Why do people drive four-wheel drives in the city?

THERE’S a trend that is common in the US – driving four-wheel drive vehicles in the city – that seems to be spreading to other countries. These vehicles are meant to be driven on sand or gravel, they are very high-powered and are slow to take off from traffic lights.

They are very heavy, built of steel and will wreck an ordinary car if a collision eventuates. They also make visibility for those cars behind them impossible. Yet there are plenty of idiots who travel in these monstrosities in a city. Why?

With some, it appears to be the fear factor, so common in America, where people are pumped full of fear by the government, the media and everybody who has a voice in society. People figure that they have a better chance of survival if they are travelling in a four-wheel drive vehicle – not realising that when their time to die comes, they will croak no matter if they are bunkered down in a nuclear shelter.

Then there is the desire to do as others do, not to appear different. If one fool buys a four-wheel drive, others follow. And people like to appear “normal”, whatever that means. If everyone owns a four-wheel drive vehicle, then that becomes the norm. Keeping up the with the Joneses is another way of putting it but that doesn’t go down well with those who endeavour to do so.

There are plenty of reasons to avoid four-wheel drive vehicles. They consume much more petrol than the average car, are extremely expensive to maintain and are not meant for city travel. They are meant for negotiating desert tracks, mud roads and mountain paths. You only have to see a car that has been in an accident with a four-wheel drive to realise that anyone driving a four-wheel drive vehicle in the city is nothing short of an idiot.

One would think that with all the talk of peak oil and the oil price at very high levels, the car manufacturers would think twice about manufacturing such huge, unnecessary vehicles. But then, car manufacturers only look at ways of making money – if there are fools lining up to buy four-wheel drives, why the manufacturers will make them available.

Ultimately, it comes down to commonsense. Which is the commodity most in short supply, especially in the US of A.

When it comes to cringe, Australia and New Zealand are much the same

YOU don’t need to spend a great deal of time in New Zealand to see that it’s very different from Australia. Having lived in the latter country for nearly 13 years, I was able to easily spot some aspects of life in which our Kiwi neighbours differ.

Environmental awareness is the big one. Australia seems to be on one long binge to nowhere, much like the Americans. Accumulating things seems to be the main game in life, wherease across the Tasman, people are concerned about recycling, greening the place and reusing things to avoid wastage.

There is a much more practical approach to common things – one which was easily noticeable was the way the Kiwis do not wait endlessly for a green light to cross the road. If there is no traffic in sight, people cross even though the light is red and go about their business. Australians are more prone to wait for the light to change, much like the Americans do.

The New Zealand attitude appears to be that the law can sometimes be an ass and that one does not need to obey it when it is. I never saw an accident happen because of it.

The drivers in Wellington do not display half the aggression that Australians do; they are perfectly willing to share the roads with pedestrians and smaller vehicles and are not waiting to charge off the moment the traffic lights turn green. Not that this means they are a bunch of dawdlers; there is a relaxed attitude about people on the road that is not observable in Australia.

The natives are much more visible in New Zealand than in Australia. It is rare to see an Aboriginal face in the city of Melbourne but in Wellington, you can see plenty of Maori and other islander faces. The country appears to respect the fact that the original inhabitants of the two islands (North and South) were willing to strike a deal to share their land with others, and they are given their rightful place in society.

Some attribute this to the fact that the Maori were a fighting race; Australia’s Aborigines do not have the same pushiness. Whatever the reason, this is one aspect of New Zealand that appeals to anyone who has a sense of fairness.

But when it comes to cringe, New Zealand is on par with Australia. One of the things that brings home the inferiority complex that Australia has vis-a-vis America is the presence of silly people like Jim Courier as commentators at one of the major international events that the country hosts – the Australian Open tennis tournament.

And this, when Australia has an excellent tennis pedigree and boasts some of the true greats of the game.

In New Zealand, this cringe can be seen in their own parliament. I was taken aback when an American conducted a tour of parliament which is offered many times a day during the off-season. If the man, Bill Wieben, had done a professional job, one would probably have written it off as an aberration.

But he was the typical American public official – patronising, making poor jokes and acting quite the buffoon in a setting where a serious, informative talk would have served the cause of the country and the visitors much better.

Why does New Zealand have an American conducting these tours? In truth, it spoiled the entire trip for me. There is nothing more representative of a nation than its own parliament – and New Zealand has some proud achievements on this front, one of them being that it was the first country to give women the vote.

I’d love to hear a Kiwi accent there the next time I visit.

Why are the Americans still in Afghanistan?

MOST people who haven’t been living in a cave or under a rock for the last eight years know that American soldiers, and forces from a few other countries, were sent to Afghanistan in 2001, following the attacks that brought down the World Trade Centre.

The attacks were judged to have been carried out by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had taken refuge in Afghanistan after having his citizenship revoked, and the idea was to capture the man and make him stand trial.

Eight years and a bit later, the forces are still there, bin Laden is still at large, and the Americans are still talking about capturing him.

Indeed, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal has been quoted as saying that the capture of this elusive Saudi is crucial to defeating the Al Qaeda terror network which the West believes is a vast empire of terrorism controlled by bin Laden.

A few weeks back, there was a bit of news that runs counter to this talk: an US Senate report said that bin Laden was within the grasp of the US in 2001 but had been allowed to get away because the then US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, rejected calls for reinforcements to take the Saudi into custody.

Get that? Did they want to capture the man or not? Or did Rumsfeld want an excuse for the Americans to continue to stay in Afghanistan? Once he had been captured, the Americans would have had no reason to stay there.

About the only change in Afghanistan of 2001 when the Americans attacked and now is the absence of the Taliban in positions of power and the presence of opium aplenty in the fields. When the Taliban ruled the country, there was not a single opium plant under cultivation.

The Americans have installed a puppet government, headed by a former oil company executive, Hamid Karzai. This gentleman was caught rigging elections a few months back but is still the president of the country. That’s what American democracy does for you – it helped an unelected man like George Bush to rule in the US and it helps Karzai to rule in Kabul.

But the Taliban have made gains and Karzai’s remit runs only as far as Kabul and only as long as there are men with guns from various foolhardy Western nations willing to guard him.

Initially, there was evidence that the Americans’ prime interest in Afghanistan was setting up a pipeline to carry gas from central Asian republics through Afghanistan to Multan in Pakistan. The proposed extension would move gas on to New Delhi, where it would connect with an existing pipeline.

This kind of project required a stable government in Afghanistan. And many have speculated that that is why the Americans went to the country. In 1998, an existing pipeline project had to be shut down after the Americans launched cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan.

But the Americans are blissfully aware that no outside power has ever been able to bring stability to Afghanistan. The mix of warring tribes, all of different ethnic origins, has always ensured that unless a dictatorship, or something close to it, was in place, there would be organised chaos.

The pipeline project began in May 2002. By then the Taliban were defeated by American military power. And the opium fields had started to bloom again as Afghans returned to growing what is their main crop.

Given that American military forces have in the past been involved in smuggling drugs back to their country – the famous druglord Frank Lucas cut out the middlemen and made a fortune by getting drugs brought in to the US on American military planes from Vietnam – it is not unreasonable to assume that something similar is happening now.

After all, the biggest market for heroin, one of the many products produced from the opium poppy, is the US of A. It seems to come down to oil and drugs in the end. And for that many thousands of Americans have died. Soldiers from other countries have given their lives too in a meaningless war that has brought no peace to Afghanistan..

For it is becomingly increasingly clear that once the Western forces are out of the country – and that will happen by mid-2011 – the Taliban will be back in power. The pipeline will be guarded and the Taliban are unlikely to meddle there. The flow of drugs may lessen.

The video library – a dying species

LAST night, after nearly six months, I dropped in on my local video library to kill some time by browsing around while my son was at his karate class. It’s never hit me so hard – this business is badly out-of-date.

Most of the new releases were ones I had either seen as much as three months ago or films I had known were being released around the same time. It looks very much like the greed of the film industry will be its own downfall.

Let me explain. Most film studios want a film to exhaust its saleability in theatres before the DVD is released; only a few have seen the light and are now allowing the film to be released on the big screen and in DVD format simultaneously.

Hence, by the time most films come to the video library, they have been released for at least a couple of months. Who is going to wait that long to see a film – especially when copies, not very kosher ones, can be obtained from other sources?

In countries like the US, film channels like Hulu are being tested over the internet. Hulu does not yet offer a service in this part of the world so it is not possible to say what kind of bandwidth is needed to see a film without the transmission being jerky. That will be a limiting factor in countries like Australia because bandwidth is very expensive and though a national broadband network has been promised, it is unlikely to be in place even by 2015.

Even when people are prevented from seeing a film or TV programme by law, it just doesn’t seem to prevent copies of the prohibited programme(s) being distributed and, at times, even sold. A well-known case in Australia was the Underbelly crime series which could not be shown on TV in the state of Victoria for legal reasons. It was shown in neighbouring New South Wales.

The speed at which copies of this series began to circulate in Victoria was simply amazing. It looked very much like the production studio itself was leaking the prints to grey market sources and it became possible to see the series well before it was shown on TV at all.

The same goes for films. The case of X-Men, the Hugh Jackman blockbuster, is the most recent. The film gained a lot of publicity due to the prolfieration of news that it was being downloaded by all and sundry.

Australia is quite backward when it comes to technology, no matter what the media says. In Britain, the sale of video recorders was discontinued in 2005 by retailers; in Australia it is still possible to buy a VCR at a retailer, though you won’t find too many of them these days. The last time I visited JB HiFi, the biggest retailer of electronic goods, there were a couple of VCRs lying around. And this was six months ago.

So what does the poor video library owner do in this case? Even in Australia, the video library owners must be seeing the writing writ large on the walls. Nobody will buy a video library now – it has no future, it is part of the past.

A lot depends on how the upper layers of the film industry react. If they decide to act like the music industry did when music first became available on the net from unauthorised sources, then they will stand to lose. The music industry kept hanging on to the old formats – CDs – because the profit margins were huge, not realising that going the digital route would mean a massive increase in sales volume.

That’s the reality – when anything goes digital, volume sales increase and costs decrease. Profits will decrease but there will be profits for those who adapt and adopt the new technology.

It’s doubtful whether Australia will be one of the enlightened countries in this regard – just yesterday a decision was taken by the Australian federal government to protect the book industry by prohibiting parallel imports. This is protectionism that harks back to an earlier era and retrograde thinking of the worst possible kind.

But this is the kind of thinking that prevails at the level where decisions are made. People are scared of technology and afraid of losing control. Businesses like video libraries will have no choice but to be governed by laws that are framed by people who are, themselves, past their shelf-life.

No amount of copy-protection or legislation will prevent piracy; those who can break encryption are far ahead of those who design it. Film studios have to come up with a scheme that protects their entire food chain – and that include the lowly video rental outlets.

Else, if you are a video library owner prepare to do business in some other sphere.


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