Archive for December, 2008

I’m in New Zealand

Thursday, December 11th, 2008


out there - somewhereAfter a long 24 hours of traveling, I’ve arrived in New Zealand for a three month stay.

This trip, I’ll be house-sitting for some friends here near the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. They’ve got a big house in a nice neighborhood so it’s going to be fun.

I’ll have more to say about New Zealand and my doings here but there’s not much to tell you yet.

Thursday was a bit of a dream day as I was fairly slammed from traveling. Though, in truth, I did spend time with some good friends and it was very nice, indeed, to see them after being gone for nine months. Graham came and picked me up at the airport, took me by the house where I’ll be house-sitting so we could drop my bags and then he took me back to his place for some coffee and a visit with he and his wife, Judy.   Most excellent folks.

After that, I went and tried to get my motorcycle started after it’s been sitting nine months. It was in the parking garage under Judy & Graham’s place. The starting didn’t go well. In fact, there was no starting – to put a fine point on it.

The battery was gone.   Really.   I remembered then I’d taken it out out of the bike as a device to preserve its charge. So, I went and recovered it and put it in and the starting was just as absent as it had been previously – like completely. We might say, as the battery was stone dead, that it started just like when it wasn’t there.

A closer examination showed that not only was the battery dead, most of its cells seem to have no water in them. At this point, I recalled dire warnings from several of my motorcycle buddies that I should NEVER place a battery on a concrete floor for storage. Damn, I guess there was something to their theory.

So, another long period of time went by as I found a small piece of paper and made a tiny funnel and proceeded to try to put water into each of the battery’s chambers from a plastic coke bottle I’d found in the trash. The tedium at this point was considerably relieved by talking with Bob, another American expat who is living in the same building complex as Graham and Judy (Sharon and I also own an apartment there as well but it is currently rented out). The building manager, Keith, another good friend, had brought Bob by and introduced him. That was a good thing because Bob was great to talk with and he helped me work out what was going on with the battery and how to fill it.

So, finally it was filled and into the bike it went again. Turn the key … nada, nothing, zip. Dead, dead, dead.

At this point, Bob and I pushed it up out of the underground garage into the parking lot one story up. I then turned it around, put it in third, turned on the key and gave it some choke and let it run back down the slope to see if it would start. …result? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch.

This wasn’t a surprise to Bob and he’d said that with zero charge, he doubted that it would run. He was, indeed, right.

this here’s what we’re talking about…Then I pulled out a small battery charger I’d bought last year, Bob said his goodbyes and I put the charger on the battery and went off to kill an hour or so while it charged.

Did I mention I was really tired from the trip? I walked up two blocks and wandered into a local pub called The Buck’s Head and had myself a Guinness, Mate. Maybe the third I’ve ever had. Mmmmm, that was good.

Then I hopped the free-bus and went up the the South City shopping center and went in and had a take-away Sushi lunch. And then it was back onto the free-bus and around to the other end of its route and off for a short walk back to the apartment complex.

I’m getting pretty good by now at putting the battery in and out of the motorcycle. So zoom, it was in – and I turned the key – lights!!!! That means it has some charge!

So, I cranked it. But, other than one cough, it wouldn’t catch and I got worried I’d run all my charge down cranking it.

I was worried about other stuff by now as well. To back off a bit and look at my story from a wider angled view, I’d just arrived in Christchurch after flying 24 hours, I’d done no more than just drop my suitcases at the house I’m to house-sit and I’d spent the next five hours – other than visiting with Graham, Judy, Keith and Bob, lurking about in an underground garage fussing with my dead motorcycle, drinking Guinness like a derelict and riding the city buses around.

I decide now that he best thing is to push the motorcycle back up to the top of the ramp to the underground garage. Good thought – Bob and I did it – no sweat.

So, I start in. Mmmmm. 450 pounds of motorcycle and a steep incline. I soon discover that I can advance it maybe five feet or so up the incline before I have to lock the brake and recover myself. Five feet becomes four. And four becomes three. This is damn hard work. Literally, I’m right on the edge of my ability to do it. I’ve got to tell you that gravity is just as strong in New Zealand as it is up north – if you were wondering.

Finally, I’m 2/3 of the way up the ramp and I’m thinking I’m going to pop a gasket or drop the bike soon. I decide to forgo the ascent get on it and coast backward just a bit to get it turned and facing downwards and then to test if it’ll start. There is no way that this 61 year old duffer is going to get that bike to the top of the ramp without and assist and no one’s around.

So, I turn it around and check that all switches and doo-dads are set as they should be and I let-er’ go. ……VaaaROOOM. Huston, we have lift off! O-weee, that was one good noise to hear.

So, a bit of garage clean up putting things away and it’s off to Bruce and Kathy’s (the folks I’m house-sitting for).

Once there, I give Alex and Tobi a call (some more good American expat friends who now live in Kiwi-land) and they agree to help me move some stuff from our storage locker under the apartment building to Bruce and Kathy’s place and then we’re all going to go out for a vegetarian Chinese dinner afterwards.

So, I’m back on the newly resurrected motorcycle again and off to the apartment complex I’ve just come from. Now I need to dig about in our storage locker and get everything (like my computer gear) that I want to take to Bruce and Kathy’s organized – before Alex and Tobi arrive. I get it done just as they arrive – I’m literally in a sweat.

All of us then proceed to Bruce and Kathy’s to drop the new stuff off and then we’re out for a great dinner and some good catching up.

And after that, it’s into bed with me to sleep like a rock.


This morning, Friday morning here and Thursday back in the U.S., I get up and start in on the computer gear. I’m on the phone with Bruce and Kathy’s ISP here to see if they can open port 25 for me so I can use E-mail server systems in the U.S. Yes, they can do that – if we switch B&K’s service from a dynamic IP address to a static one for an additional $9.95 per month. OK, I plan to pay for their broad-band while I’m here as a thank you for them letting me stay here at their place – so no problem – yes, let’s do it.

Then I’ve got to noodle around in B&K’s current hardware setup here to make sure that nothing I’m about to do will break their setup. Nope, it all looks good.

An hour or so later, their ISP has made the switch, their IP address is now static and port 25 is open. Yahoo! E-mail is up and I have presence again on the web.

And that brings us to now.

As I said, not much has happened so far since I’ve been here. But, if anything does, rest assured I’ll tell you about. Cheers!

Australia MPs ‘face breath tests’

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

– Ah, those Aussies are a sensitive lot, eh?

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Politicians in an Australian state could be breathalysed before voting after reports of bad behaviour by MPs.

In the latest incident, New South Wales MP Andrew Fraser resigned from his frontbench role after shoving a female MP after attending a Christmas party.

Go Oz!!!In September, state police minister Matt Brown resigned after allegedly dancing in his underpants at a drunken party in his parliamentary office.

Several MPs have now backed a proposal to supply breath test kits.

“Honestly, if you are going to have breathalysers for people driving cranes you should have breathalysers for people writing laws,” New South Wales Greens MP John Kaye told the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Barry O’Farrell, leader of the coalition opposition, said he would gladly submit to an alcohol test before entering parliament.

And the Speaker Richard Torbay said he would have no problem with the idea as long as tests were voluntary.

– More…

* Environment * Food Qatar looks to grow food in Kenya

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

I wrote about this back in September.   This is a new trend and I believe it will become a new form of economic colonialism.

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The Gulf state has joined a growing list of rich countries that want to grow food in poor countries

Qatar has asked Kenya to lease it 40,000 hectares of land to grow crops as part of a proposed package that would also see the Gulf state fund a new £2.4bn port on the popular tourist island of Lamu off the east African country.

The deal is the latest example of wealthy countries and companies trying to secure food supplies from the developing world.

Other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also been negotiating leases of large tracts of farmland in countries such as Sudan and Senegal since the global food shortages and price rises earlier this year.

The Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, returned from a visit to Qatar on Monday. His spokesman said the request for land in the Tana river delta, south of Lamu, in north-east Kenya was being seriously considered.

“Nothing comes for free,” said Isaiah Kabira. “If you want people to invest in your country then you have to make concessions.”

But the deal is likely to cause concern in Kenya where fertile land is unequally distributed. Several prominent political families own huge tracts of farmland, while millions of people live in densely packed slums.


– Hat tip to Cryptogon for the story

On Gay Marriage

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

– I’ve been blessed during most of my adult life in having gay friends. Their strong presence in my life has helped to desensitize me to that nascent homophobia that was an inevitable part of my growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s.

– Their attractions towards members of their own sex and their practices in the bedroom may be different than mine, but I simply don’t care. They respect my practices and feelings just as I do theirs. How else in an enlightened world should it be?

– Some of us (both gays and straights) have discussed this topic a lot in recent weeks with a special emphasis on California’s recent vote on Proposition 8.

– Undeniably, prejudices still run deep here in our American society. But, progress is being made – albeit, over decades. Women’s rights have improved much as has racial equality though there is still a ways to go on both. But, thus far, gay rights have been trailing behind.

– These situations are generally deplored in polite civic conversations and essays but silently condoned in far too many private hearts. I, for one, think we should each speak our minds on these things publicly and let those who are timid and on the fence, as to what they believe, see that there are many of us willing to speak up.

– As a white heterosexual male, I don’t, as they say, have a dog in this fight. But that’s all the more reason to speak up. We should not, in good conscious, leave the work of struggling for social improvement to those who are oppressed.

– So, dear readers, be clear then. I support full equality for women, all racial groups and for gays. It may not be the world we live in today, God help us, but it is what the better world of the future should look like.

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Our Mutual Joy

– from Newsweek Magazine – Dec 6, 2008

Opponents of gay marriage often cite Scripture. But what the Bible teaches about love argues for the other side.

Let’s try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

Of course not, yet the religious opponents of gay marriage would have it be so.

The battle over gay marriage has been waged for more than a decade, but within the last six months—since California legalized gay marriage and then, with a ballot initiative in November, amended its Constitution to prohibit it—the debate has grown into a full-scale war, with religious-rhetoric slinging to match. Not since 1860, when the country’s pulpits were full of preachers pronouncing on slavery, pro and con, has one of our basic social (and economic) institutions been so subject to biblical scrutiny. But whereas in the Civil War the traditionalists had their James Henley Thornwell—and the advocates for change, their Henry Ward Beecher—this time the sides are unevenly matched. All the religious rhetoric, it seems, has been on the side of the gay-marriage opponents, who use Scripture as the foundation for their objections.

The argument goes something like this statement, which the Rev. Richard A. Hunter, a United Methodist minister, gave to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June: “The Bible and Jesus define marriage as between one man and one woman. The church cannot condone or bless same-sex marriages because this stands in opposition to Scripture and our tradition.”

To which there are two obvious responses: First, while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And second, as the examples above illustrate, no sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else’s —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes. “Marriage” in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two. As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God’s will. In a religious marriage, two people promise to take care of each other, profoundly, the way they believe God cares for them. Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.


– Research thanks to John P.

No More Science at CNN

Friday, December 5th, 2008

– At a time when we’re just coming out of eight years of the anti-science Bush administration, CNN’s decision is hard to understand – even if it is economically driven. Definitely, in my opinion, it is not the right decision for the times.

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CNN, the Cable News Network, announced yesterday that it will cut its entire science, technology, and environment news staff, including Miles O’Brien, its chief technology and environment correspondent, as well as six executive producers. Mediabistro’s TVNewser broke the story.

“We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit,” said CNN spokesperson Barbara Levin. “Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is produced by the Anderson Cooper 360 program, there is no need for a separate unit.”

I can’t that I’m shocked by this or anything, but it’s unfortunate. Environmental reporting, whether produced by Anderson Cooper or not, could use more reporters, not fewer, and science reporting in general is likely to become more important now that we have a president waiting in the wings who doesn’t think of it as just another obstacle to be overcome on his way to dismantling the regulation of the moment. Disappointing news.

– To the original by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones:

FHA-Backed Loans: The New Subprime

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

– So, are you hopeful that we’ll pull out of the economic crisis we’re in? Hopeful that we’ve seen where the problems lie? And that while it may still take us awhile to dig our way out from under them, we eventually will?

– Is that what you think, Sweetpea? Well, read on – you’ve got news incoming.

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The same people whose reckless practices triggered the global financial crisis are onto a similar scheme that could cost taxpayers tons more

As if they haven’t done enough damage. Thousands of subprime mortgage lenders and brokers—many of them the very sorts of firms that helped create the current financial crisis—are going strong. Their new strategy: taking advantage of a long-standing federal program designed to encourage homeownership by insuring mortgages for buyers of modest means.

You read that correctly. Some of the same people who propelled us toward the housing market calamity are now seeking to profit by exploiting billions in federally insured mortgages, securing their initial leads through short-term loans online. Washington, meanwhile, has vastly expanded the availability of such taxpayer-backed loans as part of the emergency campaign to rescue the country’s swooning economy.

For generations, these loans, backed by the Federal Housing Administration, have offered working-class families a legitimate means to purchase their own homes. But now there’s a severe danger that aggressive lenders and brokers schooled in the rash ways of the subprime industry will overwhelm the FHA with loans for people unlikely to make their payments. Exacerbating matters, FHA officials seem oblivious to what’s happening—or incapable of stopping it. They’re giving mortgage firms licenses to dole out 100%-insured loans despite lender records blotted by state sanctions, bankruptcy filings, civil lawsuits, and even criminal convictions.

More Bad Debt

As a result, the nation could soon suffer a fresh wave of defaults and foreclosures, with Washington obliged to respond with yet another gargantuan bailout. Inside Mortgage Finance, a research and newsletter firm in Bethesda, Md., estimates that over the next five years fresh loans backed by the FHA that go sour will cost taxpayers $100 billion or more. That’s on top of the $700 billion financial-system rescue Congress has already approved. Gary E. Lacefield, a former federal mortgage investigator who now runs Risk Mitigation Group, a consultancy in Arlington, Tex., predicts: “Within the next 12 to 18 months, there is going to be FHA-insurance Armageddon.”

The resilient entrepreneurs who populate this dubious field are often obscure, but not puny. Jerry Cugno started Premier Mortgage Funding in Clearwater, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in 2002. Over the next four years, it became one of the country’s largest subprime lenders, with 750 branches and 5,000 brokers across the U.S. Cugno, now 59, took home millions of dollars and rewarded top salesmen with Caribbean cruises and shiny Hummers, according to court records and interviews with former employees. But along the way, Premier accumulated a dismal regulatory record. Five states—Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—revoked its license for various abuses; four others disciplined the company for using unlicensed brokers or similar violations. The crash of the subprime market and a barrage of lawsuits prompted Premier to file for U.S. bankruptcy court protection in Tampa in July 2007. Then, in March, a Premier unit in Cleveland and its manager pleaded guilty to felony charges related to fraudulent mortgage schemes.


– research thanks to Fitz