Sunday, February 26, 2012

Now for Something on Wellington Transport Geography

Following my previous partly-informed comments about urban development in Christchurch, I'll add some thoughts on the place where I actually live.

Many of the discussions of transport and urban planning in Wellington seem to divide along broad ideological lines. On the one hand are those who have an "all cars all of the time" mentality and want to build as many motorways, flyovers, tunnels and bypasses as it will take, with those not travelling in cars little more than an afterthought. On the other hand are those who would like to see a complete alternative infrastructure, often emphasizing light rail (I'm not sure what the deal is with light rail -- for me, it hardly grabs the imagination like, say, fast inter-city trains or a metro system).

I don't mean to go all Matthew Yglesias here, but there are some technical improvements that don't require commitment to any one vision of the world.A simple thing that would clearly improve central Wellington would be some kind of bridge or underpass across the northern end of Waterloo/Customouse/Jervois Quay, preferably at Whitmore St opposite the Lynx ferry terminal. Wellington has an impressive waterfront, a mostly public space with good recreational opportunities. It is well linked to the central city at the Courtenay Place / Cuba St end by the City to Sea bridge. However, Wellington's CBD also has a centre of gravity at its northern end, which is home to the government sector, the railiway station and the stadium. This connection of this area with the waterfront is severed by four lanes of traffic roaring along Waterloo Quay.  To cross to the waterfront, one has to wait for the lights or a break in the traffic, which sometimes takes several minutes.

I mostly notice this as an annoyance when going for runs, which tend to start from a base in the northern end of the city. But it's also a clear flaw in what is otherwise, by New Zealand standards, a relatively pedestrian-friendly urban layout. Wellington's city centre is mostly well connected to the hills and water to its south, east and west. The northern CBD-waterfront gap is one of the kinks in this flow. Another, of course, is the ugly bottleneck at the Basin Reserve.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Round the Bays Again

The time has come around again for the Wellington Round the Bays Half Marathon. Two years ago I blogged about how I hoped to achieve a personal best time, and how I was ultimately disappointed. Looking at the results now puts things in a slightly different perspective. The course is not a particularly quick one, with a winning time in 2010 of 1:12, and an average time of 1:55. Last year the winning time was the same, and the average time even slower, at just on 2:00. In 2010 I finished in 1:34:35, which put me almost exactly half way between the winner and the race average. I was 115th out of 1,060 runners, although only about 975 finished (the linked post was incorrect in saying there were only 574 runners). I'm an ungainly runner, and have never trained really consistently, so I guess that's not too bad.

This year, I've gone through so many health and fitness issues since (and some before) summiting Aconcagua, that I'll just be happy to finish, let alone beat my previous time. Weather conditions are not looking too bad: it should be quite cool with light winds at the race start time of 8:00 am, although there's likely to be both sun and some wind as it progresses.

I'll only post an update if my result isn't too embarassing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Continuance of History

A really useful summary piece on the growing interest by mainstream thinkers in burgeoning inequality and the contradictions of global capitalism. There are some good contributions in the comments section as well.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Inequality and Social Values

An interesting debate has been playing out in the wake of Charles Murray's recent book which laments the decline of traditional values in white working class Americans over the past 30 years. Although Murray apparently has no real analysis of howor why this has happened, the answer is, naturally, reduced welfare entitlements.

I recommend reading this detailed and careful take-down by prominent conservative and former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum. Frum is especially critical of Murray's failure to take seriously the links between social changes and declining economic opportunities for the working class.

New York Times columnist David Brooks isn't happy with Murray's critics, who he accuses of "crude 1970s economic determinism". Brooks cites what he claims is overlooked sociological and psychological research showing how the environment in which people live and grow up create feedback loops which affect their behaviour.

I'm far from being a dogmatic materialist (although I believe there's usually a materialist story to be told). I think that social and cultural forces have real effects and are not just the epiphenomena of economic struggles. In fact, even most people who openly call themselves Marxists accept something similar these days. You can agree that sociological and psychological factors are important and still insist on seeing them in the context of change in the wider political economy.

So, you might think that Brooks isn't really disagreeing with anyone. But in one sentence he recognizes that "no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next". A couple of paragraphs later he's saying: "I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school." In other words, he would really like to put the blame on "poor decisions" and to join Murray in telling the working class to buck themselves up.

What's at work here is what I call the conservative's individual/group conflation. Conservatives like to point to examples of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps as evidence that environment is not destiny. They accuse liberals (in the American sense) of belittling personal responsibility and they stress that with discipline and determination anyone can beat the odds. Yet most thinking liberals agree that personal responsibility is important and recognise that people are able to respond creatively to their circumstances, at an individual level. What they doubt is that a whole group which is systematically disdvantaged can all beat the odds -- otherwise they wouldn't be "odds". Disadvantaged groups will, on average, have poorer outcomes. And economic circumstances -- both absolute and relative -- are a pretty big part of what determines disadvantage.

As Frum notes, if you're honestly interested in a loss of social cohesion from 1960-2010, you also have to ask why various favoured indicators of "values" improved from 1910-1960, during a period of growing economic equality.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Buying the Farm

The debate about the Crafar Farms sale has been very interesting, kind of a development studies case study evolving in our back yard. With today's decision by the High Court that the Overseas Investment Office incorrectely applied the conditions of the Overseas Investment Act, the plot thickens. I recommend taking a look at the judge's report, which is relatively short, highly readable and raises some interesting questions.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Opinions on Coffee and Cricket

For a change, here are a couple of opinions I agree with.

Australian food writer Michael Symons puts his credentials behind two claims I'm happy to make but can't really back up: the flat white is one of best ways to drink coffee; and its art has been perfected in Wellington:

As an Australian food historian, I declare that it started in Australia, where it often remains weak, murky, fluffy and under-appreciated. It was then perfected in New Zealand, more particularly, in Wellington. It's impossible to find a better morning coffee anywhere. I know, because I've tried.

I have some time for the view that you shouldn't put anything at all in espresso coffee and that its best form is its purest: what we call the 'short black'. But there's something about a cup full of strong coffee mixed with creamy milk -- most importantly, it lasts longer, and better accompanies a conversation.

I can't claim to have coffee-researched as widely as Symons, but whenever I'm away from Wellington for a while, it's what I miss most. In Brisbane I was frustrated in my search for acceptable coffee, even in Italian-owned places. Melbourne was better. From memory, London and Paris were as mediocre as Symons reports. In coffee-exporting Latin American countries you can generally get a fresh-tasting short black if you find somewhere with an espresso machine, but they have little idea how to make coffee with milk. Italy of course is the home of espresso: from memories of my last trip there years ago the coffee was excellent, but the tendency to serve it with lukewarm milk meant that the overall experience differed from this antipodean's preferences.

This should not be cause for complacency: in New Zealand, the average standard is that not that high,  It's still common to find watery, bitter, single-shot coffee, with milk served in excessive quantities and sometimes burnt. In most centres you have to seek out somewhere with a good local reputation. Even in Wellington, some of the speciality outlets have expanded too quickly at the expense of quality control.

Symons provides some admirable trans-Tasman history, and traces the stories of Supreme, Havana and L'Affare, among others. However, for me the best coffee in Wellington (and therefore possibly the world) is from the little hole in the wall cafe on The Terrace next to the Reserve Bank, which trades as the Gibbston Coffee Company (I know this only because it appears on my Eftpos transactions; the business has no apparent title and the stenciled lettering on the window says only 'coffee'). This has sacks of unroasted coffee beans stashed on the floor, a roasting machine that looks like something out of  Leonardo da Vinci drawing, and a single espresso machine, leaving barely enough space of the constant flow of customers. 

Meanwhile, with careers drawing to a close, Ian Chappell considers the legacy of the the era's three great batsmen: Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. I agree with his ultimate preference for Lara. You can't go past Tendulkar for sheer weight of runs and longevity. Ponting has played some incredible innings, such as the rearguard 156 at Old Trafford and the dominant 140 not out against India in the 2003 World Cup final.  But Lara's combination of technique, elegance and mental concentration just surpasses the other two. Playing in what was a relatively weak West Indies team (Ponting never had to face McGrath or Warne), he often seemed to stand single-handedly between oppositin teams and victory. If you had to choose someone to bat for your life, it would be Lara.