On How Not to Protest (again)

January 19, 2020

Recently, Karen and I were waiting for a tram in Bourke Street to take us to a vegan pizzeria in Melbourne I’d heard good things about.

IMG_4752

Before the tram was able to come, hundreds of climate change protesters emerged. It was an unseasonably cold, wet day, as the picture suggests.

Now, as someone who in late 2019 attended a climate rally and a protest against oil and gas exploration in the Great Australian Bight, I’m broadly supportive of such public protests and marches.

However, there were a few problems with this one…

It seemed to Karen and I that the protesters were mostly preaching to the converted.

It took place in a street in which trams run. Trams. Not cars. Public transport.

Sure, not very efficient public transport given Victoria’s current reliance on coal for power (perhaps that was at least part of their point).

Why not march up a street where cars ran instead? They, at least, could have taken a different route. There was a police presence since this was a planned event, unlike another recent protest in Melbourne.

Yes, I know that disruption was probably part of the aim.

But the truth is that you don’t have to be completely disruptive to get attention like a two year old having a hissy fit.

Another problem was they appeared to circle around multiple times…

After the boredom set in, Karen and I got to wondering what a poll would show about just how seriously participants in the protest were about finding solutions to climate change.

Which of these people, we wondered, use vehicles (theirs or others) in a responsible way in order to minimise emissions?

Which of these people were vegan or at least made some significant attempt to reduce the consumption of animal products, given that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for a similar quantity of emissions as the whole of the transport sector.

Which of these people regularly waste food?

Which of them recycle? And so on…

Yet another problem was that at one point, the chants changed from being climate related to:

Always was, always will be, aboriginal Land

I encountered the same thing during the 2019 oil and gas exploration protest in Adelaide.

Now, no matter how sympathetic you are to the plight of aboriginal people in Australia (and there is good reason to be) or how much you support the notion of land rights, this is a very problematic statement.

For one thing, it is astonishingly anthropocentric, the very thing that has gotten us into so much trouble with climate change.

For another, it’s a claim that can only have any validity for the last 60,000 years or thereabouts. Before that brief geological time span, the land “belonged” to other species.

Such a view may not be politically popular these days, especially with Australia/Invasion Day around the corner, but it has the distinct advantage of being true.

The main point about this chant is that its message was different from the others.

If you’re going to have a protest about climate change, stick to the point!

Don’t dilute the message!

Also, ensure that you are really making an attempt to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Oh. We eventually got to that vegan pizzeria, but it was far enough that we caught a cab.

I hate catching cabs!

So, thanks for that (not).

On Being Special

January 19, 2020
sunset person love people
source: Josh Willink (pixels.com)

I’ve had some conversations in recent times that have ended in disagreement over the question of whether members of homo sapiens are more important or special than members of other animal species.

But what do we mean by special?

Relationships with other beings, human or non-human, make the participants special to one another.

Something about us makes us special, e.g. tool use, intelligence, culture.

The holy books of some religions and other ideological traditions often claim that humans are special, perhaps even chosen in some way.

It’s important to distinguish between these different types of special-ness.

The first is subjective and derives from a shared history, an emotional bond. For some people, the death of an animal can be as devastating as the loss of a relative or human friend to someone else. There’s no right or wrong in that. It just is.

The second can be tested; other species use tools, have high intelligence and some may even have their own kind of culture (e.g. humpback whales).

The third must be supported by evidence, and since, as Carl Sagan reminds us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, this is a difficult requirement to meet.

Humans are meaning creators. We are free to choose who to become; we have a responsibility to choose. Relationships are central to being human and meaning is often created in relationship with others; not always, but very often; some do choose to find meaning in solitude.

My father’s health was in decline late last year and more rapidly before my eyes in the first week of 2020. However, his death on January 7 2020 has not changed my view of the special-ness of homo sapiens relative to other species.

Dad was special to me because he was, well, my father. We had an emotional connection, a shared biological and social history, a relationship spanning more than 5 decades. I am in the process of mourning his loss. This does not necessarily imply that we or members of homo sapiens in general are special in any other sense.

A Eulogy (for Dad)

January 19, 2020

IMG_4814

I gave a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral six days ago. Before the transcript of the eulogy below, I want to make some preliminary background remarks.

My father, Kelvin Benn, was born on May 14 1931 and died on January 7 2020 after recurrent bouts of pneumonia. He had emphysema and a rare blood cancer that a small fraction of patients with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma present with.

After the usual indignities of being a hospital patient, falls in and out of hospital, being on oxygen, and having intra-venous antibiotics a couple of times, Dad began eating less and became increasingly unwilling to take medications. The intention was still to try to get him well enough to be able to leave hospital and go into a nursing home. The reality is that he had lost the will to live by late 2019 and certainly by early 2020.

I spent time with Dad in hospital from January 1 to January 6. We said our goodbyes. I felt there was a good chance I would never see him again. I returned home, uncertain of his future, intending to return again soon. My wife, kids and I had a few days planned in Melbourne from January 8. I thought that if Dad’s condition deteriorated I would at least be able to get back to him (in Tasmania) at short notice. He died late in the afternoon of January 7…

My mother died in 2002 after failed heart valve replacement surgery. Dad married again in 2006. Dawn (dad’s wife) gave a eulogy followed in turn by my sister Julie and I. In the last part of the eulogy, Julie and I took turns reading short extracts from a few of my father’s short funeral sermons that resonated with both of us.

What comes through from these extracts is a focus on relationships, a requirement for personal responsibility, freedom and the necessity of choice, a consideration of the consequences of our actions, and a mandate to do good whenever possible. This resonated with my sister and I and aligns with my own philosophical position, derived from existentialism and consequentialist ethics.

It also gives me some hope for the future of our species that an atheist and a Christian can agree on so much.

What follows is the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral on January 13 at Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston. My theme was commonality, something we desperately need to focus more on if we are collectively to survive the decades to come.


It’s easy to focus on the differences between people. Dad and I were different in many ways. But we also had a lot in common.

We were both in The St John Ambulance Brigade from an early age, attending sporting and other community events as first aiders, and both becoming cadet sergeants.

Along with the anchor tattoo, Dad also had the S-J-A-B tattoo to prove it!

We both studied at theological college, and enjoyed having philosophical discussions.

We both took our work seriously.

Further to Julie’s comments, Dad often used to say that rights come with responsibilities. As a teenager, mostly I would just internally groan at that…

However, I’ve found myself increasingly saying this sort of thing in recent years to my kids and others, along with: “That music is too loud!”

Then one day, I realised that I had become my father. 🙂

Something I also remember as a young teenager was that if I was ever rude to my mother, out would come the belt!

Of course, those occurrences were few and far between! 😉

Dad’s work as a Uniting Church minister kept him well occupied and, as Julie noted, when he wasn’t out preaching or providing pastoral care, he was often up working late in his office, especially on Saturdays, preparing the sermon for the following day.

Even after retirement, Dawn can probably relate to Dad not straying far from the office for long periods!

Some of my favourite memories of Dad are from beach holidays in the seventies, the two of us body surfing or snorkelling.

As Julie also noted, holidays like those at Port Hughes were good times too, even if my first jetty catch was a puffer fish!

Another fond memory is from 1998, when Dad and I stayed up until the wee hours in Mallala watching a meteor shower as the Earth ploughed through the debris left by a comet.

Dad had a good sense of humour.

IMG_4740

In an email to me in 2016 he said:

“I have a few things I want to share with my GP …  Will let you know if he thinks I may not live to be 100 after all!!”

When he was in hospital recently, a measure of his wellness was the frequency of his witty remarks.

Dad gave a Probus club talk in 2015 titled “Strange Things that Happen at Funerals”. In one anecdote from that talk he says:

One day the undertaker picked me up to conduct a funeral for a man he knew, so I asked him to tell me something about him. “What was he like,” I asked. His answer stunned me: “This is the first decent thing he has done in his life,” I was told. “What about his family,” I asked. “They are all the same”, he replied. So, I thought I had better used the old, sterner burial service. Afterwards the family came up to me and said, “Lovely service, Father.” It just goes to show that you can never tell how people are going to react.

Like many fathers and sons, Dad and I had our disagreements and at times we hurt each other with words.

However, in a 2015 email exchange, in which we had disagreed on matters of belief, he said:

“Unless we are willing to be open to change, our thinking can only become stagnant. The older we get the more we realise how little we really know…or we have wasted a life. It has been a great blessing that we have always been able to be open and honest with one another.”

I’m sure there are times we could have been even more honest and open, but the point is to intend to do better.

I don’t think it would be a misrepresentation to say that Dad emphasised the social justice and pastoral care aspects of his faith.

He genuinely cared about people. The idea that “God is Love” became more important to Dad as time passed.

Julie’s daughter, Kate, recently found some of the funeral sermons Dad wrote. It seems appropriate to finish by reading some excerpts that resonated with both of us. At a time when so much of the world is divided, Dad’s words seem especially relevant.

“In our troubled world today we are witnessing what happens when over zealous people force their misguided views on others… We need to be aware of each other’s differences so that we will not make the fatal mistake of believing that we are right and God is on our side.

We come into this world and pass through it, leaving it either a happier & better place or a sadder & sorrier place. The choice is ours and so are the consequences of our choice.

Nobody else can live our life for us and nobody else can be held responsible for the way we live it. Freedom to choose & responsibility for actions are the two sides of the same coin.

Life is all about relationships and building relationships makes demands on us. Good relationships are costly. We are all far from perfect but we should always be striving to be better than we are.

As we think about somebody else’s death we cannot help thinking about our own life, and our accountability…to help people to become more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate, more honest, more understanding and more tolerant, more in tune with… one another.”

Thank you Dad for your life of service to others.

Current Betelgeuse Dimming Event

December 29, 2019

The semi-regular late-type variable supergiant star alpha Orionis, better known as Betelgeuse, pulsating with a period of around 420 days at a distance of 640 light years, one of the largest stars visible to the unaided eye and normally in the top 10 list of brightest stars in the sky, is currently undergoing a rapid dimming event.

betelgeuse-size-comparison-with-the-solar-system

source: ESO

If Betelgeuse was located at our sun’s position, it would engulf all the inner planets and extend out to the vicinity of Jupiter’s orbit.

When this star ends its life in a supernova explosion it will be visible in daytime and cast shadows at night.

There have been recent questions about the possibility of Betelguese going supernova (or having done so already) and whether the current dimming may be a sign of it.

ATel 13365 has this to say about the dimming event:

The current faintness of Betelgeuse appears to arise from the coincidence of the star being near the minimum light of the ~5.9-yr light-cycle as well as near, the deeper than usual, minimum of the ~425-d period.

It’s interesting to look at past observations of the star.

Here are the last 2 years of visual and Johnson V observations:

alfOri2yrs

The last 5 years of observations:

alfOri5yrs

The last 10 years of observations:

alfOri10yrs

The last 25 years of observations:

alfOri25yrs

In this and the next plot you can see the transition to image-based photometry about 50 years ago in the form of Johnson V data points.

The last 50 years of observations:

alfOri50yrs

The last 100 years of observations:

alfOri100yrs

It’s apparent that there have been similar dimming events over the last 100 years, e.g. in 1947, 1985 and other years.

alfOri100yrsWithFilterGT1.3.png

It’s not obvious that the current dimming event is significantly more rapid than others that came before it, at least by looking at the slope of a linear fit of dimming events.

Alpha Orionis is a bright star, varying between around magnitude 0 and 1.3. It’s easily observable in the north-eastern late evening sky at the moment, along with comparison stars such as Aldebaran and Pollux.

You can create a finder chart via the AAVSO website. An easier way to get started is to see pages 2 and 3 and the chart on the last page of the AAVSO Citizen Sky southern “10 star” tutorial.

The submission of observations to the AAVSO is encouraged and there’s no need for binoculars or a telescope.

AAVSO Merit Award

November 9, 2019

I was humbled recently to be a recipient of the 2019 Merit Award from the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), having previously received The Director’s Award in 2011 and the Bill Bradfield Award from ASSA in 2012.

IMG_4406

fdf8d7ca-b612-4850-964d-671d55a5cc4f

Receiving the Merit Award at Melbourne University from AAVSO Director, Stella Kafka, Dec 10 2019

Patrick Wills also received the AAVSO Merit Award this year for his work on the AAVSO Variable Star Index, a database that VStar also uses, including the web services Patrick has created.

Dark horse

October 19, 2019

11611904-3x2-940x627

source: ABC (https://ab.co/35R72OW)

This week we learned of the many Australian race horses every year being slaughtered for pet food, supplied as food for greyhound racing industry dogs, or exported overseas for human consumption.

The ABC 7:30 Report’s 45 minute story is heartbreaking to watch. Some scenes are reminiscent of documentaries such as Dominion or Earthlings.

Undercover video aired by ABC combined with branding on the horses and access to official databases provides damning evidence of a system out of control.

However, the language used by racing officials to describe the horses as property provides an insight into the mindset that gives rise to this behaviour.

As I sit here in a food court, a television screen shows a horse race underway…

…and the Melbourne Cup is only a couple of weeks away.

How many animals will be injured and euthanised trackside or considered no longer useful to punters and sold off to be discarded via an abattoir, despite years of training and thousands of dollars of winnings?

But it’s not only elite horses that deserve a better end.

Untold numbers of ordinary, gentle creatures not only meet an early end in abattoirs but often live their short lives in confined squalor.

That’s speciesism in action.

African Swine Fever: with a whimper…

October 15, 2019

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

(T.S. Elliot)

11028044-3x2-940x627

source: https://ab.co/2IQVbpS

ABC News today reports that a woman has been deported back to Vietnam for trying to bring 4.6 kg of uncooked pork into Australia via Sydney airport.

Sigh. Apparently some people don’t read the news. Or just don’t care…

The Australian Pork Chief Executive Margo Andrae is quoted as saying:

“I’m outraged that someone thinks they can bring 10 kilos [sic] of pork products in their suitcases and not declare it and risk our entire $5.3-billion industry.”

Sure. Outraged, yes.

But again, the talk is all about risk to the industry, not about the consequences for the millions of gentle creatures who may be exterminated in the process.

Imagine if we treated the human carriers of infectious diseases the way we treat livestock who may not even yet have been infected, let alone those who have.

That’s speciesism in action.

African Swine Fever: two little things…

October 10, 2019
11147434-3x2-940x627
source: https://ab.co/339veJU (ABC)

In most commentary about the current African Swine Flu outbreaks in 50 countries, we tend to hear is this kind of thing:

  • it has been reported in around 50 countries;
  • it has a high (80% to100%) mortality rate in pigs but does not affect humans;
  • there is currently no vaccine;
  • it’s expected that 25% of the world’s pigs will be wiped out by the end of 2019;
  • it’s currently several hundred km from Australian shores in Timor Leste;
  • pork prices are increasing;
  • farmers would be compensated if they had to kill all their pigs in the event of an outbreak.

From ABC News:

African swine fever is spread when pigs come into contact with contaminated pigs, pork products, feed, ticks, and infected material such as syringes.

The disease can be found in pork products even if they’ve been cooked or frozen.

It can also be transmitted via humans wearing contaminated clothing and boots into an area where uninfected pigs are kept, resulting in infection.

and

“There’s no vaccine, there’s no cure, if my farm was to get it, all my pigs would be destroyed”

What’s interesting is what is we don’t hear much about.

We don’t hear much talk about the likelihood of the disease mutating in pig populations such that it crosses over into our species. Perhaps swift pig population destruction is a reason not to worry about mutation. Perhaps the virus genome is just too stable. But is it wise to be complacent?

Such is our hubris.

We also don’t hear much about the tragedy of the pigs who are “culled” or “destroyed”.

That’s a sign of our speciesism.

Why do we want so badly to know whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe when we treat so much (human and non-human) life on Earth with such disdain?

Wombat stoning and other insults

October 7, 2019
11572152-3x2-940x627source: https://ab.co/2LQ8ysw (ABC)

A South Australian Aboriginal elder recently defended the killing of wombats by throwing rocks at them until they die (aka stoning) as a “cultural practice” used to obtain food…

…in the 21st century…

He was cited by the ABC as saying that:

This has been part of our culture and the way we’ve gone about it for thousands of years.

Hmm…

Stoning is an ancient tradition for adultery in Judaeo-Christian cultures, and still is in some Muslim majority countries…

…and how many of us in western democracies (whatever they are now) consider that to be a Good Thing?

On the flip side, killing animals without first stunning them is yet another tradition in some religious cultures…

…and in case you were wondering: no, I don’t think throwing rocks would count as a method of stunning.

Generally, when I hear “tradition”, I translate it in my head as “the way we’ve always done things around here” or simply, “just because we want to”.

Tradition can be harmless and even fun.

But, when your “tradition” is combined with careless treatment of sentient animals or the environment, other than making me angry, you should also imagine me sticking my fingers in my ears and uttering:

la la la la la la la la la la…

When you’re ready for a civilised conversation, let me know. Maybe then you can join the United Federation of Planets, er, People.

Until then, don’t bother me with your “it’s tradition” nonsense.

And please, please, please don’t expect me to respect your harmful tradition.

Postscript: Since I first wrote this, another aboriginal elder has spoken out to condemn the action and a 10 daily article claims that this “…has sparked a national debate on what’s culture and what’s cruelty.” While debate is always healthy, is there really anything much to debate here?

“Divine” Hitch

September 30, 2019

There are often moments when I desire inspiration from Christopher Hitchens, one of the most eloquent public intellectuals of our time.

I watched this interview tonight, recorded after his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer. It came from a slightly surprising (at least to me) source, but I found it to be rewarding and classically Hitch: