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Friday, November 30, 2018

Climate change and heads in the sand

Appalled by the scenario of the future described by scientists, New Zealand newspapers are running a series of articles on climate change, what we can do about it as ordinary citizens, and whether our efforts are doomed.

With the United States apparently governed by the three B's (bigots, blind fundamentalists, and billionaires), there seems to be little hope.  

This depressing report from The Economist describes a bleak future for America, but it applies equally to the rest of the world.

As if we didn't know already ...


According to his administration it is a clear, present and future danger to the United States. That conclusion—unsurprising to anyone who has been paying attention to climate scientists—emerges from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, compiled by 13 federal agencies and released on November 23rd. If the White House had hoped to bury the 1,600-page tome, part of a four-yearly exercise which it is obliged to prepare and make public by a law from 1990, under turkey-laden tables, the absence of news over the Thanksgiving weekend promoted it to the front pages.

The findings made for grim reading. The report details how climate change is already affecting America—through more frequent floods and droughts—and what to expect from falling crop yields, the spread of disease-carrying bugs, fiercer hurricanes and much else besides. Sea levels, up by 16-21cm in the past 120 years, may rise by another metre over the next 80, threatening $1trn in coastal property. Rising temperatures could force Texans to work fewer hours (and pay 10-20% more for energy). Wildfires should cause less devastation by 2090 than they do today—but only because many forests most prone to them will have burned to a crisp. All told, unchecked greenhouse-gas emissions could lop a tenth off American gdp this century.

Some politicians are heeding the warnings. On November 27th a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives introduced a bill to tax emissions and redistribute the proceeds as a cheque to citizens, though this looks doomed so long as Mr Trump’s fellow Republican climate sceptics control the Senate. In any event, action by America would not be enough on its own to limit the damage. Curbing global warming requires a global effort. A unreport released this week estimates that national commitments made so far by the 197 signatories of the Paris climate agreement add up to barely a third of what is needed to keep warming below 2°C (3.6°F) relative to pre-industrial times. Even if this goal were met, climate change could shave $200-430bn a year off American output.

Asked about the gloomy economic forecasts, the president said that he does not believe them. They do warrant some caution. Projecting climate and growth decades from now is fraught with uncertainty; so is counting on other countries to act. Another president would read the report as a blueprint for adapting America to a warmer world. Mr Trump appears instead to treat it as a work of fiction.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Lime scooters to hit Wellington

First, we had to endure that American invention, Halloween (which, thankfully, has never really taken off in New Zealand), and then we got the meaningless and annoying "Black Friday" -- which is apparently an American ritual for the day following Thanksgiving (which we have not imported yet).

And now we have electric scooters.  If these e-scooters become fashionable, it will only be a passing fad, but how many innocent pedestrians will be maimed, meantime? 

Wellington streets are crowded!

This is the latest news report  (including the Lime spokesman's strange spelling):

California-based company Lime has rolled out hundreds of electric-scooters on to the streets of Auckland and Christchurch and now has its sights set on the capital.
Lime have had more than 300,000 registered trips in Auckland and Christchurch since the rollout began last month.
People use an app and pay by the minute to rent the e-scooters which reach a top speed of 27 kilometres an hour.
Auckland councillor Christine Fletcher has called for regulation before somebody gets killed by an e-scooter and the Mayor Phil Goff has requested urgent advice around how to improve e-scooter safety.
Despite the concerns Lime spokesperson Hank Rowe told Morning Report he hopes to have the scooters in Wellington before Christmas.
He said Lime has been in contact with the local councils to work through the process of bringing the scooters to the capital.
Since last month's launch the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) has received 66 claims for e-scooter related injuries.
Mr Rowe said Lime is running a global social media campaign called 'Respect the Ride' to remind users of the importance of safety.
"We suggest that when you're riding on the footpath you are obviously courteous of the people around you and make sure you're not going past people at too faster speed.
"The scooters do have bells on them so if you're coming up behind someone and need to get passed them you can get their attention and if you're riding on the road, being on the left hand side and being safe," he said.
Mr Rowe said Wellingtonians will have to be particularly careful on the hilly streets.

"One of my favourite quotes for when it comes to going down hill is the brake is far more important than the accelerator."

But how about the pedestrians who are deaf?  And can't hear the bell?
How about the elderly, who might have lost the agility to leap out of the way?
And how about the visually impaired?
Friend George, who is blind, and has a lovely guide dog, was concerned enough to want to have a chat to the mayor (Justin Lester).  This -- reproduced with his permission -- is his account of what happened.

Last Tuesday after hearing a news item on National radio of sixty six accidents arising from electric scooters since being introduced in NZ I decided I would visit the Wellington Council office and arrange a meeting with the Mayor to appraise him of the potential dangers of these vehicles to the public and in particular to small children and we people with a disability. The news item had included an interview with the CE of the scooter company in which he had stated the scooters would be in Wellington by Christmas.

I approached the reception desk at the council office and  asked if I could make an appointment to speak to the Mayor and I was directed “over there” to the service department. I went through the usual explanation as to why over there was not much of a direction for a blind person and I was then given proper directions.  At the service counter I was told they had never dealt with such a request as for a meeting with the Mayor, so I suggested that the lady might seek assistance from her manager which she did returning with a form pushing it across the counter and telling me to fill in my request to see the Mayor. I explained that I was unable to do this as I was blind.  She then told me I could take the form home to which I replied I am as blind at home as I was in the office and I asked if she might fill the form in for me.  The lady then asked how long it would take to which I replied how fast can you write, but we did get the form filled in eventually.

Three hours later I received an email from a senior EA to the Mayor  in which she referred me to a councillor with my concern, but earlier I had been told that the Mayor had been tweeting his agreement with Taylor Swift about scooters, so I got annoyed and replied that if the Mayor spent less time on twittering about Taylor Swifts comments and made more time listening to the citizens of Wellington then we would all be better off. I pointed out that I had voted for Justin Lester a mistake I would not repeat.

One half hour later I received a phone call from the Mayor who told me my email was offensive and that he was too busy to talk to me and as a thirty nine year old man he thought scooters would be a lot of fun, but as Mayor he would have to think carefully and that the CE of the scooter company had over stated the council’s position as to whether a permit would be granted. I gave him examples from my own experience on our waterfront with both scooters and E bikes and his reply to this was that it was very difficult to police bad behaviour.

So I say let the battle commence - we are up for the Mayoral election next year.

Regards George  

Thursday, November 22, 2018

How about working on a cruise ship?

Well, we worked as enrichment and destination lecturers for four exciting years, but can't say we came across much of this ... though the discovery of dead passengers does ring a bell ...

Working on a cruise ship

IT TURNS out what happens at sea doesn’t always stay at sea, as cruise ship workers have been spilling the beans on what it’s really like to work on the floating hotels.
From creepy officers who spy on guests while they’re having sex, to random hook-ups with holiday-makers — the wild truth about working at sea has been revealed, according to The Sun.
Former crew members have taken to Reddit to share their experiences of life at sea — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Working on a cruise ship may seem like a dream job, but according to ex-employees there are plenty of downsides to the role.
Workers complained of the awful food they were given and the surprising regularity with which they find dead guests.
But despite this, the opportunity to travel to over 75 countries often outweighed all of the downsides to the job.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Want to work on a super yacht?

According to Wellington's Dominion Post it might not be the life you expect

It sounds really great, and with the boom in luxury yacht-building, there are more opportunities than you might imagine.   But, if you are female, you should be size 10, 12, 14 or whatever is svelte in your country.  And there are other hitches, too.

For a start, it is a Boys' Club.  Marusha Issen, who has worked on 50 super yachts over two years (boy, she must have built up some air points!) relates that she saw a lot of bullying, including sexual assaults on female workers.  And a big hint is that when applying for a job, a girl is encouraged to submit a picture of herself, preferably in a bikini. 

Marusha, formerly a hairdresser, quit her job to fly to France to enlist on a super yacht as a cleaner.  But, according to the agency, she had to go on a diet before applying. When she expressed disbelief, she was simply advised to go to a uniform shop and see if the clothes fitted her.  And none of them did.

Persistent by nature, Marusha kept on trying, landing job after job in her hunt for her dream, only to come across the same depressing comments.  One captain informed her that she "should quit the industry because captains liked women with a shape that they could enjoy looking at."

Another Kiwi dreamer was Helen O'Connor, who was ticked off by the chief steward of the ship.  "Oh, don't let those hips get any wider," he said; "...we know what happens with girls who get stuck in the pantry and get fat, we're not having fat girls on this boat."

She was also told to go out and buy a tan, as she didn't look "summery" enough

There are men who agree.  Auckland-born Jack Greene confirms that if female crew "put on weight or anything, they were fired on the spot."

On all ships the captain is god, in complete control at sea, and throughout history there have been skippers who have abused this power -- and it might even be more so on luxury yachts.  Greene confirmed this, saying that the super yacht industry is a game with no rules, despite the International Maritime Labour Convention, which stipulates that there should be a complaints process in workers' contracts.  Dodging this is yet another advantage of offshore flagging.

A third Kiwi woman, Emma Burtt, has a few positive comments about working on luxury yachts, though she admits the life is a mixed bag, and a girl has to keep her wits about her.

"People who work in the yachting industry, you always see photos of them in cool places all around the world but you don't see them scrubbing toilets and working long hours.

"You don't really understand that side until you do it."

Emma worked as a stewardess first, and graduated to deck hand, a much more highly regarded role -- a yacht can sail without stewards, but not without a deck crew.  And she was lucky with the owner of her first super yacht, a Saudi prince.   A liberated fellow, he allowed the women crew members to eat with him at dinner ... and would take them on weekend trips to London, with three thousand pounds in pocket money, to go shopping as they liked.

He was also eccentric.  Emma remembers him paying one of the crew members five thousand euro to dive off the boat dressed as a salmon.

And the tips were good for those who were not invisibly cleaning toilets -- up to three thousand euro.

And unusual and interesting way of paying off one's student loan.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Super yacht Equanimity to be sold next month

Now billed as the second-most famous (or notorious) ship in the world (after the Titanic), Equanimity is finally to be sold.

Or so they say.

According to Miranda Blazeby, writing in Boat International, the Malaysian court is ready to get quit of the ship by the end of the year.

According to reports, judicial commissioner Khadijah Idris made the order on October 5 after lawyers representing the government's state investment fund 1DMB made submissions to the court.

Sitpah Selvaratnam, a lawyer representing the fund, told Malaysia's The Star Online, "The appraiser will evaluate the fair value of the vessel, while a central broker will be tidying up the advertisements and so on. The buyers will be interested to know the features and condition of the vessel."

She revealed the fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, who is believed to have bought the yacht using funds embezzled from 1DMB, has not protested the auction of the superyacht. Selvaratnam also estimated that the yacht will be put up for sale by the second week of November, with bids received in early December.

It comes after the Cayman Islands-registered yacht was transferred to Malaysia in August after being seized by Indonesian authorities at the request of the US Department of Justice. It arrived at Port Klang on August 7 where it was immediately boarded by Malaysian officials. The department is investigating the alleged misappropriation of $4.5 billion from Malaysia’s state investment fund 1MDB by high level officials and their associates.

The US authorities believe that the funds used to purchase Equanimity were siphoned off from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB between 2009 and 2015. As well as the Oceanco-built yacht, it is understood that the money was used to buy the rights to several Hollywood movies, including The Wolf of Wall Street and Dumb and Dumber ToEquanimity’s alleged owner Low Taek Jho has been previously identified as a central figure in the scandal.

Malaysia’s finance minister Lim Guan Eng previously said the government will to take a full inventory of items on the yacht and open it for public viewing before auctioning it for “the highest price”. The Malaysian government intends to use the sale of the yacht, which is valued at $250 million, to recover some of the funds lost in the scandal.

As well as the US, there are currently six other countries investigating irregularities related to the 1MDB fund, including Switzerland, Luxembourg and Singapore.

Launched in the Netherlands in 2014, Equanimity was the first superyacht to be built to the new PYC standard. As a result, she can accommodate up to 26 guests, as well as 28 crew members. Her twin 4,828hp MTU 20V4000 M73 diesel engines propel her to a top speed of 19.5 knots. When trimmed back to her cruising speed of 16 knots, Equanimity boasts a globetrotting range, thanks to her total fuel capacity of 271,000 litres

Friday, November 9, 2018

Musicians interned on tiny island

In the middle of Wellington harbor, in plain sight of the city, there is a tiny but very important island.  For ages it has been known by its European name - Somes -- but now it has its proper Maori name, Matiu, which was endowed by its first human discoverer, the great Polynesian explorer, Kupe, who named the island after one of his daughters.

Nowadays, Matiu is a tranquil plant and animal sanctuary, where visitors can wander through rejuvenating native bush, watch cavorting, colorful kakariki parrots, and enjoy amazing views.  But during two world wars, it was an internment centre for "enemy aliens."  And today, in our local paper, there is a well-researched essay by Samantha Owens, describing an equally colorful set of prisoners -- no less than a Bavarian band.

This was Mersy's Bavarian Band, pictured above, circa 1905. Rudolf Mersy, the owner, composer, and conductor, is the small man seated in the centre of the front row.

Groups of itinerant German musicians had been coming to New Zealand regularly from the 1850s onwards, so it's not surprising one such group happened to be in the country when the First World War started.  And such was the fervor of popular opinion, it is not amazing, either, that Mersy and his 12-man band should be interned, even though they had been back and forth to this country for ages, and were known for playing patriotic British airs, such as "Rule Britannia."
Arrested in Auckland, they were shipped by train to Wellington, and from there by boat to the island.  Not only were the accommodations Spartan (Somes/Matiu had been a quarantine station for imported animals) but they must have contemplated the city scene wistfully.  Though so near, it was so far away, and yet they knew it well, having visited Wellington often in the past.  Popular entertainers at private functions (including, perhaps, even Katherine Mansfield's Garden Party), they made extra cash by busking in the street, and by adding martial music to school sports days.
But, being musicians, they didn't let time hang on their hands.  Instead, they entertained their fellow prisoners.  And so the slow years dragged by, until in May 1919, Mersy and his band were included in a batch of 410 prisoners of war who were repatriated to a Europe that they probably had a great deal of trouble recognizing.  Their conveyance was the steamship Willochra, and the man in charge was Major G.R. Blackett.  

Willochra was an interesting ship (as well as what seems to have been a major polluter).  Built in Dalmuir, Scotland, in 1913, she was chartered to Union SS Co. of New Zealand for their trans-Pacific run -- a career that did not last very long, for in November 1914 she was requisitioned by the New Zealand Government for the war effort.  Then, in 1918, she was requisitioned by the British Government, and a year or so after repatriating Mersy and his fellow ex-internees, she was sold to the British transport firm Furness Withy, renamed Fort Victoria, and put into the North American trade. 
Her end was somewhat dramatic -- on December 19, 1929, while she was laying at anchor in New York harbor, with 200 passengers for Hamilton, Bermuda, the incoming steamship Algonquin ran into and sunk her.  Luckily, the US coastguard had raced to the rescue, and no lives were lost. The wreck was later blown up to clear the channel.
And what makes her even more interesting is that she is one of the few ships in history to have a musical composition created for her -- the "Willochra Waltz," composed by Mersy, and presented to Major Blackett.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Oldest printed book in the world

No, it is not the Gutenburg Bible

Erica Eisen's blog in the London Review of Books tells an amazing story

When the wind blows through the dunes around the Western Chinese city of Dunhuang – long a garrison town between the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts – it is said to produce sounds similar to song. In 366, the itinerant monk Yuezun was wandering through the arid landscape when a fantastical sight appeared before him: a thousand buddhas, bathed in golden light. (Whether heat, exhaustion or the strange voice of the sands worked themselves on his imagination is anyone’s guess.) Awed by his vision, Yuezun took up hammer and chisel and carved a devotional space into a nearby cliff-face. It soon became a centre for religion and art: Dunhuang was situated at the confluence of two major Silk Road routes, and both departing and returning merchants made offerings. By the time the site fell into disuse in the 14th century, almost 500 temples had been carved from the cliff.
Among the hundreds of caves was a chamber that served as a storeroom for books. The Library Cave held more than 50,000 texts: religious tracts, business reports, calendars, dictionaries, government documents, shopping lists, and the oldest dated printed book in the world. A colophon at the end of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra scroll dates it to 868, nearly six centuries before the first Gutenberg Bible.
The Library Cave was bricked up some time in the 11th century, for unknown reasons: perhaps to keep the books safe from invaders; or perhaps, given the large number of worn and partial texts, the chamber was less a library than a tomb for books. Locals continued to worship at the shrines, but several of the the exterior walkways connecting the ancient cave entrances collapsed, and the sand that slowly filled many of the caves severely abraded their delicate murals.
At the end of the 19th century, Wang Yuanlu, a Taoist monk, took it on himself to restore the caves. He found the cache of texts in the course of his repairwork, and in 1907 sold the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra, along with more than 9000 other objects, to the Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein, who smuggled them out of the country. Earlier plans by Chinese officials to take the library’s collection out of the caves for storage and scholarly analysis had been put on hold for lack of funds; in China, Stein is widely regarded as a thief. The sūtra remains in England, housed in the British Library.
The Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra is a testament to Chinese mastery in paper production – which by 868 had been refined over a number of centuries – and block-printing of both text and images. The frontispiece, which shows the Buddha flanked by heavenly beings and devotees, is intricately rendered in fine lines. Creating copies of a sūtra on the scale permitted by printing, and so spreading the Buddha’s teachings, was believed to increase the chances of a happy rebirth for oneself or one’s loved ones. The Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra’s colophon explains that it was ‘reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents’.
In 2010, the British Library completed more than 1000 hours of painstaking conservation work, much of which was spent undoing the well-meaning but ill-advised interventions of earlier conservators. The subsequent digitisation of the scroll seems to have augmented its commissioner’s wish for ‘universal free distribution’, ensuring his mother and father a blissful afterlife, 1150 years after the book was created.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Novel book chain

An inspiring story from the New York Times

LONDON — The plea went out a few weeks ago from the bookstore in a port city in southern England: “Care to lend a hand?”
Volunteers were needed for “heavy manual work” in shifts. It was “essential” that they be able to lift and carry boxes and office supplies.
Among the supplies: thousands upon thousands of books.
The appeal from October Books, a nonprofit that began 40 years ago as a “radical” bookshop, came after a rent increase forced it from its old home in Southampton, Jess Haynes, a member of the collective and one of the few paid employees, said on Wednesday.
The shop was looking to move lock, stock and barrel about 150 meters (just under 500 feet) to a three-story building that used to house a bank. Would anybody respond to the call for help?  The bookstore got more than a helping hand — it got hundreds. A human chain began forming from the old October Books stockroom, snaking past 54 doors to the new building. The shop stopped counting after about 250 people showed up, Ms. Haynes said by phone. Hand-to-hand, the chain of people passed thousands of books over a few hours. 

“It was very moving,” Ms. Haynes said, adding that the employees were “all getting choked up” about how members of the community had leapt to help out.