Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Another goat is not the answer

Before I drop the subject of Christmas for at least another year, I must mention a television commercial that ran in the weeks before the festive season to solicit donations to a Christian organization.

Viewers were told their contribution, however small, would help people in the "developing world". "The what?" I asked myself incredulously. "Are we still seriously using this term from the 1960s, when many people still believed the poor nations of the world would, with the right kind of education and assistance, be able to catch up with the West, and someday enjoy a similar, affluent lifestyle?"

We now know, of course, that this is simply not possible — that if everyone on planet Earth earth consumed precious resources, and polluted the environment, to the extent that we do, several planets would be needed to support them. And the sad fact is that we only have one.

In a final touch of irony, one of the TV commercials ended with a Christmas box opening to reveal a pretty white goat that was presumably destined for a "developing" community. I say the scene was ironic because, after man, the goat has probably done more than any other creature to degrade the environment (by stripping landscapes of their vegetation, and indirectly causing catastrophic soil erosion).

From a long-term point of view, another goat is thus a recipe for impoverishment.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A flurry of fake snow

I hate Christmas.

There, I've finally said it. Everything about the celebration, in the southern hemisphere, of this pagan, northern-hemisphere festival is both boring and ridiculous.

Few things are more absurd than the fake snow that is plastered everywhere, or the red "Santa hats" that sales assistants feel obliged to wear — despite the decidedly unwintry weather in shopping malls. But worst of all, I think, is the endless repetition of Jingle Bells and other such Christmas ditties, which seem to be designed to drive you insane long before the Jolly Gentleman comes guffawing down your chimney (or even tighter flue) with his bagful of consumer goodies.

This year, I didn't buy any Christmas presents, and was somewhat surprised, on Christmas morning, to be presented with two parcels, one containing two pairs of pants and the other a pair of pajamas.

In contrast to my parsimony, New Zealanders went on a spending spree that prompted the Dominion Post to ask rhetorically: "Recession? What recession?" In fact, Christmas Eve broke all sales records, according to Paymark, the company that processes 75 percent of electronic transactions.

By the end of the day, sales had reached $216 million — up almost 20 percent on the previous year. It was, the company said, the first time $200 million had been spent in a single shopping day.

Yet early next year, there will almost certainly be appeals for contributions to the local foodbank, so that "ordinary families in financial difficulty" can be helped to make ends meet.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Coping with hard times

If you are over 65, as I am, what can you do to cope with the hard times ahead? The answer, as far as I can see, is "Not a lot".

Of course, I will try to keep my casual employment, which brings me between $100 and $500 a week. But many people of my age are irrevocably retired: there is no way in which they can go back to the office/factory on a part-time basis, as I did in 2006.

Such people, who are on low, fixed incomes — or incomes that are precipitously declining, thanks to dramatic cuts in interest rates — are among those who are to be "sacrificed" as the authorities desperately strive to revive the economy (or "reinflate the bubble").

If such elderly people are not "computer literate", they are also unable to take advantage of the significantly higher interest rates that are available to holders of "online call accounts". At the ANZ Bank, where I do most of my banking, the online call account rate is 5.15 percent on a balance of at least $2000, compared with 4.60 percent on a six-month term deposit of at least $10,000.

As I now do most of my banking on the net, I closed two low-interest-rate accounts this week and consolidated the funds from them in a single online call account.

Any extra money, however small the amount, is still worth having.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

HomePages Friends scam

A few months ago, I signed up at HomePages Friends (http://www.myhpf.co.uk/), which says it will pay you for "searching in your normal way".

If you go to its website, you will find the following: "HomePages Friends gives you, free of charge, an Ask internet search box from which we generate advertising income which we split 50:50 with our partners. This service is 100% branded and promoted under our partner's name and the HomePages Friends involvement remains invisible. You use the search box just as normal and get precisely the same results."

After clicking for a while, I checked my earnings – and found that I had made more than £2. Great! Searching on my HomePages Friends "homepage" seemed like an excellent way to make a little extra money. In fact, I was so impressed by the service, I put several of the outfit's banners on two of my websites.

Then, out of the blue, I received the following email yesterday:

Disallowed searches

Dear Customer,

ID. 180282 - Alan Ireland

As part of our ongoing review of search traffic through our service it is apparent that your search activity is in breach of our terms and conditions or those of our partners at Yahoo! Search Marketing.

We are receiving from you a type of traffic of which the quality is less than that which we determine, in our absolute discretion, to be acceptable.

If this situation continues we will be obliged to terminate the service.

Review Department
e. info@myhpf.co.uk

I immediately clicked "Reply", and sent off the following message:

Dear HomePages Friends Review Dept.

I am an editor at a daily newspaper in New Zealand. I have been searching from my office computer to verify information in submitted articles. If these searches are not to your liking, I suggest you go ahead and cancel my account. I will not, in any event, use your service again.

Alan Ireland
ID 180282

Within seconds, my email bounced back. I then tried emailing info@homepages-friends.com (the email address on the website) and info@myhpf.co.uk. In both instances, the result was the same.

I also did a (Google!) search for "HomePages Friends scam", and got some interesting results. If you, too, have been taken in by HomePages Friends, you might like to do the same thing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My bookshop bites the dust

Another business in town* is closing its doors as a result of the economic downturn — my secondhand bookshop.

During the past two weeks, I have made several sweeps of the shelves (and stacks of books on the floor!) and weeded out (a) all those of little or no interest to me, and (b) all those I don't need because I have another, better copy. All these superfluous books have then been stacked by the entrance, loaded into the car and dumped at the Red Cross.

When the process is finished, I will convert my bookshop, which is in my former garage, into a private study.

As I said, my decision to close down is a result of the recession, which has made selling old books even more difficult than it was when times were good. But I was also influenced by the decline in literacy — by the fact that, by and large, people don't read books any more.

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a couple of books to our neighbors, who have three young children. One was Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the other was John Buchan's Prester John — one of the great adventure stories about Africa.

Somewhat to my surprise, the husband, who is from South Africa, had not heard of Prester John. "It's a bit like King Solomon's Mines," I said, referring to that other great African adventure story by Rider Haggard.

Alas, my neighbor hadn't heard of that, either.

* Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A bitter blow for savers

The above cartoon appeared in yesterday's edition of the Manawatu Standard in Palmerston North, New Zealand, after Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard slashed the official cash rate by a record 1.5 percent on Thursday.

The OCR now stands at 5 percent. But it is unlikely to stay at that level, economists say. A further cut to 4 percent is predicted for next month.

These cuts are, of course, intended to lift the economy out of recession, by making money easier to borrow. So here we have yet another example of borrowers — those who are largely responsible for the financial mess we are in today — being rewarded, while savers are penalized. And needless to say, those savers, such as elderly people, who rely on interest to supplement their meager income, are going to suffer considerable hardship.

One also has to wonder whether New Zealanders, who have never been good savers, will bother to save anything if interest rates go much lower. And if savings fall, where is the money for the borrowers going to come from? From Japan and China?

How deep into debt is New Zealand prepared to go?