Fear or morality

I recently watched a documentary on the rise of ISIS.

It was shocking. The graphic footage of bloodlust was visceral and brutal.

How can a man place a gun to the back of the head of another bound and helpless in the dirt, and pull the trigger? How could he? He is a human being and I am a human being.

Instant fear.

Not for the prospect of being the victim but for being the perpetrator. There but for the grace of god anyone goes.

Fear that such moral depravity is possible, that we are capable of inflicting such pain on ourselves. For the pain is held by the living not the helpless victim. His is, at least, short-lived.

This horror is not to make people scared. Instead this was domination through callous and morally bankrupt behaviours.

But it was scary to see what a man is capable of doing to a countryman who follows the same religion, just not the right variety.

These killings are Illegal acts under any civilised legal code even those that apply when countries are at war. Killing in cold blood is and always should be criminal however it might be dressed.

And yet what to do about it presents a huge moral challenge.

Standing back and pretending it is only an internal problem condemns the victims and effectively condones the actions. Stepping in with guns blazing did not work the first (or the second) time, so who can say it would this time.

Military aircraft are something of a compromise at least strategically and politically. I am not sure where it leaves our morals for how far from the gun to the back of the head is the red button that releases the air to ground missile?

The most worrying of all was footage of ISIS flags flying atop American tanks and armoured vehicles so brand spanking new they didn’t have a scratch — hardware acquired when the Iraqi army forces were overrun. Now the bloodshed is aided by equipment sold for profit.

No matter how they were acquired, that is moral depravity too.

So next time the media try to frighten you with the prospects of terrorism in your hometown or the government comes across so proud to make a big deal of apprehending a handful of alleged recruits at the airport, have a think.

Just imagine an American tank rolling through a conquered city draped in a black flag.

This is the real deal and I don’t know if we are up to tackling it.

TV dinners

 

not-a-TV-dinnerI think about far too many things.

My neurons fire at will and so often that thinking too much will be my terminal condition. It would be so nice to switch off all that chatter once and for all, but I fear that particular state of bliss is not mine.

One line of thought that began with a thought about banana pancakes [find the recipe here] led me to an especially odd food related suggestion, namely…

Has the TV dinner been a bigger destroyer of family life than the TV itself?

Along with many others I have always thought that TV watching rates — a little over 3 hours per day for the average Australian — have compromised us all. There is no time to talk over a bottomless cup of tea, to enter impassioned discussion of irrelevancies or to simply sit in each other’s company when in an average lifetime 18 years worth of daylight hours are spent in front of plasma.

The other day we sat with the kids [all now young adults but as parents we still cling on to their youth] and asked questions from Gary Poole’s book “The complete book of questions”. It was amazing how much engagement we all enjoyed as the TV wore a blank hangdog expression in the corner of the room.

It didn’t even matter that after a while the youngest son fell asleep. We all revelled in the discussion that is killed when the TV is on.

All this is well-known. We have had the research to prove that human interaction is an essential that no amount of TV can replace. And anyone brave enough to turn the TV off with more than one person in the room will confirm it to be true. The TV kills our biggest asset — the ability to communicate.

Except my question was really about the TV dinner.

In our house we have cream lounge furniture and were forced to ban eating on the couch. We also turn off the TV when dinner is served. The process of eating together without distractions is too important.

Yes, we eat together. Not only that but we eat the same food.

This is not some trendy new age thing. Everybody used to do it and Italians still do. Sharing food was critical to the bonds that kept us alive for as rather puny mammals we had little chance amidst the cut and thrust of the savanna without trust in each other.

Rather than foster that trust with talk as we share the products of our modern hunting and gathering we have let the TV dinner decide. Kids first, parents later — chips for them and something marginally more wholesome for us.

Produce is now so plentiful that it comes in pre cooked packages that only need the microwave. The dinner requires no preparation and no need for discussion. It can be warmed and consumed right there in front of the box.

The news and current affairs shows make lame substitutes for our own brains as we sit and chew our way to obese oblivion.

So here is my thought…

The TV dinner will bring on the end of the world as we know it.

Not the end of the earth, for no amount of human arrogance and negligence will bring that about, but the end of our current time of plenty.

My logic is this.

We sit and eat in front of banal reality TV where bachelors find love, cooks become chefs and big brother watches random individuals misbehave. This menu eats the time we could use to share experience and understanding, to communicate and think about issues of the day. This lost time of mental plenty will see us starve for solutions when we really need them.

Consequently, the TV dinner will bring on the end of the world as we know it because everyone will die of mental starvation.

The alternative is that we all succumb to smart phone neck.

Either way we are doomed.

Recognising what we know

There is a very funny scene in an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Penny asks Sheldon and Leonard trivia questions about famous American rock bands. Needless to say they are clueless. Not even Sheldon’s eidetic memory could rescue him. Penny’s infamous smirk was never funnier.

So now, do you know what this is?

equation

Don’t worry. A thousand people chosen at random from the population probably wouldn’t know either.

Most folk would be able to tell you that it was ‘some science shit’ and a few of them might know it was an equation for something.

Just one or two would recognise the mathematical notation for the third law of thermodynamics that states all processes cease as temperature approaches absolute zero.

But if more than two out of 1,000 people knew this you would suspect that the sampling was far from random. Perhaps it took place in the coffee break of a theoretical physics congress attended by Dr Coopers.

Now, of course, if you did sample 1,000 delegates from said congress, not all of them would recognise the equation. But I digress from my main point, which is this…

Each of us can only know a tiny fraction of what is known.

Even the eidetic can only remember what they have seen or heard. And for those of us who forget all the time, then our fraction can be small indeed.

The curious thing is that rather than get to know a little about a lot, people specialise. Either by choice or just as a default from our experiences we focus. After a while we all know quite a lot about something.

There are people who know more than seems possible about the cutting tolerances of a lathe or the rules that govern a financial balance sheet. There will be someone who can recite by heart the poems of Keats and someone else who can quote the test batting averages of all players in the current Indian cricket squad and then proceed to tell you why many of them should never have been selected.

This accumulation of specific knowledge is very useful. It gives us great depth in technical and practical matters. How else would an accounting firm provide services or repairs be made to a faulty MRI scanner? Not to mention brewing a decent coffee.

We need people who know the details.

What has struck me of late is just how specialised we have become and how little this means we know when presented with material outside our expertise. Just like Sheldon and Leonard, we are easily at a loss.

And yet we also take for grated what we know.

Because I have been in the guts of ecological science in research, teaching and my consulting practice for far too long, I take scientific knowledge for granted. For example, I can easily see the link between grazing management and soil carbon — graze too hard and soil carbon declines — and the net environmental benefits of changes to grazing practices that stop or even reverse that soil carbon decline.

What I can’t do is assume that a specialist in financial assurance will see or believe that such a link exists. She needs evidence. And as the language and logic flow falls outside her expertise she will need some persuading.

This is usually not a problem because ecology and accounting speak happening in the same room is about as rare as a female financial specialist. Except that they are about to collide.

The next decades will require that food production doubles or a lot of people will go hungry. Hungry people are not easily or righty ignored and the only way to feed them will be to invest in more efficient food production, distribution and storage systems.

It will be a time for specialisms to be recognised and respected. Times approach when the lion will lie down with the lamb… and come to some agreement.

This will only happen if expertise and depth of knowledge is respected. If we have to spend all the time convincing each other we actually know stuff then the solution will slip away.

So be grateful that someone among the 1,000 knows the formula for the third law of thermodynamics and don’t dismiss her for being odd.

It will be smarter to listen to she has to say.

Fork in the road

Photo FOTR Gandalf Mines of MoriaIt is dark, damp and there is an eerie silence as Gandalf the Grey leads the fellowship into the Mines of Moria towards the Halls of Durin. Among the countless bends and criss-crossing paths he loses his way.

Gandalf stops at the entrance to two tunnels at a loss. Which way to go?

Must he lead into the blackness on the right or the blackness on the left? They cannot go back. The wizard must make a choice.

After a long time he decides on the one with the least noxious smell. He smiles and the fellowship quests on.

Gandalf was lucky. Not because he managed to choose correctly after using about as much logic as a coin toss, but because he had the choice to make.

It was tremendous good fortune to know that there was a fork in the road. And even though the choice was difficult and required a gamble no more sophisticated than a guess, a choice was made.

The real world can be a challenge too.

Sometimes on the freeway the voice from the satnav in the car tells me to keep right. It insists on me keeping right even though there are no exists or forks in the road. The only choice is to go straight ahead. This is especially disconcerting and feels worse than missing a real exit or a concealed entrance on a country lane.

Being told there is a fork where none exists does your head in.

When my GPS tells me to keep right when there is no right to keep it feels like have relinquished control of both outcome and process for no reason. All I can do is ignore the instruction and proceed with the only option the road offers me.

There are many stories of people who failed to ignore the sultry voice of the satnav and driven into a lake, so I suppose I did make a choice of sorts. I ignored the obvious software error.

All this is about control, that ubiquitous fundamental of the human condition. Gandalf had no idea about the correct route he made the call anyway because he had to. And even though the outcome was out of his control, the process of choosing was his to command. And like all true leaders he made the choice with conviction bringing his companions along with him.

I wonder though how many real and metaphorical forks in the road are taken without any serious choice. How often do we crawl, run or scream through life without thought for the consequences of not taking the left fork?

Clearly this cannot be retrospective. In life the forks are often once only options. Like the fellowship, the journey is forward and missed paths remain so. And just as Gandalf found, many of our own forks are a puzzle without a solution. We simply have no evidence or experience for how to decide.

Perhaps this is the point. It means that we must grasp what we do have, the process of choice. Be thankful for the ability to make a call even when we are not sure it’s the right one.

$42 million

eveI was told that the recent ‘break the internet’ image of Kim Kardashian’s rear netted her a royalty of $42 million. A tidy sum that brings new meaning to a woman’s assets.

Now it is important not to believe everything that you hear or read on the damaged interweb. So I doubt very much that the fee was as bootilicious as the behind.

All we can be sure of is that the butt was not revealed for free and mere mortals will never know the actual amount of moolah exchanged.

When my brain had had enough of curvy bits I began to think up things you could do with $42 million.

Here are a few of them…

  • Pay one years salary for 17 premier league soccer players
  • Cover 10% of the bill for hosting the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane
  • Buy roughly 6 months supply of coal for a 500 megawatt power station
  • Purchase a skinny latte for every man woman and child in Belgium
  • Fly first class around the world 8,400 times, or once with a lot of mates
  • Get a broker to secure a couple of 50m long luxury yachts
  • Acquire 68,000 ha of agricultural land and grow 300,000 t of wheat each and every year and donate the produce to famine relief charities [that is enough to meet the wheat consumption for 3 million people]
  • Purchase and make available first line anti-retroviral drugs for over 360,000 aids patients — 20% of the aids patients on Zimbabwe

If you had a famous behind, what would you do with $42 million?

Post comments.

Are we doomed?

food spreadRecently I was able to have dinner with my eldest son. He was born in 1989 and now has some life experience under his belt.

As always we had some good conversation covering the usual topics that’s Dads have with their grown up sons — soccer, cricket, work, cars and the like. We took taking great care to avoid topics that mothers might ask about.

Then out of the blue he asked me what I thought would happen to the world. “Are we doomed?” he said. “Will we run out of food?”

Startled, I blinked and rattled off my usual patter.

“There are 7 billion of us” I said, “and for the 600+ million that live on less than a dollar a day we have already run out of food and for another billion or so who manage on less than $10 a day they would say food is very scarce. Then there are the billion or so fortunate ones who live in the mature economies amidst relative plenty and are copping obesity and its associated diseases.”

I paused and realised, partly from the blank expression opposite, that I had not answered the question.

“Immediate doom is unlikely because we will invent distributed and cheap sources of power, fuels cells probably. Power gets us over the water problem because we can then desalinate and/or pump freshwater to wherever we need it to irrigate the desert or flush the toilet. We will have to recycle nutrient like crazy so as to replenish the soils but again that can be done.”

“Doom is also unlikely because people will not like it. In extremis human beings are incredibly good at making things better. It happens because we hate it when things are bad. The Victorians with their class system and global exploitation managed to get rid of the smog that was killing thousands in London. The Chinese will find a way to do the same for Beijing. Even wars end because the horrors are too much spurring one side on to victory or a compromise agreement.”

Such was my immediate answer and it seemed satisfactory.

Then I got to thinking. Whilst most of my answers on this sort of thing had solid enough logic and a degree of history to back them up, I was not convinced by any of them. If pushed I wouldn’t buy my own arguments.

I genuinely don’t what is going to happen.

Some days I can’t believe the economic and social systems that I live within can possibly persist another day. They appear so fragile. But that is what we said last year, and every year back as far as can be remembered. Instead I marvel at human persistence.

So I have decided that it is time to think seriously about what might happen. I’ll get back to you after a good cogitate.

Meantime if you have any suggestions please post comments.

Can you answer these four easy questions?

factorySuppose that for an extra $5,000 on your home loan you could have unlimited electricity for all the household appliances and your electric car for the lifetime of your loan. Over the 25 years that must pass as you steadily pay the bank more than double the amount you borrowed [yes folks, it’s true] you would not have any energy bills.

Would you take the offer?

Now suppose you also own a factory that makes Halloween costumes for kids, the only one of its kind outside of China, and I said that for $20,000 you could have unlimited power day and night to run the machinery for as long as there are kids wanting lollies and parents willing to buy them scary outfits.

Would you find the money?

And now for your next car, whether you are in the market for an SUV or a hot hatch, what if you could purchase an electric version of you model of choice that had the acceleration of a Porsche, a 500km range, and cost 20% less than the petrol version?

What would you say?

It seems that Elon Musk the co-founder of the Tesla car company [among other things] knows your answers. He is building a solar-powered Gigafactory to make batteries. The plant will cover 93 ha of the Nevada desert and produce 50 GWh in annual production by 2020.

Because all it takes to realise these fantasies is the ability to capture and store sun or wind energy at a reasonable price. Reliable cheap batteries would make it happen

Here is the fourth and final question.

What would you do if you were on the board of a company and responsible for maintaining profits from a coal mine or coal-fired power station and you had the ear of the Australian prime minister?

Answers on a postcard.