The Need for Speed

This page written circa 3 July, 2006.

If you ask me, as a Hamilton resident of three week's standing, what are the differences between life here and life in California, there are a handful of answers. People here are more considerate, more helpful, more friendly, and less hung up on rules. The scenery is spectacular and even now in winter it is green and alive. The range of fruit and vegetables is much narrower, although we are hoping this will prove to be a seasonal condition. The differences that grab my attention, however, involve driving on Hamilton roads and browsing from Hamilton homes.

Hamilton is the only place I have driven where I regularly find myself behind vehicles travelling 5 to 20kph below the prevailing speed limit, even in perfectly dry, sunny conditions. There are drivers who will wait for a preposterously long break in the traffic before venturing forward. These drivers can often be identified by an abnormal queue of cars huddled behind them. Getting about can be like wading in molasses.

Advertisements on radio and TV here push the message "when conditions change, change your speed". Sage advice. Note that the advice is not "when conditions change, slow down". The images accompanying these ads are not particularly thinking velocity, but reaction time and thought. The drivers do not change their habits with any change in conditions, wet and dry, night and day.

To be fair, Hamilton drivers have some other things going against them. Hamilton is picturesquely arrayed along a winding part of the Waikato River, and there are bottlenecks such as traffic lights at the immediate ends of bridges. All the bridges have only two lanes. There is no rule allowing a minor turn at a red light. The roads here are host to a number of what I have christened "buzz-bombs", small vehicles of a category never seen on US roads, typically boxey and flimsy and with sewing-machine engines. You may note that none of the above have stopped the march of progress in other lands.

Internet connectivity is a mess. The government has only just legislated for the unbundling of telecom services, so New Zealand Telecom still has a monopoly on telephones. There are various DSL providers, but they all must run through Telecom lines and Telecom DSL racks. While connectivity costs are falling, they are still high and all accounts come with download limits. My department runs its own proxy servers and saves over $10k each year in data charges. Data roughly costs 2c per megabyte no matter what plan is chosen. In contrast our California DSL offered unlimited download. Worse, the QoS can be appalling... our home DSL link peaks out at a pleasing 400kbps down and 130kbps up, but to a US site the upload speed can be as slow as 14kpbs and have a QoS of 2%; in basic browsing, one may have to click repeatedly on a link to get any download response at all. One cannot but feel that Telecom has oversold its international traffic capacity.

Telecom's operators are friendly, though. In the course of doing nothing more than ordering the plain phone line for Mystery Creek, I learnt that the very polite lady with whom I was speaking was 30 years old, had three sisters and two brothers. Some of her siblings are quite unreliable. She has four children but they spend every second week with their father. She shops early for Christmas. For the benefit of American readers, she wasn't looking for a date, she didn't live in Hamilton or even close. I was just a customer.

In recent talks I have been identifying New Zealand with Finland. These two countries are of comparable size and comparable, small population. Both have reinvented themselves in the last few decades, becoming more industrial, and entering the global marketplace. Finland is notably the home of Nokia, a success story on a par with Silicon Valley's best. Aotearoa needs a Nokia. It is more likely to have to settle for a cadre of small engineering company successes, such as Alpha Aviation here in Hamilton. This is probably a more solid outcome in engineering employment and overall business terms, but there is nothing like a globally-visible success to inspire a nation and improve its self-image, and its productivity along with that. There is a can-do attitude in government policies, but the can-do, go-get-'em energy doesn't yet trickle down to the roads, and dissatisfied internet customers are not in a position to demand it from their ISPs.

The internet highways and the vehicular byways do not grab my attention purely because they are an unexpected pain in the neck. I worry they reflect an underlying philosophy. Do they represent the attitude of the average citizen? If so it needs to change. That guy sitting at a roundabout, content to wait until there is a long gap in the traffic before moving, needs to be mindful that time is money. The user staring at a blank browser page needs to be able to vote with his connectivity cheque.

Why don't we all drive at walking speed? Why don't we all use 1200 baud modems? Answer: Because we would get too little done. New Zealand needs to get stuff done. As Tom Cruise's character in Top Gun says, "I feel the need, the need for speed". New Zealand must feel the need, if it is to take a place amongst the world's successful nations in the 21st century.

| Home | Back |