Daily Archives: July 12, 2011

No surprises here: Perth’s on another record cold spell


Perth is on track to experience longest cold spell in 13 years.

SMH | July 11, 2011

by Lucy Rickard

Perth is on track to breaking another weather record as low daytime temperatures continue this week.

Weatherzone meteorologist Robert Wood said widespread cloud cover was contributing to the “massive reduction” in day-time temperatures experienced across WA so far this month.

Perth is set to record its second day in a row where the mercury won’t reach 14 degrees, which hasn’t occurred for 13 years.

Despite the low maximums, Perth’s overnight temperatures remained around 10 degrees for the past two nights, and today’s highest temperature – 11.6 degrees at 12.30pm – is just 1.3 degrees higher than the overnight low recorded at 5.30am.

So far this month, Perth has had five consecutive days where the overnight temperatures dropped below five degrees, and on every day except one, the maximum had not exceeded 17 degrees.

Yesterday, the Gascoyne Junction recorded its coldest day in 45 years, with the temperature climbing to a chilly 13 degrees.

Jurien Bay also had its coldest July day in 39 years, reaching just 13 degrees yesterday.

Mr Wood said that in addition to a chilly Sunday, Gascoyne Junction also had some heavy rainfall over the weekend.

“The Gascoyne district was the focus of the heaviest falls in the 24 hours to 9am on Sunday,” he said.

“Carnarvon picked up 3o millimetres through this period, while further inland, Milly Milly had 50mm.”

Rainfall was not quite as heavy in the 24 hours to 9am today, although Morawa and Dalwallinu each recording more than 20 millimetres.

Mr Wood said cloudy and wet conditions had now taken hold of WA, bringing a burst of useful rainfall in addition to the record cold conditions.

“An upper level low formed to the west of Geraldton in the last 48 hours, drawing on abundant moisture from over the Indian Ocean, is leading to widespread cloud cover, rainfall and chilly day-time temperatures across WA,” Mr Wood said.

Summer ‘coolest since ’91’

thesun.co.uk | Jul 11, 2011

By BEN JACKSON

BRITAIN’S soggy summer has so far been the coolest for 20 years – with warnings of more unsettled weather to come.

Temperatures in June averaged 13.8°, the Met Office said yesterday. with July averaging 15.8C.

Forecasters warn that if the rest of the month and August do not improve, the average for the whole summer from June to August will be just 15.1°C.

That would make it the coldest summer overall since 1993, which averaged 14.9°C.

This has also been the wettest since the 2007 washout and the dullest since 2008 based on the number of sunshine hours. Rain has lashed down since the start of June, with 83.1mm on average across the UK – up around 15 per cent on usual with more following this month.

The Met Office said temperatures will begin dropping tomorrow a with thunderstorms and prolonged rain Friday and at the weekend.

Forecaster Brian Gaze of The Weather Outlook said: “I expect the mixed summer to continue with a real mixed bag of washout days with torrential rain and dry days with pleasantly-warm sunshine.”

Ballarat residents call on welfare help during coldest winter in decades

thecourier.com.au | Jul, 11, 2011

BY KIM QUINLAN

Director of the 3BA Christmas in July Appeal Peter Caligari and The Salvation Army emergency relief worker Bev Hobson unloading some of the supplies being given to needy Ballarat families.

AS BALLARAT shivers through one of the coldest winters in decades, struggling families are giving up basic necessities like toothpaste, toothbrushes and shampoo just to scrape enough money together to pay for power and gas bills.

Others are going to bed early rather than leaving their heating on during the night, Ballarat welfare agencies have said.

Hundreds of Ballarat families – many for the first time – are seeking assistance from major welfare organisations in the city, including Anglicare, The Salvation Army, UnitingCare and St Vincent de Paul.

Anglicare, which is the smallest of the Ballarat welfare agencies and does not receive government assistance, helps up to 200 local families a month.

“The cost of living is going up. This is beyond just feeling the pinch,” said Anglicare’s relief project co-ordinator Pauline Prebble.

Ms Prebble said without the support of the 3BA Christmas in July Appeal, which this year hopes to raise $150,000 for the city’s needy, Anglicare would not be able to survive.

Ballarat’s UnitingCare also benefits from the appeal, which has raised more than $1 million since it was relaunched in its present form in 2001.

Major Diane Romari, from The Salvation Army, which assists up to 25 Ballarat families each week, agreed the demand from struggling families was placing a strain on local welfare groups.

“We are seeing families seeking help from us that we have never seen before.”

More than 150 people are seeking the assistance of St Vincent de Paul in Ballarat each week, said the charity’s regional council president Anne Dark.

She urged residents to support the 3BA Christmas in July Appeal by leaving cash or food donations at the 3BA offices in Lydiard Street North.

Genetically Modified Grass Could Make Superweed Problem Worse

A genetically engineered grass expected to hit U.S. markets without government review could speed the evolution of hard-to-control weeds, and perhaps require a return to toxic herbicides scrapped decades ago.

Wired | Jul 11, 2011

By Brandon Keim

Pigweed growing in a soybean field. Since the introduction of Roundup-ready soy, Roundup-resistant pigweed has become a major problem. (Image: pawpaw67/Flickr)

On July 1 — a Friday afternoon, a time usually reserved for potentially controversial news — the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Scotts Miracle-Gro’s herbicide-resistant Kentucky bluegrass would be exempt from tests typically required of transgenic crops.

Scotts Miracle-Gro is the largest U.S. retailer of grass seed, and the modified grass could be widely used in residential lawns. It’s resistant to glyphosphate, a front-line herbicide known commercially as Roundup.

The grass will survive extra doses of Roundup, allowing more than usual to be applied. That’s the problem, said agricultural biotechnology expert Douglas Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The more a chemical is used consistently, the more likely that somebody’s weeds will become resistant. That’s standard, agreed-upon science,” said Gurian-Sherman. “The way that Roundup is used because of transgenic crops exacerbates that problem.”

Herbicide resistance evolves in much the same way as antibiotic resistance: When a weed- or bug-killing compound is applied, any weeds or bugs lucky enough to be genetically resistant will have the best chance to survive and reproduce.

Many crop plants are already engineered to be Roundup-resistant, and heavy use of the herbicide appears to have fueled the evolution of dozens of Roundup-resistant weed strains. They’re a major threat to agriculture in parts of the United States, virtually uncontrollable except by hand-pulling or a return to toxic, decades-old herbicides that the relatively benign Roundup had replaced.

“The industry hasn’t developed a new herbicide in a long time. When resistance develops to something like glyphosphate, it’s not like we can move to some new chemical,” said Gurian-Sherman.

Compared to pigweed that can grow three inches each day in soybean fields, Roundup-resistant lawn weeds would be a nuisance rather than an economic threat. But just as superweeds have pushed farmers to bring back toxic herbicides, so might they push homeowners and landscapers.

“We’re burning out Roundup and going back into the past,” said Gurian-Sherman. “The same kind of thing could happen in residential use.”

Another potential problem is the spread of Roundup resistance into related strains of bluegrass, said plant geneticist Norman Ellstrand of the University of California, Riverside.

“I don’t know what other bluegrass species it’s cross-compatible with, but I can say with 98 percent certainty that it’s cross-compatible with some,” said Ellstrand. “If this plant grows and flowers at the same time as other bluegrass, they’ll flourish. You’ll have a new incidence of herbicide resistance getting into the wild.”

Whereas Kentucky bluegrass is popular for lawns, it’s not always welcome. Other members of its 500 species-strong genus are considered weeds.

A lesson can be taken from the unintentional escape of genes from rice bred for resistance to the Clearfield herbicide, said Ellstrand. “Now you have a very bad, weedy rice in Costa Rica that’s resistant to the herbicide,” he said. “It doesn’t happen easily with rice. If it happens with rice, it will happen with bluegrasses.”

Another species of Roundup-resistant grass developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro for golf courses was nixed by the USDA because of fear that resistance would spread to related pest species, noted Ellstrand. “The U.S. Forest Service waded in and said, ‘We don’t want it,’” he said.

Had the the Department of Agriculture decided to treat Roundup-ready bluegrass as a genetically modified plant, extra assurance of its environmental safety would have been demanded. But they decided not to because it fit through a loophole.

Genetically engineered plants are technically designated for regulation according to methods used to insert and activate new genes. Earlier methods used bacteria, which triggered pest-related clauses of the USDA’s Plant Protection Act. But the Roundup-ready bluegrass was made with a so-called gene gun. No bacteria were involved, and the law’s fine print was satisfied.

“By all definitions of genetic engineering, that’s genetic engineering. But it totally escapes the U.S. regulatory framework,” Ellstrand said.

According to Scotts Miracle-Gro spokesman Lance Latham, the USDA’s decision “allows us to move forward with field tests. It’s a first step. It’s our hope that testing will continue our advancement to develop grass seed that is even more sustainable.”

Malta: 10 Days, 6,000 Years of History


The ceiling of the co-cathedral. Featuring a cycle of paintings depicting the life of St. John, by the knight Mattia Preti. Credit: Photograph by Wouter van de Weerd for the Malta Tourism Authority.

Slate | Jul 11, 2011

By Happy Menocal and John Swansburg

If you’ve spent any time thinking about a chivalric order lately, dollars to doughnuts it’s the Knights Templar, the sworn protectors of Jesus’ secret bloodline in Dan Brown’s daffy Da Vinci Code mythology. The visitor to Malta, however, is soon introduced to a different band of warrior-monks, the Knights of the Order of St. John. Though less shrouded in conspiracy theory, these knights played a more significant role in world history and have enjoyed far greater longevity. The Knights Templar were disbanded in the 14th century by King Philip IV of France. The Knights of St. John, by contrast, are still around, operating hospitals, providing humanitarian aid, and generally doing good deeds around the globe. They even print their own postage.

Also known as the Knights Hospitaller, the order got its start building hospitals for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem in the 12th century. But it’s only somewhat recently that the knights got back into the health care business. As the Crusades wore on, the Hospitallers became a military order, fighting to defend the Holy Land from the advances of the Ottoman Turks. The Turks eventually prevailed, expelling the Hospitallers, the Templars, and the other Crusaders from the Levant in 1291. But the adaptable Knights of St. John took to the sea, re-establishing themselves as an amphibious fighting force, plundering Turkish ships and enslaving their crews in the name of Christ. They were so brutally effective as pirates that the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman made capturing their base on Rhodes his first order of business after his coronation in 1521.

Dislodged from the Aegean, the knights petitioned the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, for a new home. Charles offered them Malta, asking in return only that they be willing to give their lives to defend it from the Turks and the marauding North African corsairs then making life miserable for Southern Europe. That and the knights must send Charles an annual tribute, on All Saints’ Day, of a single falcon. (The Maltese falcon in Dashiell Hammett’s novel was a jewel-encrusted golden statue sent as a tribute to Charles by the Knights of St. John. For some reason, John Huston, in his film adaptation, says the statue was a gift from an imaginary amalgamated chivalric order he calls the “Knights Templar of Malta.”) Never known to shy from a fight, the knights pointed their galleys toward Malta and told their Turkish slaves to row.

The knights didn’t have much time to enjoy their rocky, inhospitable new home. Sure enough, the Turks showed up on Malta’s shores in the spring of 1565 with a massive expeditionary force. Some 500 knights, together with about 5,000 mercenaries and native Maltese, would have to defend the island from 22,000 Turks. It didn’t look good.

The ensuing siege was bitter, even by 16th-century standards. The Turks decapitated and crucified captured knights; the knights retaliated by decapitating Turks and firing their skulls from their cannons. But thanks to the savvy leadership of the septuagenarian knight Jean Parisot de la Vallette—and thanks to some very good luck—the knights managed to keep the Turks from scoring a decisive victory. With the rough seas of winter bearing down on them, the Turkish fleet returned to Istanbul empty-handed. Christendom had been saved, and the Turkish advance into the Western Mediterranean turned back. (For a terrific account of the siege, read Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea.)

Many of Malta’s tourist attractions are connected in one way or another to the Great Siege. In the wake of their victory, the knights built a fortified city that would command Malta’s Grand Harbor and make the Turks think twice about a return visit. Valletta, named for Vallette, remains the Maltese capital, home to its national government and to its most spectacular place of worship (this is saying something): the fantastically baroque Co-Cathedral of St. John, where the knights worshiped and buried their dead.

Visiting the cathedral, as we did one weekday morning, is a disorienting experience. Its facade is deceptively ho-hum, giving little hint of the elaborate ornamentation that awaits once you walk through its doors. Nearly every corner of the interior is decked out with paintings, sculpture, and gilt work dedicated to the glory of Christ—and to the glory of the knights themselves. Alof de Wignacourt, an influential successor to Vallette in the role of grand master of the knights, decided that each of the eight countries with representation in the order would be responsible for the design of a side chapel along the nave of the church. Inevitably, this led to an adornment arms race, with each country vying to outdo the others’ opulence. The result is a garish grandeur that can’t be captured in a photograph, though that doesn’t stop a daily throng of tourists from trying. Even this impressive Microsoft photosynth of the altar can’t quite drink in all the detail.

The tombstone belonging to Garsia Xarava Castro. Credit: Photograph by Maurizio Urso. Courtesy Dane Munro.

As we walked through the cathedral, our eyes were drawn upward, toward the barrel-shaped ceiling, which is decorated with an elaborate cycle of oil paintings by the Calabrian knight Mattia Preti, who depicted the life and death of John the Baptist, the order’s patron saint. The church’s most impressive achievement, however, is right below your feet. The spectacular floor is made up of 350 polychrome intarsia marble tombstones, which pay homage to the generations of knights buried below. Each tombstone tells the story of an individual knight, with vivid, often macabre imagery and complicated heraldic symbols. (Several of the tombstones would have made excellent Grateful Dead album covers.) Latin inscriptions enumerate the good deeds of the knights and occasionally offer pointed reminders to those still walking the Earth. “Flecte lumina, quisquis es, mortalitatem agnosce,” reads one. “Bend down with your lighted candles, whoever you are, and acknowledge your mortality.” On the tombstone belonging to Fra’ Gaspar de Figuera, a smiling skeleton sits atop a clock, bearing this message: “Venit hora eius. Veniet hora tua”—”His hour came. Yours will, too.” Nothing like a reminder of your inevitable demise to make you appreciate your holiday.

A short walk down the street from the Co-Cathedral of St. John is the Magisterial Palace, once home to the grand masters of the knights and now home to Malta’s House of Representatives. Here, for the agreeable fee of 10 euros, a visitor can gain entry to the Palace Armory, a collection of armor and weaponry dating to the 15th century, when the knights were still on Rhodes. There are items that were worn during the Great Siege, including a back and breastplate that belonged to Vallette, inscribed with the unlikely war cry Ecce Agnus Dei—”behold the lamb of God.” The collection features armor worn by the highest-ranking knights and by the lowest-ranking infantrymen. The armor worn by common soldiers was plain, utilitarian, while that of the knights featured elaborate filigree—this was equipment meant to protect you from your enemies but also to signal your wealth and nobility to your comrades-in-arms.

Armor, we learned as we browsed the palace collection, was very much subject to the fickle whims of fashion. In the 16th century, the chicest helmets featured a prominent comb, which served little function but gave the helmets a sleek insouciance. In the 17th, the Savoyard-style helmet caught on with heavy cavalry and siege engineers. These helmets provided good protection for the face but were also clearly designed to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy with their ghoulish imitations of human physiognomy. We were particularly impressed by the fabulously ornate armor that had belonged to Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, which was encrusted with silver and gilt. From Wignacourt, we learned that the classy knight outfits his horse with a matching chanfron, a shield for the horse’s head that can really tie a suit of armor together.

One evening, we watched a fireworks competition unfold over the fortified city of Vittoriosa, from which Vallette bravely commanded the island’s defense during the siege. (At one point, when it seemed as if the Turks were about to breach the city walls, Vallette donned his helmet, grabbed a pike, and ran to the front lines, telling his troops, “This is the day to die.” He didn’t, and the knights held off the Turkish attack.) Fireworks contests are a frequent occurrence in Malta, which is home to some of the world’s finest makers of pyrotechnics and a firework-loving populace. “It is said,” writes George Plimpton in his book-length study, Fireworks, “that a [Maltese] man who successfully completes a morning shave without a cut is quite likely to celebrate the feat by shooting a rocket out a window.” These explosions took the form of colorful pinwheels and shimmering weeping willows, but the citadel must have been similarly illuminated 450 years ago by menacing Turkish artillery hoping to catch Vallette peeking over the ramparts at the enemy lines below.

Million-pound bash for Nat Rothschild, rising star of the super-rich


Nat Rothschild’s birthday will be celebrated in Montenegro. Photograph: Richard Young / Rex Features

Nat Rothschild throws three-day party for 40th birthday at glitzy resort in Montenegro

guardian.co.uk | Jul 8, 2011

by Robert Booth in Porto Montenegro

They came on the sleekest of yachts bought with the proceeds from the grittiest of industries. Mining and commodity magnates descended this weekend on an unlikely new billionaires’ playground in Montenegro, one of Europe’s poorest countries, to celebrate the 40th birthday of the rising star of their firmament, Nat Rothschild.

The £1m party started on Thursday and will run over three nights, with guests moving from five-star hotel to poolside disco to the deck of a superyacht. It is part of an attempt to establish an Adriatic St Tropez at Porto Montenegro, a new marina in a former Yugoslav naval base backed by money from Rothschild and other billionaire investors.

The guests at this half-built luxury complex on the Bay of Kotor, where wooded mountains crash into the deep blue sea, are not short of glamour. Russian model Sasha Volkova and Jimmy Choo shoe boss Tamara Mellon were invited, along with the British socialite Plum Sykes. Rothschild’s parents, Lord and Lady Rothschild, headed a large family group, and members of Italy’s Agnelli clan were expected.

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Montenegro hosts billionaire Nat Rothschild’s birthday bash

Politicians include Peter Mandelson, the former business secretary, who counts Rothschild as “a close friend”. He arrived looking relaxed on Thursday night at a discreet beachside hotel (frequented in the 1960s by Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor) in the nearby beauty spot Sveti Stefan, where the guests were serenaded by a folk quartet. On Friday night the dress code for “Nat’s disco soiree” around a 65-metre infinity pool was “disco chic”. “I am a bit worried about that,” said one Briton. “Do you think I should get a medallion?”

But the richest figures sipping Taittinger champagne were not in banking, computing or the media, but in mining coal, copper, gold, nickel and other commodities whose values are soaring. Rothschild himself has just overseen a £3bn investment aimed at selling Indonesian coal to Chinese furnaces. He declared to the Financial Times: “I don’t want [the shareholders] to make 50% or 100%; I want them to make two or three times their money.”

Many guests guard their privacy so closely that crew working at the event were given spotter cards with captioned photos of a dozen of the most powerful, to avoid embarrassment. They included Oleg Deripaska, owner of the biggest yacht in the bay, the £80m Queen K. He is reputedly the richest businessman in Russia as a result of his aluminium firm, Rusal, and Rothschild sits on its international advisory board.

Also on the card was Peter Munk, the Canadian octogenarian billionaire and goldmine owner who moored his smaller but no less opulent yacht, Golden Eagle, a couple of berths along. He is the main investor in the £500m Porto Montenegro project. Ivan Glasenberg, who became one of the world’s richest men when his Glencore commodity company floated on the stock exchange, was expected on Friday night, as was Tony Hayward, the former BP chief executive vilified over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He is now Rothschild’s partner in a £1.3bn oil and gas fund.

Another mining billionaire, Robert Friedland of Canada’s giant Ivanhoe Mines, was also on the guest list. His company’s plan to exploit gold and copper deposits in Mongolia’s Gobi desert sparked civil unrest when local groups complained there had been a lack of environmental assessment.

The platinum-rich Royal Bafokeng Nation, a tribal kingdom inside South Africa, was even represented by its king.

Looking on at the assembled magnates was the Harvard professor of history, Niall Ferguson, an authority on the super-rich who has written histories of the Rothschild clan and a recent study of capitalism, The Ascent of Money. He arrived with his partner, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch-Somali feminist critic of Islam. Before him was the evidence of how little the capital crash seemed to have affected the very richest.

A fleet of articulated lorries travelled from the UK with provisions, equipment and furniture, and a crew of 100 toiled in 35C (95F) heat to place palm trees beside the pool with cranes, build “chillout” cabanas and lower glitter balls into the water. Hundreds of wines from the Rothschilds’ top Bordeaux estates, many worth more than £100 a bottle, were poured at festivities due to continue until 4am on Saturday with a roster of DJs flown in to play through the night at the Ibiza-style beach party.

At 2pm on Saturday there will be what staff call “hangover brunch”, followed by another party on the jetty beside Deripaska’s yacht as the sun sets over the Adriatic.

One of the few people still going could be the birthday boy, who does not drink.

• This article was amended on 11 July 2011. The original referred to Ayaan Hirsi Ali as Niall Ferguson’s wife. This has been corrected.