The origins of Pama-Nyungan, Australia’s largest family of Aboriginal languages

 The spread of Pama-Nyungan was likely influenced 
by climate.

The approximately 400 languages of Aboriginal Australia can be grouped into 27 different families. To put that diversity in context, Europe has just four language families, Indo-European, Basque, Finno-Ugric and Semitic, with Indo-European encompassing such languages as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.

Australia’s largest language family is Pama-Nyungan. Before 1788 it covered 90% of the country and comprised about 300 languages. The territories on which Canberra (Ngunnawal), Perth (Noongar), Sydney (Daruk, Iyora), Brisbane (Turubal) and Melbourne (Woiwurrung) are built were all once owned by speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages.

All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End.

Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.

Aboriginal Australia is often described as “the world’s oldest living culture”, and public discussion often falsely assumes that this means unchanging. Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre-1788 being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land.

Map of Pama-Nyungan languages, coloured by their main groupings. Compiled by Claire Bowern using data from National Science Foundation grant BCS-0844550.

Tracing Pama-Nyungan

We used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks.

Different related words for ‘fire’ in certain Pama-Nyungan languages. Green dots show languages with a word for ‘fire’ related to *warlu; white has *puri; red has *wiyn; blue has *maka, and purple *karla. Chirila files ( and google earth for base image.

Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family.

We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6,000 years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.

The timing of this expansion is consistent with a theory that increasingly unstable conditions caused groups of people to fragment and spread. But correlation is not causation: just because two patterns appear related, it does not mean that one caused the other.

In this case, however, we have other evidence that access to ecological resources has shaped how people migrated. We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain.

You can see a simulated expansion here. The spread of Pama-Nyungan languages mirrored this spread of people.

What languages tell us

Languages today tell us a lot about our past. Because languages change regularly, we can use information in them to work out who groups were talking to in the past, where they lived, who they are related to, and where they’ve moved. We can do this even in the absence of a written record and of archaeological materials.

For places like Australia, the linguistic record, though incomplete, has more even coverage across the continent than the archaeological record does. At European settlement, there were about 300 Pama-Nyungan languages. Because there are at least some records of most of them we are able to work with these to uncover these complex patterns of change.

There are approximately 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family. Many of these languages, such as Dieri, Ngalia and Mangala, are spoken by only a few people, many of whom are elderly.

Other languages, however, are actively used in their communities and are learned as first languages by young children. These include the Yolŋu languages of Arnhem Land and Arrernte in Central Australia. Yet others (such as Kaurna around Adelaide) are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers within their communities.

Nathan B. performing “Yolŋu Land” using English and Yolŋu Matha.

Finally, though not the focus of our study, there are also new languages, such as Kriol spoken across Northern Australia, Palawa Kani in Tasmania, and Gurindji Kriol. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also know English, and most Indigenous Australians are multilingual.

Without records of all these languages, and without ongoing work to support speakers and communities, we aren’t able to do research like this, and Australia loses a vital link to its history. After all, European settlement of Australia is a tiny chunk of the time people have lived on this land.

This article was written by:
Image of Claire Bowern Claire Bowern – [Professor of Linguistics, Yale University]




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How protons can power our future energy needs

 The proton battery, connected to a voltmeter. 
RMITAuthor provided

As the world embraces inherently variable renewable energy sources to tackle climate change, we will need a truly gargantuan amount of electrical energy storage.

With large electricity grids, microgrids, industrial installations and electric vehicles all running on renewables, we are likely to need a storage capacity of over 10% of annual electricity consumption – that is, more than 2,000 terawatt-hours of storage capacity worldwide as of 2014.

To put that in context, Australia’s planned Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro storage scheme would have a capacity of just 350 gigawatt-hours, or roughly 0.2% of Australia’s current electricity consumption.

Where will the batteries come from to meet this huge storage demand? Most likely from a range of different technologies, some of which are only at the research and development stage at present.

But our new research suggests that “proton batteries” – rechargeable batteries that store protons from water in a porous carbon material – could make a valuable contribution.

Not only is our new battery environmentally friendly, but it is also technically capable with further development of storing more energy for a given mass and size than currently available lithium-ion batteries – the technology used in South Australia’s giant new battery.

Potential applications for the proton battery include household storage of electricity from solar panels, as is currently done by the Tesla Powerwall.

With some modifications and scaling up, proton battery technology may also be used for medium-scale storage on electricity grids, and to power electric vehicles.

The team behind the new battery. L-R: Shahin Heidari, John Andrews, proton battery, Saeed Seif Mohammadi. RMIT, Author provided

How it works

Our latest proton battery, details of which are published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, is basically a hybrid between a conventional battery and a hydrogen fuel cell.

During charging, the water molecules in the battery are split, releasing protons (positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms). These protons then bond with the carbon in the electrode, with the help of electrons from the power supply.

In electricity supply mode, this process is reversed: the protons are released from the storage and travel back through the reversible fuel cell to generate power by reacting with oxygen from air and electrons from the external circuit, forming water once again.

Essentially, a proton battery is thus a reversible hydrogen fuel cell that stores hydrogen bonded to the carbon in its solid electrode, rather than as compressed hydrogen gas in a separate cylinder, as in a conventional hydrogen fuel cell system.

Unlike fossil fuels, the carbon used for storing hydrogen does not burn or cause emissions in the process. The carbon electrode, in effect, serves as a “rechargeable hydrocarbon” for storing energy.

What’s more, the battery can be charged and discharged at normal temperature and pressure, without any need for compressing and storing hydrogen gas. This makes it safer than other forms of hydrogen fuel.

Powering batteries with protons from water splitting also has the potential to be more economical than using lithium ions, which are made from globally scarce and geographically restricted resources. The carbon-based material in the storage electrode can be made from abundant and cheap primary resources – even forms of coal or biomass.

Our latest advance is a crucial step towards cheap, sustainable proton batteries that can help meet our future energy needs without further damaging our already fragile environment.

The time scale to take this small-scale experimental device to commercialisation is likely to be in the order of five to ten years, depending on the level of research, development and demonstration effort expended.

Our research will now focus on further improving performance and energy density through use of atomically thin layered carbon-based materials such as graphene.

The target of a proton battery that is truly competitive with lithium-ion batteries is firmly in our sights.

This article was written by:

John Andrews – [Professor, School of Engineering, RMIT University]



This article is part of a syndicated news program via



Technology and regulation must work in concert to combat hate speech online

 We need to call on all the tools at our disposal 
to counter online bullying.

Online bullying, hate and incitement are on the rise, and new approaches are needed to tackle them. As the Australian Senate conducts hearings for its Inquiry into cyberbullying, it should consider a two-pronged approach to combating the problem.

First, the government should follow the lead of Germany in imposing financial penalties on major social media companies if they fail to reduce the volume of abusive content on their platforms.

Second, we must develop ways of correctly identifying and measuring the amount of abusive content being posted and removed to ensure that companies are complying.

Given the volume of data on social media, artificial intelligence (AI) must be a part of the mix in supporting regulation, but we need an appreciation of its limitations.

The impact on victims

Josh Bornstein was the victim of online abuse.David Crosling/AAP

In 2015, Australian lawyer Josh Bornstein was the victim of serious online abuse at the hands of a man in the United States, who impersonated Bornstein and published a racist article online in his name. Bornstein subsequently found himself on the receiving end of a barrage of hate from around the world.

The incident was highly distressing for Bornstein, but cyberhate can also have consequences for society at large. Acting under a cloak of anonymity, the same man used another fake identity to pose as an IS supporter calling for terror attacks in Australia and other Western countries. In December, he was convicted in the United States on terrorism charges.

Bornstein is now calling for both the regulation of social media companies by governments and legal remedies to enable action by victims.

Germany as a regulatory model

New legislation recently introduced in Germany requires companies to remove clear cases of hate speech within 24 hours.

In response, Facebook has employed 1,200 staff and contractors to more effectively process reports of abuse by German users. If the company fails to remove the majority of such content within the 24-hour limit, regulators can impose fines of up to €50 million (A$79 million).

These laws aren’t perfect – within months of them coming into effect, Germany is already considering changes to prevent excessive caution by social media companies having a chilling effect on free speech. But the German approach gives us a window into what a strong state response to cyberbullying looks like.

This is only the cusp of a brave new world of technology regulation. Cyberbullying laws can’t be enforced if we don’t know how much abuse is being posted online, and how much abuse platforms are removing. We need tools to support this.

Employing artificial intelligence

At the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI), we have spent the past six years both tackling specific cases – including Bornstein’s – and working on the problem of measurement using world-class crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence approaches.

Others are also looking at identification and measurement as the next step. The Antisemitism Cyber Monitoring System (ACMS) – a new tool to monitor antisemitism on social media – has been under development by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry since October 2016. It will be launched at the 2018 Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism in Jerusalem later this month.

The tool uses text analysis – a form of artificial intelligence – and works by searching social media sites for words, phrases and symbols that have been identified as indicators of possible antisemitic content. The tool then reviews the content and generates interactive graphs.

Similar approaches have been used by the World Jewish Congress and by Google’s Conversation AI project, but the approach has limited effectiveness, particularly when applied to large social media sites.

Data from a one-month trial of ACMS was released ahead of the system’s launch. While the software is being promoted as a major step forward in the fight against cyberhate, the data itself highlights serious methodological and technological limitations making it more of a distraction.

Limitations of the technology

One limitation ACMS has is detecting abuse that uses the coded language, symbols and euphemisms that are increasingly favoured by the far right.

Another is that ACMS only monitors content from Facebook and Twitter. YouTube, which accounted for 41% of the online antisemitism identified in a previous report, is not included. The automated system also only monitors content in English, Arabic, French and German.

What’s more concerning is the Ministry’s claim that the cities that produce the highest volume of racist content were Santiago (Chile), Dnipro (Ukraine), and Bucharest (Romania). These cities have primary languages the software is not programmed to process, yet they have somehow outscored cities whose primary languages the software does process.

Of particular concern to Australia is a graph titled Places of Interest: Level of Antisemitism by Location that shows Brisbane as the highest-ranked English-speaking city. This result has been explained by a later clarification suggesting the number is an amalgamation of global likes, shares and retweets that engaged with content originally posted from Brisbane. The data is therefore subject to a large degree of randomness based on which content happens to go viral.

Lawyers and data scientists must work together

There is a place for AI-based detection tools, but their limitations need to be understood. Text analysis can identify specific subsets of online hate, such as swastikas; language related to Hitler, Nazis, gas chambers and ovens; and antisemitic themes that are prominent among some far right groups. But they’re not a silver bullet solution.

Moving beyond identification, we need both lawyers and data scientists to inform our approach to regulating online spaces. New artificial intelligence tools need to be verified against other approaches, such as crowdsourced data from the public. And experts must review the data for accuracy. We need to take advantage of new technology to support regulation regimes, while avoiding a form of failed robo-censorship akin to the robo-debt problems that plagued Centrelink.

The Inquiry into Cyberbullying is an important step, as long as it facilitates the solutions of tomorrow, not just the problems of today.

This article was written by:
 Image of Andre ObolerAndre Oboler – [Lecturer, Master of Cyber-Security Program (Law), La Trobe University]




This article is part of a syndicated news program via


Celebrate Commonwealth Day – with the Queen

The first Empire Day took place on 24th May 1902, celebrated prior to 1901 as the birthday of Queen Victoria. Empire Day became a major event, involving, among other things, school parades. Today 60 years ago, on 12th March 1958, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced in Parliament the renaming of Empire Day as Commonwealth Day.

The Commonwealth and Britain have a shared history, cultural links, common legal systems and business practices. Following a 1973 proposal by the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Secretariat selected the second Monday in March as the date on which Commonwealth Day is observed throughout all countries of the Commonwealth.

This 12th March people in Commonwealth countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas, the Pacific and Europe will observe Commonwealth Day. Faith and civic gatherings, debates, school assemblies, flag raising ceremonies, street parties and fashion shows are just some of the events they will use to celebrate the vast diversity, strong unity and uplifting values that define the Commonwealth.

In London, Head of the Commonwealth Queen Elizabeth II will attend a multicultural, multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey with a mixture of testimonies, performances and readings from throughout the Commonwealth. The event will be broadcast live on BBC One from 2.45pm (GMT) and will feature a procession of Commonwealth flags, with a young flag bearer representing each of the 53 nations of the Commonwealth.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, sends this message on Commonwealth Day:


We all have reason to give thanks for the numerous ways in which our lives are enriched when we learn from others. Through exchanging ideas, and seeing life from other perspectives, we grow in understanding and work more collaboratively towards a common future. There is a very special value in the insights we gain through the Commonwealth connection; shared inheritances help us overcome difference so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division.

We shall see this in action at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which takes place in the United Kingdom next month, bringing together young people, business and civil society from across the Commonwealth.

These gatherings are themselves fine examples of how consensus and commitment can help to create a future that is fairer, more secure, more prosperous and sustainable. Having enjoyed the warm hospitality of so many Commonwealth countries over the years, I look forward to the pleasure of welcoming the leaders of our family of 53 nations to my homes in London and Windsor.

Sport also contributes to building peace and development. The excitement and positive potential of friendly rivalry will be on display next month as we enjoy the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. Contributing to the success of the Games, alongside athletes and officials, will be thousands of volunteers.

Voluntary effort, by people working as individuals, in groups or through larger associations, is so often what shapes the Commonwealth and all our communities. By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.

Child protection report lacks crucial national detail on abuse in out-of-home care

 Around 40% of children in out-of-home care have been 
there for five years or more.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released a new report showing that one in 32 Australian children received child protection services in 2016-17, with 74% being repeat clients.

The report also noted that the number of children receiving child protection services rose by about 25% over five years, which may “relate to changes in the underlying rate of child abuse and neglect, increases in notifications, and access to services, or a combination of these factors.”

It follows the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s final report, which included 409 recommendations to make institutions safer places for children.

One of the Commission’s most striking findings was that Australia’s alternate care systems cannot protect children from abuse.

Today’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report, titled Child Protection 2016-2017, reinforces that some fundamental changes are needed to redress this situation.

What’s in today’s report – and what’s not?

The report notes that in 2016–17, the national recurrent expenditure on child protection and out-of-home care services was $4.3 billion, up 8% from 2015–16.

A significant proportion of this money went to provide alternate care to the 47,915 children (as of June 2017) who were in out-of-home care. These are children who cannot live with their families because of abuse or neglect, parental incapacitation or illness.

These children are mostly young and highly vulnerable. The AIHW report noted that across Australia in 2016–17, infants were most likely to have received child protection services, while those aged 15–17 were least likely. The median age of children receiving services was eight.


Nationally, 47,915 children were in out-of-home care at 30 June 2017—a rate of 8.7 per. 1,000 children AIHW

The rates are higher for Indigenous children, who are in out-of-home care at a rate of 13.6 per 1,000. In 2016-17, Indigenous children were also 10 times as likely as non-Indigenous children to enter out-of-home care.

Many children have already spent considerable periods living away from their families: for example, 41% of children in out-of-home care have been there for five years or more.

For the first time, AIHW presented data on disability status. While national figures aren’t available and definitions aren’t consistent, the report said:

In 2016–17, data on the disability status of children in out-of-home care were available for six jurisdictions, representing 71% of children in out-of-home care at 30 June 2017. Overall, 15% of children in out-of-home care at 30 June 2017 were reported as having a disability.

It’s a lot of data to get your head around. Yet amidst all the statistics, tables and figures, one crucial measure for benchmarking, identifying and acting on child abuse is missing.

There is no reliable national data in this report on the number of notifications, investigations and substantiations of abuse that takes place when a child is in out-of-home care.

The report says that:

Some jurisdictions include cases of alleged abuse in out-of-home care in the data provided for this report on the number of notifications, investigations and substantiations… but these cases cannot be separately identified in the national data.

Without this basic information on the national rate, government assurances that children are safe in out-of-home care ring hollow.

Abuse of children in out-of-home care

The Royal Commission noted that a range of factors allow perpetrators to exploit opportunities to abuse vulnerable children in care. These include separation from family, unstable placements, isolation and a lack of relationships with reliable, safe adults.

It made over 30 recommendations aimed at improving Australia’s out-of-home care system so that children are less likely to be sexually abused while they are under the state’s protection.

Significantly, it recommended that federal and state governments collect information about children who were found to have been sexually abused while in out-of-home care, as well as information about their characteristics and the alleged abuse.

It also recommended the establishment of a nationally consistent approach to service delivery, recording, reporting, and information sharing for child sexual abuse in out-of-home care.

Today’s AIHW report cautions that national child protection data are likely to understate the true prevalence of child abuse and neglect across the country.

Its own figures, which only include notifications made to organisations like the police and non-government welfare agencies if the notifications were also referred to child protection department, support this assertion.

However, the lack of data in the AIHW report relating to abuse in out-of-home care also reveals a more troubling aspect of our national child protection systems.

The Royal Commission is the latest body to have found that children in out-of-home care have experienced abuse at the hands of people meant to protect them. Numerous inquirieshave made similar findings. In 2009, the prime minister apologised to people abused as children in out-of-home care.

It’s not just historical abuse, as a series of inquiries instigated since the National Apology have made clear.

Children living in group home settings (also known as residential care) appear to be the most vulnerable.

The failure of government departments and welfare agencies to report data on the abuse of children in care allows those bodies to escape scrutiny.

National data collection and public reporting by state and territories of their performance may seem a minor issue. But as the Royal Commission has made clear, it is only through having this information that we will be able to learn the lessons of the past, and ensure that we have measures to keep safe the children we have placed under government care and protection.

This article was written by:

Image of Katherine McFarlaneKatherine McFarlane – [Senior Lecturer, Centre for Law & Justice, Charles Sturt University]




This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Why social media are more like chocolate than cigarettes

 The negative effects of social media have pushed tech  
companies to take more responsibility for the health of their users. 

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took to the social platform last week to announce a call-out for ideas about how to measure the health of online conversations. The initiative follows recent demands for government to regulate the negative consequences of social media.

Discussing the possibility of such regulations in January, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff compared social media with the tobacco industry, saying:

I think that you do it exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry. Here’s a product: cigarettes. They’re addictive, they’re not good for you.

However, our research suggests that social media are more like a chocolate than a cigarette – it can be healthy or unhealthy depending on how you use it. While health ratings make no sense for cigarettes, they do help consumers make informed decisions about the level of sugar, oil and other additives they want to consume when buying particular chocolate products.

Social platforms under fire

Twitter’s planned “health metrics” will measure the civility of public conversation, which Dorsey admits is poor on Twitter. He told users:

We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.

The metrics, based on research by the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines, will gauge:

  • shared attention: is there overlap in what we are talking about?
  • shared reality: are we using the same facts?
  • variety: are we exposed to different opinions grounded in shared reality?
  • receptivity: are we open, civil and listening to different opinions?
Replying to @jack
We don’t yet know if those are the right indicators of conversation health for Twitter. And we don’t yet know how best to measure them, or the best ways to help people increase individual, community, and ultimately, global public health.
What we know is we must commit to a rigorous and independently vetted set of metrics to measure the health of public conversation on Twitter. And we must commit to sharing our results publicly to benefit all who serve the public conversation.
It sounds like a step toward responsible computing, but Twitter isn’t the only platform dealing with these issues. Recent online incidents have heated up the debate about the negative effects of both YouTube and Facebook.

Late last year, YouTube Kids failed to filter disturbing videos in which popular characters kill or torture each other. Facebook admitted that its platform can be bad for its users’ mental health. There was also a sharp increase in cyber-bullying against teens in Australia in 2017, with a recent report revealing a 63% increase in violent threats and revenge porn.

So how seriously should we take these issues? And where is the line between healthy and unhealthy use of social media?

Social media can be good for well-being

The inherent potential of social media is that it allows us to connect. We keep in touch with family and friends, reach out to favourite brands, share our views and feelings with the world, and stay up-to-date with news and events.

Some people go further and use social media for self-development and empowering others. In 2014 and 2015 we interviewed 25 ovarian cancer patients, followed by a survey of another 150 to ascertain the impact of specialised social media groups on patients. We learned that some cancer patients use moderated Facebook groups to share information and experiences with like-minded people, which considerably improved their psychological well-being.

In 2016, we examined past studies and interviewed a number of experts in the aged care industry. We found that social media can help older people to tackle isolation and loneliness, connect with their community, and even generate income through reaching out to new markets.

Our analysis of social media posts about natural disasters in Australia also showed that many people use Twitter to stay updated about bushfires and flooding alerts, and to post relevant pictures and news to help members of their community.

Adverse impacts

We also conducted an extensive review of past studies on the impacts of social media applications on users, and discovered various negative effects. These include feelings of stress, depression, jealousy and loneliness, as well as reduced self-esteem and life satisfaction, and violations of privacy and safety.

We found that while some users are conscious of developing negative feelings through using particular social media platforms, others may be unaware of such adverse effects until their psychological health deteriorates. These negative experiences can hurt our well-being, and in some cases may lead to extreme consequences, such as harming others or suicide.

 Read more: No, you’re probably not ‘addicted’ to your smartphone – but you might use it too much

How to ensure your usage is healthy

A healthy habit of using any social media platform involves asking ourselves what values we expect from our online engagements. We need to be cautious whether such engagements will create positive or negative outcomes for us, or for the people we interact with.

We recommend:

  • Educating yourself about risks of using social media platforms and making yourself aware of safety recommendations. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner actively posts educational articles informing Australians about risks of – as well as strategies for – using social media and internet platforms.
  • Being mindful of private information you share about yourself or others on social media. Consider how you might feel if what you’re sharing was exposed to a third party. Assume that your conversations will be preserved.
  • Trying not to become penned in by algorithmic decision-making. Place less trust in recommendations and actively venture beyond the content served up on your screen.
  • Supervising your children. Take advantage of features tech companies offer for parental guidance, but don’t stop there. Actively monitor your children’s online activities and connections.

This article was written by:
Image of Babak Abedin
Babak Abedin [ Senior Lecturer, University of technology Sydney,]




This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Grattan on Friday: Bill Shorten is buffeted by the politics of Adani

 Shorten spent a lot of his Tuesday joint press  
conference to support Jay Weatherill in the South Australian election 
answering questions about Adani. David Mariuz/AAP

On present indications, you wouldn’t be betting on the Queensland Adani Carmichael mine going ahead. Yet this problematic project, that may fall over for lack of private sector finance, is causing a heap of trouble for Labor leader Bill Shorten.

Adani is being seen as a test of Shorten’s commitment to policy integrity versus his willingness to say and do whatever is politically expedient.

But Adani also has the complication that what’s most “expedient” is unclear, in a situation where there are duelling political imperatives – the March 17 Batman byelection and the north Queensland constituency in the longer run.

Within the Labor caucus, some colleagues are very critical of Shorten’s handling of the issue, claiming he was veering off-script from the lines shadow cabinet favours, and had to be dragged back.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), important to Shorten’s support base, is worried at anything that smacks of being “anti-coal”. It fears an anti-Adani stand could have a domino effect for other projects.

Business has a keen ear for what messages are sent out on sovereign risk, given the polls indicate Shorten might be prime minister in something over a year.

Adani may not have the finance for the project but it has successfully gone through the environmental hoops. Any suggestion that Labor might consider changing, or looking for loopholes in, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to stymie the venture would be seen by business as having wider implications.

On Tuesday Shorten was in Adelaide to support Jay Weatherill’s state election campaign. Whether his presence was much use to the South Australian premier is questionable, given that a significant part of their joint news conference was devoted to reporters grilling the opposition leader about Adani.

He trotted out the formula. He was “increasingly sceptical” of the proposal. “Labor has said since the last federal election that if it doesn’t stack up commercially or environmentally this project shouldn’t go ahead.

”[But] you don’t rip up the contracts and the approvals which have been entered into in good faith by a previous government.“ Labor wouldn’t “engage in sovereign risk,” he said.

Back in early February, at the start of the Batman campaign, Shorten had a more aggressive position. He suggested the “whole basis of the mine” had to be in doubt, if allegations in a Guardian story about the company submitting an altered laboratory report while appealing a fine for contamination were correct.

The Guardian report that morning was the peg but it emerged that the timing of Shorten’s comments – which had started to toughen a few days earlier – was more significant than that.

Shorten had travelled to the Barrier Reef and flown over the Adani site in late January, courtesy of the Australian Conversation Foundation and accompanied by the ACF’s former president, businessman Geoff Cousins. The reef trip itself hadn’t been secret at the time – but who paid was.

Cousins, speaking last week on the ABC, said Shorten had told him he planned to lead on the Adani issue – he would consult his colleagues but within a short time he intended to announce a policy saying that “when we are in government, if the evidence is as compelling as we presently believe it to be regarding the approval of the Adani mine, we will revoke the licence as allowed in the [EPBC] act”.

The ACF had provided Shorten with legal advice that a licence could be revoked under section 145 of the existing act, Cousins said.

Cousins went public with the content of their conversation because Shorten hadn’t come up with the policy goods.

If Cousins’ version of their discussion is broadly correct – there may have been a touch of exaggeration, according to some Labor sources – Shorten was unwise in saying so much to the ACF, before consulting his colleagues.

Certainly he was foolish in having the ACF pay for his trip. If it was necessary to visit the reef in order to refine a policy on Adani – and it was probably not, because the relevant information is readily available – he should have paid himself, or had the ALP deal with the bill, not rely on money from an interest group.

Shorten only updated his register of members’ interests to include the sponsorship on the day of the Cousins’ interview – a month after he undertook the trip.

With the Batman Labor-Greens contest nearing its final stages Labor’s climate spokesman, Mark Butler, campaigning in the seat on Thursday, left a good deal of doubt about an ALP government’s stance on Adani.

Butler, a hardliner on Adani who doesn’t think any project in the Galilee Basin will stack up commercially, dodged the question of whether Labor was examining possible grounds for reviewing existing approvals under the EPBC act.

“Labor in government would make any decision about a project of this type, including the Adani project, based on information we had available at the time, based on the law, based on national interest, and based on our broader concerns to ensure we don’t run sovereign risk,” he said.

This, with its reference to “national interest”, seems quite open-ended.

While some in Labor are concerned about the uncertainty around the Adani policy that Shorten has fed, there is also a cynical theory circulating in the ranks. This says that the ambiguity means that voters can decode what he’s saying in the way they want – which is seen in ALP circles as irresponsible or canny, depending on who you talk to.

It is unclear what impact Adani will have on the actual vote in Batman – as distinct from making for a good deal of noise in the campaign. You’d expect those for whom it is a core issue would be already voting Green.

Anyway, Batman will be history by the end of next week. But Adani will remain on the agenda, with attention focused on how the issue will play out for Labor in Queensland – although even there, views on the project vary between the north and the south east of the state. Shorten won’t be able to get out of this hot seat.

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Image of Michelle Grattan
Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra]




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Close up: the government’s facial recognition plan could reveal more than just your identity

 Zapp Photo shutterstock.

A Bill to set up the federal government’s biometric identity system is currently going through Parliament. But there are concerns over just how much information the system would be allowed to gather, and how that might be used to establish more than just the identity of a person.

Strongly based on the FBI model in the United States, the Identity Matching Services Bill and its Explanatory Memoranda prescribe what data can be collected, shared and processed, by who and for what purposes.

The Bill is based on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreement, signed in October 2017.

The public purpose of the system is to provide identity-matching services to government agencies and some private entities (such as banks and telcos). But the Bill will also establish the Department of Home Affairs as an incredibly data-rich law-enforcement and security agency, with a wide remit for data collection and use.

Accessing the ‘hub’

The first layer of the identity matching system is what’s called the “interoperability hub”. This is the interface for those government and private entities seeking access to identity services.

These identity services effectively answer the questions: “is this person who they say they are?” and “who is this person?”.

The hub works on a query and response model. This means that users of the system do not have access to any of the underlying data powering the biometric processing. They won’t be able to browse the databases; they will only have their identity verification questions answered.

The second layer of the system, underneath the hub, is the databases that drive the biometric identity matching. These include passport and citizenship information as well as the new National Drivers License Facial Recognition Solution database, which will be housed in the Department of Home Affairs.

Along with images, these databases include an extraordinary amount of personal information. Roads agencies, like VicRoads in Victoria, hold rich databases of biographical information including names and addresses, age and gender. Those records are also linked to information about vehicle ownership and registration.

Commonwealth criminal intelligence agencies have been seeking access to state-held driver’s licence images and associated personal information for years. The 2017 COAG agreement is what will finally enable a Commonwealth agency to have custodianship over this data on behalf of states.

You ask, it collects

But the use of the hub for identity-matching services means that the amount of data in these database will grow. Each time a user makes a request for identity-matching services, the hub will supply more data to the Department.

The Department can collect and process all information included in an identity document that has a photograph. It can also collect all of the information associated with that document held by the authority that created it.

When an entity (like law enforcement) seeks identity verification, it will likely supply images from its own camera or CCTV systems (or supplied by other parties), along with whatever data associated with those images that might help identify the person.

That could include where and when the images were taken or supplied, and potentially what a person was doing at the time the image was taken or supplied. All of those data are provided to the Department of Home Affairs when an identity verification is done.

Similarly, when banks and telecommunications companies use the hub, that potentially links those records to the Department databases – or at least facilitates those linkages down the track.

This creates the possibility of aggregated criminal and civil histories in a single identity record, like what has occurred with the FBI’s biometric system in the US.

This is all without access to the largest, most sophisticated facial recognition database in existence: Facebook. If sources such as public CCTV and social media are eventually linked into the system, its significance changes again, radically.

Joining the dots

So what is all this data for? On one hand, it provides identity services to hub users. But on the other hand, it generates insights on behalf of the Department of Home Affairs for the sake of policing. Data at a large scale, and especially when used in the context of security and intelligence, means insights and predictions.

The purposes for which the Department can use the information it gathers are very broad. They include preventing and detecting identity fraud, law enforcement, national security, protective security (protection of government assets, persons or facilities), community safety (for instance where a person is acting suspiciously in a crowded public place), and road safety.

Those categories include criminal intelligence gathering and profiling, policing of public spaces and public events, and policing of activist communities and protests.

Many of these policing exercises are highly data-driven, using new predictive techniques to identify criminal suspects and political agitators before any activity has even occurred.

Identity technologies have historically been used by governments to answer two questions:

1) What person is that? 2) What kind of person is that?

Identity is more than merely biographical information. It is a narrative that we tell about ourselves and that others tell about us. That narrative is what is at stake in this type of security surveillance.

Beyond facial recognition, we have already seen machine vision systems designed to predict sexuality on the basis of a person’s image. It’s research that has already generated plenty of controversy.

If the data sets can be construed, and the results are to be accepted, there is no reason why machine vision systems cannot be targeted to answer questions about criminal propensity, IQ, suitability for certain tasks, political leanings, or anything else.

We need to understand what these new database arrangements will enable in terms of high-level or political policing by the Department of Home Affairs, and what this new technical and bureaucratic architecture means for Australia’s broader surveillance arrangements.

This article was written by:
Image of Jake GoldenfeinJake Goldenfein – [Lecturer in Law, Swinburne University of Technology]




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How landline phones made us happy and connected

 Phone calls create an opportunity for genuine  
exchange that written communication lacks. Flickr/PhotoAtelier

Smartphones and the internet have revolutionised society, commerce, and politics, reshaping how we work and play, and how our brains are wired. They have even revolutionised how revolutions are made.

For enthusiasts, these technologies enhance freedom and democratise the flow of information, putting more power in the hands of people to generate political change. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, high school students have used social media to provoke a public debate about guns in the United States. However, detractors counter that social media and the internet foster “slactivism”: weak, low-effort commitments that do little more than make users feel better.

It’s difficult to evaluate today’s communication technologies unless we understand how people communicated in the past. My own research looks back at how political activists used the phone in the years before the mobile phone revolution, using the records of activist groups and interviews to find out how phone talk shaped what they did and how well they did it.

The results higlight how important phone calls were in fostering a sense of community, intimacy and connection. This suggests that we have lost as much as we have gained with our high-tech gizmos.

The landline’s role in political protest

Before Facebook, the internet and mobile phones, political movements used traditional technologies to recruit like-minded people, raise money, organise events and advocate for change.

Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Wikimedia

Activist groups called people on the phone, as well as printing, mailing and – by the late 1980s – faxing information. In the second half of the 20th century, the phone was essential to political activism, and it helped to create lasting movements in which people felt emotionally bonded.

The phone was crucial for sharing information quickly. In the US in the 1950s and 1960s, when most Americans had telephones, the civil rights movement relied heavily on the telephone. Thousands of participants in the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s, for example, found ride shares by using phone trees.

Phone trees, still in use today, are based on lists of people who call other people: ten people each call ten people, who then each call ten people. Before email, the phone tree was one of the quickest and most efficient ways to disseminate information. A well-organised tree could quickly trigger thousands of phone calls to elected officials or turn thousands of people out for demonstrations.

In 1961, Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) lines were introduced, allowing unlimited long-distance calls for a fixed fee. They saved the lives of some activists by giving grassroots workers who could not afford expensive long-distance calls a way to call headquarters to report dangerous situations.

The San Jose Chicano rights marches in California in the 1960s. Flickr/San José Public Library

By the 1980s, 1-800 calling cards had become common. Activists could call anyone from any phone while leaving the charges to be paid by headquarters. The number of calls made by activist groups exploded.

As new movements for environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, feminism, Chicano rights, Native American rights, gay rights, and conservative causes such as school prayer gathered steam in the 1970s and 1980s, the landline phone remained central.

The power of the human voice

In 1986 Americans placed 1.97 billion calls a day – eight calls for every woman, man and child. They were having about seven times as many telephone conversations as they had had in 1950, and the number was still rising. One human rights staffer told me of his work in the mid-1980s:

All the work was done by phone. If I wasn’t in a meeting, I was on the phone.

Those calls were about much more than sharing information. Calling on a landline phone was a labour-intensive form of communication, but it provided immediate personal contact, an opportunity for genuine exchange, and an emotional depth that written communication lacked.

Calls were able to knit far-flung people into deeply felt communities because the phone transmits the capacities of the human voice.

The voice is one of our most powerful instruments, designed not only to communicate but also to build intimacy. Our voices convey emotion so effectively that we can identify emotions in speech even when the words themselves are muffled by walls. The voice indicates whether you are sincere – or whether you are drunk.

Landline phones went through numerous iterations. Flickr/Powell Burns

The powers of the human voice help to explain why talking on the phone can foster feelings of connection. Research on the telephone in the 1980s showed that a call made people feel wanted, needed, included, and involved.

This is why a recent Harvard Business Review study found that face-to-face requests were 34 times more successful than emails.

Better technology doesn’t equal better communication

Critics of digital media say that it corrodes human relationships. The generation that has grown up on smart phones, which have become devices for avoiding talk, lack empathy and struggle to form friendships based on trust, according to one study.

In online communities, people tend toward narcissism and often dramatically fail to care about the feelings of others. Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian whose anonymous Facebook page in 2011 helped topple a dictatorship, concluded that social media facilitated “the spread of misinformation, rumours, echo chambers, and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic.” Empathy vanished, he says.

Landline calls helped to instil positive emotions: feelings of connection, pride, gratitude, a sense of elevation and happiness.

Psychologists tell us that whether we are extroverts or introverts, we need human contact and feel more alive after connecting with other people. Phone calls created those connections. They made people more optimistic and resilient and broadened their mindsets. For activists, talking revealed connections they would otherwise have missed, and deepened their personal commitment to the cause and to one another.

The Garfield phone was around in the 1980s. Flickr/echoesofstars

The landline phone, of course, was not a flawless medium – static, missed calls, busy signals, dropped connections, prank calls and phone threats guaranteed frustration. You can bond over the phone, but you can also argue.

But the rise of smart phones – which Americans check 8 billion times a day – has not meant that we communicate better. More communication can mean that we hear each other less. Among American millennials, the number of voice calls they make is falling as texting soars. And that means we may be losing a powerful part of what connects us to each other.

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Mobile World Congress 2018: 3D selfies, super slo mo video and 4G for the moon

 A visitor arrives to Fira Barcelona congress centre on the 
third day of the Mobile World Congress. AAP/Andreu Dalmau

The biggest mobile showcase of the year – the Mobile World Congress (MWC) – wrapped up in Barcelona yesterday, where some 2,300 exhibitors revealed their latest products and technologies.

Hardware manufacturers, such as Samsung and Google, showcased new smartphones, apps and features. While the conference arm of MWC brought experts together to discuss how enterprise solutions in networking, messaging, Internet-of-things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) could be applied to industries like agriculture, manufacturing and health.

So what were the big announcements?

Nokia goes retro – and takes 4G to the Moon

Nokia is focusing on building the cheapest and simplest phones for users who do not need the dozens of features offered by the flagship smartphones. The company announced five new phones, including the new Nokia 1 – which runs on Android Go and retails for US$85.

But one of Nokia’s most talked about products at MWC was its retro offering. The company is re-releasing a banana-yellow version of the 8110 featured in the original Matrix film. 


Nokia also announced that it’s partnering with Vodafone to develop a space-grade 4G network weighing less than a bag of sugar. The endeavour is part of what is anticipated to be the first privately-funded Moon landing.

It involves using 4G technology to connect two Audi lunar quattro rovers – delivered to the Moon via SpaceX – to a base station. Nokia says the technology will enable “the first live-streaming of HD video from the Moon’s surface to a global audience”.

Nokia has partnered with Vodafone to create the first 4G network on the Moon, connecting two Audi lunar quattro rovers to a base station. Audi

Sony catches up, and gives us 3D selfies

Sony launched its new Xperia XZ2, which offers the best design of any of the phones that Sony has introduced in years. The XZ2’s camera offers 4K video recording, but its missing headphone jack has sparked outrage among fans.

One cool feature is the addition of Sony’s 3D scanning capability to the XZ2’s front-facing camera so users can create 3D selfies.

Hello from ! Here’s the third edition of our special @qz Daily Brief from Barcelona, including an original chart on just how poor the gender split is for the keynote speakers here
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 you’ll also be treated to this TERRIFYING GIF of a scan that Sony made of my face — you’re welcome ! [Just click my picture]
Samsung makes incremental, yet interesting, enhancements

Samsung unveiled its new Galaxy S9 and S9+ – more or less a rebrand of the S8 with some enhancements on the camera. That includes dual optical image stabilisation for creating quality images in low light, and double the frame rate of the S8’s super slow motion video function.

The Galaxy S9’s super slow motion feature.

The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy 9+ use a new modem that allows users to download at speed of up to 1.2 gigabits per second, providing an enhanced surfing and streaming experience. The fingerprint sensor on the S9+ is now underneath the camera for a better user experience, and the new speakers in S9+ are louder than the S8+.

Samsung is also pushing its new artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant Bixby 2.0, and has introduced a new feature that creates an animated emoji of your face.

 Has the Samsung Galaxy S9 AR Emoji feature captured my likeness? What do you think? Read my hands on review of the S9 at 
 5G is (still) coming

Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE, Telstra and many others players are on the run to make 5G a reality. 5G is the next generation in wireless mobile data connectivity. It will run on higher frequency signals than 4G, providing higher capacity and lower latency (the time is takes to complete a function) compared to 4G. Users are likely to see a boost for video streaming and multi-player video games.

More importantly, the technology is required as the backbone for a massive explosion in the IoT industry, which is anticipated to number around 20 billion devices by 2020. That includes smart home appliances, driverless cars and a wide variety of consumer equipment.

The first specification of the 5G standard was announced late last year by 3GPP — the organisation that governs cellular standards. Since then, vendors have started shipping 5G compliant network equipment. Technology research company Gartner expects it will take more time before we start to see commercial 5G networks. According to its recent report, only 3% of the world’s service providers will launch 5G commercially by 2020.

At MWC, Telstra announced its plan to roll out 5G in collaboration with Ericsson and Intel in Australia’s major cities in 2019. The plan includes deploying, this year, more than 1,000 small cells in metro areas to increase capacity, and 4G and 5G integration trials. Earlier this year, Telstra announced its 5G Innovation Centre on the Gold Coast, where the telco will trial different usage cases for smart cities and smart homes.

Innovations on the horizon: IoT and AI

At MWC this year, we didn’t see really surprising breakthroughs on the hardware side, and companies seemed to be more focused on the end user and enterprise applications.

Looking ahead, all the big companies are working on new sensors and wearable technologies, especially in the health domain. Both Apple and Samsung have made it a priority to develop consumer-grade sensors that can measure blood pressure. There’s also likely to be a continued focus on improving user experience in AI-powered applications, such as virtual assistants and camera apps.

This article was written by:
Image of Mohamed AbdelrazekMohamed Abdelrazek – [Associate professor, IoT and Software Engineering, Deakin University]




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