Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

This page written circa 25 January, 2008 .

Wil speculated in a recent Skypversation that the downsides of New Zealand might be inescapable consequences of the upsides. NZ has a fabulous range of terrains from tropical beaches to permanently snow-covered peaks; much fertile, arable land with good rainfall; copious national parks and walks; a stable Western lifestyle; comprehensive social services; a low population density; a multiracial mix with good integration of the native Maori population; a good education system; a growing economy; green-oriented politicians; simple personal tax rules combined with a tolerable rate; support for a wide range of interests, hobbies and pasttimes; no snakes, poisonous spiders or large predators; no tipping; and espresso is available virtually everywhere. Bill Clinton is quoted as saying "I think every person, when he or she is young, dreams of finding some enchanted place with beautiful mountains, breathtaking coastlines, clear lakes and amazing wildlife... most people give up on it because they never get to New Zealand". Of course this probably came from a paid speech delivered in New Zealand which lessens the impact somewhat, but the point is made. On the flip side of that coin, people have to put up with very inferior service; high overall prices compared to salaries; astonishing overpricing in odd niches from books to parmesan cheese; complete unavailability of occasional things such as prickly-pear syrup, exotic lumbers, and Z-scale Märklin; and a pervasive attitude towards work that regards it as "just too much bother".

Annette recently loaned us DVDs of "Rome". Many have written glowing reviews, and it scores an astonishing 9.3/10 on IMDb as of today. There is no doubt it is a piece of classic BBC "quality drama". As usual I read the worst reviews, being the best method I know to get insight on a book or film. The criticism amounts to the fact that, acting, production, intense characterisation, technical quality and historical accuracy aside, it is still a "soap". The fact that it pretty much happened as told does not change the fact that the story is crammed with intrigue, lust, greed, politics, murder, honour, psycopathy and all you could expect from Peyton Place to Dallas inclusive. OK, they kept the superbitch character alive in the series longer than she survived in reality, a small change to support intrigue over accuracy. It is good and I may watch a lot of it, but it is a soap, and not really my cup of tea. That's a natural and inescapable aspect of the original scenario: You're stuck with it.

A marvellous commentary from Lawrence Krauss in New Scientist asks that the US might get a science-literate president. In that land, where 50% of adults cannot say for sure that the Earth orbits the Sun, the president makes decisions on major challenges in environment, national security, economic competitiveness and energy strategies, all of which have their roots in science. Krauss brilliantly observes that when reports surfaced of avian flu becoming a human threat, "everyone from the president down called for studies..." but in spite of the public controversy on evolution "there were no calls to ignore the threat because it might be divinely designed". For the president to make the right decision for the right reason will pretty much depend upon understanding the science. The modern world depends upon technological progress and understanding it, and we are stuck with that.

Our neighbour has a house with a lot of glass, and she asked a small Hamilton business to quote for cleaning all her windows. She accepted the quote and was happy with the job, and was billed as quoted. Next month she asked the same company to come and clean the windows. Same windows, same company, 1 month later, only this time she was billed almost 80% more. Refusing to pay the almost-doubled bill, they wind up in court. She loses because it seems that the onus rests on the buyer to confirm a purchase price before accepting the goods, in NZ law, and the law supercedes common sense. Can it really be that the law is so much an ass, and those subject to it are stuck with it? Well evidently not because the law was rewritten to work more sensibly in the USA. (The reader should please not confuse the magnitudes of payouts with the functioning of the machine that identifies right from wrong and fair from unfair, when assessing a legal system.)

I think that some of the downsides are natural consequences, mostly of New Zealand's small size, and we are stuck with that. Prices will be high and uncommon commodities rare when markets are small. You want a land that is lean and green, the lack of exploitation lessens the resources to be had. However I also see attitudes and mechanisms reminiscent more of Britain at her most beaten-down period, and these could be changed. There are changes that could improve service and productivity without jeopardising the lifestyle. If every Kiwi felt the great hope that should arise when you contemplate the prospects for this country on the world stage, and tackled work and play with equally positive attitude, instead of lamenting the lack of things they think they deserve, the land would boom. It's a topic worthy of the Journal of Happiness Research (yes, it really exists, but no, I doubt you would learn anything useful from it). One of my favourite sayings goes "If you think the world owes you a living, hustle out and collect it", but the English expectation that it should be handed to you pervades New Zealand.

You need an incentive to boost attitude. North Sea oil and gas must have done a lot for places like Norway and Great Britain, but that is a windfall, not a policy change. Roll on global warming!

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