The media and the bushfires:

James Burke writes: Re. “Tabloid fire coverage slips into grief p-rn” (yesterday, item 11). Greg Barns, neither survivors nor reporters were suggesting some moral equivalence between the Hiroshima bombing and the bushfires. Survivors were simply looking for a way to describe the devastated landscape after the fires went through — as in, “it looked like Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped”.

The media have had some wobbles, no doubt about that.

On Wednesday morning I was watching Nine’s coverage as a reporter tried to cajole a woman to tell her story, even though she repeatedly stated she didn’t want to be on camera (too late). Later on we were treated to an interview with Andrew Bolt, who at least refrained from airing his meteorological conspiracy theories.

There was one other notable lapse of taste. The commercial TV stations seemed to have decided that groaning-voiced MOR rock was the appropriate soundtrack to the aftermath. Coming back from one ad break, I heard an unmistakable riff — Kings of Leon’s S-x on Fire.

News Desk Man writes: While I think TV news is generally doing a good job covering the Victorian bushfires, why do they think viewers will be impressed by putting the newsreader on the scene, fluffing his/her lines from a script flapping in their hands? Is it just because technology means they can do it?

Or is it because commercial stations in particular like to remind people that some of the desk men are really experienced journalists. Does that give them more cred? Brian Henderson wasn’t an ex-journo but he dominated the ratings for years.

And while we’re at it, I notice at least one Sydney station (Seven) seems to have sent Sydney news staff to cover the event. Don’t they trust Seven network reporters in Melbourne? Do they think NSW viewers will be unsettled by an unfamiliar face? It must be getting very crowded in some of those devastated towns.

Bushfire survival:

Shirley Colless writes: Re. “How fire refuges became a thing of the past” (yesterday, item 10). Identifying refuges in a fire-prone area is one thing, providing safe access to those refuges is another, and the problem of access is not unique to isolated little hamlets in Victorian Mountain Ash country. Look at the way in which in the Sydney basin, the Central Coast, the Blue Mountains and the Illawarra there is a constant expansion of housing development along ridges or heavily timbered valleys with only one road exit.

Which raises the interesting question, why cannot the Department of Planning — which is usually very ready to place onerous and overriding regulation on local government planning instruments — mandate the development of bunkers for dwellings in areas where the risk of bush fires is extreme? Better the space for a bunker and lives saved than the grandiose over-development of residential lots now so commonplace in New South Wales.

Chris Hunter writes: Re. “Tips from a bushfire survivor” (Wednesday, item 5). Having experienced a bush/grass fire when living at Rapid Bay, SA, I too can sympathise with those in Victoria. We were forced to evacuate with only about twenty minutes to do so. It is curious what you decide to save.

My first action was to throw the teapot, cups and tea into the back of the car — the rational being obvious. Despite the utter seriousness of the situation my partner could not help but laugh while running past carrying the family albums. As about eight fire engines howled past our front gate I dragged the gas bottle well away from the house. Then I was caught up fighting the fire that miraculously raced past our residence at about forty kilometers an hour flanked by a row of engines.

It was real shock and awe stuff that left us dazed for some time after. Our house survived but unfortunately two of the fire fighters were burnt, one very seriously. These were very brave men.

Simon Wilkins writes: The Victorian fires have brought out not only the better side of our politicians and the Australian character, but also Crikey‘s brand of journalism. Serious and timely attention to serious issues; well researched pieces (are Guy Rundle, Chris Paver and Ben Sandilands elligible for Walkleys or only Wankleys?); and the Wilfred Burchett diatribe banished to a blog.

Having survived the 46C day in Melbourne, before flying back over bushfires to rained-out QLD, just leaves me to hope that it doesn’t take further tragedy to keep up the standard (I don’t think anyone could pay that cover price). Well done in any case.

Ben Aveling writes: Many houses in Marysville were heated by LPG gas, which is stored in large gas bottles and tanks. Survivors’ report hearing exploding gas bottles during the night. My in-laws’ house was not heated by gas and it was one of the few to survive.

Of their neighbours we know of one that did not have gas, and his house also survived. We know that another three near neighbours did have gas; none of their houses survived.

Mitchell Holmes writes: Re. “Tips and rumours” (yesterday, item 8). Re. Cyclone Mahina vs Victorian bushfires. Cyclone Mahina being the worst natural disaster in Australian history may well be correct but the informant is also somewhat of a smart ar-e. After all, Cyclone Mahina was in 1899 and hit land well up the coast of Cape York. It is clearly an event not likely to be in the collective memory of the media.

Economic stimulus:

Kevin Cox writes: Re. “Ask the economists: Stimulation needed now” (Tuesday, item 23). If it wasn’t so serious it would be laughable. The government is going to go into debt because it is funding infrastructure investment in schools along with other investment stimuli. To do this they are going borrow money from the banks. But the banks do not have any money so where does it come from? Well the government is to going to allow the banks to lend it money they, the banks, do not have and the money is going to be backed by the government. For this the government is going to pay interest! This is lunacy.

To create the money needed for investment there is no need to involve the banks. Get rid of the banks from the loop and we will reduce the risk of inflation as we will not have to print money to pay the interest and the government will not go into debt. Traditionally banks get into the loop because their normal role is to impose some discipline on how money is spent and to whom they lend it – a role in which they have failed spectacularly.

When the government decides to invest money that does not yet exist there is no need to create debt to create the money.


University of Tasmania Geophysicist Dr Mark Duffett: Have we just witnessed the beginning of the end of the era of satellite communications? Wednesday’s collision between two satellites, an Iridium (like a mobile phone network, but with satellites instead of towers) transponder and a defunct Russian military satellite, is the first since the Space Age began, over fifty years ago. The collision occurred nearly 800 kilometres above Siberia. It’s one of those types of events that’s extremely unlikely on any given day, but, given the thousands of objects encompassed between low-Earth and geostationary orbit, inevitable if you wait long enough.

Okay, so it might be less than fifty years before the next collision. Surely we can still work around collisions of that frequency (as Iridium are doing by reconfiguring their constellation)?

The issue is that these collisions are not independent events. A few reports have mentioned a very slightly elevated risk to the International Space Station, orbiting hundreds of kilometres below the colliding satellites’ orbits, from the slowly spreading debris cloud. But it’s not the ISS we have to worry about. As far back as 1978, predictions have been made that once a critical density threshold is crossed, the probability that fragments from similar collisions intersect other satellites in similar orbits increases very rapidly.

A runaway cascade of collisions would rapidly ensue, leading exponentially to the formation of a belt of debris. This would make the volume of orbital space currently occupied by our satellite networks useless. Attempts to maintain or re-establish them by launching new satellites would only make things worse, without major (and likely very expensive) redesign and relocation to much higher orbits.

And without significant technological intervention (yet to be developed), the formation of an artificial asteroid belt is inevitable – even if all launches stopped today. Better enjoy your satphone and satellite TV while you can.