Thursday, 31 May 2007

Why my recycling bin is currently swimming Cook's Strait.

From Jane Clifton's Political Animals:

Wellington's weather is not exaggerated by its detractors. It can be absolutely atrocious. It's the last place anyone of a nervous disposition should be expected to fly into. Nine times out of 10, MPs arrive in town with sour, queasy stomachs from what pilots insist on calling 'air pockets' and 'turbulence'. what it really is, is that Wellington's wind has tried very hard to knock the plane from the sky. It's as though no plane can land at Rongotai before King Kong has had a good play with it. We must all pray, now that the real King Kong has come to Wellington, that Weta Workshop never allows the beast to drop one.

Speaking as someone who adores Wellington and would have to be gassed out of the place, there is definitely something personal in the way the wind here biffs you. It positively boxes your ears. It slaps your chops; it tries to rip your clothes off and tear your shopping from you; it pushes you down the street and into the path of buses, then it tries to suffocate you. Wear too voluminous a coat and you become a land yacht. It's no wonder so many Wellington women have those boring wash-and-wear short haircuts, because any hairdo not constructed to Eiffel Tower specifications has absolutely no chance. Anything longer than a bob to the cheekbone will blow in your face and stick to your lipstick, which is a peculiarly irritating sensation. In the big-jewellery 80s, I nearly cracked a tooth when a big drop-earring I was wearing got wind-hurled against my face. Men in Wellington may as well have their ties stiffened with wire to stream horizontally over their shoulders, because that's the way you wear your tie most of the time in this town.

As a hardy, perseverant gardener, I've grown quite resigned to cultivating horizontal delphiniums and producing not so much rose bushes as regular snowstorms of fugitive rose petals. With its greeny-mauve hills and its petrol-blue, choppy harbour, Wellington is extremely picturesque, and many of its houses have sublime views. but they're always views of things - trees, people, buildings, cars - leaning to the north, or leaning to the south, or having the crap beaten out of them from every direction by that invisible thug, the wind. So even Wellington's beauty is not that restful.

But, Jane, that's why we love the place. Anyone can live with calm; it takes a special breed of man or woman to pick themselves up, shore up a broken window, and buy a new umbrella on the way to work the next morning - with a smile on their face. Or possibly an expression of the lips caused by air pressure, I'm not too sure. A special breed; possibly masochistic, definitely well-insulated.

And if anyone in the South Island finds my recycling bin, can I have it back, please?

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Botany, and the use of same in alternative world campaigns

How come nobody ever told me about this little bit of history before? I have an interest in the GURPS Infinite Worlds setting - competititon between two alternative world travelling groups - and I really have to figure out a scenario based around a "Go to this Roman province and steal this controlled herb" directive.

The "Damn Interesting" site goes up on the bloglist.

Friday, 25 May 2007

New Zealanders and war crimes

Not too sure what to make of this bit of history.

The battle of Crete was one of the three memorable campaigns Kiwis were involved in (the other two being North Africa and the battle for Monte Cassino). During this invasion, the Germans dropped their vaunted paratroopers on Crete, only to find them carved up before they reached the ground and while organising, before they could seize the airports and bring in reinforcements. Eventually they pushed the British forces out (Freyberg pulling off an excellent example of the difficult, if greatly underappreciated, military problem of a strategic retreat under fire), but the Germans never again used their paratroopers in large numbers.

During this battle, Clive Hulme earned himself a VC.

I've just come across a description of his deeds. Notably, he served as an anti-sniper sniper. One action during this battle involved him dressing in the uniform of a German paratrooper he'd shot, taking a vantage point behind the Germans, and wiping out the snipers firing on his brigade. When the Germans looked around to see what the hell was going on, he did precisely the same thing. And when they turned back to the main fight, he continued to snipe. He killed five snipers.

This is, of course, a war crime. It was also pretty clever, and done in a context of open warfare against a superior enemy. He won a VC for it and other acts of courage.

So should it be condemned?

The New Wasteland

Lieberman the Politician, six months elected,
Forgot the cry of the grieving, and the deep electoral swell
And the voting and criticism.
An encrusted shard of ego
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Democrat or Republican
O you who stroke the base and look electorateward,
Consider Lieberman, who was once accepted and honoured as you.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Another reminder about heroes

As part of the job, I've just been reading an account of a Wellington couple who have fostered nearly 40 babies over the last 6 years. These kids come in from broken homes, some of them battered, some of them with drugs in their systems. The couple look after them for a week, a month, maybe three, and then pass them on to their parents, elsewhere in the family, or into adoptive care.

It's not a job that can be left to a bureaucracy - babies need love. This couple has to bond with these children, again and again and again - and then give them up, again and again and again. And what they get paid to do so barely covers baby clothes and gear - they lose money doing the job.

It's not glamorous; it's not lauded; it's not publicised. None the less, and for the benefit of forty lives and counting, what they do is an act of quiet heroism, an act of continuing low level bravery that gets done again and again and again by quiet people throughout society.

Just to recap - these people are in a very real sense heroes. This is not a hero.

Hey! I think I figured out how to afford a new house!

And in the news today, an American eight grader and family are suing for $400,000 because a teacher inflicted the movie "Brokeback Mountain" on her. Other reports indicate the family had complained because words in other assigned reading had gone against their faith - which leads me to suspect, yet again, that these are poor victimised fundamentalists.

Now, I've seen Brokeback Mountain. It was okay - but I dozed off a little half way through. That's life.

When I was twelve, my English teacher forced us to read Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry - and then quizzed us on it. THAT was trauma. And I couldn't sleep half way through it, either.

New Zealand Education Department - prepare to be sued...

Friday, 4 May 2007

Rarer than diamonds, and more colourful.

I hadn't realised this, but it appears that New Zealand has a claim to fame in the minerological world. The Westland is the only place in the world where you can find Goodletite, a combination of ruby, sapphire and tourmaline crystals in a fuchsite matrix. It's the only precious stone found in New Zealand (I'm wearing pounamu myself - greenstone or nephrite jade - for personal reasons, but that's classified as semi-precious).

There's a story in a magazine here about it being marketed as "Ruby Rock", and they note that its singular location makes it considerably rarer than diamond - "a million times more unique than Opal" in enthusiastic if incorrect prose.

There's an opportunity here for those who value the unusual to steal a march on people who look to other stones first and foremost, and to do it before demand drives the price of the gem up...

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The cost of Iraq - in context

From The US Civil War Centre, a comparison of costs for the various wars America has been in:

III. Financial Cost

Conflict Cost in $ Billions Per Capita
Current 1990s (in $1990)
The Revolution (1775-1783) .10 1.2 $ 342.86
War of 1812 (1812-1815) .09 0.7 92.11
Mexican War (1846-1848) .07 1.1 52.13
Civil War (1861-1865): Union 3.20 27.3 1,041.98
: Confederate 2.00 17.1 2,111.11
: Combined 5.20 44.4 1,294.46
Spanish American War (1898) .40 6.3 84.45
World War I (1917-1918) 26.00 196.5 1,911.47
World War II (1941-1945) 288.00 2,091.3 15,655.17
Korea (1950-1953) 54.00 263.9 1,739.62
Vietnam (1964-1972) 111.00 346.7 1,692.04
Gulf War (1990-1991) 61.00 61.1 235.00

The table compares the cost of America's principal wars since 1775 on the basis of then current and 1990s dollars. Current dollars are the actual numbers spent at the time. Thus, a 1775-1783 dollar had the equivalent purchasing power of $10.75 in 1990s terms. Actually this conversion is only a very rough guide, but at least gives some idea of the relative costs of the ten wars on an adjusted basis. However, it is not possible to take into account drastic changes in social structure (most Americans were farmers in 1775, and didn't use much money), and the increasing affluence of American society over the two centuries covered by the table.

Note that the figures are for direct costs only, omitting pension costs, which tended to triple the ultimate outlays. The table also omits the cost of damage to the national infrastructure during those wars waged on American soil. Confederate figures are estimated.

For the Gulf War it is worth noting that various members of the allied coalition reimbursed the U.S. for 88-percent ($54 billion) of the amount shown, so the actual cost to the taxpayer was only about $7 billion, roughly the same as for the Spanish-American War, and on a per capita basis only $26.92, arguably the least expensive war in the nation's history.

Today, we find this story:

WASHINGTON - The bitter fight over the latest Iraq spending bill has all but obscured a sobering fact: The war will soon cost more than $500 billion.

That's about ten times more than the Bush administration anticipated before the war started four years ago, and no one can predict how high the tab will go. The $124 billion spending bill that President Bush plans to veto this week includes about $78 billion for Iraq, with the rest earmarked for the war in Afghanistan, veterans' health care and other government programs.

Congressional Democrats and Bush agree that they cannot let their dispute over a withdrawal timetable block the latest cash installment for Iraq. Once that political fight is resolved, Congress can focus on the president's request for $116 billion more for the war in the fiscal year that starts on Sept. 1.

The combined spending requests would push the total for Iraq to $564 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

A quick look at the Bureau of Labour Statistics suggests that $1 US 1990 is worth $1.57 US 2007. This implies that the requests will push the cost for the invasion of Iraq - so far - to about $360 billion in 1990$ terms, for comparison purposes.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq so far, therefore, has cost the US more than Vietnam, almost half as much again as Korea, and almost twice as much as WWI.