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Requiem for Ronald Biggs, Great Train Robber, punk associate

There we were, sitting in a crowded room of a two-storey stone building dating back to when Bridgetown, Barbados, was a buccaneer and slaving settlement. Convicted Great Train Robber, escapee, Australian and Brazilian resident and Sex Pistols associate Ronald Biggs was sitting, handcuffed but smiling and happily relaxed in the dock, his theatrical local barrister resplendent in a tunic with red leg stripes, arguing his case.

That was April 1981. The air was soft, the water clear and, they say, the spliff was excellent.

Biggs had been recently kidnapped from Brazil by English bounty hunter mercenaries. Their boat had mechanical problems and they were rescued off Barbados, bringing into question the legal status of their involuntary shipmate.

I was a 25-year-old reporter, sent to cover the trial by a significant Australian newspaper, by way of inducement to leave El Salvador’s horrible and increasingly personalised civil war. Biggs was eminently sociable and ensured that he made eye contact with the media scrum on the benches. In the first stage of post-traumatic stress disorder, I nodded back.

Much of Bridgetown had been built by the British in the 17th century, after expelling the Spanish and Portuguese who had been there some 200 years previously. Apart from an airport, a requisite four star hotel and reggae, there was a sense that little had changed.

Biggs was by far the biggest thing that had happened to Barbados in a very long time. There were British tourists, jetting in and out. But it was otherwise "dreadlock holiday".

The British media was there, Biggs’ criminal notoriety having been given a further boost by his musically questionable appearance with remnant Sex Pistols on their video The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. For a person who could not legally work in Brazil, he had traded socially for years on his reputation as a famous criminal, receiving small gifts from visitors to attend his Rio barbecues.

Ronald Biggs was one of the Great Train Robbers, who hoisted an estimated 2.6 million pounds (a significant fortune now) from the Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963. Though no one was killed, the train driver, Jack Mills, was beaten so severely his injuries ended his working life.

Of the 13 convicted participants in the crime, Biggs was a minor player. However, the trial itself was a media sensation, and Biggs gained notoriety by getting over the walls of Wandsworth Prison in 1965 and escaping with his wife, Charmian, and two sons to Brussels, Paris and then Australia.

Biggs arrived in Sydney in 1966 and soon moved to Glenelg, in Adelaide, where he was joined by his wife and sons. The following year, and with a new child, they moved to Melbourne.

In 1969, it had become increasingly obvious that the infamous Ronald Biggs was in Melbourne. He was all across the local news. So he fled by ship to Panama, and then to Brazil where, by fathering a Brazilian child, he fought off extradition appeals by the UK government.

While living in Rio, Biggs became a local celebrity. One could buy T-shirts and coffee cups with his image. The remnant Sex Pistols teamed up for a quick punk recording of No One Is Innocent and Belsen Was A Gas, which made #7 on the UK charts.

In 1981, Biggs was kidnapped by ex-UK soldiers. But Barbados, small, only independent since 1966 and without many legal structures, had no extradition treaty with the UK. Biggs was returned to Brazil.

Biggs dragged out the rest of his minor celebrity with other punk bands and generous tourists, but chose to return to the UK in 2001. He was immediately returned to prison, but sought release on the basis of poor health. He was released in 2009, having served a third of his original sentence.

Biggs' health continued to be poor, and he suffered a series of strokes. Free from prison, he said he just wanted to see Christmas of 2009.

Ronald Biggs, 84, has fallen just short of seeing Christmas 2013.

Disability funding is no charity - it's an investment

Treasurer Joe Hockey warned on Tuesday of a "massive blowout" in the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) if the system wasn't made more efficient. This follows subtle re-positioning of the government's stance on the NDIS since the election.

Tony Abbott referred to the scheme as a “trial” rather than a “launch” after the recent COAG meetings. And back in November a key adviser to the government, the head of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council Mr Maurice Newman, identified the NDIS as a “worthy cause”, but one which it was “reckless” to support in times of economic difficulty.

The “worthy cause” part of his speech is patronising, offensive and anachronistic; the “reckless” part is ill-informed and patently incorrect.

All hail kale or superfood fail?

Kale is the 'superfood' du jour. Is kale a true superfood that leaves all others in its dust, or is it a case of hype over substance? The truth lies in a little from column A and a little from column B.

Kale is a leafy green vegetable which is part of the cruciferous vegetable family which also includes cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and bok choy. As a group, the cruciferous vegetables rank near the top of any nutritionist’s list of top foods to consume so kale already has many runs on the board.

In Timor-Leste, it's spies like us … or like them, anyway

Australia and Timor-Leste are in a diplomatic lull following the revelations that Australia spied on Timor-Leste's cabinet via agents working through its aid program. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is in South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, who had visited him in prison in Jakarta and thus helped elevate his international status.

But one senior minister, left to mind the shop, chuckled quietly. By spying on Timor-Leste, he believes that Australia has provided the mechanism required to invalidate the unequal Timor Sea treaty between the two countries.

There is official insistence that Australia and Timor-Leste remain close friends, despite the occasional angry comment. This particular dispute, the Timor-Leste government believes, should remain quarantined from the wider relationship.

Australia's official perspective is similar, with ambassador Miles Armitage taking a soft line towards recent demonstrations outside the Australian embassy. He was dismayed by riot police over-reacting and firing tear gas at a small group of protesters, also gassing ordinary police who had the situation well under control.

But it is not as though spying in Timor-Leste is much of a secret. One minister privately joked that the Chinese-built foreign affairs building is full of listening devices. And then there is the Chinese-built presidential palace and defence forces headquarters.

Australia is far from alone in its close interest in the Timor-Leste government. It is also far from alone in keeping tabs on the other representative offices here. Embassy row, along the seafront west of the town centre, boasts compounds that would look impressive in much larger capitals.

The substantial presence of China, the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Portugal and the other Lusophone states -- Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand -- reflects Timor-Leste's strategically important location astride oil and gas fields, a critical submarine deep sea route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and being in the middle of the world’s largest archipelago.

It also reflects the simple fact that, with everyone here and paying attention, everyone else also feels they need to be here and paying attention to everyone else. Timor-Leste itself demurs on this question, claiming that it does not have the capacity to spy.

Yet in its 24-year struggle for independence, the Timor-Leste guerrilla army's intelligence network surpassed even that of the notoriously extensive intelligence network of the Indonesian military. The old networks, like the old clandestine names -- of which Prime Minister Xanana, President Taur Matan Ruak and past parliamentary speaker Fernando Lasama are but a few -- remain intact.

Information -- about everything and everyone -- always has been and remains the richest of prizes in Timor-Leste. To the extent that intelligence gathering activities have changed since Indonesian times, it is only their much greater scope that is different.

Is this an ad for haircare products, or a feminist discourse?

There's been a bit of a flurry on the internets and in the media about this advertisement (below) from Pantene in the Philippines. Many have questioned whether this is an advertisement for a hair product, or something bigger - perhaps a contribution to the feminist discourse.

It certainly has the capacity to contribute to a discussion about the role of women in the workplace, and some of the entrenched difficulties that women have when compared to the way that men operate (and are rewarded).

My brilliant colleague, Amanda Allisey, put it eloquently recently when arguing (on that great font of debate, Facebook) about the media's portrayal of women, and how it influences social norms (which means we don't notice it):

How to beat overeating at all-you-can-eat buffets

Resisting the temptation to take the lure of an all-you-can-eat buffet as a personal challenge is enough to test the willpower of even the most nutrition-conscious person. Now scientists have found that the order you put food on your plate can influence the likelihood of what other foods you’ll follow up with.

Buffets are a common part of the daily dining experience for many people including travellers staying in hotels, at evening social functions, conferences and work cafeterias. With so much food choice available at a buffet, are there some useful strategies that the health conscious person can use to help avoid unconscious overeating from the array of tempting food on offer?

Indonesian lessons for choppy East Timor waters

The Coalition government’s first months in office have been a crash course in regional politics, with somewhat more emphasis on the "crash". Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has now put in place the first of what is expected to be six steps to repair Australia's damaged relationship with Indonesia, while relations with East Timor are being battered by clumsy handling of that country's claim for arbitration over the Timor Sea.

Bishop's visit to Jakarta and her softer approach to Australia's culpability over spying on Indonesia, including its President, was exactly what was needed to keep this critically important relationship on track. Unfortunately, it was needed more than three weeks ago, when such an approach could have averted the subsequent fallout.

Had Bishop gone to Jakarta with exactly her current approach when the spying scandal first broke -- but before President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was involved -- the issue would have been neutralised. Instead, Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed in via Parliament, making a bad situation worse.

That lesson about pre-emptive diplomacy has now been learned. But Indonesia will have to take the lead and shape a re-established relationship.

With East Timor, the government -- and its predecessor -- have known for years that Australia would face a legal challenge over the forced carve-up of the Timor Sea. The East Timorese government has long signalled that its claims against Australia included allegations of Australian spying in order to gain an unfair advantage.

With the first hearing on the matter in the International Court of Arbitration known well in advance, it is deeply puzzling why Attorney-General George Brandis would wait until almost the eve of the hearing before ordering raids on the office of East Timor's lawyer, Bernard Collaery, and the home of a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer.

Brandis claims the raids were not intended to try to thwart East Timor’s case, but were rather focused on preventing the release of classified information. But given the timing, that is not how it looks.

In any case, most of the relevant material was already in The Hague and will be available to the court. The raids and cancelling of the passport of the former ASIS officer are a minor glitch for East Timor’s case, but will be counted against Australia’s argument before the court.

So, too, being counted against Australia will be former foreign minister Alexander Downer’s support for Woodside Petroleum -- the major player in proposed Timor Sea gas extraction -- and the economic benefit it stands to receive as a consequence of the Timor Sea carve-up. That Downer has since been put on Woodside’s payroll looks, at best, like a conflict of interest.

At stake in the hearing is the legality of Australia’s CMATs agreement with East Timor which, if it is found to be invalid, will also invalidate two previous treaties which are "read together" with CMATS. Up for grabs, again, will be the issue of a permanent sea border between the two countries, and control over more than $40 billion worth of gas and oil.

Should this claim be successful, not only will the sea border with East Timor be up for grabs, the previously related sea border with Indonesia will then become out of synch. One border will reflect a median point between two countries, the other the edge of a continental shelf.

Of major concern to Australia is that it could now lose territorial reach and control over a good proportion of the Timor Sea's resources. Of at least equal concern is the flow-on effect this could have for the border with Indonesia.

A dispute between Australia and tiny East Timor over their sea border is troubling. A subsequent territorial dispute with Indonesia would make the recent spying row pale into insignificance.

The beat on beetroot juice in sport

Beetroot juice is now high on the list of popular sports supplements. So why are athletes necking down this purple concoction and importantly, is it doing them any good?

With more research coming out than ever before supporting its use, there may just be some merit to moving this sports supplement out of the ‘fad’ category.

Beetroot juice contains lots of naturally occurring nitrate, which is found at different levels in many other vegetables. Nitrate is a powerful chemical in our body because it turns into nitric oxide.

Thailand on the brink of military intervention -- again

For a country that has so much in its favour, Thailand seems to be locked in a historical cycle of elected governments and military coups. The current political turmoil wracking the country’s capital, Bangkok, looks to be bringing it back to the brink of military intervention.

The political divides in Thailand that have led to the current crisis are not as simple as corrupt elected leaders versus trusted technocrats. Thailand’s politics is multi-layered, geographically divided and reflects a series of differing agendas and ideologies.

As with Thailand’s last political crisis, this one can be broadly understood along "red shirt/yellow shirt" lines. The "red shirts" hold elected government; the "yellow shirts" want them out. But, more accurately, this current contest is now more clearly between elected government and an anti-democracy movement.

The governing Pheu Thai Party (PTP) is headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted prime minister Thaksin Sinawatra, who founded the PTP’s predecessor, Thai Rak Thai. Thaksin and Yingluck hail from the north of Thailand but also draw their support base from the north-east and, broadly, among working-class Thais in and around Bangkok. They have had a generally consistent numerical advantage over the opposition, the support base for which is largely urban and middle-class.

Opposing it is the Democrat Party, with demonstrations organised and led by recently resigned Democrat parliamentarian Suthep Thaugsuban. As deputy prime minister in 2010, Suthep ordered attacks against pro-democracy protesters, leaving 90 dead and 2000 injured. Suthep has announced the formation of the unelected "People's Committee for Thailand's Absolute Democracy under the Constitutional Monarchy", of which he would be secretary-general.

The military, always the key arbiter in Thai politics, is divided, but with its officer corps largely sympathetic to the opposition and/or the royalty. Thailand’s final political authority rests with the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in the past has acted as a political circuit breaker.

However, the widely respected and much loved 86-year-old (on Thursday) king has been in physical decline in recent years and is regarded as no longer active. His successor, Prince Vajiralongkorn, is (in a country where criticising the royalty remains illegal) somewhat less popular than his father.

Thailand’s powerful business community tends to oppose the ruling PTP. But it, too, is divided. The more powerful lines of influence are not based simply on class, but divides among Thailand’s oligarchy, which shares a patronising top-down approach to all politics. This then reflects competing ethnicities (various language groups of Chinese-descendant Thais are dominant), patron-client networks and a traditional urban-rural divide that casts rural Thais in derogatory terms.

The PTP is widely seen as corrupt, buying votes and then engaging in corruption to cover costs. But the proposition that a "people’s council" of technocrats can be trusted is nonsense; apart from any other tendency they will, by definition, be unaccountable. Corruption is, thus, a given.

Where the king was happy to have a hands-off approach to Thai politics, other than in times of crisis, the prince is said to be more actively interested. One view has it that the current protests intend to restore the royalty to direct rule, with the backing of the army, or most of it.

Their agenda is to remove the PTP from power and to install, at a minimum, administrators appointed by the king. But with the king largely incapacitated, this decision would then fall to his son. The prince would thus become the less-than-benign arbiter of state affairs.

Over the past century, Thailand has experienced a military coup or an attempted coup, on average, at least once every five years. It is instructive, at this time of crisis, to note that the last military coup was seven years ago.

Weight loss supplements loosen dietary control

People who take weight loss supplements are less likely to control other areas of their diet – a well-described psychological effect known as moral licensing.

Weight loss supplements are big business despite most of them having little evidence to support their miraculous weight-loss claims. Fat burners, fat blockers, metabolism boosters, and appetite suppressants – these are the popular categories of pills and potions that fly off pharmacy and health food store shelves.

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