Opposites

Opposites

I am fortunate enough to live in one of the world’s great modern cities, Sydney, Australia.

There is every amenity you could ever need, a true diaspora of food and culture, and as cities go, Sydney is stunningly beautiful. It is even trying its best to gather up some history. Visitors pile in from all around the world and they love it.

The day before the Vivid festival of light and delight, it was date night. I went with my wife – shame on you to think otherwise – to the theatre. We were both left open-mouthed at Still Point Turning, a beautifully written bio-play of courage and fragility performed with great skill and compassion. It was fantastic. Even if you can’t get to see a production, read the play. It will be worth the effort.

On the way, we stopped for dinner at our newly crowned ‘best Italian eatery’ and blew our wheat quota on proper pizza. Yum.

Walking to the theatre, a gas-powered bus pulled up at the kerb, beeped and announced that “the mobility ramp is in use”. An array of respectful youngsters waited their turn before moving off into the night.

It was easy to feel blessed. Almost pinch-worthy just to be sure it was not all a delightful dream.

The next morning I had a meeting in the city and tuned into the ABC morning radio en route to the train station. The NSW state opposition leader Luke Foley was crapping on about the need for infrastructure for refugees. I use this term because he was having a whinge, using a minority to make his point and by doing so crossing the line into racism. He sounded like a total tool and it was shameful.

I turned off the radio.

As I write this post on the train that is comfortable and running on time, reflecting on delight and disgust, it seems that no matter how much good there is and how much of it there is too take in with all your senses buzzing, there has to be the opposite.

There will be someone, sometimes myself, finding as much bad stuff as is humanly possible. It is the human condition.

My advice is to drown in the good stuff when you feel it.

Let the warm feelings seep deep into your bones and let them glue themselves into the matrix of your being so that when the morning comes and reality brings the opposite to attack you, there is a defence, a barrier that you can retreat behind and smile.

Then do the right thing and don’t vote tools into office.

POTUS

POTUS

The POTUS has continued to distribute his unique brand of international relations around the world, including a summit with Vladimir Putin. In that meeting he chose to be conciliatory and ignore recent excesses by the Russians, even to the point of publicly accepting the ‘it wasn’t us’ excuse.

This is not what Americans do. They are bold, brash and brave. They bully their way to the moral high ground and hold it with god by their side. They don’t acquiesce for that smacks of weakness.

In saying what he did when questioned during the summit, Trump poked a fair few commentators, for example

“You can love Trump, you can be thrilled he vanquished Hillary, you can be right that Obama’s foreign policy was clownish, but call it here: this was atrocious and no American president should ever behave this way.” Karol Markowicz, New York Post columnist

There is a growing consensus across the land tonight … that the president threw the United States under the bus” John Roberts, Fox News White House correspondent.

European allies are uneasy. US-Russia relations are uncertain. And the US political world – and even the White House’s own communications team – is unsettled. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This could go any number of ways from here.

First, Trump is nothing if not consistent. He always does what the mainstream least expect so as not to appear mainstream to his support base. He also goes far enough so that even the least perceptive among his followers believes he’s different and doing it all for them. No coincidence that this style also soothes Trump’s own immediate and end game aches — he will leave office far wealthier than when he arrived and his post-presidency earnings will be staggering. On this route expect more of the same. An indelicate parade of gaffs designed to upset convention.

Second, Trump could go a step too far. An action or the combined weight of actions could see his base upset enough to rejoin the mainstream incredulity. Except he has been pretty extreme so far and no one comment or behaviour has even dented his armour plated followers. So, short of committing a felony on live TV, any one action is unlikely to change much. The weight of actions could be a problem if the actions were cumulative but, perhaps by design, they are dispersed across any number of issues and, whilst they all smell a bit off, the nose is an accommodating customer. New smells become familiar ones pretty quickly. A step too far is always possible and yet ,in this age of the instant, it might have to be a stride before the POTUS is irreparable.

Third, a felony is actually called. Be that from a murky past, electioneering or something yet done, if Trump is actually indicted it might undo him. Only might, because the evidence will have to be so solid, clean and fresh as a daisy in a summer field. Anything less will not stick to teflon. Why else is the ‘fake news’ ploy played so keenly. Few of that famous support base would believe anything said or written or even judged in court if it went against their core. It would be fake. And this is the truly clever play that was hard to do in the past. Spreading disinformation meant paying off journalists or dropping leaflets from airplanes or buying media companies. It was costly, risky and did not always work. Now all you need is a tweet. ‘Fake news’ is a the ultimate risk mitigation that will be played right to the end.

Fourth, a political renaissance happens in the US bringing a surge of interest in scholarship and values. Yeah, exactly. This is the least likely way things will go, akin to claiming an intercession from the virgin Mary.

Blessed be the fruit.

So what will happen?

Alloporus suspects that the limit is far away in the distance. A two term POTUS delivering an increasingly isolated and insular country that will, ironically perhaps, be more stable than in its expansionist past, is more likely than not. It will take much fake news, many intentional and unintentional blunders, and some heavy covering up to get there but the path is clear enough.

Welcome to the atrocious bus.

Average CEO salary

Average CEO salary

Here is a startling average CEO salary info graphic from the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors reported in a recent ABC post on CEO pay deals reaching their highest level in 17 years

That’s 11 blokes, and they are all blokes, paid $187 million between them.

An average CEO salary on the list might make the recipient declare $327,000 per week to the tax man.

As is usual on this blog, we’ll try and put these incomprehensible sums of money into context.

A delivery driver for Dominos starts at $15 per hour and might earn as little as $200 per week. That $187 million is roughly 6,309 person years worth of time for money at delivery driver rates working a 38 hour week.

Is the CEO worth the time of 631 people at the bottom end of the staffing pyramid?

A CEO would argue his case with vigor. Decisions, risk, and responsibility are all his and he’ll claim that this comes with an unfair level of stress. Indeed the jobs of all the workers depend on his calls that keep the company stable and trading profitably.

The delivery boy just has to get the pizza to the customer before it goes cold.

Disparity between those making decisions and those following them is nothing new. Throughout history leaders of all hues were in privileged positions that came through the support of their followers. People like being led and they are usually quite grateful for it.

If the leader takes people where they want to go, in the case of Domino’s Pizza Enterprises this was to a 7% profit increase despite lower than expected sales and a 9% loss in the share price, then they are happy and perhaps overlook what that direction might cost. More importantly they might not consider if the cost was worth it or even fair.

Then, of course, it’s a question of who is being led toward happiness. Not that many presumably given that the whole thing is legally designed to generate profit for shareholders who chomp on the profit dividends.

I suspect that average CEO salary will start to smell pretty soon. The majority of people are not led by ASX200 CEOs and they don’t understand why such remuneration levels exist. Indeed, I would be asking questions if I were a shareholder in any of these enterprises. Ironically I probably am without knowing it through the aforementioned superannuation investors.

At some point though, the majority will start to say enough is enough. There was an inkling of this with the Occupy Wall Street movement against wealth inequality, corruption and the influence of corporations on government. Not least the propping up of companies with public funds only for these companies to give bonuses to their executives.

And then that effort faded.

It will surely come again.

And anyway, what’s so special about pizza? What makes Mr Meij worth 33% more than the next highest earning CEO?

Maybe it’s the healthier, tastier menu.

Waste disposal

Waste disposal

When the garbage bin is full a truck comes along and takes it away. All the smelly contents of the kitchen bin disappears out of sight and out of mind.

So long as all the mess is away somewhere else all is well.

Typically the simplest solution to waste disposal is to put it in a big hole in the ground. This is a relatively straightforward exercise in transportation and dumping – a few complications from odour and seepage notwithstanding.

At least this is the Australian solution.

In Sweden most household waste is burnt with recovery of three megawatt-hours of energy for every tonne of waste. In 2015, Sweden imported 2.3 million tonnes of waste from Norway, the UK, Ireland and elsewhere to fuel its incinerators. This incineration ability means that the average Swedish household sends around three kilograms of waste to landfill.

Sweden has only very small holes in the ground.

The average Australian sends more than one tonne of garbage to landfill each year.

OMG, what a difference. How can we be so profligate and wasteful? Because it is cheaper to throw stuff away than it is to repurpose it, as fuel in the case of the Swedes.

This reality is pervasive. How many times do people drop their empty crisp packet on the pavement rather than walk to the nearest bin or even fold the bag up and put it in their pocket until a bin appears? Too many.

Collectively we are prone to finding the easiest solution and have to work quite hard to overcome this tendency. Waste disposal is just one of the resource issues where this attitude applies.

Positive future…

Sydney sends much of its garbage south by rail and dumps it into an old gold mine at Woodlawn in the countryside to the north-east of Canberra.

The methane from this waste is captured and fuels a turbine or two to generate energy but there is planning permission for a resource recovery centre in the site.

In the future the rubbish will be sifted, the green material burnt in an anaerobic oven to create biochar that is spread on paddocks as a fertilizer and carbon store.

All the metals will be sifted and sorted for reuse.

The building waste will be crushed and repurposed as road base.

Only the nasty materials will end up in the ground.

These facilities will have a shortened lifespan as consumers slow down their waste production except for the biochar facility that will be converted to process silage and treated sewage into biochar.

It can be done.

Reputation?

Reputation?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the ABC, holds a reputation. It is a highly respected media source down under, modeled not so loosely on the British Broadcasting Corporation. On taxpayer funds it provides Australians with news, entertainment and community service online, on radio and on TV.

It’s fair dinkum.

No surprise then that the ABC news app uploaded a post providing simple steps people can take to help koalas survive in their area. Just a small but useful morsel of public service information.

Here are the eight headline steps…

  1. Tell people koalas are going extinct
  2. Share social media posts
  3. Protect habitat
  4. Plant koala food trees
  5. Watch out for koalas in trouble
  6. Drive carefully and be vigilant
  7. Contain dogs
  8. Save 24-hour rescue hotline into your mobile

I am not sure what you think about this list.

Have a read of it again.

You may find it helpful and informative just as the ABC online editor no doubt hoped. Perhaps you are a fan of the furry and cute koala, so iconically Australian that stuffed toy versions outsell kangaroos in airport departure lounge shops.

But have you seen one in the wild?

Probably not. So the logic leap is that they are rare and, as the list tells us, going extinct. No doubt they need protection.

But there is a problem.

There is no evidence that koalas are going extinct. We don’t even know exactly how many there are in the wild so it’s impossible to know if the numbers are changing towards an extinction risk.

We do know that this species is widespread, cosmopolitan and does very well in favourable habitat containing younger woody plants. It can do so well that some local populations grow rapidly and become overabundant. We also know that the habitat koalas like exist in both agricultural and natural landscapes from Townsville to Mount Gambier, a latitudinal range of nearly 3,000 km.

We also know that when we have a good way to find them, sniffer dogs ironically, they pop up everywhere, often in places where they were either not known or have not been seen for a long time.

Folks, this critter is no more likely to go extinct than the Pope. There are plenty of places for it to hang on indefinitely.

So number one on the list is a lie.

Items 2, 3 and 4 on the list are, therefore, actions based on a lie. Now we are asked to do things that will cost us time and money because some people believe it’s right even though they present no evidence to justify such a request.

This should sound familiar, we see it in politics every day. Only in that forum we allow ourselves some leeway because we know the buggers are rarely honest, it’s why we invented democracy.

Now for a spoiler alert…

species go extinct

They always have.

An average mammal species is present in the fossil record for about 1 million years. There have been extinctions and mass extinctions throughout evolutionary history, some of them catastrophic, and almost all of them occurred before Homo sapiens even existed. And after each single or mass event, evolution continued to generate even more diversity. It’s what nature does.

So, get over it people. Species are an abstract concept, invented by us to help describe nature and how it works but mainly to satisfy our peculiar need to name and classify objects.

And then, for deep psychological reasons only Freud could begin to fathom, we assign a value to the object. Not the species you understand, the objects that make up the species.

This gives us items 5, 6, and 7 on the ABC’s list.

The objects in this case being specific individual koalas, that you or your canine companion (of a single species but with enough human selected natural variation in form and behaviour for a taxonomists to describe a Family or even an Order) might come across on your travels. Noting, of course, that most people will only see a koala in a zoo because they don’t take long walks in the bush staring up at the canopy.

What these ‘object-centered’ actions do ask is for us to be good citizens. People who are careful, aware of what’s going on around us and should we see distress, offer help. Nothing at all wrong with any of these. It’s just they should be a given. I would want to do this anyway for all objects, including other people, and I would want my kids to be vigilant too. It’s the biblical golden rule from Matthew 7:12 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“.

Item 8 on the list is, well, it’s blatant marketing.

A hotline? Come on ABC you are supposed to be the last bastion of the precommercial world where information is the currency, not profit or popularity.

The ‘simple steps’ in this list are just an opinion.

So sorry ABC, not fair dinkum, not fair dinkum at all.

Rational meaning

Rational meaning

Richard Flanagan is just one of many thinkers whose work explores rational meaning. Flanagan worries for our collective future. Alloporus has pointed out this out before in a little gem from Flanagan on Australia and now there is another piece on the erosion of rational meaning as it is swamped by a rising tide of vitriol.

This is the world we live in.

Whatever you say in public, in a post, an email, quietly to your dog as you let him off the leash in the park, it’s all fair game for comment and critique.

It is as though opinion (check the definition below) is no longer allowed even though it is just mine, can be completely off the wall with no truth to it whatsoever or is grounded in experience and knowledge. It matters not. Opinion is open to ridicule as soon as you express it.

The thing is its an opinion people. Get over it.

Opinion “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”

Now I am not proposing that opinions go unchallenged. Not at all. Failure in challenges to the opinions of the likes of Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini resulted in some of the most trying periods in human history. The problem is how we go about it.

We know that modern media gives everyone visibility but also anonymity that allows folk to unleash their inner Ghengis on a whim. What Richard Flanagan is worried about is how much this is leaking into places it shouldn’t. It’s attacking the floorboards of our intellectual thought and weakening our capacity for rational meaning.

Just the other day in an email update to colleagues I made a comment about the deepening drought in NSW. The exact phrase was…

And it will rain again. It always does.

Perhaps this is insensitive. Perhaps it is the truth. It was not intended to be anything more than a statement of fact that was hopeful. The rain will return and the challenging conditions for the farmers and rural people of eastern Australia will ease.

This was not how people saw it. I was a stupid city slicker with no idea of how tough it is to feed the sheep from the back of a truck on your weekends and still fear for the survival of the sheep and your business.

Does this mean I must think not twice, but many times before I write anything? Should the words be censored for every ounce of judgement even when the facts are irrefutable? ‘It will rain again, it always does’ is not even an opinion. It is rational and it has meaning.

Instead, I could have gone full bore toward the stark truth that some farms will fail in the harshness that is the Australian weather as Ross Gittins did in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial saying that our concern about the drought isn’t fair dinkum.

I hope that I will be this brave but I know from each small experience that what is being said about what writers write will affect what they write next. It has too. For it is human nature to be affected by the opinion of others. And online there are no referees so chances are that the writer will be personally attacked.

So here is the thought on rational meaning…

What about for every post or comment you leave that is negative towards another’s opinion, how about you leave another comment somewhere else that supports a writer.

Just say “thanks for bringing that thought to my attention” even if it’s an opinion you don’t share.

Maybe if we even out the vitriol a bit we might create some space and time for intellectual thought and in turn, create some ideas that are good for everyone.

Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias

“The cognitive bias psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively estimate relative frequency using a shortcut called the availability heuristic: the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is. People, for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocutions, falls, and drownings.”

Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes

There are any number if good news snippets in Steven Pinker’s book. He eloquently describes the continuous and ongoing improvement in the quality of human life through history.

Modern life is much, much better than you think.

No one would choose life at any time in history over modernity if it were judged by likely exposure to violent death or injury.

In short, we don’t know how lucky we are.

The availability heuristic is one of the reasons why we are not convinced that it is way safer to be alive and stay alive today than it was at any other time in our past. It seems that the human mind is very good at recalling what happens to us most recently or what we hear about most often. Not so much when it comes to distant memory or rare occurrences. And this makes good evolutionary sense.

The ability to remember recent dangers would be a handy advantage should those dangers still be around and hiding behind a bush, lions for example.

It also helps to remember where to find water or just how much novelty you can go for in the food you eat without risk of Delhi belly. Recalling the colour, size and taste of the berry that made you vomit is handy indeed.

When the availability heuristic evolved people lived in the immediate. They needed to identify and remember novelty to survive and prosper. Ease of recall for important things that their senses experienced really helped without the means to write anything down or to ‘hey Google’.

Back in the day when our senses sampled the world that was at our fingertips and ended at the horizon, we were the filter of novelty. Each human sampled events that were in front of them and individuals who were good at recognising and remembering novelty had an advantage in avoiding risk and recalling the good stuff.

This makes ‘headlines’ the keyword in the quote from Pinker. We are no longer the filter of novelty. Our handheld devices are. They present us with the majority of novelty and, surprise, surprise, they bombard us with things we remember… because the people sending the messages want to be noticed.

Falls and drowning do not make headlines because they are familiar enough to be outside the heuristic. It’s not called clickbait for nothing.

Interestingly though, the heuristic and cognitive bias might be changing.

Instead of remembering the novelty all that a click baiter needs is to draw our attention briefly. Just long enough to click. So we are bombarded with cute, funny or weird that taps the heuristic but with no advantage. Arguably the novelty avalanche is meaningless drivel with all real advantage going to the providers, not the consumers. And so it is.

Presumably though as the number of cute cat events increase in proportion toward one, the snippet of real news might become easier to recall for its novelty value alone.

That would be an irony, wouldn’t it?