Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Future Reveals itself Unexpectedly (continued and eventually) even to Morons like Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott

David Stockman's analysis of the war against ISIS or whatever you wish to call them should be required reading for our strutting and pathetic PM's who have joined yet another  'coalition of  the willing.'  But they aren't really very willing.  Nobody is, and the fact that the top guns of the western world can't even turn a ground offensive against a single town by people who have no credible air defenses (yet) should scare the living hell out of all of us.  This is the ultimate Mideast fiasco, 100% 'blowback' from the last one and there have been quite a few over the last century.  The only people who have ever been worth a **** there are the Kurds and once again they will be the sacrificed on the block of 'real politic.'

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Future Reveals Itself Unexpectedly Part 2

Update: August 3/2014

Last Wednesday the shares of the worthless Twitter went up 120% after hours on news that profits were twice expectations, ie 300 million dollars.  If that doesn't qualify for the unexpected seminal moment I don't know what the hell could be even crazier and it's the crazy things I notice and file affectionately.  On Thursday and Friday the markets swooned.  And maybe 'worthless' is just a bit of hyperbole;  someone is paying them, after all.  It certainly isn't me, not having an account.  In fact I thought I had never even seen or heard a 'tweet' but my wife says those are the little comments that come underneath the TV screen during Q&A.

I won't say I am going short here on any uptick although I really think I ought to.  But its like this.  Not only is it a bet against all the fools in the world, you are betting against the power of government as well.  And even if they can't stem the inevitable tide they can make it uncomfortable for contrarians - in a panic they will simply hold off the great QE taper and you are whipsawed out of your position, and there is yet another ever-more- dubious upward leg to this juggernaut even if it means the vaunted recovery was only a dream after all.  But even that might be universally embraced as positive proof that bubblemania will be funded at zero interest into outer space.  And that goes on forever.   As H L Mencken said; "No-one ever lost money underestimating the taste (or was it the intelligence) of the American public."

Ideally I would like to see a short- lived recovery here where there is a low- volume tussle at a new high on the major indices.  And be touted to face to face by someone I know of low intelligence.

Finally if you nail your colours to the mast publicly you have an ulterior motive, like you want a great call so people will buy your newsletter or think you are really smart and then they will follow you and then when you lose your own overconfident arse in the next hiatus, so will somebody else. And then it isn't just that the universe is unfolding as it should for fools, YOU will get the blame.

Update September 14/2014
The pattern of the US market has completed as above and begun its reversal, Thursday probably marked the end of the line.  After the initial decline a recovery to barely new highs, then a flat and thin market with ever thinning breadth even while iron ore, oil, copper, gold have been falling, falling.  All textbook stuff.    But as for short - The Aussie dollar has fallen several percent in that time which means that 'short' wasn't a bad idea (in one's own market and currency) but EVERYTHING has been going down simultaneously so it would have been a neutral exercise IF you won and not only did nobody notice, there was much hand clapping as the celestials will want even more of our corpse.
Anyway on Friday I penned the sheep for worming, podiatry and marking the lambs.  The young rams were in clover, taking advantage of the tightly packed ewes or anyone else.  Its the off-season and they don't care.
And somehow it all coalesced in a poem.  QE ends in October - or will it after all?

                                          The Rape of the Flock

The feast is spread and like a leaden turd the bread upon the table lies
And should'ring guests are lurching through the door, the wine already drunk
With raucous lazy speech and glittering eyes.
The scheming coyote in mid-air; one pregnant moment - blissful, unaware
The pricked balloon or crumbling promontory
That highlights each banal installment of the story.
And so the elbowed throng, each finally in his place to feed the beast
Ignores the squeaking, cornered cabin boy whose cries of “Rats de-shipped!”
Mean nothing to them in the least
And roundly curse the cook: “Fool -but better late than never!”
Where's the yeast?”

Update Sept.30

Still levitating, like the Maharishi's well-shorn followers those years ago; proudly frog-hopping around their mats in the lotus position.  A little more input and away we go!  After the jihadists its one more nightmare for air traffic control.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mining the Tarkine Part 2

August 30/2014

The bad news just keeps coming. The iron ore price has sunk below $90 per tonne, and hopes of the Smithtonites and now Tullanese for local jobs with good wages just down the road have been dashed with the end of operations for Venture Mining at Riley Creek. I can't say I told you so on that one, I had just sadly shaken my head over cynical or brain dead opportunists exploiting community divisions because it too, like any little marginal base metal operation was doomed to fail on this side of the commodity cycle. At least it was on the surface and MAYBE some Chinese angel might have come in or still might to take a controlling stake in the tin prospect. Whichever, it goes to show the business case trumps everything else even if Richard Colbeck ignores it in his calculations. And well he might. He and his party stirred up enmity, garnered support, and arrived safely at their electoral destination. That it was an ugly hoax for all sorts of investors hardly matters. Their misplaced resentments will run long, broad and deep until next time, the bread having been snatched once again from their mouths by the environmentalists.

This may be far-fetched but if some Zen master say had spent years giving classes in the community, flummoxing, beating and humiliating people and enlightenment had eventually flared in a few minds: We aren't just honest working people desirous of bread; WE ARE THE BREAD! Then they could go back to cutting firewood or whatever they usually do, and would thereby know the answer to another famous koan:

A wood-chopper studies long and hard with his teacher. After years of anguish he attains satori. What does he do? 

Hint: these things always have an internal clue. The answer is not a holiday in Bali, or a new second -hand car like I might do.

Unity Mining is to close the Henty gold operation after a $52 mil loss. This company has never been a favourite of mine. When they were Bendigo Mining a relative who lived there filled me in on their activities. That nothing was happening but they were burning lots of cash with an office full of administrators. But like a fool I had ignored that and the due diligence of Harmony Mining, who had walked away from it in their efforts to diversify out of South Africa and then I had taken part in a capital raising from investors– they managed to get $90 million together, were building and due to start up their mill. But when they had the money they shut it down, stiffing their investors and walked away to greener fields which was a pertinent comment on the business they had been promoting; first to Beaconsfield where bad ground is legendary and the orebody is a lot like Mt. Lyell – which is to say there is a lot left but it is getting too dangerous and expensive to access. That was a disaster too and they took up the Henty mine from gold mining giant Barrick, (who was shutting it down) on a punt that the mine wasn't depleted after all, which is to say the unlikely event that Barrick's geologists were wrong. That worked out for them despite it having been an especially dumb and desperate thing to do. I was long gone – a name change after you have been screwed over is one more good negative indicator. Which is a nicer term for a kick in the a****.

I mention my involvement as a speculator or employee in these things to highlight that this is an ugly and risky and short-term industry, definitely not a place for elected know-nothings to be throwing money around -YOUR money, in forms of government assistance, or getting involved in subterfuges to attract capital from investors who are definitely going to do their dough; ninety- nine times out of a hundred is enough to say 'definitely.' And they run interference for these companies at all times. Recently Brian Green put on one of those weak Tony Abbott mouth-only smiles as he explained there had been a 'sulphur spill' from the tailings ponds at Savage River. That expression was used on the news several times; there had obviously been an agreement to use that particular term – sulphur; its that yellow powder, isn't it? Wouldn't hurt a fly that grandma used to mix with black strap molasses as a cold remedy. All's well. Actually it was acid drainage; sulphurous acid if you want to be technical; from weathering sulphides in all those millions of tonnes of waste and tailings. It will be leaching into the river until it is all washed into the sea in a global warming catastrophe or scraped there in the next ice age.

Its a nice mill at Savage River. And I have seen the pit and talked to people who actually know things and listened to the news. The ground is broken and there will never be an underground operation. The pit was designed with a grade that optimized recovery, but when you converge at the bottom there is nowhere left to go without stripping such a huge ratio of overburden you have no choice but to walk away. A landslip is a major disaster because the trucks have to drive out round and round. Another pit has been opened and its claimed they will be viable for another 10 or 20 years. But the clincher is probably the price of natural gas used in the pelletizing operation at Port Latta.

Australia is unique in the developed world in that we have no domestic gas reserves, our companies have been contracting it all for the export market as fast as it is being drilled. Prices on the Asian market are double what we want to pay and Australian manufacturing is shutting down at a horrific speed; if you want long term supply you have to match international prices. So I give them another three years. And yes, I have worked there too occasionally on shutdowns, nary a speck of sulphur in the house.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Forestry Renaissance Part 3

This evening on the news we were treated to the new Tasmanian Minister for the Forest Renaissance gloating about the vote in the Upper House; 9 to 5 to end the forest peace deal and turn the Green Tide. MLC Rob Valentine has been nice enough to respond to an email in which I had touted this blog and asked if I thought that it might be possible to log minor species sustainably over a long period, like perhaps a three or four hundred year rotation.
Of course I don't know what the government has in mind and would hate to be inadvertently numbered amongst their supporters on this issue. But here is my answer.

 I know a number of people on the fringes of the industry - Chris Searle at Stanley (now retired), Frank Strie in the Lilydale area who must be close to that and there are others who really care about the larger questions of sustainability and what we are leaving for the future. All of us imagined that somehow we could make positive changes by demonstrating that high value products were worth more than volumes of low grade industrial feedstock in competition with every other desperate regime hacking out whatever resources came to hand and selling them for bottom dollar on world markets. We all agreed that a long rotation system was hypothetically possible.

But as to whether it could happen in a political sense is doubtful. This is about humanity rather than science, economics or even general accounting practice. We have the documented history of Roman times and it was just the same. They had a burgeoning underclass that wanted bread and circuses and didn't care what happened so long as they got it. Long before that Aristotle had noticed that the soils of Greece were slipping into the sea due to forestry and farming practices. The island of Cypress was named after the dominant forest species that was being hacked down to build the commercial and military navies of the time. It was light, and filled with volatile oils that gave it resistance to shipworms and it has been gone long before the historical Renaissance.  Italy and to a lesser extent Greece still have rich farmland in the flat country and volcanic areas thanks to EU subsidies that pay for fertilizer. But generally we have been there too long and its all pretty poor. Cypress is bare and fit for little beside olive trees and marginal grazing for sheep and goats, but the Turks and Greeks are still willing to shed blood over it although their green tide turned and went out a thousand years ago.

Several years ago at a clearing sale I ran into Terry (Snow) Turner who had been North Forest's logging foreman on the Surrey Hills freehold. We shook hands and he shook his head and said, "You were right. It's all gone and I never would have believed it."

Well its not quite gone, the receivers have found a buyer who thinks they can make a bob from exporting woodchips now that the plantations are in place. Its almost like native forest in that regard, they get to reap what they never had to sow. But I remember seeing fifty thousand tonnes of pure red myrtle logs going off over three months as an experimental shipment to see if it would make decent cardboard boxes. The logs weren't smooth enough to woodchip without including bark and there was a lot of rot as it was very old. I also had another experience in which I had organized a load of blackwood sawlogs (by cutting off some pulpwood butts) and was refused same by the logging foreman on that basis; that they were sawlogs. I went to see Nick Sherry to complain that the company was woodchipping sawlogs which was illegal.

"We know that," he said,

"What are you going to do about it?"


I sent some photos of loaded railcars to Robert Bell who tabled them in Parliament; the bona fides of which were denied by Robert Rae. And now it is imperative that new country be opened and exploited to replace what we have lost to stupidity. To be fair only 10 or 15% of that myrtle would have been recoverable as flitches then, perhaps 20% now as shortages have brought down standards. And not too long after Robert Bell was dead. So the 'green tide' has been going out here for some time.

And Chris Searle in his own efforts had spoken to the media about the value of burl myrtle veneer; he was retailing it at 40 thousand dollars a cubic metre. I had been cutting the odd veneer flitch from exceptional wood whenever it came my way but the quality I was looking for was pretty rare, certainly not worth spending your time on solely. Because for people like us the economics were still lousy. It would cost almost half that money to have it sliced at the Somerset veneer mill. If it didn't come off perfectly it was unsaleable at those higher rates but you still had to pay and it was a thin market, especially being a red timber. Doing much of it meant a horrendous outlay for inventory you had no certainty of moving. But lower grade material and offcuts were saleable as turning blocks at $1000 per tonne (cubic metre). This is about the same as sawn green blackwood at the time, and although there was a lot of work involved you could cut a lot out of stumps or big logs in a day on the chainsaw.
I spoke to Brian Hayes, North's logging superintendent and offered $100 per tonne to select the stuff and he said “Oh no. That would imply it has value.” So we agreed I was to pay a royalty of $20. I was already paying veneer rates to contractors to select and load stuff for me; and there were still haulage costs on top. And so we had a gentleman's agreement and I went over to America and drove down the west coast to check out the veneer industry and drum up some business.

Canada had just signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTAA. It was the kind of thing that puts dollar signs in the eyes of fools and quislings. But within months the big American forest giant Weyerhauser was suing and Canadian timber products were being held up on the basis of unfair trading advantages, to wit Canadian stumpage rates (royalties) were lower than rates in the US. So Western Canada's major forest corporation MacMillan Bloedel was hamstrung. After this had dragged on a few years, MacBlo had suffered enough and was a bargain. It was swallowed by guess who. Unless you are pretty dumb you will have guessed Weyerhauser.

But driving through the US opened my eyes on a related facet. Motor fuel was only a fraction of the price it was in Canada and this was because of (once again) an excise tax differential. And this constituted a trading advantage not only on timber products of which it is a substantial impost, but for every American product every step of the way.

And if you are pretty dumb about the dynamics of power you might suppose the Canadians even raised the issue.  There was a peripheral lawsuit related to motor fuel but it was simply a damages claim – Canada had banned a noxious gasoline additive that was contaminating ground water via leakages and spills and the American producer wanted compensation.

On my return I was informed that North Forests was going to veneer burl myrtle themselves and I couldn't have any after all unless it had been rejected by the guy from the veneer mill. And they produced a very large quantity – they were slicing anything dark red that had a few deep burl spots on it.

But .6 mil veneer on a chipboard substrate is hardly the sort of material that makes lasting high end products. A lot went into flavour-of -the-month architectural concept work. I even used a bit myself later when I was working in Sydney and put together the bar in the new gambling development downstairs at the Concordia (German) Club in Stanmore. Which is now defunct and boarded and you don't hear any more about burl myrtle than German-Australian relations. The war vets with grudges had gone broke or died and the veneer price had crashed.

I did find a customer for turning blanks in Seattle. Chris and I collaborated on a shipment (mostly burl myrtle) which was lost on the Melbourne dock for some months and then I received notice from the US that it was going to be confiscated at its destination because of some detail in the bill of lading which I managed to fix up. When it arrived (green waxed blocks) it was all covered in black mold which they cleaned up and said it was the best shipment that they had ever received but not what they had expected. Could I send samples of something else?

Despite the specialness of our special timbers they aren't really special to anyone else.  And the human tide is flattening the primary forests of the world, 90% is gone now, mostly within my lifetime.  As the Amazon is converted to short-lived cattle operations, subsidized by clearing the timber, the same thing is happening in Indonesia for palm oil, Africa for drying tobacco and subsistence crops like sago, and the international market in morally dubious luxury materials is booming.  Beside my burl myrtle blocks in Seattle sit a smorgasbord of things like wenge, bubinga, cocobolo, teak, mahogany, ebony, zebrawood and for my counterparts in the source countries, a thousand dollars a tonne is a small fortune.  Men will kill you for that so its pretty hard to protect.  And there is a worm in the minds of our species, which goes beyond supply and demand - scarcity actually exacerbates demand for reasons of social display.  The demand for prestige sells the most ordinary crap from art to abalone, shoes and handbags on the grounds of little more than that it is already expensive and is recognizable as such to most of us who my son tells me are referred to in alternative circles as 'brand whores'.

There was a special timber poaching problem here twenty years ago.  Even now they are cutting down nearly worthless nesting trees for orange bellied parrots just for firewood.  All you need is vehicle access and anything becomes worthwhile if you are on a pension with time on your hands.  So if you open up areas with the best of intentions and provide a legal but restricted  (and thereby expensive) market in which the illegal product can seamlessly disappear extinction will subsidize itself.

Some time after the burl myrtle business when the satellite chip mill was finished, North Forests kicked all of us off the freehold right down to the firewood cutters who had refused an offer to fill containers on low contract rates for the Melbourne market. Reportable earnings would have been the final straw anyway as far as they were concerned. Some months later I was offered the opportunity to continue if I wanted to match the highest bidder which much higher than crown millers get charged for sawlogs. And my business would be more successful if I learned to keep my mouth shut. I chose neither option.

Then North merged with Gunns and kept all the headkickers in a final winnowing out of the decent. After that the story is near enough in time that everyone can remember, a pyramid of taxpayer- subsidized plantation development and subsequent failure that ended for the same reasons it had for so many of their over-leveraged contractors.  And this is the story of the privatized and profitable part of the industry. The publicly owned, loss-making socialized bit that is Forestry Tasmania has once again been given a 'get out of jail free' card. As did the Gunns CEO who sold out of millions of dollars worth of shares on privileged company information before it was public -nearly free anyway and he didn't do jail time thanks to his infirmities. 

Nevertheless John Gay has been allowed to continue as a director of the family's veneer business. As Brian Green apologetically explained, he is making all those jobs. So I presume he isn't out there himself; cutting veneer flitches from the unwanted rubbish that was supposed to be the province of the woodchip industry and humping the stuff out on his back.

So I have this residual sadness; like when I asked my son if I could be his friend on Facebook.

"Maybe I don't want you to know what I am getting up to,” he said.

"How would you like it if I slashed my wrists," I answered. "For that kind of a knockback by people you love its de rigueur."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Forestry Renaissance Part 2

The idea of a forest peace treaty and a sustainable industry has been around for quite a while. In the late 90's there was an attempt based on the acronym CARS , which is to say a Complete And Representative Sample of each of the different pre-settlement vegetative types that would be preserved, and scientific opinion was that 15% should provide for adequate biodiversity. Government and industry pressure reduced that to 7%, but according to Forestry Tasmania even that was too much and would mean the cessation of logging in commercially valuable old growth stands on which so much of their mandated sawlog production depended. And a lot of the remnants were on freehold land and landholders would be asked to make generous covenants to top up particular categories.

Agriculture had been a major part of the problem. If trees are to do well they need pretty much the same conditions as other crops and so most of the tall forests, especially on red soils, had been cleared for the purpose. Deep weathering occurs quickly with volcanics so they are relatively fertile. Other rock types are so slow that fertility tends to exist only where it can come in from elsewhere, like the sediments in valley bottomland. Elsewhere you only need look at the tree rings. A lot of our species have adapted to the slow availability of nutrients from the continual recycling of the forest within itself on virtually worthless subsoils. Huon pine for instance – some of those bigger trees are pushing a thousand years old and you will find them growing anywhere protected but very wet and bleak, surrounded by detritus but often with nothing more underneath them than white quartz sand. And when and if it is logged to the point of opening up the canopy it is replaced in the short term by cutting grass and other nutritionless shrubs that make do on leaf litter remnants. When that burns, as it all will – once or twice and the whole plant community is history. 

It seems to be part of our normal mental function that belief trumps mathematics and general common sense. Those CAR percentages add up to 100 and no more. And it is amazing that a large percentage of the population believes that a number like 40% can apply to remaining economic stands of native timber whereas in fact this country has been 'locked up' because it has no economic value other than recreational or quarrying and grossly over-represents communities of stones, alpine mosses, dunes, and stunted shrubbery in the high country.  

When I built my sawmill and began organizing my minor species salvage/retail operation Mike Peterson of FT took me around the plantation at North's Hampshire freehold which they were converting to eucalyptus nitens. A casual observer wouldn't have noticed, but he pointed out the sensitivity of growth rates to fertility and microclimate. The trees were doing well near the partially burnt windrows where they had wind protection and fertility. On most of the ground the trees were only a fraction as tall and struggling and this was only the first rotation after native forest. On the next rotation all that windrow material would be finally burnt and smoothed out. Subsequent plantings in their 17 year projected cycle would have no advantage at all . So projected growth rates were a dream and a few years later the woodchip companies with the help of generous tax concessions for investors began acquiring farmland. This was in lower elevations than the freehold and years of fertilizer applications had enriched the soil. Native timber up there on the other hand had been superlative albeit slow growing.

At one point there was a question as to whether some of it should be protected as rainforest. Our federal MP at the time was Chris Miles and he worked hard to show that it was in fact unworthy of protection, having been degraded by previous logging operations. These had mainly been billet cutting for the Burnie paper mill. This was before modern forest practices and billets for chipping and papermaking were produced as follows. Trees were selectively felled and cut into eight foot lengths with dragsaws or chainsaws. Contractors chose the biggest, best and cleanest trees because the sections had to be split with wedges so they could be loaded by hand crossways onto their rigid flat tray trucks and carted down to the coast. Local people around my age (just retired) remember their fathers coming home exhausted in the cold wet winters. After splitting and loading their quota they would often as not have had to winch the trucks out through the mud and sleet to get home. There is a lot of civic pride in Burnie's paper making heritage in spite of the fact it was murderous from those early years and not only in the bush. My neighbor told me about working in the lower level of the mill where they made the chlorine.

We used to roll the mercury around in our hands. And the collecting hoods above the tanks were stainless steel lagged with blue asbestos.”

Which they would push into the joints with a blunt chisel tool if the smell of chlorine got too strong. The mercury in the bottom of the tanks of salt water was the electrode. And of course much of it ended up in Emu Bay.

Is anyone still alive.” I asked.

No, only me.”

Did anyone ever sue?”

Not a one.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Plus ca Change

Personally I am not complaining about my own part in shouldering the burden for the budget emergency.  As an old-age pensioner its hard not to feel like some kind of useless charity case and yes, this is a new day in a smarmy resurgence of bone- heads but that doesn't mean it isn't time to give something back.  My benefit reductions will barely make half the nominal sacrifice of the Prime Minister on his  half mil, not counting what I will lose on state concessions for local rates, power bills, and whatever extra heavy lifting I will be liable for locally; or his foregone wage hike.

And no this is not unjust. There is no-one more contemptible than the entitled but undeserving poor.  We have to stop giving them things.  There is nothing more worthy of adulation than the entitled wealthy.   We have to keep giving them things so they can be the drivers of economic growth in this country.  I recall Bronwyn Bishop explaining it once in those smug John Howard years; how she would hire a maid if wages were low enough.  Well, if she lived close by and could keep her damn mouth shut I would hire HER to do the vacuuming if her wages were low enough.  But the funny thing about these Ayn Randian ubermenschen is that for all their talk of free enterprise and the self-regulating magic of the markets they are neither innovators nor do they want competitive market discipline to set their own incomes.   Having spent a lot of time in the construction industry I have known and worked for a great many; where they call themselves 'developers'.  All have claimed to be visionaries, and proudly flaunt their credentials in their quest for elected positions in local government and more. They have wonderful dreams for our communities.  But I have worked endlessly it seemed putting that crap together and it was generally devoid of any of the touted revolutionary aesthetics or quality.   And they were all psychopaths.  The best thing you can say about them was their socially desirable focus on making money rather than strangling young women.

Land is purchased or optioned at a market price or better in view of existing zoning and other restrictions.  To make a big leveraged investment work they have to get finance which means to first lock in a profit.  So maybe you thought your swampy pasture was agricultural or a protected wetland when you took his offer; which it was for you or anyone else who didn't have powerful friends in local or state government, or make political donations or hire an architectural firm to draw an idealized artist's concept of your dream.   After that it goes to the following plan.  During the pre-Olympic boom I worked for subcontractors in Sydney on the tools on several major projects.  All my bosses had tendered for a particular job against many others.  And some optimist can always be counted on to  make a mistake.  On some projects all the subcontractors were going out backwards.  One who wasn't was fingered by the CFMEU.  He had imported Korean stonemasons.  They wouldn't speak to you (if they could have) and had been packed into cheap rented houses six or ten to a room including meals.  That's how 'price discovery' works (for labour).

On our next job I and a couple of Irish boys were exiled out to replace rotten floors in a far western suburbs pub for talking to the union rep over a salvage attempt on the contract's financial viability.  It would have required us to become self- employed contractors and work for peanuts and we weren't willing to budge.  That's the trouble with us entitled poor.  We are geared and driven by self interest, just as surely as the family dog.  In a moment of weakness you let the bastard inch himself past the doormat and next thing you know he is hogging your favourite chair and sleeping in your bed.  Unconsidered largesse transforms instantly to inalienable entitlement.

But the new government's austerity budget has already started to bite fevered imaginations and subsequent market behavior.  My Melbourne son was moving house and  it coincided  with 'hard rubbish day' in his suburb.   As he was clearing out his garage and depositing unwanted worn-out old power tools and what- have- you on the curbside, a couple of steel-eyed junkies on pushbikes rocked up and parked by his pile.

"Oh wow man does this old drill work?  Wow!" and they piled their selections over to one side.  But then they got distracted on the neighbour's garbage and turned to see not only that their pile had been  plundered but their bikes were gone as well in one of the many utes and vans that had converged from all over town for the bonanza and were buzzing up and down the streets.

"Stop! stop!," they shouted as these vehicles passed from both directions and of course the drivers paid them no notice.  One rushed out into the centre of the street screaming after a suspicious-looking load;

"Don't mess with a schizo, mate, I'll effing kill ya!"

The future is now, mate, and its a jungle out there.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Open Letter to Senator Penny Wright: Our Violent Schools

Dear Penny Wright

"There is no place for violence in our schools."

That's your quote. Firstly if you can recall having gone to school or taught in one you would know that violence is a subtext everywhere that you have more than one young person thrown together with another. Politically correct fine feelings, modern computers and massive expenditure on amusements like touch- sensitive whiteboards; bombing the kids out with sensory overload as it were hasn't made it any easier for teachers in classrooms nor are we graduating kids who are more numerate, literate, or possessed of the confidence and self-discipline they will need for their adult lives.

I hired a couple recently for one day and although their thumbs can move like lightning on palm pilots beneath their non-violent school desks, splattering the oncoming zombie hordes, they were otherwise useless. I am a damaged old man and shouldn't be able to outwork three times my weight in young human flesh. And it wasn't because they couldn't, rather they didn't give a damn and spent unsupervised time contriving amusements. Nor could they cope with honesty and now they are afraid to speak to me and the self- confidence of at least one is such that he can't apply for a job without being accompanied by his mother. I foresee many hundreds of thousands of public dollars here on housing and related support over his lifetime, far more than the nation has ever gleaned from me.

And weaker boys are still being bullied in the toilets, about which they dare not tell. The girls carry on their underhanded and arbitrary vendettas against the more vulnerable and needy; highly sophisticated programs of sniping, undermining and misrepresentation turbocharged by social media. The sisterhood seems so much less concerned about this kind of viciousness; (non-violence?) perhaps because they are so much better at it than males whose oafish physicality is more immediate and confrontational but usually transitory and sometimes even good-natured.

In my short teaching career I would estimate that a quarter of the teachers in the staffroom had the major ambition to grow old so they could retire. It is just too stressful and nobody else in the workplace has to deal with the volumes of crap they are exposed to every day. And this is not only my personal opinion: they told me at teacher's college that I was being prepared for the worst job in the world. Well maybe it shouldn't have to be that way. So what do you do when a kid contemptuously tells you to "stick your pink slip up your arse." Bring out the big guns and give him a red one? And so the confrontation drags on unresolved with all the widening ripples of stress; angst, personal ill-will, attendant paperwork, administrative back-up, threat of suspension, parental involvement, and several expensive man-hours.

And the teachers who can do other things. Many of these are the people that need to be retained. Not hugely long ago I was on the street in town during school hours and I met the maths master from a highschool where I did occasional relief work. He was beaming.

"What are you doing out of class this time of day?" I asked.

"That's all over for me," he said, "and I am over the moon. I'm selling life insurance and have just made my first superannuation millionaire!"

He had sold a plan to some bright new entrant to the workforce who had a lifetime ahead of him. I was profoundly shocked and all I could think of was the 'f' word. He was one of the most effective people I knew at that school, and if he couldn't or wouldn't do it who would? And simultaneously I realized that he was barely numerate, a babe in the woods. To put it into context 'there is many a slip' - the bloated share market still had a few months of life in it and the fallout - the property bubble and ZIRP were all pending. Not to mention the multinational corporate fee structure on top of all that.

You are quite dismissive of Kevin Donelly's anecdotal and so 'last-century' outmoded sallies toward possible improvements to the teaching process. Here is another anecdote from the dark past when everyone in my (Canadian) school was literate and numerate.  I recall my grade 9 manual arts teacher, his back turned while writing tech drawing notes on the blackboard even as young larrikin Alan Mansell was slowly screwing his vise up on a large percussion cap from an antique black powder firearm. When it inexplicably failed to go off he removed it, and placing it on top of the vise, hit it with a ball-peen hammer. The plan was of course to replace the hammer in its place and regain an angelic and uninvolved pose before the surprised teacher could turn around. It was ear-splitting, like a pistol shot and he did turn, to see the kid standing in a perfect halo of dense white smoke, his mischievous smile melting to chagrin.

It might surprise you that there were almost no instructional delays, no coloured slips, a runner was not sent to the office for back-up or guidance, the police were not called to investigate the posession of dangerous goods, and the boy's parents weren't informed unless he told them himself years later. Rather my teacher Mr. Wapple, a faint smile on his lips said "Mansell, come forward. Bend over." And he applied a single good whack from a piece of dressed 1x2 that he kept for the purpose. The kid walked back to his desk rubbing his backside and smiling ruefully and everyone was a winner: Authority had withstood the challenge, there was universal admiration for the teacher who had shown coolness, restraint and applomb, there were no hard feelings or recriminations, and no-one did anything to bring similar down upon themselves for the whole year, at least in my class. Mansell did not begin his career with question marks on his record. He had achieved some celebrity and even got to sign his name on the stick. And 50 years later I still do great tech drawings having been motivated to pay close attention at most times.

To label that as violence is a gross and Kafka-esque misrepresentation if you balance it against the wasteful, gut- churning, draining, sh**storm that would be the likely outcome of the boy's act in our enlightened new century. And regarding the stick, a fine teacher would lose his job and that self-confidant little monkey who had been so pleased with himself transformed to a pathetic victim. All this is not to say that institutionalizing the strap for kids is a good idea. Firstly it is cruel because it lacks immediacy and justice. Secondly it is arbitrary. Once I put on a fierce face and turning the joke back on them, I sent three boys to a relatively benign principal with a note they had been passing regarding me and oral sex. But he wasn't in and they came back in tears having been caned by the vice principal.

"I owe you one, sir," snarled the one partial innocent in the affair.

And finally, when something passes from the imagination through institutional culture to pedestrian reality it loses so much of its compelling power and risks becoming a professional badge of competence, a childhood status symbol or right of passage to somewhere you really don't want to go.

But at the same time lets consider the possibility that our deep instincts -if we are well- meaning, well- adjusted people – just might be more correct than some 'so this season' ideology. Especially when it is going so badly that the major defense is the standard fallback - we must stay the course or throw even more money at it; so like your political adversaries squandering our billions /millions on Joint Strike Fighters or the oxymoronic 'clean coal.'

Every young animal has to find its boundaries which are a big part of who we are. And an adult authority figure who fails to supply even this basic information is weak and not worth a cracker in the eyes of a younger generation. That is essentially why relations are so strained in classrooms these days. Sorry, the kids can't help it; that's just how we are programmed. So a friendly or restraining hand on a shoulder is not an assault. A flick on the ear or loud whack with a rolled exam paper or even a rare ritualized public smack on the backside with a cane is not an act of violence and trusting our natural, immediate responses to classroom management could save countless careers, ulcers heartaches and billions of dollars in wasted and drawn-out confrontation; time that should be spent delivering the syllabus.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Will Hodgman: Pulling the Renaissance Rabbit from Forestry's Black Hole

                                                                       Part One

So the great world heritage de-listing has fallen through.   Firstly just about all of those boys who led the charge are lawyers.   And if there is a word they all understand it is 'precedent'.  And if the committee had allowed one to be set by which any unconscionable liar who managed to worm his way momentarily  into public office could reverse the thing and throw some supposed treasure open for exploitation by his cronies and constituents then the whole process would be meaningless and nothing would or could be protected anywhere with any certainty in the long term.  If Messrs. Abbott and Hodgman really didn't understand this then they are sad naifs who should never have been entrusted with government.  If they did understand then it was nothing but an electoral stunt and 'liar' is not an unjust characterization.  Of course a lot more corroborating evidence has emerged since the federal election and the subsequent Abbott smile has withered with his ratings in the polls.

I had been struggling to place that smile for some time.  Where had I seen it?  Eventually I remembered.  I have seen this thing FROM  THE INSIDE.  Once I faked a personality profile at a mystery job interview which turned out to be selling Scott Fetzer vacuums door to door.  I refused their offer but they hounded me for weeks.  That was the Kirby, which  was an art deco-industrial design masterpiece and if I had room I would have one just to display on a plinth in my lounge room, but never would I so much as touch its fabulous cast aluminium sucking head to a floor.  But a stint selling encyclopaedias is pretty much the same thing.  And the trick is to get your foot in the door.  And when your knock is answered by the householder and his dog slips past him and is humping your leg that isn't going to happen if you give the little bastard the well- deserved  kick that will put him in his place for all time.  And so you force out a weak, apologetic mouth-only smile of a dead-set underdog; diplomatically pretending the ugly embarrassing subtext down below doesn't matter a wit because he is so cute.  But it does and the mark doesn't yet know you have the upper hand.   A truly great actor would do exactly the same; not a full smile of actual bonhomie or enjoyment but of strength and forbearance that masks the cold glitter of eyes that would otherwise be the windows of your soul which is cranking out the interminable rat -cunning calculations on which our jobs depend.  Our product will transform your life for the better one day, but first you have to sell them the pup.

So why did we need to open up tens of thousands of hectares of primary forest?   Simply because the sustainability of our 'working forests' is just one more lie.  Even on a Forestry Tasmania 80 year rotation the only thing that comes out of that is eucalypt pulpwood and some small blackwoods and second rate euc. sawlogs IF they are grown on high fertility/lower altitude ground which is unlikely because all that country has been cleared and is being used for agriculture.  Speaking as a craftsman and fine timber specialist I wouldn't give two bob for any of it except maybe exceptional silver wattle which is a poor man's blackwood.  Its a light, fast- growing  leguminous pioneer species that will do for interior decorative use like cabinetry or panelling.

So I have been salvaging, milling and retailing fine timbers here for years.  Ever since I was growing up in rural British Columbia I had a lot to do with the forest industry.  Beside cutting our winter firewood supply with a bucksaw and axe from a very early age there was our next-door neighbor who was a logging contractor.  He operated a bulldozer and was the only person in the area who had a 4 wheel drive; an old war- veteran Willys jeep he used at work; not like nowadays when every man and his dog has one of these brutes for shopping and tearing up the countryside on the weekends.  When he brought the 'Cat' home for maintenance, which was often;  he would be screaming his rage and laying into it with a sledgehammer.  Between him and some other kids in grade one I picked up a fairly complete vocabulary.  Everybody in the area worked in the bush from time to time.

We used to walk two miles home from school each day and when I was in Grade four of five we caught up with one of the local grandsons of Finland parked on the road with his girlfriend, struggling in the front seat.

 We chanted "I see ___ in a tree/ K- I- S- S- I -N- G."  They were getting married and they laughed and drove on.  But they couldn't keep their hands off each other and we caught up with them two more times on the way home.   God knows why they couldn't find a place to park off the main road.  I didn't see the guy again for a decade.  My brother and I were home with a gap between summer exploration jobs, going or coming from college and we were putting some time in doing graveyard shift on the green chain at the local softwood mill.  And he was there as always since he had become a family man, one of the three sawyers and a very different breed of cat by now with a metal plate in his head, one wall eye and thick glasses thanks to a flying insert from the headsaw, and separated from his wife and young family thanks to alcoholism and a more personable and sober young neighbor.

My job was tailing out on the next machine in the line, which was the bull edger.  This had several blades that slid back and forth along a shaft to cut the flitches into a selected range of boards and I had to reach over,   grab the wain edges on both sides as they came out and flip them over onto a chain to the burner.  On the second week there I stepped back for some reason, probably an unusually big piece of wood was coming out fast on the far side and the next thing I knew I was lying on my back watching my mangled foot going around in a huge sprocket that drove the 'camel back' chain on which the boards were sorted.   Even if there had been an emergency cord I couldn't have reached it, and the noise was such it was like being in space where no one can hear you scream.  Which I don't recall, just that these things don't hurt much at the time and I didn't have much choice but to wait patiently for the thing to come around and spit me out.  But the edger operator must have seen me disappear and by the time it released me everything had stopped.   I was wearing high-topped custom- made leather boots from my geological work and the one had been grabbed from behind and the entire heel and back of the boot was crushed flat.  It looked like one of those life- changing moments  and I took the thing off and found to my and the gathered onlookers surprise that I still had a foot.  It had been squeezed right out of the lower boot,  bursting the leather laces.  Although I couldn't walk on it for a week, I had earned a hundred and forty dollars already so there was no pressing reason to go back, not like if you have a family or a plate in your head.

So the forest industry is a family thing and according to my father we go  a lot farther back than my initial disaster:

"Back in the twenties my dad had  given up on his taxi service.  He must have made a convincing case at the bank and was able to make a down payment on a log truck.  I was only 5 years old but he took me with him on the second day on his job hauling poles off Mt. Rainier (in Washington State.)  We were coming down and the road gave way slowly beneath us.  Some guys up above on a donkey engine saw what was happening, ran down with a cable and secured the truck, but they couldn't pull it back up the bank loaded.  So they had to release the binders and let the logs go off down the hill.  When he got to the dispatcher's office at the bottom they gave him a bill for the logs.  He just tossed the ignition key on the desk and we walked away."
So my father never forgot his dad's advice; that 'the forest industry is a cheap industry and no place for anybody with half a brain or an ounce of ambition.'  And I had been told in my turn so it should be no surprise that I ended up there.  Ours is a contrary kind of family.  But I was a very good carpenter/joiner and had come to Tasmania with the ambition of building beautiful world-class furniture out of local timbers.  After we got rid of the milk cows I built an LP-powered mobile horizontal bandsaw.   There was nothing like it in the state then.    The only remotely similar operations were a few larger Forestmills which had a VW or similar size engine powering a twin bladed circular saw that ran back and forth on a frame and could be transported and set up in a semi-permanent situation.  But my machine could be operated indoors, driven away or set up in minutes, ran a 1.5 mm kerf, could cut big logs, burls, toothpicks or veneers.  Or do just about anything with nearly no sawdust.  Once I made a houselot of window sashes, without a thicknesser and even stacked up the styles and mullions and cut all the (open) perfect mortise and tenons on it.   But daily throughput was limited to one or three tonnes at most so it was only a proposition to cut high value minor species timber, most of which came from pulp logs from the North Forest's Surrey Hills freehold.  Even then salvage from crown land was too problematic and conditional to be worth pursuing.  Back in the 'nineties they were having trouble filling their legislated quotas with acceptable timber.  So the push was always on to move into previously untouched areas and lower the standards for sawlogs; thereby creating more of them, and trash a lot of country mostly for woodchips 'before the greenies could lock it up'. 
Occasionally they would cite people like me and the important industry we supplied which was boat-building, furniture and fine joinery but mainly craft timbers for old retirees to produce tourist knick -nacks.  The rest of the time we were treated like shit and hopefuls were coming and going in the industry all the time.  Because in fact the industry belongs to a few big monopolies -'crown' sawmillers and large corporations who have always worked hand in hand with state and federal governments to get what they want.  Which is not some idealized free-enterprise market where they have to compete with optimistic locals who work for whatever meager wages they pull out -with little cost for capital, nothing for shareholders,  executive salaries, or political and legal finagling.  And its even worse at the other end - in international markets they compete with crony capitalists from abroad who are even crookeder, more coddled and subsidized than they.

I and a lot of other bemused small sawmillers  attended a Forestry Tasmania seminar at a local hotel touting their 'young eucalypt program.'  Someone had designed a hypothetical system by which logs would be passed centrally between two parallel sawblades; (much like the bull edger of my youth), thereby balancing the easing of tensions simultaneously on both sides, they hoped the logs would remain straight enough to bring the blades closer together and cut inch boards off both sides on the next pass and so on.  Also the logs had to have the ends carefully waxed and fastened, nor could they be dropped on handling  lest they split and the halves curl away from each other like two bananas.  But even if someone managed to cut boards remotely uniform in thickness from one end to the other, it would still curl like a barrel stave and cup when it dried, and  markets and seasoning regimes were still in the experimental stage.  In other words country sawmillers faced certain extinction along with our primary forests.

And the woodchippers were competing for decent logs.  The industry that had come in on the basis of 'taking the rubbish that was left on the forest floor' was facing competition re both price and quality from abroad.  Charcoal or rot were unacceptable.  When the Burnie Timber sawmill/flitch mill closed;  forest contractors were then charged with reducing logs on the landings to fit straight into the chipper at Hampshire.  So they had extra duties then -to rub off the bark with their excavators and use their forks to split the bigger logs.  Unfortunately the rubbish didn't split very well either and you would see truckload after truckload of straight young logs, split in pieces, which should have been the sawlogs of the future.   I suspect they just had to carry most or all of that extra labour.  And North contractors were being used off the freehold by Forestry Tasmania to log on crown land partly under North Forests supervision.  After all they were the biggest customer in northern Tasmania.

The contractor's lot is not an easy one and although Forest Communities Australia and FIAT pretend there is some kind of brotherhood out there, sharp divisions exist.  A North Forests forester, let's call him Peter explained it to me one day when I was out cutting up myrtle stumps on the freehold, before they gave me and the other gleaners the boot.

"First we broke their association and had them bidding against each other for coups, sometimes brother against brother."

I am not sure how long that went on until they went on rates and were pressured to upgrade to excavators and quality gear.  Some smart older operators like the Sweeneys took the opportunity to get out but nearly everyone went or was already deeply into the bank for millions on the strength of the 'thirty day rule'.  Which meant that if they didn't like you they could tell you to finish up within a month.

"Then we cut their rates by 15%.  There wasn't a peep out of them.  So we cut their rates by another 15% and then they started to squeal and we knew we had it right."

He thought this was quite funny.  So the united public face of the forest industry is one more lie; there is a social divide between salaried staff and hourly employees and finally contractors who are at the bottom of the food chain.  Being deeply into the bank they just have to take whatever crap comes their way,  and occasionally the independently- minded would be told to finish up at which point the bank moved in on them, an object lesson to the others.  The just-plain-mouthy ones walk a tightrope.  They will either finish up or get a position on staff.  As the old saw goes; 'The working class/ can kiss my ass/ I've got the foreman's job at last.'

So in this fractured house the environmental movement is the glue that holds it all together. "The greenies are after your jobs, boys!"  snarled Michael O'Connor of the CFMEU.  And the rabble is suddenly at one, from executive to every dumbfuck on the green chain.  But when a contractor folds, an obsolete plant closes its doors or a resource peters out they go like lambs.  Whether something else turns up or not, glad-handing liars have done and will forever do their best to hop aboard the dream and ride it to electoral victory.




Thursday, March 20, 2014

Education always requires more money or does it?

Another long-forgotten document from my files, timely in light of the Gonski reforms.  The new federal government and Tony Abbott.  Will he or won't he come across?

Dear Ms. Leahy (Australian Business Council)

Having heard this a thousand times, I am not surprised by the same old saw (ABC Radio) this morning from you about throwing more money at schools and teachers.
Being a maths/ science teacher I can tell you it is not about money, its about working conditions in a system that is broken, and money has very little to do with it. 

Last week I was at a meeting in which Christine Milne and the local Green candidate (both teachers) were discussing how more money had to be thrown at the state schools instead of private schools because everyone wanted their kids in private schools. I said I put my kids in a private school; having taught in the state ones I wouldn’t send my kids there either.  What a conversation stopper.

Here is a short diary listing notable events in my last three (short) jobs.

________ High relief.  (one day) 

To begin with there is a staff meeting in which principal explains about the ____ sisters who (this is a good news story) were not giving oral sex to ALL the grade nine boys under the bleachers, just two or three, their parents have been notified and are suitably horrified. 

Grade 8 Maths class.
Beside the usual obscenities a large pair of scissors are thrown in anger by one student at another. It is pandemonium. I do a time and motion diary and calculate my instructional cost to the state is three times my hourly rate.  Most of my time is spent pulling the metaphorical monkeys off the chandeliers.

I could sort out these kids in a second, but instead I have to decide whether to give them some kind of coloured card, send a runner or run to the office myself for help.  None of us in the room are so stupid as to misunderstand my options: any such course of action beyond the obligatory card will make me a total loser which I will never live down at this school at any rate.  In terms of my own survival or general educational outcomes the  ___ sister's efforts don't even rate.  Maybe they are even positive. 

 High School relief  (another school)

Day 1 lunchtime

I have mistakenly sat down in an a small section of empty chairs in the staffroom and end up having a conversation with the deputy principle. He is a big strong blonde man in his late fifties and his hand is shaking while he swallows little round yellow pills. The doctor has told him he has to retire because the stress is killing him. But if he does that now he will lose a large part of his superannuation potential. If he stays he will die and lose all of it.

Day 2. First period Grade 7 maths

The children are opening their briefcases at the start of the class. A nice looking, well-groomed little kid at the front row begins dancing around with a sharp fibre point type pen. He thrusts it toward my face, close enough that it disappears under my nose and says ‘You see this?’ swings around and slashes a line across the cheek of a girl standing next to him. Then he is in his seat, wide eyed; my instant reaction having been to give him a light, contemptuous backhand across the ear to remind him of who and where he was, and that dangerous acts would not be tolerated. The class froze.

He hit Edward, ‘ said a girl and they all dove into their cases and began working furiously, silently for the whole period. It struck me that if this had been my class I would have been easily able to treble my effectiveness for the whole year- on the strength of that one small incident. But unfortunately none of them dared ask me for help on their assignment. I thought nothing more of it, a minor thing compared to the scissors.  Of course I was an over-confident fool, I should have sternly asked the kid how he would like it if his parents found out about his misbehavior.  But I did not and  presumably Edward told his parents that he had been assaulted.
The school informed me that I had done the right thing but I had to make a report in triplicate which I declined to do, which meant the end of my career in the state school system.


I was asked to teach a maths class to a group of older welders and boilermakers (because I am one of those too, having gone back to blue collar work after the above) while a friend went on holiday. These guys think they are going to be vaulted into a $100 thousand a year engineering job from their fabrication welding positions on the strength of a high school maths class one night a week.  The program is not very advanced but the syllabus over the time  allowed is punishing; they will have to spend the other nights of the week working at it to learn even this much.  But they don’t and half are unable to get pass marks on their ridiculously easy exams which I could pass with my eyes closed, without having looked at the stuff for years.   

After four weeks of Tuesday nights I am called into the team leader’s office. 

This is an educational institution that aims to provide customer satisfaction.”

(Which means revenue is a function of student numbers)


There have been some complaints. You haven’t been giving enough personal attention to the people who are having trouble so you can finish up tonight. Do you want me to tell them?”

No, I’ll tell them.”

Which I did, including my feelings on their prospects as engineers.  When I went through college an engineering degree was a full-time four year course and a lot of those guys started out bright and then  worked ten or twelve hours a day at it.  And that was the end of my career there too.

The ‘team leader’ did the same thing to another temporary teacher a month later known as ‘Big __’ who came over the desk at him, and beat him up along with a janitor who tried to intervene.   Big ___ was suspended indefinitely at full pay for ages while investigations were ongoing.  I had certainly done the wrong thing.  About the ***head across the desk I mean, but then I don't have a 'Big' prefix on my name. 

When I did my teaching diploma at UNE they made it plain that it was the worst job in the world. 
I should have listened.  But its also to be one of the most rewarding – when you can help someone who wants what you have to offer there is nothing better in anyone's professional life.  And there are some great teachers out there, I am probably not one of them but the world of desperation that exists out there knows no lines of demarcation.  Life is too short to put up with the crap - people with options tend not to stick around  and these are the very ones who should be attracted into the profession.   So I decided not to waste my life cajoling others into humanity because it can’t be done that way.  Perhaps with unlimited manpower but not for any amount of money.

The science or art (call it what you will) of pedagogy did not evolve in a vacuum. For hundreds of years it turned out useful members of society from a varied lot of dubious material. Beyond academic learning - these are just kids; young pack animals - trying to find who they are, where their boundaries are in the world and if you don’t or can’t supply that at least you are betraying a whole generation.  And it was so easy before well- meaning fools intervened to cut off our metaphorical balls.   The kids know that from grade seven, and they taunt you. 

"If you touch ME my mommy and daddy will have you charged with assault and you will lose your job!"  That's a quote. 

My grade- school teacher taught 5 grades in a one- room unpainted weatherboard community hall.  She was a wonderful, thin grey-haired little woman who kept order with a sharp tongue augmented by a 12 inch ruler from which a recalcitrant might get a rare whack on the palm.  Everyone understood these things, even the slowest and already-bigger-than-her farm kids .  Sadism and brutality were never a requirement.  Everyone came out of there both literate and numerate with no more teaching aids than a blackboard and a small library.  Sorry, there was a little wind-up record player, inkwells in every desk, a large barrel heater in the centre of the room and an ancient piano in the corner.   I, my brothers and several others ended up with university degrees.  Maybe more than one even had illustrious careers.  That wasn't me which is beside the point.

Because somewhere out on the steppes and deserts is a hungry race, with nothing to lose who care nothing for our fine feelings, entitlements, moral, spiritual or territorial integrity. That’s how the world works and its not to conjure up the old threat of sampans across the Torres Strait, only that the tides of history flow with little regard for our fashionable indulgences. If we can’t even make easy decisions on the future of our children, like supplying an unflinching quality education, it will be for some other nation to force harder choices upon us.

Best wishes


Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Separation of Powers

     Before I went to work at a minesite up in northern Canada I had met very few Australians. Beside boarding with a teacher trainee from Perth in my fourth year at college, there was a father and son team I met one summer when I worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway on a maintenance crew.  We would see them working on their fences along the right-of way and sometimes we would drop our shovels, claw bars, hammers or whatever for a yarn.  They were two big men with open, easy  manners.  They dressed identically in shorts and black singlets and sat on one heel with the other leg outstretched there on the ballast under the blazing sun (which I have never seen done since even after having lived in Australia for forty years) while they did their sums on the sheep.  Each ewe would have twin lambs, there would be shearings and wool clips and they were to be the pioneers of a lucrative new Canadian industry that the rest of us could never have otherwise imagined.  But way up north in a camp perched above a glacier young Australians were everywhere.  And they talked about their country and travels.
     One day one of the mechanics mentioned his sister was going to have a baby.  One of the WA brothers asked; "Is she happily married and starting a family or just up the stump?"
     The mechanic; taken aback, was silent.
     "Well, then, where are you from?"
     "Up the stump then. They don't teach them about those things in school there.  It's just one of those supernatural phenomena like floating clouds of swamp gas that glow green in the night."
     So it seemed that Queensland was for some reason an especially unpleasant case of regional disparity.  Eight years later I had moved there, up in the tropical north with my Australian wife and it was certainly different.

 It's hard to sort out the web of circumstance and conditions that makes the state what it is but it starts with the heat.  It takes you by surprise - there's no failure of speech or balance like a long afternoon on the grog; you feel ordinary, like yourself until its too late and only afterward; trembling in the shade with a handful of salt and cold water do you realize the unspeakable has happened and your life is ruined.  You have propositioned a 15 year old local girl and driven oblivious through at least two red lights; all in the same hellish hour before you reached a safer condition close to collapse and this will become the stuff of local legend.  These things happen to the natives too, but not often;  they know the signs and happily shirk their responsibilities to while away the worst  of the afternoon doing as little as possible; preferably in the pub where legends are made and retold indefinitely.  And here is also where the real complexities of sex education take place.  Besides the perils of unprotected and anonymous acts, drunkenness or heat stroke, there are important social conventions everyone understands and considers.  For instance a respectable housewife is greeted by a beery passerby with a leering familiarity.  Her response is critical.  If she is too friendly or blushes or cuts him dead, it will fuel an updated retelling amongst his cronies and the rest of the circle at the bar of some youthful indiscretion -long ago when she was dumb and he was attractive.   No male ever wants to forget those things, and every woman does.  So you don't even need to learn to read -everyone knows the ropes by word of mouth and however the syllabus is formulated, that is the kind of thing a teacher would never prepare them for anyway.   One of my workmates claimed to have solved that particular problem by marrying the only virgin in - let's say Bowen and preserve anonymity and male honour.  If that  last is confusing, you probably went through the Queensland school system.

Close beside sex is the problem of politics; seemingly another failure of the educational system.  Democracy all across the nation is treated with contempt or disinterest most of the time except during elections which are assumed to be something like horse racing and the TAB.  Every so often you get to place your bet and hope for 'dividends' which is cynical horsey marketing jargon for some kind of unlikely positive return on your 'investment.'  If the winning horse turns out to be a dog, they shrug, throw their tickets away and hope for better luck next time.  They genuinely believe their candidates are good guys -silvertails from Brizzy maybe but out in the bush they are simple sons of the soil just like them who they feel they mostly know personally.  A wave, a handshake, a shared prejudice is enough or there is the ultimate proof of character -someone came to town and actually 'bought a round.'

I lived up there in the heyday of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and most of my neighbors were farming people. A lot were ardent National Party supporters.  The dairymen had a lucrative monopoly at the time which they associated with Joh's 'free enterprise values'  that he and they believed were the essence of democracy and the Westminster system.  This was a pyramid of delusion, but very comfortable for the beneficiaries.  One day I got a reply to a negative comment.
'Joh is as honest as the day is long'  - to this day I don't know if I was being set right by a supporter or wound up by detractor.  One thing is certain; that back then no local would have imagined that a 'bagman' was anything other than a helper during the potato harvest or that celebrated jolly itinerant by his billabong, waltzing matilda.  And before the denouement he was even going to be parachuted into Canberra as prime minister and thereby save the nation with his commercial acumen.  Afterwards no-one could remember ever having voted for him but I had taken him up on his fractured tirade about 'leaving if you don't like it here' and had gone to Tasmania.  Unprosecuted on account of his age and health, (although he claimed to have been exonerated) this patriot had the effrontery to appear down here amongst us exiles at country shows waving his cane and advocating secession from the federation while promoting a pumpkin scone fast- food franchise involving his wife and local business partner.  And there had been talk of his middle-aged slow-talking hayseed son John succeeding him, whose touted qualifications (beyond dynastic necessity) mainly rested on his purported virginity; proof of an uncompromising integrity; probably the same as his dad.  The family was not just simple, they were shamelessly weird.

So how do his one- time boosters feel about having repeatedly backed the same jackrabbit for the both the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup?  No problem.  Shame isn't the province of simple folk.  Like with Joh himself, the driving obsession is about making their way in life and they don't waste time introspecting.  Its all about  'dividends' and opportunities in Queensland had been pretty good.  I had figured that out when I was up there earlier having a look around.  It wouldn't have mattered if the neighbour's dog had taken the helm, Queensland was on the verge of a boom; the dog didn't and Joh got the credit.  When I bought an old defunct dairy farm with a collapsing home on it, I heard local rumours about my stupidity.  When I sold a couple years later for a small fortune, I was told essentially  the same thing to my face - if I had only held on, it would be worth a large fortune.   I then bought a dairy farm in Tasmania.  I had been subcontractor but never had I really taken on free enterprise face to face.  About a year later when I did the books I belatedly discovered my neighbours had been right about me after all, just not on those occasions. 

Queensland looked a lot better looking back,  feeding out hay in those cold wet Tasmanian winters and occasionally some viral clanger from the very top of Queensland's leadership would filter down across all those isobars and lines of latitude to warm the cockles of the heart.  Joh with his famous take on the Westminster system as unfettered capitalism and later premier Bill Gunn was asked what he knew about 'separation of powers' and was quicker on his feet; standing on the socratic defense.  He demanded his tormenter should define his terms which was of course the answer to the question.  No-one was fooled into thinking he knew but it didn't matter.   Because nobody up there can tell you   but everyone knows what it means in a practical, round-about way.  It doesn't work for them.  Its like those insulator things that hold the power lines apart.  The trouble is that nothing ever seems to happen until the wires come together and then all hell breaks loose.

So last winter my wife and I decided to take a sentimental journey during the worst of the Tasmanian winter.  Cairns has grown in thirty years, the Atherton tableland where my kids were born is almost the same as ever, just everyone I knew is a lot older and sadder, some maybe a little wiser and most of the cows are gone.  There's a memorial to the industry in Millaa Millaa, a life-size fiberglass statue of someone supposedly pushing a stubborn cow through a gate that looks from most angles like he is up there to his shoulder doing AI or assisting a birth.  Been there, done that; its nice to have it behind you.

On the last weekend of our trip we had decided to take off early Saturday morning and drive way out in the Gulf country.  I knew there wouldn't be any decent bread out there, and a few minutes before closing time Friday afternoon I went to a local bakery to buy some.  The shelves were full of the usual gunky white fluff and I had given up hope but then, up on the top rack I saw a beautiful long loaf of rye bread, which I took to the lady at the cash register.  She looked at it in astonishment, snatched it up and waving it like she was left at the station, trying to flag down an errant train she turned towards an open door into the back.

"Waaats thiiiiis!! she yelled kind of like through a bucket of gravel, backed by a Marshall amp.

"Waaats waaat!" came the identical response from somewhere in the back.

"This breaad!" /  "Waaat does it say?" /  "Well it saaays its 486 rye!"/ "We don't haave any 486 rye!"/

"Well that's waat it saays!" 

Moments later her clone comes bobbling out the door, and with hands on hips she bends to inspect my prize.  Shaking her head in wonder she silently turns and disappears into the back.  It must be some other customer's quarantined order, I thought, but what the hell, you can only try.

"How much is it," I ask.

"How muuch is it?" she screams into the back.

"Waat does it say on the list!?"

Which was right in front of her.  "Three dollars and aaaaty five cents!"

"Will you sell it to me?" I asked timidly. 

She looked at me with suspicion and maybe a touch of contempt. 

"O.K.," she nods.

And so an executive decision has been made and once again the wheels of commerce turn free, unimpeded by legal or constitutional niceties, committee indecision, or stultifying vested interests.  I am walking out on air, the loaf under my arm and a smile on my face.  This is Queensland, just as I remember it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Day in the Life

The mills of the gods grind slowly,

           but they grind exceedingly fine
-17th century German Proverb
(trans. Longfellow)
Forty years ago I was hitch-hiking down to Mexico via California and going through Ukiah I got a ride with a broken-down old hillbilly in a similar rusty Chev pickup.  It seemed I had to come stay with them at his com-yune and meet the pastor who was a real firebrand.  Years later I regretted my refusal because I could have dined out on the story for the rest of my life.  But my instincts had been correct; I was good-looking then, slim, fit, and clean-limbed; hardly even had to shave.  And the pastor was Jim Jones who didn't trust anybody; man nor woman until he had bedded them. And so the rational mind is betrayed by the rest of the body.  Mine would have been too if it had been some hippy in a Kombi van because everybody knew most of those places were chockers with drug-addled girls who went swimming in nothing but hair all over the place.
But all I ever got from the alternative rides -never even an offer of a place to 'crash' – was silent disapproval or some not-too-friendly tirade about our disparate trips. Obviously being clean cut I was some loyal running dog of the fascist pigs, too fresh and out of uniform to be a narcotics agent but definitely not part of the new wave of  self-indulgent naifs who would bring on the Age of Aquarius. We were all arrogant and highly sensitive about our personae at that age.  I was guilty of the same hubris and had wanted to distinguish myself from all the useless, inarticulate, hollow-chested freaks and used car dealers; which is to say almost everybody by then had grown hair and was advertising themselves as a beautiful soul.  I imagined I had one of these too.  But as Ken Kesey had ominously warned the other free spirits on his psychedelic bus tour  in Tom Wolfes' “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; “You're either on the bus or you're off it.”  

So everybody stuck to the script rather than endure the grim alternative; no more easy girl-flesh, no more adrenaline rushes barrelling along erratically with Ken's ridiculous con-man come Thor-hammer- throwing 2IC at the wheel, no more group stone parties,  and no place in that whole paranoid, vibrant adventure world of the avant-garde; blowing the minds of the uptight yokels and confounding the cops.  From that first summer of love I had always been off  the bus, not on any moral grounds, just that it was so pat and contrived as to be pathetic.  Friends who lived in communes in those days have their fond memories, and a not-so- fond common thread in their reminiscences is endurance of petty tyrannies.

Today I have a very full schedule.  I snatch a few handfuls of grass, throw it in for the guinea pigs, and drag my bony old backside, braces and white beard onto the seat of a rusty Isuzu diesel pickup truck and head off rattling towards town. Normally I use it to do my used oil collections from a couple local restaurants. I convert the stuff to biodiesel, and of my many hobbies it's probably my only contribution to the commonweal as only my wife still works. Can work.  The first stop is an MRI scan at the local hospital to determine whether surgery can undo some of the damage caused by a lifetime of farming and hard blue collar work.  Then I have an appointment to convert our local MP,  an ex-pastor, to environmentalism.  This is not a certainty, for a Tasmanian Liberal member that would be the political equivalent of cyanide; like Jim Jones' trusted and heavily-armed catamites forced on the whole Jonestown community, screaming children included.  And now it's me behind the wheel, and so fares the human grist as the world turns ever back on itself,  consuming youth, diversity and enthusiasm;  ever  generating the same old.   And I am really not looking forward to it; this is another man who is definitely on the bus and doesn't want to get off  and miss out - there is belonging, status, validation, not to mention great money and benefits.  I understand his predecessor called it the 'gravy train.'
And I rattle along hand in hand with hypocrisy, specifically the biofuel revolution driving my aging ute.  Every couple weeks my wife and I use a 200 litre drum made from  worn-out restaurant oil. Peak oil has come and gone and if every other small family in the developed world is using fossil fuel at the same rate, the planet will be scratching long before any major improvement comes to lifestyles in the developing world.  Here its only a freebie for a few under-employeds; all the takeways in Burnie could barely supply ten or fifteen families.  In poorer countries it would be clarified and resold until it was all consumed.   But well-meaning EU legislation has mandated a  percentage in commercial motor fuel.  So Indonesia is being scalped of its primary forest for palm oil plantations, many of those developments are on impossible ground purely to get logging access and the CO2 emissions from the burning forest in the dry season equal or have equaled a third  of western industrial output, choking the Malaysians and Singaporese.   Some of the blends I get  here have palm oil -from Wilmar International, a successful multinational founded by nice,ordinary, folksy, people who have discovered a way into the ranks of the super-rich by destroying the earth.   And George Bush bought swing -state Iowa with a subsidized ethanol-from- corn scheme that would free America from its dependence on the middle east.  Bottom lines were a mere 10 or  15% energy gain after fossil energy inputs and riots in Mexico when the price of maize doubled.  Enough corn to fill your SUV for a weekend outing could feed a Mexican family for a year.  Its like 'The Cars That Ate Paris' but unseen – our beloved freedom machines are eating the world however powered.  

But philanthropist Andrew Forrest from the rich man's forum in Davos has announced an initiative to turn Pakistan's brown coal (too dirty for power generation) into diesel fuel and bring their indentured labour market out of the dark ages.  Two and a half tonnes will make a barrel of diesel.  It isn't really a new idea, the nazis were forced into every option to drive their war machine and the cost of the coal is in the digging but from that 2.5 tonnes of coal I calculate 6 tonnes of CO2 emitted to produce the drum of diesel and that's before you burn the motor fuel.  If you can't do the maths and chemistry you are just another dumb munchkin, however wealthy.  And thus each animalcule of our exponentially growing population has an overlay of an exponentially- growing carbon footprint as conventional petroleum supplies are exhausted.  
Maybe there is a better source of biofuel in algae, which I had doubted on the grounds of having to maintain pure cultures of some high yielding variety.  But recent work shows that by limiting sulfur you can get an oil content up to 40% of dry weight, and that in particular gives me cold chills like when someone is  walking on your grave.

The guinea pigs are another of my world-saving experiments. They are an important protein source in South America, eat grass, birth huge, fully-furred young, are plump, tender and utterly delicious, and double their numbers every four  months.  I have done a guinea pig calculation for humanity.  At an economically essential 2% growth rate we double every forty years leaving standing room only on the planet, one human per square meter of solid ground in 11 doublings, a little over 400 years.   Or maybe they are referring to GDP, but in an age of desperate inflation- inspired capital allocation that would mean you aren't even running fast enough to stand still; unless you are happily in the Chinese camp with whole suburbs of empty but presently appreciating apartments and shopping centres.  Guineas are similarly capable of overrunning the world; all within a human lifetime even if you start from scratch with my own little flock.  They have really taken off in the trouble spots of Africa – unlike a pig or a goat, they can be tended easily by the youngest children, slain in meal-sized increments saving on refrigeration, and a family can grab their daughters, throw the pots and guinea pigs into a bag and make off into the bush at a moments notice.  The bad part is that they (guineas) can chew their own allotted square metre to the dirt in a day or two and not only have I  grown attached to them but their conversion ratio of grass to flesh is pretty poor.  It just takes too much energy to keep those tiny bodies warm, and too much of my time and energy finding grass for them.  Fish or reptiles have to be a better bet.

So what is our delegation going to say to our MP?    Agreement beyond basic topics probably isn't necessary, we won't change anybody's mind.  Will I have to explain the absurdity of exponential growth with the above 'reductio ad absurdum'?  There is the refugee question - the voters want the boats stopped.  But did anyone enlarge the debate to  garner votes with a political beat-up of the vaunted 'front door' with 60% fraudulent student visas and 40 % fraudulent skilled migration? God knows how many business migrations are dubious; people like Marcos' crony Cojuango, having helped rip the heart out of the Philippines was welcomed locally to spend his millions ostensibly putting our donkeys to work - suing journalists takes lots of legal representation.  Will desperate people willing to spend all they have in the world and brave death to get here make better citizens than the sharks and the weasels?  There was silence on that front because this is about big business- migration agents,  tourist enterprises, airlines, serious and dubious educational institutions and iron ore magnates seeking to construct their empires with cheaper, more desperate employees than are locally available.  And they are available.  I had intended to FIFO a bit myself just before I got hurt, but demand for older guys like me was underwhelming.  They get hurt easily and compensation costs drive up premiums.  But are foreigners actually better?  My son was on one of those jobs constructing giant tanks for tar sands oil in Canada. They had replaced a Chinese contractor who had decided to put the top on before the circular walls went up.  It is held up by columns anyway and that gives you a free run underneath but surprisingly there was a windstorm and a dozen or so got killed, thereby bolstering their traditional role in building our nation.  It had taken a less romantic turn more recently; instead of self-sacrifice, demand drove development and housing prices way above the grasp of the locals in Vancouver and Toronto.  

At the meeting we mentioned the refugees and yes, regardless of our member's own feelings he is representing 80% of the populace who want the boats stopped.  I think a similar number want the right to have help ending their own lives if it becomes unbearable.  He is not representing them on that one or abortion.  It is just so one-sided; those of us on the other side of the equation would be happy just to be left alone to mind our own business, he and his can do as they please without upsetting my sensibilities.   Which is really what its about.  Some poor wavering young woman is convinced to give birth and the 'right to lifers' cheer another victory for  life and morality and move on.  She never hears from these folks again when it comes to the nitty gritty of child-rearing for the rest of her oppressed and unhappy life.

But that's the trouble with the right, they always are.  There seems to be some flaw in brain chemistry that can rationalize a pat hypothesis in each little mental box; happily churning through the limited data mercifully free of any embarrassing connections.  Take the arts-  political careers need a lot of props and a sure-fire one is stoking the fires of public indignation.  Yes artists do get the odd contract for public art but is this a shocking waste of public funds?  If you ask anybody they will say 'a lot of the time.'  But it happens to be a highly competitive tender for a specific amount of money; right in line with market-based ideology.  And we get burned by that occasionally right across the board.  Any commissions I ever had must have paid $20 an hour maximum for a very limited period while (connection!) anyone in the political class can receive up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per annum and a wonderful stipend for life after a relatively short period of service that passes on to surviving partners, all on the public tick; no pre-election tenders to the electorate, no indignant finger pointing, no Work Choices legislation for these people.  A normal person might see some incongruity in that and feel ashamed to open their mouth.  

So the world has moved on but it's as if nothing has changed – there is some natural hierarchy of entitlement for the privileged.  Every climber is on a par with the genuinely wealthy; like in a 13th century feudal society.  God made the rich and/or finagled business success/electoral victory for them and he made the poor to fetch and carry; part of the natural order even as the planets wheel in the heavens.   Like the incredible parental leave scheme.  My own wife had two babies and simply quit her job (teaching) for a while.  Maybe they would take her back, maybe not, they got delivered for free, there was an ongoing universal minor benefit for the kids and that was it.  
In industy they insist on picking winners, favouring grandiose schemes with potential photo ops; generally promoted by con men  and they are generally wrong.  After squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on the MIS schemes and the pulp mill it all turned to crap and in the meantime virtually all the small sawmillers, me included were forced out of the industry.  North Forests said I was finished on the freehold, and to get anything from forestry, even access to pull waste out of the clearcuts you had to jump through hoops.  You could tender for 2nd rate wood occasionally against the set rates for top grade wood for your crown-allocated competition but only in a recession when no-one else had any market would they offer you quality sawlogs.  It wouldn't do to upset the logging schedules and leave it stand for a while nor were there any public tears from paid mouthpieces or compensation on my own exit or similar.

So moral hazard around here isn't something to be shunned; if it doesn't involve underage girls  it's embraced and publicized on the candidate's CV.  We have thrown a billion dollars down the rathole in the last decade on Forestry Tasmania, the primary forest is virtually finished, but their accounts list dirt access roading through the desolation as a compensating asset.  That and so many more millions of public dollars wasted is flaunted as 'fighting for  the coast' or 'making jobs, jobs, jobs.'

Of course our meeting was cordial and between time and diplomacy we didn't get to any really unpleasant questions:  If there is a sanctity in human life do the drowned qualify? Or the murdered family members of asylum seekers or even our own heroes of past wars?  My father's platoon on Okinawa in three months took as many casualties as Australia in Afghanistan to date.  He never even got to know most of their names before they were dead or shipped out for good and the US Army and himself  inflicted far worse on the Japanese; especially at the end -  his job was to clean up the beaten stragglers after they had blasted the main Japanese defensive line along the spine of the island from Shuri Castle to smithereens and rolled them up from the flanks.  The Japanese were starving and huddled in their caves along the last rocky beach on the way to the capital, waiting to be incinerated.  He had a POW to interpret so they knew they could walk out, or at least it would have had to be a  good gamble, but for most of them there was no sanctity in their lives, the only remaining human worth was a last  'banzai' for the emperor.   Sometimes a surviving officer would march his men out, relieving them of the dishonour of personal surrender as best he could, then go back inside and there would be a shot.  

We like to think it was a war of heroes, but what does that mean when life expectancies in combat of say machine gunners or second lieutenants was measured in minutes?  It was a war of attrition and it was about resources.  And what kind of candy-arses have we become?  Considering the rate we are divesting those resources, the sacrifices were surely in vain; it couldn't have disappeared any faster if we had lost the war.  Secret ongoing negotiations with our trading partners should move things along even more smoothly.  Natural gas is sold off and shipped out as fast as it can be drilled, uniquely amongst our peers we have virtually no domestic reserves.  Civilization itself depends on gas: agriculture is now dependent on nitrogenous fertilizer which we buy from India; made with Australian gas.  Chalk up yet another own goal, and no matter how fast we expand resource sales,  employment will not keep up with the demands of our own exponentially expanding population because a relative inverse of the same thing relentlessly depresses our job market.  Rio Tinto is going to driverless trucks and big companies are moving any labour-intensive production offshore.  

Regarding the Malthusian dilemma our MP rounded on me.  “Are you going to stop people from breeding?”
Obviously I am not.  Luckily for us in the western world my father's generation was called to inflict death and destruction and its over in the main for maybe another generation if our kids are as lucky as we were.  But the maths of population growth and the chemistry of soil depletion isn't rocket science.   We have also squandered and surpassed peak phosphorous which has horrendous implications for future food supply and I have faint hopes that universal education might convince more people to limit their families.  It won't be enough.  Of so many elected representatives in Canberra only Kelvin Thompson dares mention the elephant in the bedroom- the population factor is the driving force of the ongoing trainwreck that will ensure future resource wars, weather disruption, a series of ecological collapses and the final climate disaster that will see us off the planet.

How can I say this with so much certainty when so many of our best and brightest  like Ian MacDonald and Tony Abbot and all the Howard dinosaurs are climate 'sceptics'?   Well, I trained as a physicist and still am nowhere near being qualified on that one.  So by rights I should also be in the ranks of the sceptics and I don't know, but I'll go with the previous head of CSIRO who said, ”I don't know, but I have confidence in the industry and integrity of my colleagues who have spent lifetimes running the numbers through super computers.”  
And I have also worked in the mining industry.  Its in the Bakken oil that's sidelining the Saudis for the moment; its in the black, greasy shale basement underlying the Tarkine. Its in our 100 million year perfectly reasonable bone- headed behavioural DNA that says 'bog in' and grab what you can today because someone else will step up to take it otherwise.  And thus it is written in stone that the lowly pond scum; having waited patiently over 200 million years for its own day in the sun  will triumphantly cover the dead, stinking, anaerobic sulfur-starved, seething oceans; 30 meters higher than now on an ice-free planet.  And that's the reset button which will re-sequester all our carbon as it sinks to the bottom unmetabolized with its 40% oil content.  There  it will lie for half a billion years along with the world's topsoil and glacial till to be incorporated in the future great deposits of anthropogenic oil; a bonanza for our successors; be they ants or megarodents.

Of course maybe I don't know, but science is really all we have; public funding pays dividends and introduces an objectivity missing when the money comes from the coal or petrochemical industry.   And even scientists don't bite the hand that feeds them. Our representative thought perhaps climate change science could also be skewed on the other side by alternative energy money.  But there isn't enough of that and probably never will be because the wind and sun aren't easily monopolized by corporate giants.
In North America engineers get a fraternal iron ring made with steel from the Tacoma Bridge that famously destroyed itself in the wind.  But if you want a more recent disaster- a confluence of corporatism,  sloth, ignorance, arse-covering and accountant-driven shortcuts,  you needn't look beyond the Fukushima disaster which could still take out civilization all on its own.  Dud reactors lined up like shooting gallery ducks on a beach along a fault line, built by, sold to and managed by sycophants, chauvinists and fools.  The very idea of building a water-cooled reactor is insane.  When something goes wrong, steam becomes a potent metal oxidizer due to heat and high pressure, more like nitric acid, releasing scads of highly explosive hydrogen gas to prevent any cooling water being pumped in (if you even have pumps) and eventually blows the hell out of the containment facility.   So that's how it happened, and back in the fifties and sixties the hype was that such an incident wouldn't happen once in 500 years.  Since then we have had closer to one in fifteen.  

The ocean can dilute the groundwater coming from the melted cores, still somewhere down there burning its way to China -oops-Brazil and polluting the Pacific. But rather than do something about spent fuel rods, it was cheaper to store the thousand plus tonnes of spent fuel rods in EACH of the uncontained and who knows how badly damaged cooling ponds, high up in the broken buildings.  Only one of those need drain or fall or boil dry, and it will burn chemically, in the air – and whether or not the atomic fires light up again,  no one will be able to get close to the others.  In the southern hemisphere we might have a few years to compose our irrelevant obits. Because in the short time remaining for the northern hemisphere they won't have the time, ability or incentive to decommission Indian Point, Hanford etc. and something like 37 similar reactors world-wide of that type alone with similar storage problems that must be managed for generations.   With the doomsday clock ticking only seconds to midnight it wasn't a 1950's style cataclysm of assured global destruction by two crazy world-dominating hegemons we ought to have worried about; the end will arrive boring and banal, business as usual.  Uh.... what's the bottom line here?

So underground storage was another missed Australian opportunity.  Of course nobody wants the stuff rolling through town on its way into our own backyard but the bad news for nimbies is that its a small world and its already there.   Better it was safely buried at the bottom of the garden than washing it off the caulies.  We shouldn't get all moral about it either; we were hot to dig it up and sell it off in the first place making jobs jobs jobs and incidentally astronomic corporate profits and out of self- interest we elected the cowboys we knew were going to do it.
There is a risk abatement strategy called 'the precautionary principle' that essentially means you  don't trust in statistics, Panadol, God or even your GP when you are cutting off your whatsis.

So how is this for objectivity.  I invested in uranium shares a month or so after the tsunami when their prices had melted down by half.   I should have waited longer, the Japanese had lied, it was a lot worse than anyone let on and I could have got them at half that price again. Even so  this was the best investment opportunity I had ever seen since before the property boom in Queensland.  My wife was furious.  I tried to explain there was NO RISK but it fell on deaf ears; she didn't think that was the point.    Quite simply if it is dealt with successfully, existing reactors under construction plus the end of the soviet nuclear arms reduction will create huge shortages of uranium.  If the unthinkable happens my losses will be immaterial and anyway, I have subscribed to a news feed that will get me out a few days before it sinks in, for what that will be worth.

And there is one more risk.   I intend to add to my (very profitable) position at the next broad share market decline.  But maybe a light will come on in the collective human mind, there will be a worldwide move to intentional population control instead of relying on the traditional four horsemen of the apocalypse.  We will stop uranium mining, and embrace renewables.  We might even replace coal-fired generators with  thorium reactors.  Australia would be perfectly placed to design, build and supply these making jobs, jobs, jobs.  The technology worked back in the fifties, and the half-life of the stuff is the present age of the universe.  We have a huge sand mining industry where it is an unwanted byproduct.  It is ALL fissionable without enrichment as opposed to uranium which only contains about .5%  fissionable U235. Thorium cannot melt down and run away, there is enough to supply base load power forever, radioactive waste is relatively minimal with a short half-life.  And it cannot be weaponized which is why it was rejected in favour of uranium reactors.   So are we going to do it?  Does a bear sh** in the forest?  You can bet on it, but that's about all the dumb bastards will ever get up to.