Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Vodafone Live!

A few months ago, I had logged a problem with Vodafone. I was having trouble reaching Gmail through their mobile Internet offering. It would work sometimes and then not work at all for a week or more. Didn't matter where I was. I could be standing right under a cell mast.

I worked out my phone (Vodafone 715) needs a "cold boot" every now and again. That means pulling the battery out while it's running, waiting a minute or so, then putting it back in and "re-booting" the phone. It seems to help clear up the problems if I have any. I'm guessing the problem was at the Vodafone end as I have not had these troubles for a while now. Perhaps since mid-Feb.

A Vodafone customer service person called me a couple of days ago to follow up. That was good. I like that. I told him the problem was gone now. He then asked if I has any other issues I cared to discuss.

Yeah.

I asked why the mobile data offerings on Vodafone Live! assume that I'm a sports-mad, tits and ass man who likes fast cars? I'm not most of those things and wouldn't waste my time on any of them on a mobile phone. The news offerings are too expensive to be worth using. I don't remember the exact charges,but I do recall thinking:"I'm not paying that."

I also asked why a potentially awesome offering like Sky Mobile TV was limited to sports, soft-porn, hollywood gossip, reality crud, and cartoons. If I want to watch sport, I'll do it on a real TV.

The only thing they had worth watching was the live CNN feed and they have canned that a few weeks ago and replaced it with....more cartoons. *Sigh*.

The remnants of any substantive content on the service are the daily 5:30pm Prime TV news bulletin and a few Discovery channel docos.

I asked if they were they planning on offering anything a grown up person might find interesting? Also, at $10 / MB, their Internet was far too expensive. I could watch Gigs / month of SKY Mobile for $10. Why is other data so much more expensive?

He said he would take the feedback and pass it on. I smiled. I know what that usually means. But I had done all any customer could do: Thought about their service and contributed my time to give constructive feedback.

The platform they have could offer a lot of stuff I'd pay good money to see, hear and do....but at is it is now, there is nothing there for this late-40s, information-loving, mobile wireless would-be data geek.

It's times like this you wish there was a state broadcaster like the BBC who would support democracy and freedom by supplying a mobile video service for people who want to think while awake. The private, commercial operators aren't up to it and see no value in it.

TVNZ 7, for example, would be great broadcast on mobile.

Live webcam: Awesome view of Auckland

UPDATE: The webcam was TVNZ's and they took it off the Internet in late 2008, I think, and now they only use it on their news programs and with their weather bulletins. Thanks TVNZ! Phhft.

The Metservice web site has had a link to a live webcam at Devonport for a while now. Over the weekend, it went "off"....which was disappointing.

However! It has come back better than ever (my opinion, of course). The new link appears to be a east-north-easterly pan over the CBD, Waitemata Harbour, North Shore and Rangitoto. With the Sun low in the morning sky right now, the visual effect is impressive. I'm sure there will be many moods displayed through the day. If you have any friends or homesick Kiwis overseas, you may want to send them this one. It's a genuine live feed. I could make out a boat making steady progress toward the harbour entrance and the shadows of the clouds speeding Eastward.

Fullscreen mode is impressive. The page says that full screen only work with MS I, but I've found it also works with Apple's Safari browser on Windows Vista. Safari must be a front-end for the IE engine...

Check it out!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Beijing Olympic Drama

In July 2001, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) 56 countries out of 105 voted in the second round to give the 2008 Olympics to China. The March 2001 IOC report on biddersfor the 2008 games doesn't mention civil rights. The only "rights" mentioned at all are property right relating to Olympic logos and insignia. Several times in the report the "strong governmental control" is cited as a positive advantage with respect to infrastructure, traffic and environmental concerns. One line in the report says there is no concern about terrorism at Beijing.

They knew then what China is and how China operates. There was considerable debate at the time.

Chinese people are clearly very proud of their country and what it has achieved over the past several decades. This is evident from the pro-China demonstrations taking place all over the world as a reaction to the anti-Chinese / pro-Tibet demonstrations that have disrupted the movements of the Olympic torch.

From what I know of Asia, the "insults" directed at China preceding and perhaps during these Olympics by individuals and governments will not soon be forgotten in China if they were widely known about. In some ways, I think we should all be relieved that the Chinese media is filtering these out. Far from creating awareness of human rights issues within China, the more likely reaction from ordinary Chinese to some of the scenes we have seen in our media would be an angry one. They live there. They know what China is better than any of us.

This video is one of a large number to be found on YouTube that puts Tibet and recent Chinese history into a context we in the rest of the world may not be familiar with. In China, this is the context that matters.



Absolutely we should continue to press China on human rights issues. Though there has been some imrpovement, they have a long way to go. But wrecking these games won't advance human rights in China and is more likely to be counter-productive. Attitudes to dissent in China may well harden as a consequence of any violence or disruption to the games. Many Chinese have bought into the Olympic Games as a reason for national pride. The Chinese government may well find itself benefiting from popular support if they reacted harshly to any attempts to wreck these games.

I'd say it would be profoundly hypocritical to fill our stores with inexpensive, Chinese goods we happily buy by the truckload, while sanctimoniously advocating we boycott or denigrate the Olympic Games in Beijing over human rights concerns. The time to boycott with ANY credibility would have been July 14th, 2001 - the day after the vote. Now is FAR too late. Now would just be dumb. The Chinese government must laugh quietly to itself when the Guantanamo-operating United States, lead by a President who recently vetoed a bill that would outlaw torture, pretends to lecture it on human rights.

We exaggerate our own importance if we imagine that we can change China from the outside. That isn't how China has EVER operated, as anyone who follows Chinese history will know. Real change will have to come from within China, by the efforts of Chinese people over time.

Enjoy the Games. If China feels good about all this, we may well see some improvement in human rights in China. If China is humiliated or worse, I can't see how that will do anyone, anywhere, any good at all.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Quantum Entanglements

The feature article in the "Canvas" insert in the Weekend Herald this week is a sort of "whatever became of....." about the Apollo astronauts who walked in the Moon almost 40 years ago. The experience seems to have profoundly affected these men, one way or another. Not hard to imagine how it might.

Part of the article was about Edgar ("Ed") Mitchell, who landed on the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission. On the way back from the Moon, he had what he called an "epiphany". A 'stardust moment' of realisation the matter composing he and his crew and their ship and the Earth had been forged in the heart of long-dead stars. Since his return, he has tried to put that sense of oneness with the Universe into a scientific context.

Quantum theory provided the answer he was looking for. All matter is simply dense energy and at the sub-atomic level - the quantum level - the usual rules we are familiar with don't apply. Particles have "entanglements" with other particles they have been in contact with that transcend time and space. These entanglements constitute a "quantum hologram" - a four dimensional "image" of the history of all quantum states an object has ever known. This, in turn, is "information" that is exchanged as part of the energy / matter interaction that is known to go on all the time at the quantum level.

Mitchell and others are of the view that this "information" is knowable by living organisms. Indeed, they say any object may have some level of quantum 'mind' as well as matter. That the quantum hologram can be perceived and that our own brains use this mechanism as a critical part of their normal, everyday function.

Mitchell is careful to make it clear this is all hypothesis and that it should be investigated to determine whether it is valid or not. But he also makes it clear that he thinks it will be found to be valid.

It's a fascinating story. When I picked "Canvas" up earlier today, I didn't realise I would be spending the next several hours Googling and reading scientific papers watching tutorials on YouTube, learning about quantum physics.

I particularly liked this series of videos on YouTube:

Basic quantum theory



and quantum entanglement



G'won. Ask me anything.

Looking around the Net, it's apparent that the core ideas of quantum theory have been embraced by a some dubious folk who want you to believe you can consciously will yourself into being rich just by thinking about it and taking advantage of entanglement. For a few dollars, they'll share the "secret" with you. I wonder how many people stump up with the cash?

Others see these concepts as proof of spirituality and / or a deity. Certainly the implications of this can be expressed in spiritual terms. The way I read it, Mitchell says his aim is to help develop the scientific vocabulary to enable these concepts to come into the mainstream as the common understanding of the nature of reality.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Food Shortages

This April 20, 2008 Al Jazeera look at rising food shortages is the best overview I've seen so far in a medium other than text. Well worth the time watching to hear the experts talking about this developing situation as of this week.

People & Power - Food Shortages - Part 1


People & Power - Food Shortages - Part 2

Monbiot on Murdoch and Media

This week, George Monbiot reflects in his Blog and the Guardian on how media censor themselves by what he refers to as "anticipatory compliance".

When I was studying journalism in Canada in the late 70s, this was summarised succinctly as: "You don't have to tell an editor what to write if you hire the right editor".

In those days, the Thomson media empire owned virtually all daily and weekly printed news media (well over 100 daily newspapers) in Canada alone. A much smaller group, Southam, owned 6 or 7, including the "Ottawa Citizen", the major daily in the capital. There were a handful of independents.

As a daily newspaper print journalist then, you would typically have worked for either Thomson or Southam or you didn't work. It was rare to have more than one newspaper in a single city not all owned by the same people, Toronto being the major exception in english-speaking Canada, with three. The french-language media in Quebec were more diverse but little read outside of Quebec. Anywhere, the hours were long and the pay was crap. Smoking in the office was not only common but virtually compulsory.

After working this out, I saw no desirable future in any of that, so abandoned journalism as a career.

In New Zealand, I found much the same situation. Large media monopolies owning more or less all major dailies. INL (then part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp) owned more or less everything in daily print except the NZ Herald, which was owned by the Horton family. I think the Otago Daily Times also stood alone, along with the Wairarapa Times-Age.

The dictum above regarding "hiring the right editors" was played out starkly after National won the 1990 election, when the previously strongly pro-MMP Dominion in Wellington, under Karl Du Fresne, was converted into the strongly anti-MMP Dominion under Richard Long.

Many of Du Fresne's senior editorial staff (like Al Morrison) were purged or left before too much time passed. In talking to two of them whom I knew, they both separately said that du Fresne's consensus-style editorial policy approach had been replaced with a more dictatorial one under Long. Long later did the honest thing and made his obvious political leanings official by joining the National Party's staff as media chief. Tim Pankhurst took over at the Dominion Post and remains there.

Monbiot's context is different - a book about Rupert Murdoch's unsuccessful Chinese ventures having trouble getting any media attention - but the principle is essentially the same one: media people reporting (or not) what they know their boss, the proprietor, will be happy with.

Given this sort of thing is all but inevitable in any commercial (or public) media context, I would think it therefore essential that ownership of media be diverse and not be allowed to become concentrated in the hands of any single group or a single person. The result of excessive media concentration may still be "freedom of speech", sure enough, but that is not the same thing as diversity of opinion. The latter is arguably just as important in terms of being able to conduct any serious public debate or acheive anytying resembling a balanced perspective.

I'm tempted to paraphrase George W Bush's famous quote about dictatorships as "I'm all in favour of freedom of the press as long as I own all the newspapers." How far from the truth is that in New Zealand?

The recent fracas about the new electoral finance law and the NZ Herald's campaign opposing it, got me thinking.

If you wanted to avoid laws regarding campaigning and spending limits, all you have to do is own a daily newspaper or radio or TV network. There, your biases and opinions and campaigns can be openly conducted through your editorial content and you can spend as much money as you like backing your favourites, right up to the black-out period before an election. You don't need to conform to any laws regarding spending limits or caps as doing so would be to violate your right to "freedom of speech". Never mind you own all the newspapers in any given city and no one else has a voice as loud as yours.

In the US, Rupert Murdoch's "Fox News" cable network is an excellent example of how a media proprietor can campaign day and night for one party, the Republicans, and not be subject to any electoral finance laws. Fox would be an example of "anticipatory compliance" on steroids.

What is there to stop our own media doing exactly the same?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Peak Everything? NZ needs a population policy.

I spent a good chunk of this evening trying to get to the bottom of the growing food shortages.

Biofuels have come under fire for shifting grain grown for food into use as fuel. That means less food to go around so prices go up. The US farmers who were persuaded to grow corn for biofuels are happy about being paid well for a change and are moving to defend their new-found incomes. The "National Corn Growers Association" says "corn is not the culprit" and points the finger at higher oil prices and the big margins added to food prices by processors, distributors and retailers after it leaves the farm gate. They use an almost comical example of a box of corn flakes to illustrate the point. Yes, that must be it. People all over the world can't afford boxes of corn flakes any more. Admittedly, their press release is intended for domestic US consumption. In a global context, it comes across (to me) as myopic and self-serving.

There is a spider's web of side-effects and unintended consequences radiating out from almost every measure related to food or fuel. We could spend all day fascinating ourselves with how growing more corn in the US has reduced soy production there, creating opportunities for Brasilian soy farmers who are themselves displacing cattle in the Mato Grosso. The owners of the displaced cattle are felling more rainforests and the cycle repeats. Up to a point. Two years after the trees are cut down, the rain seems to stop falling. No more rain if there's no more rain forest. Not just in Brasil, but everywhere downwind of the declining forest cover. Apparently, those forests seeded rain clouds for places as far away as Europe. The effects of human activity cascade on and on, touching pretty much everything because we are now numerous enough that almost anything we all do can and does have global consequences. We have scale, as they say.

This very brief vid on human population growth and the role oil has played is well worth watching.



What does all that mean? To me, it sounds like the feeling you get when you hit a sharp curve driving at too high a speed. You have reduced your margin of error to a razor's edge and almost ANY perturbation or pebble on the road can turn your finely balanced transit of the corner into disaster and see you through the guard rail and over the edge. Ooops. No 'replay' button in the real world. We have grown used to not being prudent.

Except in our case, speed is actually the increasingly intense pressure our growing population is placing on every system we touch. Water, air, soil, forests, fisheries, energy....all of it...and more. On one level, the core problem behind most others is staringly obvious. There are roughly 70 million more mouths to feed each year than there were last year. The human population of the world continues to rise and that is affecting everything one way or another. We need more food every year this remains the case.

Problem. Soils are degrading. Energy and fertiliser to produce food are rapidly rising in price. Demand is outstripping supply. Water is becoming insufficiently available in more places as rains stubbornly refuse to fall or there just isn't enough of the stuff to grow people as well as their food.

The whole picture adds up to a level of human activity that isn't sustainable. The core reason is human population, with a supporting cast of myriad subsidiary effects that are in turn causes of other effects.

Kelpie Wilson of Truthout.org has written an excellent article ("More food is not the answer") on the the present situation. The article is prompted, in part, by a recent United Nations report by the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development).

Ever heard of "Peak Phosphorous"? Read the article.

New Zealand doesn't have a population policy that I'm aware of. If it does exist, it is rarely talked about. We should begin that debate as soon as possible and take the time to have a real debate about it and let people think on it. How many Kiwis would be enough? Almost everyone I've talked to says somewhere between 5 and 6 million. Is that reasonable?

As it is, the issue of population rarely comes up and when it does some idiot or other automatically assumes any move to look at population consciously will lead to forced sterilisation or other nonsense. Another idiot will then tell you to "off yourself if you're so worried about it". Not much rational debate to be found in that sort of atmosphere. But it does need to begin.

Zimbabwe Recount Violence and Al Jazeera English

The rolling tragedy that is Mugabe's Zimbabwe continues. Now, as the recount procedes, there appears to be a campaign of violence and intimidation being carried out. It  appears to me that the intended effect is to silence opposition in areas where the Mugabe regime plans to re-invent the results.

This Al Jazeera report is worth watching. They provide physical evidence of the claims being made. I subscribe to their YouTube Channel and find it to be consistently good and much less biased than most US news outlets. In fact, I find it hard to detect any overt bias at all. It's more like the BBC. Any bias is more likely in the choice of story rather than slant to the report itself. Al Jazeera also appears to be able to go to places other news services can't or dare not to go. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mobile Brain Fart Aftermath

On Friday morning last week I left my mobile phone in the toilet of a McDonalds in Matamata. Realising what I had done, I was back in there looking for it within a few minutes, but it had gone. I think a young boy who went in not long after me probably nabbed it.

The phone was a "Vodafone 715" 3G wee thingy that had been serving me very well. It did Internet web browsing ($10 / MB - survivable for Gmail), SKY Mobile TV, MP3 playing and txting and could even make and receive phone calls. If you looked inside, you'd find that it was made by Huawei, in China. From what I could tell, it provided all the functionality of a more expensive phone at a fraction of the price. It also does video calls, but has the odd "feature" of the video camera being on the back of the phone...so whoever you call can see whatever is in front of you...not you.  If both of you turn your phones around to show yourself on camera, neither of you can see each other because the screen is now pointing away from you. Silly, really. I never make video calls anyway. 

The replacement cost $149 (on sale) at DSE in Levin. The "Sim Swap" to move my (blocked earlier in the day) existing number to the new phone cost $20. I was impressed. Based on recent experience in Canada, a new, similar, phone there - full price - plus number swap, would have cost a LOT more than that....Last year, the *cheapest* phone (not tied to a contract) I could find from any provider was C$199 + 14% PST/GST. Bell Canada did have a Nokia 1100 for $99, but after waiting for it on order for two weeks was told by the retailer that they weren't actually supposed to be selling those. Moments like that let you know there isn't really enough competition. 
On Friday, DSE had phones for NZ$59 including taxes. Canadians would be wetting their pants that is SO cheap at about C$43. Less than a quarter of what they have to pay. 

The Vodafone 715 isn't well supported on the Vodafone web site (error 404 on links is common) or via the 777 customer line, but the phone itself is fairly straightforward. If you're looking for a good, CHEAP 3G phone, this one is hard to beat. You just have to get used to the idea this Vodafone-branded phone won't be supported as well as Nokia or other brands. For example, the list of phones they support configs for doesn't include this one and when you try to access the help for "not listed"....you get Error 404. Also, none of the Vodafone-branded phones are listed on their "approved" list of handsets. 

Gaping holes in marketing and support aside, a Vodafone 715 3G handset is a good phone and cheap to replace when you forget it somewhere. 
Like I did. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Auckland, NZ Dollar, ARTA, End-time silliness

Several things happened (or failed to happen) today that are noteworthy from my point of view.

Last day: Royal Commission on Auckland Governance

Today was the last day for submissions to the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance. I got mine in on time. Did you?

In order to bring some measure of coherence to the Auckland urban area and put us all on the same page, I recommended a single city with Councilors elected from up to 7 wards. There would be between 5 and 9 councilors elected from each ward, depending on the population. These Councilors would be elected by Single Transferable Vote (STV) rather than the current first past the post voting system. STV would allow for robustly democratic and diverse outcomes with more equitable representation among the communities that compose Auckland. The Council should be 35 to 50 (or maybe more) in number. There would need to be enough Councilors to sit on the relevant committees that would capture input and feedback from people and groups in the Auckland region.

I submitted that the Mayor of Auckland should have little, if any executive power and act instead as the Chair of the Council. The Mayor's job would be to find common ground and build consensus and cast the deciding vote, but only if necessary. There should be no "Presidential mayor" that would polarise rather than bring together. The Mayor could be elected from across the city or elected by the Council from among their number. This is provided the Council is elected by STV.

In response to the local governance issue, I said I saw no reason why any part of Auckland would need special laws that could not be passed by one council. There may be special circumstances in some places, but they should be recognised within the regional framework and addressed in that context.

There was more, but that is the guts of it.

NZ Dollar

I've heard some business people complaining that the NZ dollar is "too high" (against the US dollar) and lamenting the policies of the government that made it so.

But let's look at what's really going on.

The NZ dollar has fallen against the Euro from €0.54 two months ago to €0.49 today. It's fallen against the Aussie dollar from AU$0.88 two months ago to AU$0.84 today. The NZ dollar has fallen against the Yen from Y87.5 two months ago to Y81.5 today.

The Kiwi has been declining or stable with respect to the currencies of many countries we trade with other than the US. One of the reasons our currency is desirable is the good performance of our economy against global trends.

It's the US dollar that is going down against everyone - even the Chinese, who have their yuan set to "sticky" mode in relation to the US dollar. In fact, the US greenback has been in serious trouble ever since George W Bush decided to cut taxes while simultaneously exploding a fiscal debt bomb when he invaded Iraq and decided to stay. After the invasion, the US Fed increased interest rates for 11 straight quarters, and central banks all over the world followed suit in order to compete for capital against the black hole of US debt: public and private.

Those higher interest rates in the US, driven by the US Federal reserve rate rises, arguably lead to the sub-prime credit crunch by taking interest rates well outside previously expected bounds.

None of this was in any way controllable from New Zealand or any other country.

I'd like to know why our exporters and the people they trade with still price their products in US dollars.

The Euro would be a much better option. We've been relatively stable against the Euro.

Why do people seem to expect theNZ government to indemnify them against the instability of the US dollar with policies that would keep our dollar going down even faster than the plummeting greenback?

That makes no sense to me. Why would we want to have an economy in even more trouble than the US economy in order to see our currency plummet even faster than theirs? If anyone thinks they have a good answer to that one, I'd love to hear it.

If we had a "40 cent" Kiwi dollar, we could be paying close to NZ$4 for a litre of petrol. A 1kg block of cheese at $13 today would be more like $26. Would your wages track that? I'm thinking not. Hands up everyone who thinks that makes any sense?

ARTA and Children

I finally got a response from ARTA (Auckland Regional Transport Authority) today about Birkenhead Transport not allowing school children on peak-hour buses.
Here is the (anonymised) letter:

Thank you for bringing to our attention the matter of the school buses
operating in the Birkenhead area.

Following direct communications with Birkenhead Transport, operator for both the regular bus services and the school buses, it has been confirmed that the regular services are available for any fare paying passenger, including school children. Therefore, the service is provided in accordance to existing public transport policies. If any incidence of this policy not being followed does arise, please let us know and it will be treated on an individual basis.

It is important to note, however, that we strongly recommend that school children make use of the school buses available. This responds to operational considerations related to the needs of commuters to the city as well as to the numbers of school children required to justify the existence of a school bus service. It is ARTA's responsibility to monitor that the school bus services are well patronised and therefore guarantee that its provision is an appropriate use of resources.

Lastly, I would like to take this opportunity to inform you will be hearing from us shortly regarding other concerns you have raised.

Best regards

On behalf of ARTA


Great to hear that children in Birkenhead Transport's area of operation should now be able to board any bus. Thank you, ARTA.

I note the comments regarding operational considerations and the need to support the school buses. While perfectly reasonable on one level, ARTA hasn't dealt with the reality that the school bus they urge us to use leaves at 07:43am and arrives at the school at 07:56am. That's 50 minutes prior to classes commencing. Other options offered on the Journey Planner were to walk the whole way any time you like or take a 7-hour two-step via the morning school bus to Northcote and then take the afternoon (after school) school bus from Onewa Rd to St. Mary's Convent School....then walk 500 metres to Birkenhead College to arrive after classes have ended for the day. That one was just silly.

I responded and asked politely if the person writing to me had checked the timing of the school buses. It isn't much use offering a school bus at a time so early it has little practical value. Or one that takes all day and arrives after classes end. I included the relevant options (as above).

I'm waiting to hear back.

End of the World

Pastor Ronald Weinland, "end-time witness" and head of the Ronald and Laura 'god-family', hasn't posted anything more on the First Trumpet sounded at the opening of the Seventh Seal since the 18th, so I'm assuming the world is OK for now. Fingers crossed. He was in Palestine for the big (non) event. He should be back in the US by now and may be laying low given nothing whatever happened. The only part of his prophecy that came true was that the few people who were aware of his claims did make fun of him and there was some mocking. Perfectly reasonable under the circumstances, but probably only feeding Pastor Weinland's sense of righteousness. So no more mocking. After that last bit of mocking. No, really.....No more.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Petrol still cheap

I drove down to Foxton Friday and came back Saturday. On both days I found that despite driving at about 95-105kph, I was being passed by quite a few vehicles. A lot of those were 4x4 SUVs that towered over our little Honda.

I used to own a Nissan Terrano. I know how much fuel they use and how much it costs. Driving 115-120kph uses up to 20% more fuel than doing 95-100kph. The faster you go, the worse it gets.

If fuel were painfully expensive, you'd think drivers of such vehicles would slow down to the speed limit and extend the range of a tank of fuel by 20% - for free.

I'm sure some do, but there are a good number who apparently do not.

We sold our Terrano in November and replaced it with a Mazda Demio (1.3L) that does between 5.7 and 6 litres / 100kms on the highway, provided I drive it at about 100 or slightly less. That's better than my brother's Lexus hybrid, which - at best - does 7.2L / 100kms, but more usually 9L / 100kms.

But fuel must still be too cheap the way a lot of people are blowing it out their exhaust pipes by driving at over 100kph.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Of "God Families" and "end-time witnesses"

Thursday,April 17th came and went and I don't recall hearing the sound of the First Trumpet when the Seventh Seal was opened....and the world began to end.

"What?" I hear you say? See my previous blog post.

Pastor Ronald Weinland, leader of one of the American "Church of God" sects, now claims he and his wife Laura are the two end-time witnesses and a new "God family", akin to Abraham and Sarah, of Old Testament fame. A 'god family' is a family God has supposedly chosen to work through for a purpose. In this case, the establishment of a 1,000 year age of God's rule. Family will be important in the new age. The age of man's self-rule is now ended, says Weinland.

After nothing happened on Thursday, Pastor Weinland now says:

.......

" From the beginning, God has revealed His plan for His Family—Elohim. God worked in and through a family as He began to reveal more about his purpose and plan for all mankind. That family consisted of Abraham and Sarah. At this end-time, we have come back to that greater purpose God is working out for mankind by bringing a close to man’s age and ushering in His age with the following 1,000 years, when the focus of Elohim—the God Family will be everywhere on this earth. He is working through a family once again, as God wants mankind to begin to focus on the importance of family on a physical and a spiritual plane.

Having said that, more will be said in the months to come, but now is the time to publicly reveal the name of the second end-time witness. It is my wife Laura. We are a family through whom God will be working to bring an end to this age and setting the stage (and much more) for the age to follow. Many will mock and ridicule, but as we go forward, this time God will place fear in those who mock Him and His servants. Power has been given to make this so.

The glory and the honor is to God Almighty and His Son, Jesus Christ. And His Kingdom is almost here."


I can understand Weinland being a little sensitive as absolutely nothing happened on April 17th. If I read this right, God is going to make us all very frightened for laughing at Mr. Weinland when nothing happened on the day he said it would. That was predictable. We're the bad people because he's talking rubbish.

Nothing happened. Except it did actually happen according to Mr. Weinland, in the full article linked to. He is absolutely clear on the event he refers to having actually happened despite nothing happening. It's just that no one but him knows it. If you laugh, God will get you.

Oh.

I'm sure this will get a lot more silly as time goes on and the pathetic Pastor Weinland works out his delusions in whatever public arena he is able to gain access to. I'm just hoping he doesn't hurt himself or anyone else.

I think this episode has captured my imagination because even among the sillier claims some religious folk make, this one stands out. People who are fanatical about their religion - of any type - are also potentially dangerous in their absolute certainty about matters for which there isn't a skerrick of proof and no rational basis for even tentative belief, never mind absolute, unshakeable certainty. Bush invaded Iraq based on no evidence and an unshakeable belief he was right and that God was guiding him. He has said as much. Others do things like fly jets into tall buildings and don't care that they are killing thousands of people. WHATEVER they do, to them, is just part of "God's Plan" and they are God's instruments...etc...etc....and it is all OK. No guilt. No remorse. No responsibility.

Weinland's particular set of claims and train of events is at one and the same time boringly familiar as a product of religious delusion.....and yet not. This guy is out there.

It reminds me of the time my friend Rick called me (in Toronto) from Vancouver and said he had had a revelation. God had spoken to him and Rick was the new Christ, the Second Coming, and Vancouver was the New Jerusalem. A few weeks later he cut his guts open and disembowelled himself with a kitchen knife to let out the Holy Spirit and save the world from nuclear disaster. Maybe it worked. He didn't die, luckily. A neighbour saw him crawling down the hall of his apartment building trailing his intestines behind him and called an ambulance. They stabilized him and put him on the first plane back to Ontario. Apparently, the people who made that decision didn't realise who they were dealing with. They just didn't want British Columbia taxpayers to have to fund his convalescence and ongoing treatment.

Rick and I talked a fair bit about his new status as the Messiah. But I don't ever remember Rick, Son of God in the New Jerusalem, saying anything about Ronald Weinland. You'd think the Son of God would have mentioned it to me if it was important. Did I mention that Rick appointed me King of Australia and New Zealand back in 1980? It's true.

All bow down. Or God will make you very afraid. :-)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Your job's gone to India / Mexico / Italy - or just gone

ANZ National Bank

The ANZ National Bank has announced that 500 back-office jobs are going to Bangalore in India. Finsec, the bank employees union says these jobs are gone. The ANZ Bank CEO says the staff replaced will be retrained and allocated to alternative jobs.

I'm not buying it. There are 500 jobs not currently being done that need doing? The cost of retraining and supporting these "alternative" jobs is STILL less than the setup and running costs of moving the jobs to Bangalore? If not, why do it at all? Mayb this is just the opening move in a larger plan to outsource Kiwi jobs to countries where people work for next to nothing.

I am currently an ANZ customer and have been for 23 years. In light of ANZ's apparent (in my view)lack of commitment to New Zealand, when our mortgage disappears next Tuesday with the sale of our farm in Foxton, I'll be moving my accounts to Kiwibank.

Fisher & Paykel

I have always bought Fisher & Paykel appliances because I found them to be of good quality and they were made right here in New Zealand.

Today, Fisher & Paykel announced they are moving manufacturing ovrseas to Mexico, Thailand and Italy. There will be 450 jobs lost in Dunedin as a result.

I can understand Mexico. It's the cheapest country in NAFTA, the North American Free Trade area (Canada, the US and Mexico). Tens of thousands of Canadian jobs have gone to Mexico in recent years. The number of American jobs probably numbers in the millions.

I can understand Italy. That country provides access to the EU as a market.

I'd be interested to know what the advantages to F&P are of locating in Thailand.

I guess I'll be free to buy my whiteware from any company in future. I may stil buy F&P if their product is good and the price competitive.

Tamahine Holdings

In the third leg of today's job-loss treble, Tamahine Holdings, a knitwear manifacturer, also in Dunedin, is closing down. These aren't going anywhere. They're just going.

What now?

I can see that part of the problem is that our goods are priced in a rapidly declining US dollar. That's not our doing. It's was caused by the Bush administration blowing trillions of dollars down the plughole in Iraq, an invasion that caused oil prices to explode. The US fiscal debt "bomb" Bush detonated forced interest rates up, leading to the sub-prime credit crisis, resulting in a spectacular destructions of wealth. All of this has been inflationary.

It's all resulted in our manufacturers being uncompetitive in US dollar terms.

So what will the impact of this and future manufacturing losses be? I can see the companies that supplied goods and services to the manufacturers who have departed operating in a shrinking market. Let's be realistic. There will be no new manufacturing enterprise replacing these, or most other, lost manufacturing jobs. Otherwise, why would they be leaving in the first place?

Then the skills that were supported by the enteprrise being located here will not longer be supported. They may disappear entirely. No one will be starting a manufacturing business in a place with no skills to make it possible. They would bear the entire cot of educating their workforce as part of starting up.

Once the skills are gone, where does any future innovation in those areas come from?

If we keep crawling along the links of this chain, we see either a downward spiral or an ever-decreasing circle. Take your pick. Ultimately, will we be farmers, bankers, white collar professionals and their support staff, McJobs and shopkeepers? Yes, we'll need a basic maintenance crew to keep it all running. Unless it becomes, for example, cheaper to fly mechanics from India on 6-month contracts in NZ to do low-cost car repairs.

You might laugh now......

it seems to me that one of the few reasons NZ built up a diverse skills base in manufacturing and the engineering and design skills to support it, was the need to operate behind a wall of tariffs that meant the only option was to train New Zealand workers to provide all the things we needed to function as an economy.

To a considerable extent the New Zealand economy has continued to benefit from the legacy of skills and knowledge accumulated during the period of protection. Can that legacy be maintained? Is there a possibility of that legacy gradually degrading and slipping away should the manufacturing and design requirements of the NZ domestic economy slip below some critical mass that maintains their viability?

How does reducing the scope for employment in all facets of manufacturing, from start to finish, keep young people from leaving New Zealand in search of opportunity?

I'm having some trouble seeing a good future for us here while this trend continues to denude the economy of more and more manufacturing jobs and potentially, skills.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Public Transport Saga: ARTA's Child Policy

I'm a public transport fan and a true believer. I've used some of the best public transport systems in the world and lived without a car in such cities for years at a time. I know it can be done very well.

Auckland's MAXX is a huge step forward after the chaos created by selling off the previously public Auckland transport system. MAXX's parent body, ARTA is itself an attempt to bring some coherence to the regional public transport situation. I understand all that and I support what they are trying to do. At the same time, a user of such a system owes it to the providers to communicate any shortcomings with the reasonable expectation that these will be heard, acknowledged and either rejected as invalid or impractical or dealt with appropriately in a timely fashion.

Since shifting to Auckland in December, the public transport issue I have bumped into most often is the way children are treated. I've been pursuing MAXX on various issues related to children since January to little avail until recently.

Three issues have accumulated over time. Two are MAXX-specific and the other pertains to where I live (at least) and relates to the local provider not following MAXX policy.

Child Fare Policy and Acceptable ID


The first MAXX issue is straight forward: MAXX policy is that children 5-15 (incl) ride for the child's fare for singles and concessions. Doesn't matter who you are, or were you're from. If you're a child as described above, you're entitled to ride for a child fare.

But that isn't what happens to children much over the age of 12, depending on their size and appearance. Where I live, (Beach Haven/Birkenhead) children are told to pay the adult fare if they don't have a student card. That means a child not currently in an Auckland school pays full fare. That isn't consistent with MAXX's stated policy.

My daughter was challenged this way on her very first bus ride back in January. She was 14 then and had never attended an Auckland school. So no student card. I witnessed this and explained to the driver we had just shifted to Auckland. No use. The driver refused to accept any ID other than a student card. Clearly not consistent with MAXX policy. She refused to take the bus for two months after that.

I thought: "Welcome to MAXX!" It's hard to imagine a more negative experience for a 14yo girl who had gone to the trouble of checking the MAXX web site in order to be certain she was doing the right thing....only to find that the rules were something else.

Given MAXX's very clear and simple policy on child fares, what ID is acceptable according to MAXX? They don't say. The only answer I can get so far, after repeated queries, was a somewhat uncertain statement that a MAXX student card is provided via schools....but that isn't documented anywhere and is contrary to the MAXX policy as stated: ALL children.

Students are children, but are all children students?

In the meantime, the second MAXX issue appeared with the revamp of the web site over Easter. (This was also when the public forums were dumped) The formerly very clear MAXX child policy was now subsumed into the "school student discount" link. The policy there remains the same, but now it is under a link that refers only to school students, not children. The text itself refers to children. The link to it does not. This has created new confusion where it did not exist before. It logically makes no sense to deal with the super set of all children within the subset of students. It creates new opportunities for confusion among both operators and users. Perhaps this is deliberate. I hope not and have assumed it isn't.

Birkenhead Tansport and Children

The other issue relates to one provider. I live in the area served by Birkenhead Transport (BT).

BT recently began refusing school children access to all peak hour buses after 8am on the basis they SHOULD be using a school bus that leaves before 8am. The issue for the service provider, they claim, is that children fill the peak hour buses and adults can't find space or seat (not sure which). So drivers have been refusing access to the bus and telling kids to get the earlier school bus. Next one arrives tomorrow morning. Walk today. They aren't polite about it, either. This policy of BT's is a clear and obvious breach of the MAXX child policy. There is no legitimate basis for refusing a child access to a bus if they have the fare in hand.

Can you imagine the anguish of a parent should their child be injured or assaulted after being refused access to a bus they were entitled to board? It doesn't bear thinking about.

When I called Birkenhead Transport, it was clear this approach was a matter of BT policy and not an ad hoc thing being done by individual drivers. I called MAXX nd opened a problem about it. That was 2 weeks ago. It's clear the school buses laid on are far too early. What child wants to arrive at school 45 minutes or more early? BT aren't meeting the need. BT says they don't have a bus to spare: "Arthur can't afford another bus", I was told. Oh.

What do I conclude from this? Is this first-hand evidence of the joys on offer in a public transport system where a fragmented service is supplied by a number of private operators, at least one of whom demonstrably lacks the financial resources to meet even a moderate growth in usage amounting to one bus load?

Surely if the 8:18am 973 from Beach Haven Wharf is overfull, then BT should start TWO 973 buses from that location at that time or perhaps 973 Special a couple of minutes later. Kicking children off the buses they are perfectly entitled to ride is not what ARTA is paying BT to do. Maybe using that "school bus" no one uses because it is too early would do the trick. I don't know and I shouldn't have to.

MAXX Responsiveness

MAXX's responsiveness to all these issues has been uniformly poor. My first query on January 30th was never acted upon and I was never called back. They couldn't find it. It had been deleted by someone. My second query on March 4th also sailed through the 7-day response target unmolested. On March 14th, I was told I would be called back the next day. A week later, when I called back again, I was told the same thing.....only to wait another week before calling back again.

At that point, MAXX deleted the old forums and I was very much aware that I was now alone and atomised and dealing with a demonstrably unresponsive MAXX. I called Cam Pitches of the CBT to let him know about the forums disappearing and to introduce myself. Cam advised me to go the NZ Herald. A risk of being thought a tosser, here's a link to the article that appeared in the Herald the following Monday, containing some of my more colourful and critical quotes about MAXX. I said lots of nice things, too, in case anyone is wondering!

That very afternoon, I got a call not from MAXX, but ARTA. The person I spoke to heard out all of my issues (I'm becoming quite practiced at it) and agreed they had merit and should be dealt with. Two weeks went by and nothing obvious happened. No calls back. No change to the web site. It still has the confusing "school student discount" link to an all-child policy. Nothing new on what ID is acceptable for child fares. If BT has been taken to task for ignoring MAXX child policy, I've not heard about it.

Today, I got a call from ARTA again. The FIRST EVER genuine service-driven call back. It was someone covering for the first caller of two weeks ago who has gone on holiday. I rehearsed all the issues yet again, in detail. The person agreed they had merit and should be acted on.

May looms. It really shouldn't be this hard to get MAXX and BT to look after children as they have publicly stated they are committed to do.

I'll let you know what happens next.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

World (begins to) end on Thursday.....and other news. Plus a song.

I haven't read any newspapers this morning, so I'm probably missing a HUGE story.

I do know Sir Doug Graham has resigned as Chair of the failed finance company Lombard Finance. I have a lot of respect for Graham as he was the Minister of Justice in the last National government who oversaw the move to MMP and also the Treaty Settlements minister who moved the treaty settlements process into a higher gear.

On to the real news: The world begins to end on Thursday.

Yes. You've (probably) heard it here first. "Church of God" pastor, Ronald Weinland is telling anyone who will listen that the end time is here and now. In fact, in this radio interview with a UK Sports station last week, he declares that the first of the "Seven Trumpets" heralding the end times will occur in the Middle East on April 17th. Day after tomorrow. As I write this post, Mr. Weinland is likely on board a jet making his way there to bear witness. Now I'm not sure which one of the 400-ish "Church of God" fragments Weinlands leads. After Worldwide Church of God founder, Herbert W Armstrong, died in 1986 and his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, was discredited through gambling and sex romps with co-eds at the church's "Ambassador College", the church sort of fell apart.

Anyway, Weinland says we will see the first of the "Seven Trumpets" day after tomorrow, then the proverbial will REALLY hit the fan in 2008 and by the end of this year we will see the "the demise of the United States and beginning of man's final war." Ultimately, I think he says there are supposed to be maybe 3,000 people who will go forward into the new world after the apocalypse to come. I may be a bit hazy on the details here as these "Noah's Ark" earth-cleansing apocalypses tend to blur one into the other. You can download Robert Weinland's book here. It's in English, Dutch, Spanish and Italian, so presumably these folks will have an edge as the lights go out. You best get to it or you may not have time to finish it unless you're among the 3,000 in which case it will be history not prophecy, so why bother.

The YouTube version:



Savage Teen Beating and Aftermath

The other news item that got me this weekend comes from the United States. Eight teenagers (6 females / two males) invited a girl they all knew over to one of their grandparents home then proceeded to beat the living daylights out of her in a sustained attack over a 30-minute period. She suffered concussion and bruising over her entire body. They could have killed her. They videoed the whole thing so they could upload it to YouTube or whatever later. This Fox News item on Youtube is one of the better overviews I've seen of this horrifying crime. (Fox? Yeah...I know). Don't watch if you're squeamish. It's not pretty.



The US public is outraged and some are baying for more blood - this time the perps'. The parents of the perpetrators are defensive and obviously shell-shocked. This article on Tampa Bay Online is fairly comprehensive with respect to the response. If you've been following it, you've seen the court appearance and the circus surrounding the release of each on bail. The parents of the victim, understandably and justifiably distraught, blame the Internet for what happened.

It gets worse. A US-based talk-show host known as "Dr. Phil" has apparently paid for or otherwise secured the bail of one of the girls charged in return for an exclusive on her story. The video of a Dr. Phil minder blocking access to the girl by other media is eye-opening on several levels.

I'm hoping this whole episode of teenage rage doesn't become a political football. Gangs of kids have been beating on other kids since forever. It's not right. Never was right. The media circus around this story is bad enough without the additonal dimension of cheque-book pseudo-journalism causing more damage to all concerned - perps, victim, the parents of both, while the "blame the internet" knee-jerk mantra gets more tuneless utterance.

Zimbabwe

Looks like the expected partial recount in the presidential election in Zimbabwe will give the Mugabe regime one more opportunity to stuff the ballot boxes enough to see their man win. Voters are already being softened up by a preliminary campaign of violence and intimidation. The opposition has called for a general strike to begin today. Mugabe's forces are mobilising to meet the challenge, setting up police checkpoints.

South African President, Thabo Mbeke, who had attempted to mediate and been ignored by Mugabe, has proven himself yet again to be an impotent apologist for Mugabe. It is damaging Mbeke's reputation at home

What would you do if you lived there? Would you have yet reached the point where you could no longer afford to be beaten down? Would you be at the point where you felt you had nothing to lose?

I guess we'll find out over the next several days.

...and now the song....

Meanwhile, this song intruded into my world today and I decided I really like it. Have a listen if you haven't already. The band is Opshop and the song is "One Day".

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Foriegn Investment: Some good / Some bad

In the wake of the government's decision last week to not allow the sale of 40% of Auckland Airport to a foreign buyer, I've been reflecting on the topic a wee bit. Plus, it rained today and there was nothing on TV. What do I care? I don't watch TV anyway.

What prompted my thoughts was the Canadian government deciding this week to block the sale of a high-tech satellite / robotics company to a US buyer.

Canada (where I grew up) began enjoying the "benefits" of foreign investment decades prior to the rage for it seriously took hold in New Zealand political circles. The inverted comments around "benefits" should indicate that this experience has not always been a good one and that foreign investment is far from problem free.

In the NZ Herald last year, investment analyst Brian Gaynor looked at the serious problems that poor foreign investment has caused in New Zealand in recent years. Air New Zealand, NZ Rail, Telecom and more are cited.

Judging by the comments of many business and political commentators in New Zealand, there appears to be inadequate awareness of the potential downsides of foreign investment. At the very least, they are reluctant to acknowledge there are any downsides.

Is all foreign investment good? No.
Is all foreign investment bad? No.

Absolutely and without question any investor, domestic or foreign, who can invest capital in new businesses or industries to generate wealth and value and/or employment and/or a skills base for enabling other economic endeavour is to be encouraged and perhaps even supported in doing so. No country can have too many good citizens - individual or corporate.

But the picture isn't all rosey. In the Canadian experience, foreign investment often meant that a company, or an industry as a whole, was converted into a "branch plant" of a foreign owner. The economies of scale thus achieved often meant that domestic Canadian competitors became uncompetitive and were then either bought up and closed down or they simply shut up shop. Later, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was introduced, and tariffs on imports were reduced or removed, these branch plants were often allowed to run down and declared too expensive to re-invest in. The activity that had taken place there ceased. The skills base associated with these industries rapidly dissipates and in the end no one knows how to do that thing any more. This is one of the main reasons the Canadian government gave for blocking the sale of MDA this week.

Where the investment was in purchasing existing companies rather than building new ones, the effect was often ultimately hostile to the creation of wealth in Canada. Instead, it actually degraded and finally destroyed what wealth had been there by removing domestic competitors from the scene, then closing down local branches entirely. No longer even a branch plant economy, you import all of whatever it was that used to be made here and employed people here.

We can see this today as we wander the aisles of our local supermarkets. Basic, everyday products that used to be made here, from deodorants to tomato sauce, are now imported. Businesses that employed large numbers of unskilled or low-skilled people are now gone or greatly reduced and always under threat of being closd entirely.

The assumption seems to be that "resources will be shifted to new industries" as one letter writer to the North Shore Times asserted this week (objecting to the blocking of the airport sale). But that doesn't make any sense to a 45 years old woman who may have spent the last 20 or more years making carpets at Feltex in Foxton. Who is going to fund her retraining and re-allocation to a new knowledge industry - even assuming she was up to it? She can't. She's out of work. Wages were low anyway. Maybe she didn't even finish secondary school. Textiles have been part of the Foxton economy for most of 150 years thanks initially to the abundant supply of flax in the area. Now it's all gone. Soon the skills will be gone as well.

Canada had also found that its sovereignty can be directly undermined by foreign investment. At one point in the early 1970's more than 99% of the booming Canadian petroleum industry was foreign-owned. The Canadian arm of US companies have shown themselves unwilling to follow Canadian laws when they conflicted with US laws. In particular, they often refused to deal with countries the US had embargoed, but Canada had not.

Famously, in the early 1970s, the Trudeau government in Ottawa had to threaten to order a US-owned Canadian locomotive manufacturer to ship locos to US-embargoed Cuba. The US parent risked being prosecuted by the government there and was in a no-win situation. The US government relented in 1975. Similarly, the Canadian arm of IBM found itself under constant pressure to follow US law.

Canadians went through all this years before New Zealand started down this road. I came to New Zealand in the early 1980s knowing a great deal more, from personal experience, about the downside of foreign investment than even the most senior politicians here seemed aware of. I recall being amazed that they were so uncritical of virtually all foreign investment. People who knew better did try to warn them, but listening wasn't a talent demonstrated by most Kiwi governments elected under the old First Past the Post voting system. Being deaf was supposed to mean you were strong instead of being determinedly deaf and blind or worse - stupid.

The government here (and the government in Canada) has been criticised for playing politics with foreign investment. That could only be possible if large numbers of voters understood foreign investment to not always be a good thing while their political masters most often like to pretend otherwise. In Canada that's a given. In 1970 the "Committee for an Independent Canada" (CIC) was founded to publicise the damaging side of foreign investment. At age 13, already curious, I attended their founding national conference in Thunder Bay, where I happened to live. The CIC later morphed into the "Council of Canadians".

In New Zealand, more and more people seem to be coming to the conclusion that being prudent about what you sell to people who don't live here is prudent and careful economic management and not "xenophobia" as some have attempted to label it.

Not all foreign investment is bad. We should insist our governments at least attempt to tell the good from the bad and reject the latter and thank them for doing so. The Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board clearly thought they would make a lot of money out of Auckland Airport's monopoly to aid in funding the pensions of Canadians. Maybe now Kiwi pensioners will get a look into extracting the monopoly rents the Canadians were seeking through the fund administered by our own government?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday Morning Musings

New Auckland Public Transport discussion forums!

In the wake of MAXX dumping the discussion forum they used to host on the MAXX website, Cam Pitches of the Campaign for Better Public Transport tells me they now have an alternative discussion forum up and running on their site.

Go for it people.

MAXX has previously said they would link to this new forum, so I hope we will soon see this link prominently visible on the MAXX site.

"Media 7"

This morning I took some time out early and watched the second edition of TVNZ 7's "Media 7" programme, ably hosted by long time media scrutineer, Russell Brown. I won't go into detail on the content other than to say Brown and his panel offered up an interesting, amusing and informative assessment of the media coverage of recent economic and financial events. Simon Pound looked at how Michelle Boag and Merv Bennett's "Waiheke Week" has stirred things up on the island. I very much enjoyed the show start to finish and recommend it to anyone interested in media in New Zealand. There wasn't a boring minute to be found.

"Media 7" has a YouTube Channel. Each edition has been broken up into pieces less than 10 minutes long. Here's the property segment from the second edition:



Auckland Airport

The government has blocked the sale of a major share of Auckland Airport to the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB). I'm sure shareholders who supported the sale won't be happy with that. I have to confess that I'm happy with the government's decision. The recent debacle surrounding the opening of Heathrow's new Terminal 5 and the previous announcement, by the Spanish-owned airport authority, of huge hikes in airport fees for travelers and carriers suggest the government's caution may be well founded. Although the deal as finally composed may have prevented the CPPIB of having control for now, there is no guarantee that some future government would not have changed that. Previous experience of foreign ownership in airlines, electrical utilities and rail is more than enough reason to be very cautious about Auckland Airport.

UPDATE:
Bernard Hickey of interest.co.nz argues against blocking the sale of a 40% share in the airport to CPPIB on the grounds that it will negatively impact interest rates.



I think investors in most countries will have no issues with the government preserving local control of important infrastructure. American investors will be very familiar with such a concept and the reasons for it. Non-Americans aren't allowed to own television networks, for example. Also consider the uproar if military contractors attempt to use foreign sourced components in their weaponry, as General Dynamics recently announced, sourcing components from part of the European Airbus consortium. They would never consider actually selling off control of such a company. In my view, interest rate concerns a few points one way or the other don't trump strategic long term interests or sovereignty. Those are the rules followed in the countries we trade with. None of them that I know of have open slather on strategic assets. We are already more liberal than most. Few would tolerate almost all of their print media being foreign owned as is the case today in New Zealand.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Real Headful.....

The most challenging part of trying to be a good, attention-paying citizen, is the sheer volume of stories and information streaming past every hour in the news-stream.

Last night I was reading about how the property market in the UK is tanking. The story there is the same as in many other jurisdictions. Housing prices that rose to giddy heights atop a market awash with cheap money for the first time in ages. Many banks were prepared to lend up to 100% of the value of the house to almost anyone. More careful banks are exposed to loss if they dealt with the less careful banks. No one knows how rotten the mortgage portfolios of any given institution might prove to be. The Economist sees it as the beginning of a bust and details several factors - UK local and global - that have brought matters to a head. NZ's own Bernard Hickey
of interest.co.nz, has made a series of very watchable and informative videos looking at how this plays in our local market.

There are some very large variables operating that could make economic developments in the next few years very different to previous years. Here are just a few. Not in order of priority.

Assuming climate change is underway and gathering pace, what will the effect of that be on food, markets, economies - people? There is plenty of room for global downside unlike anything seen since WW II in simple human terms.

Everyone is waiting for the lethally incompetent George W Bush to finally leave office in the US so we can all get back to running the world on a more sane and cooperative basis again. Fingers crossed. But will it be soon enough?

China will play a huge role in the years ahead. One they have not played before in global history. In earlier times, China was a world unto itself, at times the ruler of a huge chunk of the world's people. Later, China was a broken empire of feuding warlords and easy prey for empire-building European and Japanese colonisers. Now, China is neither insular nor weak.

Population is the issue underlying most others. Climate change is dangerous precisely because there are so many people living in places that may be in danger due to change. If the worst happens and their crops don't grow along the drying Ganges or their land is submerged as the seas invade Bangladesh, where do these people go? What water will they drink? If there weren't so many people, we could just move to the places that became better due to climate change and abandon the places that got worse. Our children would be looking at land along the coast of the Arctic Ocean for the best places to build the beach baches of tomorrow for our grandchildren and beyond. We'd move endangered species to new places and enjoy a warmer, wetter future for all. No problem. Lots of space to go around.

Nice dream. But we aren't that smart or generous.

My brother told me this week about a young Canadian woman in Cuba a few weeks back who thought she could win an argument with the Cuban staff of a charter air operator. They would not let her on board the jet without either paying for the 10kg her luggage was overweight, or removing the excess weight. He says she argued with them for a long time, citing market forces, public opinion, the tiny size of her 10kg....everything. They said they took Visa or MasterCard or cash. They pointed to a nearby ATM machine. She insisted she had NO money. Ok, so they said she would have to remove the excess weight if she could not pay for it. They looked weary and finally suggested she document her concerns and send them to the Cuban embassy in Ottawa. Her boyfriend finally told her to shut up. The other 500 people waiting to board the two jets were with him. She went to the ATM, got the trifling amount of money required and paid for her extra 10kgs.

We'll see similar scenes when it comes time to pay for excess carbon emissions.

Trying to evade the rules and then lying about the money aside, she clearly thought her 10kgs was more important than the rules she had agreed to abide by as well as all the other people there, waiting to board two flights.

Everywhere is the evidence that we doesn't realise how small we are compared to the world around us. We don't understand scale.

It's a common story. It's like happens all the time. Last year, I was involved in a campaign in Ontario, Canada. We had a committee in each electorate and their job was to run the local campaign. Each electorate had roughly 100,000 voters in it. Some committees clearly knew what was required and scaled up to do the job and reach the 100,000 voters. Some others, bless their hearts, thought that holding a public meeting at the local library every week (or two) and inviting the local newspaper to cover it would be enough to get the job done. Attendances were in the dozens, at best, and the other 99,950 were blissfully unaware.

On YouTube, people with 200 subscribers have fun. People with 20,000 subscribers are stalked and go into hiding.

I see this again and again. We have built this big complex world full of millions and millions and millions of people. Meanwhile, most of us behave as though we were part of a bus tour with our friends and family along for the ride. The other people are just part of the scenery. The few who do understand the real scale of things are too often shouted down by the "bus riders" who block any change to the way things are on the basis that they don't see it a necessary. Mainly because they don't know. Ignorance is too often their shield from both change and responsibility.

These experiences shape one's assessment of what the future may hold. So far, any effort to actually deal with global problems has instead seen the wrong problems focused on and the solutions to those wrong problems have been spectacularly wasteful, wrong-headed and counter-productive. Iraq has been very instructive in that regard. Wrong problem. Wrong solution. Spectacularly counter-productive and wasteful.

The lemmings are running. The cliff is that-a-way. I hear their siren call: "Prosperity and success through endless consumption and growth this way! This way!"

Excuse me while I stand aside and avoid the rush. I hope you'll join me. There is so much for us all to learn and think about while we try to rescue those among us headed for the edge, riding their buses, besotted by the call of the siren who promises something out of nothing.

Are you cashed up, holding tangible assets and debt free? It would appear to be the best place to be if times are about to get rough and deflationary in real terms while being inflationary in nominal terms.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Condiment Mystery (Solved)

Anyone know anything about this company and the people who run it?



If you do, please let me know.

Thanks.

UPDATE:
Mystery solved. "bannmatt" on YouTube (apparently in the US) found some information about them and left me a comment.

I called them this morning. They have not so far found any distributors in the Auckland region, so you can't at present buy their stuff outside of the Wellington region.

They recently shifted to Auckland and the normal connections to them are mostly broken. They also have no web presence, so can't be found on the Internet. I offered to host a one page site for them - for free - if they were interested. They can be found at:

Murdoch A & Co (Wgtn) Ltd
16 Belenom Crescent
Pakaranga
Auckland

Phone numbers are still: Wellington (04) 3859327 Fax:(04) 3856228 Other
Their brands are:

ANGLO INDIAN, MURDOCH, SUNGOLD
Encompassing: Chutneys Icing sugar Pickles Sauce Lemon Juice Soy Products

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

UPDATE: Why CNN is gone from Sky Mobile TV

Here is the response I got to my query as to why CNN was removed from Sky Mobile TV:

Hello Steve,

Thank you for your email.

Unfortunately as with any channel that we have, whether it is via SKY decoders or SKY Mobile TV, the continuation is dependent on the viewership numbers. CNN did not prove to be very popular on SKY Mobile TV which is why it has been removed.

Regards
(customer service person)

(Looks like sport, soft porn, reality TV, cartoons and celeb gossip rule the day on Sky Mobile TV. I'll remain unsubscribed.)

Bush's invasion of Iraq caused the "sub-prime crisis".

Back in 2004 I was anticipating what is happening now. We sold our several properties and concentrated the equity in one in order to reduce our exposure to debt and the risk of higher interest rates. I was certainly quick off the mark in taking action, but definitely not wide of it. I wasn't sure exactly "when", but the "if" of higher interest rates and more inflation was being converted into a sometime "when" as the tanks rolled toward Baghdad. George W Bush's tax cuts certainly didn't help any either, as they contributed to the growth of the US government fiscal deficit, instantly wiping out the surpluses of the Clinton years. It was suspected the goal was to create deficits that would allow the Social Security fund to be dismantled or reduced in scope, creating more business opportunities for private insurance funds. Whatever. The deficits were duly created. Invading Iraq was like pouring petrol on the bonfire.

As the effects of the most recent consequence of the invasion - the US sub-prime crunch - continue to fall out, it's more and more like watching a slow-motion train wreck. The engine went off the rails in March 2003 and the rest just unfolded more or less as it would have in any case. Greedy bankers and myopic derivatives speculators, blind to the risk they were taking, merely helped decide exactly which links in the chain would pop first.

Like the slow motion train wreck, we're seeing stories of failures of institutions and funds, at first distant and seemingly irrelevant, become more numerous. As each succeeding car comes off the rails, the consequences of all this creep closer and closer to home. Each failure leads to trouble and strife for those further downstream.

Tower's "Mortgage Plus" fund closure detailed in this report by Bernard Hickey of JDJL / interest.co.nz is the latest of the local stories emerging from the property slump caused by higher interest rates and rising inflation combined with stagnant wages. Interesting to note Hickey's comments about Trustees Executors and related activities of mortgage brokers. I think we might expect to hear more from those organisations as time passes.



The sub-prime crisis is being blamed for all this, but it, in turn has its roots in the fallout from US President Bush's disastrous policies. Lest he hog all the blame, we should reserve a small share for those banks, greedy to the point of idiocy, who lent money to people with little equity who wouldn't be able to pay ballooning mortgage payments if rates rose. As banker after banker has said: "We never expected the interest rates to go crazy".

Why not? I did. Maybe not inevitable, but certainly highly likely. Worth being prudent about.

I'm no economics boffin. But I do study history and have a working knowledge of how the major chunks of the global money/banking system hang together. The effects on the global monetary system of the Vietnam War and the first two oil shocks provide insight into what is happening now.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 lead to vastly increased oil prices and ballooning government spending on an utterly unproductive activity: war. Both are inflationary. Inflation is corrosive. Unlike Vietnam or the discretionary oil shocks of the early 70's, today there is no end in sight.

In order to fund the deficit and maintain the value of the US dollar, interest rates were raised for 11 straight quarters by the US Fed. The Fed was trying to quell inflationary pressures based on higher oil prices and attract funds, mainly from China, Korea and Japan, to fund the deficit. The higher interest rates resulted in rising costs for all businesses and consumers, especially those who held those "sub-prime" mortgages.

One can imagine they then found they had trouble with making ends meet due to the rapidly rising interest rates and rising cost of living. Daily expenses and "balloon" payments on sub-prime mortgages as they rolled over probably crept out onto credit card balances and eventually the total became unsustainable for ever-larger numbers of people, leading to large numbers of mortgage defaults.

The sub-prime crisis is a symptom. George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, combined with his tax cuts, is the root cause. If that money wasn't being wasted, interest rates would not have had to rise...and we would not be seeing what we are now seeing.

It was not impossible to see this coming. I didn't know exactly how or when, but I saw the risk of such a thing happening and prepared for it. Why couldn't the banks and people with a lot more economic and financial nous than me do the same?

A bigger question for me is how the people who started all this - Bush and his team of advisors - failed utterly to appreciate what the consequences of their actions would be. Maybe they really did believe Iraq would be all over in a few weeks and they could rake in the oil money ever after and never dreamed it would cost a trillion dollars with no end in sight.

If they believed that, they really were incompetent, dribbling idiots loose in a dynamite store with a pack of matches. If they didn't believe it, then we are now suffering the effects of one of the greatest acts of deliberate economic vandalism in recorded history.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Don't trust. Verify

This blog isn't called "Truth Seeker" for nothing. In my life I've found that one makes errors in direct proportion to the extent to which one is prepared to accept as true things that are not true. In an effort to avoid inflicting the consequences of my errors of fact or understanding on myself and others, I do try to see any thing from a variety of perspectives. I then weigh that up against my own values (tested for validity every day if the subject is new and / or there is uncertainty) and arrive at something resembling a conclusion. A provisional decision, valid unless new information invalidates it.

Caveats: Knowledge of anything complex usually isn't perfect. In turn, understanding is limited by the usual 5 senses and the brain (large or small) that has the job of making sense of them. Some do better than others. Some make no effort in either case, knowing little and understanding less. (But they vote anyway. Oh well....)

Already, we can see there is an inbuilt tendency to err based on imperfect knowledge and incomplete or inaccurate understanding and underpinned by motivation - or lack of it - to even try.

With that in mind, I read Matthew Hooten's column ("Labour fighting tooth and nail", 6/4/08 Pg A11) in the Sunday Star Times this weekend. I can't find a link for it.

What caught my eye in the column referred to were several assertions that - to me - appear to be insupportable.

The first was the almost throw-away claim that a fourth Labour term would "accelerate our brain-drain". That surprised me as there have been several recent reports that show the so-called brain drain is a myth. Journalist Nick Smith found the same thing when he looked into the claims there was a brain drain.

It's a hollow claim. My daughter is on an employment contract that says she'll work any time, for any number of hours, with no overtime, as required, if required. For the minimum wage, if she can coax them into paying it. Can you say "powerless"? The 40-hour week is stone, cold dead.

Apparently, this isn't "free" enough for some employers. It's hard to see what more they could ask for in terms of being able to dictate terms of employment. Not at all hard to see why Australia might be more attractive. But it would be the young and low-skilled who are being driven out of New Zealand and this appears to be what the statistics actually show to be happening.

Later, Mr. Hooten refers to "our demand for tax cuts". Who wants tax cuts? A recent NZ Herald-Digipoll showed that tax cuts were an issue for 22% of Kiwis. They made much of this, but I would have thought it more significant that 78% of Kiwis weren't fussed about tax cuts. I'd be among them. My impression is that "demand" for tax cuts has been largely media-driven. I've not seen any poll over several years that showed a level of demand for tax cuts warranting the sort of media campaign we have seen for several years now on the subject.

Hooten then goes on to assert that Labour will employ dirty tricks and speculates rumours will be "invented about hidden agendas and malign foreign influences".

I can't dismiss, as Mr. Hooten does, the clear hunger of some in the National Party for even less worker protections than the few that still exist. Nor can I easily forget the business-as-usual co-ordination with the US-lead Exclusive Brethren in the last election.

These aren't rumours. They are genuine concerns raised by National's own past behaviour.

Hooten then asserts the "economically ruinous effect of Labour's policy agenda". I'm sorry, but every economic indicator I know of indicates that since 1999 the present government has done as well as any government ever has economically and better than almost all others of any era. Low unemployment, solid growth, an open economy, a demonstrated capacity to withstand global downturns through sound local macro-economic management. NZ is ranked as one of the easiest countries on Earth to do business in. We even have a growing fiscal surplus that gives some hope the passing of the Baby Boomer generation into the ranks of the elderly will be fundable.

The summary is I found Mr. Hooten's column to be more misleading than it was informative. But I wouldn't know that if I hadn't actively sought to verify the assertions he made. I'm glad I made the effort. I hope the Sunday Star Times has a negative view of any columnist whose column is found to be full of assertions that don't stand up to scrutiny.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

NZ's soul for sale?

Wonders never cease. Today I had the rare treat of reading something (no link to it) in the Weekend Herald by Fran O`Sullivan that was (indirectly) complimentary to Helen Clark and Labour. The subject was a free trade agreement with China and Ms. O`Sullivan is all on board. To say she is enthusiastic would be an understatement. So much so that she fully endorses the agreement....whatever it is. We don`t know yet. She says she has a few hints.

On the flip side, Ms. O`Sullivan was dripping with venom and contempt toward anyone who might have any doubts about the still-secret agreement. Especially people who might wish to put human rights ahead of (unknown, but presumed) benefit to their wallets. Well...someone's wallet if not your own.

I'm always amazed that principles don't seem to be worth anything to people like Fran O'Sullivan when there's money to be made. That's the same sort of thinking that would lead some people to think that whoring the lives of your country's soldiers in - say - an invasion of Iraq would be a worthy thing to do in order to (maybe) win a free trade agreement with the United States....as National's Wayne Mapp and Simon Power briefly did in 2003, before getting their chains yanked by more thoughtful and senior colleagues for being so silly.

Anyway, it's not often one sees a staunch advocate of right-wing policies like Fran O'Sullivan blindly and unquestioningly supporting Helen Clark and Labour!

I'm neither in favour of, nor opposed to, the FTA with China. How can I be? I've got no idea what's in it. I am inclined to be optimistic about it.

I have no problems with a free trade agreement with another democratic country that operates under the rule of law and where we know the justice system is generally reliable. Even an FTA with the United States would make some sense, despite their considerable history of ignoring the terms of the free trade agreements they sign when they are contrary to politically powerful domestic interests, as Canadians well know after 15 years of NAFTA.

China is a whole other thing. They arrest and imprison or kill people who simply want to vote for who governs their country.

I do have real concerns that binding New Zealand's future to an unaccountable and ruthless dictatorship disrespectful of human rights will leave a small country like ours little latitude for action when major human rights issues do arise. How large an outrage would be required to make us draw back? A thousand dead? A hundred thousand? A million? Or are we ready to do anything, pay any price, for the "baubles of office" associated with an FTA with China?

Some people clearly are. Fran O'Sullivan, and people like her, clearly have no problems there. Their own words make that clear. Liberal values like democracy, justice, liberty and the people who uphold them are to be held in contempt if they obstruct making money.

Read her article "Cuddling up to China" (Weekend Herald, Review, B1). You'll see what I mean.

It's important to make clear that I'm not disagreeing with Ms. O'Sullivan about free trade that's conducted fairly. That can be a very good thing for all concerned.

Instead, I'm suggesting we not sell our liberal democratic souls for a few pieces of silver. So whatever is in the agreement to be signed, we would be imprudent to not also consider what else we will be giving up in order to maintain the relationship with a China that is not only not democratic, but a ruthless dictator.

In case anyone thinks otherwise, I'm a huge fan of Chinese people and culture. But I'm able to distinguish between a people and the government they find themselves lumbered with.

Friday, April 4, 2008

They took my CNN away......

Vodafone and Sky Mobile TV

I have been using Sky Mobile TV on Vodafone for the past several months. It's one of the Vodafone Live! offerings. For $2.50 / week, you get access to a number of Sky channels on your 3G phone. The ONLY reason I added it to my service was to watch CNN. I have NO interest in reality TV on MTV, cartoons on Cartoon Network, or Hollywood gossip on E! or the various sports and soft porn that compose the rest of the Sky Mobile TV offerings. The Prime news bulletin from the previous day isn't compelling by itself.

CNN was the big draw for me. Not that it's that great. The time to useful information ratio was at the low end of the scale, but it was useful to listen to on the headset and pull the phone out of the pocket for a look if anything interesting came up. I would have much preferred BBC World to CNN-I.

Today when I tried to watch CNN, I found it was gone. Hmmm. I called 777 to find out if this was a glitch. As often happens, the person answering the phone at first didn't understand what I was talking about. Then she went away for ages to find out and came back with: "I'm sorry, Sir. If it's no longer on the menu, it must be gone."

At time of writing, the Vodafone web site still includes CNN as one of the listed channels. I've sent a note asking them to confirm the fate of CNN. Without it, the Sky Mobile service is rendered uninteresting to me and I won't be continuing the subscription to it.

Zimbabwe

Looks like the gloves are coming off. The Mugabe push-back, backed by the police, appears to now be underway. Sad to see Mugabe living down to our lowest expectations of him.