Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Bush-bashing Backfires for Brits

Not so long ago, an urge to write a letter to major US newspapers pleading for Americans not to re-elect George W Bush crossed my brain. I never followed through with it. Last week, The Guardian started Operation Clark County. This project asked Brits to send letters to undecided voters in the swing state of Ohio. Over 11,000 people asked for US addresses. Here are some of the replies.

From the Ministry of Truth Newsdesk

It seems the previous post, pointing to an Indian private company supplying nuclear weapons to Sweden and Russia is erroneous. The NewFacts are that only the Indian Government are allowed to make nuclear weapons and Sweden has only conventional arms and ABBA CDs. It has not beaten North Korea and Libya to be the next nuclear-capable state. Quoting the Herald, "Helen Clark called the report a low-value beat-up."

The PM & the weapons grade mouthwash

The Herald's top story is Nuclear arms claims rock PM's visit to Indian company. It seems that during the PM's visit to Larsen and Toubro, one of India's largest private companies, staff were tripping over themselves to point out how their mission statement included exporting nuclear weapons to Russia and Sweden.

This transparent approach to state secrets is one thing. I just hope they weren't giving out free samples. If so, the PM has no choice but to be breath-tested for plutonium on her return to the country.

What would ABBA want with a nuke? Will George Bush be adding Sweden to the Axis of Evil? Or were the employees just pulling an untimely April Fool's on our leader?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Stealth Cops Come Out

The DominionPost reports that Speed Police Can't Hide this morning."All speed-measuring devices are to be employed in an overt manner. No form of hidden or camouflaged deployment is to be used," it states.

It might have been a different story if police cars had Friend or Foe systems installed. Speed cameras could then wontonly edit out the Candid Camera moments starring its own officers.

The guidelines also state that the speed limits have been raised ten kilometres across the board. Regardless of weather conditions, car competence or driver experience, it is officially legal to cruise control your way through the densest of city traffic at 60 kilometres per hour. Unless you are a politician and you're running late for the footy, any car driving 11 kph over the speed limit will be fined.

Let us put aside the charges of revenue gathering for a moment(30 percent increase in two years). There is a much more important principle at work behind these guidelines. It is an admission by police that speed limits are arbitrary and covert speed cameras may cause more accidents than they prevent.

Speed doesn't kill. Lack of control does. When covert cameras are the norm, driving is a nerve-wracking experience. Government-trained terrorists can hide behind any bush, lie in any gutter, ready to assault wallets for the greater good. Keeping one eye on the road, one eye on the peripheral and one eye on the speedo is tricky when you don't have the eyes of a chameleon or the third eye of a mystic. It's OK for rich people. They can afford Hawk detectors.

In the days before speed cameras, Black Spot warnings were posted at accident-prone areas. These were swapped by warnings signs marked Speed Camera Area, and all was good. Then Speed Camera Areas were popping up in perfectly clear stretches of roads where few, if any, accidents had happened. They were hidden round bends, spooking drivers of nervous disposition into paroxyms of near-fatal hysteria. Who else has had a hit of adrenaline when surprised by a speed camera and almost flipping the Toyota, only to look down and see the needle on 90?

The level of fear and loathing increased when covert cameras meant more driver concentration was focussed on the side of the road rather than on it. The new police guidelines can be seen as a concession to their over-exuberance, a reality-check on their supposed public safety remit. While it's good to hear the police are to stop sniping drivers, it is still a long way from instilling a respect for the concentration needed to drive. Every speed camera operator must take responsibility for their obvious contribution to endangering drivers' lives, not saving them.

Up until a recent policy change, only the top ten percent of speedsters were ticketed by speed cameras. This made sense, as it penalised extreme speeding outside the standard deviation. Now, anyone going more than eleven kmh over the speed limit is done. It is now irrelevant whether traffic is flowing smoothly and safely, that people allow good distances between road users, that convoys match their speed for conditions. Road users are trusted less by authorities.

Driving is a dangerous pasttime. A million or more things can go wrong when you risk sitting inside a whizzing metal box. The tyres might fall off. The brakes might fail. You might get hit by lightning. The driver coming towards you head-on may be an American tourist assuming everyone drives on the right. Inside one's head, the survival instinct performs countless Newtonian physics calculations while the motor functions co-ordinate appropriate responses.

It is an issue of trust. Each and every driver implicitly trusts one another. They assume that their fellow travellers have their whizzing metal boxes in working order. They agree not to play chicken with each other and consent to drive in a manner consistent with conditions. Speed cameras throw a spanner into this dynamic.

For example, imagine we had three vehicles on a motorway. The first vehicle is a Mark I Ford Escort 1970 driven by a hard-working 19 year-old male hurrying to a stimulating job flipping burgers in a franchise. The second car is a tidy Toyota Rav4 1998 driven by a 36 year-old female accountant with an SUV-inspired superiority complex. Behind the wheel of the third car, a Volkswagen Passat 2004, is a 45 year-old highly-paid executive armed with radar detector and a salary which makes speeding tickets feel like mozzie bites on a mammoth.

Got that? For the moment we'll assume that this is not in Auckland because traffic is moving freely. When will these vehicles be in equilibrium? Easy.

The teenager will start in the fast lane, because that's what boy racers do when they are late for work. It ensures he rattles past the grannies with minimal haste, while showing how cool he is to any girls travelling in the back seat of their parents' cars.

Eventually he would demur to the thin-lipped woman flashing her lights impatiently at him in the 4WD that has never known mud. Reluctantly, the burger boy would ease into the middle lane while maintaining as cooler posture as possible. He is merely pulling over out of politeness and it has nothing to do with the smoke billowing out from the bonnet of his uninsured car.

The Rav4 cruises past the Ford Escort smoothly and twenty k's faster. The driver performs a cost-benefit analysis and concludes that it is much more efficient to maintain the current speed in the fast lane. After all, her vehicle is much more reliable than the teenager's. It is packed with life-saving goodies such as airbags, better at braking with ABS, and easier to steer thanks to power steering. The Baby On Board logo affixed to the rear window ensures other drivers keep their distance, even when six year-old Jemima is spending the school holidays with her father, that bastard former husband of hers.

She tells her shrink that she's not obsessive-compulsive but on the road the skill is put to good use, her eyes peeled for speed cameras. She inserts the knowledge of a $170 opportunity cost, if she gets clicked, into her equations while cruising at 125 kmh.

The man in the Passat knows there's no cameras for at least the next kilometre. Five days a week, for forty weeks a year, for twenty years, he has travelled this stretch of road. He knows which parts have good grip, and which parts have been most recently resealed. He can read other motorists like a shareholders' meeting.

Wrapped in a $100,00 galvanised sheet metal box, protected by airbags and Side Curtain Protection™, hermetically sealed in all sorts of figurative and literal ways, the suit on the carphone is as comfortable as he is on his corporate throne. While the teenager stares in awe and avarice at the silver flash that buffets past his immobile carriage, the businessman doesn't even register his existence.

With preternatural observation, the accountant recognises the status symbol in her rear vision mirror when it's still six cars back. She positions her Rav4 in the middle lane so the Passat will have no choice but to drive parallel to her for some time. Sure enough, the executive gives her the once over. The woman pouts slightly then gives him a little smile.

However, the executive's tastes favour lamb over mutton. He has noticed the Baby On Board logo and doesn't alter his plans to catch up with the escort who reminds him of his secretary. Once the car in front has been nudged into the middle lane ahead of the accountant, the Passat lunges forward and is gone.

If we repeat the experiment, including a speed camera this time, things change.

The teenager doesn't see the speed camera until the last moment, as he is wondering if the accountant's breasts are real. He gets ticketed and spends the next four months asking if people want fries with their order so he can pay the fine. The accountant sees the speed camera in time but brakes suddenly. The car behind rear ends her and causes a pile-up. No-one is seriously injured, but a lot of no-claims bonuses go out the door. The Rav4 is recycled into supermarket trolleys. Some time earlier, a beep has alerted the businessman and he slows to precisely 110 kph until the threat has gone. The chat with his sharebroker is unaffected.

This moral of the story is that speed alone does not present a threat. Fear of punishment is a blunt instrument and can lead to greater harms than it is supposed to prevent. Speed fines fall heaviest on people on low incomes, and rich people have nice cars.

Friday, October 15, 2004

You can't beat Wellington on a fine day; on a bad day, you can't even SEE it


You could be forgiven for thinking this is a pretty blank shot. You'd be right. This is the view out the window today, courtesy of God
™. Normally, there would be a city bordered by the Cook Strait and a lot of sky. Not today.

Weather is a big topic for Kiwis. It's right up there with the All Blacks and the Gum'mint as subjects to trade comments on over the water cooler/chardonnay/beer/bong. Maybe it's because they are all so damn fickle in their performance.

Don Brash was asked after his Orewa speech what it means to be a New Zealander. His answer was less than satisfactory. He could have pointed out that one quality of New Zealnders is that we have a fatalistic view on climate. Crowded House wrote "Four Seasons in One Day" out at KariKari, west of Auckland. There's a saying in Wellington, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." Kiwis accept change as inevitable. A lot of this stems from the weather.

Non-Kiwis have difficulty wrapping their heads around it. An ambassador once likened New Zealand women's dress sense to combat soldiers. He didn't note that, like combat soldiers, New Zealand women have to be prepared to negotiate a range of climates, usually at short notice. A few years' ago I was picking bananas in Innisfail, one hour's drive south of Cairns in Tropical Queensland, Oz.
Every day was fine, 28 celsius, light breeze. The locals couldn't understand my constant banter on the fine weather. To them, it was like saying, "The sun's up." Big deal.

With those thoughts in mind, even a dull crappy day like today has its benefits. I think of it as organic smog.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Sacks of Gold

When will Wellington City Council be adding EFTPOS and credit card facilities to pay and display parking machines, now that the city’s parking levies are the highest in the southern hemisphere? My prepaid cellphone doesn't have enough calltime on it at the best of times, let alone reserving 20 minutes of calltime for two hours' parking.I don’t like leaving sacks of silver and gold in the car, and the machines don't accept notes. The need to carry around large amounts of coins in my pockets is causing an injury. I have a bulge in my jeans for all the wrong reasons.

Pity the poor shopkeepers. I wouldn't be surprised if the shops start closing during the week and open only on the weekends, when parking in public spaces is free. This would be a nice irony, considering that weekend shopping has only been around for twenty years or so.

It is worthwhile noting WCC's decision tree. They sell off a parking building or two. The new owners hock it off months later for twice the price. Parking fees double. Councillors have free parks in town, and the ones who live 200 metres away from the office think it's justified.

Has democracy been spread so thin that public representatives don't see the need to lead by example any longer? Judging from the local body elections, where less than 40 percent of voters bothered to care for mayor, the answer is yes.

It is Alive!

Finally, this thing looks the way it should. I'm too tired from learning HTML code to type anything remotely engaging. I'd rather learn Latin.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


Testing, testing... one TWO one TWO.... one TWO. TWO. One TWO. TWO. One TWO.