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Seeing how things are a bit slow here in Melbourne for yours truly, maybe it is a good time to revisit London.

Allowing enough time to see Greenwich is trickier than it might seem. The scale of the place is deceptive, and you can eat up a fair amount of time just getting from one place to another. My first visit took place late one afternoon. I headed straight for the observatory to see the clocks. Anyone who has read “Longitude,” by Dava Sobel, will know what I am talking about. When ships from maritime nations first started sailing off the edge of the earth they had one big problem, how to figure out where they were. As long as they could see the sun and stars they could calculate their degree of latitude with a fair amount of accuracy. Longitude was the big problem. Getting a celestial fix is possible, but difficult, requiring careful astronomical calculations and advanced mathematics. Astronomers were working on accurate star charts, but they were still a long way off.

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The other solution was so preposterous that no one really thought it possible. Build a timepiece that would be unaffected temperature, moisture, the movement of the ship, maintaining near perfect time for thousands of miles from the point of origin to the final destination. This challenge was considered so intractable that the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (comparable to £2.87 million in modern currency) for the solution. If such a clock were set at noon in London at the start of a voyage, you could see from the clock how far you were from London by taking a reading at the Sun’s highest point. For instance, if the clock said midnight at the noon hour, then you would be half way round the world, (e.g. 180 degrees of longitude) from London.

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John Harrison was a self-educated English carpenter who had already turned to clockmaking when he became aware of the great prize. He went to work on the intractable problem and he refused to give up, dedicating most of his working life to building a clock that would win his fortune. He made four clocks over a period of thirty years, finally constructing something resembling a a marine chronometer that kept nearly perfect time over long voyages at sea.

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On its trial run, when HMS Deptford finally reached Jamaica, the watch was 5 seconds slow, corresponding to an error in longitude of 1.25 minutes, or approximately one nautical mile. Even though Harrison’s persistent tinkering solved the problem, the Board refused to award him the full prize, an injustice that was finally rectified by an exasperated King George III and an Act of Parliament. I was fortunate enough to tag along with an extremely knowledgeable guide or docent, who was holding forth about Harrison. I was mesmerised for the rest of the afternoon.

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The town of Greenwich was named by Danish settlers, meaning the green place on the bay near the mouth of a river. The town is built on a broad platform to the south of a broad bend in the River Thames, with a safe, deep water anchorage. To the south, the land rises steeply, 100 feet (30 m) through Greenwich Park to the town of Blackheath.
The Roman road from London to Dover, Watling Street crossed the high ground to the south of Greenwich through Blackheath. This followed the line of an earlier Celtic route from Canterbury to St Albans.

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During the reign of Aethelred the Unready, the Danish fleet anchored in the River Thames off Greenwich for over three years, with the army camped on the hill above. From here they attacked Kent and, in the year 1012, took the city of Canterbury, making Archbishop Alphege their prisoner for seven months. When he refused to allow himself to be ransomed for 3,000 pieces of silver, they stoned him to death. It was only when a stick that had been immersed in his blood bloomed, that they decided to release his body to the Christians. Alphege achieved sainthood in the 12th century.

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The town of Greenwich is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The town became the site of the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century, and was the birthplace of many in the House of Tudor, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant. These buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained an establishment for military education until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation.

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The Cutty Sark has been preserved and restored in an amazing installation by the river. The clipper ship spent only a few years in the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for ten years. Near the Cutty Sark site, a circular building contains the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, opened on 4 August 1902. This connects Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs on the northern side of the River Thames. The north exit of the tunnel is at Island Gardens, from where the famous view of Greenwich Hospital painted by Canaletto can be seen. It is a bit spooky walking under the river, but well worth doing for the wonderful view.

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Once a year at about this time, my blog takes a back seat to tax preparation. This year has been onerous because we have been away from our files for a long time and our situation is complicated. I’m pleased to say the work is almost done and I should be able to produce more frequent posts for the next nine months, anyway. I owe the title of this post to Tim Flannery, who wrote the book on the subject.

Australia woke up to a new government. I suspect that some of those supporting Tony Abbott never went to sleep, so woke up may not be the best phrase. Australians like to PARTY when it comes to victory, either on the playing fields or after an election. According to Tony Wright, who writes for Melbourne’s newspaper of record – “The Age,” the Coalition’s election eve blowout at the Four Seasons hotel in Sydney was a thousand strong, beefed up by circulating trays of wine. When Kevin Rudd’s concession speech came on television (which was carried live in the ballroom of the hotel) two enthusiastic young, blondes leapt on stage hoisting a large banner saying “It’s time for Tony.” The women hollered and gyrated as if they were on M.T.V., drowning out Rudd’s voice and revving up the crowd.

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Abbott gave a brief acceptance speech, noting with some satisfaction that Rudd had actually conceded defeat during his fifteen minute speech, just in case anyone was in doubt. Afterward, during the Abbott family photo session, a young man rushed the stage and managed to insert himself into the group before being tackled by security police.

It is just the seventh time in Australia’s electoral history that the government has changed. So, what does it all mean? I’m not a political junkie by any means, but it looks to me like the country is getting ready to take a step back to the time of Abbott’s political patron, John Howard. By most accounts, this was an election fought by two unpopular politicians. The younger people in this land seem to have been completely turned off by the negative campaigning and the focus on personalities, not policy. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke had this to say: “I really believe this is an election lost by the government rather than won by Tony Abbott.”

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Julia Gillard’s role in all this cannot be discounted. By agreeing to help topple Rudd from the helm and take over the reins of government, she created a profile of a Lady Macbeth, a politician misogynists loved to hate. Australia has more than its fair share of women haters. Rudd’s comeback and his treatment of others cemented the image of a party whose leaders were more concerned with stabbing each other in the back than leading the country to bigger and better things. Abbott has committed his party to scrapping both the carbon tax and the mining tax and to stopping the influx of immigrants who arrive on these shores seeking asylum. Turning back asylum seekers seems to be the extent of his foreign policy.

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Australia uses the preferential method of voting in elections. This means that voters are required to number the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference. To win, a candidate needs to secure an absolute majority, or 50% plus one, of valid votes cast. If a candidate does not secure an absolute majority of primary, or first preference votes, then the candidate with the least number of primary votes is eliminated and his/her votes reallocated in accordance with their second preferences. This process continues until a candidate has secured 50% plus one of the total votes. Hence, a winning candidate’s majority may be comprised of primary and preference votes. The system ensures that the candidate who is most preferred or least disliked will win.

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“Until mid-2014, the Senate will remain under the control of Labor and the Greens. Control could then pass to a mix of the Greens and small parties of the right. They might vote with the Coalition to repeal the carbon price, but if Labor holds firm, that is no certainty. But it’s not hard to see them blocking the Coalition’s plans to scrap the government contribution to low-income earners’ superannuation, or to cut $1 billion a year from tax breaks for small business.”

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The quote above is from Tim Colebatch, economic editor of The Age. According to him, the economic outlook has worsened for China, India, Indonesia, and the developing world… The world is not becoming riskier, but the risks are shifting closer to Australia. Australia’s economy is leaping from one phase of growth to another, with no certainty that it will grab the trapeze bar. Last week’s capital expenditure figures suggested that the mining investment boom is receding slowly, rather than being in free fall. But fall it will, and as Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens put it recently, ”it could be quite a big fall in due course”.

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Does this spell the beginning of the end for the “lucky country?” A writer by the name of Donald Horne branded the term in the consciousness of the country nearly fifty years ago. “In a hot summer’s night in December 1964 I was about to write the last chapter of a book on Australia. The opening sentence of this last chapter was: ‘Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck… I had in mind in particular the lack of innovation in Australian manufacturing and some other forms of Australian business, banking for example. In these, as a colonial carry over, Australia showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society.”

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Australia, Horne argued, developed as a nation at a time when Australians could reap the benefits of technological, economic, social and political innovations that were developed in other countries. Those countries were clever: Australia was simply lucky. In a land that is going to be profoundly affected by global warming, a country that could use all the cleverness and smart immigrants it can get, this election looks like a giant step back. At least Melbourne residents voted for Adam Bandt, a Green candidate. Good on ya.

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