Gang warfare may threaten Magyars18 May 2001
This may seem ancient history to you, and therefore a bit odd in a journal with Modern as the first word in its title. However, the fact is that French and German utilities bought their way into formerly-communist Hungary’s electricity distribution in 1995. Their venture was not made without expecting a problem or two but they probably thought that any difficulties would be easy to overcome. Were those not the days when Germany’s reunification was proceeding in the belief that a hitherto centrally planned society would readily be reformed and reconciled with a free market? Among the problems that persisted for the Hungarians after the west Europeans took over was one that, qualitatively, is a universal of even the most modern power systems. Quantitatively, on the other hand, its occurrence varies greatly between them. The problem is that of theft. Electricity is stolen from its distributors everywhere, albeit in varying proportions. In communist countries, where robbing the state may to many have seemed somehow less immoral than robbing the person, the loss caused by theft was generally high, but I am informed that it did not diminish when west European capital ousted the apparatchiks. On the contrary, it has grown, despite strong countermeasures.
My information suggests that this growth has not been associated particularly with abstractions by the poor and needy, as one might have surmised. Rather has it come from the enterprise of certain of the better off: namely, those who have felt as untouched by guilt when helping themselves to power as they did when, before they became free-market businesspeople, they used to filch it from the centrally planned state.
An element of novelty in the situation – at least to me – is that thieves of perhaps a different sort have been having a go at the Hungarian distributors. Maybe I shall get shoals of letters from readers who are familiar with such crime elsewhere, but the reports from Hungary are the first that I have had of depredations by gangs that saw structural members out of transmission towers and sell them as scrap metal.
I wonder whether the power robbers will unite for battle with the scrap-metal gangsters, once the latter’s efforts make pylon collapses frequent enough to threaten the former’s illicit supplies.
Hang on for dear life
Imagination can be stirred in unexpected ways by relatively trivial remarks or errors in worthy technical papers, official announcements or press notices. Let me tell you about one specimen that I have been hoarding for a while because it triggers a different fantasy every time I read it.
This is a notice that came from UpRight International, an Irish supplier of mobile articulated-boom lifts for operators on outdoor sites. The story was of a wonderful new machine, launched not long previously, and how it was conquering its sector of an international market.
Operators were said to be delighted with its ‘extra-tight’ turning circle in the narrow spaces that cramped their work between switchgear and busbar installations: and with the vehicle’s manoeuvrability on shingle and soft ground: and with the telescoping, elevating, outreaching, articulating, slewing and other boom motions that enabled them to put themselves in scarcely accessible places high in the structural jungle: and with the easily entered and roomy ‘basket’ that carried them on tortuous paths to their lofty work positions.
The machine had been so successful, claimed UpRight, that, within six months of its launch, examples had been shipped to a dozen countries. Among the more exotic applications had been maintenance tasks on a new monastery by Lake Galilee in Israel. But what made me keep the notice was not so much its story of the boom lift’s remarkable performance in more or less extraordinary situations. Rather it was some phrasing in the first sentence. This seized my fancy and still teases it.
For UpRight opened with a delcaration that its new design had, in a ‘fiercely competitive’ sector of the market, ‘given a new leash of life to access’.
Things could be worse
A well-worn political aphorism has it that all power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is a saying that invites both agreement and parody. An example of the latter has reached me from an intermittently supplied citizen of a developing country. He reports the consoling thought offered by a politician to him and his fellow sufferers: stalled power disables but uninstalled power disables absolutely.