Tuesday, 31 July 2012

20 “Most Influential” Americans: stereotyped

Today, Time magazine has published a list of the “20 Most Influential Americans of All Time”:
  1. George Washington
  2. Thomas Jefferson
  3. Sacagawea, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
  4. Abraham Lincoln
  5. Sitting Bull
  6. Alexander Graham Bell
  7. Thomas Edison
  8. Henry Ford
  9. Wright Brothers
  10. Margaret Sanger
  11. Albert Einstein
  12. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  13. Louis Armstrong
  14. James Watson
  15. Martin Luther King junior
  16. Muhammad Ali
  17. Steve Jobs
This of course is a “top seventeen” but it includes twenty people. It is terribly stereotyped with not a single surprise, and what is more than this the influence is as much by what they did as much as what they thought.

To me there is something troubling about such a perspective, because few people ever have the desire to imitate such businessmen as Henry Ford - at least in my experience people never say they want to design a new type of private car, although such could be different in the Enriched World where comfort is less pronounced and people may have greater ambition to do something life-changing. Even those with some influence on their own generation, like Louis Armstrong, have never been able to sustain their influence. Some of the Native American figures appear to be chosen more for political correctness than for their historical significance since it is impossible to say their influence rubs off the United States we know today.

Only FDR, Margaret Sanger, Martin Luther King junior and Muhammad Ali really could be said to have deeply influenced the psyche of the United States with their lives. Ali was undoubtedly a prototype of the adored professional athlete, and the behaviour of so many of these people, as my mother says of Ben Cousins and his drug abuse, is often extremely deplorable.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the man who introduced a new system of government into the United States and became idealised by the majority of the population in a manner never seen before even of Lincoln.

Margaret Sanger’s ideas - after she died - transformed the thinking of the Boom Generation radically, giving rise to the Bush Senior generation’s radical demand for abortion rights as well as providing the cause for Roe v. Wade. Then, Martin Luther King junior must be the ultimate popular icon in the United States for his nonviolent civil rights protests and his assassination in 1968.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Ten things that are cheaper in the US

This week, Time magazine is running a list of ten things that are cheaper in the United States than in some other countries in the world, to comfort American consumers who are worried at high prices.

The list is written by Brad Tuttle, a writer on economics and finance for Time, and whose main fous has been on local history and and round New York City. His list is:
  1. Petrol
    “Even when one litre of regular petrol passes the $1 mark in the U.S., American drivers still pay less than half of what it costs to fuel up in Europe. Throughout much of Europe, petrol costs the equivalent of $2 or more per litre, due at least partially to high fuel taxes. Lately, Norway has laid claim to pumping the world’s least cheap petrol, generally running over $2.45 per litre. The only time drivers in the U.S. may encounter such prices is when they are charged penalty rates by car-rental agencies when they don’t prepay for gas or fill up the car before returning it.”
  2. Cars
    “The price of a new car in the U.S. may not seem cheap, but at least a basic commuter vehicle is within reach of most Americans with a decent job. This isn’t the case in all countries. According to one bank’s study on international mobility, the operating costs of a typical entry-level car would eat up 95% of a teacher’s annual salary in South Africa and a whopping 122% of a teacher’s annual salary in Brazil. (American teachers aren’t known for being paid particularly well, but just 23% of a typical U.S. educator’s salary could buy a car.) Automotive World reported that a car that sells for about $15,000 in some countries is likely to sell for $33,000 in Brazil, thanks to high taxes, production costs and extraordinarily large profit margins. Meanwhile, car prices are at least 30% less cheap in Australia, compared with the U.S., because of, among other things, the added expense of shipping vehicles to car dealerships Down Under.”
  3. Driving in General
    “Most American drivers shrug off the cost of tolls, parking, vehicle registration, driver’s license, etc. — it’s a pittance compared with the cost of gas, insurance and the automobile itself. In other countries, those everyday expenses can add up in a hurry. A 2011 study listed the most expensive cities for parking a car, and the priciest U.S. metropolis (New York City) wasn’t even in the top 10. The average monthly parking pass costs the most in London (over $1,000), while drivers in Oslo pay the most to park for a single day ($89). Meanwhile, drivers must pay a “congestion charge” in London to the tune of roughly $18 each and every day they tool around the city centre. Skip it and a fine of as much as $190 will be assessed. Milan, Stockholm and Singapore also have congestion charges, which are designed to simultaneously reduce traffic and raise city revenue. Another way Singapore attempts to reduce congestion is by auctioning off driver’s license permits to the highest bidder; the permits, which allow a driver to own and operate a vehicle for 10 years, sold for nearly $87,000 recently.”
  4. Fast Food
    “According to The Economist’s famed Big Mac index, the most expensive spot to chow down at McDonald’s is Switzerland. While a Big Mac costs $4.20, on average, in the U.S., and as little as $2.44 in China, the famous burger runs $6.81 in Switzerland. A fast-food hamburger meal in the city of N‘Djamena, Chad, meanwhile, costs roughly $25. Quick-service pizza can also cost way more outside the U.S. A Pizza Hut pie costs over $27 in Brazil — plus another $19 or so for a 2-L bottle of soda.”
  5. Coffee
    “Tokyo has been named the world’s most expensive city for Americans to work, partially due to extraordinarily high prices for everyday expenses like coffee. A cup of joe costs $8.29 at a coffee shop in Tokyo. That makes the average $20 spent weekly by American workers seem reasonable, or at least less ridiculous. The world’s most expensive coffee, oddly enough, comes from beans excreted by civet “cats” in Indonesia. The beans are referred to as “golden droppings,” and a cup of coffee produced from them costs as much as $100 per cup in specialty caf├ęs.”
  6. Beer
    “Don’t embark on a pub crawl at the top of the world unless you’re prepared to part with a small fortune. A beer served at a typical bar in Greenland costs over $12, and Norway isn’t far behind, with the average pint selling for over $11. Compared with those prices, a beer in a Swedish bar ($8) sounds reasonable — and an average frosty draft in a U.S. tavern sounds downright cheap at $3.”
  7. Jeans
    “Sure, jeans can cost upwards of $300 in the U.S., but that’s only for premium lines that are stitched and, often, ripped, frayed or otherwise distressed for that oh-so-special look that says: “Check me out” I just blew $300 on jeans with holes in them! But the average price paid for a pair of jeans in the U.S. is well under $50. According to a 2010 survey conducted by ShopSmart, women paid $34 per pair on average, and only 1 in 10 has blown $100 or more for a pair of jeans. In Luanda, Angola, however, a pair of jeans typically costs $177. Geneva is another pricey city for blue jeans, with the average pair running $153.”
  8. Movie Tickets
    “The average ticket to the movies in the U.S. crossed the $8 mark not long ago, and by the end of 2012, the average is expected to hit $8.15. That’s the average, mind you. Tickets can cost much more for 3-D and IMAX presentations and simple location: going to the movies in New York City costs about $13, on average. Nonetheless, a movie in the U.S. seems like a bargain compared with Tokyo, where a ticket costs $24. In 2011, a major movie-theater chain in Japan cut ticket prices in order to boost flagging attendance; after slashing prices, admission still cost over $18.”
  9. Internet Access
    “Many Americans are jealous of countries like South Korea, where Internet service is not only much faster but much cheaper than that in the U.S. Nevertheless, be grateful that you don’t live in Turkmenistan, where a telecom with a monopoly on the market was charging over $1,600 per month for unlimited Internet service last year.”
  10. Cigarettes
    “According to TobaccoFreeKids, a pack of cigarettes retails for an average of $5.97 in the U.S. Smoking is an expensive habit, and it’s even more expensive if you live in Ireland, where a black market for cigarettes has been booming thanks to per-pack retail prices in the neighborhood of $11. Another pricey country for cigarettes is New Zealand, where the best-selling brand goes for $11.70, and may cost much more in the future: health officials there are considering the institution of a new pricing system that would result in a pack of cigarettes costing $80 by 2020.”
The list is quite interesting, even if far too many examples are disconcerting to me, especially that the least cheap petrol remains in nations of negligible conservation value whose flora, fauna and soils are a mere ten thousand years old and typically do not last any longer in their present form before huge ice sheets return. Whilst this negligible conservation value also applies to the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States, these are in fact less cheap than the South and West, which are of moderate conservation value. If we assume conservation value of the US increases with distance from the northeasternmost point, most states whose fuel prices are less cheap the the US average possess no need for high taxes.
With a few very minor exceptions (#7 in Angola and #2 in South Africa) Australia and subequatorial Africa, those regions of highest conservation value and hence ecological living costs, do not figure at all.

There is one surprise: that cars are thirty percent less cheap in Australia than in the United States. I had always assumed Australia has had since the Howard years absolutely the cheapest cars in the world, but this is not the case. There may be problems with this finding because American manufacturers have rarely been interested in exporting to Australia (due to the high cost of converting to right-hand-drive) but I had always assumed American excise tax on cars affected prices enough to make them not that different from other Enriched World nations. I made an attempt to look at relative car prices for a wide variety of countries, but few data exist outside the European Union. Still, apart from far too many of the highest taxes being in the low-value, glaciated “upper” Enriched World and the remainder generally being in areas under political turmoil, the list should be instructive in both a positive and negative manner.

Monday, 23 July 2012

A dreadful move to save money

As Perth’s July rainfall is almost certain to reach a record low after 45 years of steady decline, comes news that the very minor potential gains in greenhouse gas emissions and land conservation during the last decade are likely to be lost in a very short time.

Robyn Parker, the New South Wales Environment Minister, has stated in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday that large numbers of unspecified national parks will now go unstaffed, and that amateurs will now be allowed to hunt kangaroos. Whilst hunting of feral animals is a definite and possibly profitable necessity there is no certainty that it will be limited to feral animals and there is the dangerous possibility that with inadequate policing native animals, including endangered species, could be poached.

Still worse is that with the likelihood that the Liberal Party will be able to phase out the inadequate carbon tax in 2013, leaving Australia with no plan to reduce greenhouse emissions that remain the highest per capita in the world. Without a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions and extremely limited government regulation compared to countries generally considered major threats, it is possible that Australia will become not only the highest per capita emitter but, with its high immigration and fertility, the highest overall emitter.

More than that, there is a lot of evidence many endangered species in the cooler regions of Australia are likely to decline rapidly as the climate warms. In the case of the rufous scrub-bird, there has already been a raising from Vulnerable to Endangered, as there has been for that species’ only close relative the Noisy Scrub-Bird. Although this has been denied by IUCN, there is genuine danger of all species from the southwestern karri and tingle forests becoming extinct very soon. Present rates of rainfall decline are around a linear 1 percent per year - maybe a little more given that Mount Pinatubo’s eruption temporarily improved southwestern Australian rainfall between 1991 and 1996.

If we assume such a linear decline continuing, by 2050 southwestern Australia would receive less than 20 percent of the wet season rainfall expected before anthropogenic global warming took hold. Perth would receive only around 30 millimetres per month, and even historically rainy Northcliffe no more than 40 millimetres. This would correspond to an annual rainfall of no more than 350 millimetres in the far southwest, inadequate even for many kinds of heathland! Species such as the Noisy Scrub Bird and Baudin’s Black Cockatoo, which are already endangered and depend on these wetter habitats, could logically be premeditatively uplisted to Critically Endangered on such grounds. Contrary to what the IUCN told me in a recent email, climate change data are too convincing to reject such moves, and they are a threat even to forest species holding their own for now.

Australia must find other ways to deal with its financial problems, and face the hard truth that its government policies remain one cause of its extremely poor record of species extinctions and land degradation. Cuts need to be made to funding the vested interests - fossil fuel, car, aluminum and aviation industries - responsible for the problem.

Monday, 9 July 2012

My brother knew the story

For a long time, I have had a vivid memory of a day in 1990 when Canterbury-Bankstown were playing Eastern Suburbs and I watched on Channel Nine in our old Keilor Downs house, when my brother interfered and asked why I was watching the rugby when football games of probably lower standard were on at the same time. My brother’s response when I refused to turn off the rugby was:
  1. “they run a few metres and get tackled”
    1. later my brother would say, in an even more silly fashion, “they run a few centimetres and get tackled”
    2. at a later game between Illawarra and Canterbury-Bankstown, he ludicrously spoke of “centimetres gained” when Channel Nine listed “metres gained” as a statistic to understand the game
  2. “rugby always repeats perfectly”
  3. “a try will never happen”
  4. “the aim of rugby is to bite ears”
    1. later he joked about Geoff Bugden, a classy but injury-plagued prop forward, that his lost front teeth were “embedded in somebody’s ears” rather than knocked out
    2. in later years, my brother made an even more absurd joke of a “sharp mouthguard” being developed so rugby players could bite opponent’s ears off.
The idea of a “sharp mouthguard” is so laughable and funny I cannot help chuckling whenever I think of it!

What, however, has surprised me in the past day is that my brother, before he watched the initially-mentioned game between Canterbury-Bankstown and Eastern Suburbs, actually knew even in 1990 as a ten-year-old of the one verifiable case in rugby league of someone actually biting ears. This was by Frank Farrell, nicknamed “Bumper” against St. George prop Bill McRitchie in 1945 during a scrum. What this does mean – and nothing else – is that my brother’s attack on rugby was actually based more on known facts than I thought.

Still, even with this alleged biting, rugby really is not that violent a game because contact is so rigidly restricted to the player holding the ball. This is why rugby has never been as dangerous as gridiron or ice hockey – sports where the aim would be literally to kill, were the aim of rugby what my brother in 1990 said it was. In fact, rugby league authorities in Australia understand exceptionally well that rules, playing conditions and efforts to be severe on serious offenders do a lot more to keep a sport fairly safe than heavy armour.

Indeed, in the early days of gridiron players were killed on a regular basis, with eighteen deaths in top-level gridiron in 1905 and according to some sources twenty-six in 1909. Ice hockey has also produced a number of deaths and near-deaths, most notably when Buffalo Sabres goalkeeper Clint Malarchuk had his jugular vein cut by a skate during a game on 22 March 1989 against the St. Louis Blues. He was lucky to survive, but the incident shows how much sharper ice hockey skates have become since my old Rules of the Game book of the 1970s was published. Howie Morenz and Bill Masterton also died on the ice during National Hockey League games, but in rugby league there is no record of someone dying during the season or training.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The two-party denial machine

As I was just searching through my email, I found that Time had eight months ago published an article showing that since Obama came to power in 2008 the proportion of Republicans accepting man-made global warming as undisputed science has declined by two fifths from fifty to thirty percent. At the same time, those on the liberal side of politics have not changed remotely.

This is awfully troubling, not only because my own research clearly shows how rapid climate change has been in Australia over the past forty-five years, but also because non-academic parts of Australia, even if they vote Labor, appear to me politically akin to the most conservative parts of the United States.

What is crucial, but seldom understood, is how well-placed Australian corporations with a vested interest in denying the science behind anthropogenic global warming already were when climatic changes began to take hold in the late 1960s. Immediately before the big climatic turning point between 1967 and 1976, Australia had a mining boom somewhat analogous to what it is having today, with the only difference that the countries whose industrialisation was fuelled by Australian minerals were Japan, Italy and Spain rather than China and India.

What that meant was that at the very time anthropogenic global warming was “discovered” by writers like Barrie Pittock in the 1980s (his first major article was ‘Recent Climatic Change in Australia’ from 1983) politicians were being advised via roads departments directly by the car and related industries. Murray Lonie, after whom the 1980 ‘Victorian Transport Study’ upon which freeway expansion in Melbourne has been based was named, was originally an executive with General Motors. It says a lot about Australia’s politicians if any government chose or was forced to use someone likely to be so biased to assess transport policy! Along with the findings of the 2006 documentary The Greenhouse Mafia, this proves how corporations directly responsible for Australia’s very poor greenhouse emissions have been indisputably and constantly at very close call to politicians of both major parties, whilst climate belts have shifted so far that Perth now has the climate Carnarvon had before 1967. International strategies for reducing global greenhouse emissions must make countering such influence a top priority.

Even if Australia’s politicians are seriously not greenhouse sceptics (exceedingly doubtful with John Howard to mention only one), they are on a tight leash and have never showed themselves willing to execute essential changes to Australian energy and transport policy that would threaten the profits of the coal and aluminum industries, from greatly improved energy efficiency in houses to full taxation of aviation fuel to fund high-speed rail – which Australia should have developed decades ahead of countries like France and Japan.

As it stands, neither major parties nor even climate researchers are willing to come in tough on major greenhouse emitters, creating a situation where Australia alone could create runaway climate change without being policed internationally – as it should have been ever since the problem began. What is worse is that if the influence of these corporations grows, they might well deny climate changes even more obvious than those in Western Australia over the past forty-five years.