Joe Hendren

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Remembering Auschwitz

The room of suitcases at Auschwitz

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I often wonder what it would have been like for those very first representatives of the Allies who entered the camp on the 27th of January 1945. I imagine it would have been like an unimaginable nightmare, too unbelievable to be seeing.

I visited the camp in September 2002, and it is an experience I will never forget. As I was going around the camp with the guide I made notes, recording my initial thoughts and reactions. I am so glad I did so, as writing about the experience has helped keep the memories vivid.

Today I added a few photos to my writeup of my visit to Auschwitz. I now have a scanner you see.

If people ever get the chance to visit Auschwitz I would definitely recommend it. While it is an uncomfortable, unsettling, numbing experience I certainly found it worthwhile.

Additionally, the nearby Polish city of Cracow is an absolute gem, as one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. At least when I was there, Cracow was not half as touristy as Prague. Cracow remains one of my favorite towns in Europe.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

United Future trivialises mental health and drug addiction

"United Future deputy leader Judy Turner today welcomed the Government's belated move to a new 'second opinion' approach to assessing sickness beneficiaries, but said that those doctors should have some psychological expertise given the rapidly rising number of stress-related claims."
"A number of doctors have told me that they are increasingly being asked to sign-off on claims by potential beneficiaries that they suffer from fairly intangible or subjective disorders, such as stress, depression, back pain and even drug addiction,"
Judy Turner appears to be propagating the old stereotype that mental illnesses are not as serious as physical illnesses. None of these disorders should be trivialised as 'fairly intangible' or 'subjective' in such a sweeping statement, as doctors have well developed diagnostic criteria to identify these disorders, such as the DSM IV. Left untreated these disorders can lead to some very tangible effects indeed.
"Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Depression often predicts the occurrence of disease, and epidemiological studies have found that people with serious mental illness have higher rates of grave medical illness and premature death than the general population.
Stress and depression often have a significant cognitive angle, in that the same event or environment can have a more significant impact on one person than another. But this does not make this any less real, or any less debilitating, to the person concerned.

In regards to the issue of people moving from unemployment to sickness benefits, it is entirely possible this followed the tightening up of work test requirements. To give them their due, perhaps some WINZ case managers recognised harsh work testing arrangements are not appropriate for some 'unemployed people', especially those dealing with divorce, family breakdown or grief.

As someone who has worked with people with drug addictions I find it very hard to believe that anyone could plausibly 'fake' an addiction to get a benefit, as the general 'sense' of chaos and desperation would not be there. Its likely to be just another unsubstantiated myth invented by the right in an attempt to justify benefit cuts.

While Maharey's proposal for 'second opinions' appears reasonable, its timing looks exceptionally political, given its release a few hours before a speech propagating more myths about welfare.

Its worth noting that G.P.s can only prescribe a limited set of drugs to treat mental health. Many medications, especially newer (and more expensive) medications can only be prescribed following a referral to a psychiatrist, and a referral can mean a long wait, as NZ has a significant shortage of psychiatrists (blame student loans, its a lower paid specialty). NZ also has a shortage of clinical psychologists. So, as well as being based on some extremely dated myths about mental health, United Future's ideas are likely to be unworkable as well.

Judy Turner should stop telling doctors how to do their job. Instead she should make an effort to learn more about mental illnesses and drug addiction before she makes ill informed public comments that only reinforce ignorant stereotypes.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The curious case of Young Labour and the "defacement" of the Timaru CBD

Natblogger DPF reports that participants of the recent Young Labour Clarion Tour are being blamed for defacing' the CBD of Timaru. This involved some strategic placement of anti-National party stickers.
"The stickers appeared on Stafford Street bollards last week and Timaru ward committee chairman Cr Terry Kennedy warned people they would be fined if caught defacing the central business district."
Predictably, the National party candidate for Aoraki Jo Goodhew is feigning outrage. Purely because I was nosy of Mr Kennedy's political affiliations, I googled him.

It appears Mr Kennedy didn't even bother find a new issue. Its possible he didn't even write a new press release. Following a similar incident involving GE protesters the Timaru Herald reported on the 11th of October 2003:
Timaru ward committee chairman Terry Kennedy said he was appalled by the actions of the protesters as they had caused unnecessary mess which council officers would have to clean up.
Central South Island Tourism board member Peter Johnson said he was frustrated by the actions as it degraded the look of the inner city. "People should be free to express their views and I admire them for that but they also need to be sensible about it." Mr Johnson said the council had provided bollards for people to paste their posters on.
So clearly members of the Timaru community did not mind people posting on the bollards on this occasion.

I think it ought to be remembered that once upon a time 'central business districts' were called 'town squares'. They provided a venue for the community to gather and discuss issues. While shopping malls may be privatised town squares, the business community does not have a monopoly on 'central business districts' as these still contain significant portions of public space.

I believe any member of the public should have the ability to post a public notice without fee, fear or favour, and this right should be maintained in a free and democratic society. Of course I am not defending a right to poster up everywhere, but that there should be more prominent public bollards designated for non-commercial purposes. As Peter Johnson says, "people should be sensible about it". Wit always helps too.

If someone posts a message that is simply not true, such as 'Only a party vote for Labour can change the government' (1999), they should expect their message to be helpfully corrected.

Rather than seeing the CBD as being 'defaced' by such messages, I think it makes our towns look more alive and vibrant. I think you could argue that our central business districts can also be 'defaced' by crass commercial messages, such as the hideous green neon Starbucks sign attached to an historic building in Cathedral Square. So, is it really the message these people are objecting to?

And for the record. I am not a member of Labour in any shape or form. I am a member of the Alliance. But I recon Young Labour now owe this former Alliance researcher a beer :)

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Fangs of corporate Draculas could push up power prices

'Market commentators' suggest Contact Energy should consider a substantial 'capital return' to shareholders. This should be seen for what it is : An attempt by overseas based shareholders to drain Contact of cash, a move bound to push up power prices in New Zealand.

To make matters worse, this capital return is to be funded by Contact taking on more debt.
"This may suit [Contact's] new majority shareholder Origin Energy of Australia which could clear a third of the debt ($1.65b) taken on to purchase Contact within a year and strengthen its own debt to equity ratios." (Press article, variant on Stuff)
Origin, now in control of the former SOE, would get Contact's own shareholders to pay for a substantial portion of the purchase price! And as this would funded by debt, Contact's New Zealand customers will pay through higher power prices. But to be fair to Origin, at present the public calls for a capital return are only coming from other institutional investors such as First NZ Capital. One hopes as the majority shareholder they reject the proposal as being against the long term interests of the company. Unless of course, they too are after a quick buck.
"First NZ Capital estimates Contact could take on up to $1.15 billion of debt - the "extreme scenario" - to pay out shareholders. Origin's share of that would be $589 million. That would double Contact net debt to total assets to 60 per cent from 27 per cent this year. Without a cash return, net debt to total assets would fall to 23 per cent by 2006, the investment bank says. First NZ Capital says $589 million would be almost enough for Origin to repay most of the "convertible undated preference shares" it issued to Deutsche Bank to partly fund the $1.65 billion purchase of 51.2 per cent of Contact from Edison Mission Energy last year. Deutsche holds $662 million worth of the instruments. Taking on more debt would reduce Contact's overall capital costs and be beneficial for all shareholders, First NZ Capital says."
But this would not be beneficial to consumers, and they wouldn't get a payout. The stuff article also reports:
"Contact is flush with cash but might not have big capital-hungry projects for another three to five years. It might need another $500 million gas-fired power station, provided it secures a long-term gas supply. The company will also require funding facilities for the importation of liquefied natural gas from about 2010."
Here lies another problem. Electricity is a capital and infrastructure heavy industry. There are not enough incentives under a privatised free market electricity system to build additional capacity before it is required, as this will lower prices. The electricity crises over the past few years were made worse by the lack such additional capacity. Nor are there enough incentives to conserve energy, as more 'sales' simply means more profits. Power users and shareholders have fundamentally different interests, and the latest plan to bloodsuck Contact of cash only demonstrates this once again.

Once shareholders have taken the cash, what will happen in a few years time when Contact suddenly needs more capacity? Thanks right, they will ask shareholders and the New Zealand public to pay for it again.

One option I have thought of is removing the state owned electricity enterprises from the State Owned Enterprises Act, as this would remove the requirement for Meridian and co to act like companies. Instead a non-profit model could apply whereby all revenues gained from electricity bills could be put back into capital redevelopment, encouraging conservation, carbon credits and lower prices. People might even be happier when they get their power bill knowing where the money is going. Faced with real competition Origin may be keen to sell out, allowing the government to merge its generators and retailers together, thereby creating more savings.

PS: Faced with a corporate vampire, say the word 'nationalisation' three times. They will make a quick retreat as good as garlic!

PPS: Lost a blog post last night due to computer apparently hanging. Just realised how I could have saved it - drat.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Tsunami aid cricket match and India Pakistan relations

Just finished watching the Tsunami aid cricket match. The Asian XI and the Rest of the World sides succeeded in raising over 14.5 million Australian dollars, a brilliant effort.

But the cricket match was a success in other ways too. In India and Sri Lanka, cricket is not only the national sport; it is a secular religion. As Brian Lara commented a couple of days ago - the shared love of cricket made this match good for the "psyche" of the people of the flood ravaged regions. I will not be surprised if we see television pictures of people in makeshift accommodation listening to the game on the radio. It will provide hope and make people happy.

The sight of Indian and Pakistani players playing in the same side is a diplomatic breakthrough in itself, as cricketing relations have long been affected by tensions between the two countries over the disputed region of Kashmir. A few short years ago some feared this conflict would escalate into a nuclear exchange.

Pakistan last toured India in 1999 only to have the Indian government place a ban on bilateral series soon after. India made its first full tour of Pakistan in 15 years only last year. So in another bit of great news, the Indian cricket board have announced that Pakistan are to tour India from February 25.

One of my long standing travel ambitions is to go to an international cricket game in India. Supporting a kiwi team over there would be great, but so would seeing a match between India and Pakistan. As well as being a great game between two good sides, it would also be a symbol of peace.

The autographed shirts worn by the players are being auctioned on Ebay. The shirts for Australian players are currently going for the most, including an incredible bid of 10 million for a bit of cloth with Shane Warne's sweat on it. At the time of posting Chris Cairns' shirt was fetching $7100, Vettori's $5100, and Fleming's $4100. All money to a good cause.

Span tongue in cheekily criticises the Rest of the World team for making too many runs. I suspect a batting lineup that included Ponting, Lara, Gillchrist and Cairns probably made this inevitable. Its a real shame Sachin Tendulkar could not bat, due to an injury. If Tendulkar had got going he could have given the Rest of the World's 344 a run for its money (unintentional pun - honest!)

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Friday, January 07, 2005

Labour Day and working hours

An interesting article on the BBC website looks at the pressures on workers to work more hours than they are paid for, The new face of slave labour.
[A]ccording to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) millions of Britons work so much unpaid overtime they are, on average, providing their employers with free work for the equivalent of nearly eight weeks of the year.

You could say those affected - predominantly the increasing number of white-collar workers in the UK - are providing their services voluntarily every day from 1 January to 25 February. That overtime is worth £23bn to employers, says the TUC's analysis of the Labour Force Survey
It is an irony that we still celebrate Labour Day to commemorate (should that be commiserate the loss of) the 8 hour day, when it no longer exists for many people. Perhaps, with a bit of research, the left could promote 'real' Labour Day, or 'emancipation day', as the day you stop working for your employer for free.

Last Labour day Progressive Enterprises, who run Countdown, Foodtown and Woolworths supermarkets, made it clear who owns who by banning checkout staff from wearing Labour day badges.

Perhaps the Government should consider legal measures to encourage employers to more accurately record actual hours worked. After all, longer hours increase the 'ACC risk', a risk far more tangible for employees as it is measured in heart attacks and other stress related conditions, such as depression.

In the British TUC survey last year, teachers ranked second in a list of professions doing the most unpaid overtime.

"Teachers certainly believe they are working excessive hours.... But at the same time if they think something is good for their children then they will do it. Despite working 54-hour weeks, on average, and taking work home in the holidays, there is still a public perception that teachers have a "cushy number", says the National Union of Teachers (UK)

A teacher friend recently explained to me that NZ secondary contracts are structured around a 7 day week. This has implications for how sick pay is worked out. If a teacher is sick on a Friday and a Monday they are counted as having four days off. This has led to many sniffly nosed teachers struggling through Friday so they don't loose four sick days for being sick on two working days.

Using the 'more holidays' excuse to dismiss teachers concerns about workload and long hours misses the key point - it is simply not healthy for a human being to be doing such long hours over extended periods. Nor can it be good for the kids, at home or at school.

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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Lots of hits from the information superrailway

Been getting a lot of hits on my website this week. 26 on Monday, 37 on Tuesday and 19 yesterday. Most appear to be linking to the critique I wrote in July of the Toll rail deal.

While this deal did bring the rail track back into public ownership it effectively left the railways in the hands of an almost complete private monopoly until 2070. The article also demonstrates that the Government missed many (cheap) opportunities to bring the whole of the railways back into public ownership and the long drawn out negotiations with Toll held up track improvments, as Cullen was forced in the 2004 budget to transfer $30M of funding for track upgrades from last financial year to this financial year.

With so many hits on my rail article I could not help but be nosey as to where the referrals were coming from. It appears a link to my article was included in a message on LocoBoard: NZ Locomotive Engineers / RMTU members email group. Very pleased to discover that. If any of you guys and gals have any feedback on my article that would be very welcome.

Although Toll have only been in NZ for a couple of years they have already gained a reputation for arrogant union busting attitudes to industrial relations, especially when it comes to existing collective contracts. On that note I would like to wish both the RMTU and the Maritime Union 'good luck' and 'good speed' for their negotiations with Toll this year.

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