Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An Inconvenient Past

Of course it's preaching to the converted. Ever was it thus. But Al Gore keeps plugging away and the film, "An Inconvenient Truth", certainly expands the exposure of the lecture he has been taking around the USA for these many long years. That, after all, is what the film is - a lavish powerpoint presentation embellished by some backgrounding, some good close-ups and a bit of political history. Some have told me that it is a political film. Propaganda. A campaign towards another Presidential run.
This is concluded because the film shows some Gore family background and some of the lost Presidential race. But Gore is between the proverbial rock and a hard place in what he does and does not include in this film. I saw the personal backgrounding simply as context. I think it needs to be there - to explain how he came to the environmental obsession which has caused him to spend his time touring the country with his laptop under his arm, talking endlessly about global warming.
It explains that this was what he was doing before he ran against George Bush and throughout his political career.
There was not a lot I did not know in the film. Then again, I am one of the "converted". I have read "The Weather Makers", Tim Flannery's book on the subject - and, surprise, surprise, much of the scientific evidence is the same. It is the same because it is what it is. The knowledge.
Both Gore and Flannery demonstrate how relatively simple it would be to reverse the crisis and to save the planet for our children. If we could do it for the hole in the ozone layer, we can do it for the greenhouse effect.
What boggles the mind is the campaign of debunking the global warming phenomenon. The Blogsphere is riddled with vitriolic critics and the opinions of so-called scientists who question the status quo. One realises, of course, that the core of their venom lies in the source - in Gore. The Far Right is passionately invested in hating anything they perceive as a Liberal agenda. And, if Gore is proselytising an environmental crisis, then it is tree-hugging lunacy. It must be mocked and discredited. And the minds remain closed out of political spite.
This is the sad baggage Gore must carry.
And the people who are going to see the film are the ones who already care about the state of the planet and who know he is right - and politics be damned. Well, politics is the damnation.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Travel and the chaos theory

Never was the chaos principle better demonstrated than in the crowded world of international travel. The butterfly flapped its wings in Adelaide on Friday morning when, most unusually, the airport was shrouded in thick fog. Planes were neither landing nor departing. My international connection was going down the drain quickly. But, it turns out, there were fogs in Sydney and Melbourne, too. Planes were circling airports waiting until they had to be diverted to safe havens. And the airport passengers waited and queued, asking questions, and they killed time, and gazed at the moods of the fog and the depressing departures screens. My plane was delayed for four hours, due to leave Adelaide half an hour after my international flight was due to leave Sydney.

A sense of utter helplessness. I sat and watched as, every now and then, a plane would roar in through a fog window and taxi to a gate - not my gate. My plane was not getting through. It had been diverted to Melbourne and had not yet left.
As the fog began to lift, the unflappable and helpful Qantas customer service staff found me a seat on an earlier flight. If, as they thought, the Sydney departures were delayed by two hours, I might yet make it. Little were they to know that, on landing in Sydney, our aircraft was going to have to wait on the tarmac for a queue of no less than 18 other planes to find a landing bay. Delayed flights were backed up badly. The delayed were being delayed by the delay.

I disembarked into another chaos in Sydney, to discover that my LA flight had, indeed, been delayed. By four hours! And, here was another, much bigger, airport in a state of swarming chaos. People were fretful and stressed. Again, the Qantas ground staff was besieged by travellers whose connections were in chaos. I queued for an hour to gain elucidation on my fate, chatting with a couple who had spent seven hours getting from Melbourne to Sydney and whose connection to Ho Chi Minh City was gone for ever. Angrily we watched the queue jumpers - particularly a group of Indian men who would not take no for an answer, would not join the queue and managed to occupy two of the four desk assistants for the entire hour. The desk staff was unfailingly polite - unlike the Indian men who were not only barking at the assistants but also shouting down their mobile phones at their travel agents, all the while, having one of their number deliver them coffees and cool drinks to keep them refreshed at their post. They refused to stand aside and wait, despite repeated requests from the desk staff. Our emotions in the queue were mixed. We resented these arrogant men very deeply yet felt a sense of superiority that we had the cultural grace to accept the given order of the crisis. We also wanted to go over and scream at them. But we just watched, realising that the Indian caste system was at the root of this phenomenon. These Brahmins believed that they had birthright to VIP treatment, they were born more important that the rest of us. We simply did not count. And we pondered the glaring irony that the higher incarnation was born to bad manners - like petulant, spoiled children.
It is not the first time I have observed this. Sadly.
The Hindu caste system is a terrible human con game.

When a new staff member started to work our tired queue, I was told that, somewhere, when my LA flight was in the air, Qantas staff would be sorting out new connections and we would be told at the baggage claim in LA. There was nothing else I could do. Just accept that I was in a vortex of chaos and had absolutely no control. That is the fate of the air passenger. It is a sphere in which one must let go.
The only game in town was time killing. Wandering around for exercise. Drinking coffee slowly. Gazing at the endless duty free arrays under their dazzling bright lights. Sydney International is graced by the civilized facility of a smokers' room - a very comfortable place within air-tight doors. Comfortable armchairs, a view of the tarmac, a television on CNN and, oddly, a departures screen which only seems to show the planes which have departed. Perhaps that is a wee punishment. Look, smokers, you missed your plane while you were having that ciggie.
Anyway, that smokers' room was my greatest comfort and pleasure as the hours rolled on. The four-hour delay was extended by another hour. No one seemed to know why. The waiting passengers were camped in aisles all the way to the departure lounge - which they were not permitted to enter. It was like an upmarket refugee camp - people sitting and lying on the floor, since there were no more seats.
Finally we boarded and I had the joy of my Frequent Flyer upgrade to Business - a sky bed. I blessed Qantas for this luxury and felt bad for the hundreds back in Cattle - which is where I usually suffer the trip. I loved my skybed. I loved the entertainment program. I loved the service and the food. I relished every detail. And I had a proper sleep for the first time in years and years of flying. It was a very good flight indeed.
And every ounce of its advantage was needed when we hit LA.
Almost every passenger was in the same boat as I - they had lost their ongoing connections.
And I, also, had lost my luggage.
The Qantas ground staff were there for us, handing out slips of paper with new bookings. As she handed me mine, the woman said "you have a long wait, but you have been upgraded to first to make up for it". I was charmed by the effort - and then devastated to discover that it was not true.
Why did they tell me that? Why?

So I had seven and a half glorious hours to kill in LA before the flight to Chicago whence I would take another plane to get to my destination of Boston. It would be an all-nighter.

The American Airlines Terminal, Terminal 4, is not the pride and joy of LAX. It is a bit down-at-heel. It has a bookshop and a couple of newsagents, a Burger King, two Starbucks, a tiny Chillis restaurant and a cyber bar along its concourse, as well as assorted departure lounges, of course. No smoking room. LA is very anti-smoking, so the few cowed and shameful addicts puff furtively out of doors amid the comings and goings of cars and buses. I am glad I decided to have a ciggie before I went inside - having to ask another smoker for a light, since all lighters and matches are confiscated these days.

When I hit the security queue, a large, uniformed black woman took an instant dislike to me, scrawled fiercly on my boarding pass and directed me down an empty cordon path to, as it turned out, the uber search section. There I had to take off my cardigan and shoes... They were in something of a hurry. The man grabbed my carry-on bag. "My computer is in there," I warned quickly before he could roll it through the scanner. "Take it out," he said. I did so.
And all my stuff vanished on the conveyer while I went through the body arch after which I was asked to stand on a mat and be patted down from top to toe - spread the arms, spread the legs etc. Then I stood at the conveyer and waited.
But my stuff did not appear. Instead, the conveyed was stopped and the other waiting people told to go to another line. And the guards started staring at me. How odd.
Then a policeman was called over. He stood and glared at me, a fierce rather frightening look. "What's the problem?" I asked. There was no answer. Suddenly no one was speaking to me. Instead, they were waving at some other policemen. Another one arrived. Then what seemed to be a senior one.
There was only one other person at the conveyer - an old lady with badly dyed yellow hair and a couple of fairly humble tote bags which had gone through the scan and were sitting at the end. They had asked this lady to wait a moment with her stuff. But I was the centre of attention. There was now a group of four policemen plus two security people, all glaring at me and occasionally speaking confidentially one to the other. No one would talk to me. I felt abject with fear and confusion. Uncharacteristically, I felt like crying. I was already caught in the traveller's limbo with my schedule in chaos. My luggage was lost. And now I was some sort of hated person with something terrible in my luggage. What on earth could it be. I racked my brains. My bags had already been scanned countless times. I was a careful, experienced traveller. I was a compulsive rule-follower who would never knowingly do anything wrong. So what had I done? What didn't they like? Why wouldn't they speak to me?
Then a young woman police officer arrived and told me to sit in a chair and wait. She asked to see my ID. It was in the luggage, I said. "Sit in that chair," she ordered. "Just wait."
So I sat, feeling frightened and perplexed. I was also offended. I found this official behaviour rather boorish. The basic courtesy of an explanation would not have been too hard.
The old lady was still hanging around, but they were ignoring her. She asked a couple of times if she could go, but they did not respond. So she just stood there by her two colourful little bags.
Finally, the policewoman asked me if I had said that there was a bomb in my bag.
Whaaat? I was dumbfounded. Of all the things.
"Certainly not," I replied. "The only thing I said was that I had a computer."
My head was spinning. "Computer" and "bomb" are not similar words. How could confusion arise?
Then she asked if I knew the old woman.
"No, she was just there. I am alone," I replied.
"So you didn't say anything about a bomb?" "No."
Attention turned to the old lady. "Yes", she said and started exlaining that some man, perhaps ahead of her in the queue, had some sort of tin of candy and she had joked by asking him if it was a bomb.
They proceeded to interrogate this woman, asking her name, place of birth etc etc etc.
My possessions were still firmly at a standstill inside the scanning machine. I was ignored again.
I asked if I may get my things yet.
"Just sit there," I was told. Then the woman police officer took the first sign of pity. "You are just the innocent bystander caught up in this," she said. Er, yes.
But still they would not return my things. They had not finished scanning them. They had to be swabbed and chemically tested. So I sat there, still feeling emotionally wrought and vulnerable. All they would get off their swabs was tobacco and boronia perfume. I had nothing to fear and I was not afraid. Until the security woman almost dropped my laptop. I flew from my seat to intercept the catastrophe. She was not impressed and tucked it casually and dangerously under her arm. I was now feeling insult added to injury. This was an appalling performance. I am all for high security - but there was an element of crassness here. They continued to be hostile towards me despite the fact that I had nothing to do with anything - and had remained polite to them throughout.
But, like a root canal job, the ordeal finally ended. I was free to go. With no apologies.
Despite the seven hours left to wait in the terminal, I did not attempt to go out for another cigarette. The idea of going anywhere near that security checkpoint again was too much.
I was just plain sad. Immigration and Customs had been welcoming. The groundstaff had been efficient and as helpful as they could. But these people need to learn to offer some slight grace to their hapless victims. If not a "sorry", then perhaps a smile.

So, I passed the hours by trying out the different departure lounges. I'd sit and read in whichever one was emptiest. When passengers started arriving, I would take a stroll and find another one, going into the ladies' room to freshen up, clean teeth, wash face, buying another (excellent) iced green tea from Starbucks...doing everything as slowly as I could. Knowing there was no food on the domestic flights, I had a leisurely burger and salad at Burger King. It replenished my zombie-like energy levels. And the time did its inexorable thing. It passed. And I was on my way, cattle class, to Chicago. I managed to doze for a couple of the four hours - and see a glorious dawn as we landed.

The two-hour wait in Chicago was nothing. I went out for a ciggie. Someone had left a lighter on the ashtray outside. I liked that. The airport was waking up, franchises opening, yawning people arriving for the red-eyes. I felt as if I lived there. As if there was no other world other than transit waiting in airports. And, as they go, Chicago airport is a good one.

At last, almost unbelievably, I was airborne again and on the last leg. That Boston was under low and evil rainclouds and the pilot had to do a very complex and delicate approach did not even faze me. I was just so happy that this was Boston - and there, at the end of the concourse, was my darling Bruce waving his precious New York Times. Aaaaah.

We reported my missing luggage and took off along the rainy motorway - to Burlington Mall where he made all things good by treating me to a luxury brunch at Legal Seafoods - Oysters Rockerfeller and Lobster Thermidor, no less.

At last the girl was smiling. Bigtime.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A whale of a time

Of course it caught my eye. There were just a couple of fishing boats out this morning - a lovely still day on the sea. But there, all of a sudden, was a very tall windsurfer. Most unusual. You don't often see a black sail. In fact I'd never seen a black sail - and so oddly shaped. Just as I focused on it, the thing teetered and fell into the water with an immense splash. Ye gods. It was no windsurfer. It was a massive Southern Right whale right there out the window - just beyond where the surf rolls over the reef. I grabbed the telescope and for the next half an hour watched this vast creature roll and breech and spout, pop her head out of the water and do spectacular dives with her tail high in the air. She came in yet closer - and we hopped in the car and drove to get an even better view among the people who had quickly arrived at word that a whale was putting on a show in the bay. It was, indeed, a mighty sight. I've seen whales before, but never so large or so close. And there was a certain glory in the fact that she was beside little Wright Island, which is named after a whaling captain, and close to The Whaler's Inn, named after the first industry of this piece of coast. For, once upon a time, this bay ran red with the blood of whales. Whale oil was the State's first export. Now, the whales are a winter tourist attraction and whales are very much protected and loved. Just as we feel shame for our past, we are happy with our present. But, not with Japan - and the name of that country was on the lips of many of the whalewatchers, I noted sadly. But, on this day there emerged good news - that Japan had lost votes on its loaded bid to kill whales for "research", a barbaric and outdated activity that has generated a huge campaign to get young Japanese people to eat more whale meat to use up the absurd stockpiles that are going to waste. They have so much amassed whale meat that they are using it for dog food! It is incomprehensible that the Japanese persist in this gratuitous kill, against the wishes of the rest of humankind. Shame, Japan, shame!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Convenient untruth

When I read that Google had skewed its find results to censor Conservative opinion on the Web, I was rather startled and very disappointed. But, oh sorrow, you can't believe all you read on the media. Today I had to check up on the responses to Al Gore's newly-released movie "An Inconvenient Truth" - and almost all I could find on the assorted Google searches were Conservative opinions. Well, "Conservative" is a conservative word for the rabid nature of most of the articles in both news media and blog. My, oh, my, what a exploding boils of hate-filled pus they are. And the penny dropped. The report about Google was yet another bit of Conservative manipulation, a PR fiction from a desperate Right worried that their people are clueing up to their mendacity. Perhaps one could call it a "convenient untruth".

Monday, June 12, 2006

Stand up for Iraqi journalists

Never has it been more dangerous to be a journalist in a war zone than now in Iraq. It was something of a bizarre idea, well more a sinister idea, to "embed" the journalists with the invading forces. We all knew that. There is no way they can retain their required detachment and objectivity when they are chummed up as part of the military machinery. It was a PR job. For the government, not the journalists. What it achieved for foreign journalists was to remove their image as objective correspondents and identify them as part of the invading force, the military machine. Embedding did a vast disservice to journalism.

Foreign journalists in Iraq continue to need "protection" when out in the field. And a lot of the war coverage has been done from highly restricted spaces with lots of rules - i.e. don't stay in the same place for more than a few minutes.
Looking at the statistics of 129 media people killed in the course of this war, one can only think that even these ground rules are not enough.

Iraqi journalists would seem to have the cultural advantage in the war zone - but it works against them. They are identifiable targets. They know they are targets. Thus are they brave souls indeed and true professionals. For which they have paid a high price.
Of the media dead, at least 100 were Iraqis. Some died most terrible deaths at the hands of torturers.

The International Federation of Journalists has called Iraq "the deadliest media war in history" and is rallying journalists and media unions around the world to stand up, particularly for Iraqi media, to move for safety training for them and for safety clothing for them, to help support the families left behind and to make June 15 a Global Day of Solidarity with Journalists in Iraq.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Bolton's break

At last, John Bolton has had the opportunity to do what he was posted to the UN to do - to show 'em who's boss. And what fun he is having.
Headlines all over the place - from the Hindu Times to the Times.
Bolton has found a pretext by which he may throw his weight around and make high moral ground blackmail threats on behalf of the USA. Yes, the perfect oxymoron. Bolton can be holier than thou at the same time as he casts the ominous veiled threat - in this case, to destroy the UN by removing its US funding. Unless, of course, he gets an apology from British UN Deputy Secretary Mark Malloch Brown.
Malloch Brown's criticism of the US's UN-bashing, principally that from the appalling uber-conservative Rush Limbaugh, was just what Bolton had been waiting for.
It is OK for Limbaugh and the Right to bag the UN, but not for the UN to respond.
But it was not so much Malloch Brown's snipe that the UN was rarely defended from criticism in the US that really galled the US Envoy, caused his knee to jerk and the bullyboy hackles to rise.
Apparently Malloch Brown opined that "the role of the UN is a mystery in Middle America".
Ohmygod. How shocking.
What a hienous national slur.
But it is all right. Middle America suddenly has a champion - riding on a magnificently high horse.
Quoth Saint Bolton, defender of defenceless little people:
"Maybe it is fashionable in some circles to look down on Middle America, to say they don’t get the complexities of the world and they don’t have the benefit of continental education and they are deficient in so many ways".

Now that's not a loaded interpretation of the word "mystery", is it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

We're a Thorium emporium

Australia quakes with the prospect of a sudden proliferation of nuclear power plants. The debate rages. State Governments and the people resist the very idea but scientists are enthusiastic. The Federal Government also is enthusiastic and it is pushing the enthusiasm of the scientists, with a little help from nuclear power corporations, of course. We are meant to revere the superior knowledge of scientists, or so the scientists are always telling us. And we do acknowledge their points - that nuclear power is clean and green, if you discount its own lethal and long-lasting detritus.

We are in a bit of a cleft stick in the energy department, depending largely on fossil fuels which, of course are as filthy as they are finite. We have plenty of uranium, on the other hand. Here in South Australia we have a third of the world's uranium resources. We sell it to everyone. But we don't want to take their waste. We are into the raw product only. We don't want to use our uranium for anything other than nuclear medicine...and we will look after our own waste from that.

Meanwhile, we fret about power. Wind turbines are killing birds - but they are clean and cheap and our power is very expensive. Solar panels are unreasonable expensive, despite government grants to help pay for them. And the electricity grid system is a mess with power prices escalating post privatisation.
It's a pretty universal story.

The most universal story of all, however, goes back to the basics of economic rationalism - which is quick profit at any cost. We have rich geothermal power potential here in this state but it is slow and costly to develop. If I were a teenager I'd be putting money into stocks now - for only the young may get to see it.
And ditto Thorium. We have here in this state the second-largest thorium resource in the world - and thorium is the cleaner alternative to uranium. Thorium has all the hot potential, literally, but it is not being explored as a possibility because it would cost so much to develop the technology.

So we choose cheap and expedient.

Writhe and reject as much as we may, there is nothing surer than that the Government will have its way. Nuclear power will win. Watch this space.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A little history lesson

First light. It is always exquisite over the sea. Today was a silver morn - the sea glassy smooth under soft clouds striated grey and silver. And there on the horizon was the silhouette of the first explorers - a strange, ancient craft under billowing sails. It was the Duyfken, a replica of the 1606 Dutch vessel which plied the Spice Islands trade routes and attempted to find New Guinea. Through the telescope one could see it pitching dramatically, despite the fact that it seemed fairly calm out on the ocean. Its raised stern reared from the water and the boat seemed more to plunge through the water than to sail - yet there seemed to be two people up masts quite happily working on the sails and other figures moving around the deck. One could see them clearly, since they were large. The boat was staggeringly small. This replica of the vessels that explored our planet, bringing back not only maps but specimens and trade goods, was tiny. We have become so accustomed to the large scale of transport that it simply boggles the mind to see the scale of the past - and recognise pure grit of the sailors who worked those boats in unknown realms.
It is a grand thing the Duyfken people have done in creating and touring that perfect carbon copy from the maritime archives. And, the sight of that bravely bucking little tall ship in the silvery morn was like peeking through a keyhole into history

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Where there's smoke there's ire

New Zealand news reports a politician's move to ban tobacco in the country. This takes the anti-smoking movement to new heights, or should I say lows. Here were are with the new cigarette packets bearing approved graffiti - graphic images of blocked arteries and gangrenous toes. It does not stop smokers from smoking. Smoking is an addicition, not an indulgence. It simply puts an edge on the smokers' hostility towards the hypocrisy of the anti-smoking lobby. Smokers know that smoking is bad. They wish it was not. They wish the tobacco companies did not put so much crap in the cigarettes, too. But, once hooked, smoking is harder to quit than heroin. Few smokers have not tried - many times, most of them.

Now, with few places to smoke, exiled to streets, they have the added pious insult of defaced cigarette packs.
It is an odd thing that the anti-smoking campaign can only see smoking as the societal ill. Yet one never hears of a man beating up his wife because he had one cigarette too many. Or maiming and killing complete strangers because he had too many cigarettes before driving a car.

Why don't they put images of battered wives, diseased livers and crumpled cars on booze bottles? Is booze not also a dangerous drug which costs society a lot? I suspect alcohol costs society a great deal more than tobacco in terms of the consequences of its consumption. And yet it is advertised and encouraged.

Meanwhile, the smokers have philosophically adapted to the grotesqueries inflicted on their cigarette packets by discarding them. They have simply turned back the clock and purchased old-fashioned cigarette tins. And the anti-smoking lobby has just made smoking more fashionable.