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Archive for the ‘Films/Shows/Talks’ Category

Creating Community

Different options for community housing were the subject of a talk by Jane Quigley. Her definition of creating community is bringing people together for good, and creating a sense of belonging.

Jane is currently the Chairperson of the Housing for Women Trust which interested me as I’ve had some involvement with that organisation over many years, first through the Women’s Centre, and later through Volunteering Canterbury. Jane has lived at their Beachcomber development in South Brighton, and also been involved with the Viva! Project and the Whitmore Village in Edgeware.

Jane became interested in the possibility of co-housing after attending festivals in the 1970s. These often included games, shared meals, companionship, playmates for children, discussion, and opportunities for learning. During her time living at Beachcomber the development was transformed from one of disfunction to a place where there were regular meetings, a community garden, and shared meals.

Through involvement with the Viva! Project she gained knowledge about collaborative housing and community living. To be successful such developments must be designed and managed by residents who choose to live in a close-knit neighbourhood. There needs to be a balance of private and community spaces, with a common house for shared meals and other gatherings, together with bump space where residents can meet each other. Two examples of successful co-housing are Christie Walk in central Adelaide, and Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood in West Auckland.

Whitmore Village is an accommodation business which Jane has been running since she bought five ageing properties in Whitmore Street in 2007. At any one time there are 30-40 people of more than 20 different nationalities living there, some of whom have been there for several years. Others come back multiple times. Jane has found that respect for people’s unique differences is vital, and she has needed to learn conflict resolution skills.

For any co-housing project people tend to self-select at the beginning, and once established there is often a long waiting list, as is the case with the Peterborough Housing Co-op. Usually such projects include people owning their own units. Retirement villages can have many of the advantages of co-housing, but lack diversity of ages because young families cannot afford to be in such villages.

The Viva! Project was a finalist in the Breathe Competition, but the eventual winner failed to make it work financially. The later Madras Square project similarly failed financially, but the area is now being developed by Mike Greer Homes with a mix of residential and retail buildings.

The main difficulties in developing co-housing are high land prices, and the challenge of getting funding for community development. There can also be conflict over maintaining community facilities.

Jane concluded with a quote from Rumi: Love is the whole thing. We are only pieces.

I particularly enjoyed this talk because it reminded me of Values Party discussions long ago. When we moved to Christchurch in late 1986 I was keen to live in the Avon Loop because I knew it had been a strong community. Sadly much of that has faded, especially since the earthquakes, but a number of us keep working to try and rebuild that community.

Community can be created
if local folk are dedicated

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Climate Crisis

The climate change adaption imperative was the topic for this morning’s talk by Judy Lawrence, Senior Research Fellow at the NZ Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington. Judy came to us via Zoom, rather than using fossil fuels to travel to Christchurch. Her message was harsh, but not without hope.

Judy is one of the authors of the 6th IPCC Assessment Report, which shows that greenhouse gas emissions are at the highest level in human history. This report is unprecedented, as no other topic has ever been so carefully and widely considered. The idea of limiting global warming to 1.5° is no longer feasible, but the decisions we make now could ensure a livable future.

An important risk is the marine heatwave which is affecting fish. The ability of institutions and governance systems to manage climate risks is uncertain, with the vulnerability of low income people critical and expected to grow. We have to adapt to climate change, but maladaption can have unintended consequences. For instance, building sea walls can give people a false sense of security. Political commitment is vital, as is the follow-through of that commitment. It’s essential to monitor and evaluate adaptation measures so we can track progress.

Reform of the Resource Management Act in Aotearoa is a vital part of adaptation, but finance for all this is uncertain. Half of our emissions come from agriculture. Local and central government need to work in partnership over climate change, and it’s important to engage with communities. We need to find new ways of raising finance, using land, and working together. Māori iwi have developed strategies for adaptation and supporting Māori institutions is part of adapting to climate change. They look at generations ahead and Pākehā could use that pattern. We must put people and communities at the heart of adaptation.

Someone mentioned that fact that owning an Alsatian dog had been calculated to have as high a carbon footprint as running an SUV, and asked whether we have too many pets? Judy’s response was that we all need to explore our own lifestyles and make adjustments today. When asked about the impact of population growth on climate change she said we need enough people and capacity to make adjustments and reduce emissions, considering lifestyle patterns while maintaining migration. We have to work out how we can have sustainable employment and the necessary tax contribution. Asked about the role of international capitalism she pointed out that the U.N. has proved to be completely ineffective over the war in Ukraine. However the U.N. Secretary General has used strong language about climate change and has set up a group to see how countries can meet and increase their commitment.


Judy acknowledged the role of young people, such as Greta Thunberg, in raising awareness of climate change, and we will see more of this. Scientists are staunch in their advocacy and social media means we are exposed to what’s happening globally. All this helps to give confidence that positive change can happen.

We know what to do and how to do it. It’s now up to us to do it together.

We all must reduce our emission
to keep within a safe condition

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Everest Expedition

The first ever New Zealand expedition to Mount Everest in 1977 was the subject of our talk this morning. It was given by Mike Mahoney who is a Life Member of the N.Z. Mountain Guides Association, and the Parish Priest for six parishes on the West Coast. Mike came clad in the windsuit he wore for 80 days on the expedition and he brought and passed around a boot with crampons that he wore.

In the 1960s and 70s only one group from each country was permitted to climb in the area each year. Mountaineers from Otago decided in 1967 that they wanted to attempt Everest, but the first year they could book was 1977. By the time that came around those original men were tied up with other responsibilities, and the booking was liable to lapse. It was offered by the Government to the NZ Mountain Guides Association, of which Mike was then President, and the Association agreed to take it on.

At that time the average cost of such an expedition was $900,000, and would include 15 climbers and 30 Sherpas. The NZers decided they would have a Minimalist Expedition, with eight climbers, no Sherpas, and no oxygen, except emergency medical oxygen. Usually an expedition would have 50 Sherpas to keep the icefall open, plus one or two for each climber. This was the only expedition ever to have no Sherpas, and previously there had never been an expedition where no-one died. They were obliged to take a local army officer, and a base camp manager. They managed to keep the cost to $40,000, the cheapest ever. The Sherpas referred to it as the N.Z. Misery Expedition.

The group didn’t bother trying to get fit beforehand, realising that the 400 km walk to the base camp would be enough to improve their fitness. Their equipment was donated by the American Firm REI, and their food by Edmonds, a well-known Christchurch company. Some wore motorbike helmets and goggles, others had women’s felt hats, which could be used to hold melting snow and keep the wearer cool. The food was packed into sealed tins, to avoid having it pilfered on the way through. It took a month for them to walk from Kathmandu to Kundi, through paddy fields. Their porters walked barefoot, although they’d been given new boots which would be saved to sell later. At Kundi they were given a blessing by a Buddhist Abbot, and changed to yaks for transport. Doctors from Harvard University measured the retinas of their eyes before and after climbing to see what the effect of the high altitude was.

The distance from the Base Camp to the summit of Everest was 25km, and most expeditions took 50 ladders to use to cross crevasses. This group took just one. They reckoned they would come across abandoned ladders and took nuts and bolts and hacksaws so they were able to salvage and re-use the abandoned ones. At one stage a storm came up and they were marooned in their tent for five days. Four of the group took sleeping pills and slept well, the others suffered broken ribs. Mike showed breath-taking slides of their journey, and kept us enthralled with his descriptions.

Mount Everest

The two front climbers got to within four hours of the summit, and decided at 2.30pm they needed to turn back. If they hadn’t they would have lost fingers and toes. They had proved that it was possible to climb Everest without oxygen, and the following year someone did reach the top without oxygen. When the eight New Zealanders returned to Kundi they found Sir Edmund Hillary was so impressed with their feat that he had flown out to meet them.

In the 1977 season there were 18 Expeditions and only four got to the top of any mountain. Last year there were 62 expeditions, with hundreds of people. Now there is a rope all the way to the top of Everest, a blue rope going up, and a red rope coming down, to avoid traffic jams.

It was a most amazing climb
unprecedented at the time

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Oriental Art

The story of the Japanese Prisoners of War who were interned in Featherston in the 1940s is a fascinating one, not well known in Aotearoa. Richard Bullen, the Associate Professor of Japanese Art History at the University of Canterbury gave an engrossing talk about these men and the art they created. 850 Japanese men had been captured and were on their way to Aotearoa before the American forces told our government they were coming.

On 1 September 1942 the N.Z. Government made the decision to house them at Featherston where there had been a World War One military training camp, which was now bare. On 8 September troops were sent to make the area ready, put up tents, etc, and on 12 September the Japanese arrived. They were given old WWI uniforms to wear, including lemon-squeezer hats. Their names and occupations were recorded, but it’s apparent that the names, and probably many of the occupations were false. For all the time they were interned they had no correspondence with their families back in Japan.

The prisoners were expected to join work parties, as allowed under the Geneva Convention, but these ordinary men had no idea their government had signed the Geneva Convention and they resisted the call to work. In 1943 this led to a riot where 48 Japanese and one New Zealander were killed.

Huts were built to replace the tents the prisoners were first housed in, and remnants of building materials were used by them to create artworks, mainly relief sculptures. Their tools were made from wire, nails, and cutlery. They used these nostalgic Japanese pictures to decorate their quarters and to trade with the guards for cigarette tobacco. They also carved some NZEF badges, which were presumably commissioned by guards. Some materials, e.g. coloured paints, were donated to the prisoners by the Red Cross and the Society of Friends (Quakers). Paua shell used for decoration probably came from the same sources, as it was known to have been given to the 20 Japanese civilians housed in a camp at Pahiatua. The chaplain Hessell Troughton established an organised system for making and selling items of art. All the items were well made, especially considering the artists were amateurs, although art was a compulsory subject in all Japanese schools from the 1890s.

Figure Viewing Mt Fuji – courtesy of Featherston Heritage Museum

The prisoners also made Mah Jong sets, and/or playing cards from cigarette packets. They practised ikebana and were surprised at the lack of botanical knowledge among the guards and camp staff. When the Japanese left at the end of 1945 they took some items they’d made with them, but couldn’t take them all as some were large wooden pieces. Some can now be seen in the Featherston Heritage Museum and the Waiouru Army Museum. Richard and his colleague published a book about this art which brought great interest from Japanese media, but nothing from the Japanese public.

No contact with folks far away
art must have helped to fill their day

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Helen Tait, who has led international tours for 20 years, spoke today about travel life post-Covid. We need to accept there may never be a post-Covid era, so what was being discussed was travel with Covid, or maybe despite Covid. Travel has certainly become more complicated these days. I liked her saying: “Not all who wander are lost.”

Helen emphasised the importance of thinking carefully beforehand what it is you want from travel – Where? When? How? Why? She spoke about different kinds of travel, Escorted tours, Package tours, and Tailored travel, which can be organised through a travel agent. It’s vital to carefully check out what is included and what is not, and it’s good to be able to pick up opportunities as they arise. If a tour is very regimented you can’t take advantage of events you come across. Small group tours are best because they have more flexibility.

She suggested using a travel agent, having a Plan B in case something goes wrong, and doing your own research about insurance. There is a useful website where you can compare different travel insurance policies. You also need to print everything out beforehand and have a hard copy rather than relying on your phone or laptop.

Since Covid, tourism in Aotearoa has more of a focus on sustainability: economic, environmental, and that of host communities. Travellers enjoy meeting local people, and this needs to be sensitively managed. This reminded me that in past years we used to host groups from NZ Historic Places Trust at our cottage. I remember one woman from Japan who was absolutely thrilled to be able to pick an apple from our tree and eat it. The Tiaki Promise is a commitment to sustainability subscribed to by some tourist ventures.

Helen showed many enticing images of trips she has taken and especially recommended Sicily, South Croatia, and Japan. She has visited glaciers in Chile which are more spectacular than those in Alaska, and not receding as rapidly as those in Aotearoa. These days most people speak English, but it’s useful to have a few words and numbers in the language of the country you are visiting. Asked about the single supplement, where lone travellers pay extra to have a room to themselves, she said that after taking tours for twenty years she has experienced only two or three occasions where there’s been a problem with a forced share. Discover Travel in Christchurch have a Solo Travellers’ Club, where the single supplements are small.

It was acknowledged that consideration of our carbon footprint precludes overseas travel for some. It’s unlikely that Stephen and I will go overseas in the forseeable future, but Helen’s talk affirmed our good choice in taking a Murray River cruise and The Ghan in Australia in 2019.

Setting off on the Murray Princess

We have no plans to go away
but memories are here to stay

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DNA and Diseases

Understanding genetic diseases was the subject for this week’s talk given by Stephen Robertson, the Curekids Professor of Paediatric Genetics at the University of Otago. Stephen said that genetics are the blueprint of human beings and need to be at the centre of medicine. As a species humans are genetically very homogeneous, we have become inbred through our ‘profligate reproduction’, and it’s important to understand any ‘variations from normal’.

Stephen gave several case studies where genetics have been vital in diagnosis and treatment. One of these was two sisters who had Ataxia and failed to thrive. After 10 years the genetic basis was discovered, they were treated with CoQ10, and made dramatic improvements.

Ground-breaking research revealed a genetic mutation which was causing Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer, leading to deaths in a particular Maori whanau, of which musician Stan Walker was a member.

In one family seven baby boys died, most living only a few hours after birth. Stephen was eventually able to locate the gene that caused this and family members can now be tested to see whether they carry the mutant gene. A film documenting this is available.

Curekids is helping to fund research into genetic malformations in Aotearoa. Genomic variety is mainly found in Africa, and equity can be a challenge. Many countries around the world are studying the genetics of their indigenous people, but Aotearoa is the first to have a project which is indigenous-led. Maori are ideal for this research because they undertook the longest migrational journey on earth, and their oral history informs the understanding of researchers.

If tested, 2-3% of all citizens will have an actionable genetic factor identified, e.g for cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, or predisposition to cancer. All of these are actionable through treatment and surveillance, but it’s also important to approach disease with optimism. We don’t necessarily understand the role of the immune system in response to cancer. Attitude and positivism are always important and may have a biological basis. As Stephen said: “Hope beats helplessness.”

Gene editing can sometimes assist in curing a disease. The first trial in the world has been carried out in Aotearoa, to treat liver disease and has proved efficacious. When asked how such a small country can make a contribution Stephen replied that we have exceptional scientists who are world-leading and outward looking, well-linked, and highly collaborative. Having a common national health identifier is helpful when running trials, and the Maori link is something we can all be proud of.

An audience member asked whether all this might be leading to immortality and Stephen replied that it gives us tools to equip our decision-making. Default paths of behaviour bring limitations, but our health may be enhanced if we understand our resilience and susceptibility factors. It’s important to have critical and imaginative engagement with the science.

There’s so much info in our genes
but we don’t know just what it means

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“The role of DNA evidence in the Criminal Law” was the subject of today’s talk by Dr Debra Wilson. Debra specialises in criminal and medical law and is a passionate researcher and campaigner around the issue of surrogacy.

It was in 1986 that DNA was first used in criminal investigation in the U.K., where it resulted in a murderer being found and a previous suspect being exonerated. By 1995 the U.K. had a DNA data bank, and Aotearoa followed in 1996. Our law has not changed since that time, but the science has evolved, and the N.Z. Law Commission has been looking at what our law could be.

Matching DNAs can prove the likelihood of someone being the offender sought, e.g. that the chance of a match is 5 out of 10,000. Despite what we see in television programmes such as CSI, DNA is found in less than 1% of crime scenes, and it is not always 100% reliable. Debra mentioned the Phantom of Heilbronn, where the DNA of a specific woman turned up in multiple crime scenes in Europe between 1993 and 2009. It was later discovered that the source of the DNA was a cleaner who had contaminated the swabs with which the DNA was taken.

Our Law Commission reported in 2020 that the collection and use of DNA in crime investigations will always require the consideration of the clash of two rights or competing interests. These are:

  • The right of society to be free from crime and/or to have crimes investigated and the criminals punished
  • The right of people to genetic privacy

One form of DNA use is Familial Testing which can identify family members of the offender. Some issues with this are:

  • False positives
  • Invasion of privacy of those on the data bank
  • Invasion of privacy of family members of those on the data bank

In the U.K. anyone who is arrested has their DNA added to the data bank. In Aotearoa our current legislation does not specifically consider or permit familial testing. Half of the people on the N.Z. data bank gave samples voluntarily (e.g. to be excluded from a particular investigation) and did not consent to their wider use. The Law Commission has suggested that any familial testing should be heavily regulated, requiring something similar to a search warrant.

Another form of DNA use is Phenotyping, where DNA can be used to draw a picture of the suspect. Currently DNA can provide a person’s sex, race, eye and hair colour, and age. (As we age our chromosomes get shorter which means our age can be identified within five years.) In future it’s possible that DNA could show our dominant hand, height, and build, maybe even our medical condition and behaviour. Some of the issues with phenotyping are:

  • Most physical traits do not stem from one particular gene
  • Results may not always provide useful information
  • There are racial implications
  • Results may be affected by environmental factors, e.g. height is genetic, but diet is also an important factor

Phenotyping is illegal in Aotearoa, but Debra said it has been used at least eleven times since 2007.

So, where should the line be drawn between catching criminals, and respecting people’s genetic privacy? Younger people, who are used to sharing personal information on social media, are much less likely to care about genetic privacy than their elders. Debra suggested we see DNA as being owned by the entire family, as any analysis may apply to siblings and parents as well as the person being tested. For instance we may not want to know if there is genetic alcoholism in our family, especially as there may be an obligation to disclose such information to an insurer or a prospective employer. When asked about the use of information from Ancestry.com DNA database she said it has been used many times, which appeared to contradict the information given by genealogist Fiona Brooker the previous week . However we were assured that local genealogy databases cannot give DNA information to the police.

We need to consider how we can safely use genetic information without enabling the possibility of eugenics. There are ethical concerns over the possibility of dragnet testing where whole communities are asked to supply DNA samples. If this happens and people refuse, they may be put under pressure, and stigmatised. If the Government asked for everyone to supply a DNA sample, e.g. for Covid testing, how many of us would comply without question?

If you have ever been arrested
your DNA may have been tested

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The subject of today’s talk was “DNA testing for Family History” and the speaker was Fiona Brooker, founder and director of Memories in Time.

There are four main companies offering DNA testing for genealogy, and Ancestry DNA has the largest database of 20 million. I had my DNA tested by them a couple of years ago, mainly because I was interested to find my ethnicity. This changes slightly as the database is updated, and Ancestry sends me an update at least once a year.

My DNA test kit

I learned to day that it’s possible to transfer your Ancestry DNA results to other databases, e.g. My Heritage DNA or Family Tree DNA, and upload results from other people’s tests. These databases each have different reference panels which may give different results. Interestingly siblings may have different ethnicities because they have inherited different genes.

Once your DNA is registered you will be advised of matches, and the closeness of these depends on how many centimorgans (cM) are shared. If you want to know more about centimorgans and the relationships they indicate there is information at the Shared cM Project, facilitated by Blaine Bettinger. When you get a match and there is a family tree available it’s good to seek the most recent common ancestor. To see this information you may need to pay a subscription to Ancestry, although some aspects are available through membership of Christchurch City Libraries.

New matches can solve family tree mysteries, but beware there’s always the possibility of NPE – Not the Parent Expected. On Facebook there are groups of people who have discovered through DNA that their father is not their father which can obviously be distressing. Sperm donation, which in the past was supposed to be anonymous, may be revealed through DNA.

I was pleased when my DNA matches alerted me to the fact I had a half-brother I hadn’t known about, but not everyone may welcome such news. It’s good to arrange to have close relations tested, especially those who are one generation back, but you need to consider the ethics of this, and ensure you have informed consent. DNA can be used to identify criminals, but Ancestry does not allow requests for information from law enforcement agencies. Sharing of medical information is problematic because the data could be used by insurance companies.

For keen genealogists DNA adds to the toolbox, but it is only one tool among many. Fiona, who is an enthusiastic advocate for genealogy, stressed that if you’ve had your DNA done you should leave the results to someone in your will, passing on the ability to login and access information.

There’s lots of scope with DNA
but it may take you just part-way

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Sifting Sheep

The farming sector is crucial to the economy of Aotearoa. This was demonstrated in a talk given by Professor Jon Hickford, Director of the Gene Marker Lab at Lincoln University, where their mission is to breed better livestock. Sheep are worth $5 billion annually to our export economy, and the money earned circulates and is spent again and again.

Jon outlined the story of sheep from their beginnings in Mesopotamia 10,000 years B.C. I already knew they were among the first animals to be domesticated, from reading A Short History of the World According to Sheep by Sally Coulthard. Globally there are 1,000 different breeds of sheep, and selective breeding has been practised for centuries. Based on an assessment of their physical characteristics the best ones are chosen to be the parents of the next generation, while the worst ones are culled.

By using genetic markers it’s possible to better fit the animals to the environment and purpose. This method improves the accuracy and intensity of selection. Genes are extremely complex, and at Lincoln they did the first gene test in the world in 1989, and have been able to limit the impact of disease and increase production. Gene tests tend to be focussed on things that are hard to measure, such as immune response to footrot and lamb survival.

Markers can also indicate things such as a propensity for blindness in Texel-crossed sheep. Jon said it’s hard to make a profit from sheep farming these days, but income is going up, and sheep are generating less methane. Some work involves starting to breed cattle without the horns that are no longer required as the beasts now have no need to battle predators.

Asked about genetic modification he said there was a trial 30 years ago, but it was met with huge resistance. It’s hard to genetically engineer differences that don’t require lots of maintenance or have adverse consequences, and Jon sees little benefit in genetic engineering for animal farming. Gene markers are much more useful.

G.M’s not likely now to creep
into our good gene markered sheep

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General Genetics

Did you know that 40% of your genes are the same as those in a cucumber? Does this make me a 40% cannibal if I eat cucumber?

Today I heard Professor Jack Heinemann from the Molecular Biology Department of the University of Canterbury give a brilliant presentation which was an introduction to genetics and genetic determinism. While there was an awful lot to take in he was a superb speaker with good illustrations, humorous anecdotes, and not one “um”.

The study of genetics started in 1863 with Gregor Mendel who studied peas and showed that traits could be passed on through inheritance. We learned that phenotypes are observable physical traits, which are the result of the interaction of the genes, environmental factors, and random variations. Genetics relies on incest to breed a pure line within a family of organisms. Not all genes are DNA. Mendel’s patterns can be explained through Meiosis, which is reproduction through the joining of female and male.

Genetic determinism is the origin of molecular biology and is the idea that most human characteristics, physical and mental, are determined at conception. This idea has led to some strange outcomes, such as eugenics and social control, as it can appeal to our prejudices in a way that has nothing to do with the data. Jack warned that it can lead to people being preyed on by organisations that offer to sequence your DNA, such as Ancestry.com.

Simple traits are easy to follow, but complex traits are more complicated and we may be influenced by underlying assumptions.

When asked about drugs such as puberty blockers Jack observed that denying a genetic basis can put people at risk. He pointed out that chemicals can affect our development, and in recent decades they have mainly not been evaluated. It’s too late now to measure the effect of some chemicals because they are so widespread and we no longer have a control group.

Questioned about the spread of false information e.g. about Covid, Jack said that after World War II governments gave drug discovery and development up to the commercial sector, and we are always going to be vulnerable to people who want to mislead us. There is limited control on those who have concentrated power, and there is a danger that science is turning into a faith-based organisation, e.g. “trust us – we’re scientists.” All this information gives food for much thought.

Is it a worry that a number
of human cells match the cucumber?

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