Q&A recap: Canadian astronaut inspires audience as Donald Trump labelled ‘dropkick’

Q&A host Tony Jones directed this audience question at the panellists: ‘Do Donald Trump’s views reflect ignorance, misogyny, or is it clever political marketing?’ Photo: Q&A ‘How do you face up to danger in your life?’ … Canadian astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield, left, was both inspirational and insightful on Q&A. Photo: Q&A
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Breaking the government’s Q&A ban … Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg made a low-key appearance on the ABC program despite labelling Donald Trump a ‘dropkick’. Photo: Q&A

There was an astronaut. There was a conservative politician, returning from service defending Planet Boycott and Planet Bronwyn. And amid the high science of outer space and the low atmospherics of local politics, there was an unexpected guest from another planet altogether: welcome to Q&A, Donald Trump.

To wit: “Donald Trump seems to suffer from chronic foot-in-mouth disease, especially with his appalling comments regarding women. Do his views reflect ignorance, misogyny or is it clever political marketing?”

The Donald made his Q&A debut from nowhere, alas in question form and not in person, but he served a varied purpose, as he is wont to do. For starters, he’s entertaining. His juvenile weekend antics also prompted a question more relevant to local conditions than might immediately have been apparent: how offensive can you be on live TV before freedom of speech considerations give way to the old “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” rule?

In recent times Q&A has been deemed by our federal government to have essentially set fire to the drapes at the national movie palace. The story in short: a Zaky Mallah bombshell that prompted a Tony Abbott boycott that prompted an okey-dokey backdown by the ABC, which acted swiftly in both its apology and in last week’s board decision to shunt the freewheeling debate program into the carefully monitored world of its news and current affairs division from 2016.

Deal done. So could this scalded atoll of Monday night debate follow up its nuclear period by confronting the ultimate challenge: defying gravity? Or would the penny drop early that it may not ever again be what it once was, BZ? (Before Zaky)

Yes it could, courtesy of three veterans from other planets.

There was Trump, whose mention gave rise to the enticing possibility that Q&A could avoid further local controversy by raining mockery on crazy American space-cadet politicians who make no sense, thus sparing our vastly inferior local products from the weekly torment.

“He’s a dropkick,” was the earthy verdict on Trump of Josh Frydenberg, extra-terrestrial representative of a government recently alien to this program who had to reacquaint himself with the atmosphere after weeks batting off space junk from planets Boycott and Bronwyn.

Tony Jones: “We’ll remind you of that when he comes here on a state visit.”

Frydenberg: “I’m sure my colleagues will remind me tomorrow.”

Poor Josh, the Abbott lieutenant returning from those intergalactic battles with barely a scratch on him, yet knowing every one of his colleagues would be watching and having to defend the chopper-blade wounds sustained by lesser combatants.

No doubt aware he was being closely watched as the first soldier back from the front, the boycott-busting assistant treasurer arrived low of key and high of tone. On pollie entitlements, he was diplomatic, declaring himself sorrowful over recent events but in agreement with his Labor counterpart on the panel, Sharon Bird, that it was best to let the inquiry sort things out.

Frydenberg to a sceptical Tony Jones: “Sharon and I are on a unity ticket about your cynicism.”

Jones: “I suspect I’m on a unity ticket with the Australian voters.”

The host delicately refrained from asking the obvious follow up – how many thousands this unity ticket might cost us, by what mode would they travel and on which planet they expected to land? But this was no time for showing off, for Jones or anyone else – not with Colonel Chris Hadfield in the room.

If you’ve ever envied the astronaut – and there are few enough of them to make them worthy of envy – Colonel Hadfield rubs your nose in it further by arriving super-smart, handsome, eloquent, thoughtful and with bragging rights to 26 million hits on his YouTube cover of a David Bowie song. That he sang Space Oddity – in outer space, mind you – as a kick for his son and popped it online for a hoot might make you want to take an even longer good, hard look at yourself.

But the Canadian colonel doesn’t inspire envy so much as he inspires imagination. He had his thoughts on Trump – and looked like he wished he’d never been asked: “You are asking me this question. We’re in Australia.

“The American election isn’t for a year and a half,” Colonel Hadfield said. “None of us are voting in the American election and he’s not the person who’s going to get elected. Yet we’re talking about him here tonight, which makes no sense at all.”

One’s first thought was: if he thinks this is silly, lucky he doesn’t know what we were talking about last week and the one before that.

Second thought: continue, Colonel. The thing with Hadfield is that you could listen to him talk all night, about anything. But when time is tight, it’s better that it’s about matters further beyond our horizons than the solar system occupied by Donald Trump’s hair.

Hadfield called the Trump campaign “theatre, it’s lovely summer theatre”, but it was his descriptions of epic vistas from above that delivered the grandest show – of what he saw and felt and learned and of the perspective he gained. Of the risks – half of it, dying in the first nine minutes; the overall risk of catastrophe, one in 38 – and of the rewards.

“I decided when I was 9, Neil (Armstrong) and Buzz (Aldrin) are the coolest human beings ever … I’m 9 years old, what do I do next?”

He spoke of the need to “separate danger from fear”. He asked: “How do you face up to danger in your life?”. He challenged: “How do you change yourself from just hiding behind an amorphous fear … to digging in to it, to figuring out that this is something worth taking a risk for?”

Everyone was inspired, enraptured even, even if in Canberra you had to think this was indeed a message from another planet. You could hear the answer: “You want brave, Colonel? Look at us. We went back on Q&A.”

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International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research study finds the universe is dying – but don’t panic just yet

An impression of what a night sky could look like during the collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. By that time, the sun will have swallowed the Earth. Photo: NASA The Australian Astronomical Observatory at Siding Spring. This telescope started the mapping of galaxies used by the GAMA research project. Photo: Quentin Jones
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A galaxy from the GAMA survey observed at different wavelengths from the far ultraviolet to the far infrared. The inset graph shows how much energy is being generated at the different wavelengths. Photo: ICRAR/GAMA

Citizen astronomy: classify galaxies from your sofa

The evidence is in: the universe is cactus.

After a wild youth about six or seven billion years ago, the universe is slowly dying. But you needn’t book your table at the restaurant at the end of the universe just yet – the old age of the cosmos is likely to be very long and drawn out.

How do we know this? Professor Simon Driver at the University of Western Australia and his colleagues have, for the first time, produced the first fully empirical measurement of the energy output of the universe.

And the news is grim.

According to their findings, the universe is currently generating about half the energy it was just two billion years ago. This means that eventually the universe will stop generating energy and our cosmos will become a lifeless, cold abyss with the light from every star and galaxy snuffed out. The cold, dark relics of dead stars is all that will be left.

How long will it take?

Professor Driver said: “From here on, there is a gentle decline, which technically will go on forever. In about 100 billion years you’d be very hard pressed to find any optical photons our eyes could detect.”

“Of course, by this stage the sun has already swallowed the Earth (in about 5 billion years) and our [Milky Way] galaxy will have merged with Andromeda (in about 10 billion years).”

So it’s fair to say that Douglas Adams’ “Don’t Panic” remains a useful piece of advice in terms of cosmology.

“The universe is settling down on the sofa for a long, eternal slumber but we are still able to look at the photo album of its energetic youth,” says Andrew Hopkins, head of research at the Australian Astronomical Observatory. He says the universe was at its peak in terms of star formation about six or seven billion years ago; about half the age the universe is now.

Dr Hopkins is co-author of the paper Galaxy and Mass Assembly panchromatic data release being presented today at the general assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Hawaii. The research is part of the Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, the largest multi-wavelength survey ever put together.

Starting with the Anglo-Australian Observatory in NSW, Professor Driver and his colleagues used seven of the world’s most powerful telescopes on Earth and in space across 21 wavelengths for five years to measure the energy output of more than 220,000 galaxies. They looked back 2.3 billion years and found that the universe was producing about 2.5 x 10 to the power of 35 watts of energy per cubic megaparsec of space. It has now dropped to about 1.5 x 10 to the power of 35 watts per cubic megaparsec. (A megaparsec is about 3.26 million light years.)

The researchers looked at a small slice of the sky across almost the entire electromagnetic spectrum – from the far ultra-violet range, through visible light to the far infra-red and the edges of radio waves. And while the section examined may seem small – just 0.56 per cent of the whole sky – the data from the 220,000 galaxies is sufficient for the astronomers to be very confident of their findings.

“That sounds like quite a small amount,” Dr Hopkins said. “But if you look at the simulated flight through of the galaxies you’ll get an impression of just how much information there really is.”

So will our descendants of the far future eventually see the stars and galaxies go dark?

Yes, says Dr Hopkins, but probably much earlier than at the time of the energy death of the universe. “It will be due to the accelerated expansion of the universe that we will eventually stop seeing stars and galaxies.

“Because the universe is expanding, eventually the galaxies will get further and further apart until ultimately – on the scale of hundreds of billions of years – the universe will be a cold, dark isolated place. We won’t be able to see any other stars or galaxies and any sentient beings alive then will be very, very isolated indeed.”

But Professor Driver says death may not be the end of all things. “There is one tiny glimmer of hope.”

“We may have been here before,” Professor Driver says. “Theorists believe the early universe also went through a period of inflation (which we’re in again now). In that case it is argued that it suddenly stopped and dumped the dark energy driving this inflation into normal energy.

“This is highly speculative but it is possible that we’re in a recursive universe, which periodically goes through periods of inflation followed by periods of activity and evolution, which eventually dwindle as we enter the next inflationary phase.”

So that’s something to look forward to.

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Road-testing the Jura F9 automatic espresso machine

The Jura F9. Photo: SuppliedIf you want the convenience of a capsule machine without the waste, and the choice of using any fresh coffee beans you like to make your brews at home without having to take a barista course, an automatic espresso machine could be the answer.
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The Swiss company Jura has just released its new F9 and A9 automatic espresso makers in Australia. Both machines won Australian Good Design Awards in May.

The F9 is a chunky black plastic thing that looks like a home version of a coffee vending machine, with an LED screen and selection dial interface.

The F9 makes 14 different black and milk coffee styles, including espresso, ristretto, “coffee” (a long espresso), macchiato, cappuccino, caffe latte and even a flat white (which apparently caused confusion at Jura sales conferences in the US).

The screen-and-dial combination makes it easy to use: pour fresh coffee beans into the hopper, use the screen to select the brew, push a button, and the machine grinds the coffee, packs the internal portafilter and extracts.

Espressos made on the F9 reflected the character of different beans well. A specialty seasonal blend from a local roaster came out bright and fruity with hints of dark chocolate, while a Cuban from an organic grocer was rich, sweet and earthy. In both cases the espresso shots had nice honeycomb-coloured crema and a good mouthfeel.

The best of the milk coffees in testing were the macchiato and the flat white. The macchiato was a good espresso shot with a dollop of foamy milk, while the flat white was surprisingly close to a cafe flat white in milk texture, mouthfeel and flavour. The caffe latte was watery, though you can adjust the coffee strength and volume and the milk volume of any of the preset brews, while the cappuccino, with the milk going in first, was a pale imitation of a cafe capp, with a thin bed of white microfoam on top of the coffee-milk mixture.

Cleaning and maintenance is push-button easy; though you need to flush the milk system daily, and clean it about once a week with a cleaning solution that costs $13 for 16 cleans.

At $2490 the F9 is pricey compared with capsule machines, but you’ll spend half as much per cup for beans, create much less waste – and drink much better coffee. See au.jura南京夜网.

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Malaysia Airlines flight MH17: Australian flight safety experts to test crash theory

Australian Federal Police officers and their Dutch counterparts collect human remains from the MH17 crash site in the self proclaimed Donetsk Republic, Ukraine on 2 August, 2014. Photo: Kate Geraghty Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivers a statement at the UN Security Council. A vote for a resolution on the downing of MH17 was vetoed by Russia. Photo: Trevor Collens/DFAT
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A video still of the BUK-M1 system purportedly being transferred in a rebel convoy back to Russia after MH17 came down, according to the Ukraine government. Photo: Ukraine Security Service

Australian government experts received secret draft of crash reportOne year has passed since MH17 was shot downInteractive: Planting HopeRussian conspiracies alive and kicking

London: Australian flight safety experts will examine a reconstruction of part of the MH17 plane to test their theory on why it crashed.

The experts have joined colleagues from five nations in the Netherlands to discuss their report on last year’s MH17 disaster.

The two-day meeting, which began on Monday, is intended to hash out their final conclusions after a two-month review of a draft report.

As well as discussing the progress of the investigation they will visit air force base Gilze-Rijen to view the reconstruction of a part of the aircraft.

However, the meeting may also feature heated argument, as Russia has flagged it is unhappy with the draft report’s conclusion that blames Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east.

The experts from Australia, Malaysia, Ukraine, Russia, the US and UK will discuss two draft reports on the crash: one on its cause, and another that assesses whether the plane should have been assigned its given flight path.

The Dutch Safety Board, which is co-ordinating the investigation, sent the draft reports to those countries’ flight safety boards in June, with sixty days assigned for them to respond.

The final report is due in October, however some details have leaked.

In July, CNN said the draft report pointed to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine having shot down the plane using a BUK missile launched from a village under their control.

According to CNN’s source, the report also criticises Malaysia Airlines for continuing to fly over the war zone without properly warning its pilots of the danger.

However, a Russian aviation official has said the draft report “raises more questions than it gives answers”. Oleg Storchevoi, a deputy chief of Rosaviatsiya (the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency) was quoted by Russian news agencies saying they had complaints regarding both the technical data and the arguments in the report.

“The Russian Federal Air Transport Agency has already sent its disagreements and comments to the Netherlands,” Mr Storchevoi said. “They obviously cannot publish these and they can’t be published until the final report comes out.”

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed in Donetsk Region on July 17, 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members aboard – including 39 people who called Australia home.

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Amateurs make off with the honours

Industry fund REST had the best performance over the past seven years. Its flagship Core Strategy investment option produced an average annualised return of 7.6 per cent. Photo: Andrew Quilty
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The self-managed superannuation fund sector is growing fast, with more than 500,000 funds and one million members.

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Many people like to have control over how their retirement nest egg is invested.

There is some evidence that trustees of DIY funds are able to do better than large funds, on average.

Their returns, at least as reported by trustees of DIY funds themselves, are impressive.

Over the five years to June 30 this year, trustees of DIY funds that are still in the accumulation phase report an average annualised return of 10.6 per cent.

On SuperRatings’ numbers, the typical balanced investment option run by the 50 largest superannuation funds produced an average annual return of 9.1 per cent over the same period.

The DIY fund returns are those as reported by a sample of DIY fund trustees to researcher CoreData rather than official, audited numbers and so should be treated with some caution.

Andrew Inwood, managing director of CoreData, says there is a tendency for DIY fund trustees to overestimate how well they have done. He also says there is a very wide spread of returns.

He says it should not be surprising that DIY funds performed better over five years given that most have a strong bias to the bigger listed Australian shares that pay good dividends.

However, Australian shares, including dividends, returned 5.7 per cent for the year to June 30.

That is substantially down on previous years, when Australian shares returned 17 per cent over the year to June 30, 2014 and almost 23 per cent in the year to June 30, 2013.

DIY funds are underinvested in global shares. Yet, over the past year to June 30, overseas shares, including dividends, returned 19 per cent over the year.

The typical balanced option has about 20 to 30 per cent of its money invested in global shares.

The millions of members of large funds enjoyed another good year of returns for the year ending June 30.

Despite the flare-up of the Greek debt crisis in the dying days of the financial year, which saw sharemarkets around the world tumble, the typical balanced investment option, where most people have their super, returned 9.6 per cent.

It would have been even higher, but the typical balanced investment option lost more than 2 percentage points over the month of June.

“Although market volatility in June prevented most funds from producing double-digit growth over the year, the 9.6 per cent return is still an impressive result,” says Jeff Bresnahan, the SuperRatings founder.

“This is the sixth consecutive [financial] year of positive results, with annual returns during this period averaging 9.2 per cent,” he says.

Strongly performing overseas shares were the main contributor to this year’s result. Balanced options, where most people still working have their super, have between 20 and 30 per cent allocation to international shares. Top performers

The typical balanced investment option has produced an average annual return over the past seven years to June 30, 2015 of just under 6 per cent.

Industry fund REST, which covers retail sector workers, but is open to anyone, has the best performance over the past seven years to June 30 this year. Its flagship Core Strategy investment option produced an average annualised return of 7.6 per cent.

Telstra’s Super Corp Plus Balanced option, the fund for Telstra employees, is second with an average annual return of 7.2 per cent over the seven years.

In third place is UniSuper’s accumulation balanced option with an average annual return of 7.1 per cent over the seven years. Its returns are remarkably consistent, coming in at the top of the league table over all time frames.

UniSuper is the not-for-profit fund for workers in the higher education and research sectors. The investment option has a bias towards quality Australian shares that pay tax-effective dividends. The long term

Although we have had six consecutive positive financial years, Warren Chant, co-founder of researcher Chant West, says fund members should not assume that the good run will last forever.

“[Super] really is a lifetime investment and there will be good times and bad times along the way,” Chant says.

“The returns of the past few years have been unusually good, but you shouldn’t start to think of them as normal,” he says. “You have always got to remember that superannuation is for the long term.”

As most people will eventually convert their super into income streams the investment period is longer than their working lives.

“What’s important is to know what your fund’s objectives are and whether they’re achieving them,” Chant says.

The typical return objective is to beat inflation over rolling five-year periods of 3.5 percentage points a year, on average, after fees and taxes.

Since the start of compulsory superannuation in 1992 the typical annualised return is 8.1 per cent.

Over that period inflation has averaged 2.6 per cent, so that the real return above inflation has averaged 5.5 per cent a year – above the return objectives of funds.

Of course, returns are only a part of the story, as most funds have risk objectives also. Typically, that will be not to produce more than one negative year every five years, on average.

Warren Chant says since 1992 there have been three negative years, though a further two years were only marginally positive.

As that is less than one year in seven, the risk objective has also been met, he says. Not-for-profit dominates

Not-for-profit funds, such as industry funds, tend to dominate the top end of the performance league tables.

Over the longer term, industry funds have outperformed “retail” funds – such as those run by the banks and insurers.

Chant West data shows over the 15 years to June 30 this year industry funds produced an average annual return of 6.9 per cent, compared with retail funds’ return of 5.8 per cent.

That is an outperformance by industry funds of 1.1 percentage points.

That may not seem like much. Recent research by AustralianSuper shows that over a working life, even a small difference in fees and charges is likely to make a huge difference to the size of a worker’s retirement payout.

A worker on average wages could have almost $100,000 less at the point of retirement by earning a return that is one percentage point lower.

A return of only half a percentage point less will cost the worker more than $50,000, or 10 per cent, of their super balance at the point of retirement.

Industry funds have higher allocations to so-called “alternative” investments.

These are unlisted assets that include private equity, unlisted property and unlisted infrastructure which have performed well.

“Over the longer term the asset allocation policies of industry funds have served them well,” Chant says.

“Those allocations to unlisted assets do mean slightly higher investment costs, but those extra costs have been more than justified by the better performance and lower volatility,” he says.

Industry funds have also been more prepared to shift away from their longer-term target asset allocations, Chant says.

They may, for example, decide to reduce some of their allocation to shares if they consider the shares to be overpriced.

“Retail funds have followed suit in recent years with a greater appetite for alternative assets and a more active approach to asset allocation which has seem them narrow the performance gap,” he says. DIY not for everyone

Self-managed super funds can be well suited to those with higher account balances who are prepared to put in the effort and shoulder the responsibility of running their own fund.

A DIY fund trustee is responsible for running the fund and that responsibility cannot be outsourced to someone else.

Each year the fund must lodge a tax return, report member contributions, regulatory information and pay an annual supervisory levy.

They are also required to have financial accounts and statements audited each year, prior to lodging a tax return.

DIY funds are more cost effective, the greater the amount of money in the funds.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission said recently there would want to be good reasons for anyone starting a fund with less than $200,000.

In recent guidance to those advising on SMSFs, the regulator said that starting a balance of $200,000 or below is “unlikely to be in the client’s best interests”.

Large industry funds have costs of about 1 per cent, or less, of their members’ account balances, which is the benchmark.

Estimates vary, but a couple probably need around $500,000 between them to keep the costs down to the 1 per cent considered the benchmark for super fees.

Financial planner Olivia Maragna of Aspire Retire says a high-income couple maximising their salary sacrifice contributions could start with a lower amount, as it would be expected to build quickly.

Large funds are doing more to retain those of their members considered to be “at risk” of starting out on their own.

For example, many large funds allow members to buy direct shares and also exchange traded funds (ETFs), which track all manner of indices and prices and are listed on the Australian sharemarket.

ETFs cover overseas sharemarkets, commodities markets and fixed-income markets, among other markets.

According to researcher SuperRatings roughly 40 per cent of fund members are in a super fund that offers direct investments.

Because super funds bring scale to investing directly, the costs of making the investments, such as the brokerage on buying and selling shares, tend to be lower than outside of super.

That is even after allowing for the typical annual administration fee of about $200 to $300 for the direct investment service.

Life insurance is also usually cheaper if bought through a large super fund with automatic acceptance.

That is believed to be one of the main reasons why many DIY super fund trustees retain some of their super savings in a large fund.

As the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) points out, DIY funds fall outside the government protections that are available to members of large superannuation funds, such as compensation in the event of theft or fraud.

Also, dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal, are not available to SMSFs.

As ASIC points out, the types of disputes and complaints that may arise for SMSF investors may be different from large funds.

Access to other complaints services which are free to consumers may be available to SMSF investors such as the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Credit and Investments Ombudsman, depending on the nature of the complaint. Action planSuper is all about the long term. A fund’s performance should only be judged over long periods of time.Even seemingly small differences in returns make a big difference to the size of the nest egg at the point of retirement.Performance is important, but also check on the insurance cover and whether the fund offers an adequate range of investments for your needs.Self-managed superannuation funds can be well suited to those prepared to put in the effort and shoulder the responsibility – but they are certainly not for everyone.

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Melbourne researchers find new breast cancer gene

Melbourne researchers have isolated a gene that plays a complex role in breast cancer.
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The PIPP gene ordinarily works to suppress tumours, but when breast cancer forms it causes the cancer to spread to the other parts of the body.

The Monash University researchers found that when the gene was removed from mice prone to breast cancer, the tumour itself grew bigger but cancer cells did not spread.

Lead researcher Christina Mitchell, the dean of medicine at Monash, said the gene was a valuable discovery and that the aim was to eventually screen for it in humans.

“We have very good treatments for the primary tumour, but the biggest killer in breast cancer is that when it spreads beyond the primary tumour it can become a real challenge in terms of treatment,” Professor Mitchell said.

“If you can inhibit this gene, potentially, you might be able to decrease the spread of the cancers to the bones or the liver.”

The research, which took eight years to isolate the gene’s function, was published on Tuesday in US medical journal Cancer Cell.

The paper’s lead author, Lisa Ooms​, said when the PIPP gene was active it worked in concert with another gene to cause the cancer to spread.

She said separate clinical trials were under way to analyse the cancer spread pathway that the gene was involved in, which the team was watching closely.

Professor Mitchell said “loss of the PIPP gene was connected with triple negative breast cancer subtype”.

She said that treatment could be helped if PIPP’s role was picked up early and that identifying the gene’s involvement might be important for predicting better or worse outcomes in cancer.

The team hopes to do more research on the gene, and look more closely at what stems the cancer spread pathway that PIPP regulates.

However, Professor Mitchell warned that the gene’s involvement in humans had not yet been observed and more work would need to be done on its interactions.

She said there had been large advances in breast cancer research in the eight years it had taken them to conduct their study of the PIPP gene, and that scientists were now looking more at the interaction of multiple genes in breast cancer than doing analysis of individual genes in isolation.

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Elementus wins environmental exemption for Williamsdale solar farm

The Monaro Highway site at Williamsdale set to become home to a solar farm. Photo: Graham TidyElementus Energy has been granted an exemption from having to prepare an environmental impact statement for its planned solar farm at Williamsdale, despite concerns from residents about native tree clearing.
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Elementus plans a 10 megawatt array on 34 hectares of land beside the Monaro Highway.

The company has been dogged by controversy over its planned solar farm, which was originally to be sited adjacent to Uriarra village but was moved after vehement opposition from Uriarra residents.

Earlier this year, the ACT government offered it a site at Williamsdale, on land owned by Actew Water (now Icon), a move welcomed by Uriarra residents.

Actew bought the block in 2009 and in 2013 ActewAGL put it forward as the site for a 20 megawatt solar farm in the government solar auction. It missed out on a contract.

In March this year, the government’s Land Development Agency bought the land for $3.1 million to smooth the way for the solar farm and will lease part of it to Elementus.

The solar array means the removal of about 116 trees, mainly yellow box, plus half a hectare of native vegetation.

Elementus applied for an exemption from having to prepare an environmental impact statement on the basis that an exemption had already been given to Actew for its planned solar farm on the site.

Elementus argued that the native vegetation had already been significantly degraded through exotic pasture and a history of grazing. It also pointed to numerous weeds on the site and the lack of dead trees and fallen limbs for native habitats.

The Conservator of Flora and Fauna said many of the trees to be removed were “hollow bearing” and so likely to support animals. All trees along Angle Crossing Road should be retained and native tree loss should be minimised, the conservator said. The removal of any mature trees outside of the array must be justified.

The planning and land authority said its assessment “confirmed that the proposal will result in impacts on some species and ecological communities but these impacts are unlikely to be significant” and “further investigation and environmental assessment of the potential impacts of the proposal on species and ecological communities is not recommended for this project”.

It also pointed to glare and views from the Monaro Highway but said Elementus would move the array at least 200 metres away from the highway, would use non-reflective solar panels and would plant natives as screening.

It noted the Murrumbidgee River nearby, but said measures had been proposed to protect stormwater run-off during and after construction and the government’s water policy team did not expect significant impacts on water quality.

The site is in a bushfire-prone area and the array would be “exposed to a high level of risk due to the site being located on the eastern rim of the Murrumbidgee River valley and also being exposed to the influences of strong, drying northwest to southwest winds that will, due to the steep slopes to the west, increase the rate of spread of a fire upslope towards the east”, the planning authority said.

It recommended measures including a Colourbond fence on the northern boundary, water tanks and grazing to keep grass low.

In his decision to grant an exemption from an environmental impact assessment, Planning Minister Mick Gentleman said the impact of the proposal had been sufficiently addressed, and the solar farm was now free to lodge a planning application for the array.

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ACT closes off its generous rooftop solar scheme, forcing homeowners to join up or miss out

Solar panels on an Ainslie rooftop: The ACT government has moved to close off new sign-ups the premium scheme. Photo: Rohan ThomsonThe ACT government has closed off its premium rooftop solar scheme, forcing people who are yet to hook up to the grid to do so by the end of next year or miss out.
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The generous scheme pays people as much as 50 cents a kilowatt hour for the energy they feed into the grid from the solar panels on their roofs, and such was the clamour to join when it began in early 2009 that the scheme was closed to new customers in 2011 and already looking to overrun its 30 megawatts capacity.

But if people had a contract signed for a rooftop installation when it closed they are still entitled to the premium feed-in tariff for 20 years from the date they hook up to the grid. More than 5000 have connected since the scheme closed.

In all, more than 10,000 households are signed up to the premium tariff. In the past year, they were paid $16 million for the electricity they produced, or an average of about $1600 each.

Environment Minister Simon Corbell has now set a deadline for connecting rooftop installations under the scheme of December 2016.

He has also closed a loophole in rooftop solar that would allow people to store power and sell it back at the premium rate. The loophole has not been exploited, according to Mr Corbell’s spokesman, but storage technology is becoming more widespread.

The move “explicitly prohibits export of electricity that has been sourced from a non-renewable source such as the electricity grid, to claim [feed-in tariff] entitlements,” he said.

“While this is not an issue currently, this amendment is targeted at preventing exploitation of [feed-in tariff] entitlements for non-renewable electricity in the future. Rapid advances in storage technologies are leading to lower costs of batteries which is likely to result in greater uptake by households and businesses.”

Mr Corbell also wound back reporting requirements so instead of a monthly report on the scheme, he is obliged to report once a year.

The changes were introduced in May and passed with little fanfare during the first week of June, when attention was focused on the budget.

ActewAGL said last year the average Canberra installation was about 2.5kW, with a 3kW installation covering the energy needs for a typical house. Larger than that and householders are earning money on the deal.

It now pays just 7.5 cents a kilowatt hour for rooftop solar for people not in the premium scheme.

Mr Corbell’s spokesman said there were only a small number of customers yet to be connected to the premium scheme – about 404 kilowatts in small-scale solar and 7 megawatts in medium-scale capacity, which would bring the total capacity to about 33 megawatts.

Since the scheme was closed, households had added about 18.8 megawatts of rooftop solar without the support of the premium tariff, bringing the total in small-scale solar to 44.8 megawatts, including households on the premium tariff and those who were not.

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A helpdesk that’s unable to help

“In many cases I felt I could not provide real solutions to callers’ problems.”’They’re in denial’; MyGov users vent angerMyGov lockout143 years on hold to Centrelink
Nanjing Night Net

Over the past few weeks I have been employed casually with the Department of Human Services, answering calls for the Online Self-Services and myGov helpdesk. Casuals are being employed in call centres to provide assistance and promote these online services. After two weeks of training and one week taking calls I resigned because I felt I could not provide genuine service. In many cases I also felt I could not provide real solutions to callers’ problems.

Another DHS worker wrote on this site in May that many vulnerable people were having difficulties getting through to services because phone lines are jammed with calls about simple issues. I agree that a good online service could solve some of these difficulties. But at the moment sites like myGov are far too cumbersome. Some people are also uncomfortable using computers or live in areas of slow internet speeds. There seems to be little consideration now for people not wanting to use online services.

Many of the issues heard by the helpdesk are in regards to the myGov website. Unfortunately most issues were resolved by suggesting callers recreate their myGov accounts. Sometimes there was no other option. In other cases it was because no other option could be thought of. There was also the option of suggesting the caller could be having “intermittent” issues with their internet or phone network. Though not consciously suggested or meant, this had the appearance of trying to get the caller off the line.

If a caller wanted a better solution there is an “escalation system”. First a staff member can contact a local technical support officer. If this fails an online form can be sent to a national team. This is as far as the issue can be taken now and the caller must wait to be contacted. For both these support options a staff member has to note the number of resources they have used, including a template of common issues. This is why you will be asked if you have turned your computer off and back on!

The most common issues were people being unable to access their accounts or being locked out. We were told that people had three attempts at their username and password before being locked out for 12 hours. They would then have another two attempts before they were locked out of that account forever. Strangely the system seems to be set up in anticipation of these issues because we are all free to create, lock ourselves out and create a new account as many times as necessary.

A frequent problem is that callers insist they have used their correct username, password and secret questions. One person had even kept their original username, password and secret questions in a Word document. But they were still unable to get into their account.

A further complication for those locked out of their accounts is that the email address used is linked to that account. We could offer two solutions: an “email release”, where a request was sent off so the person could use the email address again. Or we could suggest they use a separate email or create a new email account. Understandably this caused a lot of annoyance. Many couples also found they required separate email addresses despite years of using one email address.

Even when people have access to their myGov account problems keep occurring. For example, a person could be trying to link a new service such as the Tax Office to their account, when they already have Medicare linked. They are unable to create the link because their details do not match. The issue seems to be that different government agencies have different information. So when a person attempts to link multiple records to their myGov account, the system thinks it is looking at the records of two different people.

As you may be aware, a number of government agencies are using the myGov website and more will in the future. However, the 13 23 07 number and the staff working on it now are employed by and use the Centrelink systems. But other agencies like Medicare and the ATO send their calls about technical issues to this number. If the issue is basic it can possibly be solved. However, staff cannot access other agencies’ systems and therefore cannot see if there is an issue there. For example, some callers have been unable to access Centrelink on their myGov accounts. This can be because their Centrelink record suggests that it does not have enough proof of identity, which will have to be presented at a physical office. If there is a similar issue for a customer of another agency, helpdesk staff cannot see this.

There are other online issues, such as SMS verification codes, missing online letters and people not being able to submit their claims or income reporting. However, I would like to mention a few of the technical issues from a staff perspective.

Being employed by Centrelink means not being able to view information about non-Centrelink customers. Staff are also unable to access myGov accounts remotely and reset passwords or unlock accounts. This is because the customer’s account is not part of a government record, therefore to enter would be a breach of security and privacy.

Furthermore, a person might call the helpdesk number with an uncommon issue, or one that cannot be addressed by the usual solutions. Therefore staff could search the Centrelink intranet, a main Centrelink wiki site or various wikis created by staff, as well as guides accessible to the public on humanservices.gov419论坛. While it is helpful that there is a huge amount of information, like the myGov site these resources are temperamental. Pages dedicated to the area of information required do not include what you are looking for. And using search functions, even with specific and correct page names, can bring up pages of irrelevant results.

Therefore, after only a few days on the phone I found myself feeling ill and depressed when awaiting the next phone call to arrive. I felt that I was unable to provide an adequate level of service – putting people on hold (and wasting their time and money) to search hopelessly and then usually have to inform them that they could start over or hope it was an internet issue. That is not good enough.

I worked with friendly and dedicated people, who I do not want to put down here. They are being failed, just as the customers are. I have admiration for those who I worked with, attempting to get through callers’ issues, and for those who called and were sometimes understandably upset.

Fast and easy online services are a good idea for those who want to use them. But instead of focusing on herding as many people on to an imperfect system, perhaps the focus can be on creating systems that are easy to use, that do not break down often and that can be understood by well-trained staff.

The author is a former DHS worker

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Lodge interior ready but no date for Tony Abbott move

Work on The Lodge is expected to cost more than $8.8 million. Photo: Graham TidyWork to refurbish the inside of the prime minister’s official Canberra residence is finished but Tony Abbott is yet to decide when he will move in to the historic home.
Nanjing Night Net

Extensive renovations of The Lodge are more than a year overdue and will cost taxpayers at least $8.8 million, dwarfing the original estimated price of $3.19 million.

While Mr Abbott was last week launching a review of travel perks for parliamentarians in the wake of former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation, the Finance Department quietly announced the inside of The Lodge was finished and the house was ready for its new tenants.

Work is continuing outside the house, including replacement of guardhouses used by the Australian Federal Police, new outside toilet facilities and a new shed for the property’s gardeners.

The project’s overall completion date has been pushed back again, this time to September. Previously the department said work would be finished in early 2015, later delaying completion until mid-year.

Commissioned under the former Labor government, the renovation has seen new wiring for the 40-room home, repainting and new carpets, restored heritage features, new bathrooms and dressing rooms, and a new “luggage lift” installed.

Asbestos has been removed from the 1927 home, while the entire slate roof has been replaced, heating and cooling system upgraded and new balcony balustrades added.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office said there was no announcement of when Mr Abbott would move from the Australian Federal Police Academy in nearby Barton.

Mr Abbott has opted to stay in a $110-a-night room at the college, shunning a $3000-a-week home in nearby Forrest rented during the pre-election caretaker period.

Contractors finishing inside the house will allow heritage furniture, curtains and artworks owned by the Australiana Fund to be reinstated to the interior. Finance officials told Senate estimates hearings in May they hoped the house would be ready for tenants by the end of June or early July.

The government’s tender website shows “asbestos re-encapsulation” work completed by Parsons Brinckerhoff Australia cost taxpayers $19,241.20.

Project management work by Fyshwick-based Ross Petsas Luksza cost $44,550.00 and specialist advice from Ainsworth Heritage consultants cost $59,449.01.

Law firm Clayton Utz charged $67,550 for legal advice on the project and removals and storage costs for light fittings and window treatments by Oldfield Removals and Storage cost $22,557.16.

A new gutter safety system installed in early 2013 cost taxpayers $81,581.50, while replacement of the 1980s slate roof by Roofing Slate Worx cost $335,314.71.

The cost of head contractor Mantenna has been varied to $8.87 million.

Mr Abbott has previously said he would lean towards “orthodoxy” and live in the home. Designed by Melbourne architects Oakley and Parkes, prime minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce and his wife Ethel Bruce first moved into the colonial revival-style home in May 1927.

Originally known as the Prime Minister’s Cottage, the heritage-listed property was built by James Taylor, of Sydney, at a cost of £28,000. Cabinet required the interior decoration and furniture, designed by Ruth Lane Poole, used quality Australian materials and the “best British manufacturers”.

Prime ministers Ben Chifley and James Scullin famously derided The Lodge and lived elsewhere, while 15 former leaders, including Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, used the residence during their tenures.

Mr Abbott’s family already use his official Sydney residence, Kirribilli House.

The government has sought to avoid information about the refurbishment being made public, including blocking access to the media. One senior bureaucrat said Mr Abbott’s staff could be concerned about privacy or a poor reaction to the information being made public.

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