Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Billions of Big Numbers!

Watching Four Corners on the ABC last night (a particularly weak Liz Jackson effort on the Rudd Government's emissions trading scheme) I was struck dumb by the reporter's reference to the big number of $1.7 billion as 'one thousand and seven hundred million dollars'!

Australians used to refer to billions as thousands of millions when I was a kid. It was the British style, billions of anything, let alone money, being so rare that you had to clarify exactly what it meant. Pedants, technically right probably, thought billions were million of millions, not thousands of millions, and that the Americans, who always considered it thousands of millions (just as millions were thousands of thousands), were, as usual, ignorant.

The media world long ago conquered the pedants and everybody now means thousands of millions when talking about billions. Billions are commonplace now. The number is everyday parlance.

But occasionally some sophisticate, usually on the ABC, has to remind us common folk that a billion is actually a big number like 'a thousand million'! It is so condescending.

The other thing that profoundly annoys me is the habit of newspapers to always convert everything to Australian dollars when quoting a US dollar amount. The business pages are full of references to US dollars. The accepted way of doing it is to write $US then the amount, as in $US100.

The fact is everybody knows what a US dollar is and what it is worth, especially the general readership of the business and economic stories. We don't need the amount to be converted into Australian dollars just to bring it home for us.

Six months or so ago, when the A$ was worth around 95 US cents the Australian dollar equivalent was not that much different. But now that the dollar is weak again, around 65 US cents, the amount is quite different. BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT ALL OF A SUDDEN THINGS PRICED IN US DOLLARS ARE THAT MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE AND THE JOURNALIST SHOULD HELPFULLY POINT THAT OUT TO US. In US dollar terms they are not any more expensive at all.

What I'm trying to say is that the converting to A$ on a constant basis is not just stylistically annoying and patronising, but wrong because it introduces an unrelated and distracting reflection on the vicissitudes of the A$ exchange rate when that is not the point of the story in any way. Everything doesn't have to be seen through the eyes of an Australian.

Barack Obama's 'trillion dollar stimulus package' is understandable as is. It should not be translated into Australian dollars because the amount is relevant and proportionate only to the US economy, not the Australian economy, and it's wrong for it to be understood as A$1.5t today whereas it was only A$1.05t mid last year.

Radio presenters worsen this when they refer to the package as 1.5 trillion Australian dollars in interviews with Americans. It's not.

Glad I've got that off my chest!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Priest, the Archbishop and a very unedifying stoush.

It seems to me that the only thing Father Peter Kennedy, who has been sacked as Administrator of St Mary's church in Brisbane, has done wrong is to have been about as politically and institutionally inept as you could imagine.

He couldn't muster the wit to live and work and carry out his progressive ministry in that state of tension and ambiguity within the established institutional church that liberals, dissenters, outsiders and thousands of others over the years have had to do. They've learnt to co-exist by developing a sophisticated survival mode that keeps them sufficiently under the radar to avoid provoking direct rebuke and disendorsement to no-one's advantage.

Peter Kennedy, from what I've read, seems a pretty harmless sort of bloke, spruiking a familiar mix of new-agey, Jesus-loves-youse-all, comfort food from his pulpit, and offending no-one, other than the seriously intelligent.

Quaint little liturgical flourishes like not wearing vestments, allowing women to preach, blessing gays, baptising in the name of 'the Creator, the Sustainer and the Liberator of life' instead of the official 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' are hardly the stuff of revolution or heresy, being more a sign of theological insipidity than informed dissent.

It was always going to be possible for the institution to allow Kennedy to operate. But Kennedy, seemingly, did not have the smarts.

The Catholic church has survived for 2000 years partly by being fanatical about authority and control, but by also being politically astute and inclusive. It's one of the grand institutions of history, remarkable for its continuing vitality, even existence, in today's post-modern, wise-arse world. It's an institution splattered with the mud of history, rich in its beliefs, liturgies, traditions and articulations, and deserving, I would have thought, of a fair measure of respect from cultured, literate people of any persuasion.

Kennedy should have been able to deal with it. It's a measure of the man that he couldn't.