Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Children, Homeless Suffer as Wave of Cold Hits South Peru

If you take mainstream media coverage at face value, you could be forgiven for thinking that large scale poverty in the developing world is restricted to Africa. Almost all the recent discussion of debt relief, aid and "making poverty history" has talked only about Africa, and one article even erroneously stated that the debt relief agreed by the G7 was for "eighteen African countries" (in fact, four of the eighteen were from Latin America--Bolivia, Haiti, Nicaragua and Guyana).

It's worth remembering that serious poverty is not restricted to Africa, is not just about debt, and won't be made history by a couple of rock concerts.

The below info was sent to me by Hugo in Arequipa, who wanted it translated for the South America Tour website. The first paragraph I believe is from a newspaper; it's a straight translation. The other two were in Hugo-ese, requiring a bit of rewriting--but the facts are straightforward:

"Peru is not immune from the inclemencies of nature. Dozens of children younger than five years old have died in recent weeks because of the wave of extreme cold affecting the south of the country. According to Ministry of Health statistics, since the beginning of the freeze in the high Andean areas, MINSA has treated 1,400,000 cases of acute respiratory infections (ARIs), as well as 400,000 cases of pneumonia. More than 21,800 children less than one year old, from38 high Andean communities, are most at risk from the big chill gripping our compatriots in the south.

"In the early morning of the 15th of June, South America Tour personnel went into the streets of Arequipa to hand out blankets to beggars, street children, collectors of recyclable trash and people who have nowhere to sleep. Many have come from the sierra looking for a better life, but employment opportunities are few. To survive, they collect bottles during the night around markets and from rubbish bins to sell to recyclers, who pay 50 centimos per kilo (about 16c US). This is hardly enough to live on; some nights they don’t find enough bottles to sell and therefore don’t have enough money to feed themselves the next day.

"This little project was organized to provide help to about 50 people. It was greatly welcomed; the gratitude and appreciation for the assistance that was offered could be seen in the happy looks on people’s faces, especially the children. Due to the low temperatures experienced in Arequipa, the majority of them were suffering from colds and the flu.

"These works of social assistance that the travel agency carries out are thanks to the foreign tourists who use our services."

Further information I've picked up off Peruvian news sites suggests that about 80,000 herd animals have died in the highlands so far during the cold snap. This causes major hardship, as the alpacas and llamas are the main source of cash income for people in the highlands, as well as being important to their subsistence.

Conditions were similar when I was in Peru last year; if anything, the "wave of cold" was more severe, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency by the government. Thousands of animals died, rural communities faced major difficulties, and emergency relief had to be brought in. Cuzco received a dusting of snow for the first time in about 30 years.

In Arequipa, at 2300 metres above sea level, temperatures don't drop quite as low as in the highlands. But risk of respiratory illness is heightened by the dry desert air and the significant pollution (surrounded by mountains, Arequipa suffers from trapped polluted air in a similar way to Los Angeles, Santiago and Christchurch). As Hugo points out, it's also where people who've moved from the highlands end up, and without much shelter, night time temperatures of 4 or 5 degrees are quite cold enough.

Extreme cold in southern Peru tends to be associated with El NiƱo conditions, which seem to be becoming more frequent in recent times. This may or may not have something to do with global warming. Some might conclude that this underlines the need to control greenhouse emissions and stop global warming.

Probably true, but more pressing is the need for development, jobs and money, so people can move beyond a near-subsistence existence and not be faced with catastrophe each time there's climatic instability--which can happen, global warming or no global warming. The people living on the streets in Arequipa moved there exactly because it seemed preferable to clinging on to a tenuous existence in the countryside. Addressing poverty requires more than giving people an extra goat and a hand-operated water pump for their village.

Some may see an element of self-promotion in Hugo's account of how he's bringing solace to the poor. It's true that he wants to promote his South America Tour business as a social- or eco-tourism operation, having become aware that there's a growing market for this approach. But all power to him. Like many middle-class Peruvian people, he sincerely does want to help those less fortunate. Byhanding out soup and blankets to just 50 people, he and Lizbeth are getting more help directly to people who need it, than large chunks of aid money administered by unwieldy western NGOs.

And if he can "sell" the socially responsible side of his business and get more clients, all the better. Hugo does need some persuading that paying a fair wage to his employees is as, if not more worthy than giving soup and blankets to steet people, but I'm sure will get there in the end, especially if his own revenue becomes more secure.

Peru needs many things, but No 1 at the top of the list is viable businesses which make money, employ people, and increase the available wealth. Tourism is renewable, resource-light and, in cases where it's operated by a local business, involves direct transfer of wealth to ordinary people in a developing country. Which is something that no rock concert will achieve.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

And as if to Mock Me

Yesterday's Dominion Post had *another* front page picture of Dancing with the Stars "stars". The Stuff website also had an article posted about the results of the show. Who's paying them? I know Rupert Murdoch owns The DP and Stuff, but why should they be slavishly promoting a TVNZ show?? He doesn't own TVNZ too...does he?

Yes, I know it was Very Popular, but surely all 700,000 people who remotely cared, actually watched the show. How can they possibly justify presenting it as a news item when it has no status as an event in dancing or any other field?

For someone who didn't watch the show, I've learned quite a lot about it. According to a work colleague, his teenage daughter blew the family text-messaging budget during the show. "She sent *ten* texts!" he said. Viewers could vote for their favourite star; obviously there was no limit on how many times, since the broadcaster was presumably quite happy to collect part of the revenue. It must be part of fulfilling their charter obligations to teach young New Zealanders about democracy.

Apparently my colleague's daughter had to vote that many times to help shut out a vaguely villainous Shortland Street actor, who committed the crime of strutting around with a bare chest (Ew! Show off!). You can see how they plotted it. The eventual winner was Norm Hewitt, a former All Black hooker (who was mostly a reserve to Sean Fitzpatrick during his playing career). The good old solid, humble Kiwi bloke had the crowd on his side to beat the smarmy tosser in tight pants.

In the lead up to Sunday's final, they even got Helen Clark and Don Brash to opine on their favourite stars, and the two--ever desperate to appear to have the common touch--readily obliged. "I'm with Norm" I believe was the essence of Helen's quote (this is the same guy who Ruth Dyson said was a prat for playing on with a broken arm during an important game; she said it set a bad example for young people with injuries. A week later she copped even more public scorn than could be expected when she was done DIC, and politicians learned their lesson --don't knock the tough bloke). Man, talk about bread and circuses.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Why I Hate Dancing with the Stars

Sometimes you just have to give in to your irrational prejudices and let yourself loathe. As the saying goes, moderation in all things, including being reasonable.

The source of my spleen in this case is the popular TV show Dancing with the Stars. I can't stand it. And, like the Christian community trying to censor The Last Temptation of Christ, I haven't actually taken the trouble to watch it.

From what I can gather, it's a real-time reality TV show in which New Zealanders with some kind of celebrity status compete, performing choreographed dance routines which are scored by a panel of judges. Some are eliminated each episode, and we'll eventually get an overall winner. It's a version of a show which has been successful in other countries, beginning (I think) in Britain.

So far, so unobjectionable. I like dancing, both doing and watching it. I caught a performance of salsa a while back in a club in Cordoba, Argentina, which was some of the most mesmerising and inspiring entertainment I'd seen in a long time. I haven't watched a lot of competitive ballroom stuff, but am something of a fan of Winter Olympics-style ice dancing. Right now I'm pretty busy, so a show on competitive dancing is something that I would possibly watch if I was already in front of the TV, but would probably skip for other priorities.

If dancing is fine, the "with the stars" bit does seriously irritate me. Why is it the involvement of two-bit celebrities which makes the concept a goer? Why is it more compelling viewing becasue it involves a former reserve All Black hooker or a dilettante politican? In a celebrity-addled world, New Zealand is an extreme case, if only because our ubiquitous "stars" usually haven't even done much that's notable, apart from selling stories on their personal lives to the Womens' Weekly. They're endlessly recycled in the name of "entertainment", and I'd rather see (much) less of them, not more.

That's enough to produce an aversion to watching the show. But I wouldn't mind too much if it just stayed where it belongs, which is on TV in its assigned timeslot. What triggers the real simmering resentment is Dancing with the Stars' intrusion into every area of the public discourse. The overheard watercooler conversations at work can't be helped. But I can hardly pick up a newspaper, read a local magazine, or watch the TV news without being ambushed with an item about the show.

Now, when a TV channel runs a "news" item about a show on that same channel, in my view its news programme instantly loses credibility. But you can at least understand their self-promoting motivation for doing so. When a newspaper like the Dominion Post runs articles on a shows' "stars" or, as it did on Saturday, plasters them over the front page, it has no excuse but laziness and sycophancy.

Worse, a pub quiz in which I competed last Thursday included a question on Dancing with the Stars, a very specific question about who had been eliminated during a particular episode. You had to have watched that episode to answer the question. I was appalled that the content of a reality TV show could be considered "general knowledge". "This is a contrived media creation of no importance to history or culture!", I felt like shouting (fortunately, Jeremy was able to answer the question and help ensure our team's crushing victory).

Then this morning my flatmate Venessa was talking to her mother in Christchurch and had the speakerphone switched on. "Are you watching that show Dancing with the Stars?" asked her mother. Venessa replied that she wasn't (actually, at the moment we don't have a TV). "Oh, you should" said her mother. "It's really gripping".

Now, did I imagine it, or was there almost a moral weight to the "should" pronounced by Venessa's mother? There's something almost totalitarian about the grip of the media monopolies on our country's tiny fishbowl of of a public space. For me, there was a hint of the "did you watch our Beloved Leader's speech?" about the tone of Venessa's mother's question.

I am of course overreacting. My criticisms are unreasonable and disproportionate. People love the show; apparently about 700,000 viewers tune in each week. My contempt for the concept is elitist and anti-democratic. The audience likes the celebrity element because the contestants are familar to them and can be identified with; it adds to the drama of the competition.

The rest of the media are just reflecting the fact that the show is an immensely popular phenomenon - they print articles or show pieces on the "stars" because it's what people are interested in. And the poor quizmaster can't be blamed for putting in a question about what seems a current hot topic, nor Venessa's mother for recommending something she genuinely enjoys.

All of these points are undisputed. I do , however, reserve the right to go on feeling unreasonable antipathy towards Dancing with the Stars as long as it continues to intrude uninvited into my consciousness.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Scientists Discover Love to Be Transcendental Union of Two Human Souls

Leading evolutionary psychologists and neurobiologists are beginning to converge in their efforts to understand the mechanisms responsible for the human experience of romantic love. As science unravels what was previously a mysterious phenomenon, evidence increasingly points to the theory that love is the miraculous transcendental union of two star-crossed souls.

Renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, is one who is putting his intellectual weight behind the theory. “My original view was that love developed as an adaptive strategy in which certain genes inclined individuals to form mutually altruistic pair-bond relationships to raise their offspring, thus increasing the chances of the genes' further propagation” admits Dawkins. “But there are now compelling reasons to believe that romantic coupling in homo sapiens is a magical gift from heaven, ordained only by the stars”.

Dawkins says scientific advances reveal the naivety of what he calls “traditional folk beliefs” about romantic love. Take the moment when you stare transfixed into your lover’s eyes, for example. While you might think your brain is simply awash with post-coital dopamine, science tells us that you are actually experiencing the first spark of an invisible eternal flame, burning you up from within.

Racing pulse and butterflies in the stomach? What might appear to be the products of a blind biological imperative to procreate are now thought to be the first stirrings of a heavenly tempest, carrying you and your lover away on the wings of passion. “It's a force from above”, says Dawkins.

Working at the cellular level, neurobiologists are probing the chemical structures underlying the romantic experience. Professor Jane Fisher of Cambridge University says the neurochemistry of in-love human subjects differs from what had been predicted by previous studies of coupling in voles and fruit bats: “ Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs” she explains. “Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes. Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears. What is it else? A madness most discreet, a choking gall and a preserving sweet”.

Findings suggesting the transcendental nature of love have been supported by the physics community, with some physicists saying it demonstrates “spooky action at a distance”. In trials conducted at Imperial College, London, lovers were found to be joined by ties stronger than any chains, bonds which defy time and space. “Their hearts are actually connected by invisible strings”, says one researcher.

The process by which people fall in love is also beginning to fall under the purview of science. It is thought that microscopic agents known as Currently Unidentified Passion-Inducing Demonites (CUPIDs) are responsible for love-specific emotions. Researchers think that CUPIDs release tiny darts, which pass through the affected individual’s eyes - what scientists term “the windows to the soul”. After entering the blood stream, the CUPIDs’ darts eventually lodge in the heart, “probably somewhere around the left ventricle”, according to Professor Fisher

While increasingly well-understood at a theoretical level, this process is difficult to observe, says James Larsen, a postdoctoral research fellow specialising in romantic neuropsychology. “Once in a while, two people meet. Seemingly no reason, they just pass on the street. Suddenly it showers, there's flowers everywhere, who can explain, the thunder and rain, but there's something in the air”, he says. “You have no idea how many rolls of film we’ve used up trying to capture that sequence of events”.

Where science goes, technology is hot on its heels. With new breakthroughs in the understanding of love’s miraculous nature, pharmaceutical companies are looking at the possible development of potions, charms and elixirs to address love-related medical conditions.

Global pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has already applied for patent rights to a formula which it is calling Love Potion Number 4. According to a company spokesperson, the potion is the “latest iteration in a series of stardust-based love elixir technologies designed to improve the user's romantic outcomes”. She says the company will continue to develop new, upgraded potions to help consumers realise their heart’s destiny.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


My workmates are pleasant and intelligent people who mean well. But I think I'm going to scream the next time someone talks about "populating" something.

Example #1: "OK, so we just have to finalise these templates, then we can populate them".

What's wrong with "fill them in"?? It even has fewer syllables, for crying out loud.

Example #2: "Once we've established the role of the various workgroups, we can start populating them".

What they mean here is "decide who's going to be in them". Ok, so this at least takes longer to say. But "populate" still makes me cringe, because it sounds like we're going to have to personally spawn all the workgroup members. Either that or produce a clone army grown in test tubes...

New pieces of jargon seem to arrive in Corporatese via particular technical disciplines (I think this one may come from statistics?) where existing words or expressions are used in new, but fairly limited and precise ways, to describe things or events peculiar to that discipline.

Once it migrates into the general idiom, the jargon tends to quickly lose any metaphorical elegance or precision it might originally have had, and pretty soon people are saying it just because they think it sounds cool and techy.

he worst offenders are often generalist, analyst or managerial types; people who actually work in a technical field tend to distinguish between talking about technical things (where they use their respective jargon) and talking about the wider world (where they can talk normally). Generalists, on the other hand, often feel they have to invent their own smokescreen of techy-talk to maintain their status in a technocratic world. Hence my colleagues wildly "populating" everything.

Something I've noticed in my line of work, is that when we get somebody in to help us from "the sector"(i.e. the outside world), they will often inspire trust and confidence to the extent that they slip into the same jargon we use.

So, if somebody insists on speaking plain English the whole time, you worry: are they independent enough? Will they end up just pushing their own barrow? Whereas I was recently at a meeting with someone from "the sector" who has just been appointed to quite an important role here. He moved his hands round in circles and talked about "overarching structures", and everyone had warm little smiles, because they knew he was going to be ok.

Must go. I have to work on my engagement with key sector stakeholders.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Colder in than out

The other morning as I was heading out the door the TV was on, and I happened to catch part of what seemed to be a "focus on energy & heating issues for the winter" segment on breakfast television .

There was a live feed to a flat of four (male) engineering students in Riccarton, Christchurch. Three of them were sitting on a couch huddled under a worn tartan blanket, while the fourth was lying by the couch under a winterweight sleeping bag, wearing an "EnSoc" woolly hat. The blond, fortyish woman presenting from the Auckland studio proceeded to interview them in an extraordinarily patronising manner.

One of the guys sitting on the couch explained that the house was 97 years old; it had been a student flat for 33 years. Sometimes, he noted, it was "colder inside than out" (in old ChCh flats, a true cliche).

"Sounds re-volting" grimaced the presenter. "Well, it's not really revolting" corrected one of the students. "It's just cold".
"Oh yes" said the presenter. "And I'm sure you're all just lovely to live with".

Now, I probably wouldn't ever have wanted to live in a flat with four engineering students either, but at this point I started to get offended on their behalf. The presenter (who is she, someone?) knew nothing about them, and was supposed to be interviewing them about the struggle to stay warm, not making snide digs with her supercilious Ponsonby-cafe-admiring-the-decor manner. Was she just an arrogant bitch, I wondered, or was she getting flustered talking to four strapping young chaps huddled under a blanket, a bit guache in her attempts to flirt?

The most talkative of the students went on to explain that they had an open fire, and things weren't too bad when they could get it going, but firewood was a bit expensive. "Though we did go out west the other night and, hee hee, liberate some firewood" he said.
"And of course, now in Christchurch" (which she pronounced rather like "Uzbekistan") "there are restrictions on burning in open fires, aren't there" said the presenter. One of the students explained that there were in fact restrictions on putting open fires in new houses.
"So why don't you just buy a heater?" she asked.
"Hmmm, can't really afford the electricity" said one student. "Probably can't afford the heater either" added another.

Before ending the interview, the presenter spotted the weathered fabric of the tartan blanket covering the three on the couch. "That blanket has holes in it" she clucked. "Don't your mothers take care of you?".

Touche. There you have, in a nutshell, much of what I detest about TVNZ and its lumbering, state-corporate, mother-of-the-nation arrogance. Insulated both from real public service requirements and genuine competition, it still seems trapped in an alternate universe where you don't have to respect people's intelligence. May CanWest continue to eat into the market share; in my view the success of TV3 and C4 - though it may have something to do with "targeting the youth market" - is definitely linked to a greater tendency to treat the viewer as an intelligent human being.

I could go on. But this post is not really about the severely irritating presenter or her ilk, so much as the content of the piece, and how it links back to NZ energy issues. How can it be, that in a supposed first-world country, people still can't afford to stay warm in winter?

I froze through ChCh winters as a student, and it seems this continues to be a rite of passage. Which is probably ok if you're young and can go to the university library to stay warm. When the presenter asked if the engineering students experienced any health problems as a result of their glacial environment, they replied (I quote) "Nah, not really". She was able to stay on topic long enough to note that it might be different if you're old or have young kids.

This is still considered par for the course. Government and electricity company websites offer tinkering-round-the-edges recommendations about putting in insulation (bit difficult if you're renting), stuffing draughty cracks, and not heating rooms you're not in. Huddling in front of a three-bar heater in the living room continues to be the norm.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a country of 60 million people and no major hydroelectric schemes, buildings are routinely centrally heated at low cost and are toasty warm during the winter. How do they manage this? Well, you might answer, they were lucky enough to discover a huge pool of gas sitting just off their coastline. Yes, but so did we...and it's only now, when it's running out, that we're seeing household use of gas promoted.

What have we been using it for in the meantime? BBQs, the odd LPG-converted vehicle, some gas heaters. But mostly, it's been burnt in power plants to create electricity. Am I missing the point, or wouldn't it have been smarter to use it directly?

Debates on energy supply continue to use as a measuring stick the possibility of the lights going out . If we can just avoid that, the assumption is, we'll be ok. I would suggest a more ambitious benchmark: People being able to afford to heat their houses.

Here's the comparison: in London Simon and Jill had a combined gas and electricity bill for the last quarter of about 100 pounds, which included as much heat as they needed to pump out during the cold northern winter to keep their whole apartment toasty warm (and dry all their laundry in the process). By contrast, in my flat we've just got a bill of $130 for a month (i.e. $390 a quarter) which - I swear - does not include *any* space heating. So even on straight exchange rates we're paying about 25% more, before you factor in the much higher incomes in the UK. And that's *without* trying to heat anything.

We all know that there are health impacts of sitting round shivering for months at a time. Warm people are healthier, more productive and need to eat less. So why don't we stop faffing around with stuffing towels into cracks and raise our expectations?