Why I am not going to “Francophile” my Facebook status…

Over the past 24 hours or so I have watched the world “Francophile” itself in support and recognition of the awful events in Paris. Monuments have been illuminated in red-white-blue and Facebook profiles now consist of once familiar friends peering out between ribbons of colour.

Story Bridge in Brisbane, illuminated in solidarity.

The Story Bridge in Brisbane tonight, illuminated in solidarity.

I am very fond of France. I have many French friends, wonderful memories and few could argue against Paris being truly one of the iconic cities of the World. Indeed, Paris is one of those incredibly special cities that simply cannot belong to just France, it really belongs to people everywhere. Thus, when such unthinkable acts of terror are committed, they are committed against us all.

The problem is that to give credence to ISIS, to call the Paris atrocity an “act of war”, is to do nothing more than further entrench the notion of ISIS’ caliphate (statehood). Only one sovereign entity’s act of aggression against another can establish an “act of war”. By determining those innocent lives lost to be an “act of war”, we simply give ISIS what they want : legitimacy, and implied sovereignty.

Moreover, despite the awful events in Paris, there was no less tragic loss of life in Lebanon, in Kenya. But we did not stop and mourn for those lives because they did not fit within our mental “Champs- Élysées”, the perfect and idyllic boulevards of our western minds. We did not paint our faces those colours. We have not owned the fact that the turmoil and instability in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, is the direct result of decades of self-interested meddling, artificial borders drawn across tribal boundaries and covertly-financed (and not so covert) bipartisanship. We probably didn’t create it, but we made it worse. A lot worse. Those innocent people in Paris didn’t deserve to die – but it can also not be said that there is never a consequence to our actions. For example, it cannot be said that when our own youth flock to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, that we were not responsible for youth disengagement, for unemployment, for lack of opportunity in our own countries.

We should be defiant, be we should also take responsibility.

This even extends to the idea that we would somehow attempt to “demean” our oppressors by calling them “Daesh“, like taunting a bully in the playground. It is a dangerous game. It is one thing to stoically go on with life and refuse to alter our daily lives in response to terrorism (correctly so), but it is another to mock one’s enemy.

The purpose of this commentary is not to attribute recognition to ISIS. Although, in my opinion, to pretend that it is an artifice is a huge mistake. Similarly, to reduce ISIS to merely a violent hybrid of religious fundamentalism and terrorism is also a mistake, a gross simplification. In the 21st century, we are being forced to reconsider what statehood means and how we respond to “acts of war”. It started with 9/11 and it is – tragically – far from over with Paris (#2).

This is why I will not change my Facebook profile to “tricolour”. Defiance and mourning for our freedom should be muted, and devoid of banners. Only terrorists wave banners, and I personally cannot bear to change the hue of my face again tomorrow.


The (now) iconic feature image by Jean Jullien…


Rethinking Citizenship

Two concurrent events have recently had me thinking a great deal about what citizenship really means. The first has been the horrifying events surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, most notably the tragic loss of life on the shores of Turkey, and heart-breaking footage of children washed up on desolate beaches. Those images have profoundly affected me and I find it difficult to look at my three year-old son and not superimpose the mental image of a similarly aged boy lying face down on the beach, almost as if asleep, but never again to awake.

The second has been an incredibly disappointing and “un-Canadian” turn events with the recent amendments to the Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), enabling citizens (notably, dual-nationals) to be “stripped” of their Canadian citizenship if implicated in acts against the state, including acts of terrorism. The language of the act opens a serious crack in the door of the ‘robust’ notion of citizenship and gives government considerable discretion over how it chooses to repeal the grant of citizenship.

I’m a Canadian-Australian dual national. I was born in Calgary and have maintained close ties to Canada all my life. I return to Canada regularly to be with friends and family. I own property in Canada. I take interest in Canadian political and national affairs. I identify with Canada’s multicultural and international reputation for fairness, freedom and institutional integrity. Yet, this change in Canada’s stance on what it means to be “Canadian” is truly shocking, especially at a time when sovereign identity and the role of the international community needs to be balanced with the basic human needs and rights of the displaced.

There are four fundamental flaws with the Canadian Government’s changed notion of citizenship. The first is that is destroys the true sanctity of the definition of citizenship, and what it means to achieve it. The vast majority of people that become a Canadian citizen do so through hard work, commitment and an often difficult journey to become part of something great. In creating the potential for the discretionary revocation of citizenship, with fairly wide purview, the absolute meaning and aspiration of citizenship is diluted. For example, how could we ever allow Syrian refugees to become Canadian “conditionally” after everything they have been through (don’t get me started on Canada’s political and military intervention – or lack thereof – to begin with).

The second tragedy of this law is that it effectively creates a second class “citizenship”. It establishes a class of citizens that remain vulnerable to the discretion of government. Governments make mistakes, governments over-reach their authority, and this law opens the door for all kinds of abuse and corruption that has the potential to permanently threaten vulnerable segments of the populace. Canada’s institutions may be more robust than that of many other countries, but no executive branch of government is flawless.

Thirdly – and somewhat related to the second point – is the disappointing side-effect that it is no longer acceptable to be Canadian and “something else” as well. I always thought that one of the great things about being Canadian was that it was ok to be a Canadian-Pakistani, or a Canadian-Afghan. Unlike the USA, where I would argue cultural identity is constantly pressured and subjugated to the “ideal” of America (you are, first and foremost, American goddammit), with considerable racial tensions that result, Canada always seemed to more peacefully allow multiple identities to co-exist. This legislation will threaten Canada’s multi-cultural tolerance.

However the worst – and most ironic – thing about this legislation, is that it will effectively make Canada less lawful on the international stage. The upstanding moral compass, the “decency”, Canada’s hard-earned international reputation for fairness, integrity and freedom is threatened by this legislation. Why? Because in stripping individuals of their Canadian citizenship, they are no longer subject to Canada’s extraterritorial laws. Let’s take a hypothetical example – you have a Russian-Canadian dual national that decides to go and fight for ISIS, and Canadian citizenship is repealed. Instead of being able to subject that individual to Canada’s terrorism laws, the government effectively wipes their hands and leaves them to the jurisdiction of the “other” nationality. If that other country has a weaker legal system, then less control and less recourse is able to be exerted.

For example, Australia has extra-territorial laws regarding pedophilia. If an Australian goes abroad Thailand on vacation and has sex (consensual or otherwise) with a minor (by definition of Australian law) they are subject to prosecution in Australia upon their return. It doesn’t matter that the offense was committed offshore, it is an illegal act of citizenship. In my opinion “statutory rape” is just another kind of terrorism, no different than the barbarian acts of ISIS – often committed against women and children.

Instead of stripping Canadians of their citizenship, the government should be holding them ABSOLUTELY to the standards of Canadian citizenship at home and abroad. That would not only strengthen and define what it means to be Canadian, but it would serve to project the power and integrity of Canada around the world.

The Music of Science

Over the past few months, a collaboration has progressed to a degree of substance that I am excited to start talking about it. For a long time I have been thinking about a creative way to make a contribution to STEM education, as someone who is passionate about education, but also science and engineering. There are plenty of people thinking about better content, more dynamic education strategies and more robust curriculum development. I have wanted to find a way to deliver a supportive but often elusive element, namely inspiration. I want young people who are imagining their future, to be as intrigued and amazed about science as I am… and I have always imagined doing this through the power of music.

But first I needed to be inspired myself, and that happened through a chance meeting about 18 months ago with Prof. Mary Finsterer, who – at the time – was also a Professorial Fellow at Monash University. She is now the Chamber Music Australia Chair of Composition, Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University. I’ve always liked “musos” but I particularly liked Mary’s brilliant and unconventional style of thinking and communication. Slowly, over time, a collaboration began to take shape in the form of Scientifica.

Scientifica is a modern symphonic arrangement with four movements, composed by Mary. Each movement is framed around a “sound of science”, designed to capture and communicate the magic of those sounds. Three of those movements have been based on some really exciting sounds and have been developed as far as composition “samples” that you can actually hear performed on the Scientifica website. The first movement is inspired by the ethereal oscillations of stars – expanding the mind out beyond our planet through wonderful robotic instruments that are telling us all kinds of new things about the universe. The second movement brings us back to the Earth’s atmosphere with the eerie and fragile sounds of solar radiation striking our planet’s protective atmosphere, an extraordinary defense system that we can only detect with special electronic equipment. The final composition is based on the percussive beats of an MRI scanner, representing mankind’s inquiry and control of the biological world.

The fourth movement of Scientifica, as well as the exact order of the movements, has yet to be finalised. This is because we plan to open it up as a competition in early July. We want scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicians and researchers everywhere to send us the audible incarnations of science that move, mesmerise and inspire them. We then plan to select the best sound – and story – and build the fourth movement around it. We hope that the final product will be a performing arts experience that will weave Mary’s stunning composition with an audiovisual presentation of the actual science itself. Uniquely, our vision is that during this performance, the scientists creating these sounds will join their musical colleagues as an actual performer, hopefully projecting the creativity and passion that is an often poorly understood but fundamental part of scientific progress.

Please visit the project website for Scientifica to learn more. Be sure to listen to Mary’s incredible work.

Tragic but not unnecessary : Bali 9

I want to state two things up-front.

1) I don’t believe in the death penalty.

2) I hate double-negatives, though they serve their purpose sometimes.

Today was a landmark day for international relations with Indonesia following the execution of the “Bali 9” for smuggling heroin. I stayed up late tonight watching the grief and sadness of family, friends and the general community, following the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. My condolences to their loved ones – what a horrible turn of events. I personally think Indonesia did an appalling job of managing communication and process around this awful situation. So much confusion, drama and false hope created.

Typically Indonesian.

The truth is, I am extremely fond of Indonesia and it holds a special place in my heart. I have visited it many times for business and pleasure, from Java to Bali, Flores to Komodo, Labuan to Gillies. I was married to my wife in Indonesia because it was a unique country that enabled Russians and Australians (and a few Canucks) to visit without visas and a lot of immigration hassle. It has stunning landscapes and awesome marine life, it has beautiful and diverse people. It has amazing culture and cuisine.

The problem is that Indonesia has a huge rich-poor divide and a massive drug problem that not only has major domestic impact, but it is a major global trafficking hub. Whilst Indonesia’s policy of death to drug traffickers is primarily reflective of domestic health and criminal issues, countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand enforce an important regional deterrent for the worlds largest source of both cultivated and synthetic drugs. As tragic as this situation is, the people executed today knew that when they engaged in their illicit acts, they were risking a death sentence. It was right there on the landing card. Even Rodrigo Gularte, who was known to be bipolar and schizophrenic (but not of sub-par intelligence), would have known and understood that drug trafficking commands a death sentence.

I do think a firing squad is a bit extreme as far as capital punishment goes, and it is my personal opinion that only God (or whatever force/deity/philosophy you subscribe to) is entitled to take a life. Having said that, it is hard to make a strong argument that a life sentence in an Indonesian jail is either humane or a reasonable burden for a country to undertake that has much more serious problems of poverty and development. Why should some reckless Aussie criminal that blatantly and knowingly broke the law divert resources away from Indonesians? It’s a tough one.

Three sad things happened today:

1) Families lost their loved ones, probably through disproportionate punishment.

2) Global condemnation will likely considerably increase the pressure on Indonesia (and countries that have similar policies) to eliminate such punitive laws. Aid will be cancelled, tourism will wane and ambassadors will be recalled. The risk is that political firepower will dangerously reduce these deterrents, simply to assuage electorates.

3) Australia has damaged its relationship with on of its most important neighbours – perhaps its most important neighbour. When situations like this happen, you don’t recall your ambassador, you keep your ambassador firmly in place and make damned sure the avenues of communication are wide open. This is necessary not only for the families of those who have been executed, but to ensure that the lobbying process is seamless between now and the next tragic event. Only a stupid, unsophisticated, f*cking asinine populist government would do such a thing. I would expect this of Tony Abbott, but I would have expected better of Julie Bishop who is marginally somewhat less of an idiot.

Carr is absolutely correct to condemn this decision.

The component of all of this that has not been properly acknowledged by our mainstream media and government is that these (mostly) men were part of a drug syndicate that was hell-bent on making money out of the wanton destruction of Australian society. They tried to bring almost 20lbs of heroin into Australia with a street value of about $4m bucks. These people wanted to bring drugs (and not for the first time) to this country that would ultimately destroy 1000ds of families and undoubtedly result in plenty of loss of life. These were not nice people.

Now that doesn’t mean that execution is the right remedy, but these are not heroes no matter what their conduct was in their final hours. These are BAD people and i will not personally mourn for them. Their families yes. The Bali 9 – no. No matter how much airplay you give a cute Catholic priest with a charming Irish lilt (like Charlie Burrows) it’s hard to make a case that these people should be forgiven and even somehow deified.

To avoid this situation in the future and protect its citizens from a barbaric firing squad, Australia needs to do one simple thing. Let’s form a treaty with Indonesia that any Australian citizen that is arrested in Indonesia for serious drug possession (and I am not talking a bit of weed late at night on Kuta Beach) will be extradited to Australia and will serve a full life sentence in Australian prison, without any chance of an early parole. We already have plenty of precedent for this – we certainly treat asylum seekers badly, locking innocent people up for years at a time without cause. Australia also has (appropriately) tough extraterritorial laws regarding pedophilia that nobody gets too enraged about. If we can seriously punish some sweaty fat bloke for shagging a 14 year old Thai girl in Pattaya Beach, then we can punish a misguided individual who thinks its ok to sell millions of dollars of heroin to our friends, family and children.

Send Paul Grigson back, Julie. Start the process of saving face and respect Indonesia’s sovereignty through action, not just words. Make a proper deal with Joko so that this doesn’t ever happen again.


Announcing : “The Long Tail”

Before you get too concerned, I am still on “gardening leave”.

But I’m also getting bored. Most of the house DIY tasks are done, the roof garden looks great. I fixed just about everything that needed fixing and then I fixed some things that didn’t need fixing (which, now also need to be fixed). Too many idle hours makes me antsy and I finally had to do something about it.

After the flack I got from my last couple of posts, I decided that I would take Australian life sciences commentary out of this blog. Anyhow, most of you reading this are not Australian and don’t care anyhow about what a bunch of goofy antipodeans are doing in their labs. Instead I have launched a new blog – “The Long Tail.” Don’t worry, this blog isn’t going away, you can still read about me, mostly talking about myself (ha ha).

I’ve been thinking about doing this site for a long time, so I hope you enjoy it. It’s not very pretty yet but it will get better with time.

Like a fine Barossa shiraz … style and substance…

My Amusement : CYP

I’ve been watching, with a combination of amusement and sadness, the reaction on Hotcopper to my previous post. The old adage of “no good deed goes unpunished” is truly alive and well. It’s amazing how day traders will try to find a nefarious intent, where there is none.

My position regarding CYP is very simple. I think the Cynata team are intelligent and capable entrepreneurs. I also am a personal believer in the concept of expounding a vision and letting the rest follow. But when you are a publicly traded company, you owe your shareholders a different degree of transparency and I don’t like to see hype where it isn’t warranted. For the record, I’d like to dispel a few myths:

1) I have no grudge with Cynata whatsoever. I have publicly stated that the members of the management team have my respect for their accomplishments in convincing public investors that their non-clinical technology warrants an $80m market cap. Anyone that manages to RTO a defunct environmental technology company into a stem cell masterpiece deserves all of our respect.

2) My comments are all based on public domain information that is able to be independently diligenced. If anyone wants further references, they can email me at my personal address.

3) I have never intended to make a specific example out of Cynata. From now on I will be publishing – within the limits of appropriate and defensible professional conduct and legal public discourse – my viewpoint on many Australian biotech securities that, for too long, have been sheltered by ad-hoc, lacking or insufficiently independent analysis.

Let me be clear. My belief is that Australia could have a thriving biotechnology economy. We have the brainpower. We have the translational research capability. What is missing is quality in our ASX-listed companies, with a few notable exceptions (CSL, Resmed, Cochlear, Sirtex … and a handful of others). I used to think that a microcap exchange for biotech was a stupid idea, but I have come to realize that Australian life sciences companies have essentially adapted a limited public market to replace later-stage venture capital. I think this actually has the potential to be cool – but only if we call out bullshit when we see it.

Besides, if we are all honest with each other, nothing I have said is new. So just call me un-original. I’m ok with that.