Tuesday, 23 April 2013


Recently it occurred to me that dumb advertising bugs me.
I bought my first bottle of milk in Fonterra, the dairy farmers' collective, have been plugging recently. It was more expensive than before; I should have expected that.
The advertisement is dumb. Transparent cows, hollow and half filled with milk, tryind desparately to avoid sunlight. For goodness sake, there is so much wrong with this.
Cows are made of meat and bone and sinew and skin. They are not hollow.  Anthropomorphising them dissociates the link between cows and cheap beef mince.
Cows hold about twenty litres of milk in their udders before it becomes very painful. They do not hold the hundred or more  litres and it does not slosh around theiir bodies
Cows seek shade for their own comfort, even though we breed them with black hides and cut down trees to make the grass grow better. They don't seek shade so their milk tastes better to us.
Cows lactate for the benefit of their offspring, not for humans. It is a curiosity of nature that we drink the milk of other species.
Once it gets to our houses, milk spends most of its time in the fridge. Once the door of the fridge is shut it is totally dark on the inside. Whether the milk bottle is opaque or not becomes irrelevant.

Triple layer light-proof milk bottles. Pointless technology introduced solely for the purpose of justifying price increases.

Kelis - Tasty, 2003

Thursday, 18 April 2013

There is a Light that Never Goes Out

Labour and the Greens announced today their plans to reform the electricity sector.

It's not a bad start, and the message that power bills will drop by more than $20 per month is simple and powerful, especially when compared to the likely retorts from National, which will be "bad economics/stalinism".

I read some commentary that this will leave a hole in the government's accounts.  The other side of that coin is that it will leave money in people's pockets; it's kind of like a tax cut.  So National can't really use that line of argument, because they say they like tax cuts, though their actions say the opposite.

In my opinion it is just a start.  Labour and the Greens still appear to believe that electricity is a commodity, whereas it is in my opinion an essential service.  As a commodity the system is run to maximise return on investment, or in simplified terms, profit.

There's a school of thought that says by maximising the profit the system becomes efficient, through competition.  It's a reasonable theory, the practice is somewhat different (the same applies to communism - good as a theory, doesn't work in the real world).

So even with Labour and the Greens plan implemented (and the latest Roy Morgan poll tells us they will get the chance, because National are festering in their own muck), we still have competing electricity generators supplying a single buyer of electricity.

The change of mindset I think is necessary follows on from treating electricity as an essential service is this:
the system should be run to provide electricity at a minimum cost.
The way to achieve this is not by "hoping it will be achieved as a by-product of competition between companies trying to maximise their profit".
It is quite possible to work out, every year, month, week, day, hour and minute, how to run the generation, transmission and distribution system as components of a single system to produce electricity for the lowest possible cost.  It is a complex task and requires clever people, however, the techniques are well known and the data are available.  The obvious question is - "if it's that easy, why hasn't it been done?" and the obvious answer is "electricity is sold on a market, there's no money to be made from changing how we produce and sell it".
Disappointing, really, the money saved could surely be put to better use.

The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead, 1986

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Essential Services

Parliament was a total farce again today.
The Speaker seems to have levelled off at a fairly consistent level of bias toward the government, inability to control the house and general poor process.  He's better than his worst, but still not very good.
The star today was the PM, with personal explanations required before and after question time, and this really surreal bit in the middle where it looks remarkably like he forgot to remember to forget.  All I can be thankful for is that he's amusing, because it seems he's not much of anything else useful, like competent, or attentive, or diligent.

Herco Pilots - Essential Services EP, 1981

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Morning

In Hallswell.

Jospeh Haydn - Symphony No. 6, 1761

Blind Eye

There' some mighty funny stuff going on as part of the Christchurch rebuild.  The whole EQC, insurance company, insurance broker, contractor, subcontractor loop seems to be being exploited; the longer the chain the less accountability there is and the greater scope there is for underhand practices.
Some people are making a fortune on the difference between what is quoted to property owners and what is quoted by the subcontractors who are doing the work, and were all paying for it.
I'd wondered what Winston was on about, however the money trail is becoming easier to follow.

Hunters & Collectors - Ghost Nation, 1989

Of Course

Rather than trying to find out why the GCSB spied on people illegally, the government will change the law so the GCSB's activities are no longer illegal.

Evidently there's something unclear about:

Restrictions imposed on interceptions

14Interceptions not to target domestic communications
  • Neither the Director, nor an employee of the Bureau, nor a person acting on behalf of the Bureau may authorise or take any action for the purpose of intercepting the communications of a person (not being a foreign organisation or a foreign person) who is a New Zealand citizen or a permanent resident.

But is it necessary to allow the GCSB the power to intercept and read our various communications?  Yes, of course it is.  Otherwise, how will Judith Collins know which of our children's cellphones to confiscate?

Jane's Addiction - Ritual De Lo Habitual, 1990

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Bohemian Rhapsody

Mercury was the god of profit and thieves, amongst other things.  It always struck me as odd that a power company would co-opt the name, however it's a fact that one did.  And so we ended up with Mercury Energy.  A division of the soon to be owned by people apart from you and I Mighty River Power.

Their recent advertising has caught my eye.  They've introduced a thing called GEM, an acronym that stands for Good Energy Monitor.  Good, I suppose, because "Energy Monitor" is dull, though that's all it is, and because it results in a much better acronym.

It achieves two things.  It allows you to read your electricity meter without going outside.  It presents the data from the meter in a user-friendly and flexible format.  And neither of those things are particularly new, it's always been possible to do this, but it's required a little bit of effort and enough knowledge to read the meter.

The introduction of what are referred to as "smart-meters" began a few years ago, and it is being rolled out across the country.  Smart meters do have a couple of genuinely new features.
They can be read remotely, so there's no need to have a meter reader come around every month or two.  Apart from the resulting job losses, there are quite a few positive outcomes from this.
They can also be used to change the price of electricity with time, and this is actually what GEM is about.

Electricity demand has a diurnal profile.  That is, the highest demands occur in the morning (before people go to work) and in the early evening (when people return from work).  Market theory says that as demand rises, so should prices and as demand drops (as it does overnight, when everyone goes to bed), so also should price.
And that's what smart meters can do - allow anyone who wishes to do so to follow the market and bow to its whims.  I won't, because I am sufficiently well paid and the savings I can make from keeping an eagle-eye on a website showing my electricity consumption are not worth the effort.  It seems to me that most people won't be bothered either.  Which does four things.  It leads me to wonder about the fate of people who will watch their meters.  It leads me to wonder why Mercury Energy are doing this.  It leads me to wonder what I should do.  And it leads me ask, once again, could we as a society do this better?  So, in order:

There are people out there to whom an extra few dollars on the electricity bill each month makes a world of difference.  The active promotion of smart meters will focus them for a while on meter-watching and minimising their energy bill by going without when prices are highest.  It will be considered by people who have never gone without as enabling and enhancing individual choice.  Like choosing to go without heating in the middle of winter is a choice.  As someone who went without heating for several winters, I know from experience its not a choice, its using an abstraction ("the market") to inflict cruelty.  Smart meters encourage further suffering.

Why are Mercury Energy (and others) doing this?  It's simple.  They are commercial enterprises, if it isn't making money, it isn't happening.  So it's to make money.  The best I can figure is that it is intended to make consumers feel responsible for the cost of electricity, by giving them the feeling that they are in control of the cost.  Of course, individual consumers have very little control over electricity prices.  The reforms overseen by Max Bradford and National in the 1990s took something flawed but functional and amplified the flaws while keeping the appearance of functionality.  My expectation is that rates and thereby prices for electricity will rise, and the suppliers will use tools like GEM to say "we gave you control and it's up to you to use it", to deflect the criticism directed at them as prices rise.
Why do they need to increase prices?  To pay for the quite realistic 73% pay rise for the directors, perhaps. No, even though most of us got a percent or three if we were lucky, and 73% is genuinely ridiculous, that's not it.  Prices need to be increased to increase profits, which are necessary to meet the requirements of the commercialise model for electricity supply.  That's all.

What should I do?  Very little, I suspect.  All I can think of is that there are appliances coming out that can link to the smart meter and operate when rates are low.  This will mean my washing machine and dishwasher will run late at night and the spin cycle will wake me up.  <sarc>Being woken up will of course be a good thing because when the children tidy their rooms and leave a giant mountain of washing, I will need to be woken so that I can empty the washer and put a new load of washing on.  And another after that.  Because what I really want, after a full day of work, is to be up all night doing the washing.  Waking from my few hours sleep to a dishwasher that needs to be emptied so everyone has clean plates, bowls and cutlery for breakfast will be something to look forward to.  And with the hot water cylinder on ripple control and all the hot water used by the washing machine, a cold shower in the morning will be really refreshing.  I can't wait for smart meters and the opportunity to totally change my lifestyle around to suit the all-powerful market forces. </sarc>.  It seems likely that the first generation of smart appliances will have a premium, and I'll have to work out whether the benefits of buying one outweigh the extra cost, or whether it's better to wait until smart-meter compatibility is the default.

And could we do better?  Certainly.  The service that is delivered (and it is a service, I can't fathom why Mercury refer to it as a product) is the same everywhere, 50Hz 230V electricity.  Does having ten retailers marketing their service to me make that service any better?  No.  Does having five generators selling bulk electricity to the retailers make the service I receive noticeably better?  Still no.  Could it be run more efficiently if we applied some brains to its operation, instead of saying "It's in God's hands.  God will look after it, and make it work" (Pick your own god, the current ethereal abstraction is most commonly referred to as the market.  You can read about his recent works in the business section of tomorrow's paper)?  Yes, we could.  We just don't, and so we pay the price.  Literally.  Fortunately for people like me we have the aforementioned market to distribute the costs to those who can least afford it, and to absolve me of responsibility.

Footnote - smart meters, coming soon to a water supply near you.  Why restrict yourself to getting rorted for electricity when you can get rorted for water too?

Queen - A Night at the Opera, 1975