.

The scientific team, from consultants Palaris Mining, said the policy was deficient and risked identifying land incorrectly, "leading to either the sterilisation of marginal land from appropriate development or the risk of alienation of strategic cropping land by inappropriate development".

The QRC said the scientific review raised serious doubts about the SCL's effectiveness. QRC chief executive Michael Roche said the review found that the Government's draft soil criteria "cannot reliably call out the best cropping land". Mr Roche said the current policy's reliance on maps to illustrate similarities in climate and rainfall failed to reflect important productivity variations between and within regions.

But Environnment Minister Kate Jones said the policy was based on sound scientific advice and was peer reviewed.

"We engaged some of Queensland's best soil scientists to do this work. The criteria was tested and validated against 128 soil samples from across these areas," Ms Jones said. "I sat down with the QRC months ago where we went through the criteria and they were not able to present to me any genuine technical issues."

Ms Jones said she would ask her department to investigate the review, including any genuine technical issues in the SCL policy.

Agforce spokesman Drew Wagner said the QRC report was likely to only add to the mystery and confusion about strategic cropping land when farmers wanted certainty.


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