Friday, July 31, 2009

Continuity announcement

There's been lots to blog about this past week. Amazon's Orwellian Kindle fiasco, our ongoing attempts to improve our house, my new walk-to-work regime, the ham-fisted bullying tactics of New Zealand's most hypocritical politician, and one of its most naïve...

Some of these you can read about elsewhere, although honestly I could've made a better job of them. Others will keep.

Thank you for bearing with me. Normal service will be resumed one day soon.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Of bliss and ignorance

"You know what the fellow said - In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." - Orson Welles

This is the most interesting thing I've read in a newspaper, albeit online, in a goodish while. Apparently, people who are in a happy mood are significantly dumber than those who are feeling miserable.

Seems that some brave researchers across the ditch, at the University of New South Wales, gave their experimental subjects guns - well, virtual ones anyway - and told them to shoot "armed targets". What they found, to no-one's surprise, was that wearing a turban makes you more likely to get shot. But the more interesting finding was that people who were feeling more upbeat at the time were significantly more trigger-happy, while the glumlies were more likely to identify their targets correctly.

That's not the only experiment of its type. In another episode, people leaving a room were questioned about objects they'd seen inside it. On rainy days, with slow or sombre background music, they'd remember significantly more than on sunny days with jaunty tunes in the air. Yet another experiment asked people to decide for themselves whether or not to steal a small object, then asked others to question them about it. Once again, it seems, the more miserable you are, the better you are at knowing whether or not you're being lied to.

Cue much speculation about why this should be. What's the purpose of sadness?

To me the most convincing idea is one based on animal behaviour. When you've had a reverse, it's probably a good time to be a bit quiet and observant. If you're (say) a lion who's just lost a fight with a bigger lion, it makes good evolutionary sense to go have a nice lie down and not draw attention to yourself. If you're the winner, it makes just as much sense to assert your position by taking a very abrupt line with any uppity young lions who may be looking at you a bit funny. Surely, sound strategy on both parts.

So if we spend our lives in pursuit of happiness...

Now: my mind goes back to a BBC podcast I heard a few days ago, in which some good old-fashioned sociologists were talking about inequality. Apparently, the less equal your society, the more dysfunctional it is. High inequality (they argued) correlates strongly with high rates of crime, mistrust, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, disease, obesity, you name it, at all levels of society. Scandinavian countries, apparently, rank well on all these indicators; Anglo-Saxon ones rank poorly.

And yet there is some suggestion - not conclusive, but still provocative - that it also correlates with high rates of material advancement.

What if sadness is the link between inequality and progress? The price of rapid advancement is that, to achieve it, an awful lot of people have to be made thoroughly miserable. (On the flip side, of course, change in itself often tends to make people unhappy.)

Perhaps we should think hard about our priorities.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Long week's journey into cold

You know where you are in an apartment. Specifically, you're on the north-facing corner of a building, 15 floors above ground level, sandwiched between neighbours southwest, southeast, above and below, all of whom are living in and, importantly, heating their own apartments. Winter is, basically, something that happens to other people.

Houses are another matter. Particularly here in Auckland, where building standards are laxer than a prostitute's knickers and about as insulating.

We moved our stuff in, with the help of the in-laws, over Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday night we slept on the living-room floor in front of the heater.

Oh yes, the house has a gas heater. It's the envy of all our friends, it has a timer and a thermostat and it gives out hot air like a session of parliament, but even so the room was colder than a charity for penguins. Have I mentioned Kiwi building standards lately? There is a special room in Hell for New Zealand builders, it's cold and draughty and noisy with an uneven floor and leaky windows. We were extraordinarily fussy - our house only has two of those defects.

Monday morning we returned the van, then went shopping for a washing machine. Buying stuff was to be a recurring theme of the week. By the end of the day, we had a working phone and internet connection (although no space to set up a computer), a high-quality TV antenna, and washer/dryer and fridge-freezer scheduled for delivery Wednesday.

Tuesday, we manoeuvred the bed into its rightful position upstairs, then I trekked back to the flat to finish emptying it, including the old fridge and freezer. We decided to store the food overnight in the dog kennel - sorry, I mean wine cellar. I don't think the food even noticed it was no longer in a fridge.

On Wednesday we slept in - lulled by the comfort of a proper bed, deceived by the heavy bedroom drapes, and not least, deterred from setting foot outside the covers by the numbing temperature. I awoke only to answer my mobile phone. It was the washing-machine guys telling me they'd be here before eleven. Checking my watch, that meant I'd better be getting dressed. A few minutes later the fridge people rang, giving an estimate (wildly optimistic, as it turned out) of between 4 and 5.

Thursday was our first morning in a Fully Functional House, which I define as one where you can both take a hot bath and make a proper cup of tea in the morning. We spent most of the day unpacking and tidying, then had the In-Laws over for a dinner to celebrate our new fridge.

Friday, we now have a large shopping list. We need bookcases, light bulbs, secateurs, dishrack, slippers and bathrobes, stepladder and so on and on and on. Much of the weekend we spend looking for all these things. A storm in the small hours of Saturday morning causes me to prioritise the stepladder, as - lying awake and listening to the weather - I conceive a strong urge to take down the canopy that covers half the deck, before the wind whips it clean away and takes half our roof with it.

By Sunday we're running out of steam. We've already spent many hours shopping and cleaning and unpacking and arranging, we've done the jobs that seemed most urgent, and now it feels like diminishing returns are setting in. I'm almost looking forward to going back to work the next day, just for a change of pace.

And that brings us almost up to date. It's still cold, but we're learning to cope with it. Pretty soon, I'm hoping, we'll be back to something like a normal life.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moving, day one

Friday, 10 July dawns optimistically bright. Sunlight through the blinds swiftly warms our bedroom, and I haul myself out of bed for our last-ever lazy day in the apartment. Susan, sniffling, asks for honey and lemon instead of tea. On general principles, I add a couple of slices of ginger as well.

At 9:00 exactly, I phone the lawyer. The house was still standing yesterday, I tell him, so please go ahead and complete. He promises to call back when it's done. I switch my phone to "Loud", tell Susan to keep an ear open for it, and go for a shower.

About 9:40 we stroll out to Alleluya for a big café breakfast. One last taste of city living. Big Breakfast for me, K-Road Special for S. It's quite nippy in Kevin's Arcade, and the tables in the sun are very popular, but it's a weekday morning so we still collar one. Food is fine. A couple of sparrows flutter about the tables, scrounging for crumbs and perching on the backs of chairs. Target would mark the place down for that, but I still think they brighten up the place and represent a vote of confidence in the comfort. About 10:00, the estate agent calls - congratulations, we can pick up the key any time.

"By the way, the lawyer called while you were in the shower" says S. "Thank you for not worrying me", I reply.

S wants a haircut at the place in the arcade. I go home and pack, desultorily. As I walk past the kebab place near the junction of K Road and Liverpool Street, a customer is clearing his sinuses impressively. I feel strong relief that I've succeeded in industriously ignoring the place for four and a half years.

As I pack, there's a programme on Triangle about Eartha Kitt. Being Triangle, it's an extremely cheap programme - probably cobbled together by a fan, mostly out of other people's documentary footage - but surprisingly well finished for all that. The sound quality, particularly, is excellent.

Around 11:15, we arrive at the agents to collect the key. Our agent isn't there, but another one hands the envelope over with a smile. "Don't I have to sign anything? I could be anyone."

It doesn't seem to have occurred to them. I guess, if I were Anyone, I'd be discovered pretty soon - and in the meantime, all I'd have would be access to an empty house. Still, something feels slightly - amateurish, about the whole performance.

At 11:30 we reach our new home. As I park outside the driveway, another car pulls into it behind me. Then a postal van. I had no idea it was such a social nexus. We amble up the drive and meet our new neighbour. Blair is a policeman. Not one of those tough, businesslike rozzers you see on the tackier type of TV drama, but a rather vague, definitely people-oriented person, in no hurry to get indoors and on with his day. We discuss police shifts and lawnmowers, learn of his own moving experience and where he works, before we can tear ourselves away to get inside.

The key is tiny, sized more for a locker or padlock than a front door, but it works all right. The door is double-locked. We search the house for more keys. None. Bloody kitchen drawers don't open, until I notice the child locks. The lights and water work, but no hot water. I dust the place with flea powder (the previous owners had a dog), while Susan potters about complaining about window seals and loose joinery. I really don't care right now - time enough to worry about that once we've moved in. Measure spaces for fridge and washing machine.

Outside, gas cylinders have been delivered. I turn on the gas and go inside. Gas hob now works beautifully. Hot water works once I figure out which way to turn the tap. The gas heater in the living room also works, but then I get a text from S: "I smell gas". She's texting me for that? I go outside. She's standing by the heater vent.

12:30, back to agent to ask about missing keys. "Under the doormat." What is this, 1960?

12:50, back to house. Sure enough, keys under doormat. Don't fit garage or patio doors, though. Text agent, who claims there are no keys for those. Ho hum. We're going to need a locksmith.

1:30, done for now. Home for tea break. The sky is turning white - there's a thin, even layer of very high cloud, far above the occasional puffs of cumulus. Still to do today: packing, buy fridge, freezer, broom, washing machine.

2:30, back out to shop for whiteware. Petrol first. The car has done 478km for 39.5 litres. That's 28.5 mpg in American, 34 mpg in British. Not too bad, for city driving in midwinter.

Back on the road: whereever did this traffic come from? It's daytime on a weekday, dammit. Sit on the motorway quite long enough, before reaching the shop we scouted a month ago, whose selection seems to have evaporated. Back to the motorway, all the way to West City - traffic worthy of rush hour - while S starts to whimper. I know the symptoms: Valkyrie Needs Food Badly. Arrive at West City, where there are four whiteware shops side by side.

Explore fridges and freezers. Doing the sums, we realise a fridge/freezer is cheaper to run than separate fridge plus freezer, even though the separate versions are individually more efficient. It's a size thing.

For dinner: there's a surprisingly good Japanese restaurant at Westgate. As we sit and review our achievements, I think the Big Day is in danger of morphing into just another day, with nothing more than a dull ache in the calves to show for it. We haven't bought any of the big stuff we set out for, and tomorrow the work begins in earnest - collect the van and raid brother-in-law's house. It's all a bit worrying. At the last moment we remember to buy a hammer and broom, essential tools for any proud householder.

Moving by easy stages. Can't beat it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A wizard wheeze

I don't know how I came to miss this story when it broke last month...

Apparently, J K Rowling is being sued for copying some elements of Harry Potter from an earlier childrens' work, Adventures of Willy the Wizard. Rowling's publisher, Bloomsbury, vigorously defends the claim.

Interesting that the media instinctively turns to the publisher for a response. Nobody mentions whether Rowling herself has said anything. (Has anyone even asked her? I wonder.)

The author of Willy is dead and in his grave. But his family, who apparently took until 2004 to notice the existence of Harry Potter, are now suing Rowling. They claim she stole key plot elements, including: a wizard schoolboy competing in a magic contest, a wizard train, a wizard prison, a wizard school, and a wizard rescuing hostages from half-human creatures in a bathroom.

Wow, that must be a pretty action-packed 36 pages.

And on this basis, they're asking for £500 million from Rowling. Which, according to the Sunday Times rich list, is about five-sixths of all the money she's made from her 3,500 pages of writing.

Is there anyone who is still willing to say, with a straight face, that copyright is not being abused here?

In unrelated news, secondhand copies of Adventures of Willy the Wizard are now commanding prices into three figures.

Maybe - just maybe - this case will weigh ever so slightly in the scales when Bloomsbury next considers its policy, as regards copyright protection of minor plot elements.