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Posts from the ‘Politics’ Category

A little (more) Berlinisch Graffiti

This is one from the archives. We went to Berlin* so that I could turn 30. I did so with great elegance, as we consumed delicious Korean food (our introduction to Korean pancakes came in Berlin), and I still think Berlin is one of the best cities we have yet been to. Whilst we were there, we caught up with some friends, saw a lot of amazing things, and I got the best haircut I have managed to get in Europe for just €12. If you’ve ever tried to get a haircut in the Netherlands, you will understand how amazing this really is.

And we saw this:

Why not?

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I heard someone describe the Olympics as a “regular but misdirected orgy of nationalism and navel gazing”*. This seems, in equal measure, absolutely true and untrue. I agree that some of the flag waving, some of the bias, some of the support is unsavoury. On the other hand, I loved to hear how a friend of mine was made to feel physically ill at the defeat of his beloved Icelandic Handball team – whom he hoped could get gold this time – to Hungary. Not that I wanted Iceland to lose, mind, or that I enjoyed his pain, but rather that he was so invested! It was exciting!

Another aspect I love is that once every four years obscure sports (Women’s 10 metre air rifle, for example) get a chance for some major attention.

For these Olympics, it is the Velodrome that has really caught my attention. Cycling as a sport really eludes me. I’ve watched the Keirin, Sprints, Pursuits, Time trials; and the Omnium, which seems to gather these things together. It doesn’t make any sense at all as a spectator sport, and yet, enthralled I was. First, just have a look at the Velodrome itself:

It’s like some kind of alien spacecraft. It’s beautiful. They keep the inside something like 28°C, which is just the optimum Velodrome temperature I guess**.  Now, the only problem I have experienced with my Velodrome-based viewing was that Australia wasn’t winning very much. I’m not super-patriotic, really, but somehow when I am in Europe I feel more inclined to support my compatriots than I ever would at home.

So imagine how happy I was to find this gem:

It combines everything there is to like about the Olympics into three-and-a-bit minutes of awesome. The Chemical Brothers are always interesting, and frequently excellent. I didn’t know this was the Velodrome’s theme song, and I love that the Velodrome has*** a theme song. It completely makes me forget Australia’s lack of cycling success (don’t even mention the swimming).

The video was played before every Velodrome session, and was created by Crystal CG. In their own words:

“We’ve created sweeping contours and sleek surfaces as the backdrop for an intense, futuristic cycling ‘duel’ as two animated riders power round the track,” said Darren Groucutt, creative director at Crystal. “It truly brings the Velodrome to life.”

I completely agree. The pseudo-futuristic animation matches the slightly-weird Olympic font. It builds with the music, and generates a sense of excitement. The only downside is that I completely wish I had been in the Velodrome itself.

What I like best of all, however, is the combination of design, creativity, music, craft and other intellectual activity and its prominence on the set otherwise dominated by sporting excellence. This kind of multi-dimensional media experience can so often go horribly wrong, but this judicious application of cultural capital amongst the quadriceps and flying wheels really helps to make the London Games stand out for me from what might otherwise be a bland international event.


Picture borrowed from London 2012 website; sorry London 2012 website, I hope you don’t mind!

*This was on Q&A, which I watch most weeks through iTunes. The ABC might just be the best public broadcaster ever; if there was a gold medal of public broadcasting, I think it would get it.

**I have no source for this factoid, but I probably heard it from the BBC commentary.

***Fun PJD fact: my English teacher from high school would be ill if he knew I used italics to stress my point, but as this is a blog and not a piece of formal writing, I break the rules.

What is the natural world worth to you?

Most days, I travel to Utrecht for work. From Leiden, it’s only 42 minutes (according to NS) and for me, it’s not too bad. I get a chance to marvel every day at the freakish green flatness that characterises the Netherlands. I also get to think about how strange it must be to not need fences, as the fields are generally surrounded by water. It’s not like farming in Australia, that’s for sure. It also presents me with a great chance to read. I read newspapers (sometimes I even read De Spits), I read magazines, blogs and books too, from time to time. And this morning I came across this one, by George Monbiot.

It started off with a reference to Rousseau. Good start, I thought. “Civil society” doesn’t usually pop up as something with negative connotations, but there it was. And then he really started to get to work:

In many countries, especially the United Kingdom, nature is being valued and commodified so that it can be exchanged for cash.

The effort began in earnest under the last government. At a cost of £100,000, it commissioned a research company to produce a total annual price for England’s ecosystems. After taking the money, the company reported – with a certain understatement – that this exercise was “theoretically challenging to complete, and considered by some not to be a theoretically sound endeavour.” Some of the services provided by England’s ecosystems, it pointed out, “may in fact be infinite in value.”

George (I am confident he won’t mind if I call him George), like myself was swift to recognise the “rare flash of common sense” in the last quote there. Imagine, rain, and the benefit it has for growing things, having something close to infinite value! As I read on, I started thinking more and more about the value of public space, the natural environment (or, more accurately, the non-urban environment) and the ways landscape enriches society.

All of  a sudden, I found myself thinking of how the memory of some natural place can be worth so much in moments of stress and darkness that every day living in the modern world brings, how they lighten

the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world

So, what is the environment worth? How do you price rain, and sunshine, and wind?

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Lack, want, and reconciling consumerism with ethics


There are a host of issues in the way the global economy functions. I don’t believe that this is a very contentious statement. For me, what is odd is that despite egregious abuses of the system (LIBOR rigging and money laundering, just for starters) little has changed, and less still looks like changing. It doesn’t help that we have a declining media environment, where un-admitted bias from left and right prevent many from finding clear analysis.

At a lower level of consumption, I find myself struggling with a consumer-driven approach to living which permeates the thinking many people have. But of course, everyone wants stuff, right*? I want stuff too. I found myself making a list the other day, of things I want to buy. It’s not a very long list, but it’s still a list. The things on the list are not cheap — so I have to rationalise a little.

The naked truth about Denim.

More than that, the things are not even good value. Not in the sense that I am not pleased to think about having them, that having them won’t make me happy (at least for a while). But in the sense that they are divorced from any connection to their cost of manufacture, to the materials they are made from, to the costs of transport. What are we really paying for?

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There’s an elephant out there

So, there we were, just casually strolling in the Hague upon a spring afternoon, and we  happen across an elephant. Just there, yes, an elephant, in the middle of the street. Huh? I hear you say. Well, that’s what I was saying to myself (and to PJD) too. It sure was a little out of place amongst the graceful, leafy, European streets, and the international legal fraternity. But it was there, nonetheless.

It certainly wasn’t any regular, plodding-across-the-plains-of-Africa type of  elephant. No, this elephant was altogether different.

He was, as you can see, rather majestic and distinguished, as, I think, elephants tend to be, and was attracting quite a lot of attention. But why was this elephant there, I hear you say? Well, it turns out we just happened to stumble upon the new Hague summer sculpture exhibition, The Rainbow Nation, part of the Hague Summer Festivals.

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Wise words

Next to our television lives a small stack of cards featuring inspiring words by various well-known figures and writers. It was something small that my Mum gave me before I left home last time around (thanks Mum!). The cards sit in a nifty wooden holder, and we have taken to shuffling them every few days or so and reading out what the card that we happen to land on says. Some are funny, some are serious, but mostly they seem to have fairly wise words to offer and reflect on, if we are in the mood.

This was what I landed on today:

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Cold chain mission

I’d never heard of the phrase “Cold chain mission” until a few days ago when I learnt what it was while I was watching Ewan McGregor on television traveling through first through India and Nepal, and then in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And no, it wasn’t in a broadcast of one of Mr McGregor’s cinematic efforts (although I am a huge fan of the recent Beginners, am keen to watch Perfect Sense and Haywire as soon as they hit theatres near me as they look intriguing, and ok, I will even admit that I am partial to giving The Island a spin every now and then…). I came across Ewan undertaking this so-called cold chain mission in his role as a UNICEF UK Ambassador (he’s undertaken quite a few other previous missions too, such as for Soccer Aid in Peru and in Central Europe another parts of Africa maybe you have heard of them?), captured in a BBC documentary simply titled Cold Chain Mission. It’s totally worth checking out, and you can see him talking briefly about it below:

Turns out that the cold chain mission refers to the mission to immunise children in remote parts of the world that are most difficult to reach. Cold, because of the measures that have to be taken to ensure that the vaccines stay fresh and don’t go off because of the heat (practically speaking, keeping them on ice as constantly as possible), and a chain, because stops have to be made along the way to rely on the use of fridges belonging to partner organisations to keep things cold for the onward journey.

It’s pretty amazing to see the efforts being taken – not just on missions like this by Mr McGregor (where he had to travel by car, boat, helicopter, boat, canoe and foot to get to the remotest of villages on a tributary of the Ubangi river), but by human rights organisations on a regular basis – to ensure that children in even the most out-of-the-way spots are reached so they have access to the option of immunisations which will help to protect them against diseases such as TB, diphtheria and polio. The lengths that these organisations and committed humanitarian workers go to is admirable and does help to save lives.  Personally, I found it inspiring, and a good reminder of why I want to work in this area, but some others seem to have taken a decidedly more cynical view.

But whatever the critics want to say (personally I think that if celebrities are prepared to use their powers, so to speak, for good, then we should encourage it, not tear their actions down), efforts to increase global levels of immunisation importantly contribute to efforts to achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals (for which, time is fast running out with 2015 approaching). Today then, it was nice to hear some good news on progress with MDG 4 (reduce child mortality), in the form of the Millennium Villages Project.

The raison d’être behind the Millennium Villages is to take a holistic approach to development, by taking efforts to improve development across all spheres in order to create long-term impact. The approach has come in for some fairly vocal criticism and questioning of the wisdom of the approach (such as this), but results of the projects released today (you can read more – as well as some more commentary here) show a drop in child mortality rates by a third, when compared to similar villages not included in the Project. That has surely got to be good news, and it will be interesting to see how the Project develops (and if it is upscaled) from here, to hopefully begin to have a positive impact on the other MDGs as we head towards 2015.


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