Friday, May 27, 2005

Loving the Bomb

Is nuclear power, once again, the way ahead? In doing some reading on energy questions, I concluded that it might be - and then started finding the same view popping up in a lot of places.

A dog-eared 2003 North and South I picked up while on the cycle at the gym had an unusually interesting story on the nuclear power station planned for New Zealand in the 1970s. The history and abandonment of these plans is also discussed in a recent article in the Salient, which makes a cogent case for nuclear power to again be considered for New Zealand. In Britain, pre-election debate stimulated considerable discussion of energy issues, and the New Statesman recently claimed to have uncovered a pro-nuclear industry conspiracy.

Whether on a world or local scale, there's a straightforward reason why nuclear power might be gradually shedding its dire image. As a sober majority start acknowledging the necessity of developing renewable energy sources, nuclear is the only (semi-) renewable that might plausibly provide a significant proportion of our energy in the near future.

For doubters, it's worth clarifying the rationale for pursuing renewable energy. On the one hand, there's the much-polemicized issue of global warming. There are some reasonable doubts about the scale or impact of global warming, and the image of the Earth as a potential fireball dragging a carbon-fulled vapor trail through space is a stupid exaggeration. But the scientific consensus (which we laypeople tend to respect on most other matters) is that the planet is probably warming up, this probably has something to do with carbon dioxide emissions, and this is probably going to create more harm than benefit in the longer term. Therefore, it makes sense to look for alternatives to fossil fuels.

On the other hand, fossil fuels themselves are eventually going to get scarcer. Oil, which produces 40% of the world's energy, may reach peak production as early as next year. It will keep going for a while yet, but will gradually get more expensive, especially as demand continues to increase. This actually alarms me more than global warming, as it's not clear what alternative source of fuel there is for the ships, planes and trucks on which our economies depend. But the least we can do is try and leave the oil for these and other important purposes like plastics and pharmaceuticals, while getting our industrial and household energy elsewhere.

Some environmentalists claim that the solution is a combination of greater energy efficiency plus "green" energy sources such as sun, wind and wave power. All of these are important, but won't do the trick alone. Energy efficiencies might slow the increase in energy use, but in a growing economy (to which I'll return later) won't stop it. Of the green technologies, the most well developed - wind power - is already running into limitations. Both in Britain and New Zealand, even wind power proponents estimate that it could produce a maximum of 10-20% of national electricity supply.

And in both countries schemes to expand wind energy have faced opposition. In rural Auckland and Britain's Lake District, planned windmill farms have been blocked by locals as "blots on the landscape".

I digress here for a moment. The opposition to windmills on aesthetic grounds is partly a failure of imagination; people just don't like what they're not used to. I'm not saying they should cover the entire countryside, but they are sleek, futuristic machines which can be attractive in some settings. I remember being excited to see the windmill farms near Palm Springs in California when I passed through there a few years back; they looked romantically space-age against the desert. Closer to home, most people like the single wind turbine up near where I used to live on Brooklyn Hill in Wellington.

How much uglier are power pylons, which people usually don't even notice? Or regular telegraph-style poles? Or roads, which nowadays people mostly view as part of the natural landscape. Driving through New Zealand's North Island, for me the ugliest technology of all is the endless, dreary, rolling-country sheep and cattle farm, with its fences and deforested hills. But this supports our cloven-hoofed animals, who pay all our bills, so must be tolerated (take a look at these pictures; do the windmills enhance or detract from the landscape?) .

Returning to the point, wind power is limited at present. To provide enough power for a country like Britain, you would have to cover most of its landmass in windmills. Solar is worse; while it will be great to promote the integration of solar panels into new houses (where are the tax breaks, Michael Cullen?), whole deserts worth of panels would be needed to produce major amounts of electricity. And while I fondly imagine the days when fleets of offshore turbines combine wind and wave power to bring light to our cities, by the time that technology really gets going we'll all be buzzing around at skyscraper height in pod-cars like Anakin Skywalker.

Some environmentalists, like the Guardian's George Monbiot, purse their lips and say that we just have to use less energy. We can't expect to keep on with growing populations and growing economies, because Mother Earth has got a finite store of resources to give us, and is already under too much stress.

This simplistic view effectively thumbs its nose at the entire developing world. Huge chunks of the world's population continue to live in poverty - the single biggest challenge facing the world today. Everyone has the right to a decent standard of living. History suggests the only thing that will achieve this is development, meaning economic growth.

And developing-country economies won't grow in isolation. In addition to investment and development aid, they need freer and fairer trade - in other words, for other countries to buy their stuff. It would be nice to imagine we could just "share out" the world's wealth a bit better, but there's no known mechanism for doing this directly. Thoroughgoing socialism hasn't worked within societies; there's even less chance it could work on a global scale.

So a globalised world economy which continues to grow is a necessary prerequisite for improving people's lives. We are going to have to generate and use more energy. Which is where nuclear power comes in. Aside from oil and gas, it's the only currently available way of generating large amounts of energy in a relatively efficient way. There are also reasons to think that the risks and side effects aren't as bad as are sometimes made out. I defer to the Salient article to make the technical case, but even Monbiot is now admitting that it may not be as bad as all that.

It's likely to be difficult to advance this debate in New Zealand. We'll see a lot of emotive reaction and a reluctance to consider the issue with an open mind. People see "nuclear-free New Zealand" as a badge of identity. Though surely, the refusal to accept American warships in the 80s was more a stroppy assertion of foreign policy independence than a reasoned rejection of nuclear technology. Wasn't it?

Either way, we'll have to face up to the questions sooner or later, as our demand for energy continues to increase. We've run out of rivers to dam, our natural gas is dwindling, and wind will only go so far. For many people, the key ibjection to nuclear power is the possibility of a catastrophic accident which produces toxic pollution and harms the environment. It's worth remembering that our other option is burning lots of coal - which definitely will produce toxic pollution.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Way of the Future

In response to an opinion piece claiming that the late 2oth/early 21st century is producing few new ideas and innovations, the Observer blog listed:

"The top 10 new movements not yet invented but sure to rock the world in the 21st Century."

After considering their list, I have some further suggestions of political ideologies, scientific advances and cultural movements likely to be important in the 21st century:

Mediarology - the prediction of weather patterns through careful and systematic study of the stars and the celebrities

GUT (Grand Unified Theory) - the attempt to discover the quintessential acronym from which all other acronyms derive

Msiism - the belief that all truth and knowledge is revealed through palindromes

Human Lefts Movement - a movement against the systematic right-handed bias in ideology and language. Examples of leftedist linguistic alternatives: "We have the left to protest"; "S/he showed outstanding moral leftitude"; "S/he adleftly manouvered the car into the parking space"

Antinuclear Physics - scientific and technological field devoted to the development of clean, green atoms and other elementary particles

Paleotherapy - a new medical treatment involving being buried beneath the Earth's surface and subjected to intense heat and pressure. Cures muscle and joint problems

Superlativism - the greatest, most incredible, most important and groundbreaking theory ever!

Who can think of any more?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Daily Minion previews...Hurricanes vs. Crusaders

The Hurricanes will be faced with a big ask as they take on the Crusaders in tonight's Super 12 semi-final. The going will be difficult, and it won't be easy. But if they remain focused, and find some way to negate the Crusaders' superiority on the scoreboard, they have a good chance of coming away with a positive result. Scoring more points than the opposition is usually key in these knockout contests, and if the Hurricanes can remain ahead for the whole game, an upset could be possible.

Hurricanes captain Tana Umaga says that, while he doesn't want to seem overconfident, he's quietly confident going into tonight's match. "We know we need to play well. But the boys are focused on what they need to do, and if we achieve our objectives, we're quietly confident of a good outcome", he says.

Crusaders halfback Justin Marshall says the Crusaders will have the utmost respect for their opposition tonight. "The Hurricanes are definitely a tougher team than most" he admits. "Though, having said that, any team is tougher than most".

Both Umaga and Marshall agree that the team that plays for the full 80 minutes will be more likely to come out on top. "To win the game you need to have the ball - and that means being on the field", explains Marshall. "The side that can achieve that consistently will have the advantage".

For the young, inexperienced members of the Hurricanes, this is their first Super 12 semi-final, with the added pressure that it's their first experience of the big time. That could be a factor if the game heats up, turns into a pressure cooker, or goes down to the wire.

A lot of pre-game speculation has centred on the opposing teams' lineups, but this has been mainly just speculation. Hurricanes flanker Jerry Collins is still recovering from an arm amputation suffered at training last week, but coach Colin Cooper would not rule out him making an appearance from the substitutes' bench.

Tactics have been another hotly-debated area ahead of the match. Cooper insisted that the whiteout blizzard conditions predicted for Christchurch tonight would not have an undue effect on the Hurricane's attacking philosophy. "We'll be looking to play to the conditions" he revealed. "But we won't be letting them affect our style of play".

Almost 30,000 fans are expected at Jade Stadium for tonight's big match, and if things turn out as many pundits are predicting, they'll see a game of rugby being played.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Further Investigation Reveals That...

In Wellington a business has to apply for a licence to use part of a footpath area. One of the requirements is to have public liability insurance of at least $1 million. If alcohol will be served, a further application is required to include the outside area in the premise's liquor licence.

In central Wellington, there is the added snag of Consolidated Bylaw 23.2.1, which prohibits the consumption of liquor in public areas of the central city between 8pm and 6am, Friday and Saturday. The city Council's information on applying for use of footpaths warns that, without the appropriate licence, "your patrons may be in breach" of this prohibition.

The council's "On the Town" food safety and environment newsletter for December 2004 - sounding rather like an Indian mother advising her daughter how to catch a husband - provides some insight into its expectations:

Providing a good look

With summer officially here, we will see a lot more outdoor dining on our streets...
...It is important for the image of both your business and Wellington City that these outside dining areas are kept in a clean and inviting state. The Council’s Environmental Health Team often field complaints from the public about the untidy condition of outside dining areas, unkempt tables and messy surroundings. Customers will get an impression of your business by the way the outside area looks. You should ensure that you clear tables promptly and keep the area around tables and chairs clean and tidy. Making your business attractive helps keep the city attractive.

In another section, more detail is provided about who can serve drinks outside:

Pavement permissions in the liquor ban area

A number of premises have been granted permission by the District Licensing Agency to have tables and chairs on the pavement. This enables customers to enjoy alfresco dining as well as accommodating smokers when the Smokefree legislation comes into force on Friday 10 December 2004. There are a few monitoring issues that should be considered while your patrons are utilising the pavement area.
These include:
  • which staff are responsible for ensuring that persons are not intoxicated or minors are not being supplied liquor in the outdoor area

  • whether processes are in place to ensure that dirty dishes and glasses are cleared regularly and any rubbish such as serviettes, cigarettes and dirty ashtrays are removed so they don’t litter the footpath and street

  • whether signs or information are available to customers using the pavement area to ensure that liquor is not
    removed from that area other than going into the actual premises.

The last point is particularly important because of the liquor ban that is in force in the central city on Friday and Saturday nights until 6am the following day. The approved outdoor area does not contravene the liquor ban area, however, should your area suddenly increase in size without approval or customers leave the area with their drinks, then this would be a breach of the ban.

Aha! So now we have some insight into what rules Kitty O'Sheas might have fallen foul of. You're left wondering whether there were not "processes in place" to clear dishes and glasses, leaving the area "unkempt" and "messy" (though this pretty much describes Courtenay Pl on a Friday anyway). Or did their area "suddenly increase in size without approval"? A brief local distortion in space-time, perhaps, that hadn't been vetted by the council's envorinmental safety team?

Either way, you can now be unkempt, drunk, messy, disorderly, suddenly increase in size, or all of these simultaneously, and you can even do it outside Kitty O' Sheas. You just can't sit down quietly at a table with your drink.

Land of the free...?

But if you assume that excessive regulation and the interfering/nannying/etc state is a recent phenomenon, it's instructive to read about these 19th-century laws which have survived on the statute books in various states of the U.S.

For example, in Vermont, women must obtain written permission from their husbands to wear false teeth. In Montana, it's illegal for unmarried women to go fishing alone. Texas, it's illegal to take more than three sips of beer at a time while standing.

Ahhh, so that's where the practice of lying down drinking out of the hose from the beer keg came from...

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Anti-social Outdoor Furniture...

Last night Simon Doherty and I went to have a drink at Kitty O'Sheas on Courtenay Place, one of the few Wellington bars which has remained more or less its dingy, democratic self over the years. It's always been a good place to sit and have a few pints of Guiness and argue verbosely about the possibility of a Kantian ethics or the author-character relationship in Martin Amis novels.

Going into the bar we noticed that the pavement outside the bar was empty; the sidewalk chairs and tables were missing. That seemed a little odd, but we didn't think anything further of it as it was a chilly evening anyway. We bought a couple of pints and, after a bit, it was time for a cigarette. This of course now means leaving the bar, and we were starting to walk out the door when the doorman blocked our way and said we couldn't take our drinks outside. The bar has apparently lost its licence for its outside area, which explained the lack of tables and chairs on the sidewalk.

We asked what had happened, and he shrugged. Apparently the bar had to reapply for that aspect of their licence, and it was denied because the outside seating area had reportedly been an "obstruction" or an "anoyance" to passers-by. We struggled to imagine how serious this could have been. The bar had seemingly not been guilty of any major offenses such as repeatedly serving under age drinkers or intoxicated people, or fomenting significant antisocial behaviour, since this should have jeopardised its principal licence.

Was it a question of overly jovial patrons hailing passers-by and making a nuisance of themselves? Again, it's hard to imagine how serious the problem could have been. Courtenay Place on a Friday is a colourful and seedy boardwalk of sloppily drunk people, at times a bit feral occasionally amusing, generally a little depressing. If you don't like it, you avoid it, which these days I mostly do. The part near the Cambridge Tce end where Kittys is located is probably a little more civilzed and adult than the other end; there are fewer teenagers, and Kittys itself tends to attract an elcectic crowd including a mix of international tourists. I struggle to see how people sitting at tables outside one of the more relaxed bars could be a threat or a disturbance amidst the wider ambience.

It also seems unlikely that obstructing the thoroughfare was an issue. Other bars and cafes in the same area have outdoor tables, and the tables at Kittys always left plenty of space for people to go through. If it was a problem, they could always have required the bar to move their tables, rather than banning them.

But, whatever the reason for the heavy-handed ruling, you now can't smoke inside and can't take your drink outside. The doorman , who initially said we would have to leave our drinks on the windowsill and "keep an eye on them" while we were outside, took pity on us and opened the large window. This meant we could sip from our drinks sitting on the windowsill (technically inside) while we had a cigarette in the fresh air.

It was a nice temporary solution, but we still left feeling depressed at the increasing encroachment of regulation which, in the name of the health and morality of the community, seems to be gradually eroding the few simple pleasures we're still permitted to indulge in.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Land of the Cloven-Hoofed Cow

The foot-and-mouth scare which panicked New Zealand yesterday is almost certainly a hoax, the Minister for Agriculture Jim Sutton assured the nation on TV last night. The Minister, strangling any unwary vowels and looking more like a a 70s bureaucrat than a contemporary politican (an endearing feature, I think), also reminded everyone that the disease is no threat to humans, only affecting "those with cloven hooves". In other words, various species of farm animals plus Satan, the Great Deceiver.

But the most telling point was the Minister's reminder that over 50% of New Zealand's export revenue comes from cloven-hoofed animals. Today I've seen claims that it accounts for up to 65%. This is somewhat chastening. Forget the film industry and Wellywood, adventure tourism and NZ Inc, wine, fruits and other niche crops, high-tech, the Knowledge Wave and the e-economy - it's sheep and cows wot pay the bills.

Sitting in their offices in Wellington and Auckland, urban New Zealanders like to kid themselves that they now live in a land of lattes and liberalism, Cafe Culture and clean-green Pacific Rim Fusion, avant garde paua-and-greenstone jewellery sold via the internet from a cottage in Takaka, $50 bottles of pinot noir squeezed out of Central Otago terroir, a kinder, gentler hip-hop washed by the warm Pacific and popular in Europe.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to wince slightly on being reminded that we all depend for our prosperity on blokes and blokesses who wander through the mud and drizzle in gumboots and swannis to hammer in fenceposts. At the end of the day, its still a land of cloven-hoofed animals. As people I met in Peru would say: "A lot of ganaderia, no?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Here's a Quiz:

In which English newspaper was the following the list of the most-read stories for the previous week? (try and guess without following the hyperlinks just yet).

1) European Cup quarter-finals: Juventus vs Liverpool
2) Archaeologist finds 'oldest porn statue'
3) Japan's virgin wives turn to sex volunteers
4) European Cup quarter-finals: Chelsea vs Bayern
5) Sea life 'killed by exploding star'
6) European Cup quarter-finals: Bayern vs Chelsea
7) Scientist calls for world DNA database
8) Daniel Craig picked for Bond
9) Howard refuses to sack candidate over doctored photo
10) Pope laid to rest

The answer is not The Sun or The Daily Mail, but the venerable Guardian Online. Just goes to show that, while we may prefer a higher tone, better writing, insightful analysis and a range of international perspectives, readers are still drawn to the same old topics as the tabloid-reading masses: football, sex, dramatised popular science and celebrity. The week's serious political scandal is down at number 9, and the Pope's funeral number 10 (though to be fair, that story may already have been getting old). The list fits almostperfectly with the online Sun's self-summary: "NEWS SPORT BIZARRE LIFE FUN TV"

It's worth noting that, while the Champions League quarter-final beat out the sex-related stories that week, the top-rating story for the *three* prior weeks was "Necrophiliac duck ruffles research feathers". This gem from the Guardian's science pages retained top spot long after the front-page link was removed; readers clicked through from the link in the top 10 list itself.

While it's not that surprising that what most grabs people's attention doesn't change much between low-brow and high-brow, what is interesting is that the list also looks a lot like the contents page of a lad's magazine. The topics are what are normally thought of as being classic "boy's stuff".

What's the explanation? Are there less females accessing the Guardian's pages? There's no evidence for that, nor reason to believe it likely. Restricted choice of subject? Hardly. While it's probably fair to say that the British tabloid media can be savagely misogynistic, the Guardian is full of intelligent material by for women. From moralistic Polly Toynbee to hip and snarky Zoe Williams, there's lots of good writing by women, and plenty of news and stories on things that women are interested in (I don't presume to define what these are, but the Guardian's got most topics covered off). Yet we never saw Andrea Dworkin's obituaries make it into the top 10 list.

Maybe the answer is that woman readers are more individual and have more subtle preferences. What they read covers a wide range of topics, so that no individual story collects that many "votes". In contrast, us blokes have short circuits in our forebrains, causing little light bulbs to sparkle whenever we see "Bayern vs. Chelsea" or "Japanese virgin wives".

Possibly. Or maybe we just all like the same stuff; despite their distinct and sometimes impenetrable approach to conversing in public, girls are interested in the same things we are. This could mean that Cosmopolitan, which I always assumed had a largely male readership, really is a women's magazine. Only maybe they need to put in more articles on football and exploding stars.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Excuse the boring, put-upon-middle-class tone of this post, but...

Is it my imagination, or have things in New Zealand got much more expensive while I was away?

I'd already thought I detected about a 20% increase in average rents when I was looking for flats. I know there's been a property price "boom" and I assumed that was the explanation. Though it was also possible that arriving just after the peak rush for rented accommodation - the start of the university year and new employment contracts - all the best deals were gone.

Recently I've also been taken aback by the cost of groceries. It seems that it's costing me $15-20 for a couple of meals' worth of goods. This is a supposed fruit and vegetable-producing country, which trades freely with another nearby one (Australia), yet almost all the fresh stuff at the supermarket is prohibitively priced. $8.00 a kilo for peppers! $3.75 for a single avocado! $6.00 for a small bag of kumara! Not to mention things which don't look particularly exotic, but have apparently now moved into that class, such as asparagus (currently $19.90/kilo) and eggplant ($12.00/kilo).

I've considered the possibility that I live in an expensive area in an expensive city and shop at an expensive supermarket. For prices, New World Thorndon may even shade its compatriot New World Wakefield St (Mt Vic/Oriental Bay), which even in 2003 was known affectionately as "the most expensive supermarket in the world". But anecdotal reporting (i.e. my flatmate) suggests that in rural towns such as Greymouth and Palmerston North prices are even higher.

And I've now collected documentary evidence. A pint of Speights at the Backbencher was $4.00 before I left; now it's $5.00. An espresso coffee had a base price of $2.50. Now it's $3.00 across the board. Returning to the vegetable bins at Thorndon New World, in the corner directly opposite the main entrance there are still helpfully chopped-up "heads" of broccoli (the right size for single, urban people). I recall clearly that they used to be $1.99; now they're $2.25.

Has there really been 12-25% inflation in the year I've been away? I've factored in the possibility of higher oil prices knocking up transport costs - but what about the New Zealand dollar, which has got steadily stronger? It was always used as an excuse for higher fuel prices when it was weak; shouldn't the converse be true now?

There's the fact that I've missed a performance review round and any possible salary increment. But I still earn a decent wage, and have no major responsibilities apart from chipping away at my student loan and trying to start saving again. I wonder what those people who have kids or a mortgage (a first one, rather than a speculative second or third) think of things at the moment? Certainly, maintaing a healthy, varied diet, which we're all encouraged to do, could be one of the things to get squeezed out. You'd have to cook pretty plainly, or with innovation, to beat the $4.00 it costs (even in Thorndon) for a fish and a scoop of chips.

And it's not that I've just been in South America. When I stayed in London recently, I thought that food and groceries were surprisingly affordable. Simon and Jill confirm that they are significantly cheaper than in New Zealand, especially when purchasing power parity is accounted for. Something has changed there - when I lived in London in the late 90s it still seemed more expensive than NZ. I can recall laughing at the 30p it cost per apple in Sainsburys (Cromwell Rd), when you could get a 2-kilo box of apples at the orchard gate in NZ for the equivalent of 30p.

When I went from London to the U.S. in 1999, the lower cost of living was striking. I shared an apartment in South Beach, Miami, with Cecilia and an Australian guy called Todd, and we shopped at the supermarket down the road. For a collective $100 we packed our fridge to bursting point with (among other things) beer, ice cream and legs of meat. We (mainly Todd, actually) cooked sumptous dinners and stuffed ourselves, having to lie down afterwards, perspiring quietly in the South Florida heat.

As a country, New Zealand is obviously never going to be as rich as the U.S. , and we can't afford to pay our farmers huge subsidies to keep prices at rock-bottom. But in a primarily agricultural nation, the question of why basic goods are so expensive warrants further investigation. You also have to start questioning the value of so-called economic growth based on inflated house prices, when its chief effect is to raise living costs for the average person.