Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Development Gone Bananas

Via Paul Krugman, a note in the New York Times on the end of the "banana wars". A long-running trade dispute between European states and US/Latin American banana producers over whether Europe could impose quotas favouring their former colonies has finally ended, after the EU agreed to to reduce tariffs on Latin American bananas by 35 percent over seven years..

Op-ed writer Eduardo Porter comments that as often seems to be the case, this resolution has come about less through the capacity for intelligent compromise than because the whole issue has turned out to be less important than the antagonists thought.

He concludes:

China’s growth stands as a beacon for the power of trade. But others that have hitched their economic strategy to trade, like Mexico, have found prosperity elusive. Despite growing banana exports, both the Latin American banana exporters and Europe’s impoverished former colonies remain poor.

One thing we have learned over the past 15 years is that trade is necessary but not sufficient for development. Countries also need investment in infrastructure, technology and human capital. They need credit. They need legitimate institutions — like clean courts to battle monopolies — and help building them. Putting up a few barriers against banana imports, or tearing a few of them down, can’t do it all.

Credit for the conclusion. But isn't it a little disturbing that people think there wasn't any evidence about this until 15 years ago?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Storm Front Wellington

Today in Wellington was a rare day, in recent times, of warm sunshine and light winds, with the moist air helping send the cumulus clouds puffing up over the Eastbourne hills. But there was also a cold front due late afternoon. Seeking some extra exercise after a weather-aborted tramping trip in the Tararuas, and with half an idea that some interesting weather might develop, I strolled up the Polhill Reserve track to the Brooklyn wind turbine.

My timing was good: just as I got to the windmill, the southerly buster arrived, sweeping in over Cook Strait. I was hoping some thunderstorm-like activity would brew, but nothing developed. However, I did get some reasonable photos over the harbour and the strait as the front arrived. In the last one you can see a plane that has just taken off from Wellington airport.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Prospects for South Africa: New Zealand

From a New Zealand perspective, the World Cup draw turned out about as well as could be expected: our group rivals will be Italy, Paraguay and South Africa. The ideal would have been a group headed by South Africa, which, as the host nation, is automatically one of the seeded teams. But of the big teams, Italy is perhaps the best one to play.

The Italians tend to be inspired by adversity and their style is based on impassable defense combined with ruthless finishing on the counter. They sometimes seem to get a little muddled when playing smaller teams and struggle to a narrow win or even a draw. We are lucky not to be in a group with Brazil or Germany, who have no qualms about thrashing minnows. Likewise, as they showed at the Confederations Cup, Spain are flat track bullies par excellence.

While it's good to have a desire to compete, and not merely enjoy the "romance" of playing Brazil or England, the New Zealand public remains wildly optimistic or blindly ignorant. In a recent Stuff poll (unscientific, to be sure), more than half of the respondents thought New Zealand would come other than last in their group. The rationale seems to be that Paraguay and Slovakia sound like rather insignificant countries, therefore we should be able to do well against them at football.

However, anyone thinking Paraguay is a minor or obscure team should note their July 2008 2-0 defeat of Brazil where they spent half a game with ten men, or perhaps their recent rather comfortable 1-0 home win over Argentina.

I don't know much about Slovakia, but any team that tops a group including two times World Cup semi-finalists Poland, Euro 1996 finalists Czech Republic, fellow qualifiers Slovenia, and Northern Ireland, is clearly not to be trifled with.

Let's be realistic. Success for New Zealand, in terms of meeting expectations, would be to score a couple of goals. Getting a point would be a historic achievement. Winning a game sits squarely in the realm of fantasy. Progressing to the next stage would be like the All Blacks winning the World Cup and the cricket team beating Australia in a test series on the same weekend, with the economy making it into the top half of the OECD in time for dinner.

So much for New Zealand. In a future post I'll make my predictions for which teams I think will be the likely winners, giant killers or surprise failures in South Africa.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Road to Aconcagua

Generally I've found that writing down things I plan to do is helpful, making them more concrete and spurring me on to carry then out. Telling someone what I plan is the next step: the more people I tell, the harder it is to back out without losing face.

I've already said the following to a number of people and now the time has come to write it on the blog. I am making plans to climb Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the world's highest peak outside Asia, in the summer of 2011. The idea has gradually become more concrete ever since my older sister Terri made it to the summit in January 2008.

That was a fantastic effort, but Terri has won competitive road cycling races in the United States, run a marathon under 3 hrs 30, and likes nothing better than to cycle 60 km before breakfast. By contrast, I am a slob who sleeps in until 10am where possible. I admired my sister's achievement but didn't think it realistic for me. Yet over the last twelve months or so the possibility has kept nagging away at me until I eventually said: "why not?".

Now I've put a stake in the ground, this is likely to become a new narrative arc on this blog. In the past I've written about my struggles with fitness and inadequate gear. I've begun to address both of those issues recently and will discuss them more in future posts. I also hope that readers will contribute to those posts, as there's a number of things I'm unsure about and would be happy to get some feedback on.

But to be honest, I'm not even wholly confident of even making it on the expedition (health, finances and a master's thesis are all capable of throwing a spanner in the works), let alone to the summit. So to to start with, I'm going to take a look at my chances by summarizing the advantages and disadvantages I have. Again, writing them down makes them more tangible and easier to tackle.


I have reasonably good physical endurance. I have reached a summit over 6,000 metres before (Nevado Chachani). I've climbed 1,900 vertical metres in a single day (Andagua trek) and trekked for around 10 hours for three consecutive days while carrying a pack (also the Andagua trek).

Importantly, I also understand that none of this adds up to much compared with the task ahead. When I climbed El Misti, it was a two-day trek of around 2,600 vertical metres to the summit at 5,825. Yet the last 150 of those metres, from volcano's crater to the true summit, felt about as hard as the preceding 2,450. I was in a group of six climbers and two guides. I, one other American climber and a guide, reached the crater a little ahead of the rest. I recall the final stretch, winding up a narrow ridge with the summit always in view, as being pretty agonising. The other four climbers reached the crater and decided that they couldn't go any further, despite being little more than a stone's throw from the summit. That was about the same altitude as the high camp on Aconcagua -- where the long trek to the summit starts.

Add to this the fact that my 6,000-ish summits have been in Peru, less than 15 degress south of the equator, with daytime temperatures creeping near 0 degrees Celsius in a gentle zephyr. Aconcagua is more than 30 degrees south, and I understand that temperatures on the summit can be around -30 Celsius in summer with vicious winds.

It might look like I'm just citing difficulties here, but the fact that I understand these things very clearly is actually an advantage.


Physically, I deteriorate rapidly when I don't have enough to eat or drink. I also struggle to maintain a steady pace. I tend to go too rapidly when I have energy and tire myself out.

However, my biggest drawback is probably mental weakness. Deep down, I'm a bit of a wimp and a coward and I instinctively look for a quick payoff. The longest treks I've ever gone on have been around four days, and by day two or three, my mind is already shifting to the prospect of a nice hot shower, good coffee, and sitting back in a comfortable chair reviewing photos of the trip. Unlike true outdoors people, I don't really thrive in the back country. When I'm there, I usually start to fixate on little discomforts and dream about being back in civilization.

I also don't have very good interpersonal skills: I like my personal space and usually find it hard to fit in with groups. When I lack the skills to contribute much to practical things like preparing food, putting up tents and packing gear, I feel like I don't have any control and can get disengaged and grumpy. The likelihood of becoming bored, anxious and disprited on the long tramp in, and in particular during days spent waiting around in bad weather, is one of my biggest risks. From previous experience and from what I'm read, I expect this challenge to be as much mental as physical. Being in as positive a frame of mind as possible during the tough bits will be important.

So, that's probably something to train for over the next 12 months just as much as carrying a 25-kilo pack in low oxygen.