Saturday, September 24, 2011

Awesomeness :-)

Things that make us smile?  This audio clip made us laugh out loud!

It's from This Way Up: a consumer issues magazine-style show on Radio New Zealand National that we both enjoy.  In between the articles they generally play random bits of historical audio.  The clip that found its way to the beginning of this article was just fantastic!  You can listen on for the actual article about LED lighting if you want, but it was the historical audio that made us laugh :-)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Daffodils and stained glass biscuits

We're staying with Martin's sister and her family at the moment, and there's lots to make us smile :-)

Daffodills from their garden.  I look at these all the time when I'm resting.  In the background is 'Tom', made by Sandra (Martin's sister) and her daughter Kayla.

Stained glass biscuits, more or less from this recipe.  Sandra, Kayla and I made them on the weekend, with intermittant help from two keen but over-excited 10-year-old boys.

I love stained glass biscuits: easy to make, beautiful to look at and yummy to eat!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Good news to the poor

Near the middle of the Bible is a collection of 150 'psalms' or poems.  I've never really known what to make of them, but I while back I decided to try and read one each day and see where that took me.

I've recently completed my first cycle through them and finally, just in the last week or two, Ive noticed thing that a great many of them seem to have in common.  Psalm after psalm celebrates or holds onto the notion that the oppressors won't get away with their oppressing forever.  God cares for the poor and downtrodden and one day he will crush their oppressors and set them free.

Good news for the poor, indeed.  But what about for me, a follower of Jesus but also a member of the priveleged elite responsible for most of the oppression these days?

Sobering stuff.

What price security? What price life itself?

Vinoth Ramachandra, who works in Sri Lanka for the parent organisation of the Christian group I was part of at university, has written a reflection on the US response to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre 10 years ago.  Most of it agreed with my own view of that response (the internet's good at helping you find material that demonstrates what a right-thinking person you are...), but the ideas in this paragraph were new to me:
It is incumbent on governments to provide security for their citizens. But when “national security” overrides all moral considerations, one is forced to ask whether such a society is actually worth defending. If my “security” is obtained at the cost of harming, degrading or endangering the lives of innocent others, then I should be willing to forego that security. Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; and once we go down that path, whether as individuals wanting to live in “secure environments” (e.g. gated condominiums) or governments pursing every potential “security threat’, it is difficult to change direction. Groups and persons targeted as “threats” are turned into objects and excluded from the moral universe. They can be the targets of “pre-emptive” eliminations, unilaterally undertaken.
I'm familiar with the idea of foregoing conventional chocolate because of the cost it imposes on others, but I've never thought of foregoing security for that same reason.  I wonder what else in my day to day life "is obtained at the cost of harming, degrading or endangering the lives of others"?  And, in this interconnected world where I am so priveleged (and rather like the life this gives me1), do I really want to know??

1 After all, without this privelege, my CFS would have killed me years ago.  Few families in this world can support an adult who is not only completely non-productive, but who requires others to significantly reduce their own productivity to care for her.  Faced with the choice of abandoning me or us all starving together, I don't know what my family would have done.  On the BBC I've heard stories of families in contemporary India, China and the Congo who have faced similar choices.  Sometimes the sick person has chosen to starve themselves to death, other times the family abandon them at the hospital (even though this means they will never see each other again) in the hope that this will save their life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Political violence in the Ivory Coast

This was intended as a comment on this blog post, but it became too long so I've posted it here and linked it from there, instead.

I've been praying for the political situation in Ivory Coast a lot since their elections earlier this year.  I've come to understand that a major contributor to the violence we were seeing back then was the strong belief all Ivorians seemed to share that there just aren't enough resources to go around.  People were fighting for political power for their tribal group so that they themselves could be confident that they would have access to the simple necessities of life.

I have been praying that the people there - and especially those who know Jesus - would dare to believe that there were enough resources for all.  I have also been praying that the global Church would be willing to do whatever we can to make that true.  And that has led me back to Fair Trade cocoa and cocoa products.

I'm pretty sure that cocoa is the major export earner in the Ivory Coast - if not, it's a very significant contributor.  Many Ivorian cocoa farmers use slave labour (often kidnapped Malian children) on their farms.  Like the cotton farmers of the old American South, they believe that they couldn't make ends meet if they were to hire adults and pay them liveable wages.  Unlike the old American cotton farmers, it looks like they may be quite literally correct: they probably couldn't earn enough from their crop to send their own children to school without enslaving someone else's children on their farm.  In other words, like the political violence we've seen in the Ivory Coast earlier this year, slavery on cocoa farms also has it's roots in the belief/knowledge that there simply aren't enough resources to go around.

But what if the church in the West was prepared to pay those cocoa farmers enough that they could afford to send their own children to school and hire adults to work their farm - adults who they, in turn, paid enough so that they could send their own children to school, too?  We have that power: that's what buying Fair Trade means.  Other cocoa (even the fancy stuff) is sold at the lowest price the farmer will accept and so favours those who have the lowest costs: the slave owners.  However, if all Christians in the West decided to only purchase Fair Trade cocoa and cocoa products then the slave owners would lose their market.  They would have to move to paying a decent minimum wage if they wanted to sell their product.

That's what Martin and I decided to do about five years ago.  I wrote a bit about why, and about our experiences in doing so, last Easter.

If the Western Church decided to do this - to pay a fair price for the Ivory Coast's biggest export - then there suddenly really would be enough resources to go around.  Obviously foreign income isn't the only thing they need to sort out their problems, but it'd be a big start and it's one that's easily within our grasp.

If you do this, you may find that you have to cut down on your chocolate consumption a bit: that's certainly been our experience, both because of the slightly higher price and because the range of products available is still quite limited.  But it could be worse: many of the people who campaigned for the end of American slavery in the 19th century did completely without sugar for years on end!  Back then, the only sugar available was produced by slaves, whereas at least we can buy fairly produced cocoa at most local supermarkets.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How 'real' are real (vs nominal) prices/wages?

Whichever economist decided to call inflation-adjusted price and wage figures 'real' values had a real bad idea. It's a bit like calling an era 'modern' - what do you call your next degree of refinement?

I recently listened to a debate on the American economy where much was made of whether the average 'real' wage had increased since the seventies, and also watched a video by one of the participants (Horwitz) where he discusses cost of living; allowing for inflation (or change in average industrial wage); and the difficulty that the underlying products being priced change radically over time. Horwitz focuses on how the car you buy today is wildly different than a car from 80 years ago, so for only a few more hours of labour you can buy a much more useful car.

The next day I read this book review which quotes Christopher B. Leinberger's calculation that the need to buy a car adds about $135,000 to the effective cost of the average suburban house (in 2005 America). How do you factor that into your inflation calculation? You get more benefit, but you are also more dependent. I believe this is meant to be accounted for by the scope of the basket of goods used to calculate inflation, but the number of estimates and approximations starts to make the mind reel.

ps. If you're wondering what the 'nominal' prices/wages mentioned in my title are, they are just the actual dollar values spent/earned at the time of spending/earning; the original numbers before any adjustment.

Also, hat tip to Chris Blattman for putting me onto the blog where I found Horwitz, which I hope will give me some 'Austrian' economist perspectives that I have lacked exposure to thus far.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cool patterns!

During the recent cold snap I noticed something strange about my shampoo:

The white patches are where the shampoo's frozen! They're not quite solid, but they're definitely significantly firmer than usual. I think the pattern they make looks really cool :-) However, a few days later when the whole bottle had turned white, I realised I needed to keep my shampoo somewhere warmer for the duration. Solid shampoo is a lot harder to get out of a squeezy bottle than the liquid kind!

Microwave hotspots

Inspired by this post my brother spotted, the other day I found out where the hotspots are in our microwave.

I started with four poppadoms:

After about 15 seconds there was ring of cooked poppadom a bit shy of the outer edge of the rotating plate:

At 30 seconds the poppadoms were mostly cooked, but there were three curious dolphin-shaped uncooked patches, one of which included the centre of the rotating plate:
How did that happen??  It must be something to do with the intersection of the rotating speed of the plate and the peaks of the microwave waves as they bounce around the inside of the oven, but who knows what.

After a full minute all four poppadoms were beautifully cripsy, with only a few tiny spots retaining their uncooked plastickyness:

On the whole, it looks like our microwave cooks a whole lot more evenly than any of the four in the original post, but I'm interested to know that the strongest heat is to be found just shy of the edge of the rotating plate.  I'll bear that in mind next time I want to melt something small (e.g. a few spoonfuls of butter for baking): putting it near the edge should make it melt noticeably quicker!

Plus, it was fun to act like a scientist again :-)