We don’t need two spinners, says Lyon

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Australia don’t need two specialist spinners in the second Ashes Test in Adelaide, according to Nathan Lyon, who says he’s learned plenty since last year’s drawn Test with South Africa at the same ground.

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Against the Proteas, Australia had a series-clinching Test victory in their grips – requiring just six wickets on the fifth day at Adelaide Oval.

The scene was tailor-made for offspinner Lyon to be the hero on his former home ground, but instead South African middle-order batsman Faf du Plessis earned the plaudits as he batted for seven-and-a-half hours, accumulating 110 not out, to force a draw.

The result raised questions about Lyon’s match-winning ability – but he says he’s learned and grown from that disappointment.

“I’ve learnt a fair amount playing a few Test matches down there,” said Lyon on Tuesday.

“I’ve learnt a fair amount about my game and what I need to do and what I need to do to get better.

“Fingers crossed there’s a little bit more spin down there and we’ll see how we go.”

And, striking a blow to the hopes of legspinner Fawad Ahmed and rising offspinner Ashton Agar, Lyon said he’s ready to go it alone – almost.

“Steve Smith, Michael Clarke – they’re pretty capable of bowling a few overs,” Lyon said on Thursday.

“In saying that if the bowling group does our job they (part-time spinners) won’t have to bowl.

“I’m more than happy to take on the responsibility of being the No.1 spinner and hopefully get a few overs under my belt.”

Lyon, who sparked English collapses in both innings of the 381-run first Test win at the Gabba, has been dropped on two occasions this year.

Firstly in spin-friendly India he was overlooked for Xavier Doherty, then little-known Ashton Agar was picked for the opening two Ashes Tests in England.

And the pressure will again be on for the 26-year-old to deliver at Adelaide, where he used to be the groundskeeper and has taken 10 wickets at 25 in two Tests.

But it’s a challenge he is embracing.

“I feel confident in my own skill-set to get the job done,” he said.

Lyon said Australia can’t afford to back down from their aggressive tactics because they know England won’t roll over.

“It’s England and it’s a Test match, they’re going to bounce back, we know that,” he said on Thursday.

“Test match cricket is the hardest format going around.

“We’re not expecting anyone to roll over. We know the quality of the England cricket side.

“We’re going to have to stand up … and start that fight again.

“…That’s the way Australia play their best cricket.

“We know where the line is and we don’t step over it.

“We’re going to continue to play aggressive, hard cricket.”

Comment: Chinese appetite for pecans boosting pie prices

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What’s more American than apple pie? Pecan pie.

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The world’s first apple tree grew in Asia millennia ago. But the pecan tree is a native American. How appropriate, then, that pecans enjoy a place of honor on the table at Thanksgiving, a deeply homegrown holiday.

But hold the whipped cream. Pecan pie is expensive this year! Where I live in Austin, Texas, pecan pies are clearing $20 each at bakeries around town. In coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, where labor and overhead are higher, a 9-inch pie can set a pilgrim back as much as $34. Even at these prices, bakeries are selling pecan pies at a loss. Why so costly?

The cost of pecans is fully exposed to the economic push and pull of supply and demand — the government doesn’t support pecan prices the way it does sugar prices, for instance. So when the most populous country in the world suddenly developed an insatiable and totally unprecedented hunger for pecans, demand skyrocketed. The price of pecans did, too.

James McWilliams (an occasional Slate contributor) tells the story in his new book, “The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut.” The year was 2006, and the scene was a food trade show in Paris. An official from New Mexico’s Department of Agriculture introduced a group of Chinese buyers to pecans, an important crop for that state. “The Chinese cracked them open, sampled them, and were intrigued — so intrigued,” writes McWilliams, “that they traveled to New Mexico to meet growers, tour orchards, and discuss tentative contracts.” At the time, China didn’t import any pecans, and it didn’t (still doesn’t) grow any, either. No one in China ate pecans.

And yet, after only a couple of years and a bit of savvy marketing, a craze for pecans had gripped the Chinese like quinoa in California. Advertisements touted their antioxidants, claiming them capable of extending life and fending off Alzheimer’s. China’s exploding middle class has disposable income and considers the pecan a snack worth splurging on. The Chinese now eat pecans like we eat pistachios — partially shelled and brined, then roasted for extra salty-crunchy goodness.

By 2009 China had gone from not having a word for “pecan” to importing 83 million pounds — a quarter of the U.S. crop. With a public willing to pay between $10 and $15 a pound, importers began actively courting pecan growers in other states, like Georgia and Texas. “In 2005,” writes McWilliams, “pecans were a novelty item in China. Today they can be found, as one newspaper reports, ‘at gas stations, airports, and every grocery store in China.’ “

An old pecan just isn’t as pretty as a fresh pecan, and pretty matters-especially when people are paying more than $20 for a pie.

What does that mean for American pecan growers? Jake Montz planted his first pecan trees in 1987 and now grows some 25,000 trees’ worth on his farm in Wichita Falls, Texas. These days about 25 percent of his crop goes to China. He sells another quarter in his own two nut shops, and the remainder goes to a shelling company that will, in turn, sell the nutmeats to grocery stores and companies that manufacture ice cream and breakfast cereals.

Conditions this year have squeezed his supply even more than usual. Severe drought in Texas has stretched on for three years now, and the pecan trees have suffered. Making matters worse, three late freezes decimated this year’s crop. But he still has to pay his ever-rising costs — fuel, electricity, equipment, labor. Fortunately, high demand both domestically and from China means prices are high. “I’d rather have a big crop and sell them a little cheaper,” says Montz. Unfortunately, that’s not happening this year.

Professional bakers would love for pecans to be a little cheaper, too. In the mid-1990s, my local bakery, Texas French Bread, sold pecan pies for $10 to $12 each ($15 to $18 in today’s dollars). Today, owner Murph Willcott pays more than $11 a pound for the fancy pecan halves that go into pies he can afford to sell only at Thanksgiving. Chopped nuts, usually sold as “pieces,” would be cheaper, but the pies wouldn’t look as nice. “The halves are prettier,” he says, “so we try to use them.” Willcott also values the freshest nuts. Though some bakers use nuts that are a year or two old, he says, “What you want is the one that’s just been shelled, that is really beautiful and perfect. Those are really hard to find at this point.” As a pecan ages, with or without its shell, it loses moisture and thus plumpness. An old pecan just isn’t as pretty as a fresh pecan, and pretty matters — especially when people are paying more than $20 for a pie.

Willcott’s pecan pies will sell for $22 this year, but that won’t cover the cost of making them. “So we’ll eat it on that one,” he says, “and our margin won’t be what we want it to be. But we’ll make them anyway.” Another Austin bakery, Walton’s Fancy and Staple, has addressed pecans’ soaring cost by pricing all its Thanksgiving pies at $22. This way, the lower cost of producing pies made with ingredients that happen to be cheaper — pumpkin, for instance — helps offset the more expensive pecan. But even using this strategy, Walton’s has had to raise prices over the past several years, says culinary director Justin Raiford.

What does the pecan boom mean for people who bake their own pies? In 2008 pecans retailed for $3.50 a pound, according to McWilliams. In 2010 they were up to $6.95. Now, at my local grocery store, I pay $10.99 for pecan halves and $9.99 for pieces. My pecan pie recipe calls for three-quarters of a cup of each.

That means pecans are now the most expensive item when I prorate the prices on my ingredient list. Butter comes next (we use organic), then the corn syrup (don’t judge me before you taste my pie), and maple syrup (Vermont’s a long way away). When I add it all up, I find it will cost me $11.73 to make a pecan pie from scratch. Of course, we’ll have to double that at Thanksgiving. One pecan pie is never enough.

Goulart writes about the geography of food.

Copper pits for NBN a "disgrace": Union

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The union representing Telstra field staff estimates up to 80 per cent of the telco’s “disgraceful” copper-wire network pits have been patched together by plastic bags or ring-barked cables.

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It’s the very same copper network NBN Co plans to buy or lease off Telstra for the fibre-to-the-node national broadband network (NBN) being championed by the Abbott government.

“This would be a fraud on the Australian taxpayer,” CEPU NSW assistant secretary Shane Murphy told a Senate hearing on the NBN in Canberra on Thursday.

Mr Murphy said 75 to 80 per cent of Telstra’s copper pits were as rotten as the pictures he brought to the Senate committee, which showed the ageing network being crudely held together by ring-barked cables and covered by plastic bags in a vain attempt to keep water out.

“This is the exact network that will be sitting outside there, tying into the NBN that is built to the node,” he said.

Mr Murphy said the network was in reasonably good condition when Telstra was privatised in the late 1990s.

However, proper maintenance of the network’s copper pits had since disappeared.

“Telstra has been consistently pushing workers to simply get the customer services up and running, band-aiding the network, and moving the employee or contractor quickly onto the next job,” he said.

Telstra would have no idea just how bad things were in the copper pits, Mr Murphy added.

“Workers and contractors are now so frustrated with what they’re working in, and without being given the adequate responsibility to be able to fix it appropriately, they’re not reporting them.”

Mr Murphy said the communications union is about to begin a campaign in a number of electoral seats around the country to highlight the issue.

Earlier on Thursday, the Senate select committees summonsed NBN Co chief Ziggy Switkowski to front a parliamentary inquiry.

Dr Switkowski and other senior NBN executives have said they are reluctant to appear before the committee in person.

The committee has issued a summons requiring their presence at an inquiry hearing in Canberra on Friday.

Committee chair Kate Lundy said on Thursday the summons had been issued with regret, given the government’s public commitment to openness and transparency in matters relating to the NBN.

The Senate has asked the committee to inquire into the government’s reviews of the NBN and the governance of NBN Co.

PM wants Qantas to remain a ‘successful Australian icon’

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But Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says removing foreign ownership restrictions on the airline in parliament would not be “realistically achievable”.

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“We don’t think it is realistically achievable in the current parliament,” he said in a statement to staff this morning.

“And the process would be prolonged, during which time Virgin Australia would be free to continue its anti-competitive strategy aimed at crippling Qantas. We simply do not have the time.”

Mr Joyce said Qantas needs more government support to reflect its status as the country’s national carrier. He said compared to other countries, Qantas receives no government concessions and no preferred access to Australian airportss.

“There are a range of policy measures that the government could consider in order to provide a more level playing field for the aviation sector in Australia.

“Qantas looks forward to discussions with the government about potential steps to level the playing field and support the national carrier.”

Earlier today, Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey described foreign ownership rules applied to Qantas more than two decades ago as “regulatory handcuffs”.

The treasurer wants a national debate on whether Australian investors should retain majority ownership of the flying kangaroo, arguing it could restrict the listed carrier’s growth in the long run.

“If Australians want to place regulatory handcuffs on Qantas then we need to accept that that will come at a cost,” Mr Hockey told reporters in Sydney on Thursday.

“Frankly, it’s not something that I am willingly prepared to do.”

Mr Hockey first made his views known about the 49 per cent foreign ownership cap at a forum in Sydney on Wednesday, prompting a more than three per cent jump in Qantas’ shares on Thursday.

As at March, foreign investment in Qantas, which has a market value of $2.6 billion, was 39.8 per cent. The majority of this share is held by two US investment groups.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor believes Qantas should stay in Australian hands.

“I believe the national carrier is an important part of Australia’s national security, it’s an important part of Australia’s independence,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Mr Shorten described Mr Hockey’s elevation of the issue as a “thought-bubble”, saying such issues should be discussed in the parliament.

“I would say to the treasurer these are important matters, they are also market sensitive matters,” he added.

However, Mr Hockey said the former Labor government was fully aware of the challenges facing Qantas in a changing and increasingly competitive airline market, but didn’t do anything about it.

“Bill Shorten is more interested in crisis management than crisis aversion,” Mr Hockey said.

“We don’t want to have to come back to deal with this in 12 months or 18 months.”

Independent senator Nick Xenophon is wary of any relaxation of the foreign ownership rule, saying this could make Qantas vulnerable to a private equity or foreign takeover.

“My fear is the Qantas we know today will just become a shadow of itself,” he said.

Labor transport spokesman Anthony Albanese said Qantas made important contributions both domestically and overseas.

“Whenever national governments have needed assistance, Qantas has been there,” he told ABC radio.

The Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) has also called for the Qantas Sale Act to be changed.

“We are very satisfied to see the treasurer’s comments,” AIPA President Nathan Safe said.

US bid to destroy Syrian chemicals at sea

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The Obama administration is offering to destroy some of Syria’s deadliest chemical weapons in international waters aboard a US government-owned ship, US officials say.

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The plan, still subject to final approval, would involve destroying the weapons, likely aboard the MV Cape Ray in the Mediterranean Sea, with US navy warships patrolling nearby.

This approach would avoid the vexing diplomatic, environmental and security problems posed by disposing of the materials on any country’s soil.

The decision to proceed with the chemical disposal plan would be made by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a global chemical weapons watchdog agency with 190 member states.

In a statement on Wednesday in the Netherlands, the watchdog agency said the effort to ship Syria’s chemical arsenal out of the country “continues to pose challenges due to the security situation on the ground”.

No country has committed to disposing of the chemical weapons on its own soil, which is why the US offer to destroy the deadliest of the chemical components at sea is seen as a likely option.

The US officials who disclosed aspects of the US portion of the plan spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk about it by name.

The MV Cape Ray would host the destruction of some of the deadliest of Syria’s chemical materials using a process developed by the Pentagon but never employed in an actual operation.

The US would use what it calls a mobile Field Deployable Hydrolysis System to neutralise the chemical material, making it unusable as weapons.

The system was developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is an arm of the Pentagon.

The titanium reactor uses heated water and other chemicals to make the chemical warfare material inert.

According to several US officials, two of the hydrolysis units would be mounted on the Cape Ray.

It will take some time to retrofit the ship and conduct training to insure that the process can be done successfully at sea.

As of Wednesday, US officials said they are still trying to determine how the chemical warfare materials would be moved from Syria to the US ship.

They said they expect that another country will provide a ship for that part of the task.

Officials said they expect a final decision soon and the operation would begin by the end of the year.