Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Parent Trap–2010

I’m quite sure that parenting has become an impossible job. 

The other day I went to the dentist and while sifting through the pile of two year old National Geographic and Women’s Weekly magazines, something caught my eye.  It was a newspaper called “Tot’s To Teens—For Parents Focused on Raising Children Aged 0-12 Years.”   There was a big red sticker that said “FREE,” so I didn’t have any qualms about helping myself.

I took the paper home and read it.  And that’s when I realized how challenging it is to be a parent.  One of the headline articles was “First Day of School—Are You Ready?”  It was about preparing a 5 year old for his or her real first day of school.

To be honest I don’t remember my first day of school but I’m pretty sure I was traumatized.  Now I know why.  My mother hadn’t read “Tots to Teens!”

The article was broken into four basic categories with a checklist sort of thing in each category.  One category was “Toilet training.”  One of the items was “Does she know not to pull down her knickers until she has closed the door to the cubicle?”

If you were a parent and answered that question “No,” what would your next steps be?

How Could I Have Forgotten That??

Or how about the “Lunchbox” section:  “If you bought a new lunch box, does your child know how to open it?”  I pictured the headline:  Kindergartner Can’t Open Lunch Box—Starves to Death.”

There is a list of contingencies for which you should give your kid an action plan.  One contingency to be prepared for:  “The child they usually play with is off sick and she has to make new friends?” 

Who is thinking up this stuff?  Moon mission pre-launch checklists are less complicated.  And the trouble is that buried in all this stuff is important advice like “don’t take candy from strangers.”

But it gets worse.  There is advertising.  Lots of it.  For example, a kindergarten is selling their programme for 4 and a half to 5 year olds with the statement:

Highly qualified and motivated teachers encourage and nurture our children to be risk-takers, enquirers, thinkers, communicators, reflective, knowledgeable, caring, open-minded and balanced.

How do you do that for five year olds?  

You see what I mean about the challenges of being a parent?  You are not only supposed to make sure your kid can open his or her lunchbox and know how to cope with fluid social situations.  They must also be a risk-taker, creative, reflective, knowledgeable and caring.  Good luck with that.

But it gets even worse when you look at the advertisements, which are conveniently put at the end of the magazine in something called the “Directory.”  There are 52 playing card sized ads for various goods and services. 

Two of the ads stand out.  One is for a clothing store that sells “Designer Childrenswear.”  The other is for an organisation called “Kids Love Gifts.”  What do they do?  The ad explains:  “Needing gift ideas or too busy to get to the shop?  Kids Love Gifts can do all the work for you . . .” 

Here, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, you can find advertised in a free magazine, designer clothing for (growing) children and you can also hire someone to buy their gifts for them because you as a parent are too busy, or don’t communicate enough with your kids to know what they might want.  I knew they had a service like this for busy adults, but I didn’t know parents need it to manage their kids.

But one kind of service seemed to predominate in the directory.  So I counted them up and found that 31% of the ads are for party services.  (Second place is for products like bedwetting mattress protectors and photographers). 

I don’t remember any of my birthdays or birthday parties, but today’s parents are under the gun to make each birthday “The Birthday of a Lifetime” for your caring, reflective, open-minded and balanced child.  But don’t worry.  You can hire a service to handle it all for you. 

The top of the line service (and let’s face it, why settle for second best) includes “Party Planning, Entertainers, Catering and Event Creche.”

Can anyone help me out with the concept of an “Event Creche?”  As far as I understand it, a creche is where you put little kids.  I’m assuming you don’t spring for a party for your kid and then put the kid in the crèche while you enjoy the magic show.   So I’m guessing this is for younger siblings who may not be ready to party hardy.  I don’t get it.

There are a lot of things I don’t get.  Like why kids attending birthday parties today expect a “goody bag.”  This is another service that can be provided.  I would have thought ice cream and cake would be sufficient reward.

But no.  And neither is socializing apparently.  The parties have to be themed and there are companies that specialize in various themes such as magic, fairies, sports, clowns, laser tag, bowling, rock star, and the worrisome “Tarzan Tree Adventures.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to know.

It sort of makes you wonder what these kids are going to expect for their 16th birthdays.

Is Passion Sustainable?

Have you noticed how you can’t go anywhere without hearing about something that is ‘sustainable’ or someone who is ‘passionate’ about something?

People who are passionate about the sustainability of the English language should be alarmed. 

Because overuse of those words has resulted in them losing some of their richness.  According to my dictionary, passionate can mean not only enthusiastic, but also filled with anger and affected by sexual desire.  So technically, if someone tells you that they are passionate about whales, you don’t know, without wider context, whether they hate them, like them a lot or have rather kinky tastes.

Similarly, sustain means to nourish, to prove, to prolong, to support, withstand, bear up under, or to admit as valid.  So you could say, “It is not sustainable that sustainability of the arguments about global ‘sustainability’ can be sustained unless I get sustained.”  (Translation:  You can’t prove that the validity of the arguments about global warming can be supported until you feed me).

What has happened is that passionate and sustainability have become code words that have a Pavlovian effect on us.  They are communications shorthand designed to produce a desired reaction in our brains.   I was talking to an HR person who said that if she saw another resume cover letter describing the writer as ‘passionate’ about something she would embark on a screaming binge that would probably not be sustainable.

To prove my point I did a couple of Google searches to see which terms returned the most hits.  Have a look at the number of hits each search returned: 

There are over 50 times more hits for ‘sustainability’ than there are for the eminently sustainable Queen!

The theory is that our brains have been trained to say “passionate equals good and sustainable equals good.” 

So it should come as no surprise that these words crop up a lot in marketing material and in communications from politicians.

In fact, what got me focused on this issue is that on October 9 we will be electing the mayor of Auckland.  Down here we vote for mayor by mail—they send you the ballot and a booklet with each candidate’s picture and their statement of why they should be elected.  A couple of days ago we got our booklets.  Among other things, they contain lots of passion.

Politics in NZ is refreshing by comparison to other places I’ve lived and there is a reasonable amount of transparency.  There are limits on contributions to politicians and political parties and there are spending limits for election campaigns.  For example, for the national elections, the campaign period is limited to three months before the election and during that time, political parties can only spend $1 million.  Individual candidates can only spend $20,000.  For local elections the limits are based on population size of the area.  There are also limits on how much individuals and groups can contribute to parties and candidates and there are lots of disclosure rules so you know who gave how much to whom.

This has the great benefit of (1) preventing big bucks from unduly influencing things and (2) saving the populace from nonstop campaigning.

One of the best rules is that candidates can only put posters and signs up in specified locations and are required to take them down immediately after the election.

The biggest benefit though is that it makes the political process much more inclusive.  If the most anyone can spend is $20,000, being rich is not a requirement for entry.  In fact there are very few barriers to running for office.  This is evidenced by the fact that this time there are 23 people running for mayor of Auckland.  None of them are affiliated with any national political party.  In fact 17 are declared independents.  The other six belong to “other” parties such as the Communist League.

Although the booklet of candidates is professionally done, the blurbs, most no doubt written by the candidates themselves, are unvarnished and unedited and give interesting insights into the people.  These blurbs are what got me thinking about overuse of the words “passionate” and “sustainability.”  Most of the candidates are passionate about sustaining things.  Except in the case of the Communist candidate, who is passionate about not sustaining “power [in] the hands of the capitalist rulers.”  By the way, no one came out as passionate about masturbation, one way or the other.

But the candidate who emerged as a breath of fresh air (no pun intended as you will see) is Nga Dave, who seems to have replaced Scruff Ralph as the real peoples’ candidate.  Scruff Ralph finished 12th out of 15 contenders in the last election.  His tagline was “A Vote for Scruff is a Vote of No Confidence.”  In an interview he stated that the most important election issue for him was that he was looking for a job.

Anyway, Nga tells us:  “Formal education played a very small role in my life.  I left school at 14 once I discovered marijuana and I have walked with marijuana for 30 years.  I am a criminal in the sense that I smoke illegal substances.  But in my heart I know that I am not bad.  I am one of the people I want to represent.  The common people.  I want to resurrect democracy of the people, for the people, by the people.”

Now isn’t that more interesting than hearing that someone is passionate about sustaining things?

There are two front runners in the election—the current mayor and the mayor of a city that is being amalgamated with Auckland in a big local government consolidation.  They have been getting all of the media attention and I thought I knew who I was voting for.  But then I got the booklet and found out about people like Nga Dave . . .

I’ll report the results in two weeks! 


It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

Sometimes the news makes me sad.  Sometimes it makes me angry.  And sometimes it just makes me laugh. 

That was the case recently when I heard about the Australian elementary school music teacher who unwittingly managed to simultaneously make everyone mad by expunging the word “gay” from a popular song.

You may be familiar with the Kookaburra Song.  The pertinent verse goes like this:

Kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree
Merry merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, kookaburra! Laugh kookaburra!
Gay your life must be.

I don’t know if this makes you sad, angry or amused, but this teacher found that his grade one (i.e., 6 year olds) erupted into gales of laughter when they sang the song and encountered the word “gay.” 

To facilitate getting through the song without interruption, the teacher asked the students to replace the G-word with “fun.”

I’m not sure what six year old kids do or don’t know about these things, but according to the teacher, they know that there is something about that word gay that puts it in the gray zone of words that aren’t specifically verboten but which have connotations.  The kids, knowing that they were sampling forbidden fruit, were reduced to giggles. 

As an aside, what connotations, you ask?  I heard an interview with the teacher in which he averred that “most” of the kids don’t know that meaning of gay, but that on the playground it is considered an impolite insult and use of the term could be prima facie evidence of bullying.  For example, if someone comes to school with a nonstandard backpack or pencil case and the beautiful people disapprove, they might look at the offending object and say “That’s so gay.”

Replacing the G-word with the F-word doesn’t do violence to the rhythm of the song or even to the meaning, and the teacher went home that night, thankful to have made it through another day. 

But his troubles were just beginning.

I don’t know if kids make disclosures about what happened at school at the dinner table these days or if they just tweet them to their parents/caregivers or post them on Facebook.  In any event, some parent got wind of what had happened and then, as they say, it hit the fan.

The teacher’s official story is that because the word “gay” can be used to bully people, it had contemporary meanings inconsistent with the intent of the song and therefore he made the change.  He now admits that he may have been “hypersensitive.”

He wasn’t the only one.

The people who get outraged about political correctness immediately began shouting “political correctness gone mad.” 

The wonderfully named Crusader Hillis from the Also Foundation, a gay and lesbian advocacy group, sensed homophobia and lamented the expunging of gay from the song as a blow to “respect and diversity.”

The religious right stopped collecting Korans long enough to express alarm that children were being taught naughty things. 

Not only that, it turns out that the copyright to the Kookaburra Song is owned by a company and they are saying that changing the lyrics is “technically a copyright breach.”  Lawyers are looking into it.

The poor guy.  In the interview I heard, he came across as a very entertaining person.  He described driving to school the next morning and seeing a parking lot filled with news vans.  He didn’t realize that he was the story.  He says that people now consider him “the devil incarnate.”

I’m also not sure that he learned from the experience because he is saying that in retrospect he should have stopped the class when they were laughing and “discussed the true meaning of the word with the children.” 

Can you imagine what that would have unleashed?  By the time they finished with him there would have been nothing left but the feathers.

Actually this whole story shows that we have not become more intelligent or tolerant.  We’ve become more hypersensitive.  If you closely read the lyrics to the song, you can convince yourself that it is literally riddled with gay iconography.  For example, in the last stanza, the kookaburra sits on a nail and gets a “boo boo in his his tail.”  We know what that really means, don’t we?

When I was twelve or thirteen I was in the school glee club.  For the Christmas program that year we were singing a carol called “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”  There is a line in the song that goes, “Ox and ass before him bow.”

I don’t remember what all precipitated it, but the teacher/choir director decided that we shouldn’t sing “ass,” so she changed the line to “Ox and all before him bow.”


We were highly amused that the teacher thought we were too innocent to say “ass” when all year long we’d been making shocking jokes about her and her anatomical eccentricities and her wonderfully onomatopoeic last name.   If only she’d known.

We didn’t know what she was trying to accomplish with the change, but for one thing, it ensured that we always “forgot” to sing “all” instead of “ass” in rehearsals.

I think in the end she regretted what she’d done.

 I remember going home and telling my parents about it over the dinner table.  They didn’t call CNN.  I think my father said something like “Your teacher sounds like a real ass.”

And that’s when we erupted into gales of laughter.

What about this bird?

Whales and Earthquakes?

Update– 13 March 2011–   Japan has been hit by a monster earthquake and tsunami.  The epicentre of the quake was in Miyagi Prefecture.  On 6 March, a week earlier, 50 whales beached in Ibaraki Prefecture, a little over 100 kilometres south.  Twenty-two of the whales were refloated and saved.

Update–22nd February 2011.  There has been a devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand–much worse than the September quake.  Two weeks ago, on 4th February, 82 pilot whales beached at Golden Bay, which is at the northern tip of the South Island and a few days earlier, at the end of January, 24 whales died after a stranding in the North Island. 

Back in 2004, Dr. Arunachalam Kumar, an anatomy professor at the medical college in Mangalore, India captured some headlines when he suggested that a massive stranding of whales off Tasmania on December 4, 2004 might be a warning of a major earthquake “within a week or two.”  Three weeks later, the earthquake that triggered the Boxing Day tsunami occurred. 

Well, he’s done it again.

On August 20, a pod of 73 pilot whales came ashore at Karikari Beach in Kaitaia, New Zealand.  Nine were saved by teams attempting to refloat them but the rest died.

When Dr. Kumar was informed of the beachings, he predicted that an earthquake and/or a massive volcano eruption would occur in the end of August or early September.  Sure enough, on August 29, Mt. Sinabung, a volcano in Sumatra that had been dormant for years erupted unexpectedly. 

Then, on September 4th the 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

Down here there have been a lot of psychics on the talk shows claiming that they had predicted the earthquake as well.  But as far as I can tell, Dr. Kumar is the only person who documented his prediction.  And has a track record of success.  He also predicted an earthquake within four weeks of a mass whale stranding off Tasmania in late November 2008 and on January 4, 2009 three people were killed by a series of earthquakes in Indonesia.   You can check out his blog here.

I think he may be on to something, even though there are a lot of other academics who are sceptical. 

I can’t find any indication that he predicted the Haiti earthquake, but get this.  That earthquake happened on January 12, 2010.  On December 28, 2009, less than two weeks before the earthquake, over 120 whales died in two separate beachings in New Zealand. 

Dr. Kumar doesn’t get worried about the isolated whale strandings.  Rather, as he says “It is my observation, confirmed over the years, that mass suicides of whales and dolphins that occur sporadically all over the world, are in someway related to change and disturbances in the electromagnetic field coordinates and possible realignments of geotectonic plates thereof.”

There are all sorts of theories about why whales beach themselves and seem to have a preference for Australian and New Zealand beaches.  For one thing, apparently NZ is on the migration route of many whales as they head to their breeding grounds in the South Pacific so there is a lot of whale traffic in the area. 

Whale beaching theories include things like climate changes or El Niño.  Changes in the temperature of ocean currents may make the whales’ food supply move around.  If the plankton they eat move close to shore, and the shore is long and sloping, the whales’ sonar may become confused and they become disoriented and just run up on the beach.  Timing is everything and if the tide is going out they can be stranded.

Scientists think that the reason the strandings involve so many whales at one time is because if one gets into trouble it alerts the pod and they rush in trying to help and they get stuck too.

Other theories involve toxins from human activity and especially noise pollution, particularly submarines, which emit sonar pulses and all the blasting and drilling that goes along with oil exploration.  The sound may disturb the whales own sonar so they become disoriented. 

They’ve actually done experiments and found that whales exposed to certain sound waves could not store nitrogen in their blood as efficiently as they should.  As a result when they dive deep and come up they get something very much like humans get when they don’t decompress properly.  In humans it’s called the bends and when you get the bends, you get disoriented.  It may be true.  The types of whales that beach most are ones who dive deepest.  And beachings have often been associated with naval exercises in the area.

But back to whales and earthquakes, they say that animals sense these things in advance and it may be that the whales are picking up vibrations or something as the forces that cause earthquakes reach the breaking point.  This would be the movement of the tectonic plates as Dr. Kumar suggests.

I talked to friends in Christchurch and asked them if there had been any reports of animals behaving strangely right before the earthquake.  A number of people had stories of their dog or cat behaving unusually.  The most extreme example was a person whose dog actually jumped on their bed and woke them up minutes before the earthquake.

In any event, a number of people said that they were woken up shortly before the quake by birds making a lot of noise.  At four in the morning.  The official explanation is that the worms, feeling the vibrations or something, were moving to the surface and the birds were literally following the old adage of the early bird gets the worm.  I guess if worms feel something, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that whales, who communicate by sound would also sense unusual energies.

All this is interesting, and a little bit scary.  But the problem with all of it is that you can find evidence to prove just about anything.  And as my statistics lecturer used to say (the only thing I remember) “correlation does not mean causality.”  Just because you can link whale beachings and earthquakes doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other.

But I guess the bottom line is that the next time you hear about a whale stranding you should ask whether there’s been an earthquake or volcanic eruption recently.  If the answer is no, watch out!


The Animal Affinity Matrix

Did you hear the news about the woman in England who was picked up on a security camera throwing a live cat into a garbage bin?  Her motives remain unclear and the cat was rescued before it went to the landfill, but the story generated so much outrage that the cops had to post guards at her house to prevent a lynch mob from “doing the same thing to her.”

Now I’ll admit that throwing your neighbour’s cat in the garbage is a pretty stupid thing to do.  And I’m terrified by the amount of animal cruelty that goes on, considering that virtually every serial killer got his start on animals. 

So I started thinking.

Now if that woman had been spotted throwing a snake or a rat into the bin she would have, if noticed, been viewed as doing a public service.  After all, they carry disease and have fangs. 

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that there is a hierarchy of animals and it’s OK to throw some in the garbage and it’s not OK to do that to others. 

It works like this.  If you’re cute, fuzzy and harmless you can pretty much rest easy.  No one is going to bother you and if they do, you will at least have the consolation of knowing that there will be huge outrage.

Also, if you are ugly and large but show some indication that you like people or have a spark of intelligence, you are guaranteed to be popular.  Whales and orang-utans are in this category.  Being in that category doesn’t ensure that people won’t bother you, but a lot of people are willing to fight for you, and I pretty much mean that literally.

In fact there is a whole continuum of animal likability and it’s very complicated.  Cuteness and intelligence are big factors, but equally important is your relationship with humanity.  For example, baby panda bears are cute and fuzzy.  I have no information about their intelligence, but as far as their relationship to humanity, it is totally benign.  All they do is eat bamboo and look cute. So they are pretty much at the top of the list along with puppies and kittens.  No one hates them.  Or likes to eat them. 

That’s the problem that little lambs have.  They are also cute and fuzzy, but they have a different relationship with people so a lot of times they don’t get to grow out of their cute and fuzzy stage.

Similarly, baby hyenas are fairly cute.  But they remind us too much of their parents to rank very high on the scale.  In fact you can graph it like this:

Animal Affinity Matrix 

A.  Ugly & Harmless    C.  Cute & Harmless
B.  Ugly & Dangerous   D.  Cute & Dangerous

“A” creatures are things like slugs and worms.  They give us the creeps but don’t bother us unless we step on them on the sidewalk.

“B” creatures are very unlucky.  They are things like snakes and spiders and scorpions.  No one likes them.

“C” creatures are everyone’s favorites—puppies, kittens, panda bears.

“D” creatures are things like hippopotamus and killer whales.  As long as they are under control we like them.

My technology skills do not permit me to make a three dimensional matrix, which is needed to portray the additional complicating factor of the relationship of the animal with humans.  So for example, an ugly and dangerous animal like a shark or a fugu fish can enjoy a slightly higher level of esteem because they taste good.  Or an ugly and harmless animal such as an octopus can get promoted above the slugs and other gastropods of the world by being able to predict the outcome of football games.

And it can work the other way, too.  I’ve already mentioned that things can end very badly for a cute and fuzzy animal who happens to taste good.  Such as a lamb.   

In summary, if you are an animal, you are always better off if you are cute rather than ugly and harmless rather than dangerous.  But to make sure, you better not have more value dead than alive.  If you manage all those things, you are pretty much assured of a life of comfort and pampering or at least being allowed to exist in peace.

I suppose that it’s rather hubristic for a human to casually categorize the animal kingdom in such a selfish way, i.e., only in terms of utility, functionality and appearance. 

But let’s face it, that’s pretty much the way the human race looks at the world.

The big challenge is to figure out how to integrate humans into the matrix.  Evaluating animals solely on the basis of how they look to us or how useful they are to us implies that humans are superior and are entitled to make those kinds of judgement.   After all, when you are raising them to kill and eat them, or exterminating them for your safety or comfort, you do feel fairly entitled along those lines. 

But how do we account for the fact that some animals appear to outrank humans?  To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever threatened to kill the local butcher because he led a few lambs to the slaughter.  But the headlines tell us that a woman received death threats for endangering a cat. 

This isn’t an isolated instance.  I remember when I saw Road Warrior.  About one hundred humans die in that movie, most of them in a spectacular Ben Hur sort of way.  Each dismemberment, crushing, impaling or sailing through the air was generally greeted by mutters of “cool” and “oh yeah” from the audience.  Until Max’s dog gets shot by an arrow.  You don’t even see it, you just see the guy point the bow and then you hear the dog yelp.

That scene elicited a collective gasp, groan and a few “you son of a bitches” from the audience.  Mayhem involving humans is good clean fun.  Involve a dog and you have stepped over the line.

I’m willing to admit that there are cute, ugly harmless and dangerous humans and that there are also humans of varying utility and functionality. 

But I still can’t figure out how they work into the Animal Affinity Matrix.