Sunday, August 29, 2010

On numbers. BIG numbers and perspective.

It is amusing - in that disquietly unsettling way - to read the kind of invective the the "new uber right" of the US uses in its opposition to "new" government policies.

There are few, a small number, expressing concern at the impact some of these changes are having, will have, on the US economy.

The BIG number I want to draw attention to - I don't know the exact value - is the cost of keeping two US Army divisions in Iraq for one year. I am informed (that is all) that the number, the cost is more than the total annual GDP of New Zealand.

That, in global terms is still a (comparatively) small number. But as a matter of personal perspective, it is still a BIG number.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On global warming -

A little bit of “news” for all of those who have difficulty connecting with the concept of “global warming”. I say “news” because it is not really news; it is one of those obvious things that people going about their everyday business have not noticed because it seems to have “always been so”.

But that is really the point.

First, this piece of “news” came to light through the farming community. In good part it is in response to a band of total wallies who want to preserve the sanctity of their belief that “global warming” is a myth. The latest move by these flat-earthers is to start a High Court action against NIWA (the government funded National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research) the purpose of which is to get NIWA to “reveal adjustments” made to national temperature statistics. The statistics in dispute apparently show an increase in mean temperatures over the past 100 years of about 1*C.

There is no need to debate cause here. That is not the point. Man-made or natural, global warming is a phenomenon that needs to be understood. That is quite apart from anything we (the human species) might be able to do about it.

So, to the Obviousman news release that has come to the fore today.

There are two introduced grasses in NZ which come originally from “sub-tropical” climes.

The first of these is paspalum. It has featured in my life for as long as I can recall. It is easily recognisable as the seeds are very sticky and develop at the end of a stalk about shin high; or belly high on a sheep. I do not know the past or current range of paspalum so I will leave that to one side.

The second is kikuyu, a grass which was introduced (as I hear the history) into the far north in the 1950’s. It was very prolific when I was a kid up there but it was not the major pastoral grass it is now. It was introduced from Zimbabwe because of its ability to resist drought, to recover very quickly after drought, and to survive in colder wetter conditions. It is very frost tender, but the buried stolons do survive quite well given the occasional surface freeze.

So it is that the Federated Farmers (no, TF, it is not a compulsory government imposed organisation) have revealed that farmers in the Waikato are learning how to modify their feed budgets and stock management processes to take into account this new “northern invader”. While not in any way claiming “scientific proof”, FF have estimated that the range of these two grasses has extended south by about 1.5* Latitude in the past 10 years. It is always easy to pick kikuyu in a paddock, especially during summer. It is the green bit. When the rest of the clover, rye and fescue has gone brown, the kikuyu is still green.

So, one has to ask, given this independent evidence why is it so important to the flat-earthers that the NIWA statistics be proven false, engineered in some way, or otherwise misleading?

Very simple, I suspect. It is their religion. It is an undeniable precept of their belief that global warming is a false construct. It is like Columbus trying to reach India by going west. Well, I mean to say, going eastward was hellish long, dangerous and there were Somalian pirates on the way. Who can blame him for wanting to find “a better way”? Especially so, if his boss could make even greater profit from the easier access to the Spice World. So any scientifically based idea ranks with the thought of “God does not exist”. It is anathema to them. Totally.

The very big difficulty that I have is that NIWA is going to (will have to) spend my money (as a taxpayer) defending itself from a totally unjustified, indescribably stupid, self-aggrandising Court action from a bunch of bone-headed knuckle-dragging throw-backs to the days when science was totally against the teachings of God.

With any luck, the Court will give them their 15 seconds, then toss the brief into the recycling bin on the way to a good cup of coffee.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On friendships...

Thanks to my old mates at ALD this interesting little essay appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

Since Asimov wrote The Naked Sun, Americans have been engaged in wholesale flight from one another, decamping for suburbs and Sunbelt, splintering into ever smaller households, and conducting more and more of their relationships online, where avatars flourish. The churn rate of domestic relations is especially remarkable, and has rendered family life in the United States uniquely unstable. “No other comparable nation,” the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin observes, “has such a high level of multiple marital and cohabiting unions.”

Oceans of ink have been spilled on these developments, yet hardly any attention is paid to the one institution—friendship—that could pick up some of the interpersonal slack. But while sizzling eros hogs the spotlight these days—sex sells, after all—too many of us overlook philia, the slower-burning and longer-lasting complement. That’s ironic, because today “friends” are everywhere in our culture—the average Facebook user has 130—and friendship, of a diluted kind, is our most characteristic relationship: voluntary, flexible, a “lite” alternative to the caloric meshugaas of family life.

But in restricting ourselves to the thin gruel of modern friendships, we miss out on the more nourishing fare that deeper ones have to offer. Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue—the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities.

Akst points to the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson as the genesis of the self-centred individual rather than social person. I don't know that the answer is that simple in fact. Akst's example of the "male buddie films" as a "social contra-indicator" is also open to debate. That is why I offered the following comment...
Of the comments thus far the two that strike the strongest echos for me are David Jewett and RameshRaghuvanshi; the former for his very detailed personal insight, the latter for his chink-hole peep into the divided society.

I do not make friends easily. In that respect I am perhaps in the same category as David, although I do not dredge the internet into the picture as a rationalisation. I have always had a reticence to be involved with other people and particularly other men. The reasons are manifold. Some are echoed by Ramesh.

On the other side to Akst's (excellent) article is that there are times when man (generic) needs solitude as much as he needs close friendships. That has been (in the past) my justification for being so insular and "self-reliant".

Is it likely that our society's disconnection with personal relationships is the result of that desire (and hence the attraction of the internet where friendships are far more ephemeral than real life)? In old history, the community and its inter-relationships could be avoided by a simple walk into the distance. Today (and despite the divisions Ramesh notes) that pressure of "community" is far greater and unavoidable.

"Friendships" on the internet are easy, passing and almost always strongly boosted by a search for "people who are of the same mind".

In real life, strong friendships are far more difficult - as Akst points out. They require regular maintenance. They do evolve, and can often eventually die through the events as he describes.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Vale - Lt Timothy O'Donnell NZDSD

Killed in action this day.

He is the first NZ Serviceman killed in Afghanistan.*

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Decoration for an action in Timor L'Este. The citation for the award reads -
"Lieutenant O'Donnell, in the rank of Second Lieutenant, served as Platoon Commander in Timor Leste from November 2006 to May 2007, as part of the NZDF contribution to the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF). His platoon was conducting a security patrol in April 2007 when it encountered a crowd of approximately 1000 Fretilin supporters returning from an election rally in Dili.

"The crowd, escorted by UN Police officers, halted on the outskirts of Manatuto, fearing attacks from opposition political supporters. While the platoon was endeavouring to secure a safe route, the UN Police began moving the Fretilin supporters across a bridge toward Manatuto.

"The crowd was then ambushed by some 600 opposition supporters throwing rocks and firing steel darts and arrows. Under the hail of projectiles, the Police escort was quickly overwhelmed and withdrew, leaving the Fretilin convoy stranded on the bridge. He made a quick decision to intervene in the melee, which meant that his platoon also came under attack.

Eventually, his platoon managed to push back the attackers and secure a bypass route around Manatuto for the Fretilin convoy, which safely circumnavigated the town without loss of life or serious injury. Soon after ISF reinforcements arrived on the scene to assist in restoring law and order to the town. Without the decisive intervention of his platoon, it is likely that the situation could have deteriorated resulting in a number of fatalities between the rival political supporters.

He has been described by his family as "an Army man".

My thanks to Lt O'Donnell for his first class service to his country. My sympathy and thoughts are with his family.

* Another NZer, holding dual NZ and US citizenship, was killed in Afghanistan while serving with the US Army.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A matter of ethics...

The uber-right have been blatting for a few days now about the actions of Rep Charles B Rangel. Just what they were on about was a mystery; there was certainly a large amount of heat, quite a bit of smoke, but little to be seen of the cause.

Until now...
So why are Representatives Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, and Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, facing the rare spectacle of public ethics trials for actions their defenders say are just business as usual in Congress?

Good question...
Both cases also involve personal causes — for Ms. Waters, the financial investments of her husband, and for Mr. Rangel, an education center set up in his name in New York.

So, it is little wonder...
With their integrity under attack after widespread news reports, Mr. Rangel and Ms. Waters are fighting the charges instead of simply accepting a modest punishment.

As a result, Washington has suddenly become fixated on ethics issues, including the continuing investigation of Senator John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada, who has been accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators at the request of a former aide, whose wife had an affair with the senator.

It is getting to the point where the Bishop is about to enter the room...
Mr. McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, has helped raise money from corporate donors, including RJR Nabisco, Toyota and military defense contractors, for a center named after him at the University of Louisville, Mr. Rangel’s lawyers point out.

“We provide these examples not as part of an “everyone does it” defense, but rather to demonstrate that these activities have never been regarded as creating an improper benefit to a member,” Mr. Rangel’s lawyers wrote.

The House ethics panel that investigated his case disagreed.

The committee said that not only did he appeal for contributions from companies like Verizon, New York Life Insurance and American International Group, which all had major legislative matters before his committee, but he also made those appeals on official House stationery, with the help of his House aides.

Good grief!! Where have I heard that line before? Was it Winnie the Pooh? Or was it one of Auntie Helen's unterlings?
But the heart of the matter has to be -
And there was an unusually close overlap, the committee contended, between appeals for donations and his intervention on legislative matters, citing in particular a meeting Mr. Rangel held in 2007 at a New York hotel with an executive from an oil drilling company at which he made a bid for a donation and also discussed a tax break the company was seeking.

The executive, Eugene Isenberg, and his company ended up making a $1 million contribution to the educational center, and Mr. Rangel helped the company secure a tax break worth an estimated $500 million.

So when I reach the last para of NYT's article -
“There is definitely a heightened concern and sensitivity about political and charitable contributions and the timing in relation to official actions,” said Kenneth A. Gross, an ethics defense lawyer. “It’s a big issue out there right now, and these are very rough waters to navigate.”

... I am left with the very strong impression that there will be a new euphemism for the "C" word emerging in the not too distant future. It may not even be within the term of the present Administration, so (as the shampoo ad says) "it may not happen overnight, but it will happen".