What predators do

What predators do

I have just seen a wildlife documentary where eco-tourists out whale watching in Monterey Bay had the experience of a lifetime.

They were on the water hoping to catch a glimpse of migrating grey whales, mostly mothers and calves as they journey along the coast to feeding grounds in the Arctic. Only on this particular day, and for the mother and calf they happened to be watching, the laws of nature were graphically applied.

As the tourists stared on in boats tens of meters from the migrating family a pod of killer whales arrived and began to harass, circle and ram to try and separate the calf from the mother.

This is, of course, what predators do. They predate. Usually on the individual that is easiest to catch or subdue thus giving them a meal that keeps them alive at the lowest risk to their own safety.

On the plains of Africa, lions, wild dogs and hyenas will single out the weakest of the grazing herd – why make things any harder than they already are? Chase down predators, as opposed to those that sit and wait, will benefit from making the chase as easy as possible.

The orcas were persistent. Injuries to the calf steadily accumulated and blood became visible in the water, the reality of the event dawning on the faces of the watchers. For the television audience, the narrator embellishes the visuals with “the calf was being eaten alive”.

Marine scientists, who later analysed footage of the event, observed that it was the younger orcas that took the most active roles in the attack whilst the adult animals held back. “Teaching the youngsters how to hunt”, they concluded – or perhaps leaving the dangerous work to the more agile individuals.

The scientists also concluded that this was “not usual behaviour” or “if it is what orcas do, then we have not observed it” and “maybe it was because of the high numbers of grey whales in the bay at the time”. Or maybe, like the lions, hyenas and wild dogs of Africa, predators rarely pass up an opportunity for lean times are more common than times of plenty.

Whatever the reason, the attack was a prolonged event lasting several hours.

Time enough for the storyline with a happy human ending that is so essential to the modern wildlife movie, as “against all the odds” the grey whales swam towards the shore, reached shallower water and the orcas broke off.

No-one could follow the calf to see if it survived its injuries but the looks on the faces of the tourists interviewed for the documentary left the audience in no doubt. Of course it had survived for the sake of all things decent.

The responses of the eyewitnesses were most intriguing. They went to see nature in the wild where wild things happen by definition, yet they were all shocked, not quite able to accept that wildness includes violence and death. Perhaps if the calf had died quickly and became the meal the orca pod was after the onlookers would have been more accepting of the cycle of life.

Instead, the escape and inevitable pain was, for many, too much. The people were visibly affected.

No doubt a few of them went home to enjoy a t-bone steak.

Banks

Banks

Banks are a handy invention. They provide a safe place to store everyday money and, so long as you a meet certain criteria, a place to borrow money for items too costly for everyday money.

Banks also have a stupendous business model. There is no more profitable commodity to trade than money. Everybody needs it and is prepared to pay a premium for access to it. This willingness to pay even helps banks manage their risk of not holding enough capital to cover their obligations because most people do the right thing and make their repayments.

Even psychology is on their side.

Despite such a stupendous business model bankers are sharp to opportunity and the squeeze to profit is ingrained in their culture.

Last year in Australia the four main high street banks declared an after tax profit just shy of $14 billion and account for around 80% of the systemic risk in the financial system. They play a big game.

And the rhetoric is that we need them to play. If the flow of cash stopped, then so would everything else. Our system of trade and exchange requires that both capital and cash flow. Deals have to be done to ensure that a new housing block is built, paying tradesmen and providing homes for people to fill with white goods and flat screen TVs.

Banks profit from all of these transactions as they provide capital, credit and a place to store cash for a fee.

The question is how much should they profit? Is $14 billion in profits fair? It is enough to pay roughly 176,000 people the average wage for a year or 400,000 people the minimum wage. The number of people recorded as unemployed in Australia as at November 2016 was 725,000.

Remember that profit is the money made over and above the cost of doing business, paying taxes, and executive bonuses.

Of course, some profit is distributed as dividends to shareholders and so is fed back into the economic system. And without this redistribution, the money would not have been mobilised toward profit in the first place. So care is needed here.

It is too simple to imply that $14 billion could make a serious dent in the unemployment rate. But it is worth a thought.

At what point does society collectively say that enough profit is enough?

Is the world changing?

Is the world changing?

Love him or loath him, infamous climate scientist Dr Michael Mann recently made an important point about Donald Trump’s rhetoric on bringing manufacturing industry back to make the US great again.

On the America Adapts podcast Mann suggests that to achieve such a goal, manufacturing in the US must embrace the energy revolution. Implying factories running on fossil fuel energy will not be competitive in a global market.

The only way a fossil fuel based industry would be competitive is if there were trade restrictions and tariffs to keep them competitive. This makes Trump’s anti-trade agreement gambit a typical business bully approach to finding a competitive edge that, in this case, US manufacturers would not have.

The evidence is that the energy revolution is well advanced. All over the world technologies are maturing rapidly to deliver distributed clean energy. It is realistic to believe the many mayors and governors that claim carbon neutrality for their towns and jurisdictions when their constituents are all up for a Tesla wall.

Today’s first graders, who will consume a fair amount of electricity in their lifetimes, may not know or care, but most of that energy will not come from a coal-fired power station.

This change from fossil fuel to alternative energy and the accompanying shift from centralised to distributed generation is exactly the one that was needed to tackle the climate issues Michael Mann is so passionate about. Only it is happening because it makes economic sense and not because of a limp international agreement made in a Japanese city or from late night breakthroughs in Paris.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The change is happening certainly. Only it is happening because the technology is becoming commercially competitive. So competitive in fact, that a US president is elected on the back of rhetoric to prop up his countries uncompetitive energy system and hold on to the past.

Does all this mean that the world is changing? Not really. Those first graders, who will spend more of their lives looking at a screen than the trees, may notice more wind farms and will drive an electric car they plug into ports on the street to share the energy captured from the roof at home. But they will also be fiercely competitive and, just like their parents and grand pappy, rely on markets to deliver their lifestyle.

They will work, eat, sleep, and procreate with their mobile device never more than an arm’s length away. They will earn money and use it to pay for their data plans. Not much will be different…

Unless, just maybe, perhaps, possibly…

All this distributed energy makes everything easier, and the system changes. If stuff gets cheaper and cheaper, maybe value is recognised in what people do and not what they have.

Here’s hoping.

News travels fast

News travels fast

Some things in life are awful. Accidents, trauma, disease can cut down anyone, at any time.

But when innocent people die from the violent act of another, words fail us.

We are left searching desperately for ways to console those most affected. When the violence is intended to intimidate we also find the need to console ourselves.

And we do. We support each other in the extreme times. Ways are found from putting out cricket bats to pavements full of flowers with the word spread far and wide through social media.

The good rapidly mobilised to push away the bad.

The modern world is so small that everyone knows about extreme events as they happen. We are so in touch that we feel close, almost part of the unfolding scene. In an instant, we are re-posting and commenting our thoughts and feelings. It is like a fire blanket thrown to suppress the flames.

And it works.

The Lindt café siege in Sydney in 2014 was a terrorist act but not about terrorism. The authorities figured this out quickly and refused to lay blame until they had more evidence. Experts came onto the television news and said the same thing reminding us that it is never smart to make assumptions about who was responsible.

So when irresponsible TV media sensationalised for their own ends the blanket smothered them. We don’t want to assign any credit by association, so those who did looked like chumps. Social media called them on their stupidity and shamed them for trying it on.

Instead, the focus was, mostly, on the collective coming together in mutual empathy because we all felt the same. Anger, fear and a little loathing yes, but also courage to stand together and stare it all down.

This new social pressure has the potential to change the reporting of tragic events. ‘If it bleeds it leads’ may still be true only it now has hashtags of uplift for victims and social support for everyone.

Maybe the days of the media mogul bent on global domination through fear mongering are coming to an end.

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I learnt lately about… tradesmen

What I learnt lately about… tradesmen

Tradesmen do not always know their trade

Be very careful when the builder says he is also a plumber, tiler and painter. Chances are he isn’t. He may have seen a plumber or tiler or painter at work but if he is actually a chippie then he will know how to erect a stud wall but not necessarily how to put tiles on straight.

It is a sobering but important lesson for us all.

Get good at something by all means, but then be honest about it.

Claims of competence beyond what you truly know are too easily found out.

When in doubt start a new business

When in doubt start a new business

What I learned lately about… risk

I have made a career out of avoiding the safe options in favour of not knowing where the next contract will come from. On and off for over a decade I have worked for myself.

It means being your own boss and that is supposed to be good. But it also means you are your own marketing director, project manager, sales staff and tea lady.

There are times when so many hats sit real heavy on your head and you sag. It all gets too much.

The thing is the risk is addictive, probably in the same destructive way that gambling can be. So when doubt mushrooms out of the compost the solution is to take on more risk and start another company.

Here is the website.

 

Realising what you think

Realising what you think

Recently I was asked, rather politely as it turns out, to be part of a clinical trial. It involved an interview and then an allocation to one of two subject groups. One group had access to an internet app that logs your medical numbers, allows you to set targets and activity reminders all around a dashboard that lets you know how you are tracking. The other group didn’t get the flashy app.

At random, I got the app. Lovely.

As it happens my medical numbers are pretty good for a bloke of a certain age. My BP readings always bisect the middle of the range, my cholesterol is under control and I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. Not even a drag on one. I do, however, have a genetic predisposition to furry coronary arteries.

The flashy dashboard reminds me of this with the needle on the dial resting at a sobering 25% chance of heart disease in the next 5 years.

Now if I set some goals, such as reducing my bad cholesterol levels by a third I can get my percentage chance down to, wait for it, 23%.

Now some people might want to put in the hard yards and the statins to gain that 2 percentage points of benefit. But I work with probabilities and I know that all the dietary effort and the mind-numbing statins [cholesterol reduction does affect the brain because neurons are sheathed in the stuff] are not worth it for such a modest reduction in what starts as a one in four chance.

And then I got to thinking.

Since my bypass surgery, I have been careful with myself. I eat well and exercise often and my slightly overweight body has tipped the scales under 90 kilos for 30 years.  I am also very careful not to talk about my arteries to myself or anyone else. Most people I know have no idea what has happened.

This is not denial. I know what it was like to be close enough to smell the end. It was real but I choose not to give it any more energy than it soaked up at the time.

Once the rehab was through and my annual check ups come and go, the episode and its legacy are out of my mind.

Of course, I am fortunate. The surgeon’s skill and  few complications mean that I am actually healthy,  fit and strong. Not everyone with a heart condition is so blessed.

But I contend that not agonizing or constantly reminding myself of what happened has made a difference too. Remember the mind has trouble distinguishing a thought about something as positive or negative and the only way to stop it running away with thoughts is to not have them. So for most of the time, I don’t.

Now, of course, I have an app designed to remind me all the time and I don’t like it. In fact. I think it will be psychologically damaging for me.

I doubt if the researchers who designed the app and the trial have thought about this. Their objective would be to deliver more responsibility to the patient and, with luck, reduce their anxiety. The wanted side effect being fewer visits to a healthcare facility.

Only I was not anxious, at least not until I got the app.