Thursday, July 31, 2008

Now, what was I saying?

Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida

By: Seth G. Jones, Martin C. Libicki

All terrorist groups eventually end. But how do they end? The evidence since 1968 indicates that most groups have ended because (1) they joined the political process (43 percent) or (2) local police and intelligence agencies arrested or killed key members (40 percent). Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame have achieved victory. This has significant implications for dealing with al Qa'ida and suggests fundamentally rethinking post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism strategy: Policymakers need to understand where to prioritize their efforts with limited resources and attention. The authors report that religious terrorist groups take longer to eliminate than other groups and rarely achieve their objectives. The largest groups achieve their goals more often and last longer than the smallest ones do. Finally, groups from upper-income countries are more likely to be left-wing or nationalist and less likely to have religion as their motivation. The authors conclude that policing and intelligence, rather than military force, should form the backbone of U.S. efforts against al Qa'ida. And U.S. policymakers should end the use of the phrase “war on terrorism” since there is no battlefield solution to defeating al Qa'ida.

The full report will cost you about USD30 (that is about NZD40 than I can spare at the moment).

Now, who is going to prove Rand is wrong?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A retro(per)spective -

The good people at ALdaily really tweaked the curiosity with this one -
Every new gadget is, wrote T.S. Eliot, “Filled with fancies and empty of meaning / Tumid apathy with no concentration.” T.S. Eliot? Who’s he?...

Well, Eliot is one of my favourite writers, not just for his poetry (which can be very dense and somewhat depressing) but his prose as well. So the combination of the quote from "Burnt Norton" with "every new gadget" did not quite ring true and I had to go looking.

From the third stanza of "Burnt Norton -
...Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

It reads almost like he was describing an accountant... quelle horreur!! The actual article that pinged the quotation was this from timesonlne
I was – the irony! – trying to read a book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. Crushed in my train, I had become the embodiment of T S Eliot’s great summary of the modern predicament: “Distracted from distraction by distraction”. This is, you might think, a pretty standard, vaguely comic vignette of modern life – man harassed by self-inflicted technology. And so it is. We’re all distracted, we’re all interrupted. How foolish we are! But, listen carefully, it’s killing me and it’s killing you.

David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness; it might one day tell us how we make the world in our heads. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.

The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.

I read on and a separate line of thought started with this -
Meyer tells me that he sees part of his job as warning as many people as possible of the dangers of the distracted world we are creating. Other voices, particularly in America, have joined the chorus of dismay. Jackson’s book warns of a new Dark Age: “As our attentional skills are squandered, we are plunging into a culture of mistrust, skimming and a dehumanising merger between man and machine.”

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, has just written The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future. He portrays a bibliophobic generation of teens, incapable of sustaining concentration long enough to read a book. And learning a poem by heart just strikes them as dumb.

In an influential essay in The Atlantic magazine, Nicholas Carr asks: “Is Google making us stupid?” Carr, a chronic distractee like the rest of us, noticed that he was finding it increasingly difficult to immerse himself in a book or a long article – “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Instead he now Googles his way though life, scanning and skimming, not pausing to think, to absorb. He feels himself being hollowed out by “the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available’”.

And at that point the thread of the idea - Meyer through Bauerlein to Carr - began to get scary. I work with two other accountants in a small office of a medium sized manufacturing firm. I am nominally "Cost Accountant" but despite that I spend a good 80% of my time on financial accounting (yes, there is a difference). The others, and my boss, are all under 35; all are "very technically savvy"; all are looking for the latest in "gadgets" - skype phones are almost passe, and the latest rage is just a bit more expensive than can be hidden inside of "General Expenses".

That is the background, so far not scary. Where it does get scary is the approach to problems - the reconciliation that doesn't work or the cost centre that has blown out over the past three months, or the sudden decline in margin on a product. The boss is a great fan (and reputed "expert") in a dbase access system called "Hyperion". To me it has its uses, for my boss it is the only way to "find things out". So he spends several hours fine-tuning his analysis, preparing summaries; I sit down with a listing and (interruptions aside - I have a real difficulty concentrating!) work my way through the data.

That difference in approach is the scary bit. The thought of applying concentration and logic to form understanding is quite foreign. The idea that one misplaced transaction may not be human error but indicative of a deeper systemic failing is an incomprehensible heresy!
Bauerlein is 49. As a child, he says, he learnt about the Vietnam war from Walter Cronkite, the great television news anchor of the time. Now teenagers just go to their laptops on coming home from school and sink into their online cocoon. But this isn’t the informational paradise dreamt of by Bill Gates and Google: 90% of sites visited by teenagers are social networks. They are immersed not in knowledge but in “gossip and social banter”.

“They don’t,” says Bauerlein, “grow up.” They are “living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are now”.

The hyper-connectivity of the young is bewildering. Jackson tells me that one study looked at five years of e-mail activity of a 24-year-old. He was found to have connections with 11.7m people. Most of these connections would be pretty threadbare. But that, in a way, is the point. All internet connections are threadbare. They lack the complexity and depth of real-world interactions. This is concealed by the language.

Think too, of the "Personal life support systems" that are de rigeur in today's world. Who can walk the streets without personally selected musical accompaniament? Who can be seen in public without at least once demonstrating their social importance - or business importance - by receiving a cell-phone call?

TF might remember when I drew his attention to Wordsworth - "we have no time to stop and stare" - TF, here is another to put in the mind...
Time and the bell have buried the day,
The black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?

and -
...Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Definitions -

Sometimes Wiley Post gets it just so RIGHT!!...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Trying to move Sudan...

From Chinaview
CAIRO, July 20 (Xinhua) -- A senior Sudanese official said here his country is seeking for legal defenses to refute International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor's call to arrest Sudanese president over alleged war crimes, the Egyptian state MENA news agency reported on Sunday.

Sudan is consulting Arab legal experts in this regard, Sudanese Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Salman al-Wasilla said at a seminar in Cairo.
Sudan, which is not a member of the ICC, has rejected the ICC allegations, dismissing them as "null and false" and maintaining the ICC has no jurisdiction over Sudan.

Now that latter para should ring a very loud bell with a wide range of people, not least those from the US, because Sudan is not alone in adopting this approach.

As for criticising Sudan for going this way, people should realise that the US (a good number of your citizens) does seem to have this peculiar penchant for choosing quite strange comparatives to support untenable positions. Most recent example I can point to from the probligo's universe would be Dave Justus use of Nigeria as the example of support for GWB from a democratic country that in his opinion should represent the rest of Africa - well, sub-Saharan Africa at least - if not global support for GWB.

So, here y'go. Why should Sudan not refute the ICC's jurisdiction over their President when there are other, far more powerful, instances where the same approach has been taken.

Personally, I read articles like this with a quiet tear in the eye. Not because Sudan is Sudan, or that the principle of sovereignty is wrong. It is because in the world of real politics there is no equity, no "justice", without the might of arms.

In the instance of Sudan, there is no difference (as I see it) between China's support for the present regime there and the US's involvement in Iraq. I still do not believe that there is any fundamental difference in the political rationales used to justify their involvement (by either of China and the US). I still do not believe that there is any real difference in the outcomes - if Iraq is quietening down it may well be because the Sunnis are leaving for Syria, Iran, Jordan, Saudi... take a visit to riverbend.blogspot to see the story of just one person.

Most importantly, both China and the US are equally at odds with my personal beliefs. But then I have no say in the actions of either nation; and let's face it neither would be interested if they even knew of the probligo's existence.

There lies the crux of the problem in Sudan. The people affected can be ignored simply because "they do not exist". Oh, there are several million displaced persons; how sad, never mind. There are thousands been murdered; again, how sad, how cruel, how ... undemocratic. "I" can blame the Chinese; "I" can blame the UN; "I" can blame the probligo even. It makes no difference. "I" don't know any of "them" as people and hence their pain and suffering can be easily set aside.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Rain of the Children"

It happens that Vincent Ward is one of my favourite film directors – those in the US may remember “The Navigator” (not one of his best) and “Map of the Human Heart”. So, when his latest film turned up in the Auckland Film Festival it was (for me at least) a must-see.

His very first film, “Pahi”, was made when he was 21, over a period of 2 years, and is a documentary. The subject is the surprising thing. Pahi was the last remaining link with Rua Kenana; a Maori prophet of the late 1800’s and early 20th century. That name readers may recall has cropped up in other pieces that I have written and most prominently in the saga (continuing saga) of “The Urewera Eleven”. Pahi was (she died in 1980) married to Rua’s brother.

This latest film, “Rain of the Children”, is another documentary. Narrated by Ward himself, it is presented as a rediscovery and personal pilgramage to the story of “Pahi” the original documentary and to the kuia herself.

I know that it is most unlikely that “Rain of the Children” will be seen outside of the local film festivals, perhaps on very late night local tv if the public broadcaster “charter” lasts more than another six months. That is truly a great pity because Ward has recreated the story of Pahi in some depth and combined that recreation with appropriate cuts from his original documentary to present a self-analysis, and his personal discovery of the truths behind her story that he had missed from his first film.

So, his return to the Maungapohatu, to the mountain, to the river, to the story centres on what was “missed”. As seen in the first documentary, Pahi could come across as verging on “mad”; continually in prayer, physically bent double, undertaking “strange voyages” within her very private world, and caring for her one remaining child now in his 40’s. He was regarded as “patuparaihe” – almost literally “away with the fairies”. A very strange man indeed.

Ward was very much aware that Pahi was a great deal more than he recorded in 1978 and it is the missing history that “Rain of the Children” sets out to disclose. Without covering all of the content of the film, which would require a virtual re-creation of the entire script, he ends with a very graphic illustration.

The end of the film starts with one of the final scenes from “Pahi” – a sequence showing the old lady squatting on the ground cutting firewood. Her son Nicki standing in the background, his back turned to her. Ward describes what he was seeing when he took the original film, and then points out that instead of splitting the piece of wood lengthways, Pahi was ineffectually trying to cut cross-grain. After his re-analysis of her story, Ward now realised what Pahi was doing in that clip.

She knew that he was leaving. She wanted him to leave, as he represented (my words) an invasion of her world. At the same time she was trying to delay that departure for as long as possible (by cutting across the wood and extending the scene) so that her “real world” would not return. That real world comprised her “curse”; all of her 15 children except Nicki had died in infancy or childhood. Her only way of killing that curse was to keep Nicki alive. Because of his “patuparaihe” nature, Nicki also had a curse of his own and that for Pahi was the centre of her nature.

It has taken four days to get this sorted in my head. I would love to see the film again. It scared the h311 out of me for sure, not because it was “frightening” as such but because of the world picture that it presented. It was a story of the culture of the pre-European Maori, existing within the context of my lifetime (remember that Pahi would have been alive and in her 70’s at the time that the family was living in Te Whaiti in the late 1950’s).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

On the principles of greed...

The first rumbles were back in May 2005, prompting the probligo to put this out.

Now at that time, and the reason for selecting “Four Prominent Bastards”, the big fear back then was the impact of Freddie Mac (yes I mis-typed “Mae” at the end) on the investment community, and the likelihood of the collapse of both Freddie and Fannie.

Then in December last it was raised again, following the Bush “rescue plan”.

Now as I understand it, the idea of the rescue plan was to “support” those who were in danger of default on their loan, with the intent of protecting the investments made to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

But in fact, the malaise runs much deeper, as can be seen in this country.

In the increasing “investment products” of recent times come the “Portfolio Investment Entity” (PIE). Now these little sweeties for the hopeful rich are the product of a tax law change effective 1 October last year. Essentially they differ from the more traditional Unit Investment Funds in that the capital gain in a PIE is not taxed, whereas the capital gain is a fundamental of the UIF and hence is taxable as “income”. From Herald –
What is PIE?
A PIE (Portfolio Investment Entity) is a tax effective managed fund. They range from "on-call" cash management accounts to funds that invest in assets such as fixed interest, property and shares. PIEs do not tax capital gains on New Zealand and most Australian shares (as is the case with conventional managed funds), and tax on income from New Zealand dividends and cash investments is capped at 33 per cent (falling to 30 per cent on 1 April), or 19.5 per cent if that is your marginal tax rate.
This means that by investing in a PIE, effectively investors receive more interest. If a return of 10 per cent is taxed at 39 per cent, the tax-paid return is 6.1 per cent. If that same return is taxed at 33 per cent, the tax paid return is 6.7 per cent.

So, what is the connect between Freddie, Fannie and PIE? In very large part it is the nature of the backing investment for the deposit to the fund. I invest $100k in a PIE at 9% interest. The PIE invests my money in suitable securities that will cover the 9% interest plus a suitable “administrative income” (which I would pay as part of the cost of belonging to the UIF). So, it has led to promotions like the following –
What is it called and what sort of savings product is it?
UDC Finance's Term Maximiser Fund is a managed fund under the new portfolio investment entity (PIE) tax rules.

What is the company behind it?
UDC is a subsidiary of the ANZ National Bank. It is New Zealand's largest finance company, and lends solely on plant and machinery.

Who is the target market?
UDC says it suits people in retirement, nearing retirement or saving for a particular goal.

What return does it offer?
Its opening rate is 9 per cent annually, with interest paid quarterly. For investors on a 39 per cent marginal tax rate, this is the equivalent of 10.68 per cent under the PIE regime.

...and so on
How strong a stomach do you need for it?
Mild. This term fund doesn't have a Standard & Poor's rating. However it invests in UDC's debentures, which have an investment grade AA rating from Standard & Poor's.

OK!! Now that really is interesting; for this reason. I found this Mary Holm column dating from 2003 while looking for (confirmation bias warning) the line of connection between the various elements that need to be covered.
Q. Re borrowing at 6.1 per cent and investing at 8.28 per cent - interesting opinion from you in last week's column, in that you seem to be advising us to pay scant attention to 23 of the Herald's 24 investment adverts!

However, Mary, please don't resign on principle, as we always enjoy your words of wisdom.

On a more serious note, we would appreciate your comments on our approach to offerings with G6 ratings.

We're in our late 70s, with well over half a million in savings etc.

About 50 per cent is in Kiwi Bonds, 40 per cent is in the main banks, and 10 per cent is in G6-type investments.

Those include $50,000 in capital secured deposits with Capital & Merchant, covered by Lloyds of London Mortgage Indemnity and Mortgage Impairment Insurance Policies.

We two antiques hope you will advise us. Stay young!

A. I'm trying to. But then I get letters like yours that seem to imply that I should write with half an eye on the advertisers. That's enough to age any journo! Seriously, though - and not because of any pressure from anyone - I'm not dismissing investment in higher-interest products.

But they are considerably riskier than banks. Go in with eyes open.

For the benefit of those who don't know what a G6 rating is, Bondwatch is a service which rates finance company investments - from G1, safest, to G8, riskiest.

Of a G6 rating, Bondwatch says: "Ability to meet current obligations dependent upon favourable economic and/or business conditions. Concerns about security over the longer term."

I should add, though, that your Capital & Merchant capital secured deposits pay lower interest than the "investment deposits" discussed last week. So they are almost certainly somewhat safer.

As I said last week, I know little about the company. But I wouldn't put that much in any single company of that type.

Sure, the wording about Lloyds, insurance and so on sounds comforting. But I don't know what it means. Do you?

Too often, when things have gone wrong with similar investments in the past, words like that - along with "secured" and "guaranteed" - didn't amount to much.

Sage advice, especially when lined up against the findings of the various Receivers and Liquidators appointed to the failures in the “investment industry”.

But the link I wanted is proving elusive. At least one of the failed investment companies was in fact fronting for another, parent company, and the investments of the funds received were almost exclusively in that parent company. The specific example I was seeking was a company seeking investments in NZ, offering interest at 8% interest plus. The investments were passed to the parent, an Australian property development company which had several times (as I hear it) been running very close to the wind with marginal developments in Queensland and NSW. The Receiver, appointed during last year, has announced that investors will get back only 40% of their investments and likely less than that.

Now the link between Mary Holm’s article, failed investment companies, through to Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae, and finally to PIEs is the nature of the backing investment to my money. Go back to the Herald article that defines PIE and you will see that they are “funds that invest in assets such as fixed interest, property and shares.” And the question has to be asked “What fixed interest, property and shares?” In the case of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae it is becoming clear that they were being regarded as lenders of last resort; they picked up loans which no one else was prepared to take on board, but which had in some way (second, third and fourth mortgages perhaps?) been secured against property.

At this point one has to wonder just what manner of need or desire would have prompted a person to take out secured borrowing against their property. Was it for the initial property purchase? Or was taken out subequently as security for the purchase of a car, or boat, or holiday? Even worse, was the secured borrowing taken as a margin investment in an opportunity that offered a higher rate of return; borrow at 8% and invest at 10%.

So, a bank holds a “fixed interest” paper with the property as security in the form of a second or third mortgage. The true property value might cover 105% of the first mortgage. What a risk if the second mortgage defaults! Particularly if the second mortgage is for 20% of the property value! The borrower might well be able to cover the repayment at present but come two or three years’ time things can change dramatically. So the bank hedges its risk by selling the mortgage paper to one of its personal investment arms – the PIE system – or Freddie or Fanny.

Without belabouring that any further, there is another solution. Perhaps the loss from the failed “investment” should head in the other direction; not to the mum and dad investor at the bottom of the PIE, but to the originator of the investment paper, the ones who (please pardon the pun here) are holding the crust.

If a bank, or finance house, has made a bad investment that is where the risk should return. It should not (as has been the case thus far) be the mum and dad investors who have been (quite unknowingly) sold a PIEce of worthless paper.

If a retailer has sold a $5000 plasma screen to a family with an annual income of $30,000 then it is that retailer who accepts the loss when the HP falls over. That gives the retailer some specific rights, and he also takes the very specific risk of the failure. If the HP is factored to a finance house, that is done most oftenly “with recourse”.

I will leave that thought hanging. It gives good indication of the failings I see in Freddie and Fannie. It gives a good lead to what I see as the solution for their failing. From Forbes
NEW YORK (Thomson Financial) - U.S. stocks fell further Friday after U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson indicated that a bailout of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was not on the horizon.


'Today, our primary focus is supporting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their current form as they carry out their important mission,' Paulson said in a written statement. 'We appreciate Congress' important efforts to complete legislation that will help promote confidence in these companies.'

Fannie Mae was last down 43% at $7.55 and Freddie Mac was shedding 47% at $4.27, paring earlier losses to $6.68 and to $3.89, respectively.

And in the matter of "greed", Al the Old Whig I think it was put out the idea some while back that "greed is good". Al, I agree. But at some point one has to accept the inevitable bout of indigestion.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A probligo's perambulations in paradise - 2...

Day 5

Out and about. Went looking for one of the local volcanic craters ( Savai’i is “active” in the sense that the last eruption was less than 100 years back). Didn’t find that, but did find another “attraction” – The Dwarf Cave. Paid our T20 to the family at the bottom of the track, for which they provided a teenage guide and junior torchbearer. Quite interesting, if a fairly bog-standard lava-flow cave. Mrs Probligo stayed at the top while guide and I walked about 100m down the cave. The entrance is actually a wall collapse, and there are at least three separate flows evident within the tunnel itself. The major early flow created what is called “the dwarf’s table” – a long flat section of rock low in the cave (there is barely headroom for me). There are at least (to my inexpert eye) one other small separate flow before the tunnel was formed in the last eruption. We walked to the top of a waterfall that was about 2.5m high. It was suggested that a swim might be in order in the pool below. I asked whether it was possible to climb back out, having in mind the probligo’s 6 decades versus the guides 2 at the most. I later mentioned this to one of the staff at Tanu and got that quiet Samoan smile and “Yes, but it might have cost another T20 to get you out.”

Mrs P told me after, that once her eyes had adapted to the half light the young torchbearer drew her attention to the swiftlets flying in and out of the cave. We had seen many of these tiny birds (about 6 inch wingspan) hawking the beach at Manase. They are very fast, and very aerobatic fliers – a challenge to photograph that would rank alongside the piwakawaka (NZ fantail).

After once again trying to destroy the undercart of the probligo’s (rented) chariot on sundry rocks and coconuts (more about that later), a lengthy discussion of the attractions of professional rugby and the potential benefits of investing in our guides latest CD (as yet unrecorded) we got back to the bottom of the track.

As it was still comparatively early, we decided to take a look at the rest of the north coast and perhaps the “treetop ropewalk” out on the NW peninsula. After finding it, the latter looked a pretty dead duck in terms of “attraction”.

We “found” a beach, paid the T10 for the right to walk on it, and had a pleasant look around. Quite different from Manase, it was almost entirely volcanic rock outcrops. There was quite a bit of vitrified coral lying about.

Oh, not a piece of vitrified coral.

Oranges and the last of the keke for lunch and then wend our way home.

Following the sunset game of touch, dinner, and a good night’s sleep.

Oh, a quick word about some of the local wildlife. On the beach, and around the fale are holes in the ground that range from about 10mm or so up to about 30mm. The ones around the fale I found were made by a very shy dark grey crab – much the same size as the hole. I tried to photo one of them as it was doing a spot of housekeeping (just before sunrise) but missed.

The ones on the beach were a little easier to get, once you had spotted them.

Yep, somewhere almost exactly in the middle of there is a crab.

Ah, there he is. The camoflage is amazing. That one is about 25mm across.

Day 6.

Time to do the rest of the island.

We took a quick look at “the wetlands” and “swim with the turtles” just around the corner from Manase, the lava flows with the church and “virgin’s grave”. All of them are well documented as tourist attractions, seen the photos, so we didn’t pay the entrance fee.

I did take several close examinations of roadside vegetation. Frusemide has a lot to answer for in these circumstances. There is a weed, I have no idea what it is called, but it is choking the life out of the local forest. Trees of 10m or more completely smothered by this creeper with no chance of getting any light for food making.

We made our way around 3/4s of the circumference, to the Alofaaga blowholes. A T40 fee and a 1km walk took us to the best parts, including a single blowhole that regularly spouts up to 30m. The guides take a bunch of coconuts down there and toss them in the hole. With the right timing they can be blown up to 25 or 30m. Being on our own, we did not have a guide (that was another T100) and one member of the party gets very jittery when the probligo starts to move away from what is considered to be “terra firma”. However, that is life.

This of the largest of the blowholes shows up two defects; my very slow reaction time and the delay on a digital camera compared with film. Google "alofanga savai'i" for plenty more.

A smaller version here

The blowholes are through a lava shelf where the soft rock and sand has been eroded out from under. This is a similar structure, much higher, on the other side of the bay.

As always, some of the colours are amazing.

I was really glad that we walked, rather than try to drive the car down. Again, more on that later.

On the way back, and with three or four unsuccessful attempts to buy lunch from roadside stores, we stopped off at one of the other major attractions; a waterfall. Here the probligo did go for a swim, an event that thankfully has not been recorded for perpetuity or anyone else for that matter.

That water was absolutely delicious, beautifully cool and as clean as any I have ever tried. The Mrs probligo was very patient and waited.

One of the purposes of the trip was to make sure that we could find our way back to the ferry in two days’ time. We missed it twice before narrowing the turnoff down to a 1km stretch of road. By this time our poor little car was in bad need of its first feed since we had made friends with it and fortunately we found a gas station. We also found that it had ice-cream. Perfect treat for a hot humid afternoon. Never mind that the only flavour was banana and chocolate chip. So both the car and probligos were suitably replenished and comforted.

A comfortable drive back to Manase, another beautiful sunset and the boys playing touch in the lagoon.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

To all those who blame the education system...

... this should be required reading.

'The Dumbest Generation' by Mark Bauerlein

In the four minutes it probably takes to read this review, you will have logged exactly half the time the average 15- to 24-year-old now spends reading each day. That is, if you even bother to finish. If you are perusing this on the Internet, the big block of text below probably seems daunting, maybe even boring. Who has the time? Besides, one of your Facebook friends might have just posted a status update!

Such is the kind of recklessly distracted impatience that makes Mark Bauerlein fear for his country. "As of 2008," the 49-year-old professor of English at Emory University writes in "The Dumbest Generation," "the intellectual future of the United States looks dim."

The way Bauerlein sees it, something new and disastrous has happened to America's youth with the arrival of the instant gratification go-go-go digital age. The result is, essentially, a collective loss of context and history, a neglect of "enduring ideas and conflicts." Survey after painstakingly recounted survey reveals what most of us already suspect: that America's youth know virtually nothing about history and politics. And no wonder. They have developed a "brazen disregard of books and reading."

Things were not supposed to be this way. After all, "never have the opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater," writes Bauerlein, a former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. But somehow, he contends, the much-ballyhooed advances of this brave new world have not only failed to materialize -- they've actually made us dumber.

The reviewer concludes -
The book's ultimate doomsday scenario -- of a dull and self-absorbed new generation of citizens falling prey to demagoguery and brazen power grabs -- seems at once overblown (witness, for example, this election season's youth reengagement in politics) and also yesterday's news (haven't we always been perilously close to this, if not already suffering from it?). But amid the sometimes annoyingly frantic warning bells that ding throughout "The Dumbest Generation," there are also some keen insights into how the new digital world really is changing the way young people engage with information and the obstacles they face in integrating any of it meaningfully. These are insights that educators, parents and other adults ignore at their peril.

As always, that list should have "parents" in there three times.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A probligo's perambulation in paradise - 1


“The Nation Founded On God” is proclaimed on a memorial to the independance of Samoa just across the road from their Parliament Buildings. Next door stands a corrugated iron shed and behind is a rather more conventional European style “house”, which from memory is the headquarters of the Samoa Institute of Research.

There are two things that hit you when you step off the plane from Auckland. First is the heat. The second is the fact that it is just 0030. A half hour after midnight. You do the immigration, ag, customs things. You wander through a small door into the main part of the terminal to find a small wiry Samoan holding a card with a list of names. Oh! Part way down it says “Probligo”!! Well, not really, but this is the probligo’s perambulation so it will have to stand.

I learn, very quickly, that our car is “just over there” and that very soon I will be driving it into Apia. At 0130. In the dark. I have no idea of the landmarks I need to find the hotel. There is no way that I could identify them in the dark if I did know them. We had asked to pick up the car tomorrow, in Apia, and to bus/taxi from the airport. However, nothing daunted!! So I open the door and ... no steering wheel. Ooops, silly probligo. Left hand drive. You can always tell a tourist in Apia. They turn on the wipers to turn at intersections and the turn on the indicators when it starts to rain. After getting lost just the once when I turned right... wrong... left at the wrong time, we reached the hotel in double quick time at about 0240. Yeah, well quick time would be about 40 minutes. We took about 80 minutes. That makes it double quick time...

In the warm light of day, another will certainly catch the attention– apart from the heat that is – and that is the number of churches. I counted Catholic, Methodist, Methodist Ecclesiastic, Assembly of God, LDS, Church of Samoa, Chapel of the Triple Heart, and one Bahai’i Temple. I did not find any hint of Freemasons or Oddfellows. Every village has at least one church. In one stretch between Apia and the airport, it would have been possible (given the right viewpoint) to photograph up to five churches and shrines in one frame.

There are two things that I have “discovered” in our various jaunts into the tropics. They are directly related, and can heavily impact one upon the other.

The first is “attitude” - your (or my) attitude to your surroundings, your expectations.
The second is the reasons why you went in the first place.

So, to explain –
The probligo’s first reason to visit Samoa is to see the place – as honestly and as unsanitised as possible; the “real” Samoa.

The second reason is as far as possible to have a relaxing time, doing things as different as possible from the normal humdrum routine of life. The second reason is, not to go “native” (though that would be a lot of fun) but to at least have genuine and unmodified contact with “people” rather than “tourist events”.

Then being the good mix of Scots and Yorkie that the probligo be, I want to do it at the cheapest possible price. So that, for starters brings back the expectations somewhat. Like accommodation for example. We stayed at the “Kitano” in Apia. It was a convenient tourist hotel, not expensive, and looked like what we wanted. It turned out to be acceptable with one or two individual disappointments. So when you walk into your hotel room, and one or two of the slate tiles in the floor are broken, you notice that the bottom corner has rotted off the bathroom door, the laminex is starting to lift off the bathroom vanity… Turn around; the toilet is spotless, the shower clean enough to eat in, there is a small millipede gliding between two tiles, the mirrors and handbasin are clean… Which is more important? What you use? Or the fact that the place is getting a bit old and tired and needs a bit of a tarting up that they can probably not afford? The disappointments? Two meals, one that I had and one that “the better half” ordered. If I wanted to be really picky I could point at one particular member of the restaurant staff who was a bit too likely to go walkabout while on the job. But that is all.

We also spent a week out at Savai’i at “Tanu Beach Fales”. Tanu is the family name, not the beach name. It is one of four similar establishments in Manase village. “Fale” is the Samoan for “house”, or more correctly “building”; it relates directly with the Maori “whare”. There is a whole, for me fascinating, trail of thought – the probligo theory of organic development of culture – that connects such things as traditional architecture with environment. Hence the Inuit make the best use of their most abundant materials – hides, rock and ice - to construct houses. So too with the Samoans – their traditional fale is designed (has developed organically) in response to several centuries of hurricane, heat and rain. The most available materials are timber and coconut palm. The need for shelter is minimal; a heavy rain storm is as good a warm shower as any you will find; the need for ventilation is paramount; the need to withstand the forces of a hurricane is minimised. So, as one person ( another Nzer I think) described them it was like camping in a wooden tent.

Inside, the sleeping arrangements were just as basic – a 4 inch foam rubber squab on the floor.

We had arranged one day (2 nights) in Apia to pick up the car, change money, general orientation. With the first two achieved the second took a little longer. We set out with the intention of finding two points on the map we had been given with the car. First discovery – there are one heck of a lot of churches in Samoa. Second discovery – there are no street name signs in Samoa. Oh, we did find two; one just outside the original Aggie Grey’s Hotel, the other in the hills on the Cross-Island Road.

Our only success was to get ourselves to the enigmatically indicated “sliding rocks” which, once found, immediately became better defined. “Sliding” as in for sliding on or down (at some risk to the crown jewels), and rocks in terms of waterfall over lava shelf with the intent of sliding down....

No, I didn’t. We had left the togs in the hotel.

Day 2 – On our way to Savai’i...

There are interesting little details to Samoa... like having you car sprayed before driving onto the ferry at the Upolu end. The tourist brochures make it quite clear, but give no reason. So, you drive into this little dirt pull-off area with a bit of a shack at one end. A youngish lad trots out with an ordinary garden hose and kinda points it in the general direction of the car. After a brief “wash” you drive the car down the road another couple hundred metres or so to the ferry. No one else seems to make the effort, though there was a 4WD pulling in when we pulled out. A sign on the door of the shed proclaims "Giant African Snail Control".

There is quite a wait at the ferry; the instructions are to turn up an hour before sailing time. There is a coffee bar which is well populated. We are still digesting the (very strong) cup we had at breakfast. And it is starting to get B****y HOT!! Not coffee weather at all atall.

The ferry appears out in the strait, rocking and rolling its way over, disappears for a while behind the buildings, then reappears.

That is Savai’i in the background.

On the trip over, I was sitting next to a young lad who was returning from fruit-picking in Hawke Bay. Very nice young guy and he spoke English much more fluently than I could ever speak Samoan. About half way over, he said that he was very tired (another arrival at 0030) so he lay down for a kip or five.

After landing we drive the 40 odd miles round to Manase, find the Tanu compound, and settle in. A swim in the lagoon at high tide is like a very large warm bath.

In true Samoan / Polynesian style, meals are communal. Special guests are always at the right hand end of the wharekai (I don’t know the Samoan equivalent; terrible!). The food is good, well prepared solid local fare; meat (chicken, spam, pork on one special occasion, and beef), taro, breadfruit, potato, Samoan chop suey, taro leaf cooked in coconut (Samoan spinach) are all served on the same plate. Oh, and “lemon tea” to wash it all down. Lemon juice in hot water; and very refreshing it be too. If you want “civilisation”, there are two independent bars, a tourist hotel, and a coffee shop that hides behind the local gas station.

And so, as Pepys is so often misquoted, to bed.

Day 3

Having ended day 2 with food, day 3 starts with breakfast. No choice; papaya, pawpaw, pineapple, “ladyfinger” bananas, a small piece of coconut, local oranges. Deliciously ripe, deliciously simple.

The local oranges are a real echo to my childhood. I can remember Samoan (and Cook Island) oranges on the table; slightly “green”, easy to break in to, full of juice inside, and as sweet as anything you can imagine. They are rather like over-sized mandarin oranges. Buy a bag of five from a local for T2 (two tala – about NZD1.20) or so and you have lunch for two. You no longer see them in NZ. Med fruitfly, transport costs and CER with Australia have seen to that. Speaking of lunch, we have also discovered “pineapple pie” (a pineapple curd in a thick pastry), and keke. Keke is a “cake” in biscuit form, filled with what I am reliably informed is the local cocoa bean after roasting and grinding. Terry Pratchett had better watch out – there is a far more potent weapon in the culinary field armoury than dwarf bread.

Drove out and about for a bit during the afternoon. Had a swim. Watched the sunset. Had dinner.

Day 4

Sunday. We went to church – at the invitation of the Tanu family.

Oh, an interesting little sidelight from the latter part of the day. On every evening - except on Sunday - some of the young boys would play touch rugby in the lagoon in the late sunset. On Sunday evening, some of the young-uns were paying in the beach. Teenage (daughter) supervising them pulled them up at one point, "You know that you are not allowed to run on Sundays. Just walk."

Who remembers the "cigarette cards"?

Thanks to this morning's Herald, here is the 21st Century version -
A snack food promotion accused of encouraging children to eat the equivalent of more than a kilogram of fat has been stung by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The authority upheld a complaint by the Ministry of Health that Bluebird Foods' "Rugby Superstars" promotion encouraged excessive consumption of a treat food, and used famous rugby players to gain a high level of appeal to children.

The complaint said that to collect all 50 cards, people would have to buy at least 50, but probably more than 80, chip packets - with a combined fat content of more than 1kg.
In its reply to the ministry's complaint, Bluebird said the promotion was a "short-term competitive marketing strategy designed to encourage a person to select one brand of snackfood over another".

Yeah, well to me that response indicates that the intent was to encourage consumption of those 50 or 80 bags of chips in a short space of time. The great pity is that it probably would succeed.

"Chippies" are not a "snack food". They are a carefully crafted concoction of starches, fats and salt designed to encourage increasing consumption at maximum profit and minimum food value.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Thanks to the guys at Arts and Letters Daily

Here is a resource comprising much of all the to-ing and fro-ing on climate change. You will find both sides of the argument presented as a series of links, and it will continue to grow in the same way as ALD itself.

My first visit there was prompted by TFS's piece on the undersea volcanoes at the North Pole (yeah, TF they feature widely and both sides of the argement are presented) and a small ad on ALD itself.

Highly recommended... especially for those who like to let their confirmation bias roam free.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Given the eternal, unending...

... peregrinations through that most fundamental law of US democracy otherwise known as the the Second Amendment, I recommend this line of antique and up-to-the-second weaponry.

My personal favourite just has to be The Goliathon 83 Infinity Beam Projector