Of love and pain and growth and learning. Looking back at another year in the life.
Sturm und Drang
Twentyelebenty is almost here. High time for a quick recap of the past year.
Let’s get the weather out of the way first. Unlike last year’s dreadfully cold Christmas break and a summer that never came, we’re now set to have the warmest December on record, thanks to a La Niña pattern, which is bringing a lot of warm, wet air from the north. The higher-than-usual temperatures are accompanied by gale-force winds (the kind that brings down power lines and prevents me from sleeping properly), as well as humidity. Now, I am the only person I have ever met (so to speak) who actually likes humidity, and I’m thoroughly enjoying not being cold for once, smiling smugly to myself while everyone else complains about “the muggy heat” every time the thermometer hits 20 degrees.
So that’s my personal happy end to an eventful year. To be honest, it I’d been dreading 2010, since it would be the year in which I was to turn 40. 40! Surely, there had to be a mistake somewhere. (As an aside, I just finished reading a very dark dystopian novel called “The Unit“. In this book, single, childless people are put into “reserve bank units” on their 50th birthday, where they are used for all kinds of experiments and become living organ farms until their final “donation”. But I digress.)
I couldn’t even find consolation in hitting the “Schwabenalter”, the age of 40 when, so the story goes, Swabians finally become smart, because this concept only applies to men (women have always been smart anyway.) So, the whole thing sounded dreadfully middle-aged and frumpy. Thankfully, my birthday is relatively early in the year, so I had to face reality quickly.
As it turns out, it didn’t hurt a bit. I don’t feel different. Actually, not true. I feel better, because it’s done, and I’m still here, and now can move on and focus on the good stuff. And maybe I am a little bit smarter after all.
And with all that betterment and evolution and wisdom, the year really was all about growth.
At work, I’m now heading up a team of five. Our company sponsored New Zealand’s best web conference, Webstock, won the New Zealand Open Source Award for Best Open Source Project (again!); we got slashdotted when Microsoft (!) certified our open source (!) software (a first), and we did a lot of groundbreaking work with our clients, especially in the GIS/open data/geospatial area. It’s exciting to be part this journey and help drive open source and innovation.
To Germany with love
It’s almost become tradition for me to try and escape the worst of the New Zealand winter by visiting Germany during July or August. After last year’s whirlwind-1-week trip, I decided to make this one long enough so that I could actually be there without having to immediately think about the return.
The timing was stellar—not only did I manage to catch the second half of the soccer World Cup and my home town’s annual Heimatfest, but also a beautiful, scorching heatwave, with daily swims in the lake and lots of fresh fruit and BBQs and not being cold, ever. Thanks to the longer duration of my visit, I also managed to go one a couple extended weekend trips within Europe, one to Istanbul (first time ever), the other one to Berlin (first time in eight years), which were both stellar and a great way to get my big-city-fix.
If you can’t change the world, change yourself
The most important thing that happened this year, however, was something very personal. I have finally made a serious effort to no longer let my natural introversion and shyness be an excuse for slowly turning into a recluse. Instead, I would go out and be social and connect with people for real. And so I did.
It was the most terrifying and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I have met more amazing people and made more friends in the past year than quite possibly ever in my life; certainly since high school days. A very humbling experience and the source of more joy than I can express.
And in other news…
Joy, on the other hand, isn’t exactly the word I’d choose when it comes to recounting what happened in New Zealand in 2010.
For some reason, it seems that all the big stuff took place in the last few months of the year. For a long time, the news seemed to be dominated by events blissfully far away, be it Eyjafjallajökull’s ash all over Europe, BP’s oil all over the Gulf of Mexico, or other assorted, mostly horrible things all over the world. As much as New Zealand’s geographical isolation makes me feel disconnected and cut off sometimes, it can also be quite a relief to be a long distance away from much of the crap happening elsewhere.
And then bad things started to happen here after all. It began with a bang, quite literally, at 4:35 am on September 4, when a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the South Island near its biggest city, Christchurch. (We didn’t feel it, by the way, though many people in Wellington did.) Almost miraculously, no one was killed, even though magnitude, shallow depth, and proximity to an urban centre were very similar to the devastating earthquake in Haiti earlier in the year. This was attributed to the fact that the quake happened while most people were asleep in timber-framed houses, and, who would have thought?, New Zealands’ building practices, which have been factoring in the risk of earthquake damage since the 1930s.
Nevertheless, damage to buildings and infrastructure was major—current estimates are as high as NZ$4billion. Water and power supplies were interrupted, many roads and rail tracks are still damaged, and quite a few buildings were deemed too damaged to fix and torn down, including heritage buildings such as the beautiful 100-year old Manchester Courts. This crowd-sourced Google Map or a simple picture search give a good idea of the extent of the damage. Even worse, since the quake, the Canterbury region has been hit by a seemingly never-ending series of over 4000 aftershocks measuring 2.0 magnitude or more, causing further damage and preventing people from sleeping through the night. The most recent one just happened a couple days ago, on Boxing Day. At 4.9 magnitude, it was serious enough to have parts of Christchurch’s Central Business District (CBD) cordoned off again—not ideal on the year’s biggest shopping day in a city that’s already feeling the economic impact of the quakes pretty hard.
Just when the aftershocks from the Canterbury earthquake started to slow down, another disaster hit the South Island. This one was an accident in the Pike River coal mine on the West Coast. On November 19, an explosion occurred in the mine, while 31 men were inside. Two of them managed to get out; the rest remained 1,500 meters underground. For five days, hopes of rescue remained, until a second explosion shattered those hopes. We’ve been to the West Coast a few years ago and I can only imagine how a disaster like this would affect such a small, tight-knit community.
Meanwhile, back on the North Island, we had our own shake-up, and it involved our favourite national alter ego, Middle Earth. More specifically, this story is about Peter Jackson’s planned 2-part movie adaption of Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit.” The project had already gone through turmoil for a number of years, with lawsuits over rights and lengthy delays, and Guillermo del Toro, originally slated to direct, had pulled out during pre-production. But then, Peter Jackson got the nod, and the films were set to be shot in New Zealand from early 2011.
Or they would have, had not the International Federation of Actors in late September issued a “Do Not Work order” to their members, because the producers weren’t willing “to engage performers on union-negotiated agreements.” What this means is that the many actors which are hired as independent contractors (rather than anyone’s employees – a common practice in the industry) cannot enter collective bargaining under New Zealand’s competition law. So the union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (which, to complicate things, is based in Australia out of all places) discouraged the actors to work on the film, even threatening expulsion to those who wouldn’t comply.
If the plan was to garner support for the union, it sure as hell backfired. “Unionise all you want,” responded the big American movie studio, “we’ll just film elsewhere then. It’s a big planet.”
Middle Earth in Eastern Europe? This thought caused nothing short of a national crisis. For several weeks, thousands of protesters took to the streets around the country to protest against a move of the production overseas. When Hollywood executives came to Wellington in late October to negotiate, no one other than the Prime Minister himself led the discussions. Eventually, an agreement was reached: The production would stay here, in exchange for a government commitment to change the labour laws and a $25m tax break for Warner Bros. You read that right, and if this reminds you of Mayor Quimby and the production of Radioactive Man in Springfield, well, yes. It does. And also yes, it is very good for the New Zealand economy, not to mention the New Zealand soul, that the films are made here. It’s just the very messy way it all came about that leaves a sour taste.
Some of my best friends are broadcasters
And speaking of sour taste (why, aren’t I on a roll for segues today):
Another drama that unfolded at the time was a lot less Hollywood, and a lot more Idiocracy. This one involved Television New Zealand (TVNZ) broadcaster and general creep Paul Henry. In the US, this lovely fellow would probably be called a “TV personality”, and personality he does have, although not the attractive kind.
Henry had already caused a number of controversies previously, when he insulted a female activist with facial hair, homosexuals, the Indian politician Sheila Dikshit (you can guess the “joke”), and when he called singer Susan Boyle “retarded”, all on public television. What finally led to his suspension and resignation from TVNZ though was a remark about New Zealand’s Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand, who is of Indian and Fijian descent. Remember, the Governor-General of New Zealand is the representative of the British monarch and therefore can be seen as the de facto head of state, and while his role doesn’t have direct power, it’s an important political and symbolic one. Anyway, Henry had the Prime Minister on his TV show and asked him if the current Governor-General was “even a New Zealander”, and if for the next appointment he was “going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time.”
Ouch. Clearly, this is not a nice man. And while some racism exists in this country, just like in any other one, most Kiwis don’t appreciate this kind of trash talk. It’s pathetic enough that TVNZ initially defended the man, saying he is prepared to “say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud.” No, we’re not. Freedom of speech applies, but bigot drivel shouldn’t be taxpayer funded, so it’s right he’s gone.
However, and now we’re coming to the reason why I’m even mentioning this sad little story on this blog. The issue I have with the whole thing isn’t really about Paul Henry at all. Did you catch that point a couple paragraphs earlier? This happened in conversation with the Prime Minister. Henry said those words to the Prime Minister! And what did John Key say in response? Did he stand up and walk out in protest? Did he politely, but firmly, put Henry in his place? Did he talk about our fledgling but growing desire to develop an identity as a changing, diverse and multi-cultural nation?
He did no such thing. Instead, he did what he does best. He sat there, and grinned. And said nothing meaningful whatsoever. Later on, he stated that he was “taken off guard”, but didn’t voice any further opinion, nor did he cancel future appearances on Henry’s show. At no point, anyone in the mainstream media questioned the Prime Minister’s behaviour or lack of leadership. In my mind, that’s the real scandal.
Just before the end of the year, New Zealand, like many other countries around the world, found out how American diplomats really view our country, thanks to Wikileaks. While I believe that Wikileaks is the driver for one of the most influential and powerful changes to how societies govern themselves in the history of mankind, I don’t want to go into a political or philosophical discussion here (although I’m happy to do so – come visit!) Instead, let’s have a look at the cables themselves.
- News flash: Helen Clark was “more interested in substance over style.”
- News flash: Before the 2008 election, the US thought that a National-led (= conservative) New Zealand Government would be better for relations between the two countries than the incumbent Labour government.
- News flash: Prime Minister John Key’s practical agenda is “fuzzy.”
- News flash: Relations between the US and NZ had been fully restored by August 2009 but the two countries decided to keep this information secret. (Huh?)
- News flash: New Zealand’s strong reaction to two suspected Israeli spies in 2004 was seen by the US as an attempt to increase the export of lamb meat to Arab states, and the deployment of NZ troops to Iraq in 2003 was to protect dairy exports by Fonterra, the country’s largest company, as part of the UN Oil for Food Program (Srsly??? And, if that’s true, what more proof do we need to move away from our dependency on agriculture?)
You’d have to be be living under a rock for the last few years to find any of these “revelations” surprising. Still, more transparency is a good thing in my book, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of this story.
So there you have it. I hope 2010 has been a good one for you. As the Chinese say, may you live in interesting times, and may 2011 be your year, whatever that means for you. Peace!