Posts filed under ‘Society’

Coffee and group think

This post is a minor hissy fit. I’ll start off by telling you what triggered my hissy fit. I had breakfast the other day in Sydney. I usually (but not always) like to have coffee with a touch of flavouring, like vanilla or hazelnut. I know the coffee purists roll their eyes at this because I’m adulterating the coffee with yeegads, flavouring! But having been a tea drinker for most of my life (and still am), I find coffee often bitter, especially in Sydney or Melbourne where baristas tend to make coffee so strong it would put hair on your chest.

Back to the hissy fit. I ordered a cappuccino on skim with a touch of vanilla – the waitress didn’t blink an eye. But then, up scurried a barrista, who knelt down by my table and whispered that the makers of the coffee had directed the cafe owner not to provide any flavourings in their coffee. There was a moment of stunned silence on my part as I considered launching into a tirade about my democratic right, my customer right to ask for what I wanted. But occasionally I’m astute enough to know that would get me nowhere. So I asked instead for the name of the coffee makers and ordered a cappuccino without flavouring (I was assured by the barrista that I’d enjoy a fabulous cup of coffee without flavouring – sorry but I found it pretty ordinary coffee).

I won’t name the coffee makers because the point of this post is to talk about group think. So later that day I emailed the coffee company to ask them was it correct – do they direct cafe owners not to supply what the customer wants (flavouring) because it adulterates their coffee? Here is the reply (from the director of the company no less):

“Thanks for the feedback Kim. I can appreciate your view – we do not want to project ourselves as being so snobby. With our accounts, we do not order them to keep it pure. However, we do not supply flavourings either as part of our wholesale strategy, as we believe the coffee has enough flavour as it is. Of course, it is the customer’s right to ask for flavourings, and we are not trying to be purist snobs, but we cannot accommodate every single request. Our systems and benchspace are built around efficiently supplying our time short customers with their coffee as quickly as possible. Once we were to introduce a flavour, then we would have to introduce the whole range of 20 syrups with 5 flavoured sugar options. I am sorry you are disappointed, but the system is built with our customers time being the central focus, and bench space efficiency as a priority as well.

Our internal and external studies show that below 0.5% of the coffee drinking public drink flavoured coffee. I would suggest the mocha, as it is flavoured with chocolate and very popular, at 7% of our beverages sold.

We hope this answers your query. We do not like disappointing people – and please understand we are not aiming to be snobby purists – but more we are aiming to satisfy our customers as efficiently as possible.”

Do you think I’m satisfied with this? Well yes and no. It was a polite exchange but here are my issues:

  • it took me 5 minutes to get that cappuccino (so much for the efficiency argument)
  • they probably only need to supply the most popular flavourings – vanilla, caramel, hazelnut
  • they don’t need to turn themselves into a Starbucks with all the sugar options
  • anytime someone uses the word “but” it means they are negating what they just said IMHO…”we are not aiming to be snobby purists – but “….yes, we really are snobby purists
  • I’d like to see their research because a lot of my friends and colleagues, including my Deputy Chair of Standards Australia KM Committee like nothing better than a flavoured coffee. We both used to enjoy a flavoured cuppa together during our regular catch-ups before he took off to Dubai.
  • it was rather insulting for this person to think I wouldn’t know what the heck a mocha is
  • but the pièce de résistance is the 0.5% of the coffee-drinking public

Now, I like nothing better than being in the minority. Better than being a sheep but….it caused me to reply that probably only 0.5% of the coffee-drinking public prefer flavoured coffee because the flavours aren’t widely available because of ….group think.

Clive Thompson in Wired, recently had a nice little piece about how group think rules what we like. He refers to research conducted by Duncan Watts, the network-theory pioneer, who wanted to test the strength of self-fulfilling prophecies in pop culture. Thompson provides the example of Madonna – if you rewound history would Madonna be famous because of innate talent or the lucky break of being in the right place at the right time?

So Watts created a music-downloading site and uploaded 48 songs by unknown artists. People logged onto the site, listened to the songs and rated them. Other users could see the ratings and the research suggests they were influenced by what they saw. Some songs became popular whilst others wallowed at the bottom of the ratings partly because of social pressure.

Watts ran the experiment many times with over 12,000 participants. Each new group listened to the same 48 songs and the result was that different songs were popular with different groups. Watts concluded that about half of a song’s movement could be attributed to intrinsic appeal. The rest was luck.

Now it’s a slightly different suggestion but what happens when a coffee company decides it’s a snobby purist and doesn’t provide cafe houses and barristas with coffee flavours? All you can “download” is the coffee they provide – espressos, cappuccinos, double-shot short blacks etc. So groups of people trying out the coffees can only rate the popularity of what’s available and soon the message becomes “sorry, only 0.5% of the coffee-drinking public like flavoured coffee”. And that message is compounded by the fact that people who like flavoured coffees don’t end up going to this particular cafe I went to because they refuse to serve coffees with flavours. But what would happen if flavourings were widely available at all coffee houses? Would you still get the 0.5% statistic thrown in your face?

I did a spot of research. It seems the International Coffee Organization thinks flavoured coffees are a fast growing area of the coffee market. Fredericksburg Gourmet Coffee gives the finger to the snobby coffee purists and offers 44 gourmet flavoured coffees, Coffee Direct (UK) offer up Amaretto, Brandy, Rum and Cinnamon flavoured coffees and Nestlé Australia produce flavoured lattes. So guess they’re not worried about the 0.5% statistic.

January 22, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

2020: not looking so good

Do you ever wonder what the world will be like in 2050? Frankly, I think we’ll all be stuffed and the planet frizzled up. But if the climate change scientists are wrong, then what do we have to look forward to?

I had a hissy fit over full-body scanners being installed in airports as a knee-jerk reaction to the underwear bomber – so that led me to thinking – why bother with the tardis-like machines that x-ray the heck out of you? Why not have machines that quickly read a passenger’s mind? Shove us in booths with flashing lights and zapping sounds (for special effects) and read our minds to see if we have evil intentions to blow up planes.

Mmmm…..seems there are some great minds out there thinking the same thing. Whilst the technology isn’t quite there yet to read what’s on my mind, an Israeli-based company called WeCU are developing “brain-fingerprinting“. It involves a combination of infra-red technology, remote sensors, and flashing subliminal images (such as symbols associated with a certain terrorist group), which will detect someone’s stress reactions. I don’t think you would get shoved into a tardis-like booth as it seems the sensors would be hidden and assess passengers as they mill around an airport. Perhaps, sensors will be hidden in walls and seats. And then there’s a suggestion that airport walls might be alive with the sound of….not music…but sophisticated sensors that will literally sniff out would-be terrorists.

Crikey, as we say in Australia! But what will the world of work be like? And what medical advances will there be? The Independent rounded up some futurist dudes and asked them to imagine the world in 2020 (mainly the UK). I think they should have imagined 2050 but they stuck to 2020. And here’s what futurists think our world might be like:

  • the 2010s will be called DOA – the Decade of Austerity. Frankly, this is in line with my thinking: we’ll still be feeling the effects of the GFC and there’ll be a crisis in public finance. Carbon taxes will make people think twice about purchasing new appliances or doing home improvements (gee: maybe we’ll return to a time when we mended things and kept items for years rather than tossing them out). Fair trade goods will be more popular.
  • there’s an increase in neighbourliness. Property prices never returned to the dizzy heights of the start of the millennium, so people stay in their homes longer and shun the excesses of pre-GFC times.
  • SADS or Shared Adult Dwellings are multi-occupancy homes that are popular with single people under 35 or over 65 who realise they can live more cheaply sharing costs whilst still maintaining independence.
  • at airports “naked x-ray machines” will be the norm and passengers will be required to use see-through suitcases or purses. One futurist is suggesting that every passenger will have to undergo an interview just to get on a plane (I don’t think he’s wrong about this actually). There’s even a suggestion that a budget airline has introduced a “standing room only” service on its planes (mmm….if this comes to fruition, I’d bet it’s Ryanair that first introduces this service).
  • because of rising fuel costs (oil will be over US$300 a barrel) people abandon cars and cities have car graveyards. Fast electric cars that you unlock via fingerprint scanners are the norm.
  • organs and tissues will be grown from stem cells making it possible to grow a replacement heart for example.
  • blogs, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email are seen as middle-aged obsessions because people under 25 actually like to talk to people face-to-face.
  • there is a swing towards wanting leaders and politicians who are older and more experienced, rather than young, untested Presidents or Prime Ministers.
  • a decade of economic woes finally leads to the collapse of free admission to national museums and galleries.
  • by 2020, citizens have grown accustomed to the Nanny State. The State has made smoking and alcohol unacceptable social habits. Employees are forced to submit to mandatory urine testing to flush out anyone who has defied the smoking or alcohol bans.
  • work-life balance and flexible working hours has died out, replaced with more presenteeism and clock-watching. Because of the after-effects of the 2008/2009 recession and the need for Governments to pay off humongous public debt, a new generation of employees work harder.
  • CCTV cameras are everywhere, scanning faces in shopping centres and eavesdropping on conversations (heck, I think this is wrong: this won’t happen in 2020, it will be 2015 or sooner if you ask me. “Listening” CCTV cams are already being trialled in Scotland and artificial intelligence software is being used to “teach” CCTV cams to recognise aggressive sounds such as breaking glass). Personally, I think that biometrics will mean all CCTV cams will be loaded up with a scan of our faces and they’ll use this to monitor us in shopping centres and public spaces.
  • but most theft is now committed on the Internet, so the CCTV and biometrics paranoia is largely ineffective. Tasers, stun grenades, tranquillizer darts and hand-held computers are used by police to combat crime.
  • DNA of citizens will be stored in a central database and because of severe public spending cuts, there’s a large army of civilian investigators involved in police work.
  • climate change has been slower than predicted by scientists back in 2009 but marine life has migrated northwards, sea levels have risen, the UK is warmer and sharks are sighted off the UK coast. One futurist is even hedging his bets that the UK might experience 40℃/104℉ temperatures. Wild weather patterns will also be experienced.

The article is in two-parts but I’ve summarised the main stuff for you. I would add to these predictions by suggesting that the 5-bedroom McMansion homes everyone seems to be so keen on will be albatrosses around homeowner’s necks by 2020 if not before. You won’t be able to sell them because of rising electricity costs and a return (I believe) to a simpler life.

What do you think the world will be like in 2020 or beyond?

January 17, 2010 at 2:00 am 4 comments

The deadly dozen

Now, you know I like a good Doomsday story or conspiracy theory. There are so many ways that humanity could snuff it (not the least through our own stupidity). So it was with some eagerness that I read a recently published report from the Wildlife Conversation Society (WCS), which sounds the alarm on deadly diseases that might be unleashed as a result of climate change. Might have freaked myself out though.

Health experts from the WCS believe there are 12 pathogens that could threaten wildlife and humanity when temperatures rise. We’re so absorbed right now with the financial fracas going on that if we think about climate change, we think of regions heating up, sea levels rising, poor polar bears unable to find ice floes to rest on and so on. But do we ever stop to think about the deadly diseases that we might face? Well, this report sure helped me think about it especially the fact that pathogens, which pose a threat to humanity, have already caused signifcant economic damage. The SARS virus and avian influenza, for example, have already caused an estimated US$100 billion in losses to the global economy.

The report is called The Deadly Dozen: Wildlife Diseases in the Age of Climate Change and it highlights 12 nasty diseases that humanity could soon be battling. Here’s a rundown:

  • Avian influenza or H5N1 – we’re already facing this one. So far, the movement of H5N1 has been contained to the poultry trade but changes in climate could bring severe storms and drought, both of which could disrupt the normal movements of wild birds and bring them into closer contact with poultry and domestic bird populations. H5N1 could mutate into a strain that would spread from human to human.
  • Babesia – what the? Never heard of it. It’s a tick-borne disease that affects domestic animals and wildlife. Babesia has been pinpointed as an emerging disease in humans particularly in Europe and North America.
  • Cholera – a water-borne disease that still affects people in the developing world. The bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, is highly temperature-dependent and rising temperatures are expected to see its spread.
  • Ebola – this one scares the bejesus out of me. Ever read The Hot Zone? Ebola has a closely related pathogen, the Marburg fever virus, and both of these pathogens have no known cure. They easily knock off humans, gorillas and chimps. There is evidence to suggest that major outbreaks are linked to unusual variations in rain fall/dry season patterns.
  • Internal & external parasites – parasites love warm water and as temperatures rise, these nasties will thrive. Many species of parasites are zoonotic meaning they can spread from wildlife to humans.
  • Plague – aka Black Death. Thought this nasty disease was left behind in the 1300s? Think again. Yersinia pestis is one of mankind’s oldest known infectious diseases capable of wiping out huge slabs of humanity. It’s spread by rodents and their fleas and climate change is expected to alter the distribution of rodent populations, which could affect the range of plague.
  • Lyme disease – another tick-borne nasty. Tick distributions will be affected by climate change bringing this disease into new regions.
  • Red Tides – never heard of this one. With warmer climates, algae will prosper in oceans and create toxins that are deadly to humans and wildlife. These algal blooms are known as “red tides” and can kill off penguins, fish and seabirds.
  • Rift Valley Fever – this virus is an emerging zoonotic disease. Humans can catch the virus from butchering infected animals and the disease is fatal. Redistribution of animal populations will most likely take place with global warming, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, leading to a possible increase in this devastating virus.
  • Sleeping sickness – I often think I have this, since I can suffer from insomnia but nope. Sleeping sickness, aka trypanosomiasis, is caused by a protozoan and transmitted by the tsetse fly. The disease is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa (covering 36 countries) and around 40,000 deaths occur each year. Once again, climate change could cause a redistribution of the tsetse fly population and affect the reach of this nasty.
  • Tuberculosis – bovine tuberculosis has spread since humans started working with cattle. It’s particularly virulent in Africa and can affect humans who drink unpasteurized milk. The human form of this disease can also affect wildlife. With less water, wildlife and livestock will gather and mingle at any water sources they can find and this will increase the transmission of this disease.
  • Yellow Fever – I’ve been immunized against this one so I’m hoping it’s a lifelong immunization! Yellow Fever is carried by mosquitoes and as the planet heats up, mozzies will enter new, warmer regions. There’s a strain of Yellow Fever, known as Jungle Fever, which is transmitted from primate to humans and vice-versa courtesy of mozzies.

The report highlights how increasing temperatures and fluctuating precipitation levels will change the distribution of dangerous pathogens. And these pathogens will impact on human health, food supplies and economies. Human and animal health are interconnected so we need to be talking about disease prevention at the same time we’re talking about addressing climate change.

October 17, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Police state USA II

Following yesterday’s post of pre-emptive raids on protesters, comes another story that just serves to remind me why I refuse to step foot on US soil (before my favourite 18-year old gamer emails me yet again. I’ve been there, done that – visited the US in the 1990s before the country went berserk with biometrics).

My RSS feeds deliver to me lots of stuff about the environment and one of my favourites is Natural News. This site is more about natural living and natural health than it is about observations on the police state the US has become. But the other day in came this story.

One Natural News staffer spent a month in Ecuador and found himself trapped in a Salvidor Dali painting on his return to the US. It began with what he refers to as “the immigration chamber” at Miami airport. In blistering heat, he and about a thousand other hapless American victims citizens waited for 1.5 hours in line to have their passports stamped for re-entry. (Personally, I would have turned around and gone back to Ecuador!).

There was no water available for thirsty people. After about half an hour, the crowd was growing restless but were told to shut up with the underlying threat being you’ll be hauled off if you don’t obey. As the Natural News staffers says: “Welcome to Police State USA. This is how the United States treats its own citizens returning from abroad. Imagine how it treats non-citizens!”. (Yes, well I won’t be finding out as I will never step foot in the country again!).

He compared this saga to the immigration line in Ecuador –  people queuing up in a polite, zigzag fashion, which means you don’t have to be a mind reader and pick the shortest queue. In the US (so I’m told) you have to play mind reader and pray to God you have picked the queue with a dude who is a whiz at processing passports and that 40 people don’t step over you as they rush to join the same line. And in Ecuador it took six minutes to breeze through passport control.

What then really piqued my interest was the comments on food. During my sojourn in Europe, I was amazed at the freshness of the food in Portugal. My mother was busy complaining when she came to live with us in 2005 that you couldn’t get fresh food these days, that you had to buy it from a supermarket, wrapped in plastic and tasting like plastic. In Portugal, there are still “corner stores” where you can buy fresh vegetables with the dirt still clinging to them. So coming back from Ecuador, where he’d spent 30 days living on fresh produce out of a vege patch, another observation was that in the US you go indoors to get your food. This is a no-brainer: we buy food from supermarkets mainly but when you hear it like this “we buy our food indoors”, that really makes you wonder how warped our society has become.  I bought a punnet of strawberries the other day for an exorbitant cost and the very next day, there was furry mould on them. The food we are forced to buy in Australia by the growing monopoly of two supermarkets is not fresh IMHO. It’s wrapped in plastic to within an inch of its life and reeking of pesticides, herbicides, colourings, flavourings and so on. For AU$65.00, we bought a huge amount of groceries in Portugal – three wines, 2 huge cheese wheels and lots of other items. When we returned to Australia, we spent $180.00 on far less food stuff.

And then the writer makes an observation about Florida – that it’s artificial and dead. Never been there so can’t comment. But this recalled to my mind the time I stayed in an eco-camp in South Africa. Individual huts far away from one another. High up on stilts overhanging the river. We went to bed; turned the lights off and…..I bolted upright. I’d never heard such noise – frogs, hippos, hyenas, lion roars. And the sky – stuffed full of glittering stars.

In our cities, the noise is of machines, mobile phones, people. And the brilliant night sky is diluted by streetlights. We live indoors watching TV and DVDs. If we go outdoors, we spend mindlessly on credit cards as though we are numbing some deep rooted angst we can’t articulate.

The article made another interesting observation: “Coming back to America made it immediately obvious to me how fake and fragile the whole system really was. Ecuador may be a lot less wealthy, but it’s based on reality, not a fabricated delusion of wealth”. And the final sledge-hammer of a comment:

“ became immediately clear to me upon returning to the United States that the American people have little connection with reality. They live in their fake particle-board-and-drywall homes, they spend money they don’t have, they eat fake food made in a factory somewhere, they take fake chemical medicines; their lawns are fake, their neighborhoods are fake, their parks are fake and even their boobs are fake.”

Could not have written it better. And simply replace “the American people” with “the Australian people” – I think we are just as disconnected from reality frankly.

September 8, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

What to do with a dead shopping mall

The average Mum and Dad is already starting to cut expenses to cope with rising interest rates and increased costs of fuel and food. And so we’re not shopping as much as we used to. I used to like going to shopping malls. They were a big part of teenage culture in the 1950s when I was growing up (mmmm….well not that long ago, but shopping malls took off in popularity in the post-WWII period). As a teenager, I did hang around shopping centres after school with my friends (how sad!).

But since declaring myself Anti-Brand, I have consciously stayed away from shopping malls – that was hard in Hong Kong and Dubai let me tell you! As shoppers browse and buy less, shops in malls are bound to go belly up affecting the long term viability of The Mall. The Economist carried a very interesting article a few months back about the rise and demise of shopping centres.

Did you know that the concept of a shopping mecca showcasing shops was dreamt up by a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria? Nope, me either. Victor Gruen was a Jewish immigrant and Socialist who created Southdale in Minnesota in 1956, the world’s first shopping mall complete with fountains, food courts and atriums. The design of a mall is simple: avenues with bright, eye-level display windows to lure shoppers. Kids tagging along? No problem – send them off to the games area. Hungry? Head to the food courts and the dizzying array of food. Such a simple concept that has lured generations of us into buying items we probably don’t need and wasting hours browsing.

There’s also some clever designing going on – multi-level carparks mean shoppers can enter a Mall at a number of levels and look up or down to see what other shops are in the Mall. Some Malls I’ve seen in the US have elaborate balconies and even old-fashioned street lights – reminding one of home or a cosy street.

Southdale was built in 1956 and quaintly, the airconditioning, which was designed to keep the Mall at a constant, comfortable 24°C/75°F, was referred to as “Eternal Spring”. Ironically, Gruen wanted shoppers to be able to have coffee and chat, evoking the atmosphere of the piazzas and coffee houses of Europe.

But now the shopping mall is in trouble for all sorts of reasons I think: economic downturn, the ease of Internet shopping, demographics of suburbs changing. A mall-aise has set in (sorry!). If you check out, you will find stories and images of shopping malls that are kaput. There’s a whole cultural history here that I’m very interested in not the least of which is the spread of an American concept. So if you look for example at one of the stories (about Amsterdam Mall in Amsterdam, NYC) you can read people’s recollections of shops that once existed or the cultural rituals that were common in malls.

I well remember St Ives Shopping Centre (now Shopping Village I think) and the milk bar that used to exist where an optician now exists. It was the thing to go after school with your boyfriend to the milk bar. On the website, there are some fascinating stories about people receiving marriage proposals or working in their first job at Cinnabon (loved Cinnabon when I was in the US!).

The Malls of America blog has some fascinating photos of vanished shopping centres from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and this site details US shopping mall history. Apparently, a dead mall is also known as a greyfield.

But when a shopping mall dies, what the heck do you do with massive vacant space? There must be some great opportunities here to turn the defunct Mall into a community space. New Urbanism, an approach to learning lessons from the past about how we built neighbourhoods and urban areas, has helped to turn The Crossings (a 1960s shopping centre) into a vibrant inter-connected neighbourhood with homes, a daycare centre, parks, small shops and railway station. All are just minutes walk away for the resident or a quick bicycle ride. A walkable community has replaced a behemoth shopping centre.

Personally, I can see huge malls turned into a giant agricultural farm for a community: the outdoor carparks could be used to plant vegetables or fruit trees, the roof of the carpark or Mall could be used for electricity generation. The possibilities would be endless.

The Factoria Mall in Bellevue US is being turned into a marketplace that will include apartments, pedestrian walkways and outdoor dining areas. Here’s a photo of the current mall and the redesign proposal:

(Photo credits: The Sledgehammer; Kimco Redevelopment Group; WorldChanging Seattle)

I’m not sure if the New Urbanism trend has hit Australia yet. Sure would like it to though. How would you redesign a silent, abandoned behemoth of a shopping centre?

August 19, 2008 at 2:00 am 6 comments

Living off-the-grid

Kim Photo -- Perky OrangeWell, my last post freaked me out a fair bit. So I was wondering how (or indeed if it’s possible at all) to withdraw from society without hiding out on some remote island. Could you escape the CCTVs and the targeted surveillance and collection of data that goes on around us?

Some research uncovered people who live in the shadows. Known as “living off-the-grid“, these people know how to evade the surveillance society. Here’s something I didn’t know (not sure if it’s legal though, I’ll find out) – if you don’t want your number plate to be read by a CCTV camera at night as you cruise down the highways, use an infra-red bulb to illuminate the number plate – it floods the CCTV cam causing it to have a hissy fit.

Since CCTV cameras are usually perched up high on buildings, off-the-grid people cover their heads (mmm…that will cause ‘hat hair’ for sure!) to evade the cameras. Think I’ll try a hoody instead. Off-the-gridders (if that’s a term) swap Loyalty and transport cards with friends or colleagues – the data is still collected but it’s not data about the off-the-gridder. They are paying cash rather than using credit cards.

To avoid big city living, they are living in boats or caravan parks – not sure how much you evade this way, as you’d probably still need to link into a city’s electricity grid. In the UK, they’re living in urban canals and rivers paying £75 a year to British Waterways for a “continuous cruiser” licence. So they don’t pay for power or council tax.

I really haven’t thought about how this might work in Australia – I will though. I can imagine you could have a water tank (as I do) to collect rain water (but there’s a drought here) and so you might not have to link up to town or city water. I imagine there are still some properties with septic tanks – a small scale sewerage treatment system that doesn’t connect to main sewerage pipes. But I’d think the local Council would eventually track you down and force you onto the main system. They got me and forced me to pay AU$3000 to link up to the main sewerage pipes.

Online I do know that you can encrypt emails through services like Hushmail (yep, I use it). This might stop the Government (or Google) collecting data about your communication patterns. If you want to use the internet without leaving a trail of data behind you, you can use Xerobank, which passes your clicks through an anonymous data cloud and hides the data and computer details that would normally be exposed.

You can participate in social networks by using an assumed name. I have so many assumed names, I’m in danger of confusing myself! But I told you in a recent post about the MySpace mother from hell and the Federal indictment against her, which raises the possibility that if you knowingly create an account under a false name, you could be in breach of a site’s Terms of Service or contract.

I’ve found a book that I’ll be getting. It’s called How to Live Off-Grid by Nick Rosen. Mainly about how to live off-grid in the UK but probably has some tidbits to get me thinking of how to have an off-grid life in Australia. And Rosen’s website is good stuff. It’s called Off-Grid and it even has its own YouTube channel with videos that share practical examples of off-grid living around the world. One of the videos shows the son of a fairly wealthy landowner who appears to have been given a manor to live in and is filling up the huge house with people who wish to live off-grid. You can watch it here.

Some of the videos show off-gridders living in a yurt for example. Not sure why these people seem to want to look like left-over hippies from the 60s. But guess if you’re living in a tent or something in the sticks, having to produce your own power and find water – you wouldn’t doll yourself up and put on the lip gloss!

I’ll be looking into this off-the-grid living. Do you live off-the-grid or try to? Tell me how you would do it. How could you opt-out of the surveillance society?

May 27, 2008 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Green but hungry

Due to teaching over the last few weeks, I’m WAY behind on bringing you stuff. So you may have seen this already but maybe not! The New York Times recently had a ‘green issue‘ that includes advice on how to make your carbon footprint smaller. The issue is divided into 7 sections that you can browse: Act, Eat, Invent, Learn, Live, Move and Build. Each section is stuffed full of great articles and advice. I must say I hadn’t considered Pig Power before (in the Invent section). There are 150,000 pigs in Reynolds, Indiana doing their bit for the environment by eating, sleeping and…eliminating their waste, which is collected into a massive, US $15 million “anaerobic digester” where the pig’s waste is converted to methane, synthetic gas and biodiesel. Reynolds is hoping that the pigs’ efforts will generate 100% of the town’s electricity demands and part of its transport-fuel.

You know, we need to educate ourselves around how to live more sustainably so check out the green issue. At the same time, arm yourself with information about rising food costs – this is going to be the real dark age ahead I think – riots over scarcity of food and a global food crisis. There have already been food riots in Haiti, Egypt and the Philippines. Basic food stuff is going to become unaffordable and forget about purchasing organic food because it will be too pricey. The UN recently named 36 countries as staggering under a food crisis, of which 21 are in Africa.

A ThinkingShift reader in Thailand says that the price of B grade rice has increased to AU $950 per ton, rising from $383 per ton at the beginning of 2008. According to stuff I’ve been reading, the rice crisis is being caused by a variety of factors: support and financing for agriculture has been neglected whilst Asian countries build cities; overpopulation; climate change; the credit crisis. But the crisis has hit us fast. In the last 18 months, a commodities super-cycle has risen its ugly head. This means that investors who used to plough their money into equities and mortgage bonds (and who have been spooked by the sub-prime mortgage debacle) are now taking their money and investing in food and commodities: gold and oil, sugar, wheat and rice, cocoa and cattle. So investors reap a profit out of the very basic food stuff and commodities that those who live on $2.00 per day depend on. Poor people simply will not be able to afford the basics of sugar, rice, wheat and so on. The World Bank estimates food prices have risen by an average of 83% in the past three years and is warning that at least 100 million people could be tipped into poverty as a result.

We should all be arming ourselves with information on this global food crisis because it will threaten global security. So check out the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN – their website has two reports looking at crop prospects and the food situation in 2008. Read the recent speech by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, delivered in Bern on April 29, 2008. As a result of the impending food crisis, the UN has established a task force.

Are we going to witness a revolution of the hungry? In the Ivory Coast, for example, thousands of hungry people marched on the home of President Laurent Gbagbo, chanting “we are hungry” and “life is too expensive, you are going to kill us”. In Egypt, at least 10 people have died over the past two weeks, in riots that erupted at government-subsidised bakeries. According to the UN, 1 out of every 80 people relies on somebody else to provide for basic food requirements.

We have basic rights as humans: the right to privacy (which as you know I think is stuffed in our society) and the right to food. How dark is our future going to be?

May 13, 2008 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Australia: what’s happening?

I want you to read this news item that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. I simply can’t bring myself to describe what happened, so I’m going to ask you to read the article instead. Once you have, I’m sure you’ll be staggered by this senseless and cruel act. There is no reason to believe the woman was lying or exaggerating. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t the smartest thing to do: walking late at night, a woman alone, in an isolated industrial estate. I’ll be very interested to see if the area was monitored by CCTV: here’s where I would agree with CCTV if it can identify the “hoons” and send them off for punishment.

I’m sure that people think of Sydney as a safe place, with a glittering harbour, good food, plenty of sunshine and so on. On the whole, it’s a great place to live but I’ve been noting subtle (and not so subtle) changes of late. I’m noticing a lot more homeless people or people sitting on the sidewalks near Martin Place asking for spare change. Over the last month, about five people have come up to me asking for money. Every city has its underbelly of homeless or struggling people, but as I was growing up, it was a rare sight indeed to see people asking for money. What really gets me is whilst I give them whatever spare change I have, besuited people rush on by, almost as though to look at a person who is struggling or dirty is abhorrent.

And we seem to be witnessing a rise in unbelievable acts of violence. Melbourne has also been suffering of late with its fair share of crazed people. A young man in his late 20s was quietly reading his book on a train when a “speed-using schizophrenic” fatally stabbed the man with a serrated knife without provocation or warning. Apparently, the man who did the stabbing said his victim was “looking at me the wrong way”.

Of course, we live in a selfish society: it’s all about ME. So we indulge ourselves with drugs that mess with the mind; we want our 15 minutes of fame because we believe we have stuff to say (and that people actually want to hear it). But I think these two acts in Sydney and Melbourne point to the fact that our society is starting to cross the line. We could say the hoons in the car were (a) simply evil or (b) on some sort of drug trip and that the Melbourne incident occurred because our society prefers to ignore the plight of the mentally ill and so they are often not appropriately medicated or integrated into mainstream society.

Or we could say that there is something deep-rooted in contemporary society, something disturbing and unsettling. Whilst we are busy worrying about ME and whether ME is known and worshipped by OTHERS; and whilst we’re worrying about whether ME is paid well enough or has a big enough house – what we don’t fully appreciate is that we are isolating ourselves, drawing a tight boundary around ourselves. And this is leading IMHO to looking at others with suspicion. Trust is dead, kaput in our society. So we have CCTV cams because WE can’t be trusted by the State and private corporations; we protect ourselves from increasing abnormal behaviour by installing security alarms. We are not friendly and welcoming or helpful and caring. We are aggressive, self-centred and prone to poking fun at anything “different”.

We’re a narcissistic society – the result of post-WWII innovation and increasing prosperity, good employment opportunities and unlimitless BRANDS to choose from. We’ve grown fat and lazy like the contented domestic cat wallowing away the hours on comfy cushions. We have road-rage, steroid-rage, obviously now “pet-rage”. We’re angry and feeling vulnerable. I think that modern capitalism has led to this – it has weakened unique cultures, traditions and values and left people confused about who they are and what they stand for. We (the West) are now culturally weak. The irony is that we are told to be “multi-cultural” and respect other cultures. Fine, but we fail to really understand those cultures or find out anything about their traditions – we simply pay lip-service. And this leads to kindergarten battles over whether Santa Claus and his “ho ho ho” is offensive to other cultures. It’s descended into a struggle for the soul of Christmas.

I suspect that Samuel Huntington was indeed right: the clash of civilisations is the pattern of conflict replacing the Cold War. Huntington said: It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

And so in a world that is facing the War on Terror, war on drugs, rage, aggression and anger – how can we not as individuals feel that our culture and self is being threatened. So we lash out or we take back control (for example controlling our bodies, hence eating disorders and diet obsessions). In no way do I think this excuses what happened to the pet dog or the train victim – these sorry and frightening incidents are symptoms of what’s coursing through the veins of Western society.

I remember that this essay by Mark Steyn had a profound impact on me when it was published in the WSJ in 2006. His bold statement is: Much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most Western European countries.

And if Huntington is right about the clash of civilisations, then Steyn’s essay I think shows us that perhaps we don’t need to worry about whether the planet is heating up – because humans won’t be around at the rate we’re going.

May 5, 2008 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Death by blogging

Kim photoApparently, our always-on, hectic, global blogosphere has caused the recent deaths of three high profile bloggers – all from heart attacks and ranging in age from 40 to 60 years. I didn’t think of death by blogging when I took a recent look at the many ways we could snuff it off this planet. Didn’t really occur to me. I’m not really an obsessed blogger.

When I started out in January 2007, I admit that for the first few months, I would look at the stats to see if anyone was actually reading my rantings and ravings. Now, I rarely look. I simply blog about what I’m interested in. It’s a way for me to say what I want when I want. If people read and enjoy, okay great. If not, well I’ll remain as obscure as I already am. I have no desire to be a world famous blogger or be in the dizzying ranks of top bloggers. I don’t have the time, energy or patience to spend hours beavering away, hunched over my beloved Mac, turning myself into a new breed of information worker, who rakes in millions through advertising revenue. Hold on! Millions did I hear myself say? Let me rethink!

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Michael Arrington, the founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, a popular technology blog, says his blog hauls in millions through ads. But this has been at a cost to himself. Over the last three years, he has gained about 13 kilos (30 pounds) in weight, suffers from a severe sleeping disorder and his home has been turned into an office for four employees. He feels: “At some point, I’ll have a nervous breakdown and be admitted to the hospital, or something else will happen”.

Advertising has followed publishing to the internet. Some bloggers blog away for the money but from the rates I’ve seen, it sounds a bit like a digital sweatshop. And then there’s the whole competition thing. Trying to beat blogs like BoingBoing (which I love) with the scoop or trying to bring the world news of an Enron-like debacle. Perez Hilton started off his blog because (he says) it seemed an easy thing to do. Now, he’s a celebrity in his own right, rubbing shoulders with the Hollywood glitterati. But to me, sometimes the blogosphere is populated by viciousness, nasty competitiveness, testosterone-fuelled types, bleary-eyed people slaving away to bring the latest, breaking news and so on.

Speed of course is of the essence. Often, I’ve thought “oh must include that on ThinkingShift” only to find that I’ve been scooped by BoingBoing (oh yes: I’ve been ahead of them occasionally) because I delayed a day or so whilst I was busy taking photos! If you read the article, you’ll find that some poor dudes only sleep 5 hours a night, existing on coffee and protein supplements. Some guys drop off over their computers or they faint over their mouse. So it seems this pay-per-click economy sounds way too stressful for me. I think I’ll keep taking photos and quietly blog away (well, rant) about the things I want to rant about. No millions to me, but I won’t suffer the stress of the digital sweatshop environment.

April 13, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Out of my way!

Today’s post is a rant. If you’re not interested in pondering with me why today’s society seems to have lost its manners along the way or why CityRail is still having odd moments – then don’t read on. So….last Wednesday was my first day back at work after my Hong Kong sojourn. I dutifully boarded the Newcastle Snail Flyer to travel down to Sydney (about a 2 hour run). Now, I’d just spent a few days travelling around on the fabulously efficient MTR system in Hong Kong. So I was immediately comparing their rail system to CityRail.

Firstly, I cannot understand why Sydney airport (isn’t it a major international airport? maybe not!) doesn’t have a rapid Airport Express train into the city. You come out of immigration in Hong Kong and go a short distance to catch the Airport Express. Glass doors efficiently open up and you simply get on this sleek train. You can follow the train journey to Kowloon or Hong Kong stations via a blue computer tracking thing, you can watch TV or stare out into the landscape whizzing by. In Sydney, you get out of immigration (eventually) and you have to schlepp a fair distance to the end of the terminal, go along two moving walkways, down two long escalators, get your ticket, down a further escalator and – if you’re lucky – have a train come along within 15 mins. No TV on the train or computer system showing you the progress of your train journey. And no Express train as it stops at every station between the international airport and Central.

For your trouble, you have to spend around $AUD 13.00 for a 15-20 min ride with a single ticket, whereas in Hong Kong, it’s $HK 140.00 for two people to travel from the airport into Kowloon or Hong Kong (about $AUD 20.00) and it takes about 25 minutes. I know the argument: our airport line is operated by a private company, I think it’s called Airport Link Company. But somehow that argument doesn’t wash with me: we should be able to do this “moving people from the airport fast” thing a lot better, like Hong Kong. Isn’t Australia supposed to be a first-world country?

So…back to the Snail, sorry Flyer. We stop at Gosford, waiting, waiting. An announcement ages later. Sorry passengers, we’re delayed for 15 minutes because the train at Woy Woy is on fire. Say what? On fire???? Now, I know that Australians are as nervous as Americans about attacks from terrorists. So we all pondered the important question – has Al-Qaeda been smart enough to realise that if they take out the Flyer at Woy Woy they would totally bring Australia to its knees??!!! Nope, seems it was just CityRail having one of its quaint moments with a train that’s seen better days.

Forty minutes later, we get going. And here’s where my journey started to feel as though I was trapped in a Salvador Dali painting. Some dude had been asleep across three seats (taking up three seats, nice: did you buy three tickets??). He suddenly woke up and proceeded to undress. Took off his jacket, his T-shirt, his singlet. Until he was left with a bare torso crowded with ugly tattoos. Sorry guys: but tatts of Dear Mum or some Lolita on your arms or torso is NOT sexy. He then proceeds to spray his underarms with deodorant, fumigating the entire carriage at the same time. Then whips off his socks, changes into fresh ones. Whips off his track suit pants and changes into a new pair. Had you been sleeping all night on this train dude?

In the same carriage, I then had to endure a middle-aged woman putting on far too much make-up and spraying on perfume, along with a pretty young thing speaking extremely loudly into her mobile phone about her idiot boyfriend. Ladies: have we heard of putting on our make-up BEFORE leaving the house? Or calling our boyfriend from home?

For the privilege of seeing naked male torsos, learning about the art of putting on thick make-up and forcibly hearing about a teenage girl’s love life, I have to pay $AUD 63.00 a week for a weekly ticket to Sydney. Yes dear reader: $63.00. Oh, and this includes the graffiti on the trains too.

I arrive at Central Station about 45 minutes late and have to change trains to get to Town Hall. This is where the real fun of being a CityRail commuter begins. Pity I’m not one of those American grid iron players I see launching an attack with their shoulders onto a player from the other team. That skill could come in handy on the CityRail network. Because when the doors open at Town Hall or Wynyard and you proceed to alight, you are met with hordes of people waiting to get on.

Now, here’s where I’ll sound old and crusty. In my day……people stood back and waited patiently for people to get off the train before boarding. It was orderly, it was efficient, it was polite. Now, the doors open and these idiots come barging in before you’ve even had a chance to get out. If you say “hey wait I’m trying to get out”, you are met (as I was the other day) with words I won’t repeat dear reader!

I am loathe to be as rude and impatient as these people. But I’m beginning to wonder if I should don gigantic shoulder pads and a helmet and launch myself out the door, elbowing and tackling fellow commuters along the way!

Or maybe CityRail could employ some cunning elderly Japanese ladies. The Japanese are clearly very astute people. They have decided that manners have gone with the wind and they are sick and tired of passengers with loud music blasting out of MP3 players, people applying make-up or stabbing you with umbrellas. They have decided that intruding your personal conversation onto public space or lunging at doorways in your haste to get onto the train is just not on. So transport officials at Yokohama’s busy station have taken matters into their own hands and recruited an elite SWAT squad of senior citizens, who are being sent into the subways to restore order.

The squad is known as the Smile-Manner Squadron. There are 11 “manner upgraders” in bright green uniforms apparently with huge shoulder pads. The little old ladies shaft people out of their seats if they display rude behaviour. Should the recalcitrant person be bold enough to ignore the little old lady, then a young, burly bodyguard takes over.

I well remember a few weeks back going up to Newcastle from Sydney. Some dude in his 30s probably had his bag on the seat next to him and refused to move it. Many people asked him to, including one man who asked him to move it so a pregnant lady could sit down. He kept refusing. But he met his match. A guy who had been watching this ridiculous fracas got up, grabbed the bag and threw it down the aisle. The lawyer in me was thinking probably personal assault action going on here, but the other half of me was thinking “way to go dude”. The carriage erupted into cheers. The guy with the bag sat there with a surly snarl on his face unwilling to take on a person who was very clearly a determined Newcastle working man.

When on earth did we as a society lose our manners? When did we decide it was acceptable to plaster make-up on a train? When did we decide that not offering a seat to someone, preferring to keep our bag on said seat was acceptable (and does the bag pay for its ticket I ask!). I’m not going to sling abuse at the younger generation (ie those under 30) because offenders I have seen are 30+ years. Bring on the Japanese senior citizens CityRail!

April 9, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

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