Wandering Thoughts

October 28, 2009

Love Songs

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:21 pm
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90% of love songs suck. Here’s two that don’t.

 

For what it’s worth, I think Classic Girl works because it’s about actual human experience rather than some sort of idealised form of it. While Ash on the other hand aren’t quite singing about love but instead that giddy feeling of falling into it. Which works just fine amongst the tumbling guitars and space cadet lyrics.

Oh, and, “they may say those were the days; but in a way you know for us these are the days…” has to be one of the happiest lines in pop.

October 27, 2009

Of Seals, Skydives and Farewell Spit

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 4:14 pm
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Skydives, sandy drives and the ghost of a seal.

Here’s the story that stemmed from this, and which AA directions published.

Below is the story I would have preferred they published.

And here is what really happened.

Falling for Nelson

One of the best things about backpacking is the lessons you learn, not only about the places you go but also about yourself. There are parts of your personality that you will never meet until you’re stranded in unfamiliar territory – making your way map-less across an unfriendly city, or trying to buy tickets in a train station where you can’t read the place names let alone speak the language. The discoveries you make will stay with you long after Rio is only a faded memory and Xinjiang a stack of photos in the cupboard.

You don’t need to lug your pack to the ends of the Earth to learn these lessons either. All you need is somewhere new. Recently, not far from home at all, travel gifted me just such a moment of self-discovery. I was poised, my feet dangling out the door of a Cessna, four kilometres above Motueka, when I learnt that I was afraid of heights.

Desperately.

Back on the ground skydiving had seemed like a great idea. ‘Why not?’ I thought. Now, as Thomas my tandem partner made the last adjustments to our gear, I had all the answers I needed to that question. We were several hundred feet higher than Mount Cook, for a start. So high that small fluffy clouds grazed like sheep way below us. And, in a few seconds, we would be travelling at over 150 kilometres per hour – straight down.

“Ready?” Thomas’s voice was as sunny as the sky above us.
“Nuuerrk,” I croaked.

With that, he accepted gravity’s invitation on our behalf and we pitched forward into nothing…

My trip to Nelson and Golden Bay hadn’t started this way. Not at all – my first mode of transport was defiantly sedate, a 1952 Bedford school bus, which took me from the airport to the World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars museum.

Why the decision to mix cars and costumes was made I don’t know, but apparently the combination is a winner. “Couples,” our museum guide advised us, “come here all the time. The women come to look at the wearable art, the men the cars. Well at least the men say they come to look at the cars but sometimes they spend more time with the dresses.”

I only had to spend a few moments with the dresses myself to realise that the men who ditched the automobiles were onto something. Woven within the wearable art is a magic of sorts and you don’t need to be interested in fashion to find it. All that is required is an eye for imagination: dreams are spliced to legends, ideas stitched to stories and fables sewn into science fiction.  After an hour at the museum it was easy to understand the tale of Russell Sutherland, the retired mechanic from Invercargill who was so inspired on visiting the museum he entered the awards himself. His design, an incredibly engineered if uncomfortable looking undergarment, won him the Bizarre Bra award for 2006 and second place in the overall event. Not bad for someone who was probably only there to see the cars.

After the museum I exchanged the bus for a car of my own and headed west, over the switchbacks of Takaka Hill and into Golden Bay. By the time I got to Collingwood the wind had gathered grey clouds, folding them over the peaks and valleys of the Kahurangi National Park. I pulled over on the edge of town to consult my directions and found myself next to the war memorial. On impulse I got out and had a look.

The story set in stone was the same in Collingwood as it is in hundreds of other small New Zealand towns: a long list of names; some surnames repeated two, three or four times. Families ended and small towns emptied. With the first footprints of rain falling on the windscreen and now feeling as glum as the thick evening sky I got back in the car and drove off to find the hostel.

The next morning the clouds were gone but the war remained. As we bumped along the track out onto Farewell Spit, Paddy our guide recounted the story of Jack Ashford, the first person to regularly traverse the spit in an automobile. Jack had been gassed at the Battle of Passchendaele, his lungs ruined. After the war, as his breathing got worse, he was told by a doctor that he had three years left to live, maybe a bit more if he got a job that kept him close to the sea. The salt air, the doctor said, might just help. So Jack found himself the one job that guaranteed salt air in abundance: Farewell Spit lighthouse keeper.

Creeping cautiously over the sand in Farewell Spit Eco Tours’s four-wheel drive bus it was hard to imagine how Jack managed the journey with rattling lungs and a rattling 1928 Chevy. But Jack did more than manage. He thrived, living to see his 99th birthday. And, by the time we reached the lighthouse at the end of the sand’s empty curve, I could see how life in one of New Zealand’s loneliest places could be curative. Sitting in the shade amongst the sighing Macrocarpa – watching as clouds, sand and sea blew by – it was impossible to escape the two things that Farewell Spit had in abundance: space and peace. Each, I thought, as good an antidote to the doom of trench warfare as one could hope for.

The last lighthouse keeper left the Spit in 1984. Since then the closest thing to permanent residents to be found on the slender strip of sand are the Gannets who set up a colony on the shell banks beyond the light in 1982. From a handful of pioneer breading pairs the colony has grown to nearly 5,000 birds. It’s New Zealand’s only sea level Gannet colony and a rare example of a native bird reclaiming territory on the mainland, so we kept a respectful distance. Gannets, though, are naturally curious and pretty soon we were treated to an up-close display of aerobatic skill as inquisitive birds, their wings bent back like bows, swept by us, checking out their awkward, earthbound guests.

Later, as we headed home along the beach, impatient sand dunes casting shadows in the early evening light, I decided that out there, on the edge of the spit, I had made it as close to the horizon as I was ever going to get. I eased back in my seat, enjoying the particular type of content that comes with having been somewhere truly special, and watched as the sun fell towards the sea.

…Meanwhile, back in the sky above Motueka, 50 seconds after it started and now some two kilometres lower, my own plunge towards the Earth came to an abrupt halt. The parachute opened.

The parachute opened! And all of a sudden everything changed. The roar of the wind was replaced by silence as clear as the sky itself. I looked around, we were still a long, long way above the Earth, but now – with my fear left billowing behind me in the strengthened-nylon chute – I began to take in the world we floated over. Down below, the tiny houses and roads were still too small even for matchbox cars. While, to the south, snow covered peaks shared the altitude with us. We spun slowly, looking out over Tasman bay, where stray clouds dragged patterns of shade and light. In the distance, Nelson twinkled in the sun. And I revised my initial assessment; I wasn’t afraid of heights at all, only of falling and, once you got beyond that, the view from up there is like nothing else.

October 22, 2009

Small Comment

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:51 pm

Ok, so busy, busy, and post free until next weekend.

In the meantime though, I just wanted to say that I’m still kinda chuffed that Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize.  :)

October 15, 2009

Certainty

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:11 pm

As I opened my mouth I was certain I knew what I was talking about, by the time I closed it again I wasn’t nearly so sure…

October 11, 2009

The Funeral

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 4:53 pm
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Tidy and tended, trailing off between sandy hills, the road took hold like a story. We’d stopped halfway, camped among the acacia trees, next to the sea, waiting for waves. We had stopped halfway, but the road kept on, like a set down book, and after a few days watching the surfless sea we decided we needed to know how it ended.

It was made of cobblestones; laid by hand, by a team of men, tapping; one stone at a time. We wandered out on to it one morning, sitting on its verge waiting for a ride. After maybe half an hour we got a lift in a rundown van held together by cheery splashes of paint.

Onde?
O fin da rua?

The end of the road? Both a question of his destination and a statement of ours.

Sem.

And so we got in. After about a kilometre curving right, towards Sao Nicolau’s northern edge.

There were houses along the way, every once in a while, in clusters, but it wasn’t until the road’s end that we hit the village proper. Worn houses square and white, or pastel pink and green, caught the light carried between the puffy rainless clouds. By then we were on the Island’s weather coast, up from a rocky shore, swept by the break and swash of trade-wind swell.

Benji and I wandered into the square. We’d lost track of the days of the week, but figured, from all the people milling outside the church, that it must have been a Sunday. We stood and watched for a bit, not quite sure what to do with our destination now we’d found it.

The bar is closed but come back to my place; I’ll get you a drink

He was old, in a frayed but otherwise tidy jacket and shirt, round around the waste and with brown skin that hung like old sails. He smelt slightly of spirits.

I’m always uneasy round drunks. Or, maybe more truly, I’m always uneasy round people full stop. I was about to thank him and politely decline, when Benji piped up.

Great, we’d love too.

Benji was a few years younger than me but an effortless traveller. From the north of France he spoke French and English fluently, and was reading a book in German. He spoke ok Cape Verde Criole too. His Portuguese wasn’t as good as mine (a small win I jealously guarded) but he was relaxed, casually taking in his stride things that set me on edge.

The old guy’s house was small and carefully kept. He and Benji chatted.

Where are you from?

France and New Zealand.

When I worked on a fishing boat we went to lots of places, but never New Zealand. That’s a long way.

The fishing boat explained his English. Throughout the lusophone countries I’d run into old men who spoke English, who’d learnt it on boats. No education, yet amongst the hard work, time to pick up enough words to thread together conversations in another tongue.

What are you doing here?

We’re surfers, camped at Barril?

Ah, I see. Come on. Finish your drinks. It’s time to go.

Where?

To the funeral. That’s what they were waiting for in the square. The graveyard is back down the road. You can catch a lift.

And that’s how we joined the funeral procession, invited by a drunk old fisherman. Piling into the back of one of a fleet of coloured, rusty Utes. The whole village was going to the burial and no one, apparently, saw anything strange in two scruffy Europeans joining them.

After maybe a twenty minute drive, following the flow of people, we wandered into the graveyard. The old guy was quietly crying now. We still had no idea who’d died. As the body arrived all the women around us, wearing dresses and headscarves, starting wailing, singing their grief into the sky. The words must have been different but the sound was strangely familiar, like that at a Tangi. The same cries in song, different words but with the same meaning. Conscious now of our intrusion into someone else’s sorrow, I touched Benji on the arm and we walked back up to the road.

A bright red pick-up pulled up. Its driver’s name written on the side: Juao de Deus – John of God. We hopped onboard and he started for home, back now from the end of the road, and away from the funeral. Back to the camp amongst the Acacias. In the small bay of Barril.

October 7, 2009

Poor

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:07 pm
Tags: ,

From here:

The combined GDP of the 58 countries of the bottom billion is about $350 billion per year — smaller than the GDP of metropolitan Chicago.

October 4, 2009

Meanwhile on the back of a very small envelope…

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:42 pm
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Duncan Green links to an interesting attempt by the World Bank’s Martin Ravallion to answer the question, can the world’s poorest countries eliminate extreme poverty by redistribution? The short answer is that for wealthier developing countries (like Brazil), they actually could. However, for the World’s poorest countries there simply isn’t the money to redistribute.

This got me thinking about the global distribution of wealth and so I jotted a few numbers down on the back of a very small envelope (or, in other words, these are very rough scribbles, they could be wrong and I haven’t double checked them…)

In 2005 global income per capita was $8,730 (US purchasing power parity dollars.) Or, in other words, if the globe’s income was distributed equally everyone would have had earnt $8,730 in 2005. (Purchasing Power Parity takes into account the fact that US$1 goes further in developing countries so everyone would have earnt $8,730 and the cost of living would have been the same as it was in the US in 2005).

The Globe’s income isn’t distributed equally however, and, in fact, in 2005 nearly half the World’s population lived off less than $912/year (US PPP) or $2.50 a day. Approximately 80% of the World lived below the US poverty line of $13/day.

Had the World’s income been distributed equally, the percentage living off less than $2.50/day would have been 0. The percentage living off less than $13/day would have been 0 too. In fact everyone would have been living of $24/day: 1.85 times the US poverty line.

In other words, poverty – as measured by a US poverty line – would have been well and truly eliminated globally. Instead, in the real world 8 out of every 10 people live below that line.

In table form…

world incomeOf course, this doesn’t mean that we should strive to equalise global income as a tool to eliminate poverty. Let’s consider that proposition using Eric Olin Wright’s 3 criteria for utopian thinking.

As far as desirability goes, using a simple utilitarian calculus the equalised globe would certainly be desirable. The welfare of the vast majority of the World’s population would be dramatically improved.

The trouble is, such an equalisation would not be (to use Wright’s terms) either viable or, realistically, achievable.

In terms of viability, such radical equalisation of wealth would eliminate the incentives that play a role in generating wealth in the first place. And equality of this degree could only be maintained by the sort of police state that used to keep George Orwell awake at night.

And, in terms of achievablity , the sad truth is that, while redistribution of the nature described above would improve the welfare of most of the world’s population it would dramatically decrease the welfare of one particular group: the already very powerful, who would no doubt resist tooth and claw. Meaning that even if such a world could feasibly exist, getting there would be next to impossible.

Still, it’s worth noting that the staggering phenomenon that is global poverty doesn’t in exist the current day and age because the planet as a whole is too poor. Rather it exists because we are too unequal.

Refs:

Global Figures.

Ravallion 2008 [PDF]

Chen and Ravallion 2008 [PDF]

[Update: the above, of course, hinges on mean global income per capital being the same as GNI – I need to check this!]

Paul Collier Debated

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:25 am
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The Boston Review has an interesting essay debate on Paul Collier’s thinking and the potential for international intervention to help the World’s poorest countries. Definitely worth a read.

As I read through it I took some notes. When I get time I’d like to write them up into a post of their own, with my own thoughts. For now, they’re over the fold.

Click here to read more

October 3, 2009

Limits to Growth

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:31 am
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Wow.

Rich nations will need to reconsider making growth the goal of their societies, according to the leading economist who wrote the government’s report on climate change.

Lord Stern…

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