April 2008


Something that stands out vividly in my memory is being maybe 10 years old and hanging out with a few mates around at Simon Hay’s place (ginger chap, knew everything about the British army circa WW2, which made him top dog in our circle). I can’t remember the circumstances, and I can feel the memory slipping into the ether as I finally share it, but what Simon insisted was that all of us, the entire bunch, were middle class. And everyone agreed.

Now, at the time that one slid right past me. For one thing, New Zealanders don’t drum the idea of class into each other. Social hierarchy here is flat compared to most countries, and we don’t make a great to-do about things like that. But over the years I came to realise exactly what a mark of friendship that statement was.

Thing is, growing up in small town New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s, before the 90s came and really levelled things (for a number of years everyone was poor or struggling), growing up social welfare was a slight, but not overwhelming stigma.

The main thing that annoyed me was that despite the fact that my family and I were being supported by a widow’s benefit, the “DPB” label was pretty firmly stuck to people of our station, and unless you’ve experienced that stigma, you’ll not know what I’m talking about. This is because while New Zealanders like to think that they don’t stigmatise, and will therefore deny someone like myself pointing out that they do, they do.

What this background endowed me was a realisation of exactly how much stuff you need to get by. Most people expand their consumption to meet their incomes, which is normal. But when you’re used to surviving on very little you pretty quickly realise that most people’s consumption is consumption for its own sake. People get used to changing their car every few years, and that becomes a benchmark of “normal”. Consequently, people will talk about their oh-so-important “quality of life”, but what they’re measuring that against is a floating point tied to nothing but their expectations of what their quality of life should be.

The outcome of my developing this point of view is that despite my income having increased somewhere into “middle class”, my expectations of what I actually need are very low. And, I’m firmly committed to not letting that expectation creep upwards if and when my income were to increase. First of all this is a good strategy to prevent my world falling to pieces if my situation should change. Nothing is certain in this world, after all. Second it prevents the seemingly prevalent anxiety of my income no longer supporting everything I might find myself taking for granted (like cheap food).

And so now, on the occasion of my birthday, I’ve realised that I’m am perhaps happier that any other person I know. It’s been a long, long road to where I am now.

I’m able to meet all my own needs and still put aside money to put my nieces through education (because only two things get people out of poverty, education or ambition, and preferably both).

I’m able to get good information to help my family when they need it (because lack of information is usually what keeps people in poverty, you’re too busy finding food for table to strategise).

I’m able to look back on the kindness of others that has sustained me, guided me, and helped me along the way, and for that I’m eternally grateful (because poverty is a prison, and without the doors being opened for you, education and ambition can be meaningless).

And I’m able to remember that first act of kindness so many years ago, see it for what it was, and wish that long-lost friend well.

Wandering through the farmer’s market at Waitangi park this past Sunday I discovered these!!

Gooseberries. Your grandmother’s favourite fruit.

We had a vine in the yard when I was a wee tacker, and they’re blimmin great. The man was selling these for $10 a kilo, which sounds astronomical, but is in fact not too bad. This whole bunch cost about $2.50.

So what to do with them? (more…)

Sigh… yet another story about how food prices are going up and up and up.

I think the key issue is one of expectations. People expect to be able to afford everything they want, and expect that everything they think they need, they do actually need.

You don’t need everything you think you do. The first photo associated with the linked to story above is a good example.

  1. You don’t need to eat meat with every meal. Beans are a cheap and easy source of protein. Even a single boiled egg will give you enough.
  2. You don’t need to eat dairy. You can get all the stuff in dairy from other sources. That includes calcium. In fact, especially calcium.
  3. You don’t need to eat tinned goods. Most tinned goods can be made yourself at a much-reduced cost. Watties spaghetti is effectively a luxury. You can make it yourself with spaghetti and real tomatoes.

I could go on.

Yes, the rising cost of foods should be a concern to everyone. But only in as much as they need to think about what they’re eating. Don’t just go, <cue waving of arms and running in circles>”SWEET JESUS!!! BUTTER IS HUGELY EXPENSIVE!!” Just stop eating it.

Look, screw Fonterra. This is a market economy, and if Fonterra thinks it can force you to buy their product at inflated prices, they’re wrong. Their are plenty of substitutes on the shelf at a much-reduced price. When they see their sales dropping, they’ll think about dropping their prices. Unless China buys everything. In which case you were behind the eight-ball in the first place…

Another way to look at it is that most of the things we used to think of as staples are now luxuries. Sound tough, but adjusting your diet isn’t actually all that difficult. Food is still plentiful and no-one is going to starve (except the poor, who have always starved). You just have to start seeing butter as a want, not a need.

Finally, think about volume control. Are you actually eating too much to begin with? If so, then maybe high prices are actually doing you a favour… So cut back on high-sugar, high-fat luxuries, and rethink your staples. Maybe a little more fibre, a little more leafy greens.

Yes, greens are also increasing in price. But not as much as beef, butter and chicken.

GPs all over the country are probably sounding a sigh of relief.

One of the bad things about Wellington is that it’s in reality little more than a fishing village, with all the pitfalls of a narrow community and everybody knowing everybody. But on the other hand, it’s a fishing village…

This means is that if you’re the sort of person who relies on networking and knowledge then, if you’re at all socially adept, it’s easy to engage other people on topics of mutual interest. The result is that the information sloshing around Wellington can at times be exceptionally rich. Add the information and knowledge buzzing around in this wee place to an increasing ‘smart’ internet and you’ve got a lot of stuff going on that can be tapped into for ideas and that terrible but buzzy phrase “knowledge generation”.

My enthusiasm for Wellington and New Zealand in general was dampened a little when this blog came through my RSS yesterday from Miramar Mike. While I haven’t scratched beneath the surface to check the background reading, it struck a cord. Basically, New Zealanders are seen internationally as “nice but naive”. Easy to do business with, but not ‘players’.

Personally that’s why I like the place, you can share ideas with only low-level concern about people ripping you off. But, another way to look at it is, you can share ideas because people are too lazy or casual to motivate themselves to knick your concepts. So if you’re thinking that Wellington might be the place to get a knowledge-exchange-based economy happening, then you’re fighting “laid-backness” and low business acumen.

“Choice”… as they say in the vernacular.

Whether New Zealanders actually do have low acumen is probably a moot point. The blog referred to above discusses a Trade and Enterprise Commission survey of international businesses. Like any survey you have to take it with a grain of salt. But then anyone who’s done their OE can tell you that things are ‘harder’ in other countries.

So how does this ‘less-hard-edge’ impact on the advantages of Wellington as a place to create a knowledge economy? I’m slowly coming round to the idea that it’s actually an advantage.

A book I’ve been thinking about more and more recently is Charles Stross’ Accelerando. It took a while for the ideas to digest properly, but they’re pretty big. The one that grabbed me the most is the modus operandi of the main character, who in the first novella (the book is actually a collection of short stories with a set of central characters) spends his time giving ideas away. And the story progresses from there.

It’s the idea of giving ideas away that really struck a cord for me though. It seems that the internet is crawling with content generators who are competing to share more ideas that anyone else. Everywhere you turn there’s someone who has the latest scoop, thought, idea, approach, take or helpful suggestion. Giving stuff away is pretty much normal on the interweb.

But as a business model? How they heck would that work? Giving stuff away doesn’t make you money!

I’m not so sure though. The competition in the interweb is really centred on giving away good ideas. Bad ideas are little more than noise, and the trick to the web is finding the signals. If you’re just getting static, for instance bullshit about politics and/or personal opinions, then you’re probably not reading actual content generators, you’re probably reading content interactors. Worse, you’re reading content users twittering about the stuff the generators and interactors are actually doing… [NB: Blog on users vs. interactors vs. generators to follow].

Face-to-Face interaction hugely supplements a person’s ability to clearly distinguish information signals on the web. There’s no greater time efficiency than talking an idea through with like-minded people, after all. A conversation that could be misconstrued or misinterpreted online is more likely to be understood when discussed in the real world. And it’s exactly that ability, to easily discuss ideas, that Wellington offers. Consequently you can have the best of both worlds. Online idea dissemination, and clarity of discussion and thought at the pub. For a bit that is… everything after four pints is “socialisation”.

And how is this a business model?

1. A knowledge economy is all about dependencies. Maybe you can’t actually build everything you dream up. But maybe someone else can.

2. Giving away good ideas will make people suspicious that the ones you aren’t giving away must be really, really, freaking good.

I’m standing in the bow of a low, long boat, and I’m hefting a harpoon. Harpoon. It’s a great word no? Roll it around in your mouth and it sounds ancient, haaaaa-poooon. I’m sounding it myself while I’m looking over the side of the boat at the choppy green water, the northernly breeze bringing warm air from over the Alps and off the lands. Father sounds out quietly, “Spear the calf, the mother will come after.”

Spear the calf. Spear the calf. I repeat it to myself over and over, all the time watching the water for the sign of the beast rising from the water.

The beast rising from the water. Rising from the water. The Beast. Mother would be proud, I’m even remembering my Revelations. And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and I saw a beast did rise up.

I glance backwards. My older brothers are in the longboat behind me resting on their oars. We’ve two days of water and biscuit, and we’re 12 hours into this day’s rowing. They’re still and there’s only the lapping of the oars in the water, and the chop of the waves against the side of the boat.

“Sign!! Starboard!” Someone whispers between gritted teeth, and the brothers lean in, the boat jerking as the oars bite, father pulling the rudder hard so we launch towards the rapidly smoothening patch of water. The whale’s head breaks the surface, its blowhole releasing a spray into the air, its slick sides rushing past the waves and slipping beneath the water.

“The calf!!” Father yells. I can see it rising with the cow, close to its mother’s side, it’s tiny eye appearing as the longboat bears down on them both. My brothers have their speed up, their backs straining to get us close enough to the pair, their silence broken as Father yells “Heave you useless buggers!! She’ll not escape us today!!”

A second is split while I draw back my arm and heave the harpoon. My brothers are grunting and roaring. The wind whistling and whipping the water past the bow. The long back of the cow sliding like a great tentacle through the water.

It grunts when the tip enters. A low shudder of shock. Its eye looks at me still. In wonder. In alarm. The sharpened metal of the harpoon sinking into its flanks. The rope unrolling out past my legs as the calf sinks beneath the waves, its life spilling into the water in a long red stream.

“Make for the shore lads!” Father yells, “the cow will be back for the calf and the Wright’s will have her, by God!”

For two days we’ll tether ourselves to her dying carcass, here on the ocean, to be dragged till she tires, a waiting game of courage and endurance.

F,FLP

What is it about the automobile, that marvellous invention, that makes drivers complete dicks?

Here’s the scenario (and hopefully it’s not too far out, lest I be accused of ‘inventing strawmen’). When you get into your car your sense of time changes. It’s not uncommon for people to drive an hour to work, and it’s not uncommon for people to drive five minutes away from their house to the supermarket. But, walking that distance is beyond the pale because “it’s miles away”.

This apparent compression of distance is what modern dormitory suburbs are all about. Distance is “reduced”, amenities like shopping are centralised and engorged (yes, deliberate use of that word), and cities sprawl. All this is the fault of the car.

What I’ve noticed since living without a car is that those distances pretty quickly spring back to normal. Like other parts of the world where cars aren’t the norm, (like… Africa?) my perception, and especially my consideration of distance has changed. These days doing something like heading out to the beach at Island Bay is practically an expedition. But people drive backwards and forwards all the time. They say, “Hell, it’s only 20mins away, right?”

Well, no. That trip to Island Bay is actually a fixed distance, and that time factor is entirely artificial. It increases or decreases dependent on your access to private and public transport.

And this is why drivers whinge whenever anything changes the time it takes them to get from A to B. They’ve built a house of cards on a form of travel that revolves around time, not distance. Changing the time it takes to achieve their aim, usually getting out of the car and walking the shortest possible distance to somewhere they’re just going to sit down again, usually makes them aggressive, and almost always frustrates them.

Now I know this because I have been a driver.

But what I don’t understand? How you can chose to drive any given time, over any given (fixed) distance, and get angry when you might have to wait 2 seconds for a pedestrian to cross the street? A pedestrian pushing a pram!

Whingers.

Sauerkraut is one of those dishes most people just avoid because they don’t know how good it can really be. That or they just plain don’t like varieties of pickled things. But if you cook the kraut properly it’s actually extremely delicious.

Like most foods sauerkraut is best enjoyed with some variety of smoked sausage, potatoes, and other vegetables. It’s a hearty meal and great as we head into Autumn proper.

For this recipe you’ll only need things you can get from your local market. I buy the sauerkraut from Moore Wilsons, but only because you can get these huge jars at a reasonable price. Don’t, and I mean DO NOT buy Edgells sauerkraut in the tins. It is probably the most awful pickled vegetable on the planet.

The rookwurst itself is usually in the smoked meats section (with the salamis), and is usually around $7 per sausage. It’ll feed two people (or one big bloke), so that’s good value.

The only really tricky stuff is making sure you have juniper berries, a bay leaf, cheap wine wine, and duck fat. The duck fat is optional though, you can always use a little butter. (more…)

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