Monday, January 23, 2006

Sideswipe

It's amazing, the services on offer at the public toilets at Russell in the Bay of Islands

By Ana Samways

Ray Bennett writes: "On my waddle around the block on Wednesday night in Narrow Neck I came across local resident Gwenda peering into a road gully with the grill open. Always one to stick my beak in, I asked her what she was doing. She pointed out four feather-brained ducklings paddling down below and going quackers. Close by on the grass, mother duck was making a din also. Gwenda pointed out that this was a regular occurrence, to the point that mother duck now knows to come up the drive and announce that the ducklings need rescuing ... again. Cue Gwenda's husband Peter with the Kiwi No 8 fencing wire solution, a kitchen sieve on the end of a long pole, with which he proceeds to scoop the ducklings out and return them to mum."

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From the "and-we-wonder-why-we-have-accidents-file": A perturbed motorist would like to tell the driver of the grey coloured Holden Commodore Calais, driving south on the motorway around 5.30pm on Thursday, to please, for the sake of the other motorway users, wait until you get home to fill out your Sudoku ... Or a least not while you're travelling 100km/h.

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An attempt to tie in Holly Hunter's latest film role with the birth of her twins goes horribly wrong in the New York Post: "'Elastigirl' has given birth to twins at age 47. Actress Holly Hunter, who voiced the role of the superhero-mom with the ability to stretch her body like rubber in the hit animated film The Incredibles, now has two kids of her own."

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Tom Cruise sues? South Park had a new episode pulled from British TV. Trapped in the Closet involved Tom Cruise locking himself in Stan's closet, with the phrase "Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet" repeated 28 times during the show. At one point, ex-wife Nicole Kidman was portrayed trying to coax him out, saying, "It's time for you to come out of the closet, Tom. You're not fooling anyone." The final line of the show is Tom telling the South Park kids: "I'm gonna sue you! I'm gonna sue you in England!"

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Sandra Luchian, 15, from Moldova, managed to write out in full the 607-page Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, filling five notebooks, after borrowing it from a friend in the UK. The book was not available in Moldova and she couldn't afford to have it shipped to her. She said it took her a month.

Editorial: Curious act talks the kiwi down

Until not so long ago finance ministers and Reserve Bank governors were circumspect about making any comment that might influence the dollar's exchange rates. Nowadays, their speeches are sprinkled with attempts to talk the dollar down and, it turns out, they have had their officials tell Japanese investors directly that the dollar is a high risk.

Their message seems to have registered. Word in the market last week suggested a $600 million issue of New Zealand dollar-denominated "uridashi" bonds had been cancelled as a result of the efforts of NZ officials.

It is extraordinary that a government should go to such lengths to undermine its own currency, yet understandable too. The high interest rates that the Reserve Bank needs to maintain to stop an outbreak of inflation are among the highest in the world.

Small investors everywhere, but particularly in Japan, are attracted to those interest rates and their demand for the kiwi keeps the dollar high, hurting our exporters.

The money attracted by our interest rates goes mostly into mortgaged property here, which helps to keep land values high and that in turn encourages households to spend at a level that causes the bank to worry about inflation. In other words, the interest rates than can prevent incipient inflation are now also causing it.

Almost everyone except the Government's political rivals applauds the attempt to offset the appeal of our interest rates by undermining the exchange rate, though not all are confident it will succeed. The fact is, floating exchange rates long ago lost much connection to economic performance measures such as trade balances and external accounts. The dollar is high despite a deep current account deficit because foreign investors have confidence in this country.

Their confidence might be poorly informed; there are signs they associate us too closely with Australia, but it is just as likely that the strength of both currencies is based on confidence in their economic management.

If that is so, the meetings Treasury and Reserve Bank officials had with Japanese investors could merely reinforce that confidence, and keep the dollar high.

The fact that New Zealand officials would go to such trouble tells the investors this Government has no intention of intervening in the foreign exchange with the simpler tools still favoured in East Asia. Governments there largely peg their currencies to the United States dollar, despite the fact that fixed exchange rates caused their banking crisis nine years ago.

The National Party's finance spokesman, John Key, said the Reserve Bank was "whistling in the wind if they think they are going to convince Japanese retail investors not to continue to buy uridashi issues". If the bank wanted to reduce the appetite for these bonds it needed to cut interest rates, he said.

Mr Key could have been finance minister by now if National had won an extra 2 per cent of the vote in September. Would he be saying the same thing? Or would he be doing his bit to help contain inflation, a task that would be a little harder with National's tax cuts in prospect?

When inflation for the December quarter was reported last week, it was down on September and lower than forecasts by independent economists and the bank. The exchange rate eased a little as well with the likelihood that no further interest rate increases will be needed.

It is too soon to drop the rates as Mr Key would like, but Japanese investors have probably seen our rates pass their peak. It is almost certainly downhill for the dollar from here and relief at last for the exporters who ultimately earn our living.

Brian Rudman: If we're poisoning ivy, we shouldn't coddle cats

If the rulebook gets any more complicated I'm going to have to retire from the League for Political Correctness before I trip up and get expelled.

There I was rejoicing in the news that the Census-takers had turned their back on our colonial past and said I can call myself a New Zealander rather than a European in the upcoming Census when out comes a bulletin from the Auckland Regional Council.

I might be allowed to call myself a person of the land now, but certain of the plants my ancestors brought with them are not. Indeed the regional bureaucrats are thinking of banishing english ivy, phoenix palms and agapanthus for fear they do any harm to the indigenous environment.

Then to confuse me even further, ARC chairman Mike Lee, a tireless crusader for restoring native birds to mainland Auckland, came out as a cat-lover, criticising his staff for wanting to add stray cats to its hit list of foreign menaces.

He's willing to accept the eradication of feral cats but says his council's proposal to ban the feeding of stray cats is "silly" and should be dropped.

"There is no doubt that a feral is totally wild and kills so much of our bird life to live while a stray cat needs human company and support."

Now I've always thought a cat is a cat is a cat and I suspect the once thriving lizard and weta families in my backyard would agree. That's if any had survived to tell the tale. The local cats used to leave the corpses on my back patio.

As the keeper at Wellington Zoo discovered a few weeks back, even the best fed and loved cat is hardly the benign beast the chairman paints.

There was more confusion for me at the great debate over appropriate foliage for Auckland's golden mile, Queen St, at the town hall a week back.

Addressing city councillors, tangata whenua representative Pita Turei proudly announced his mixed ancestry, Scottish on father's side, Maori on mother's, then launched into a tirade against non-native trees. He even opposed a plan to plant pohutukawa hybrids that grew tall and narrow, because their genes might spread into the pure pohutukawa stock.

I couldn't help wondering if its okay for humans, why not plants?

Before I go on I'd better declare an interest. My little inner-city section has enough suspect foliage to keep an ARC swat team happy for hours.

Let's start with the oxalis in the front garden which they're more than welcome to. Then there's the ivy growing up the front of the house which I suspect, from the size of the trunks, is now a vital part of the structure.

Out the back, marginally under control, is what used to be called "wandering j*w" while in the little goldfish pond was, until last week, a pleasant, and rampant, little yellow flowered poppy, which has long been on the ARCs banned list.

My excuse for having it was to provide shelter for the fish from stray foreign cats and native kingfishers.

I had a couple of phoenix palms once too. They arrived by bird-post along with a nikau. I was seduced into thinking they were all the latter when they first sprouted up.

To begin they look the same, then like cuckoos, the imposters suddenly erupted in size. I suspected the worst but it took a spine in my finger to convince me to unpack the saw and cut them out.

Mr Lee said his main concern was that the outcry of the cat lobby in defence of strays was diverting public attention away from serious pest and weed problems. But where is the line?

My PC manual tells me if we want native songbirds in the city, we're going to have to eradicate or control four-legged immigrants such as rats and cats, which dine on them and their young. Now there is a serious challenge. So serious and vote-losing, I doubt any politicians will take it on.

Alongside that, a few self-sown phoenix palms and ivy plants seem rather insignificant.

After 160 years of invasion, you'd have thought if they were going to take over the bush, they would have done it by now.

Claire Harvey: Japanese schoolkids are having a whale of a time

There are interesting little scenes taking place in Japanese schools these days.

In between classes and play-lunch, groups of primary-age children are herded into halls and gymnasiums to look at pictures of whales swimming placidly in the sea, listen to whale experts describe how wild populations of the mammals are growing larger every year, and then tuck into an educational snack - crispy deep-fried whale cubes.

It is all part of a whalemeat promotion organised by the Japanese Government and the hunting industry, an effort to introduce the taste for cetacean flesh to a new generation of consumers.

The idea is these junior gourmets will grow up with a passion for minke sashimi and sperm-whale tempura and reinvigorate Japan's taste for whale.

Don't the harpoonists know anything about kids? This education programme is a risky game, considering one of the major reasons Japanese adults already dislike whale meat - it is widely associated with unpleasant memories of school lunches.

Whale flesh, which until the 20th century was eaten only in a few coastal fishing settlements, became an official part of Japanese tuckshop cuisine after World War II, when officials saw it as a cheap, plentiful source of protein.

In the straitened economic circumstances of the 1950s, the Institute for Cetacean Research (created by the whaling industry in the 1940s to promote its products) began a promotional campaign in co-operation with the Japanese Government.

Recipes for preparing fresh and tinned whale meat were distributed around the country, the mass manufacture of inexpensive whale sausages began, and the Government passed a School Lunch Law incorporating the flesh into educational catering.

The kids hated it, probably because they recognised that it is a child's solemn duty to dislike whatever is being dished up in the school cafeteria, no matter how delicious or nutritious it might be.

Sixty-one per cent of adult Japanese have not eaten whale meat since childhood, according to a 1999 survey conducted by the British pollster MORI on behalf of Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

One per cent of the 1185 surveyed said they now ate whale meat at most once a month.

None said they ate it more than once a month.

Beef, pork, salmon, even hamburger mince are all vastly more popular in terms of per capita consumption in Japan.

Lucky Pierrot, a Hokkaido burger chain which started selling minke burgers last year in an attempt to revive the tradition of eating whale, tried to tempt hesitant consumers by saying it "tastes like beef or tuna, and since it is deep fried, it has no odour".

The shuddery tastebud twang which so many Japanese adults feel at the very mention of whale meat will be familiar to anyone who hasn't blacked out the lunchbox years entirely.

For Britons and New Zealanders, it's the sour whiff of warm milk, a foul revisitation of a government programme to eradicate calcium deficiencies by delivering crates of individual milk bottles to schools throughout the country every morning.

By break-time it was invariably tepid and beginning to acquire the peculiar and unmistakable clagginess of unrefrigerated dairy goods.

In Australia, the very word "choko" causes involuntary retching for a good proportion of the over-40s set, who associate it with similar school-lunch abominations.

Choko vines will grow almost anywhere (they seem to have a particular liking for the walls of outdoor dunnies), and so the starchy fruit was employed widely as cheap fodder for schoolkids, usually boiled into a steaming savoury mush.

Children's response to lunchbox food seems to bear little relationship to the actual taste.

The Greek kids in our playground used to groan with revulsion when unpacking mum's (undoubtedly delicious) home-made moussaka, and there was a Kenyan girl who would tip a tub of fragrant couscous into the bin about 12.31pm every day.

Jamie Oliver thinks British kids will grow up with sophisticated palates if their mums and dads make the effort to prepare something unusual for school lunches.

But if history is any guide, all Oliver's good work will simply create a generation of young adults nauseated by the smell of prosciutto-wrapped melon slices or mushroom risotto.

The Japanese whaling industry clearly doesn't give a stuff about all the international hand-wringing over its activities - not surprising, considering the International Whaling Commission and the world community have proven themselves completely unable to stop the slaughter of these endangered creatures, even in wildlife sanctuaries.

Hopefully, the Japanese anklebiters of today will grow up to form a society where whale-hunting is unpopular and unwanted; not because it's cruel, not because it's environmentally unsustainable, just because it's yucky.

Christopher Niesche: Telstra had little choice in broadband deal

Telecom and TelstraClear have been pilloried over the past week or so by internet users, who say the broadband deal between the two telcos is a betrayal, condemning users to slower internet.

Putting the hysteria aside, TelstraClear had little choice but to make the deal, Telecom can't be blamed for negotiating better terms, and internet users won't be much worse off, if at all.

Under the January 13 deal, Telecom will supply TelstraClear access to its Unbundled Bitstream Service - the part of the network that carries the fastest internet - at download speeds of 3.5 megabits per second at a monthly wholesale rate of $30.

Previously the Commerce Commission had ruled that Telecom had to supply TelstraClear download speeds of up to 7.6Mbps - twice as fast as Friday's deal - for $27.87. Telecom had been planning to appeal against that ruling in the courts but decided not to after the deal.

For TelstraClear, the deal provides certainty after it wasted about a year arguing through the commission and in its own negotiations with Telecom over broadband access. (It also signals that TelstraClear is unlikely to take such a principled stand again and in future will do what's best for itself and its customers.)

During all the to-ing and fro-ing with Telecom and the Commerce Commission, TelstraClear was being left behind in the internet market.

Although it could offer broadband through its own networks in Wellington and Christchurch, TelstraClear was losing customers around the rest of the country where it can offer only dial-up internet. Reselling Telecom's Jetstream broadband service was a stopgap at best. Its customers have been migrating to other broadband suppliers such as ihug, Orcon and Telecom itself.

Also, the price of TelstraClear's dial-up internet has been forced down as low as $10 to $15 per month as its many other dial-up competitors dropped their prices.

So TelstraClear was left in a position where it had fewer and fewer internet customers and was getting less and less revenue from each of them.

The company has over 200,000 internet customers, around 100,000 of whom aren't supplied broadband by its own network in Wellington and Christchurch.

It had to get nation-wide broadband as quickly as possible so it could convert those 100,000 people to broadband before even more of them deserted.

And the longer it waited, the more the dial-up prices would have dropped, making the price step from cheap dial-up to the much more expensive broadband steeper and harder to sell to customers.

Telecom could easily have held up the Commerce Commission's ruling in the courts for another six months or a year. Whether or not the company ever explicitly made that threat is irrelevant - TelstraClear knew it had to get broadband as fast as it could.

Of course, Telecom didn't make this deal, which helps a competitor, out of the goodness of its heart.

The deal will significantly boost Telecom's number of wholesale broadband subscribers and hence significantly boost its chance of evading tougher regulation.

The Government - which wants to lift New Zealand's woeful rate of broadband use - set a 2005 target of 250,000 broadband users around the country, 83,000 of whom had to be wholesale customers - that is, customers who get their internet through a supplier which bought the connection from Telecom.

Telecom hit the first target but not the second, and with the Government looking as though it's losing patience with the telco, the threat of unbundling the local loop is nearing.

The deal will see TelstraClear buying wholesale broadband connections from Telecom, helping it reach that goal (albeit late) and further reducing the chance of it having to share more of its network with other competitors.

What upsets internet users about the deal is that they'll get only half the speed which supposedly would have been supplied by the Commerce Commission ruling.

But this is nonsense. It's unlikely broadband users ever would have had downloads up to 7.6Mbps. Telecom's network simply isn't capable of supplying such speeds to large numbers of users, some industry observers say.

Speeds like that would require massive investment by Telecom in its network. And as the company was expected to make this extra investment for no extra revenue than it would have got for supplying 3.5Mbps, it may not have bothered to inject the money at all.

The more realistic goal of 3.5Mbps will allow Telecom to better manage its capital expenditure across its network and put the investment where it's needed to ensure that users actually do get that speed.

In the end, everybody won out of this deal - maybe even internet users.

Allan Rumble: Let's help school leaders get best training possible

Professor Mason Durie made some interesting comments about the future of secondary school leadership. But although he highlighted some areas of need, one gets the distinct impression that he is setting the scene for establishing a New Zealand Academy of School Leadership, while many of his comments reflect the impractical and woolly thinking that has seen other such ventures gain little support from the profession.

One wonders when he last worked in a secondary school, as some of his statements reflect a lack of feel for what is presently happening in New Zealand schools.

It is an undoubted fact that there has been a dearth of leadership training for New Zealand principals, middle managers, and aspiring principals.

This does not mean that today's principals are a mediocre lot who are not able to cope with the present and future requirements of the job.

Many of the leadership functions Durie implies are deficient are indeed being carried out by principals who have risen from classroom teachers to CEOs of dynamic organisations.

Key to leadership is the need to clarify the real functions of today's secondary schools.

Are schools primarily there to develop academic skills of students?

Or is it that the schools, parents, students and community work together to ensure that our young people develop intellectual, social, physical, and (dare we mention it?) spiritual skills, that will ensure the young person is equipped to live successfully in today's changing world?

Schools require leaders who know that the essence of success is what happens in the interactions between teachers and students.

The principal's skill is in ensuring that the community, students, and teachers work together toward the common goal of achievement.

This requires mutual respect of all concerned. To suggest that an unpopular administrator can fulfil this function is, to say the least, imprudent.

The world is shrinking, and global experiences are increasingly accessible.

Yes, we can make the most of the internet, share courses, qualifications, expertise and so on. This is happening now - how many New Zealand students sat Cambridge International examinations last year?

New Zealand secondary principals are already taking giant steps and are recognised around the world as skilled practitioners. International experience is a must for the leaders of the future.

The National College for School Leadership in England is a superb institution which provides brilliant leadership training, headed by professionals who are respected worldwide. This institution provides an excellent model, but was set up with enormous capital and ongoing resources.

New Zealand could save money by joining forces with such institutions, sending principals and aspiring principals overseas to take part in professional experiences, while gleaning ideas from best-practice principals in other countries.

New visions come from such experiences and our leaders would be at the cutting edge of successful innovations. In this way we can promote the best professional development, while avoiding the capital and long-term salary costs for New Zealand "experts" of dubious quality.

Future schools will still need to be places where young people will gain the security and support needed during their sometimes tumultuous years of adolescent development.

International learning will develop further through the advent of technologies and transport opportunities that we know nothing about at present.

However, Durie's suggestion that students go to different schools for different subjects defies the present chaos experienced in travelling anywhere in our busiest cities.

Yes, we need more leadership training in secondary education. Our educational leaders need to have the skills to develop schools with a heart and soul, where individuals feel valued, feel that they are part of a team, and will give 100 per cent to striving for individual and communal excellence.

Principals concerned only with management will not succeed in a future that will require resilience, vision, integrity, optimism, enthusiasm, commitment, a sense of whanaungatanga, and aroha.

These are the key attributes required, all of which are also key attributes of a successful classroom teacher.

The challenge is to give successful teachers the knowledge and experience to expand their sphere of influence beyond the classroom, if that is what they wish.

Make use of overseas experts and institutions and provide more opportunities for our leaders to observe global good practice.

Train our aspiring leaders, but be sure to keep our feet on the ground and keep in mind the true purpose of secondary schools in today's society.

Our future depends on it.

* Allan Rumble is the recently retired co-principal of Western Heights High School in Rotorua.

James Glennie: NZ will be caught in bind when oil prices hit the fan

New Zealand is at an energy cross-roads: Our demand for a reliable supply of electricity is growing rapidly and building of generation capacity is not keeping up.

But that is only a part of the problem. Historically, around a third of New Zealand's total electricity needs have been met by gas and coal-fired power stations, however our known gas supplies are fast running out.

One of the solutions being put forward by those electricity generators with gas-fired plants is to begin importing liquefied natural gas (LNG). This option will certainly provide the fuel for generators, but at what cost?

This is a question - a major decision with significant financial and geopolitical implications - that appears not to have been asked, let alone answered.

Importing LNG would represent a major change in the way New Zealand generates its electricity.

For the first time, New Zealand would be dependent on international oil markets, to which LNG prices are inextricably linked, for the generation of our domestic electricity.

Little analysis has been made public as to what the true costs and risks associated with importing LNG are, but they have the potential to be significantly higher than the LNG proponents would have us believe.

In November 2004, the electricity generators Contact and Genesis released their findings from a joint study they had undertaken into the feasibility of LNG as an energy option for New Zealand.

The Contact statement said that the delivered cost to Auckland of LNG would be in the range of $6.50 to $7.50 per gigajoule. This equates to a cost of generating electricity, using LNG as a feedstock, of around 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

In February 2005, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) undertook a study of LNG markets. This report sought to provide an independent contribution to the debate about the viability of LNG as an energy option for New Zealand.

The NZIER study broadly agreed with the Genesis-Contact statement and noted that delivered LNG costs would be about $7.80 per gigajoule for gas that was ready for distribution.

The NZIER report noted that LNG contract prices are tied to global crude oil prices and natural gas prices. Given the rapid increase in prices for both crude oil and natural gas over the past 18 months, it is surprising that the NZIER price sensitivity analysis contained only one LNG price scenario: US$3.50 ($5.16) per gigajoule.

Is this realistic? To answer that question requires an understanding of LNG prices: how they are set, what they have been historically and what they are likely to be in the future.

There are three main LNG markets (Europe and the Atlantic and the Pacific basins), and the LNG prices in each are indexed to either natural gas or crude oil prices.

Global LNG prices have typically been higher in the Pacific than in the Atlantic basin, averaging US$4 per million British Thermal Units (MMBtu) in the former and US$3 per MMBtu in the latter over the period 1992-2002. These prices tend to support the NZIER figure of US$3.69 per MMBtu.

However, much has happened, since 2002, which has fundamentally affected LNG prices.

So what is the cost of LNG today? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. The bulk of all LNG is traded on a bilateral basis, and there is only a limited (albeit growing) spot LNG market. What this means from a practical point of view is that there is not a lot of public information about present LNG prices.

Nonetheless there is some evidence of the prices at which current contracts are being concluded: The evidence indicates that that price is almost double historic levels of US$3.50 per MMBtu.

There are two main reasons for this sharp increase in LNG prices.

The first is because of significant increases in the prices of LNG competitor products (natural gas and crude oil) since 2002.

In fact, the price of a barrel of crude oil has risen from US$35 in June 2004 to US$63 on January 3 this year, an increase of 80 per cent. In that same 18-month period the price of US Henry Hub natural gas has risen from around US$6.50 per MMBtu to US$10.62 per MMBtu on January 3, an increase of 63 per cent.

The second reason relates to sharply increased demand for LNG from markets in Europe, the United States and Asia (particularly China and India).

New LNG supplies will be coming online in 2006, 2007 and beyond, but the general view is that demand pressure will win out and that under any scenario prices will rise and the sellers market will become even more consolidated. This view has been exacerbated this month with Russia's decision to cut natural gas supplies to Western Europe.

This is further increasing demand for LNG by causing major natural gas users, such as Germany, to give even more consideration to the LNG option.

So what are future prices for LNG liable to be?

Most industry commentators would agree that the current natural gas spot price, as high as US$13 per MMBtu in recent months, is a price spike and is therefore unlikely to be sustained in the longer term. However, there is a wide range of evidence that LNG contracts are currently being concluded at around US$6 per MMBtu.

This sort of price level translates to a cost of electricity - generated by a gas-fired power station fed with natural gas from an LNG re-gasification terminal and using a long-term average NZ/US exchange rate of 0.60 - of more than 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

If a moderate carbon charge is added to this, the cost of LNG fired generation rises to more than 11 cents per kilowatt hour. This is clearly significantly higher than the 8 cents per kilowatt hour that LNG's proponents have been talking about thus far and is also arrived at using moderate forecasts for future LNG price paths and NZ/US exchange rates.

Wind turbines in New Zealand, by comparison, can generate electricity at an all up cost of around 6-9 cents per kilowatt hour.

Although LNG may provide some security of supply, it does so at significant cost to the nation and to electricity consumers. The decision to lock New Zealand into long-term dependence on expensive imported gas is a major decision for the country.

As the Government comes under increasing pressure to deliver a secure supply of electricity, it is important that any calls for Government underwriting or other financial support for LNG are weighed against the other, much less positive economic and environmental impacts of the LNG option.

New Zealand's future electricity generation mix should consist of a balanced mix of generation assets. It may well be that LNG will be a significant part of that mix.

But before New Zealand commits to the LNG option it is important that major energy users and all New Zealand taxpayers are aware of the financial implications of increasing the nation's dependence on high-priced hydrocarbons.

Strategically developing our renewable generation options instead of importing foreign gas represents a much better deal for New Zealand electricity consumers.

Optimising the use of our world-class wind energy resource and other indigenous renewable energy supplies will lead to an improved balance of payments situation, more affordable and secure electricity, increased security of supply, and a better deal for the environment for this and future generations.

CHANGING NEEDS
* Cheap gas from the giant Maui gas field is running out, meaning more expensive gas from other sources will be needed.

* Newer, smaller fields can help fill the gap, but importing liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can fire existing power stations, looks more likely.

* In November 2004, power giants Contact and Genesis said shipping LNG to New Zealand "is a feasible and practical alternative".

Susan Sun: New Year nostalgia time again

As Chinese New Year (January 29) is approaching, I rang up Uncle Bin's family in China the other day. No one seemed to have time for me.

The spring cleaning, festival decorations, new dresses and hair-dos, outrageous bargains at the flower market, fireworks, red money envelopes, delicious dishes, festival snacks and so on all demand handling with seriousness, precision, style and fun.

They are to be done for days, weeks, or even months leading up to Chinese New Year, and continue for weeks. Who would blame my relatives for wanting to hang up the phone quickly at this time of the year?

Yet, year after year, I've never failed to ring them at their busiest time.

I hassle them to tell me all that has been happening with the festival. They report in a matter-of-fact manner, but I do not let them stop till this end of the phone is filled with nostalgia for my good old days in China.

I just keep on doing these little "clings" every year during Chinese New Year. I don't know when I shall give it up.

"Don't you celebrate Chinese New Year in New Zealand?" relatives ask.

Indeed we do.

Well, actually, we start the celebrations off on the way home from work on New Year's Eve, I explain, and end it a few hours later, right after the family reunion dinner.

Some lucky ones may have a Chinese yumchar lunch with a bunch of colleagues on the following day, officially concluding the festival.

"Celebrate the festival in a day?"

Yes, in practice, we telescope a festival into a day. I believe the Hindus do it too with their Diwali, the Muslims with the end of Ramadan, and the Thais with their Songkran.

There is no satisfaction celebrating a festival in such a truncated, perfunctory manner. What is absent is all that excitement, art, creativity, extravagance, partying, craziness, drunkenness, laziness, and endless visits to and from friends and relatives - all of which are so universally ingrained in festivals.

According to the last census, nearly 700,000 New Zealanders were born overseas, and more than half of them live in Auckland. These people and their New Zealand offspring form the ever-growing diasporas of Chinese, Koreans, Indians, South Africans, and so on in New Zealand.

The chances are these geographically and culturally displaced people may also kill their festivals in just a day or an evening if it happens to fall on a weekday.

In the company of my fellow culturally displaced souls, my misery is suddenly not as overwhelming as I thought. Maybe I should stop blaming the communists who drove me away from my homeland in the first place. Come to think of it, if it weren't the communists, it would have been other forces.

Haven't war, famine, political oppression, ethnic cleansing, government corruption, economic ills, lack of opportunities and personal fulfillment, better lifestyle, or simply boredom already successfully "displaced" many people from their homelands to this part of the globe?

Global migration began long before we knew it, let alone approved it. Humans never seem to cease to venture out and search for betterment.

When people disperse in droves, it seems that the original rituals and trappings of their festivals are left behind where they belong.

You mourn it for all your life; you awkwardly try to merge, halfway through, into festivities of your adopted homeland; you come to accept that there will be no more festivals you can celebrate with substance and style.

Anxiously, you dearly wish that your children, who were given two sets of festivals from day one, could enjoy them to the fullest, like you did in childhood. But would they?

In the meantime, I am preparing red money envelopes to give to my children in the Chinese New Year in the customary way. They will at least convey my wishes for the children to be healthy, well-behaved, and successful in their studies in 2006.

* Susan Sun is a senior lecturer in Chinese at the School of Languages, Auckland University of Technology.

Why Kiwi farmers are ahead of Aussies

By Jacqueline Rowarth

At the beginning of the year, Aussie newspaper The Age ran an article on "The Australian miracle".

The "miracle" was acceptance that rhetoric associated with excessive dependence on primary production is wrong.

Myths - such as those suggesting agriculture and mining are low-tech industries - will be exploded in a book to be written by the Science Minister's former adviser.

New Zealand could do with a similar miracle. However, with the activities of the universities and Crown research institutes over the last few years, the country is somewhat closer to achieving it than is Australia.

New Zealand is a small country, and information is spread more easily. Universities and CRIs have capitalised on this to achieve a revolution in communication.

Check back through the media and you will see that not a day passes without some statement from one of the research organisations - and many of these statements are connected with primary production.

Check further and see how many of them are related to health.

You are, after all, what you eat.

Then consider how many of the articles relate to food preparation (recipes to tempt the palate) and to dieting (easy exercises to counteract the effect of the over-tempted palate).

Think further to how many New Year's resolutions will have been focused on "losing weight and getting fit"; those resolvers will now be searching the internet for ways to keep their resolutions, and so will be even more focused on food than in the past - smart food, that is - food that meets their dietary needs, whether it be low Glycaemic Index, low cholesterol, gluten free, high anti-oxidants or any of the other emerging requirements.

There is not a consumer untouched by the activities of research based on the production of food. And it would be hard to find a farmer or grower who has not been affected similarly.

For them the research has allowed improvements in efficiency of production, vital as land values and labour shortages increase.

Furthermore, it has not only allowed improvements in the yield and quality of their production, but also allowed them to make these improvements within an increasingly restricted context.

Some of these restrictions are due to legislation (use of fertilisers and pesticides), some are due to shortages (water for irrigation). Still others are based on requirements of society - organic production systems and those using or not using genetically engineered organisms.

The next stage will be to move into production of smart foods at farm level by increasing production of smart ingredients. This may require changing cultivars, breeds and even species; all changes are likely to require a change in production systems, and all must be done within the context of climate change and increased challenge from pests.

All of this will require research, adoption by the farmers and growers, and appreciation by the consumer.

It will cost the country in terms of the research, but that is why the universities and CRIs have been doing their best to show the value of research to society.

And ultimately the cost will be recouped multi-fold in terms of better health in New Zealand society. You are what you eat.

Smart foods, meeting the individual needs of the consumer, will improve individual health, and so reduce medical bills for the country.

The collective New Year's resolution for New Zealand should be to celebrate the country's ability to produce smart food - efficiently, with high quality and great diversity.

Australians might consider New Zealand getting there first as a low blow, but when have New Zealanders minded winning?

* Jacqueline Rowarth is director of the Office for Environmental Programmes at the University of Melbourne.