Saturday, 26 July 2014

Memories of a tall man.

This first appeared as a column in The Age two weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It seemed appropriate to post it again. Sympathies (again) to families and friends of the victims of MH 17.

Like many people I guess, I’ve been watching the footage coming out of America all week. Gripped by morbid fascination and wondering if the world is slowly sliding towards a long war. I probably shouldn’t have watched so much, because inevitably it stirred up memories of my own and the echoes and the disturbed sediments are still swirling around. Death and disaster always seem to trigger my own little honour roll of the dead. Like a long fishing line that drags up all sorts of crap from the bottom of the sea, they come up all of a bunch, all tangled together. And all disasters share a certain family resemblance. Whether it’s bombs, plane crashes, earthquakes or bushfires there always seem to be rubble and twisted steel. That’s the footage that always gets me.

My father was killed in the Granville train smash in 1977. It was during school holidays and when the first radio reports came through we had no idea how bad the crash was. We thought dad might have just hopped on the next train and gone to work as normal. Hours later when the first TV footage came through and we realised the seriousness of what had happened, we started saying the same things I’ve heard on the telly this week. Maybe he’s helping the rescuers. Maybe he’s unconscious in a hospital and doesn’t have any ID on him. Maybe he’s wandering around with amnesia. But at midnight we got the phone call that his body had been pulled from the wreckage. A close church friend was dispatched to identify the body because back in the 70s it was considered too distressing a task for the family. I never got to see his body. That is one of my only regrets. They now know the importance of being able to see and touch the body. To make it real. To help with the grieving process. As it was, I couldn’t take my eyes off the coffin during the funeral because it didn’t seem the right shape. It seemed too short and too wide. My father was a tall man.

Grief works in mysterious ways. In the weeks following the tragedy all the miraculous near-miss stories started emerging. People who’d missed that train by less than a minute. The people who decided to take a day off at the last moment. I found myself really resenting the “lucky bastard” stories. It just rubbed in the fact that my father was spectacularly unlucky. But it was also in those weeks that we discovered the depth of generosity of average folks. When the names of the victims were finally published in the paper, my family received literally hundreds of cards. Many of them with five dollar or two dollar bills attached. Just small anonymous offerings to help out our family. It’s kind of sad that it takes tragedies like that to realise how good most people can be.

The worst thing about having a family member die in such a public and newsworthy fashion, is that it can never be left in the past. The poor folk in America are going to have to get used to seeing the footage again, every year, on the anniversary of the event. The anniversary of Granville is the one day of the year when I try to avoid all news reports because I am sick to death of seeing the damn footage. It may be just history for everyone else, but it was where my father died and I wish they’d stop showing it. I wish they’d renamed the suburb as well but I guess that’s going too far.

The weirdest thing of all is that life goes on. The pieces get picked up, the crying stops (mostly) and laughter returns. In somewhat a guilty fashion at first, but it does come back. A couple of years ago I was working in Sydney and I decided to go and see the memorial at Granville. I’d never been before. My oldest and dearest friend drove me there. Neither of us had been to Granville before and we got a bit lost. We ended up parking on the wrong side of the bridge and had to walk across it to see the memorial. Which really threw me quite frankly. I got distracted. I almost stepped in front of a car. My friend threw out her arm and stopped me. Then looked at me and said: “That would be too ironic.” She was right. Imagine being killed by a car at the exact same spot where your father was killed by a train. I laughed so much I had to sit down.

The laughter comes back. And to all those people reading this, coping with their own personal echoes and sediment, my thoughts are with you.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

The real cost of austerity measures

  Well now we know. In a surprising reversal of usual political policy, the pre-Budget policies floated in the media and designed to scare the living crap out of people, were milder than what actually turned up in the Budget. As a result, fear has tipped over into anger and personally, I’ve never seen such a reaction to a Budget. When’s the last time you saw protestors burning copies of the Budget?  The only thing that isn’t a surprise is the savagery with which healthcare funding has been attacked. It’s just par for the course in these days of austerity measures after the Great Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

There is a certain brutal logic to cutting the health budget. With healthcare being one of the major items in the Budget, any trimming done in that department is more effective than trimming in other areas. A cynic might also say that it is easier to take a small amount of money from a lot of poor people than it is to take a large amount of money from a small group of rich people. But is taking a razor to the health budget really such a good idea? New data from Europe would suggest not.

When Greece got into trouble and was slashing government funding, healthcare took a major hit. When Spain moved into austerity mode, the very first policy they announced was the removal of all government subsidies on medication. A soft-hearted soul might think that that would lead to a lot more deaths. And they would be right.

A recent article in New Scientist magazine, (1st March, 2014, p6) contained some very scary statistics about the real effects of the healthcare slashing in Greece. Between 2007 and 2011, suicides increased by 45 per cent, cases of depression doubled and because all needle-exchange and free condom programs for injecting drug users were cut, by 2012 new HIV cases were 32 times the 2009 levels. A hard-core economic rationalist in an unguarded moment might say, ‘Well who cares about druggies? As for the depression and suicides, suck it up princess! It’s a time of crisis, everyone has to do their bit, we all have to dig deep and tighten our belts etc etc.’ But there is one statistic that should make everyone pause and have a bit of a think. In those same years, infant mortality rose by 43 per cent. I’m pretty sure that not even Scrooge would say ‘suck it up princess’ to a new born child.

It’s time to ask, what the hell are our priorities? Is keeping big banks and the IMF happy a good enough reason to virtually sacrifice babies on the altar of ‘austerity’ and ‘economic responsibility’? How ‘responsible’ is it to cause that much death and suffering to your own people? I know social disruption is not one of the economic values that banks factor in to their equations, they only see debt and balance sheets, but maybe it’s time that they did.

One of the few immutable laws of economics and finance is that debt grows faster than income. A small example would be, how much interest do you pay on your credit card and much do you receive on your savings account? Bit of a gap there I think. Taken up to the macro level this means that any government, regardless of their ideology, given enough time will start seeing their debt burden grow. If you add an unexpected financial crisis, that debt will grow even quicker. When debt starts to really balloon and government debt overtakes national GDP, barring a miracle, there is simply no way for that debt to be ever paid back.

Banks and governments know this. However much banks insist that governments must pay off all their debts, they know it will never happen. That’s when deals start to be made behind closed doors. That’s when debt gets re-structured, re-negotiated, rolled over or re-financed. Bail outs are offered, temporary loans are given and private creditors are asked to take a ‘shave’ on what they are owed. You may be interested to know that last time I heard, the private creditors of the Greek government were asked to take a ‘shave’ of 74 per cent of what they were owed. Which is more an amputation really, than a ‘shave’.

The point is: deals will be made. Debts will be partially forgiven. The country will survive and eventually struggle back to some form of economic health. My question is: if we all know what the end game will be, if we all know where this is heading, if austerity measures are ultimately pointless and destructive, why are we spending so much time on them? If we know Act Three is waiting in the wings, couldn’t we fast forward through the pain and boredom of Act Two and stop inflicting so much misery on our own population? How much of a sacrifice do poor people have to make to maintain the purity of an economic theory? How many babies need to die to keep bankers happy?

If that last sentence strikes you as extreme and inflammatory, as opposed to diabolically accurate, it’s a measure of how distant economic theory is from real life. Maybe it’s time for economics to be wrangled into serving real people, instead of forcing people to adapt to dubious economic theories that promise nothing but pain.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Time for a new word

I wish to lodge a new word into the political discourse concerning environmentalism and the necessity to ‘save’ the planet. The word I wish to introduce is ‘hair-shirting’ and describes policies that are allegedly aimed at saving the environment but are in fact completely pointless beyond make life a bit more difficult/uncomfortable/painful for the average person. The original hair shirt was usually made from goats’ hair (presumably not Angora) and was worn close to the skin and used by religious types to cause discomfort and pain as a sign of repentance and atonement or ‘mortification and penance’ if you want to go old school Catholic. The modern hair shirt phenomenon I’m talking about is just as annoying and pointless. I assume that the people introducing these policies believe they are  helping by ‘raising people’s consciousness’ about the issues involved but personally I think the small amount of suffering involved is actually about giving some people a self-righteous little glow of satisfaction that they are ‘doing something’ about the planet. If things are just that little bit more difficult to do and it feels like you’re giving up something in the process, you must be doing something good for the environment, right? Wrong. You’ve merely been given a hair shirt, nothing more.

Some hair-shirting is minor and merely annoying, like swapping over from incandescent light bulbs to long life fluorescent bulbs. Apart from the fact that who the hell wants more fluoro lighting in their lives, there’s the inconvenience of getting rid of the bloody things. You can’t just wrap them up and put them in the bin, there are too many toxic components in the bulbs to put into landfill so you have to save them and then find an authorised collection point to drop them off at. And if those toxic components aren’t fully recycled and used again, I would question whether they’re a net benefit in the long term.

Then there’s the low-flow shower heads that I loathe with a fiery passion. I hate all the versions. The small heads with tiny holes that turn out a stream of water that feels like you’re being hit by dozens of sharp little needles. The larger head that looks like it will put out decent coverage but it turns out there’s only a large outer ring of water falling and the centre is empty. Nasty, fraudulent little shower head; I hate you. I’m a big person and with some of these new showerheads it feels like I have to weave like a cobra in the shower to get proper coverage. This seems to be a policy based on a belief by the policy makers that we are too stupid to adjust the flow of our own showers, too moronic to manage having a short shower and therefore can’t be trusted with a traditional shower head. Thanks for the contempt guys.

Probably the stupidest and most insulting hair-shirting green policy was brought in by the Victorian State Government about five years ago. The state was still in drought and some mouth breathing moron decided that in attempt to save water, pool owners would have to top up their pools by using buckets instead of a hose. How this would save water I have no idea. Presumably they thought pool owners were again, so stupid that they’d forget they’d put the hose in and accidentally overflow the pool. Something I don’t think any pool owner has ever done. Personally I think it was a passive/aggressive plan designed to force pool owners into thinking about giving up the pool. It was a purely punitive measure as far as I can see. I filled the pool once by bucket, with the help of five friends and swore ‘never again’. Our nearest tap was 30 m away and up a flight of stairs but we couldn’t use that tap because it was so close to the hot water system we couldn’t fit a bucket under it. So we had to go up another flight of stairs and use the tap in the laundry. Stupid, stupid, moronically stupid is all I can say. I ended up doing the same thing I suspect many people did; I surreptitiously topped up the pool by tying the hose to the bottom step of the ladder into the pool. No noise, no fuss, no aching backs and not once did the pool overflow.

The final word on the stupidity of this policy I leave to a story my pool guy told me. One of his other customers was so outraged by this policy that he got a plumber to install a tap directly over the pool and then hung a bucket with a hole in the bottom on it. The story will have more impact when I tell you that the other customer just happened to be a judge. When a senior member of the legal profession is happy to break a law, someone should note that the law makers have truly stuffed up.

But now I want to look at one of the latest green fads that turns out to be a complete nonsense: the energy saving power boards that allegedly deal with the terrible dragon of Stand By Power. Oh yes, all those little glowing lights on your appliances that cause such a terrible drain on our power supplies had to be defeated. If you’re not prepared to downsize and do away with unnecessary equipment (some people have more than one telly, can you imagine? How greedy!) then at least use the power boards so they don’t drain energy all night. Plug that board in right now so you can walk through the house at night and not be stared at by the glowing red eyes of environmental vandals. I think that’s the general gist of the policy and claims were made by some people that you could save up to $200 a year on your power bills. Turns out, that was an outrageous exaggeration.

I disliked the things from the start, almost as soon as the nice lady from the council dropped them off at our place and showed us how to plug them in. I didn’t like the little box that now sat in front of my telly and flashed at me if I didn’t used the remote for a while. I can’t multi-task to save my life and get terrible tunnel vision when I watch telly, so I never noticed the flashing light in time and was forever cursing and scrambling for the remote when the telly suddenly turned itself off. At least ours flashed on the hour instead of the half hour like some of the early models. Another minor annoyance was having to reset the clock on my X-Box every day when I booted it up. But at least we were doing something good for the environment, right? Sadly, not so much.

Last year I was lucky enough to come across an article written in The Skeptic magazine by the mathematician Steve Roberts. It was called ‘Standby for action’ (Vol 33, No 1. March 2013, p 32.) and it pretty much demolishes the rationale for these power saving boards. It turns out that energy use in standby mode can be measured in simple Watts, not Kilowatts. Most electrical devices only use between 1 and 3 watts in standby mode and some things like iPhone chargers and electrical drill chargers don’t use any energy at all while in standby. Mr Roberts then went on to calculate how much energy is actually saved by these boards (after factoring in the information that the power boards themselves are perpetually on and use 1W each, per day) and came to a very interesting conclusion,

‘Thus the overall savings is really only about 4W; say for 20 hours a day. That is 28kW per year, or about $3.60 – less than 0.5 per cent of my electricity bill and way short of the claims for the device.’

 He then went on to calculate that taking into consideration the energy costs involved in making the power boards in the first place and the fuel used by the nice lady from the council to drive to my house and show me how to plug it in, it would take almost three years before the devices delivered any actual savings. I would only add, good luck with the power boards even lasting that long. The useless, piece of crap boards we were given started playing up within three months. The printer next to computer stopped working until we put it in a normal board and the one for the telly suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and started flashing at random and turning itself off with no warning. So, like many people I know, I’ve ditched the bloody things and am enjoying guilt free days watching the cricket, uninterrupted by a stupid flashing light. Beware of the hair shirt and all the mindless policy generated by the zealots who love them, because if they can get away with hair-shirting it won’t be long before it’s followed by sackcloth, ashes and self-flagellation.