Mapping your biking route easily

Google maps currently doesn’t let you go anywhere even when you’ve selected that you’re walking, but MapMyRide.com has solved this problem. You can not only go anywhere you want, but turn on/off an option to snap your route to the actual roads. This is great if you’re planning to bike along the road but also take a shortcut through a park or something. Mapping a new route is easy, and you don’t actually have to join. Also it seemed to detect automatically what city I lived in and put me in the city centre (it thought I was in America initially) although I think it helps if you already use Google Maps. You don’t have to be a member already, and it’s totally free to use. They have some sort of iPhone app as well if you’ve got something like that and you’re biking in unfamiliar territory. They are currently testing out their new map which makes it easier to change that setting for “snapping” it to the road or letting your go off road (it’s on the right). Here are some screen shots of a route I drew to get to the Regent on Worcester for the NZIFF:

At the top right it tells you the distance your route is so far. There’s the new beta version of the map. I played with the”hybrid” map type this time, which uses the satellite view overlaid with translucent roads and their names.

In the new beta version, all the view settings are in a handy box in the top left, which looks like this (you can hide it once you’ve selected the options you want by clicking on the little arrow by “map options”):

The marker thing is quite useful if you were going to do a long journey and wanted consistent breaks or something I guess. Or if you’re biking for fitness.

Then there are the route drawing settings:

The “follow roads” button is currently selected, which “snaps” any points you click on to the roads. For example, if I click on one street, then a street three blocks away after a corner, it will navigate itself around that corner. Yay. Clicking the button so it’s not selected will let you go anywhere off road. “Un” is short for “undo the last point” which is good if you accidentally made a point and want to get rid of it quickly. “Cen” centres your latest point drawn and zooms in on it. “Clear all” clears your whole route so you can start afresh.

Then there are helpful options for the points:

I think this could be more straightforward using the delete button on your keyboard once a point is selected. These options are brought up if you click directly on a point.

Go and have a play around! Basically clicking means you want to go to that point, and have a route drawn from the last point (or a line if you’re off roading). Dragging will move the map around. Scrolling zooms in or out. Pretty straightforward really. Personally I do prefer the newer beta version, except it’s not as good as the old one at automatically detecting your location.

PS: If you want to send feedback to these guys about the beta version, I’m sure they’d appreciate it!

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Turtles are cute, and it is freezing.

Just you try to deny it. To start with the turtles, the NZIFF* is currently on in Christchurch, so if you feel like getting the warm fuzzies, go see Turtle: The incredible journey. It looks like a feel good film, just in case anyone tries to accuse me of constantly posting depressing news. If you’ve miss(ed) the screenings and need to acquire it through, er…other means, then you can donate to the Save Our Seas Foundation that appears to have commissioned it. You don’t even need a credit card. Yay. Unfortunately I can’t find info about a DVD release date. Anyway, the trailer really did warm the cockles of my heart.

Speaking of warmness (which the living room is currently not), the Greens are currently campaigning for a “Warm Healthy Rentals” bill that calls for minimum energy performance standards for houses. I’ve emailed Gareth and asked him what the Greens would support in terms of specifics, but the basic idea is to legislate basic housing requirements for rental properties. This is not to vilify all landlords, but it is meant to address the HUGE number of unacceptably insulated houses. It’s a real problem in the South Island, where temperatures get below zero quite often over winter. If you’re a fan, send the e-card and join the facebook page to show your support and join in the discussion.

*I forgot to blog about Inside Job, which was a pretty funny doco about the 2008 financial crisis that included interviews with some of the key players. Their faces are so funny when they realise the doco maker is not on their side. Its screenings have finished in Christchurch, but it should come out later in the year again (not as part of a festival probably). Interestingly it’s paid for by Sony, and that means the film is slick and looks totally professional. Cheers to the Dim Post for the heads up.

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Filed under economics, Film/Documentary, Government policy

Story of stuff expands

The first time I watched Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” I almost cried with joy. Finally, someone was communicating the most important issues of our time with a clear, simple message which also didn’t bore. The cartoons in The Story of Stuff really do justice to the phrase “a picture paints a thousand words,” without leaving you scratching your head about what the pictures really mean, thanks to Annie’s succinct commentary, complete with excellent analogies that give her arguments a common sense vibe. Best yet, she anticipates a lot of the “but what about x” questions that people are likely to have, and offers practical solutions.

Recently I caught a glimpse of “the story of cosmetics” which was great for people who see cosmetics as a necessity because it didn’t just advocate complete boycotting. The story of cap and trade however is probably the most pertinent to all of us, in the US and NZ, because National has implemented the “free permit” scheme too.  Lastly there’s the story of bottled water, which really does present some alarming figures about how big the problem of bottled water has become, and looks at the wider effects of picking up that pump bottle.

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Filed under Climate Change, economics, Film/Documentary, media, Products

Quote of the day

I’m doing POLS essay research at the moment, and found this gem of a paragraph in Leiss, Kline, Jhally & Botterill (2005, p. 38):

Hierarchy, inequality, and power have shaped all societies, but were distinctly patterned in modern society. One of the most astute critics of the new relationships of industrial production was Karl Marx, who marveled at the immense power of the new systems of production, seeing in them as offering for the first time in history the means of unshackling society from scarcity and ameliorating the inequalities and hierarchies of the past. Yet he also argued that the promise of industrialization could not be actualized, because the new relations of production divided people, producing not simply more goods, but social classes and systemic inequality and continual economic crisis as well. The new arrangement of production allowed property and labor to be controlled by a privileged few, whose interests in deriving an adequate return for their capital investment held inordinate sway within society.

Clearly there are other complications, although I still want to give the authors a big bear hug for summarising Marx so succinctly, without making a clearly biased statement. It makes far more sense in the context of the chapter (entitled “from traditional to industrial society”), which does a pretty good job of pointing out the positive and negative aspects of both societies. It’s so nice to read commentaries on Marx which actually seem relevant and useful, as opposed to shallow comments about communism like “well why should I work my arse off when someone else is working for less but getting paid the same.” The hilarious thing is, that comment sounds more like it’s talking about modern capitalism, except the person working less is probably making more money.

PS. I’m not saying rich people are lazy, just observing that the more money a person/family makes, the less they then need to work, because they can let their excess wealth generate more wealth. Obviously not true for everyone, but it certainly gives already well off people a HUGE head start.

quote from “Social communication in advertising: consumption in the mediated marketplace.” 3rd Edition.

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Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – Part 3

Following on from part 1 and part 2 in a series of summarised points about pesticide use presented in Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. For some practical advice on smart biological controls in your garden to reduce pesticide use, check out Daphne’s Dandelions.

Beyond the dreams of the Borgias

The build up of chemicals due to recurrent exposure can have disastrous cumulative effects on individuals’ health. While many pesticides are labelled as safe, they often cannot account for the effects of multiple uses, or the effect of the interaction with other chemicals, or indeed the concentrations that can be achieved when combined with the use of neighbours and the wider community. Many of the tests are conducted in highly artificial lab conditions on rats whose diets are carefully controlled – very unlike the human diet.

Some farmers have been known to use pesticides that exceed the amount legally allowable on many foods, and there is often little protection afforded to the consumer in this regard.

Government departments that test foods are often underfunded and understaffed so that only a very small percentage of food sold is actually tested [additional comment: this appears to be the case in New Zealand as well]. When it is found to be dangerous, often nothing is done to warn the public or recall the product from the shelves, due to local and national laws that limit the powers of the related agencies. In cases where products have been withdrawn, it is after the fact and the damage has already been done.

A brilliant quote to summarise: “to establish tolerances is to authorize contamination of public food supplies with poisonous chemicals in order that the farmer and processor may enjoy the benefit of cheaper production – then to penalize the consumer by taxing him to maintain a policing agency to make certain that he shall not get a legal dose. But to do the policing job properly would cost money beyond any legislator’s courage to appropriate, given the present volume and toxicity of agricultural chemicals. So in the end the luckless consumer pays his taxes but gets his poisons regardless.” (p. 183, 2002 edition)

The human price

While some chemicals are known to be safe for humans, sometimes this is due to an enzyme in the body which may lessen its harm. However, if this enzyme is disabled due to contact with other chemicals, then the body’s defense is severely compromised. Since, in day to day life, humans come into contact with a wide range of chemicals, the risks of some chemicals that have been established as “safe” may be heightened from prolonged exposure to a range of chemicals (not necessarily other pesticides even, but food additives or natural substances), whose interactions cannot always be predicted.

The ability to directly point to any one chemical as the cause of particular symptoms is compromised by varying responses of individuals to such chemicals.

One in every four

It is becoming clearer that cancer can be caused by various environmental factors. While Carson does not try to prove that DDT based pesticides directly cause cancer in all individuals, she notes that, based on the knowledge of cells and what causes cancerous cells, and the knowledge of the effects of DDT pesticides, their use should be extremely limited given the potential cause-and-effect relationship. Cleverly, she addresses a question many may ask: why not just look to cures for cancer? She cites Dr Hueper, a cancer researcher who has also had much experience with patients. While treatment is obviously necessary, prevention can be far more effective and cause far less damage to individual health in the first place.

Nature fights back

While some chemical attacks can be effective on the target insect, often this paves the way for other pests to invade as the natural checks and balances of the new pest have been upset by chemical spraying. Sometimes the new pests or species resistant to the chemicals that have flourished in the absence of other insects can be dangerous not just to plants, but to humans and livestock.

While biological controls offer effective and low-cost alternatives to chemical spraying, they are incredibly rare. This is often because large chemical companies support research in Universities on pesticides, but not biological controls. This creates a wealth of attractive scholarships and staff positions. Biological control studies on the other hand are often underfunded, thus salaries are often low and positions few. Many of the leading entomologists on the other hand have had their entire research repertoire sponsored by the chemical industry.

While chemical sprays are not altogether ineffective, optimal results are actually achieved when they are applied sparingly and at the appropriate time, as they do not upset the natural predators and other checks on a pest. Chemical companies often have little motive to inform farmers of this fact.

The rumblings of an avalanche

Pest resistance is becoming an increasing problem, because unlike humans, insects can become resistant to a chemical in the period of two months to several years. Carson illustrates the problem with a few alarming statistics: “Before 1945 only a dozen species were known to have developed resistance to any of the pre-DDT insecticides…resistance began a meteoric rise that reached the alarming level of 137 species in 1960.” The problem of resistance was especially acute with vector (disease carriers) control programmes. Additional note: The problem is analagous to bacterial resistance through the excessive and unnecessary use of antibiotics for humans and animals, and anti-bacterial cleaners. In New Zealand, antibiotic resistant bacteria was a virtually nonexistent problem in 1999, but in 2008 an estimated 5000 cases were evident, according to the Institute of Environmental Science & Research. Read the full NZ Herald article for more, or google “superbugs”.

While DDT is still used in controlling disease-carrying pests (vectors), Carson argues that their use often exacerbates the problem by simply giving way to resistant strands, and notes several areas in which this is becoming an issue: mosquitoes carrying malaria, bacteria carrying houseflies, and body lice. Often vector populations actually increased after being treated with DDT pesticides, and one wonders why they are still used to control mosquitoes in the developing world today.

Due to the fast development of resistance to chemical pesticides, their use is not only futile but economically inefficient. Acquiring stockpiles of the latest miracle pesticide carries the very real risk of it being useless in a very short amount of time, yet great investment can be required for those relying on its properties.

The other road

In this chapter Carson describes an array of biological controls that could be used, and have been used with great success under certain conditions, with fewer ecological and sometimes economic, costs. What she stresses is that each is a biological approach that is “based on an understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.”

The controls she mentions include:

The breeding and releasing of sterilized male insects, which was successfully used to control the screw-worm fly.

The introduction of a disease, bacterial or viral, to the target species’ environment, such as the bacillus thuringienis which causes fatal septicemia in the larvae of the flour moth. Damage to crops is far less than chemical sprays as the insects have less time to develop, and the diseases are often species specific so they don’t harm other living creatures, or if they do, it is much smaller in number.

The introduction of predatory or parasitic animals that attack or consume the target pest, as was used to control the gypsy moth, Japanese beetle, scales and mealy bugs. This method is used in many planted European forests, where they go so far as to build homes for woodpeckers.

Using or manufacturing the secretions of insects, such as the manufacture of a fake pheromone (sex hormone) to confuse male insects and prevent them from finding mates. This has been used in some cases such as the gypsy moths. Sometimes attractants are used in combination with poisons, but instead of spraying the whole lot over vast areas of land, the chemicals are administered to pieces of fiberboard, which are then scattered on the affected area. These pieces are unlikely to be eaten by other wildlife, and the residues are quickly dissipated, thus not contaminating soil or water.

The use of sound, such as the playing of female mosquito noises at a charged grid that zaps mosquitoes on contact. Repellant noises are also a potential avenue of research.

A quote which summarises the key messages in Carson’s book well:

“Through all these new, imaginative, and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures there runs a constant theme, the awareness that we are dealing with life – with living populations and all their pressures and counter-pressures, their surges and recessions. Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves. The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations.”

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Are the Greens trusted less than the average journalist?

Is it just me, or is there a general consensus in New Zealand that anything the Greens say, do, or publish is mere hippie propaganda? I pick on journalists in the title because they’re one of the least trusted people in the country. Anyway, I recently commented at the Dim Post on an entry referring to the Green’s study by Sue Kedgley that looked at supermarket mark ups on fresh fruit and vegetables. If you care to read my comment just go Ctrl+F and type in “Zo”. In response someone noted: “I can;t understand why the greens consider supermarkets are inherently evil for charging $X/kg for a product yet the local greengrocer who charges 10 – 50 cents less is virtuous(presumably because it is small and cuddly). What is this, 400% mark up good, 500% bad?”

I responded by saying that the greens never said anything about supermarkets being inherently evil, to which someone else replied that the following line in the study clearly showed the Greens thought supermarkets were inherently evil: “Massive supermarket mark-ups on fruit and vegetables are crippling growers and putting their industry at risk… while growers were often forced to sell their produce for less than it cost to produce.” Is it just me, or is that a relatively reasonable thing to write in a study that was a) focussed on supermarkets and their mark ups, b) understandably focussed on supermarkets because that’s where most people get their produce from, and c) didn’t mention other produce sellers because, well, it was a study on supermarkets, not other sellers?

Usually I would have responded, before I realised how pervasive the anti-Green agenda was (this is not the first time something like this has popped up). Don’t get me wrong, I have biases, like everyone else. The thing that really makes me want to throw my hands up in despair though is the fact that even modest, pretty agreeable things can get the seal of disapproval as long as they are issued forth by the Greens. Hey, I get the psychological need for consistency. I don’t like the National Party, for example, but I’ll accept that not everything they do is horrible, indeed, some of the things they do are fantastic and considerate. And I reaaallly don’t like National.

Maybe it’s not just the Green Party, though. The friends I know who vote National, drive without apology, or shrug at the plight of battery chickens roll their eyes at anything that sounds remotely planet friendly. I’m sure there are even those who consider things like vegetarianism some sort of cultish plague. Clearly, the environmental movement has not been able to shrug off the cloak of hippiedom, and many see environmentalism as a futile effort to keep the world at a primitive state through rigorous conservation at all costs (see this article from Capitalism magazine). Ok, so the writer of that article clearly hasn’t actually read the book, but like the commenters I mentioned, even if he had, I have a feeling he would have just put them in the green bin and ignored the points that effectively rendered his entire argument invalid. It’s analogous to racism, based not on the colour of one’s skin, but one’s ideology. Maybe a more pertinent question is this: why do so many people hate those who prioritise keeping our environment and ecological systems healthy?

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Yet more motivation to shop at farmer’s markets and start growing your own

Finally there is some mainstream acknowledgement of the way fresh fruit and vegetables are priced by the supermarket duopoly – high, and more interestingly, far higher than processed food. Sue Kedgley’s survey only consisted of 75 farmers and the actual markups are hard to extract from the supermarkets (they deem it “commercially sensitive” information), however this only makes the need for an independent investigation more urgent. What’s even more worrying is that a majority of those surveyed are actually selling below the cost of production. The supermarkets have defended themselves by claiming that price differences between their produce and other produce (sold at other greengrocers) is a quality issue, which just goes to show how stupid they think the average person is. While many supermarkets do get higher grades than some greengrocers, the fact that they leave them on the shelf so long, and the fact that it’s so easy for the average person to notice, means that the “quality” you paid for was lost ages ago. However, this is not a call to throw away even more fruit and vegetables that are no longer very fresh. The problem comes down to buying too much at one time.

My partner and I stopped buying fruit and vegetables at the supermarket quite a while ago due to the clear price difference, and started shopping at the greengrocers only 2 minutes walk away. I’ve not only noticed a price difference, but a freshness difference as well. On the rare occasion that I get up in time for the farmer’s market, the freshness and range is astounding, and the fact that there is no middleman between the growers and sellers gives me the warm fuzzies. Prices are similar, but you’re paying for actual quality and contributing to someone else’s livelihood, rather than paying to be screwed over and screwing over a farmer who is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Best solution though? Start planting your own produce! Sure, we’re in winter, but there are plenty of green leafy things that still grow (and I live in Christchurch, so don’t use the Southern excuse). Or if you’re impatient, start planning and ordering seeds so that you’re ready when spring rolls around.

Also, I have an idea (which you’re welcome to rip to shreds, as long as you reason it out). What if, instead of removing GST on all fresh fruit and vegetables, we removed GST from all fresh (ie. unprocessed) NZ grown organic fruit and vegetables (someone should probably fill me in a little more about the complications of the certification schemes right about…now)? It is pretty well established that much of (although admittedly not all) organic farming is better for the soil, waterways, workers, consumers (as we pay less tax to clean up after the problems that conventional agriculture involve), and farmer incomes. For example, a study conducted in Canterbury, NZ found that economically, ecosystem services in organic agriculture are worth more than they are in conventional fields. To quote the study (ES=”ecosystem services”):

If half the arable area under conventional farming shifted to organic practices, the total economic value of ES would be US $192 million and US $166 million annually for organic and conventional arable area, respectively…conventional New Zealand arable farming practices can severely reduce the financial contribution of some of these services in agriculture whereas organic agricultural practices enhance their economic value (in abstract)

If you’re interested in reading the study but you’re not enrolled at a University, email me. If you are enrolled, check out the study (the whole journal issue is really interesting actually):

Harpinder, S. S., Wratten, S. D., Cullen, R. & Case, B. (2008) The future of farming: The value of ecosystem services in conventional and organic arable land. An experimental approach. Ecological Economics, 64(4): 835-848.

The respective profiles of each of the authors:

National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies, PO Box 84, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand (first two authors)

Commerce Division, PO Box 84, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand

Environment, Society and Design Division, PO Box 84, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand

PS. I forgot to mention the proposed Supermarket Code of Conduct which is being proposed in response to the exorbitant pricing. Personally, I don’t think letting supermarkets self regulate is actually benefiting us – it didn’t benefit Britain, for example. Setting more stringent limits on the market you’re allowed to dominate would be a start.

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Filed under Ecology, economics, Food