Selfish Giant?

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Another feathery raider!
An avian invader!
     Leave our nect’rines alone,
     Or you’ll promptly be shown
I’m as nasty as Darth bloody Vader!

Protected!

I love to share the road with fellow-cyclists, but not if they overtake me while I’m struggling uphill in first gear. Likewise, I love to share our garden with the colourful, tuneful birds that abound in South Australia – but not if they eat of the fruit of the nectarine tree! As soon as Mrs SG and I noticed beak-marks in some of the ripest-looking nectarines we flung a net over the tree and secured it at the bottom. But the tree had grown since last harvest season and the net wasn’t quite big enough, so there were some gaps. Too small to worry about; or so we thought.

Later the very same day as I passed the tree I saw three very small birds, smaller than sparrows, inside the net! What to do? I grabbed the hose, turned on the water and directed a fine spray over the top of the tree, hoping to drive the little sods down and out the way they must have come in. The water rattled them, but they just kept flying from side to side, hanging on to the netting.

Not to be beaten, I brought out the stepladder and sprayed downward with greater force. No result. Then I remembered making cardboard cut-outs in the shape of a hawk’s silhouette many years ago, and mounting them above the driveway where we parked the car, to deter aerial faecal attack. I brought out the bright red lawn-rake, resumed my position on the stepladder, and waved the rake over the tree in what I hoped was a hawk-like motion.

Two of the birds cottoned on quickly, flew to a low branch and eventually swooped out and away. The third was either thicker of much smarter, but as my rake-waving arm was beginning to ache he left as well. Then I put away the ladder and rake and crisscrossed string across the opening that had afforded access and egress. I took one of the nibbled nectarines, trimmed it and ate it. Good!

This morning I was admiring the tree and saw something fluttering… Aaagh! Another one! Or quite possibly a recidivist, because after a couple of bursts with the hose he took the hint and went home. Now the hole is crisscrossed with Christmassy silver tinsel that glitters in the sun and moves in the wind.

But I can’t help feeling guilty. The birds are just trying to make a living and have no idea that our garden is our territory, where only we have rights to hunt, forage, mate and nest. We, on the other hand, can expect to harvest 5 or 6 kilogrammes of fruit at best, and at exactly the time when the supermarkets are flogging them off at A$2.99/kg.

Am I behaving like the Selfish Giant? The thought disturbs me. Please, someone out there, reassure me that I’m a decent human being!

#$&% !

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I’ve blogged before about the coy use of asterisks and other non-letters to write a rude word without actually write a rude word. This habit gave birth to “the F-word” and “the C-word” and “the N-word”. I decry this. If you want to write “fuck” just do it. If you want to use less coarse language, write “copulate” or a more precise and acceptable word to substitute for one of the ocean of other meanings that “fuck” has acquired.

Judge Judy in Judgement

I came across a new alphabetical euphemism in a recent Guardian Weekly: “the P-word”. It was in an article about racism in English cricket, specifically in Yorkshire. There was no glossary or footnote to explain this neologism. Can you, dear reader, explain it to me?

On the other hand there are some highly objectionable words that seem to pass muster. I am a fan of Judge Judy (deep down I think we all are) and I just finished watching an episode in which a plaintiff referred to the defendant as “white trash”. This manages to be doubly objectionable:

  • It reduces an individual and a whole social class to the status of rubbish.
  • It implies that all non-whites are trash, so a modifier has to be applied only if the person being insulted happens to be white. “Black trash” would be a tautology.

It takes flair to insult so many people with only two words; or stratospheric stupidity; or mega-misanthropy.

Another such word in “bogan”, which exists only in Australia I think. It is defined as “an uncultured and unsophisticated person; a boorish and uncouth person.” No-one’s sure of the origin of the word, but there’s a Bogan River in New South Wales. Anyway, there’s no way of using the word in a non-derogatory way. Thus it is different from “larrikin”, “rascal” or “Pommy bastard”.

While we’re on the subject of the injuries sustained by the English language, don’t forget to submit your entry for the 2022 Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle (aka The Stroppy). Closing date: Saturday 15 January (noon GMT). Announcement of the winner: 17 January.

Respect

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The English language is rich in words that allow for nuance, subtlety, shades of meaning and ambiguity. One of these words is ‘Respect’. 

  • In Australia it has been attached to the fight against domestic violence: the hotline for victims is 1800 737 732, or 1800 RESPECT (I suppose the T is redundant). 
  • Children are supposed to respect their parents and teachers.
  • In traditional societies, old people are automatically respected irrespective of their personal qualities.
  • After centuries of humiliation China is demanding respect from other countries, while doing all in its power to be undeserving of it.
  • In the Britain that I grew up in it was a middle class aspiration to be respectable.
  • As a boy I was taught to raise my cap to a woman as a mark of respect, even if I had no knowledge of the woman’s character.
  • We are all enjoined to show respect for the dead; to respect other people’s opinions and beliefs, however much we may disagree with them; and to respect the sanctity of a holy place.
  • But we also use phrases like “with respect to” meaning “in relation to” or “having regard to.”
  • And a sentence that begins “With all due respect” always ends with criticism or an insult.

I had a quick look at my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus (Old Boys’ Public Speaking Prize, 1962) and found ‘Respect’ listed under the following headings: Deference, Fame, Salutation, Observe and Reference.  ‘Respectable’ scored mentions under Repute, Upright and Tolerable.

According to the Bible (Acts 10.34) the apostle Peter said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.”  This was explained to my RI class to mean that God pays no heed to a person’s status – confusing to a classroom of boys who were forced to show respect to teachers merely because they were teachers.

All this is meant to demonstrate that one should never assume an understanding of what someone means simply from the words they employ.  I might even say that words are increasingly being used to distort and blur meaning. 

I say, what a great segue to a reminder to start hunting your nomination for the 2022 Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Drivel!  Deadline: 10 January.

Storing Green Energy

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Mrs SG and I are big fans of green energy. We have as many PV panels as we could cram on our roof, and they generate an average of 18kWh/day. That varies a lot through the year, of course. At the moment they are managing 10kWh/day, but the midsummer record is 31. As it happens today is the 9th anniversary of the panels’ installation and their total output has been 60,831kWh. I estimate the financial return on our investment to have been 8.8%pa – not taking into account depreciation (the system will probably outlive Mrs SG and me), the public subsidy or the value of carbon credits that we had to sign over to the installer.

We don’t have a battery though. When we have surplus production we sell it to our French-owned supplier (on average 6kWh/day) and when we’re running our centralised heating/cooling system we buy to make up our deficit at more than three times the price at which they buy from us.

Tesla Battery – the biggest in the world when it was built in South Australia

Some people talk glibly about large-scale battery storage to solve the problem of intermittent output from solar panels and wind turbines, but the cost of this strategy is not sidely understood. AGL (an Australian company that generates and distributes electricity, and has been characterised by Greenpeace as the country’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases) has commissioned a huge Li-ion battery to be built on Torrens Island, South Australia. It will have capacity for 250MWh and cost A$180M (US$130M at the present rate of exchange). The capital cost is therefore A$720/kWh (US$520/kWh). Feel free to check the maths in case I’ve made a mistake.

Our car – an average-sized petrol-driven sedan – has a fuel tank that holds 51 litres. 1 litre of petrol contains 8.8kWh of energy. Therefore the cost of a Li-ion battery with the energy capacity of our fuel tank would be 51 × 8.8 × US$520 = US$233,000. This is an order of magnitude more than we paid for the car.

So how does AGL think it can make money from this huge battery? The answer lies in the magic of the free market, which now prevails in Australia thanks to the fragmentation and privatisation of what used to be a publicly-owned monopoly. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) the average wholesale price of electricity in 2020-21 ranged from A$0.045/kWh in Tasmania to A$0.072/kWh in NSW. At these prices AGL would have to fully charge and discharge its battery at least 4 times a day to turn a profit.

Nuclear: the clean, green political no-no

But, due to wildly mismatched supply and demand profiles, on 22 occasions last year the market price of electricity spiked about A$5/kWh. That’s not a misprint: five dollars per kWh!  So AGL will keep its powder dry until there is a sudden extreme shortage and then sell the contents of its battery to the highest bidder.  If the whole battery is emptied at A$5/kWh (which is nowhere near the maximum price, mind) AGL will receive a windfall of A$1.25M. At its maximum discharge rate the battery will empty in an hour.  Great for price spikes and short-term outages, but it’s not like having a hydro-electric dam full of water.  Hence the need for:

  • Snowy Hydro 2.0 – pumped storage for 350GWh (1,400 times more than AGL’s battery) that’s expected to take 8 years to build and cost at least A$5bn. That’s equivalent to US$10/kWh, about midway between our petrol tank and AGL’s battery on a logarithmic scale.
  • Back-up dispatchable power (available at the push of a button) from some other source. The Government favours natural gas, of which Australia has an abundance; green voices propose biomass; some contrarians suggest nuclear power, which is a political no-no at the moment.

That’s all. There’s no punchline.

Taliban

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Almost everyone in the democratic world feels the same way about what’s happening in Afghanistan. We went in uninvited, ousted a government and installed a new one, introduced a democratic constitution and oversaw elections. We poured billions of dollars into modernising the country’s infrastructure and institutions. Above all we set new standards for human rights and, in particular, the rights of women and girls. Afghanistan was set for a brighter future under the protection of the mightiest military alliance the world has ever seen – or so it seemed.

And then we said, “Nah. Sod this for a game of soldiers. We’re off.” Or, rather, that was said on our behalf by the US President. None of the allies was strong enough to stand alone, or even in concert if the mightiest of them left the field.

I do not need to dwell on the crimes that the Taliban has been guilty of. In our value system murder, genocide, kidnapping, rape, torture and slavery are heinous. For the Taliban they are standard operating procedure. Even after twenty years, their ideology and the wickedness that flows from it have not changed.

An uncomfortable thought crossed my mind this morning. What if Australia were invaded by the Taliban and we were subjected to the kind of brutal injustice that Afghans now face? How profound would be that shock? How devastated would be our way of life, our self-regard, our sense of place and purpose?

My next thought was even more uncomfortable. Would that devastation be anything like the impact that British colonisation had upon the Aboriginal inhabitants of this land? Were we (I mean my European forebears) the Taliban?

Bottoms

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Twelve years ago I had a spell in hospital. They were feeding me through a tube and I lost a lot of weight. During a nightshirted shuffle around the ward, accompanied by my drip-feed, the nurses at their station asked me how I was feeling. I expressed concern that my bum seemed to have disappeared. They laughingly professed envy and asked my secret.

At that time, and for many decades prior, it was fashionable for women to want smaller bottoms than the ones nature had endowed them with. It was even a meme before memes became fashionable: “Does my bum look big in this?”

It was not always so, of course. In the mid-Victorian era artificial bottoms in the form of bustles were all the rage.

Now the wheel has come full circle and big bottoms are very definitely in. By way of evidence I present (top right of this post) the cover of an Australian Sunday supplement. But who or what caused this seismic shift? Was it Pippa Middleton’s doing, when her behind stole the show at her sister’s wedding to Prince William? Or was it engineered by the Kardashian clan for some dark purpose?

Can anyone enlighten me? Who decides these things? How is the signal sent to all the women in the world? By what alchemy are people’s self-perceptions turned upside-down overnight?

Wimbledon

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A street in Wimbledon

There are place whose names conjure up emotions that are out of all proportion to geographical reality.  One thinks immediately of Paris, Samarkand, Xanadu… and Wimbledon.

I have a 326-year-old map of Midlesex [sic] hanging on my office wall. There are a few place names south of the Thames. Roehampton is there, spelt ‘Rowhampton’, but that suburb’s neighbour Wimbledon is absent. Now it rates inclusion in the London A-Z, but this random streetscape (courtesy of Google Maps) hints at nothing extraordinary. And yet…

Last night Mrs SG and I watched spellbound as Ashleigh Barty, carrier of Australia’s sporting hopes, battled with Karolina Plišková to win the Women’s Singles championship. Her victory was followed by royal pomp and graciousness, an interview, a quantity of photographs that in the pre-digital age would have dented the world’s supply of silver, and holding aloft the trophy plate until her arms must have ached.

Ashleigh Barty

And all the time one was aware of the dark green colour scheme of the stands, the worn grass, the military efficiency of the ballboys/girls… it could have been nowhere else but on the hallowed sod that mortals call Wimbledon.

POSTSCRIPT

Mrs SG and I had our second Covid-19 vaccinations this week: AstaZeneca both times, no side-effects.  We were told that our chances of dying from a consequential blood clot are, respectively, 1.9 and 1.8 per million. As a mental exercise I estimated the lifetime odds of dying in a road accident:

Road accident deaths in Australia = 1,580 in 2020
Equivalent to 61.5 per million inhabitants per year
Average life expectancy = 83.5 years
So lifetime odds = 61.5 x 83.5 = 5,135 per million, or 0.5%

I know… lies, damn lies and statistics.  But for me it puts things in perspective.  And of course the chance of dying if you catch the Covid-19 virus is around 2% and the chance of dying of something is 100%. But not for Ashleigh. She has joined the Sporting Immortals. For such as she cremation is but a hiccup.

Vaccination Passports

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Remember when you had to carry a ‘Certificate of Vaccination’ when you travelled overseas?  These certificates were issued by the WHO as little yellow booklets that had to be stamped and signed by doctors who gave vaccinations against smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, polio, hepatitis and perhaps other diseases that I’ve forgotten about.

And every vaccination had to be up-to-date. In the certificate that I was using in the 1970s and 80s I found a post-it note reminding me to have another typhoid jab before 25/06/87. Here’s a photo of that certificate, together with its replacement, open at the page showing the lastest entry:
29/07/93 … Gammaglobulin for Hep A … 2ml

Nobody kicked up a fuss. Everybody recognised that these potentially fatal diseases had to be controlled and that meant ensuring that people travelling across inter­national borders were not carrying them in their bodies. So I really don’t understand why some people are up-in-arms at the suggestion of a SARS-Cov-2 vaccination certificate as a necessary travel document.

Mind you, I do remember a doctor saying, in a country that I will not name, “Do you want the shot, or just the stamp saying you’ve had the shot? The fee is the same.”

Ugly Houses

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Is it just me or are houses getting uglier?  Today we got promotional material for an estate agent, with this picture of a house that’s for sale in our neighbourhood.  Presumably it was designed by an architect.  Presumably that architect’s course had touched on the perfect proportions of the Parthenon, the distinctive grace of the Duomo di Firenze, the simple elegance of the Eiffel Tower, the soaring splendour of Barcelona’s unfinished Sagrada Familia (pictured).  Was he/she away sick for all those lectures?

I blame Grand Designs, that TV series that glorifies rusty iron sheeting, half-burnt timber, floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete floors and exposed girders. At the start of the Industrial Revolution factory-owners were proud to build cotton mills that looked like houses, with well proportioned windows and decorative flourishes.  Now people are building houses that look like carelessly stacked shipping containers and architects point proudly to “industrial” interiors.

Am I alone in thinking that this period of residential architecture will be looked back on with bemused revulsion?  I’m sure Prince Charles agrees with me – but what about you?

Consent

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The Monty Python Team

In Australia there are loud calls for schools to add Sexual Consent to the lengthening list of subjects that they are supposed to teach.  When I first heard of this I thought it was a joke that had been rejected as too silly for an episode of Monty Python.  But it is a sincere response to a growing number of accusations of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by young males against young females.

Some people blame the ready accessibility of online pornography, which gives boys unhealthy ideas about both the physical and the emotional aspects of sex. Some blame a cultural shift towards disrespect and a sense of male entitlement. Such a shift may be fed by exposure to pornography, of course. It may also be an unwanted side-effect of growing gender equality and the consequent erosion of men’s role as protectors.

I reflect on my own adolescence and the social environment at the time.  Women were unashamedly classified as “the weaker sex” and few of the mothers I knew were in the workforce.  I was brought up to regard women as slightly inferior versions of men, albeit highly desirable to have and to hold.  I was taught to raise my hat to women, offer my seat to them, and generally behave in a way that seemed deferential but was in fact a show of paternalism. Later I realised that this behaviour had its roots in a social imperative that affects every tribe: the protection of its capacity to reproduce.

There is another imperative too: to manage sexual relationships in such a way that a) paternity is not in doubt, b) rights and responsibilities are unambiguously assigned, and c) lust and jealousy do not tear apart the social fabric.  In the western democracies we’ve pretty much given up on this one.

At school we had no lessons that were overtly about sex – unless you count the antics of amoebae.  However, we were deeply immersed in history and literature. Together with American films, sitcoms and the lyrics of pop songs, these told us all we needed to know. Thus did we learn, for example:

  • You shouldn’t behead your wives without a very good reason.
  • Having sex at 14 is fine, provided that both families disapprove.
  • Beating your wife is unmanly, but spanking her may be necessary from time to time and she will love you all the more afterwards.
  • If a woman despises you in the first reel you will end up married to her.
  • Only when a woman slaps your face can you be sure that you’ve overstepped an invisible line.
  • However, if it’s a token slap she means “It wouldn’t be ladylike to let that go unpunished, but I quite liked it.”
  • The first time a woman says “No” she means “Try harder.” The second time she means “Maybe.”
  • Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.

I would like to end with a neat conclusion, an explanation of how we can allow unrestrained individual freedom and at the same time protect people from their own and other’s weaknesses.  But I can’t.  Sorry.

Postscript:  Only after writing this did I learn that schools in my home state of South Australia have been obliged to teach sexual consent for years!