Saturday, May 31, 2014

Whaling and a gnashing of teeth

The big issue of controversy at the 2014 International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee meeting was what to do about the issue of Japanese scientific whaling in Antarctica. Earlier this year the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that so called "scientific whaling" (or the JARPAII research program to use IWC speak) was infact not science, but actually whaling in another guise and was therefore illegal.

Japanese scientists, as normal, had brought a plethora of papers based on this controversial "research" to the IWC - presumably with the aim of trying to get text written in the final meeting report about how useful and scientifically valuable their scientific whaling data and program is, and therefore establishing that it was actually science, and the ICJ was wrong.

However, with the tricky issue of the ICJ having recently declared this scientific whaling in Antarctica to be effectively illegal, if the scientific committee accepted the scientific whaling data, despite the legal ruling, it might set a difficult legal precedent, with the IWC scientific committee basically having blown off the decisions of the world's most important legal court.

The Chair of the IWC had unilaterally issued a letter to the Scientific Committee basically ordering them to consider the Japanese scientific whaling material and ignore the ICJ ruling.  Know, to give a little context the Chair of the IWC is currently the Commissioner for St Vincent & the Grenadines, a Caribbean island state that has a hunt of pilot whales and other small cetaceans, ad which also hunts 2 humpback whales a year. St Vincent & the Grenadines is also a country that controversially votes with Japan at the IWC in exchange for fisheries aid and other support ( For those who have watched the movie "The Cove", she's the Caribbean Commissioner who could not answer the question about what whales could actually be found in the coastal waters of her country. The Chair of the IWC making such a statement without consultation with any of the other member nations (although I would bet money on there being consultation with Japan) was arguably a violation of IWC protocol.

So the Scientific Committee meeting started with a big debate as to whether Japanese documents based on technically illegal activity, would be appropriate. There was much back and forth - the whaling nations (Japan, Norway and  Iceland) unsurprisingly said the papers were valid - Australia, New Zealand, UK and various European countries argued that the Scientific Committee did not for legal reasons, and that at the very least they should wait until the full body of the Commissioner of the IWC met in September.

The Chair of the Scientific Committee, seeing the lack of agreement, in fact more argument against, started to suggest that the scientists did not review the papers.

Then the head of the US delegation (and past Chair of the Scientific Committee) spoke up, and naively said that because the papers dealt just with science, the Scientific Committee should review the papers, and so swung the opinion. This Statement completely ignored the ICJ ruling, and basically set a legal precedent that despite the ICJ ruling the IWC Scientific Committee considered the JARPAII program produced valid science. This annoyed several members of the US delegation, on of whom produced a paper outlining how the JARPAII program was unnecessary (as most of the data could be collected by non-lethal means) or the science was so poor it was massively, and fundamentally flawed.

So why did the head of the US delegation do this, apparently somewhat unilaterally, and undermining the statements and comments of the anti-whaling/pro-conservation nations?

This became apparent later - the US delegation head at attended a review workshop on the JARPAII program, and had prepared a long ( I watched it - it was a good 45 minutes or so) powerpoint summary of the workshop, and - so my spies tell me, and they are reliable sources- she really wanted to give the presentation having spent so much time putting it together.

So for the sake of a powerpoint presentation, the head of the US scientific delegation ignored the ruling of the highest international court in the world, and effectively the United Nations; set a legal precedent, undermined the legal, political and scientific stances of many anti-whaling nations; made the months of legal wrangling at the ICJ and the $20million moot; and arguably opened up an avenue for Japan to start their scientific whaling again.


To compound the situation, the Australian Government had changed (to an even more conservative one). As the spearhead of the ICJ court case, the head of the Australian Government delegation really needed to be at the meeting to ensure that the legal ruling was followed. However the Australian government whale budget was massively slashed, and the head of delegation had to run off back to Australia to fold up departments, cancel programs and to fire staff, further undermining the ability to fight against Japan's arguments. So basically Australia had paid $20million in tax payers money to legally fight against Japanese whaling, and that same Government not only hobbled their representatives but tied their hands behind their back and blind folded them, just as fight came to a critical point.

Social awkward science

The IWC scientific committee  has been described "a conference or the socially awkward" or, rather cruelly,  "an outing for an Asperger's syndrome society". It is true, however, that many of the delegates lack something in social skills, and often are so far up in the ivory tower, they are perched on the very top of the ivory tower's flagpole. So it is somewhat frustrating to be constantly bogged down arguing over the exact wording of a report -that quite frankly hardly anyone will read, or making off-hand interventions that derail carefully set up initiatives or resolutions, because the scientists in question are concentration not just on the trees, but on the cracks in the bark of the tress, that they cannot see the wood. Some of the scientists are the IWC are cunning and Machiavellian, trying to insert documents into the meeting that bolster the case for whaling or try to increase the number of animals that can be taken. Some however are painfully naive, and clueless as to the politics that whirl round them. So those of us who are trying to fight the good fight to conserve whales are not only battling against the forces of darkness trying to argue that more whales can be killed, but also against oblivious scientists who do not understand how their words and statements will be used, or how their results will be twisted and misinterpreted. There are also some scientists who attend the IWC purely for selfish reasons. It has been one of the few places where large amounts of funding have been available for project, without little oversight, if any, or worries about issues such as conflicts of interest. These scientific mercenaries pop up every year and only open their mouths to try to get funding for their pet project. However, the IWC is starting to clean its act up - gone are the days of handing out funding carte blanche, and there is much more transparency and oversight of funding allocation. It's been noticeable that some of the worst mercenary scientists have stopped coming since the allocation of funding has been dragged into the 21st century.

One of my students asked what it was we actually did at the IWC. Really its a case of making points and presenting that can be used to progress conservation (e.g. recommend that a certain area need be protected) that can then be acted on by member nations or environmental groups following the IWC. Or stopping and criticizing bad papers based on poor science e.g. reports from so-called "scientific whaling" or suchlike. The example I gave my student was: we are like rebel fighters battling the empire of whaling, trying to find a chink in the defenses, like an exhaust port at  the end of a trench, but instead of lazer pulses from an x wing fighter, we are trying to force scientific papers and arguments into the chink.

Bleh in Bled

After a horrible night with only 3 hours of sleep and bad dreams. To clear the head, and before another day of reviewing reports and arguing about scientific minutae, I headed up to the castle. 

The castle is particularly impressive, looming over the town, it's the perfect vacation retreat for evil overlords, vampires, mad scientists or similar villains. It perches on the edge of a sheer cliff  (perfect for hurling disloyal minions off), and has a dramatic view over Bled below. The castle was built during the dark ages and was a strong hold for the Lombards - a warrior tribe hailing from the Italian alps and famous for inventing the fashion for wearing socks with sandals.

The castle was occupied until the 18th/19th century, but has now been converted into a restaurant, and rather nice museum, albeit filled with clots of tourists wondering around looking for the restaurant bathroom. The wine cellar was rather a delight, with a nice collection of local wines and docent dressed as a medieval monk who will happily tell you about the delights Slovenia has to offer the discerning alcoholic. Two other nice exhibits are a working forge and a medieval/ renaissance printing press, with another docent dressed in period clothing, who gives a great presentation, if you can get past the crowds of clueless tourists.

Below the castle is the lake, which painfully picturesque, and running around the lake (which takes 45-50 minutes, depending on how many clots of tourists you encounter and have to slalom around) fast became a daily ritual to keep mind and body together. This daily exercise is fighting a ferocious battle against the threat of an expanding waistline, thanks to the good food and wine that is ubiquitous in the town. It's also very nice to sit aside after a day's meetings in a darkened room, arguing about scientific papers (using the term "science" very loosely in some cases). 

Breaking bread, in Bled

The food in Slovenia has been described as "hearty". Because the country is so close to Italy and Austria, there are definitely flavors of both countries found in Bled. Sausages and pizza are ubiquitous. At the moment there is an "asparagus" festival and most restaurants will have dishes that feature this particular veggie, including in rather strange places ( eg a cream desert with asparagus). Mushrooms are also popular and I've found several different mushroom soups of various levels of deliciousness, but one of my favorites has been polenta covered in sautéed mushrooms, drizzled with gorgonzola... yum. On fun fungi dishes, pasta with black truffles has been a personal favorite here. As a vegetarian traveling to Slovenia, I expected veggie food to be difficult to find, but actually it has been very easy, if anything easier than in many places in the US. So far only restaurants in big hotels have been deficient in food for veggies, probably because they cater primarily to massive tour groups of Asian/Eastern European/Russian tourists. Most restaurants in the town are very veggie-friendly. The nearest pizzeria actually has a vegan pizza with tofu - I somewhat horrified my waiter by asking for vegan pizza, with blue cheese on top.

The local desert is a kind of cream slice - a thick layer of custard and cream sandwiched between wafer thin filo pastry, the whole thing a 3-4 inch cube of cholesterol and artery hardening gooeyness.

The two main local beers are Union (brewed in the nearest big city) and Lasko, brewed in Bled since 1825. I'm not particularly fond of pilsners, which seem to be the main varieties of beer here, but Lasko dark is quite nice. The best drink, especially on a hot day, is "radler" which is basically a lager shandy with grapefruit juice. Mmmm.

When accordions are playing, nobody can hear you scream ...

I arrived in Bled in a raging thunderstorm after three flights and no sleep. Lightning silhouetted the castle. Then the church bells rang - I half expected to see the villages assembling in the square with pitchforks and torches. If I hear wolves howling while I'm here, I'm running. 

My guest house is really quite delightful, just a short stagger away from many good pubs and restaurants, and the meeting hotel. The highlight of the guest house is a rather a nice balcony/sunroom, wherein there will be much lunging and drinking of wine.

Staying in the guest house was the indomintable Barbera, chum and the scientific delegate from Chile and a longtime participant of the IWC. So braving the downpour we headed out for dinner at a rather nice local restaurant, where our meal was vegetable soup and a strange dish comprising: a bed of rocket, covered in polenta, covered in mushrooms and sprinkled with gorgonzola. Yum. Plus wine, lots and lots of good wine.

The next day the meeting started in earnest, with lots of administrative details abut setting up the meeting. We have over two hundred papers to read and digest with due diligence (which translates to probably reading no more than the title, if you are lucky). A break in the rain in the afternoon, a short break between back-to-back meetings often involving much stress (and a somewhat surprise email from back home that precipitated the need for some mental paradigm-shifting) enabled/ required a walk around the glorious lake (pictures below). An hour and a half of head clearing and close to 200 photos later, I had to head off to an official reception in my dapperest of threads to schmooze and booze. A Slovenian oompah band was the entertainment and yodeling and feisty accordion music temporarily drowned out the stresses of the day, at least until I got home and yet another thunderstorm hit.

Breaking Bled

It's that time of year when I head somewhere unusual to take part in the International Whaling Commission. This usually involves three weeks of arguing in some remote town about how many whales there are, threats to whales and dolphins, and the Japanese Government's so-called "scientific whaling", program although it has as much relationship with actual science as  Sarah Palin has to nuclear physics.

This year the meeting is in Bled, Slovenia. A beautiful little town nestling just a hour or so's drive from the Austrian border, nestled in the Alps. The town is on a lake that has a little island at one end on which is a ridiculously picturesque church. Site was a pagan shrine to a goddess of fertility until the 700s, and then when Christianity come to the region it was converted to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, rather ironically.

On the opposite side of the lake there is a crag with a castle on top, that is straight from gothic horror movie. Although it has to be said that in the sunshine the orange roofs and spires are quite pretty, in a Dracula's holiday home sort of way. 

At the base of the castle is another picturesque church, next to a vine-shrouded Bavarian-style "pub".

Around the  valley are snow-covered mountains, the largest of which Triglav. The mountain is named after a flower,  the triglav or golden horn flower. The golden horn, according to legend is was mythical chamois mountain goat with, unsurprisingly, golden horns. Its name in Slovenian is zlatrog, which makes it sound more like a demon lord from Buffy the Vampire Slayer rather than a dapperly decorated goat. When the golden horn is injured, where its blood drips the pinkish-red trigly flower blooms. The blood of golden horn is also supposed to have healing and other properties. Certainly "zlatrog" beer has the magical properties of forgetfulness, tiredness and an urge to engage in karaoke.

Up in the mountains, besides magic goats, there are also 400-600 or so bears. The region actually has one of the highest densities of black bears in Europe. The fact that one of the main local crafts is bee keeping/ honey making might be a coincidence, or it might have got out on the pooh grapevine that this is the place to visit. On bees, one of the local folk arts is to paint pictures on bee hive panels. Originally this was done to uniquely identify the otherwise identical hives, but the craft it rather took off, and the area is famous for the panel paintings - which often depict folk tales or legends, morality fables, or sometimes even political satire.

Bled has been a bit of a tourist spot since the Middle Ages, when pilgrims would come here. It took off as a resort thanks to Arnold Rikli, a health nut who ran a spa resort here in the 1800s, but not quite in the way you might think. Rikli's health regime included naked hikes up the side of mountains and a diet that would make bland seem exciting. If guests slipped from the spartan regime and snuck into town for food or drink, they would be summarily expelled from the resort. As travel to and from Bled could be difficult, especially in the winter, this led to a lot of very wealthy tourists needing accommodation and food, particularly food and drink that was the antithesis of the minimalist diet that Rikli extolled. As a result several luxiurious hotels, restaurants and a brothel were developed, which began to attract tourists of the non-health nut variety.

About Slovenia

Slovenia was settled by the Romans (it borders current day Italy and Austria in the west). In the 6th century, Slavic tribes moved into Slovenia and  the country is currently 83% slavic in terms of ethnicity. The territory was invaded or ruled by a number of countries including the Hapsburg empire and until the mid 18th hundreds the aristocracy was German-speaking, ruling over Slav peasants. The land was also part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until that collapsed after World War I. During WW1 Slovenia was the site of a Austro-Italian battle front, as allied Italian forces tried to push up into Austro-Hungry and pull troops away from the eastern and western fronts. Nearly 1 million people died in the fighting that the rest of the world has largely forgotten (bear in mind the current population of Slovenia is just 2 million, to get an idea of the massive impact this war had on the country). During the Second World War communist forces in Slovenia held the Nazi's back from spreading into the Adriatic Sea, and subsequently became a communist state, a province in Yugoslavia the larger nation comprised of slavic speaking peoples (Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian).

The country became independent in 1991 after overthrowing the military (the "10 days war") and within four years had joined the European Union, its acceptance in the Union being so rapid because of the country's economic stability and relative political unity compared to it's neighbors.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

They all end happily forever after - the actual ending to the Lord of the Rings

Last weekend I did a Lord of the rings marathon with some friends - in a butt-numbing 12 hour session of hobbits, moody rangers, hot elves, pizza and shandy (beer & lemonade) at a local cinema/brew house. To break up the event there was a trivia competition (I won a prize woo-hoo !) and a Gollum impersonation contest (I came third - the winner was awesome, so I do not begrudge him his trophy). The movies personal favourites of mine (alongside the "Princess Bride" and a couple of other movies), but I have to say the ending of the Return of the King is slow, and sonorously looooooong drawn out and you are glad when finally Frodo sails off to the undying lands with Bilbo, Gandalf and Galadriel and Sam, Merry and Pippin goes back to their life in teh Shire to live happily ever after ...

But that's not how it really ends if you read Tolkien...

Merry (my personal favourite character) and Pippin live unusually long lives and leave the Shire for Rohan to see an old and ailing Eomer on his deathbed. They then travel to Minas Tirith and live out the rest of their days there with Aragorn, and are entombed in the hall of the kings. Aragorn actually lives to be 210 years old (at the beginning of Lord of the Rings in Bree, he's in his eighties), and when he finally dies, he's entombed next to his two hobbit friends. Poor Arwen however, carries on, and eventually heads to Lothlorien and according to Tolkien's notes, she just lies down and dies of a broken heart. Pretty tragic.

Meeting the parents of your new girlfriend/boyfriend at any time is stressful, but when they tell their beloved child that by dating you "there is only death" it really could put a dampener and cast a pall over Thanksgiving and family holidays. Elrond, however, was a little concerned about the slight age gap between Arwen and Aragorn. When Aragorn met Arwen he was twenty and she was nearly 3000 years old. A daunting age gap by any means, especially as 20 year old guys are pretty immature compared to women of the same age, let alone one who is 150 times older than them. As I mentioned above, at the beginning of Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is in his eighties, so he and Arwen had had 60 years of an on-again-off-gain romance before the beginning of the story, that would kicks the antics of "friends" Rachel and Ross to the kerb.

After Aragorn dies, Legolas and Gimli head to the undying lands too. As the elves have largely all gone by then, Legolas builds a boat and the two of them set sail off into the sunset together, towards an eternal bromance across the sea.

And talking of bromances...

Samwise Gamgee doesn't stay in the Shire, despite the last scene of the movie. After Rosie passes away, he too takes a boat with the elves to the undying lands, to follow master Frodo. He leaves the famous book There and Back Again & The Lord of the Rings with his daughter, but sails away to the west to find his old friends and Frodo.... and they live happily forever after  ...