Saturday, December 31, 2016

Farewell 2016, Fidel Castro, democracy, and rational polity

Well, it’s been a real car crash of a year.  To anyone who ever says “it can’t get any worse”, this is a wry reminder that it can always get worse.

Electoral outcomes that were all disastrous for the environment, voted for by people who are angry and disenfranchised, and thus fodder for any demagogue that promises a solution without having any real answers, or intention of carrying out what they promise anyway.
Habitat destruction continuing rampant – the single greatest threat to biodiversity, as it has been for a long time.

In fifty years, when too few of those alive will have reliable memory of these times, they will ask “what were they doing in the years 2000 to 2020, when they had a golden opportunity to fix things, with relatively little cost?”  All you can say is that venal, self-interested people persuaded whole electorates that first, there was no problem; then: we don’t know enough about it, or it’s not really a problem, or we can’t do anything about it, or we can live with it.

Vale Fidel Castro, who gave the world a shining example on how to improve health and education outcomes for the whole country (not just an elite) with scant resources.  And to all those who whinged that he was a dictator: look at those outcomes, then look at health, education and poverty in the USA, and how much worse they are and will be.  Then look at the US version of democracy:  with just a small nudge from Russia (with help from their stooge Wikileaks) you get an unethical, dangerous liar as president.

Things can always get worse before they get better.  But as just one person, the very least you can do is vote wisely, act ethically, and do whatever you can locally to help global outcomes.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Vale Fidel

Fidel Castro was a more ethical leader than many of the US presidents he survived.

Cuba's healthcare and education were exemplary for a poor country.  They had a good record of preventative healthcare, and they exported more doctors and health professionals to other needy countries than many that were far richer.


28-Nov-16 Update - some figures from Wikipedia:

  • Life expectancy: Third in the Americas, after Canada and Chile
  • Infant mortality: 5.13 per 1,000 live births, down from 32/1000 in 1957.  Again, less than the US.
  • In 2015, became the first country to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, acknowledged by the World Health Organisation.
  • As of 2014, there were 50,000 Cuban-trained healthcare workers in 66 countries
  • Literacy rate: 99.8%, tenth-highest in the world (vs c.86% in the US)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


2016 will be remembered by history as a year of inflection and singularity - and not in a good way.

Why did the polls get it wrong on the US election?  That was probably the margin of Trump supporters who, when polled, didn't feel obliged to tell the truth.  Like their candidate.

Trump has many more outrageous and incorrect things to say, and he'll do it.  Much like Ronald Reagan, but with no semblance of class.  And people won't mis-remember Trump like they do Reagan.

Will he build a wall and make Mexicans pay for it?  No.  He might add a smidgen to what's already there, just to tick off that item.

Will he clear the swamp?  Of course not.

Will he put Clinton in jail?  He'll probably try.  He has a clear history of pursuing grudges.  But I very much doubt he'll be able to make good on that promise, for all his efforts.

What's left?  Global recession, unstable times, a nastier U.S. political landscape, a much worse time for America's working poor, let alone those without a job.  One thing he'll be able to do (with a non-hostile Congress) is roll back Affordable Healthcare.  An unstable polity in the hands of Clinton would be calmed; one under Trump will not.  He's anti-science, anti-truth, anti-climate-change... and a good way to make money will be to sell asbestos to Americas (Trump tweet 2012: "If we didn't remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn't work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down")

Be resilient in very turbulent times.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Jasmine spring: 8-Aug-2016

The jasmine climbing the arch over the front gate has just started to give a heady spring scent today.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Climate variability and garden: Spring 2016

The jasmine started coming out properly yesterday morning, Saturday 6th August 2016.  A lone sprig had turned up eight days previous.  The bees are out and energetic (aggressive) today, whereas they weren't last weekend.

For the last several seasons, the spring flowers started quite early, in mid July.  I'm glad they're holding out this year, even though early August is still too early compared to the early 2000s.


Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Film: Goldstone (Australia, 2016) - one of the best of Australian films

One of the best Australian films I have seen, if not the best, Goldstone is passing through our cinemas and will quickly vanish.  It is ostensibly about a detective seeking a missing person in an outback mining community, but this is one of those rare films where an engaging plot turns out to be secondary to the overall filmic experience.

After an unusually deceptive beginning, it is quickly clear that this film has power, strength and unity.  Strength in the dialogue - in particular the silences that respond to the dialogue.  Unity in the sparseness of the landscape which matches that of the dialogue - and the movement.  Power in the bursts of action that punctuate the apparently slow pace - but again, the periods of stillness are an inherent part of the action, a character and a characteristic of the film.

No, the pace is not a weight to be borne, a forced meditation.  The plot stands on its own feet - and in fact the trailer gives the impression it is a full-on action film, but the silences in between have more lasting impact.  It is the visual spectacle, the acting and above all the masterful filmmaking that eventually wins over the audience.

For what I know, depiction of the various communities and locations have a documentary authenticity.  The locale describes a wide, barren landscape, but gives clear hints that it is only a small part of a far larger, empty country that simply dwarfs its inhabitants.  One of the techniques to achieve this remains a mystery to me: the occasional aerial shot that is impossibly high and still.  Never seen anything like it.

There are outcomes rather than resolutions.  Many things in life don't have satisfying conclusions, but the film respects its audience enough to neatly tie up some of the loose ends.

The indigenous lead is Aaron Pedersen, who I recognised from a support role in Jack Irish, a competent set of detective telemovies located in urban Melbourne; here, he has the opportunity to shine, in an understated manner.  He has an impressive portfolio of work in tv and film.

Supporting roles include an oddly young-looking Jacki Weaver, an unexpectedly aged David Wenham, and David Gulpilil.

I later found that the director was indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen; and that this had been his second feature to lead off the Sydney Film Festival; although it is characterise as a sequel, it is not strictly so, and is standalone.  Despite the accolades, I expect Goldstone to sink with little trace, simply because people are more acclimatised to Hollywood and its industrial-strength capital.  There is no solution, save to seek out this film while you have the opportunity.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The failure of democracy

It is ironic that some of the comments about the impending departure of the UK from the EU have lauded the referendum as a successful exercise in democracy.  I note the Murdoch media in particular have hailed it thus:
"a triumph of democratic  reasoning" - The Australian
"democracy's victory" - Fox News

Okay, I apologise, Murdoch is an easy target.  But there have been plenty of others.

Irony, wry irony.  The truth is the complete opposite.  Even aside from Arrow's impossiblity theorum demonstrating the contradictions inherent in democracy, this vote was a spectacular failure, for a number of reasons

1.  One person's voice was much weightier than anyone else's: Peter Hargreaves, the billionaire who financed the Leave campaign.

2.  The outcome is sharp and total - and thus disenfranchises all those who voted against it.  Nearly half the population had a voice that didn't count, and they know they will suffer from it.

3.  None of the rest of the EU had a say in this - and it is such a momentous decision that it's easy to see scenarios where the whole of the European Union is destroyed.

4.  The devil is in the wording of a plebiscite (as John Howard knew when he effectively shot down Australia's Republic referendum).  David Cameron's overconfidence led to a simple wording for a complex choice.  As an example: if it had been worded "Will you vote to Leave if the European Union doesn't act on x, y, and z", a far greater proportion of Britons would have been better enfranchise, as would the EU.

5.  None of the rest of the world had a voice in this outcome - and we are likely to suffer economically because of it.  Worst case, global recession, is not yet beyond the possible.

You think it is axiomatic that only Britons should have a say?  That's democracy.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Homo floresiensis redated: the long game

The new discovery of further Homo floresiensis remains adds to our body of knowledge while asking as many questions as it answers.

The most significant new information is that floresienses had been on that small island from 700,000 to 55,000 years ago (at the minimum range).
Scientific consensus seems to be that they are a species of Homo.  Although their small stature is suggestive of the Homo predecessor Australopithecus,  it is instead due to insular dwarfism - which means that 700,00 years ago it was already long enough on that small island for it to have evolved smaller to match the scarcity of resources there.
That's an awfully long time to be stuck on an island!  They certainly didn't do much with their time there, compared to the achievements in the span of modern humans.  That indubitably reflects their smaller cranial capacity.
Yet before we disparage a long-static lineage, we need to remember that any such species has to be said to be well-adapted to its environment.  On that basis, they were better adapted than most hominin species, with current evidence showing a lengthier stay on this earth than most others.  That longevity may reflect the stability of the Flores island environment, with little competition from apex predators or other hominin.  Yet it has been said that on available evidence, they disappeared at around the same time modern humans passed through on the way to Australia.  That could be a giant coincidence of the specimens unearthed to date, but it reflects an apparent pattern of Homo sapiens' interaction with other hominin species.

My current questions:
What discussion does this open up about stasis?  There's a lot of possibilities.
Did floresiensis last any longer than 650,000 years?
Were they evolved from Homo erectus?
And in particular, since the original find was entirely due to Mike Morwood seeking an understanding of the migration story of the first Australians, what's the full story of hominin migration between Africa and Australia?  The fossil record suggests there is an awful lot more to be gleaned from digging up all the islands in Indonesia.  Let's hope the past disputes lead to more successful governance of future projects

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fear and the devil in natural history

  Reportage of natural history is sometimes fraught with miscommunication.  Maybe the writer doesn't understand the subject or doesn't express themselves properly.  At other times, the devil is in the headline and the detail contains the light.

For all their effort to produce items of interest in natural history, The Guardian [Weekly] has something of a tract record for purveying conceptual misunderstandings.  I remember a recent example where the writer perpetuated a common mis-phrasing of natural selection to suggest the organism (a tree) intentionally evolved in a particular direction, rather than being the surviving mutation of those subjected to the environmental pressures.  A subtle but important distinction.

In the GW of 18th March 2016, an article by Sarah Kaplan was headed Why nature needs a landscape of fear, with a subtitle: Dread of a predator can often have a beneficial impact on the environment.  Hold it right there.  Some natural environments may change radically with the sudden introduction of an apex predator.  Other environments, with the removal of a key predator, may be thrown out of balance.  But the ipso facto presence of a significant predator is not a necessity for balance in a natural environment.

The New Zealand environment, for example, was the product of millions of years of absence of significant predators.  Under such conditions, avian flight proved an evolutionary burden, and in the absence of predator pressure, a significant number of bird lineage gradually lost the capacity of flight.

The Guardian article is based on a study by Justin Suraci (University of Victoria, in Canada) into the changing behaviour of fauna with the introduction of predatorial noises to environments which once had predators - before the heavy hand of humans intervened.

We have reformed the planet in our image, moulded it for human needs.  We only suffer domesticated flora and fauna, and reduce Earth's original environment to islands - prisons - of wilderness.

A notable example given of the reversal of this process was the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park - one of those island prisons.  The effects - not just from direct predation - cascaded down the food chain, restoring past balances both faunal and floral.

But nature does not need a landscape of fear.

The article was sourced from the Washington Post.  I tracked down that original: it's headed Dread is vanishing from the animal world.  Here's why it's a bad thing.  A far more accurate account of the contents of the article.

And so the answer is that the devil has been guiding the hand of the Guardian Weekly's subeditor.  While not the exclusive domain of the devil, this is one in which he often lurks close by.