Archive for September, 2015

The village within

I have meandered through the Otago University campus a couple of times recently; it is the same but different to the campus I attended a lifetime or two ago. But I find it a very happy experience. The feeling I have of wandering around the university today must be similar to the feeling that people find when they return to their hometown to find it has progressed positively while still retaining the essence and familiarity of a hometown.

The Otago University campus has a wonderful muti-generational atmosphere. It blends dignified respect for its heritage buildings with youthful boldness in its modern architecture; adapted villas sit just along the pathway from purpose-built laboratories;  stone and cement infrastructure is softened by the grassed terraces that embrace the banks of the babbling Leith river. There is a positive vibe and the buildings and grounds are beautifully maintained.

All very well to have  a beautiful campus, but does it do the job? is it a great educator? The revised 25th edition of the World list of Universities and Higher Education facilities lists 16,000 such institutions in 180 countries. But for truly international assessment standards purposes, the QS TopUniversity lists 4284 Universities. The rankings are based on surveys of 76,000 academics and 44,000 employers. According to the QS 2015 rankings Otago University, at #173, sits comfortably within the top 5% of the QS TopUniversities list. Now that is not in the top 1% of ivy leagues like Harvard or Princeton, or the Royal and Ancients of Oxford and Cambridge, or any of China’s leading universities, but it is still in the same academic conversations as Dartmouth or Michigan State Universities in USA or University of Bath in the Uk, Stockholm University, the University of Bern and the University of Barcelona. Given our geographic isolation from the major academic resources of the planet, that is an achievement. Within that overall score Otago ranks a very impressive #8 in the world for dentistry sitting between Kings College of London at 7 and Harvard at 9 .

Beyond that, Otago is acknowledged as New Zealand’s leading research university, often featuring on the international news for the quality of its achievements. As a born and bred Dunedin resident I have to say I am more than happy with that status and, in fact, quite proud of the efforts of those who have administered the University over the decades. They have done great credit to the City’s founders who had the foresight to establish New Zealand’s first university here in Dunedin.

The University is self managed and regulated. They have around 4,000 staff, just over half of who are ‘general’ staff managing the general operations, the bureaucracy, the buildings and property; they even have their own security staff. This is indeed a village within, containing around 20% of Dunedin’s population. The village is overseen by a Council of 18 including the Chancellor. Members are a 50/50 mixture of appointments and elected representatives. Three are elected by academic staff, one by general staff, two by the students and three by the Court of Convocation (graduates of Otago University). The other 9 are appointments made by the Ministry, the City Council, the University on consultation with the central organisation of employers and the central organisation of workers; and the university appoints its Chancellor and Vice Chancellor.

It sounds at first like a ‘jobs for the boys’ arrangement, but when you walk through the campus and examine the University’s academic status, what can you say but ‘it works’.

What would Dunedin be without this university? Much the poorer we would have to concede. Possibly to say we would be nationally and internationally irrelevant would not be too harsh. Why is it then that this village within is globally so successful yet the city without just muddles along?

Start at the top. It always starts at the top. Ask any political party, any business, any organisation at all. I would think that the University Council holds significantly more status than the Dunedin City Council. The Vice Chancellor and Chancellor positions are more respected in our community than the mayor and deputy mayor of the City Council. And that just should not be the case. People do not fire off letters to the editor challenging the intelligence, integrity or professionalism of the Chancellor of the University, but the current Mayor’s performance, or lack of, is a regular subject in those columns. People just do not seem to respect that office any more.

At the local election, everyone has a given number of boxes to tick; most voters have absolutely no idea whether the person they tick is the best qualified to do the job, or even qualified at all. They may recognise or even know one or two candidates at some level, but they have to tick fifteen names. Well they don’t have to tick them all but it is their democratic right and duty. So if truth be known, if you vaguely recognise a name, or think it is familiar from somewhere, then it often just gets a tick. This is totally random democracy. Anyone reviewing that system of democracy would conclude it is doomed to fail. And, to be frank, fail it does.

If we took the lead from the University and had a system that gave each of our five or six districts a representative who then appointed:

  • one Councillor from the members of the Otago manufacturers association;
  • one appointed from the members of the Otago retailers association;
  • two appointed from the members of the combined workers’ representative organisations of Dunedin;
  • one appointed from the combined senior citizens associations;
  • one appointed from the University of Otago;
  • one appointed from each of the combined secondary and primary school teacher/parents associations;
  • one appointed from the emergency relief organisations of Dunedin
  • Council would elect their own Mayor and deputy from among their group to ensure that the Mayor actually had a majority support on Council.

The elected district Councillors would have the oversight of Council operations on behalf of the citizens of Dunedin.

At least then we would be electing / appointing people who truly represent the critical sectors of our community who provide the skill sets that are needed to drive a city forward. Its got to beat the random ticking and electing of people about whose administrative skills we know little or nothing..

At least we probably would not have a Council forgetting to sweep up the autumn leaves and clean out the mud tanks before the winter rains come and cause chaotic flooding; then having a Mayor running around town squawking ‘the end is nigh, the end is nigh; oh woe is us the end is nigh’.

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Sapiens on the move again

In the early 50 or 60,000 years BC of sapiens’ migratory patterns, they were brave and ambitious. Hunting and foraging into the great unknown. Whether forced by local conflicts, climatic changes, excessive foraging and hunting or whether just inspired by an immense sense of adventure, sapiens migrated or fled from Africa westwards through Europe and eastwards through Asia, south to eventually reach New Guinea and Australia and North through Siberia before travelling down through Alaska and North America all the way to the steaming jungles of South America. In addition, the Polynesian sapiens ventured out onto the oceans in little more than dugout logs with a sail attached, to eventually colonise Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti and New Zealand.

mammoth_hunting_ice_age_by_sedeslavThese were people who travelled into the unknown, relying entirely on their own hunting and foraging skills for survival. Travelling from the Northern Africa and the Mediterranean up through the frozen wastelands of Siberia then down through Alaska must have been enormously daunting; and hunting the giant mammoths for survival equally daunting. Of course it happened progressively over hundreds of generations. Sapiens had reached North America by 10,000 bc probably having started the migration some 40,000 years prior.

bf26a775a982689ed2c123179f11ab28No less so was setting off in canoes across terrifying oceans in search of what? a speck of land that they had to arrive at by chance in order to survive.

The sapiens instinct when they are forced by circumstance to abandon their homeland, has always been to travel to empty land and setup a new culture. Even to some extent this was apparent with the European migration to Australia after WW2. They came with nothing to a very sparsely populated land with precious little social welfare and built a life for themselves. But in the 21st century it seems different. Or more specifically in September 2015 it has instantly become different. Such is the power of social media today.

Turkish policeman recovers the body of a 3 year old refugee

Turkish policeman recovers the body of a 3 year old refugee

First group of Syrians being relocated to Germany.

First group of Syrians being relocated to Germany.

This response to the Syrian refugee problem marks a significant shift in sapiens attitude towards mass numbers of displaced people. But once the social response level has been reset, the 6 million displaced Afghans and Iraqis are next in the queue. And then hundreds of thousands of economic refugees will be filling the boats along the South East Asian coast. Impending death through warfare or through economic collapse, resulting in starvation/ dehydration/ lack of medicine, is only academic. The human tragedy is the same. The precedent has been set by the global response to the image of a Turkish policeman with a dead Syrian infant. The major difference between this displacement and historical sapiens displacement through the previous 70,000 years is that now they do not go into the wilderness; they head for the brightest lights. They see what the wealthy countries have and say they want a bit of that.

WorldPop 0-2000But is that a species solution? Many of the twentieth century problems have largely been created by urbanisation and the condensing of too many people into too small an area. Urbanisation has also brought with it massive global population growth. So is adding millions of traumatised and impoverished refugees into existing overcrowded European cities a solution that will benefit mankind as a species?

But you may say there are no great under-populated regions to explore any more. Or none that are accessible. Would Australia allow a displaced tribe from Syria to establish an independent Syrian state in the central Australian desert? Would the USA allow an indendent Afghan state to establish in the Alaskan wilderness? Hardly likely. Not even declaring such states as United Nations sanctuary states would work. So, meantime, they head to the bright lights and we throw another chair on the fire.

But to you who think that we have come to end of the great Sapiens migrations into the uninhabited wilderness let me use the four letter word: Mars

Its official, President Obama announced it and NASA are all geared up for it. In the next decade we will have men on Mars. By 2035 we will have humans living permanently on Mars. Possibly up to 50,000 humans; that’s the population of Timaru.

Surface Image from Mars Rover

Surface Image from the Mars Curiosity Rover

But isn’t Mars just a planet of red dust? The atmosphere cannot support human life? At the moment yes, but apparently not an insurmountable obstacle. At least according to some guy on national radio, and you cannot get better authentication than that, who explained that while Mars actually has a very thin atmosphere, its does have an abundance of frozen water and frozen carbon dioxide. It just needs warming up a bit and it will be very habitable for mankind. And if modern humans have developed any skill-set we can lay claim to, it is the ability to warm up a planet. He thought the warming up would be done with the aid of giant mirrors and that, eventually, Mars would have lakes, oceans and vegetation and could accommodate millions of humans. What is certain is that the powers that be are determined to achieve it as a start point to finding somewhere else to live in case the worst happens down here.

So what will we use Mars for? In the testing stage maybe will we use it as a 21st century version of 18th century Australia? Just a far off place to offload all the surplus/ unwanted population from the prisons and refugee camps? Out of sight, out of mind. Perfect guinea pigs.

But once they have established a level of civilisation on Mars, will the corporate tsars then decide to inhabit this planet themselves? Establishing estates with a backyard the size of Bolivia? The equivalent of a 20th century Australian owning rights to millions of square kilometres of mines and living in a luxury home overlooking Sydney harbour.



Syhthetic Humans for sale or hire

Synthetic Humans for sale or hire

No doubt they will have their robots in play by that time for their domestic staff and the more strategically critical tasks, including security. The population of descendants from the Martian convict colony (known as the MCC) will be the new age African slaves, toiling in the fields and mines. Work you just would not give to an expensive robot. But only robots will be allowed up in the big house. Robots certainly will be far more reliable than humans in tending to the whims and homes of the Mars set. They will nanny the children and pour the drinks which means at least the g&t set will, for the first time ever, be confident that no-one spat or pissed in their drink before serving it.

So who do you think might be already jockeying for a home on Mars? Elon Musk’s Spacex is probably at the front of the queue. Richard Branson is also building his own spacecraft and Donald Trump is investing heavily in securing the Presidency of the USA knowing that NASA reports directly to the President. As you know I am not one to indulge in conspiracy theories, just sayin’ is all.

Sapiens, they just can’t sit still for one eon.

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