Joe Hendren

[ Home ] [ Articles ] [ Blog Home ] [ Travel ] [ Links] [About Me]

Sunday, August 27, 2006

With only 8 major planets, Pioneer 10 now becomes a problem

One of my UK friends, Barty, has an interesting and amusing take on the recent decision of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to strip Pluto of its status as a fully fledged planet. According to the IAU, the solar system should be described as having eight major planetary bodies, with Pluto, Charon, Ceres and UB313 merely classed as 'dwarf planets'.

"The IAU have made a brave move by demoting Pluto. I'm sure they've realized that educators will be annoyed by the cost of updating all the textbooks and mnemonics, and I expect they're fully prepared for complaints from the Jedi community about a great disturbance in the Force, as though a million voices cried out, and were suddenly silenced. What I think they've failed to take into account is the mild niggling unease that will be felt by any of us pedants who know about the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft and the plaques they carry."

The plaques include a map of our solar system of nine planets. D'oh!

"Where was I? Oh yes, according to the plaque, the two Pioneers are each only about one and a half times the height of a naked human, and according to NASA they're not heading near anywhere inhabited. The craft, therefore, are unlikely to encounter anything except interstellar vacuum for billions and billions of years. NASA reckon that Pioneer 10 will still be in fairly good condition when the Earth and the Moon are destroyed by the Sun. It should even outlast the Sun itself. Even when you lot, me, the IAU, and everyone else is gone, Pioneer 10 will still be shiny and new. Assuming we don't escape extinction by leaving our star system, Pioneer 10 will be the last human-made thing to survive. In all likelihood, even when everything we were has gone, and even when everything we have ever built has been cooked to dust in the heat of a dead star for millions of years, Pioneer 10 will still be drifting silently. I find an odd comfort in the notion that the last thing that will remain of Humanity will be a slightly worn spacecraft, still carrying a plaque commemorating long-dead Pluto as a fully fledged planet."

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Affording a first home

There has been some interesting talk among the blogs in the last few days on the question of how darn difficult it is for those now in their 20s and 30s to afford their first home. This follows a column in the NZ Herald by John Roughan who advocated a capital gains tax on non owner-occupied housing.

As Jordan puts it,
"There is something wrong with a housing market that is structured to deliver endless capital gains to people who have capital, and deny the ownership of housing to the upcoming generation as the consequence."

Successive Governors of the Reserve Bank and many of the neo-liberal acolytes bemoan the fact New Zealanders sink so much money into the housing market, pretending the "market" cannot be interfered with, when there is an obvious solution - a capital gains tax. Such a tax could have significant downstream benefits for the New Zealand economy as more locally based capital would become available to finance local business. The sharemarket would get a boost, and less overseas ownership of New Zealand companies would help reduce the current account deficit. In other words, we would be more productive in using our money.

The difficulty is building political support for such a change, especially when many of the 'baby boomers' already own a house and an investment property or two. Given that they were only responding to the unbalanced way investments are taxed in this country, perhaps it would be reasonable to give a few years warning before a capital gains tax took full effect. Unfortunately, because there are so many of them, we need to convince the baby boomers to put aside their self interest in favour of the best interests of the wider New Zealand economy.

I thought of some other ways the cycle of first house unaffordability could be broken. At present, the banks have a significant bias towards lending to the housing market. If greater restrictions were placed on the ability of the banks to boost their short term profits by selling more and more housing related debt, this could also help control house prices. While this could restrict the availability of mortgages, measures could be taken at the same time to encourage and assist first home buyers.

The State Advances Scheme introduced by the second Labour Government offered 3% morgages and the ability to capitalise the family benefit to make up the deposit. The main argument used against such policies is that they might push up house prices further. Yet as we are dealing with a scheme introduced in 1958, this should be an empirical question - ie look for a link between the number of loans offered through the State Advances Scheme and increasing house prices in the surrounding areas. I would be interested if anyone knows of any figures on this. We should not let the right get away with arguing from pure theory (which is usually a simplification of the real world anyway).

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lebanon works to maintain the ceasefire, while Israel does all it can to break it

A little more than a week after agreeing to a ceasefire in the Lebanese conflict, Israel directly violates the UN-backed truce with two raids into southern Lebanon. With Israel's long history of blatantly ignoring the authority of the UN, the voice the international community, the latest Israeli outrage ought be to no surprise.

On Saturday Israel sanctioned a commando raid on Baalbek, in the east of the country. Israeli special forces units launched an attack from two vehicles unloaded from helicopters. One Israeli soldier and three Hezbollah fighters were killed in the resulting firefight. In a second separate violation of the ceasefire, Israel launched an air raid against a target in eastern Lebanon.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a statement: "The secretary-general is deeply concerned about a violation by the Israeli side of the cessation of hostilities as laid out in Security Council resolution 1701."

Israel claims it carried out the raid in the early hours of Saturday morning to disrupt weapons supplies from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah. Israel is yet to provide any hard evidence to justify the specific actions it took in violation of the ceasefire.

Israel could have expressed its concerns about the possibility of Hezbollah rearming itself through diplomatic channels - instead it just launched another unprovoked attack on Lebanon. Of course, one could ask similar questions about the wisdom of alowing Israel to rearm itself.

Mark Regev, the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said "If the Syrians and Iran continue to arm Hezbollah in violation of the [UN ceasefire] resolution, Israel is entitled to act to defend the principle of the arms embargo."

Aljazeera points out this is a rubbish excuse, as the ceasefire resolution talks about an end to weapons shipments to Hezbollah as part of a long-term end to the conflict - but does not require it under the immediate truce. Secondly, there is no way Israel can claim it took "defensive" actions to protect its troops, as the raids took place far from the positions occupied by Israeli troops in Southern Lebanon. Why is it that every army in the world attempts to justify its actions as "defensive" even when they are being plainly offensive, in both senses of the word.

If Bush is going to label a group of countries he does not like as the Axis of Evil, perhaps Israel, the US and the UK could fittingly be called the Axis of Excuses.

In response to the raids, Elias Murr, the Lebanese defence minister warned he may have to halt the deployment of troops to the south of Lebanon if the violation was not recognised. Murr also suggested Israel might have been trying to provoke a response so it had an excuse to attack the Lebanese army. "We will not send the army to be prey in an Israeli trap."

Later Murr took the unprecedented step of warning the Hezbollah that any persons found engaging in attacks against Israel in violation of the ceasefire will face arrest and trial by a military tribunal.

Facing a military tribunal in Lebanon might well turn out to be a rough justice, but it makes it very clear the Lebanese are doing their best to maintain peace and the rule of law in the region, at the very same time Israel is doing everything it can to bust it up.

Tags: Politics, Israel, Middle East, Anti-war, Lebanon

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Unusual hand luggage

What is the oddest thing you have taken onto a plane as hand luggage? Was your luggage inspected as a result?

Passing through airport security on my way home late on Tuesday night the man operating the x-ray machine suddenly looked very puzzled. He put my black laptop bag through the x-ray machine once again, and once again looked puzzled. I was puzzled too, as my laptop bag had virtually nothing in it apart from a book and a few printed pieces of A4 paper. He took me aside and we opened my bag, only to small stapler. I had forgotten all about it.

I had been preparing for a job interview the night before, and had printed out around 20 pages of preparation to take with me to re-read on the plane. At the last minute I grabbed my stapler and put it in my bag, as I thought it might be a useful way of putting these bits of paper in to some resemblance of order. As I only traveled up to Auckland for the day, I did not have any check in baggage.

Apparently my stapler, made of partly translucent plastic and metal looked very strange on the airport scanner.

I wondered what it looked like so I stuck the stapler on the scanner when I got home. It seems rather appropriate that my stapler is called a "Rapid X-Ray"!

The only other time my carry on baggage was inspected in any way was leaving Seoul airport on my way home to Christchurch. The Korean airport security took a very close look at the small alarm clock I had in my pocket, taking the battery out and shaking it to see if there was anything inside. I admit I was a little amused by this - I guess my little alarm clock was a timing device - by only for me, not a bomb. Like the stapler situation I felt I had a good reason for taking something a little bit odd on as hand luggage. I had just handed in my UK cellphone, and not owning a watch at that point, my little alarm clock was my only means of telling the time.

Labels: ,