Friday, December 24, 2010

Improving The Spirit Level

Click Cartoon For A Better Image

Looking back, I can see that the newspapers and TV gave us plenty to worry and complain about this year. Most of us probably had to deal with personal stuff as well and look forward to putting it all behind us. Even so, we still have a lot more to be thankful for. As Fred Dagg famously put it, “You don’t know how lucky you are mate”.

It is therefore worth reminding ourselves occasionally that we live in one of the most beautiful areas in New Zealand. We now have wonderful summer weather inviting us to go swimming, fishing and tramping in our spare time - or just finding a quiet shady spot to read a book. We could certainly do with some rain for the farmers, but my grape vines are carrying the heaviest crop ever and there are already early plums, apricots and peaches in the shops and farmers markets.

For many people the Christmas/New Year break is something to look forward to. Sadly, for some that is not the case and access to extra alcohol can dangerously release deep seated frustrations and disenchantment. However, it is amazing how quickly these feelings can be reduced by friends and family. We can all take extra steps to remind one another how much we care. If we act by sharing our advantages and create opportunities, we can make a real difference to troubled lives by actions instead of pious comments.

When it became clear that twenty-nine miners had perished in the Pike River Coal mine, I was impressed with the short public announcement by our Prime Minister. John Key’s face genuinely expressed the sorrow most of us felt. He reminded us that “In New Zealand, we are our brother’s keeper” and his government would be doing everything it could to ease the hardship of the dead miner’s families.

I am proud to live in a place that has such values and I hope we never lose that commitment which John Key obviously believes in. I think that an uncaring and less equal society is bad for everyone – both rich and poor. I have just finished reading a book (from the Kaipara District Library in Dargaville) titled “The Spirit Level” and although it did not tell me much that I did not know, it provided clear statistical evidence to show the undesirable consequences of economic and social inequality.

Its authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, show quite clearly that less equal countries such as the USA are not doing so well as more equal societies as Japan and Scandinavia. Unfortunately, New Zealand (along with Australia and Britain) has followed blindly after the USA over the last thirty years and we are now paying the cost.

A new idea comes to mind as I write this article. How about continuing some of the best things about Christmas into next year by creating opportunities and improving our relationships with other people. Strangely enough, we will probably do ourselves a favour as well.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Catcalls and Doggerel

Click Cartoon For A better Image

I don’t believe a word of it! I have just shredded a newspaper article that has the audacity to suggest that dogs are smarter than cats. Oxford University researchers in Britain are claiming to have evidence that social animals (like primates, dogs and dolphins) have evolved bigger and more intelligent brains than solitary animals (like cats).

Just because dogs like doing tests, does not make them more intelligent in my view. If they are so smart, how come cats like me out number them at least ten to one. In evolutionary terms, we are doing far better and we did not achieve that by fetching sticks and chasing imprisoned animals on farms all day.

I mean, just look at them. Dogs do not have hygienic toilet habits and God only knows why they have such a highly developed sense of smell. Even a cat like myself, with my small and beautifully streamlined nose, can smell them miles away. To put it bluntly, most of them stink.

I will admit though, that dogs are more like people and that is not a compliment. They have been with them much longer than cats and allowed themselves to be bred into a wide variety of freaks. Most of them would starve in the wild and that is an evolutionary mistake. If people destroy themselves, those dogs will go too.

We cats on the other hand, know that it is better to hedge your bets and keep your independence. We prefer to be lodgers and not slaves. At night we go hunting for snacks and during the day we amuse ourselves by manipulating humans. It very true when they say that dogs have masters and cats have staff.

I will have to admit though that cats have smaller brains than the average dog, but our brains are in fact larger in proportion to our body size. We also have a more highly developed cortex. This area of the brain is involved in thinking and cats do a lot of that.

Another observation worth making is that dogs eyes are wider apart than cats and humans - almost on each side of their faces. No wonder they are so easily distracted. In my opinion, they could all do with a regular dose of Ritalin to help them overcome their inherent hyperactive tendencies.

As a parting comment, I cannot resist commenting on the appalling lack of vocal range that dogs have. All they can manage is coarse barking, pitiful howling and salivery slurps. We cats, on the other hand, are more musically accomplished. There are few things as nice as serenading the moon with a heavenly chorus. People even throw us gifts of appreciation like: clocks, ornaments and air gun pellets.

I suppose all animals have pluses and minuses and genetic adaptation is a constantly working to improve the pluses. Cats are very near purrrrrfect and let’s face it, dogs have a long way to go.

Politicians Get Hacked Off

Click Cartoon For A Better View

Internet hacking is back in the news again. Wikileaks has exposed once more what is really going on behind the scenes in international politics and politicians are rearing up, like elephant bull seals, to protect their patch from intruders.

An Australian, by the name of Julian Assange (who helped form Wikileaks), is being hunted down to pay for all the trouble his organization is causing. He is officially being charged for sexual misconduct in Sweden, but this is widely seen as merely a device to get him behind bars and away from a keyboard.

Wikileaks has been reported to have only five full time staff and yet they have been able to access many thousands of files from all over the world. There appears to be no obvious malice involved – just a passionate belief that our world needs to know what is really going on behind the scenes.

The fact that politicians naively thought that classified files were safe from hacking is really surprising. Surely in this day and age it is widely known that all electronic data can be hacked as easily as hard-copy files. All over the world there are thousands of hackers ferreting away night and day to crack open every security measure – no matter how well it is devised to be 100% secure.

There are also the whistleblowers who stand up and risk their lives to let the truth be known to Wikileaks when power is being misused. Bradley Manning is one of those brave souls. He currently faces a very long sentence to pay for letting us know what a mess the Americans are making of the war in Iraq.

“America’s Tweetheart”, Sarah Palin, apparently wants Julian Assange and his mates tried for treason. As an Australian, Julian Assange is unlikely to suffer that fate in the USA – however; he has to constantly move around to avoid capture wherever he is. Even Vladimir Putin in Russia has been infuriated with the unflattering Wikileaks revelations about himself. I hope Julian keeps a sharp eye open for people carrying poison tipped umbrellas while he visits London.

I wonder if there are any budding Julian Assange types lurking in New Zealand? Do we really know enough about what is going on behind closed doors in Councils and Parliament? Do we need to know and why should we bother to care if we trust all our politicians to do the best for us.

I believe that we do have the right to know if we wish to. Nobody is perfect and in my experience very few politicians (and civil servants) escape from being corrupted by power now and then. Because of Wikileaks, I bet many of them are very carefully watching what they say and tap into their computers. It would be very easy for social campaigners in New Zealand to form a “Kiwileaks” group and go phishing on the net to haul in a fresh catch of unsuspecting pollies with their pants down.