January 22-28, 2010

It’s Been a Poor Show from the World of Whickerers

AMID all the whickering about global warming and what the dirty industrialised giants are doing to the atmosphere and the icebergs, we hear at last a sensible perspective. Unusually, this comes from an opinion poll. It states quite clearly that poverty is viewed by most people globally as the most serious problem facing the world, well ahead of climate change, terrorism and war.

So much for Copenhagen, then, and all those other soapbox opportunities that have blighted the world since someone noticed it was marginally hotter than they remembered it being – tell that to the Europeans, North Americans and North Asians, who have been beset by a very cold and snowy winter – and set up a New Age religious cult to make a noise about it.

It is said that politics is the art of the possible. Those who have worked in politics, if they are realists and objective, define it rather differently; by placing “im” in front of the “possible.” Too often modern politics is about magician’s tricks and the appearance of activity. Real leaders eschew rhetoric and actually do something.

The problem for global politics – and politicians – is that reducing poverty is an even harder task than persuading the climate to vote your way. It is an incremental process. Positive results are recorded, but over a timeframe that does not suit the television news grab or (in places where there are meaningful elections) the electoral cycle.

Beyond strict and extraordinarily finite limits, it is not possible to eradicate poverty – or even to reduce it – by means of concessional or free loans, international grants or any other prophylactic measure. Reducing poverty means creating productive jobs for increasing numbers of people – and that means creating economies that can sustain growth.

It’s interesting that in the GlobeScan poll conducted for the BBC last year, the details of which have just been released and which interviewed 25,000 people in 23 countries face-to-face or over the phone or online, found that 71 percent thought poverty was the most serious problem facing the world. That contrasts with 64 percent who cited the environment, 63 percent rising food and energy costs and climate change and the world economy 58 percent. How much greater would that figure have been had the pollsters been able to access the truly poverty-stricken? They are mostly out of sight, rarely have a phone within reach and live such precarious and marginal lives that being “online” is science fiction.

Talk to the Trees

HOW pleasing it is, therefore, to record that the United States and Indonesia have begun discussions on a second debt-for-nature deal to save precious tropical forests. We hear this through the US embassy in Jakarta.

Ambassador Cameron R. Hume said on January 15, announcing the talks, that it was a practical way to work together through the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) to protect important forests and mitigate the effects of climate change.

The first TFCA agreement, signed on June 30, 2009, will reduce Indonesia’s debt payments to the US by nearly US$30 million over eight years.  In return, the government of Indonesia will commit these funds to support grants to protect and restore tropical forests in Sumatra.  The agreement was the largest debt-for-nature swap under the TFCA thus far and was made possible through contributions of $20 million by the US government and a combined donation of $2 million from Conservation International and the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (Yayasan Keanekaragaman Hayati Indonesia or KEHATI).

To date, 13 countries have entered into debt-for-nature agreements under the TFCA.  Over time, these programmes will together generate over $218 million to protect tropical forests.

Domesticity Unplugged

HOT on the heels of Roxxy the Sex Robot – typically, an invention of the curious Japanese mind – comes news that South Korean scientists have developed a walking robot maid which can clean your house, put dirty clothes in a washing machine and heat up food in the microwave.

It has a human-like body with a rotating head – gosh, wish we could do that; it would really help when driving on Bali’s roads – and plus arms, legs and (oddly) six fingers, plus three-dimensional vision to recognise chores that need to be tackled. The Koreans, being boffins devoid of any sense of humour, have called it Mahru-Z. Chief boffin You Bum-Jae of the cognitive robot centre at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology says the robot’s most distinctive strength is its visual ability to observe objects, recognise the tasks needed to be completed and do them. Mahru-Z recognises people, could do you a nice toasted sandwich and cleans up your mess. It stands 1.3 metres tall and weighs 55 kilos.

The Diary prefers the fully human interface that comes with the diminutive and pleasingly non-robotic pembantu who does the daily chores at The Cage. Her name is Wayan and she’s a sweetie.

No Termorrer

GRAEME Dobell’s lovely memoir on Abdurrahman Wahid – it’s on our Opinion page this edition, Page 8, reminding us that Gus Dur was a humorist of considerable note – brings to mind a lovely put-down of Pommy pomposity dating from the killing fields of the western front in World War I. It is possibly apocryphal. But it’s too good not to retell.

Australian impatience with the English upper classes (though the upper class is largely a notional concept nowadays, filthy lucre having finally won pole position) is both legendary and a national trait. It’s surprising it’s not actually taught in schools as part of the core curriculum. Or perhaps it is.

Anyway, this little tale has the local general in command on whatever sector of the front it was deciding to visit the Australian formation newly arrived in the trenches to give them a bit of a spirited rev-up. He duly turned up, resplendent as generals of those days were before they worked out that visible signs of importance tended to make them sniper targets, got on his soapbox and began his oration:

“Have you come here to die?” he shouted (decorously, of course, and with a plum in his mouth no doubt). From somewhere in the back of the ranks came this unscripted response: “Nah. We come ’ere yester-die.”

Without a Clouseau

THE Pink Panther is a classic movie (the original version with Peter Sellers, not the clumsy Steve Martin remake). It is one of those rare productions that implants itself in the mind and periodically gives you a giggle.

The Diary, when pressed, can do a very passable party-time rendition of Peter Sellers’/Inspector Clouseau’s “It is a berm.” Indeed in recent years a facility to identify such objects has become an essential life-preserving skill.

So it was amusing to read the other day that a 66-year-old French man has been jailed in Abu Dhabi after making a bomb joke on an Etihad aircraft on which he foolishly chose to book a ticket from Bangkok to Paris via Abu Dhabi. Evidently he had forgotten that humour has been proscribed in the air, especially now we have no grounds for confidence that the worldwide security apparatus will have identified among our fellow passengers some silly dude who is secretly clad in the very latest fetish wear, exploding jocks.

Pensioner Jean-Louis Lioret was arrested after cabin crew at Abu Dhabi overheard him using the word bomb in an exchange with his co-passenger, his brother Michel Lioret. Michel had asked Jean-Louis to keep a packet on the other seat next to him as it was empty.

His jocular response “I hope it’s not a bomb” – which The Diary would like to think was rendered as “I ’ope eet is not a berm,” while recognising that it was probably just your plain old run-of-the-mill “J’espère que ce n’est pas une bombe” – was overheard and set off alarm bells.

The packet contained cigarettes. These days, of course, that’s nearly as bad.

For Nothing

HALF an hour with that estimable publication The Economist Style Guide is always worth it. A Sunday browse – The Diary was awaiting the morning’s oatmeal, which had been delayed by a domestic crisis of no reportable standing – chanced upon this sound advice, sadly necessary for a great many people in the media, especially the ersatz, glitzy bit of it, these days:

“Free is an adjective or an adverb (and also a transitive verb), so you cannot have or do anything for free. Either you have it free or you have it for nothing.”

Speaking of glitzy, ersatz media, the volume also points out that Frankenstein was the creator, not the monster. Unfortunately the style guide forgoes an entry for “ignorance.”

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