Friday, March 1, 2019

Happy 100th birthday, Dad
My Dad with sisters Nancy and Marjorie

Happy 100th Birthday to my Dad. I wish he was here to celebrate it. He did so much good in the world. ‪He would say, “Try to leave the world a better place than you found it”, and he did. ‬This ambition perhaps came from a long line of principled ancestors.

I've been thinking about his work in the third world, and the many friends and relations he fostered. He once said that a key achievement was for people to be able to phone from South Africa to Egypt without faults, and he achieved these things by setting up schools for engineers, teaching locals to make and repair telephone systems themselves. He and Mum managed to be productive and extremely popular wherever they went.

His career began in the New Zealand Post Office, where he excelled, and it was said that he was near to being appointed Director General when he followed his passion to help those in developing nations through the UN system. We moved to Geneva, Switzerland, when I was 7.

As a communications engineer he had been named an "essential public servant" during the war and wasn't allowed to enlist. I heard that he a Mum were sent white feathers, but he never mentioned them. He persistently tried to join the services and finally was accepted into the fleet air arm as a navigator.

Dad in the fleet air arm
He couldn’t tolerate insults. He once ejected a powerful colleague from his office for naming him a liar, and he earned and expected our respect. Others also recognised his worth. We moved to New Jersey, USA, so that he could work out of the UN Development Programme office in New York, and after a farewell party at St John’s in Montclair, NJ for my Mum and Dad one of the guests turned to my Mum and said, “He has class”. He was honest, smart, kind and hard-working.

My Mum and her family were great musicians, and Dad would add his gravelly voice to whatever music was being made. He was devoted to Mum, and her happiness was most often his top priority.

For a while after he retired he played the stock market, as a game, particularly investing in Brierley shares. He and my uncle Bob loved to discuss the relative merits of alternative investments. Brierley was one of those businessmen who never made much of real value, but preyed on firms in trouble then fleeced them of assets. After the crash in '87 Brierley lost most of his value and Dad also lost a pack. Shortly afterwards he said to me, "I don't understand. Where did all the money go?". "It was never there Dad", I replied, and he accepted that without rancour.

He and Mum took enormous delight in their grandchildren, and Carolyn and I spent many happy weekend days with our young family at their place in Tauranga.

His love of tidiness was legendary. At his funeral in 1999 I told the story of when I helped him eliminate a very large flax bush, and he insisted on placing the fronds in 5 separate piles by size, “to keep things tidy for the dustman”. One of his friends interjected, “He would!”.

The world was a lesser place after he died. I thoroughly enjoyed chewing the fat with him; he possessed an endless trove of interesting, but well-balanced insights about public affairs. He would have disliked Trump, but would have waited to see what Trump did before deciding that the selfish, bigoted liar was unworthy of his time. He also initially supported the reforms of the fourth Labour government, but later regretted the massive social harm they caused and the selfishness they unleashed.

His name was Lloyd William Mason, and I loved him.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Thinking of purchasing a star name? Read this.

This is my image of Omicron 2 Eridani, a triple star system with a young star plus red and white dwarfs. It goes by the name of Keid, and you CANNOT pay to change this.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) controls the naming of astronomical objects. It doesn’t sell star names. Most bright star names have deep historical roots and nobody in astronomy with any shred of decency would try to change them.

Anyone claiming to sell star names is misleading their customers. It’s particularly pernicious when they claim to have ”teamed up with the star registry”, thereby giving the illusion of some kind of association with the IAU, when in fact the star name you purchase will never be associated with the star on official star maps or used by astronomers, nor is it likely to be used by the general public.

Selling star names is not only misleading; it can also be done incompetently. One prominent star name seller charges extra for “stars in constellations”, but all stars are in constellations, and they appear to mean “stars connected by lines on star maps”, but connecting lines differ from map to map. Moreover, they charge extra for “rare double stars” when in fact many stars are gravitationally bound with others.

Don’t be fooled by a flashy website. Star seller websites are often carefully crafted to convince you that your purchase will actually result in a change in star name, but this is not true. The example below mirrors how one prominent star name seller operates.

Suppose I arrange for a friend to set up a “species registry” - an on-line database of living species names. I then start a company to sell species names, claiming that I have a special relationship with the “species registry”. For $49.95 you can have your name attached to a species. For $69.95 you can name a large mammal, $99 would get you a virulent disease name, and for $149 you and your partner could name two closely related flower species. On my website I highlight the special relationship I have with the “species registry”, and then hidden away in the terms and conditions I mention that the species registry is “not associated with a learning institution or government body” which really means that neither biologists nor the general public will use the name you choose for your species. Most people don’t read the terms and conditions, and in reality the terms and conditions contradict the impression given by the main website. After purchase I will of course email you a “certificate” of your species name, along with an image of the species whose “name” you had bought. This would be a meaningless product, equivalent to selling star names.

So, if you really wish to pay an exorbitant sum to have an entry changed in a meaningless “star registry” that almost nobody will ever use, go for it. At least you now know that you are not securing a widely used star name for posterity. No astronomers will look up and think of your name, nor will the general public adopt your name for the star. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tree planting at $400/day

Recent publicity about a shortage of tree planters and beneficiaries "unwilling to work" has misrepresented the situation, providing abundant fodder for those who prefer to bash beneficiaries rather than do something positive for the world. Let's examine the facts.

There appears to be a shortage of people willing to take up silvicultural work, not just planting but also pruning, thinning and other operations. I haven't seen surveys about this, but interactions with forestry companies and consultants suggest that the shortage is real. Most forestry companies have preferred contractors doing these operations whom they look after. This is notable, because, at time of writing, Te Uru Rakau (a new department of the Ministry for Primary Industries that was created to fulfill the promise of a new government forest agency) reports some 65 million trees planted in year one, only 7.5 million of which have been government-funded under the "one billion trees" policy. All 65 million trees count towards our "one billion" target over ten years, but roughly 500 million trees would have been replanted to replace harvested forests over ten years by these forestry companies even without any "one billion trees" policy from government. The policy actually promises 500 million new trees, or more logically (because trees naturally kill each other as they compete for space), approximately 500,000 ha of new forest.

Most silvicultural tasks are seasonal, and the days when a worker could easily do them while in a full-time, secure job, with holiday pay, sick leave and prospects of a career are gone. The New Zealand Forest Service used to offer workers these conditions, but the service was destroyed by overeager "reformers" in 1987. Silvicultural tasks are now mostly done or at least organised by contractors. Many contractors are highly competent, and those are the ones that companies look after, ensuring that they'll have on-going work. However, an increase in planting rates means more planters are required, and large forestry companies are unlikely to take up the contracts offered by Te Uru Rakau. Owners of small areas of land and forestry consultants who take up the task are going to have to secure new tree planters, so why doesn't $400/day attract the workers they need?

Firstly, $400/day is really a lie. At 60 cents/tree you need to plant 83 trees/hour in an 8 hour day to earn $400 before tax. A seasoned tree planter might achieve this on flat land with pre-cultivated soil, but those conditions are going to be rare. Some of you may take to the web to find world record tree planting rates. The world record for an 8 hour day used to be held by a New Zealander, Tamati, who planted in excess of 6,500 in 8 hours on the Crater block near Waiotapu during the 1970s. I worked alongside Tamati in 1975 and he was a phenomenal athlete & worker, but additional factors were at play. He was planting on very gentle, pastured land, with soil cultivated by a machine, and people running alongside him handing him seedlings so that he could break the world record. Moreover, many trees in the Crater block acquired a lean when they were about two years old, which may have been at least partly caused by substandard planting. Flat, fertile dairy land is unlikely to be available for our extra forest. Most of the land will be sloping, and on many sites soil cultivation will not be feasible. Walking across it may be difficult because of steep slopes or obstructions like brushweeds. People aren't going to run alongside tree planters handing them trees, and planting quality will be important. I've planted tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of trees in my time, and I'd be very hard pushed to earn $400/day doing it properly.

Secondly, the work is likely to be remote, difficult and precarious. Traveling to the work site will be an issue. Most beginners won't earn very much, and when the planting season (June to September) is over, there's unlikely to be any on-going work and so laid off workers will have to re-register with Work and Income NZ. A good manager in the NZ Forest Service would ensure that full-time workers were gainfully employed throughout the year, and a keen worker could hope to be promoted, trained and have a decent career. Accommodation would be available on-site. One of my earliest memories from my days as a newly minted professional forester at Waiotapu subdivision, Kaingaroa Forest, in 1975 is of a retirement hangi for a leading hand (one step up from a basic worker) who had been a valued member of the Forest Service for 40 years. I don't see any of that happening in the "one billion trees" programme. Te Uru Rakau is handing out contracts rather than offering careers for those actually doing the work. Can the workers really expect to be valued, have security, and perhaps a step up into a career?

Achieving a policy target in a financially efficient manner is probably a strong motivator for public service employees, but should this be a prime motivation for a government that claims to measure success as well-being rather than simply as GDP growth? Maybe it is time for government policy to extend to how the 500 million new trees are planted, how planters are treated, and what attempts are made to offer them security, hope, a career and a sense that they are cared for; that they matter.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Woolly thinking about "greenhouse gas neutrality"

In a well-functioning emissions trading scheme, polluters would have to submit credits in order to be allowed to pollute, and they would purchase credits from those who cleaned up their pollution.  So if the cost of cleaning was higher than the cost of reducing pollution in the first place then they'd choose to reduce emissions. Either way the atmosphere would not receive any more greenhouse gasses and purchasers of carbon credits could rightly call themselves "greenhouse gas neutral".

However, that's not what's happening.  Many people assert  (e.g: click here to see an example) that if a polluter reduces their pollution then they should receive credits for the extent of their pollution reduction. They also assert that purchasers of their credits can claim to be "greenhouse gas neutral". They are wrong.

There are many ways to explain why they are wrong.  You could use stories, mathematics, graphs or even children's blocks. Let's use the latter.

Blocks below represent levels of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and levels planned to be emitted by two polluters.

Then polluter 2 opts to no longer pollute and is awarded carbon credits. Polluter 1 purchases those credits and is allowed to pollute. The result is more greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, as shown below.  Polluter 1 clearly cannot claim to be "greenhouse gas neutral".

So, what kinds of credits can confer greenhouse gas neutrality on a purchaser? Let's reach for the blocks again.  In this case, we have the atmosphere, a potential polluter and someone who will take greenhouse gas from the atmosphere (maybe using new trees, a scrubber, or perhaps by seeding the ocean with iron to promote plankton); a sequesterer.

The sequesterer receives carbon credits for removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. They are purchased by the polluter, who then goes ahead and pollutes, but the amount of pollution is exactly equal to the amount of sequestration and so the result is shown below:

Clearly, the atmosphere gains no new greenhouse gas and the polluter can now claim to be greenhouse gas neutral.

But wait, there's more! Suppose there is no polluter, and a rich benefactor who cares about the environment or a government decides to purchase credits from the sequesterer and immediately destroy them. Before the transaction the blocks look like this:


and after the transaction they look like this:

That's right, an ETS that awards credits for sale only to those who clean greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere encourages activity that can reduce atmospheric levels of greenhouse gas if credit purchasers choose not to pollute.

This may seem obvious to you, and it is, but I have had so many arguments with people who can't see it that I thought illustrating the logic with blocks might help.

Here's the killer: It is generally much cheaper to do nothing than to extract greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. If we award people carbon credits for simply reducing outputs of greenhouse gas, we effectively pay them for nothing, and it takes much longer for emissions trading schemes to work because few will engage in activities that extract greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

So next time someone says that they are "greenhouse gas neutral" because they purchased credits from a power company that got credits for installing a wind farm, or from someone who opted not to clear a patch of rain forest, let them know that they are kidding themselves.  We'll all benefit if you do because our emissions trading systems will be much more effective if they properly reward greenhouse gas neutrality.