Fast-forwarding seven months.
Where were we?
Right – I quit my job, we saw some monkeys, I was about to start at a new company. Something something, end of 2011. It’s all a bit of a blur. In early November, we celebrated our 7-year anniversary of coming to New Zealand. Seven years! What a ride. And this past year has been one of the most intense.
I’m writing this between the years, on a break, aiming to recharge my metaphorical and not so metaphorical batteries and get ready for what comes next. We’re not going anywhere this New Year’s, but staying right here in the mostly deserted city and enjoying the suspended time. This is what Wellington looked like on December 27:
Retake the Net
One of my proudest accomplishments this year (if I may say so myself) is starting an initiative called Retake the Net.
This past year we’ve seen how the power of the internet can bring people together, foster and instigate real change. The Arab Spring is only the most prominent example here; the Occupy movement (about which I have mixed feelings – but that’s a different topic) is probably another one. At the same time, we’re seeing increasing threats to the free and open net from both government and corporate interests, with the SOPA bill in the US being just the latest and possibly most egregious example coming from a democratic country.
Because we are passionate about the possibilities that technology provides us and we believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to use its power for good, Brian and I, together with a few others founded Retake the Net as a way to bring together people and projects to help keep the internet free and open. Starting in June, we held a number of public meetings for people to get together with others and start a number of projects. One that is currently underway is to put a computer hub into a local soup kitchen to provide people in need with access to the internet, information, and communication tools, and I’m excited to see it come together for real very soon.
In addition to individual projects, we also organised a barcamp at the end of October. We had 70 people attend and passionately exchange ideas. We even had the mayor of Wellington stop by and give the opening speech, and just before the event, Brian was on National Radio for a long interview. It was a fantastic day, and a great experience to bring together people and make something happen, and I’m looking forward to continuing the initiative in the new year.
The other half of my life
…in the past seven months was unsurprisingly dominated by the new job. As with every new beginning, there’s a lot to learn and find your place but, the normal challenges notwithstanding, here are a few things I love about it:
I work with a bunch of really great people
- Instead of being spread thin between many different things, I get to focus on a single project
- Said project is with a client in Hong Kong, so I get to travel regularly to one of my favourite cities
- The company cares deeply about open source and internet freedom
- I have a stand-up desk which is absolutely fantastic – instead of getting tired from sitting a computer all day I feel full of energy at the end of the day
One benefit of travelling to Hong Kong for work is that you’re literally halfway back in Germany: Auckland -> Hong Kong is 5,697 miles (9,168 km); Hong Kong -> Frankfurt 5,686 miles (9,151 km). After last year’s month-long trip I hadn’t planned on visiting this year, but for family reasons I needed to go after all.
It worked out great to “hop on over” following the Hong Kong business trips, and it was great being able to spend time with family.
The second trip was in late November – the first time I had visited Germany in winter since 1999! Although here in NZ my felt body temperature is usually set to permafrost, I had forgotten how cold it feels in “real” winter! On the plus side, I got to visit Christmas markets and drink mulled wine; a treat I hadn’t experienced in 12 years either.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand
There was a Rugby World Cup. We won. I could possibly write quite a bit more about this so highly anticipated event that was such a big deal to our small country and brought 85,000 visitors here. However, the tournament was not something that affected our lives in any way, even as inner-city dwellers of one of the host cities.
Those who do enjoy rugby seem to have had a great time, and for that I’m glad and thankful, because otherwise it’s been a rough year for New Zealand.
Unsurprisingly, the situation in Christchurch after the earthquakes continued to dominate the news. It’s heartbreaking to follow as the city just doesn’t seem to catch a break. The cleanup after the big quake in February had just started to show some positive effects when on June 13, two 6.4 and 5.9 quakes rocked the city in the early afternoon. In fact, the bigger of the two turned out to be even larger than the so destructive February quake, and it was felt strongly even here in Wellington. Imagine the frustration of cleaning up your property from liquefaction and damage, only to have to start over again – and remember, June is the beginning of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Damage again was extensive (the June quakes alone added NZ$6 billion to the bill,), phone and power went out again – the whole circle of horror, replaying once again.
Between the first major quake in September 2010 and now (end of December 2011), there were almost 9,500 earthquakes in the Canterbury region. Just last week, on 23 December, within a good hour’s time, a particularly violent triple shock measuring 5.8, 5.3 and 6.0 interrupted Christmas shoppers, caused major liquefaction yet again, led to mall and airport closures, and reminded everyone that this could – and quite possibly will – continue for a while to come yet. Heartbreaking.
Aside from those two major events, the issues in New Zealand were dominated by events around the globe – be it the continued financial crisis, worldwide protests (Occupy Dunedin – really? Ok ok, still another topic), or the usual depressing mix of consumerism and celebrity gossip.
Did this sound cynical? Have you seen Google Zeitgeist lately? My quest this year has been to stay away from this kind of stuff as much as possible (which I think I managed quite well, seeing that I don’t recognise the names of the majority of “trending” people on said Zeitgeist.) Life’s too short, and I’d rather focus on meaningful things. I even gave up Twitter. It’s liberating!
Having said that, here are a few more stories that mattered ’round here this past year:
Extreme weather is the rule here in New Zealand, but just when you think you’ve seen it all there’s something that takes it just a little further, as it was with our mid-August “once in a lifetime polar blast.”
I could write about the power outages, public transportation cancellations, and road closures. I could remind you how the extreme cold added more pain to the people in Christchurch in their freezing, quake-damaged houses. I could go on about how much I hate winter (because you’ve never heard that one before), but that would be a bit disingenuous, as I left Wellington on one of the last flights before they shut down the airport and spent the second half of August in the summer heat of Germany and Hong Kong. I could quote more statistics of how the blizzards were the heaviest in 50 years, etc.
Instead, I’ll simply share something beautiful: They joy of Wellingtonians at being caught in a snowstorm in the middle of Cuba Mall. Enjoy!
Lost and found (and lost again)
And another creature probably enjoyed the sudden frosty temperatures: Happy Feet, the lost penguin. There are, of course, penguins which are native to New Zealand, but this one was an emperor penguin, a resident of Antarctica. How he ended up on a beach on the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington sometime in June is anyone’s guess. The poor thing wasn’t in good shape when he was found: dehydrated, exhausted from heat (all is relative!) and with a stomach full of sand he had eaten in lack of more appropriate foods. When his health started declining further, he was taken to the Wellington Zoo and underwent surgery to remove the sticks he had swallowed and to flush out the sand from his stomach and throat.
At that point, it wasn’t clear if he would survive, but true to his given name, he recovered well. It was even less clear what to do with the unexpected guest. Taking him back to Antarctica in winter wasn’t an option (no one goes there during that time) and no zoo in New Zealand had facilities to keep him. Eventually, NIWA, a science research institute, took him on board one of their vessels to release him in the subantarctic ocean four days south of New Zealand. During the journey, he was kept in a custom crate designed “to keep him cold and comfortable.” Hearing that, I wondered why we didn’t just let him spend the winter in any average Kiwi student flat? Surely that would have fit the bill.
Fancy travels aside, from here, the story becomes less happy. Two months after he was found, on September 4, Happy Feet was released back into the wild down a “purpose-made hydro-slide”, not before he was outfitted with a GPS transmitter. A website was set up to “share his journey with the world”, there was a competition for school children, and his progress could be tracked on a map. Unfortunately, only five days into the journey, the signal was lost, and while this could certainly be due to some technical failure or simply because it fell off, many speculate that our visitor may have ended up as a Happy Meal.
Elections and other disasters
Somewhat luckier were several hundred little blue penguins from the Bay of Plenty who were caught in the oil spill from the container ship Rena.
The Rena ran aground the Astrolabe Reef outside Tauranga on October 5. It’s still not completely clear why this happened, as the reef was well known and was clearly marked in all maps. Several crew members have since been arrested and are facing criminal charges.
About 350 tons of oil from the Rena spilled into the sea, making this New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster ever. Since then, the badly damaged, listing ship has been perched precariously on the reef, with new cracks appearing all the time and always in danger of breaking in half. Containers fell over board and to this day all kinds of freight, including food items and meat, is washing ashore and polluting the beaches in addition to the oil. Under extremely dangerous circumstances and repeatedly interrupted by bad weather, workers tried to remove the remaining oil from the ship. This almost succeeded but there’s some oil remaining on the ship and just yesterday we heard of a new oil film leaking from the damaged ship. The salvage of the 1,368 containers is also going slowly and is expected to take until March to complete.
For about 2,000 seabirds caught up in the oil spill, all help came too late. Hundreds more however could be rescued and nursed back to health in wildlife recovery centers. In late November, the first batch of little blue penguins was released back into the sea (video). Before they could go, they had to pass a fitness test, where they had to swim for six hours to ensure their feathers are waterproof again, and they will be monitored long-term through microchips to make sure their recovery goes well.
The timing of the Rena disaster couldn’t have been worse for the government. The country was still crowded with tens of thousands of rugby tourists who saw headlines and pictures of the oil spill on a daily basis. New Zealand’s general election was scheduled for the end of November, and instead of an easy ride based on a glorious win of the All Blacks, the government now had to deal with “clean green New Zealand” beaches black with oil and dead birds.
And yet, neither the Rena, nor Christchurch; neither the announcement of the controversial plan to partially sell off state-owned assets nor a mini-scandal made any difference: The conservative National Party won almost enough seats to govern alone (47%, +2.3%), Labour continued its free fall (27%, -6.5%), the Green party improved significantly (11%, +4.3%) and then there were the usual miscellaneous who tend to get a lot of attention but in my opinion don’t affect much in reality. If I had believed that there’s a real, viable opposition in this country, I’d be a lot more upset about this result.
The last time we talked about Samoa on this blog, 7000 angry people had just marched to the capital to protest the switch to driving on the left side of the road. The outrage has continued to, well rage. There is even an action group called “People Against Switching Sides” (PASS) who - screw safety! – advocated to simply not observe the new rule and keep driving on the right. Nevertheless, the change eventually came into effect in September 2009 although some of the finer details (location of street signs, bus doors, etc.) seem to still be worked out to this day.
Now the Samoan government has come up with yet another scheme to bring the country more in line with its neighbours and biggest trading partners, Australia and New Zealand: a jump across the date line. Up until yesterday, Samoa was the last place on earth to see the sun set, a fact that used to be a major element of their tourism marketing campaigns. Now, in order to be the first, and thereby on the same weekday as we are here, they skipped a day and went straight from the 29th to the 31st of December. With half of Samoa’s population living in Australia and New Zealand, that seems sensible. Aside from employers who aren’t too thrilled that they have to pay their workers for a day that didn’t happen, I haven’t read of any large protests this time (they are probably a still having a go at the driving side.)
Too bad only that American Samoa which, as the name indicates, is a US Territory, is not going along with the change. But the crafty prime minister has even thought of that – he promotes island hopping between the two Samoas: ”You can have two birthdays, two weddings and two wedding anniversaries on the same date on separate days without leaving the Samoan chain.”
Having a blast
“Is the Capital really that windy?“, asked the local tabloid earlier this month, and the answer seems to be, why yes, it is. Not only is Wellington the most southern and most remote (as in, farthest away from any other capital city) capital in the world, it’s also the windiest city. Looking back at the entries in this journal, every spring seems to be one of the windiest in years and I’m starting to suspect that the less-windy years are just a story that’s told to newcomers to make them stay. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it, but I have to admit that on the rare quiet day, something seems slightly off.
According to this map and the five degrees of windiness, our apartment is in zone 3, or high. At the airport, which isn’t all that different from the rest of the city, the average wind speed is 29 km/h – that’s average, mind you, and nothing compared to the 104 km/h gust that was measured there in November, or the fact that there are gusts exceeding gale force on 175 days a year. (Gale force is 75 km/h.)
Some city streets are downright wind tunnels. There have been efforts over the past decades to construct buildings to ameliorate the situation, with mixed success. Meanwhile, the weather we love to hate has inspired the new design of the cringeworthy former WELLYWOOD sign I mentioned briefly in my last post. After continued protests, the airport backed down and started a public competition for people to submit, and later, vote on designs. Finally, in November, a sign spelling out WELLINGTON with the last few letters blown away was announced the winner. To be honest, I find this only marginally better than the original – “green hill with no sign at all” unfortunately wasn’t an option. What would the Samoans do? Maybe this.
The other day, I discovered that my name is an anagram of “be silly.”
I think the universe may be trying to tell me something.
So this is my plan for the new year: Listen to the universe. Be good and bold and kind and silly.
Or, in the words of Neil Gaiman:
May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. May your coming year be a wonderful thing in which you dream both dangerously and outrageously.
I hope you will make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and you will be liked and you will have people to love and to like in return. And most importantly, because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now – I hope that you will, when you need to, be wise and that you will always be kind. And I hope that somewhere in the next year you surprise yourself.