Friday, April 30, 2010

Optic Illusions

On the 3rd of April this year, a new media gadget from Apple was launched into the world marketplace. Within a day 300,000 were snapped up in the U.S.A. and since then, another 150,000 have been sold. Apple called it the iPad and it immediately received the usual Apple products bashing from critics - even a lot of ardent Apple fans were disappointed that it did not do enough to justify buying one.

So what is all the fuss about and why is it selling so well? I think it is because it is filling a gap between smart phones and laptops. It takes some features from both by enabling you to connect to the internet, read e-books, play movies and music, play sophisticated games and run many of the applications already available for the iPhone. These are all viewed on a high quality touch screen that does away with a keyboard (although you can connect a keyboard and mouse).

Tablet PCs are not new and many well known brands (incl. Apple) have tried in vain to make one that sells well. This time the technology has improved and the demand seems to be there. In a year from now, a whole range of tablets will be available to compete with the iPad and prices will fall.

When our Government eventually rolls out its fibre-optic plan for New Zealand, gadgets like the iPad, are being widely touted to make a significant impact on the way we do things. In Northland, Northpower is making a determined effort to get a slice of the action and if they are successful, the whole of the Kaipara district will benefit.

Northpower chairman, Warren Moyes, has been reported saying, “It would save a huge amount of time as they (the farmers) could actually research products online… they can’t afford to spend hours at a time at a computer when there is work today on the farm. The same applies to other rural businesses too.”

Connection to fibre-optic broadband will mean vets and doctors will be able to diagnose medical problems from a distance and even get advice from all over the world. I might be able to tickle your ribs with animations as you pause between reading books and magazines, watching movies, video conferencing and of course TV.

Faster internet connections and more powerful computers have the potential to free up teaching time at schools by allowing each child to progress at their own pace with their own programs. However, I can see one of the downsides will be our young people being drawn into playing even more addictive war games etc and I hope parents and teachers are preparing for this and ride the wave instead of swimming against it.

It remains to be seen if we use new media devices intelligently to improve learning and create more recreational time. Or will “Generation Broadband” to be recognized by the broad band of extra weight around their waists instead of their health and know how.

Ficus Macroweedia?

Thanks to Northland’s wonderful climate, if you have enough land you can keep your fruit bowl full of your own produce all year round. I managed to do this with my own garden and figs in particular interested me the most. I eventually tried out about ten varieties. Most of them thrived in our clay soil and within five years I was able to sell surplus figs in a nearby town.

The fig trees came from all over the place: a government research unit (DSIR), roadsides, friends and neighbours and of course the local plant shops. On a late summers day, there are few pleasures as nice as pigging out on sweet juicy figs - slightly chilled by the night air.

All of my figs did not require pollination because they grew from cuttings. There are however, many varieties in the Ficus (fig) family that need their own specific wasp to pollinate them and this explains the reason why some people never get fruit from their trees in New Zealand. It also was the reason that the famous giant Moreton Bay Fig tree at Pahi never produced seedlings either.

That has all changed, now that some tiny fig wasps have somehow made the journey here from Australia, which is the original home of Moreton Bay Fig. At first, I could see no harm in that. In fact, I naively thought that it would be quite handy for keen gardeners to go to Pahi and pick up some free seedlings for themselves.

However, Pahi resident Ralph Williams quickly changed my mind when he pointed out to me the potential environmental problem of Moreton Bay Fig seeds being transported by birds into our native bush. At Pahi, there is a Moreton Bay Fig growing as a magnificent single specimen tree, but in Australia it grows like our native Rata. Seeds germinate above the ground on other trees and eventually strangle its host to death after their roots get to the ground.

Moreton Bay Figs can also spread laterally as roots emerge from lower parts of the tree to support the weight of the spreading branches. In a bush setting it is capable of growing to over 60 meters (200ft) high and spreading out above the canopy. This is one big mother of a tree! In New Zealand, it has been reported that it has few natural enemies and even possums dislike eating it. It thrives in our warm humid climate and if left unchecked it will soon be a common sight in our bush later this century.

I have noticed that Moreton Bay Figs in parks seem to attract almost religious attention and care from the community. These giant trees remind me of the enormous Home Tree in the film Avatar that towered over a weird and wonderful forest. Perhaps we should ask some Australian Aborigines if these giant trees have any magic powers over people before we allow them to become a significant part of our landscape.

Friday, April 23, 2010

ATale Of Ale

I am sure my father would blow a fuse if he knew that the company making his favourite beer, is now overseas owned. Even worse, by a country he fought against in the war. When I was younger, I remember him often telling me, with some pride, that as a shareholder in Lion Breweries he was drinking his way towards a higher dividend. Ownership mattered in his eyes. He proudly owned his own home and had shares in several New Zealand owned and operated companies.

I recall once trying to woo him away from his beloved Lion beer, when I took him a bottle of Mac’s Real Ale to try (in those days it was not owned by the Lion-Nathan Corporation). As I levered the top off, I extolled its natural virtues and watched him eye the glass impassively as I poured out the sparkling golden brew. Dad raised the glass to the window, examined the colour and then passed it under his nose a few times. He drank it, by sucking it around his mouth with a thoughtful expression and then swallowed.

I waited eagerly for his opinion, being sure he would be instantly converted. I never got it. He quickly changed the subject and got stuck into his pet political gripe of the week. I inferred that the subject was now closed as another bottle of his favourite beer appeared. The rampant lion on the label seemed to me to be roaring in victory.

Doug Meyers is reputedly, one of the richest men in New Zealand these days. I would really like to know why he felt no sense of responsibility to fellow shareholders, employees and customers when he sold his controlling interests in Lion Breweries to the Japanese. He and his colleagues in the Round Table might be toasting their rewards for throwing New Zealand unprotected into the global economy, but I have yet to see any real benefits for the average Kiwi.

I heard on the news that New Zealand has been running trade deficits since 1973. National and Labour lead governments turned a blind eye to currency manipulation by our trading partners, allowed other countries to carry out unfair trade practices and the profits from foreign investments to head overseas. Over this period we (and many other Western countries) have been paying for trade deficits by selling assets and borrowing. This has contributed to rising house prices and provided a false impression of prosperity. We are now paying the real cost of running a trade deficit economy. A ‘credit crunch’ has shaken the financial markets and a lot of vultures are coming in to roost among the chickens.

Perhaps the time has come to debate whether we want to belong to ‘New Zealand Incorporated’ or become ‘New Zealand Dismembered’ into a colony run by the top dogs of the global economy. At present, the choice is ours. However, I am convinced that the resumption of “business as usual” deficit trading after the recession will eventually remove this option.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Passing Of Easter?

Even though Easter here is at the wrong time of the year for a spring festival, I think our autumn suits the Christian story better. When I heard to talk of resurrection, I had some positive thoughts about the spring to come, as we get closer to our usually wet and gloomy winter.

It was so nice to have a couple of days without ads on TV and see kiwis and tourists enjoying a relaxing autumn visit to our beautiful Kaipara. I hope this kind of experience can continue for many generations to come.

Alas, there are signs that commercial interests are steadily gnawing away at it by extending shopping days into this important occasion. Surely shop assistants and other service industry workers are entitled to at least some time off with their families to worship or just be together and have a real break from work.

The Government (and Opposition) has shown little enthusiasm about changes, but that has not stopped some MPs wanting Easter trading available to more retailers. For example: MP Todd McClay wants communities to decide on their retail shopping hours. Rodney Hide is also in on the act as Minister of Regulatory Reform. It remains to be seen if he seeks a democratic consensus or allows his monetarist beliefs to influence his judgment.

It might be worth remembering that the word “holiday” originally came from the term “Holy Day”. The Church persuaded lords and ladies, peasants and yeomen, to all have at least one holy day off each week (and other festivals) to rest and go to church to worship together.

In post WW2 New Zealand there was a five day, forty hour, working week. Saturday was for recreation and Sunday for church. This arrangement did not seem slow the country down at all, in fact there were impressive growth rates in the economy and the standard of living rose. In my opinion, the only change necessary was Saturday morning trading, which makes a lot of sense.

Since then, working hours have increased and both parents are usually compelled to work to pay their bills. The pace of life has quickened and we live longer, busier lives. If commercial pressures force us to lose our “holy days”, will we risk becoming physically exhausted and spiritually poorer by losing our cultural identity?

Tourism is often cited as a reason to liberalize our trading hours and yet this view ignores the fact that visitors to New Zealand often enjoy the experience of our culture as much as our landscape. Without doubt, the Christian Churches have played an important role in shaping our culture. By incorporating the wisdom of past civilizations into its teachings and putting Christian messages into pagan festivals they have linked us to unique and meaningful traditions that are many thousands of years old.

We do not have to look far into history to see that commerce has a nasty habit of destroying the wealth it creates. When this happens, the Churches have been called upon many times to provide stability and help to assist the rebuilding process after wars - or when boom turns to bust.

In our country, they also bring together Pakeha and Maori. We now generally share a common ethical viewpoint and new cultural combinations are developing with a hybrid vigour that is certainly making waves on the world scene.

Obviously, I am on the side of the churches and unions in maintaining the few Christian “holy days’ we have. There is a strong case for limiting exemptions in order to give as many people as possible time to reflect on what has passed and chill out for a day or two. If anything needs to be changed, then I would go for clarifying and restricting exemptions allowed under the various acts.

Is the price of gaining a few extra shopping days really worth it? What do you think?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mining Our Own Business

Autumn is usually a time of “mellow fruitfulness” as we enjoy the last harvests of crops and fruit. For some people however, these simple pleasures might be tainted by feelings of outrage as the National Government rolls out more of its controversial policies.

Like most governments, it seems to be following the usual three year cycle of honeymoon, mid-term policy implementation and probably finishing with election year sweeteners. They have started their mid term year by shaking up TVNZ and Radio NZ, moving into welfare reforms and now we have the Conservation Estate threatened with mining.

I must say that when I heard about the mines in parks proposal, I experienced conflicting emotions. At first I felt outraged - what right have they have to destroy our “clean and green” reputation with unsightly excavations! Then (some time later), I remembered the biblical warning of “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”.

I had to admit that I have spent forty years using mined materials in my pottery studio and how could I criticize the process that I feel very proud to be part of. Obviously, I was obliged to take a broader view. In my columns I have often written about the need to preserve manufacturing industries in New Zealand to rebalance our over dependence on the rural economy. Mining is an inevitable part of that policy.

In my opinion, it is the way we mine rather than where that causes so many problems. The days of flushing untreated wastes into the environment are long gone. There is now a commitment to eventually restore and protect the surroundings that is built into the mining permit costs and policed by government or local body agencies.

On the West Coast in the South Island, there are good examples of modern mines that are well behaved and prove that mining in reserves can be carried out without sacrificing conservation objectives. I heard a manager there commenting on the radio that his company’s activities were like “Key Hole Surgery and not the open heart operations that occurred in the past”.

Where I part company from this policy is when the mined material heads offshore to be processed into manufactured goods elsewhere. This provides only extractive employment and takes away investment opportunities in New Zealand. The rural sector suffers from this also and it amazes me that sheep and meat farmers cannot see the necessity to process their own products into high value consumer items in their own country.

Modern technology, such as robotics, is removing the unskilled labour content of manufacturing. If our manufacturers were given the same government encouragement that is present in other countries, we could successfully export to the world. New Zealand has not had a trade surplus high enough to become a balance of payments surplus since 1973. That is when we began to liberalize our import restrictions without insisting our trading partners did the same.

As a maker of things, I know only too well what impact this government policy has on New Zealand manufacturers and more recently on mining activities. A local farmer came to me last year with some clay samples that he thought might be of some interest. I tested them, added some additional ingredients and found the clay passed with flying colours.

I inspected the source of the clay and I was excited to see that there was a commercial quantity available. It was also very accessible. The farmer even had his own digger and truck and owned the land.

In 1973 I would have been in there, boots and all, risking my own capital to produce a Northland pottery clay. Unfortunately, in 2010 the only really viable thing to do is to perhaps truck it out as a mineral to overseas buyers. Needless to say, that is when my interest faded and the clay is still in the ground.