Friday, July 31, 2009


This winter seems to be wetter and colder than most –but on the upside, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the past year and share our stores and time with whanau and friends. Some of the local wildlife seem to want to share my stores as well and the most annoying thieves are rats. They usually try and get to my pumpkins before I do, but this year they had to make do with an open bag of blood and bone.

Ever since I moved into the country, I have been battling rats. In my first country garden, I inadvertently created a kind of underground ‘Ratatropolis’ when I buried our kitchen waste as compost. I was worried about rat poison killing our pets, so I decided to try another means to snuff them out.

I knew that LPG was heavier than air and so I got rid of some unwanted butane by releasing it into one of their tunnels and blocking off all the exits I could find. I then gave into my addiction to pyrotechnics and tossed a lighted match down. The effect was immediate and not a method of rat removal that I would recommend. With a deep boom, the explosion blew compost and vegetables all over the place. Rat casualties – nil!

All thru’ history, the rat seems to have got a lot of bad press with its association with plagues and famines. The mere sight of a rat these days can activate aggressive behaviour in people and I well remember another episode of this, during a family gathering after my father-in-law died.

When the service ended, we returned to the family home and as usual, the women chatted softly over cups of tea inside. I joined the men in the yard outside as they opened a keg of beer and lit up their pipes and cigarettes. The general mood was gloomy, but it soon changed when we heard a woman screaming as she opened a rubbish bag.

We all turned and saw a huge rat jump out and run across the yard. When it saw us, it paused for a moment and then made the fatal mistake of making a beeline towards the incinerator and trying to hide inside. Several men jumped into action and quickly blocked off the grate and shut the lid. Someone else went into the garage and came back with some petrol, which he generously sprinkled into the incinerator. The poor rat did not stand a chance. Within seconds it was dispatched in a raging inferno of flames and smoke.

In those days, most men wore dark suits and ties to funerals and we must have looked like some kind of ancient religious sect burning a sacrifice to drive away any evil spirits that might endanger the dead. If it worked, I hope it did the trick and took my father-in-law to place his wife was sure his troubles would no longer rattle him.

However, I am sure my Animal Rights friends would have a dim view about the fate of the rat. Perhaps it is time to take a more kindly view of this furry little animal that defies all our efforts of eradication and insists that we share a part of our harvests with them. I can think of no better way of doing this than spending a chilly winter’s night watching the DVD of Pixar’s ‘Ratatouille’. It is a masterpiece of animation and I have watched it with amazement and laughter, many times.

It tells the story of a young rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a master chef. After surviving a series of mishaps, he strives to succeed in achieving his goals and changing the status of rats forever in human eyes. If you have not seen this movie, I recommend you buy or rent it. It is really funny and visually delicious!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Flights Of Fancy

Now that the David Bain retrial is over, I guess that it is no co-incidence that the media is once again focusing on how we treat incarcerated offenders in general.

You might be, like me, somewhat ashamed to live in a country that ranks second in the world (behind the USA) for the number of prisoners per head of our population held in jails. Not surprisingly, we have been warned that we will soon run out of cells and so the Government is looking at its options as it faces a declining tax take during a recession.

It is a sad fact that it would be probably cheaper to send inmates on a world cruise on a luxury liner than building a new prison to house them. This situation crossed my mind when I saw that the Hon. Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins, was “floating the idea” of building containers to house offenders. I could see containers being filled with double bunkers and then stacked high on ships to be moved away into international waters. Once out there, low paid non-unionised Asian staff (with Khmer Rouge experience perhaps) could deal with prisoners until they were reformed enough to be gratefully returned to New Zealand.

However, the minister intends only to use containers to extend the capacity of existing prisons. Perhaps she has been reading at the same trendy architecture/design magazines that I have been looking at recently. They show, if you use some imagination, that you can indeed create very affordable and attractive pieces of accommodation out strictly function steel boxes.

The next questions I see arising will be: where are these converted containers going to come from and how much will they cost the taxpayer? I have seen figures quoted that range from $53,000 to $60,000. Now that appears incredibly high, but I suppose that it would be cheaper than building a prison that costs $643,000 per inmate.

Judith Collins initially said that there would be scope for prisoners to build their own cells (hence the above cartoon). A group trying to get poor people housed, have come out and said that this was a wonderful opportunity to kill two (jail) birds with one stone.

This scheme would give prisoners skills and a tax free asset to take with them when they leave. It would make them more employable and ease the pressure on the State Housing stock and prisons by encouraging more home detentions as a part of a prisoner’s parole.

I think we are onto some very useful lateral thinking here and I can envisage some additional uses for prison built containers, which could be built to be moved easily. If you put them on trucks they would make ideal mobile homes for seasonal workers.

Unfortunately, I doubt if Judith Collins does much lateral thinking and large numbers of inmates are very likely to be boxed up in places of ‘containment’ – to borrow an American expression from the dark days of the Vietnam War.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Wheel of Fortune

For some unknown reason, I seem to get a lot of phone calls from polling agencies. I would like to think that I have some special kind of social status in the community, but I suspect that polling is a big business in New Zealand and I am usually near to my home to pick up random phone calls.

The latest survey call was from a very polite young lady who asked me questions about the ads on TV depicting the consequences of gambling addiction. With some prompting, I did seem to remember seeing images of self abuse and feeling mystified why people get addicted to gambling.

Later on, I gave it some more thought and realized that there are all kinds of addictions and one that most Kiwis got hooked on was gambling on Monetarism (Rogernomics) as the best economic policy to get wealthier. This resulted in taking part in short term speculative gains (house and land price rises) that are now being eroded away by the current recession. For example, I have heard that the returns from milk for dairy farmers in New Zealand over the last twenty years have doubled, but the price of farms has gone up seven times.

If you want to make things or grow produce commercially in NZ, one of the biggest difficulties you have to deal with is the way our Government chooses to use a floating exchange rate to help regulate our economy. There are many economists who agree and disagree with this policy and I have not got space here to discuss their points of view. What really interests me is what is happening in the global market place and seeing if our trading policies are working well for New Zealand.

To get a take on what is happening overseas, just imagine how you would have to cope if the NZ internal economy operated like the global economy - where districts (or provinces) had their own exchange rate that was changed daily by professional gamblers in the Sky City Casino. To further complicate matters, some districts would also set their exchange rates to ensure a continual economic advantage over other districts.

If you travelled around NZ, imagine how frustrating it would be trying to work out the going rates every day so you could control your spending and income expectations in localities only a few hours from your front door. I think it would be incredibly complicated, inefficient and unfair.

Obviously, in our domestic economy, we need a single exchange rate for commerce to run efficiently along with one main language, commercial and social laws etc. Perhaps there is a solution here to help the World's economic woes by eventually having one world currency and the same commercial standards.

A logical place to start would be to get an exchange rate parity and a real free trade deal with Australia; then (in steps), negotiate the same sort of arrangement with the U.S.A., Canada, the Euro, Sterling, the Yen etc. If a shared exchange rate became established, as it does within our domestic economy, we would know at last the real costs of goods and services.

This concept might help stem the wealth transfer taking place between the West and Asia and allow wealth to be generated within each country influenced by its own natural advantages. It might also help environmentally by establishing the real cost of transport.

Initially, in New Zealand, export prices might fall. However quotas and tariffs would disappear and the economies of scale would reduce costs. Spending power would increase greatly and so input costs would decline as well.

I heard President Obama on the radio this morning saying that his government will strive to lift his country out of the recession by reforming the finance sector and promoting ‘Fair and Free Trade”. Could we do the same here? I would say “Yes We Can”.