Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The science of karma

A fascinating new study from Germany finds that revenge doesn't pay.

In a sane world, this would be no surprise. Energy spent on making someone else's life crap, is energy that's not working for oneself, or one's loved ones. In economic terms, it's simply a waste of resources. From Othello to Captain Ahab to the Count of Monte Cristo, our culture is full of illustrations of how revenge is a dish best not eaten at all.

The fact that this isn't considered blindingly obvious is probably because there are so many batshit-insane people around nowadays. In particular, believers in that beguiling branch of maths known as "game theory" - a category that, nowadays, includes almost everyone concerned with social sciences. Game theory, as popularly interpreted, implies that if someone does something bad to you, you should retaliate proportionately against them.

As far as it goes, the theory is fair enough. But it doesn't go nearly as far as many people think it does. Game theory, like every mathematical theory I've ever heard of, is based on a vast pile of mostly-unspoken assumptions that simply aren't true in the real world. For instance, there's the assumption that all players are following the same rules, which are not liable to change. Then there's the assumption that the number of players is constant - nobody will enter or leave the game mid-way. Or that all players have the same motivation. In most economic and social contexts, these assumptions are patently absurd. But they're so seldom stated that it's easy to forget they're there.

Now, thanks to Prof Dr Armin Falk of Bonn University and his co-authors, we have concrete evidence that "negative reciprocity" is truly counter-productive. In particular, the study finds, vengeful people are much more likely to find themselves unemployed.

What does work, on the other hand, is "positive reciprocity". Turns out that, regardless of the level of motivation, returning good behaviour leads to a much more profitable relationship than punishing bad behaviour.

What I like about this study is that it doesn't care about means or mechanisms. It doesn't try to prove, or even imply, that reward is a better motivator than punishment, or that relationships based on threat of punishment are unhealthy. It doesn't even try to argue with game theory. Maybe these things are true, maybe they aren't; that's not the point here. The point is that there is a measurable difference in outcomes.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The privacy paradox

When I was a kid, I lived in a beautiful big house in a small-ish village in Sussex. Looking out of the windows at the front of the house, there was the front garden and driveway - then the road - and then open fields, with (as I recall) sheep grazing peacefully.

When I was about 12, the greedy farmer sold the land to an even greedier property developer. Over the course of a year or so, the tranquil field was transformed into a housing estate. Google Maps tells me that there are no fewer than three named roads, now, where those sheep should be, with the entrance virtually opposite our former house. I daresay it's a pleasant enough estate, but I never explored it much - I couldn't forgive it for destroying my view.

That's the way most building happens, in England. Some obscenely rich person or company buys a ridiculous amount of land, builds a huge swathe of houses, then sells them off individually, at - if they're even half-way competent - a profit that has to be seen to be believed. In pre-industrial times, it was the aristocracy (for whom, much of the time, "having too much money" was quite literally their biggest problem); in the 19th century, factory owners (who needed somewhere for their workers to live); in the 20th century, professional developers (or the government).

The effects are variable, but on the whole it works well. The population density of England is huge - if it were a US state, it would be second in overcrowding only to New Jersey - but most people live in reasonable housing, with reasonable privacy and good access to amenities. And that, I now realise, is because the houses were built en masse. It's quite possible to put 20 houses on an acre of land, each with its own tiny garden, such that each one is overlooked on only one side (if that) - if you're the only one doing the building.

But that's not the way it happens down here. When pakeha settlers came to New Zealand in earnest, the land was parcelled out in lots, with each landholder in charge of building on their own patch. At the time, that must have felt like a liberating idea. A century or so on, however, the drawbacks are showing.

Most of the early settlers in Auckland - the 'Fencibles of the 1840s - built their houses on quarter-acre "sections". Pretty soon it was clear that this was too generous, and section sizes came down steadily; in central Auckland today, it's very rare to see a section offered that's much more than 400 square metres (one-tenth of an acre). And each time the "standard" section size comes down, people on larger sections have subdivided their land and built new houses, according to their own whims and bank balance, wherever they could fit them in.

It is, in a word, a mess.

Take, for instance, this place in Ellerslie, which we looked over a few weeks ago. Nice garden, decent area - but the whole of Ellerslie has similar privacy issues, and they're getting worse by the week. If these houses had been built all together as a two-storey terrace, or as duplexed pairs, they would have ended up with larger gardens, larger floor space and better privacy. But because they're each built standalone, they all overlook one another.

And the worst of it is that expectations have migrated steadily downwards, so now, even when developers do have a lot of land, they simply don't seem to notice the idea of privacy. Consider this pleasant house in rich Remuera. "Perfectly private" says the estate agent - which is an outright lie, unless you're willing to keep every blind closed 24/7.

Auckland has less than half the population density of London; but it's vastly overcrowded - just because it's ludicrously inefficient.

That's freedom for you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Dawn is completely unlike sunset. Sunset is all about pinks and patterns and particulates in the sky, still aglow and dancing in the heat of day. Sunrise, now... sunrise is a much more demure affair. The air is cool and clear and still; the sky changes gradually, the colours of the whole world grow stronger and clearer, and it becomes very hard to resist pretentious words like "suffuse". I can quite see why the Greeks had a goddess of the Dawn, while Dusk was left to its own devices.

I shouldn't be aware of this yet. It's still too early in the year to be waking up in the dark. But a couple of years ago, our government extended daylight savings for an extra three weeks in the autumn. It was one of those pointless moves that unfailingly shows that a party has been in power too long. (Incidentally it has flummoxed Microsoft, which despite having released at least two patches specifically to accommodate the change, still hasn't managed it - Outlook is currently reminding me of appointments an hour late.)

I'm not sure whether this illustrates MS's incompetence, or the inherent silliness of daylight savings. Both, I think.

Back home, the beginning of September was always my favourite time of year. For a couple of weeks the tail-of-summer weather continues glorious, the oppressive August heat is gone, the leaves just beginning to look interesting. Maybe it's the childhood associations of the new school year, but to me it always felt like a beginning, not an end. When I fell in love, it would usually happen in September.

Here, I've discovered, March occupies the same slot. The leaves are just beginning to turn. And because our weather is milder, late March is as good as early September back home. It's cool enough in the evenings, now, that one doesn't feel silly taking a jacket to go out, but the days are still relaxingly warm.

One of the nice things about our present city pad - one reason why we've stayed there for several years now - is that it's very well designed. Our bedroom faces northeast, which helps us get up in the morning. The living room is on a north-facing corner, which means it gets sun throughout the day. The kitchen is deep inside, away from the aggressive sunlight altogether. Pretty good feng shui.

And now in the mornings, I can lie in bed and watch the sun rise. Well, what I watch is the shadows moving down the wall, as the sun moves up the sky. Even after all this time, I'm still amazed at how quickly this happens - I can actually see the movement while I watch. At 7:30a.m., the navigation lights on the Sky Tower blink out, which I take to mean it's officially daylight. At 7:40, there's no help for it but to get out of bed and start the day.

Another ten days until daylight savings ends. I'm counting them down.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I wish Stephen Fry would mind his own business

Those of you who've been following for a while, who know my interests, and have invested a couple of points in observation skills, may have noticed that I didn't take part in the web-wide brouhaha over Section 92A of our shiny new copyright law. Those who did take part, however, will be celebrating now, as yesterday the government announced it was scrapping the ballyhooed provision.

As an activist, you might think I'd be pleased with the victory. But as a rational observer, I think it's the wrong victory. This was a battle that should never have been fought; indeed, it wasn't really a battle at all, since the government itself was practically sponsoring the opposition to the measure. Now that it's been "won", I don't know what the political fallout will be.

For those who haven't been following: according to its opponents, the provision in question "calls for internet disconnection based on accusations of copyright infringement without a trial and without any evidence held up to court scrutiny". "Three strikes", it was called. "Guilt on accusation", it was called. The campaign against it went viral. It's been all around the 'net, attracting support and celebrity endorsements from random publicity whores such as Stephen Fry.

In fact, the law didn't say any of this. What the law said, for those of us who took the time to read it, was:
  1. An Internet service provider must adopt and reasonably implement a policy that provides for termination, in appropriate circumstances, of the account with that Internet service provider of a repeat infringer.
  2. In subsection (1), repeat infringer means a person who repeatedly infringes the copyright in a work by using 1 or more of the Internet services of the Internet service provider to do a restricted act without the consent of the copyright owner.
Not a word about "three strikes". Not a word about how "guilt" should be determined. If an ISP wanted to set up a full tribunal system and bill accusers for the cost of investigating false complaints, there's nothing to say they can't. They just couldn't be bothered.

And now the government - which had no investment in the law anyway, since it was its predecessor that passed it - has decided to "give in". (Big surprise there, since the prime minister had already gone on record as calling the law "draconian".) A popular move, which has earned it some good publicity.

But what will it cost us?

Now we, the unwashed, copyright-infringing, freetarded masses have won a victory against Big Business. We've thumbed our little Kiwi nose at Hollywood and shown them that we're not just another state to be pushed around at whim. And now the content industry is going to be back with its counter-proposal. Its compromise. To be embedded, perhaps, in the "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement", which is being drawn up in secret (from us, the public), but with full input from the Big Content industry.

What price now, our chance to negotiate proper restrictions for "digital rights management" measures? To say nothing of more far-reaching reforms, such as removing "copying" from the list of restricted acts entirely. We've shot our bolt, we've won our "victory", and never has it felt more hollow.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pride and Prejudice. No, really.

So, I was talking to a friend the other day about republishing classic, i.e. out-of-copyright, literature. And he, with an unerring talent for going off at the most ridiculous tangent, hit upon the idea of summarising it.

And so, for the benefit of time-pressed (or lazy) Eng Lit students everywhere, I present the first in a series of Classics, As Summarised by Microsoft Word.

by Jane Austen


Elizabeth felt Jane's pleasure. "Never, sir."

Mr. Darcy bowed.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet!" repeated Miss Bingley. "CAROLINE BINGLEY"

Elizabeth silently attended her.

"How strange!" cried Elizabeth. Mr. Collins then returned to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was in agonies. Elizabeth replied that it was. Oh, sister! Poor Jane! Elizabeth made no answer. Elizabeth looked surprised. "FITZWILLIAM DARCY"

"Oh, no!" said Elizabeth. Elizabeth was distressed. Elizabeth was delighted. "LYDIA BENNET."

"Oh! Elizabeth read on:

Well! "Mr. Darcy!" repeated Elizabeth, in utter amazement.

Elizabeth smiled.

"If! Darcy mentioned his letter. Mr. Darcy! Dear, dear Lizzy. "Dearest Jane!

Now, I don't know about you, but I think some of the subplots and character nuances are slightly obscured in this 100-word rendition. You need to read between the lines somewhat, to do justice to the high comedy and acute social observation of the original. So here, for the completists among us, is the 500-word version:

By Jane Austen


Elizabeth felt Jane's pleasure. "Never, sir."

Mr. Darcy bowed.

"Mr. Darcy is all politeness," said Elizabeth, smiling.

Elizabeth looked archly, and turned away. Mr. Darcy replied with great intrepidity:

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet!" repeated Miss Bingley. "MY DEAR FRIEND,--


Elizabeth silently attended her.

I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. "All young ladies accomplished! "Removed!" cried Bingley. Do not you, Darcy?"

"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."

shocking!" cried Miss Bingley. "Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!" cried Elizabeth. Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.

Mrs. Bennet's eyes sparkled. "Dear Sir,--


Elizabeth could not but look surprised.

"How strange!" cried Elizabeth. This information made Elizabeth smile, as she thought of poor Miss Bingley. Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. "Insolent girl!" said Elizabeth to herself. Mr. Collins then returned to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth now began to revive.

Elizabeth was in agonies. Elizabeth replied that it was. Charlotte's reply was spared by the entrance of Jane and Elizabeth.

Mr. Collins!"

Elizabeth took an opportunity of thanking her. Neither Jane nor Elizabeth were comfortable on this subject. "My dear Jane!" exclaimed Elizabeth, "you are too good. Oh, sister! Poor Jane! "Elizabeth, you are not serious now."

_that_ abominable Mr. Darcy! Elizabeth shook her head over this letter. Elizabeth's courage did not fail her. Lady Catherine then observed,

Your younger sisters must be very young?"

Elizabeth immediately began playing again. Elizabeth made no answer. Elizabeth looked surprised. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. The pause was to Elizabeth's feelings dreadful. "FITZWILLIAM DARCY"

Lady Catherine seemed resigned. "Poor Wickham! Jane was not happy. Poor little Lizzy! "Oh, no!" said Elizabeth. Elizabeth was distressed. Elizabeth was delighted. "Does that young lady know Mr. Darcy?"

Elizabeth coloured, and said: "A little."

Elizabeth almost stared at her. Elizabeth answered only by a slight bow. Darcy was fixed in astonishment. Darcy made no answer. Elizabeth soon observed, and instantly understood it. "I do indeed," replied Elizabeth, colouring. From Elizabeth's thoughts it was never absent. "Not yet," replied Jane.


"Oh! Elizabeth impatiently caught it from his hand. Elizabeth read on:


"My dear, dear Lydia!" she cried. My dear, dear Lydia! Well! Mrs. Wickham! Elizabeth was disgusted, and even Miss Bennet was shocked. Jane was distressed. Elizabeth could bear it no longer. "Mr. Darcy!" repeated Elizabeth, in utter amazement.

"Exceedingly well. Mr. Bingley arrived. Jane looked at Elizabeth with surprise and concern. Elizabeth dared not lift up her eyes. Elizabeth smiled. Elizabeth was forced to go.

"I suspected as much," replied Elizabeth. Elizabeth replied very concisely that she was.

Elizabeth looked with unaffected astonishment.

"If! No, never. Lady Catherine seemed pleased.

"Oh!" cried Elizabeth, "I am excessively diverted. Darcy mentioned his letter. Mr. Darcy! Dear, dear Lizzy. "Dearest Jane! "DEAR SIR,

Elizabeth will soon be the wife of Mr. Darcy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cobblers to the world

I don't suppose that shoemaking is quite immune to the recession, but it's not at the top of the list of industries clamouring for our money to prop up its business plan. After all, most cobblers went out of business decades ago.

And yet they're still out there. What high street doesn't have a shop advertising, among random other services, "shoe repair"?

Not ours, I'm delighted to say. This shop also offers to repair handbags and other random leatherware, but shoes feature prominently in its advertising, which is good. It's a lot of work to find a really comfortable pair of shoes, I'm glad there are still people out there who can extend their lifespan, and I was delighted, this morning, to have the chance to give them a bit of business.

"They're my wife's", I explained as I dumped the bag on the counter. Just in case they might be under any misapprehensions, you understand. Like any heterosexual male, I personally have never owned more than two pairs of shoes concurrently.

The cobbler was an elderly man - not perhaps old enough to be the Wandering Jew, but certainly old enough to remember a time when "service" wasn't a dirty word. He pulled out the shoes and examined them critically. Susan had helpfully tucked a note into the boot explaining what was wrong with them, but on examination it wasn't hard to see.

"Sandals - $30 to 40. It's fiddly, you see, taking the sole apart, you can never tell what's going to happen. The boot, that's easy - $20."

"Perfect", I replied. "I'm authorised to spend that much."

He grinned and gave me two tickets, stamped "THURSDAY" - which, after some thought and debate with his colleague, he crossed out and replaced with "MONDAY". "They're in good hands, sir," he assured me as I left the shop.

I'm not sure what it was that made me feel so good about this transaction. Perhaps it was the warm glow of repairing two of Susan's most-loved items of footwear. Perhaps it was the old-fashioned service ethic - the man was all but tugging his forelock as I left. Or the surprising sense of smugness from knowing that, once again, we were mending something rather than throwing it away. Whatever it was, it left me positively looking forward to visiting again.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Bad things happen in threes.

I'm not quite sure where I picked up that bit of folk idiocy. I suspect my mother is to blame. But anyway, it's bugging me now.

Two weeks ago, I ran the car into a small rock that someone had thoughtfully dropped in the middle of the road. The impact bent the arm of the suspension, and made the car unnecessarily interesting to steer. It cost $400 to fix.

Last week it was the TV. That only cost $100, plus a week of Making Our Own Entertainment.

All this is bad enough, but what's worse now is waiting for the third shoe to drop, if you see what I mean.

Has it already happened? Is it the nice house we saw last weekend, that - by the time we got around to making an offer for it - had already been sold, for less than we were willing to offer? (I blame that one mostly on the bank, but partly on my own incompetence.)

Is it something health-related? Susan is currently struggling with a cold, and I've been fighting an ongoing battle with my innards for longer than I care to tell you.

Or is there something worse, something more dramatic and acute, lurking around the corner to complete the set?

I don't know. If no-one had ever told me that bad things happen in threes, I wouldn't be worrying about it. But on the other hand, I wouldn't have understood all those cultural allusions and references either.

So I can't really blame my mother. Blame myself, rather, for not believing me when I tell myself superstition is bollocks. I'm such an idiot.

Friday, March 13, 2009


It's a long time since I Googled myself. But today, galvanised by the discovery of the waterfowl-abusing Jeremy Stamper's site, PersonRatings.com, I thought I'd see what the Internet reputation of my real name currently looks like.

Turns out there are dozens of me out there. There's entries on Facebook, LinkedIn, Classmates and other social networking sites with my name, each describing a completely different person. Hundreds of pages, none of them relating to me.

With one exception. The number one result in Google is a home page I created for myself back in 2000, before most of those sites existed. I haven't updated it since 2001. And it's still the most-linked <My Real Name> page on the 'web.

Now that's what I call a reputation system.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How drunk would you have to be...?

Introducing perhaps the dumbest business idea since sliced ketchup: PersonRatings.com.

It's a website where you can rate anyone. Well, any American, anyway. You get to award marks out of five in each of ten categories: smart, sexy, confident, successful, friendly, funny, kind, classy, energetic, trustworthy. The score you see displayed for a person is based on the average rating they've received.

I don't know where to begin - but it doesn't matter, because none of my readers are demented enough to imagine for a microsecond that this sounds like a neat idea. Even the site's founder doesn't want to put his hand up to it: the only contact address given is for a "jerry.smith". Searching for "jerry smith" on PersonRatings turns up - nothing.

So whose brainchild is it? Turns out to belong to one Jeremy Stamper, of Seattle, WA. Mr Stamper, you may be reassured to learn, clocks a solid two out of five stars in each of the ten categories - meaning that, in the aggregate opinion of random people on the 'net, he's "not very" smart, successful, sexy etc.

Possibly Mr Stamper is hoping to capitalise on the Facebook Effect - that once you've got a profile, it's practically impossible to remove it, so you have no choice but to keep maintaining it for as long as the site owner chooses to hold you to ransom. Or possibly it's all some elaborate April Fool's joke that's broken early.

A Google search reveals that Mr Stamper made his first career, and name, in real estate. And now he's gone into publishing. Which, I guess, should be enough to tell us all exactly what I should think of him...

Just a couple of gems from the FAQ:
Why is Anonymous Free Speech important?
We should all be very protective of our right to express our opinions without being required to register with the government or any other entity. After all, why should governments, employers, or anyone else be tracking our personal opinions and beliefs. The American tradition of anonymous free speech is older than the United States itself. In fact, the anonymous publication of the Federalist Papers was vital to the birth of the United States. [And so on, but you get the gist.]
I swear, I'm not making this up. It gets funnier:
I see a post that isn't true. Will you remove it?
It is impossible for us to determine the legitimacy or veracity of posts. Even courts of law are seldom capable of this. With the amount of content that is posted, it is impractical for any service provider to scrutinize user generated content. We appreciate your help in trying to keep the site content legal and on topic. However, Personratings is not the author of posted content and is not obligated to remove content posted by users except in very rare circumstances. We believe that the best response to offensive free speech is not censorship, but instead more free speech. Readers will use their own criteria to evaluate the credibility of posts.

So feel free to visit Mr Stamper's profile and write - anonymously, of course - whatever takes your fancy. With a bit of determination, in six months' time, his name could be synonymous with "noted duck-rapist".

Addendum: Jeremy Stamper has added himself as a follower of this blog. Nice to see you, Jeremy - hope you enjoy it. But it does mean paragraph 3 of the above entry is probably no longer true. All the same, I'm leaving it now for the sake of Historical Integrity, or something.

Life after TV

It's odd, being without TV. There's a dusty stand for it in the corner of the living room, surrounded by discs and remotes and the Wii and all the other paraphernalia that now seems inert, frozen, waiting for the set to be returned or replaced.

I don't miss the programs. Except in the literal sense, obviously. And I'm not planning to catch up on any of them when we get a set again. The highlight of my televisual week is Pokémon on Sunday morning. I have Buffy and Firefly on DVD; both ended in 2003, and there hasn't really been anything very exciting since...

Really?, my inner commentator challenges me at this point. Because I do seem to watch quite a lot.

It's true. Dr Who, House, various Gordon Ramsay tat, Futurama, random sitcoms, The Daily Show, news... In terms of hours per week, I'm probably up around the national average at least. Although in truth, "watch" is an exaggeration for what I do most of the time. I'll read a book or play a computer game while they're on, looking up from time to time when it sounds like something might happen.

Moving wallpaper, that's all it is.

It's a far cry from my childhood, when watching TV was a family ritual pursued in almost reverential silence. I became very attached to it - still am, in many ways - and apt to get quite upset at the mere thought that I might miss something good.

Back then, TV was a communal experience. With only three or four channels to choose from, I'd watch in the reasonable expectation that my friends would be watching the same programs. Not because they were fans, or the programs were particularly compelling, but simply because that was our common culture. Missing a popular program, in those days, was like being excommunicated for a day: I simply wouldn't be able to talk to people on an equal footing.

In the multi-channel choice of today, that's no longer true. Now, people watch the programs that get talked about - Lost, Heroes, the eternally-downward-spiralling American Idol and its relatives - rather than vice-versa.

Ten years ago I'd probably have watched this garbage too. But now I have a choice. I can, and do, watch DVDs, or music videos, or Al-Jazeera, instead.

Occasionally, there can still be "compelling" television. David Attenborough is past his prime, but still broadcasts an infectious passion for his subject. And there are genuinely exciting intellectuals, like Simon Schama and Adam Curtis, who can catch and hold my attention while they gently rearrange my worldview. But it's no coincidence that all three of these people are British, sponsored by the government-financed BBC; no sane commercial broadcaster would touch them. They're rebroadcast, if at all, in graveyard slots (Schama's last series, here, was on Sunday mornings at 10:30), and I'd be amazed to find anyone else who'd seen any given program.

Maybe TV is a classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons - the more a resource is used, the less valuable it becomes. Or maybe it's simply an obsolescent technology. And I'm not sure whether broadcasters have been reduced to irrelevance by the market, or whether they've done it to themselves on purpose. After all - as our banks have recently demonstrated so dramatically - it's easier to make money when nobody is watching you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The vision thing

"The TV keeps turning itself off," complains Susan.

Well, it often does that just after you turn it on. Particularly if you get impatient and try to press the button a second time before it's completely on. But of course, women don't understand technology.

"Be patient", I advise her. She scowls at me impatiently and jabs the button again.

The little LED on the front of the set is blinking, that means it's turning on. The screen lights up. The screen goes black. The silly girl must have pressed the button again. Exuding manly competence, I grab the control and press the button firmly. We wait.

In due time the screen lights up once more. It's showing a pretty but vague rainbow-like pattern, and no sound. Probably a close-up. Then it goes black.

"But I didn't press it!", I whimper. Evidently my technological grasp has slipped again. Susan looks at me pityingly.

Closer investigation shows that pressing the controls on the set itself gives the same result. And there's a suspiciously powerful aroma of ozone, with overtones of molten plastic, from the back of the set.

So now we have a whole new battery of problems. Try to get the TV repaired, or get rid of it? Get a new one, or live without for a while? Decisions, decisions.

Naturally, I know the only sensible thing to do is to get a new TV. But my lib'rul conscience won't let me rest at that point. I have to look into getting the old TV fixed, or failing that, disposing of it properly. In our world of political correctness gone mad, hurling it from the balcony is frowned upon. Especially by the people directly below.

I gather facts, canvas opinions...

"It'll cost $32 to have it recycled, if you deliver it to us - if we have to pick it up, it's $45" - that's the electronics waste disposal experts on the North Shore. They sound nice, and surely $45 is a small price for the smug glow of ecological responsibility.

"$55 to diagnose the fault in three business days. But we'll deduct it from the cost of fixing it. If we can find the parts." - that's the TV repair shop's quote. Before I can ask if it covers disposal costs, I'm interrupted by an estate agent on the other phone.

"Sell it on TradeMe. I got $3 for my broken vacuum cleaner last week." - that's Sarah's suggestion, and it's not a bad one. Get someone to pay to take it away? Ingenious.

Then I start looking into new TVs, and that's when the panic really hits me.

"You need an HDCP connector," says my boss, John the gadget freak. But none of the offerings on Dick Smith's website mention "HDCP" at all. They're all about "HDMI" instead.

Surely the Internet can help me. Someone must know the relationship, if any, between HDCP and HDMI? Sure enough, Wikipedia to the rescue:
"beginning with HDMI CTS 1.3a, any system which implements HDCP must do so in a fully-compliant manner"

Hmm. A little more opaque than I was hoping for, to be honest, but I think it means that a TV with an HDMI connector specified to version 1.3a or later will be able to accept HDCP input.

Back to Dick Smith. What versions of HDMI are implemented on these TVs? Not specified. Not specified. 1.2, that's no good. 1. Just '1'? - good grief, how prehistoric is that, might as well be throwing paint at the wall... Ah, this one's 1.3 - hmm, does that imply "1.3a", or is "a" a step beyond the basic "1.3"? Where did this bloody alphabet soup come from anyway? - whatever happened to the days when you just plugged an aerial lead into the back of your TV?

By now the set has been sitting in the back of my car for almost two days. I'm taking it to the repair shop this afternoon.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The blind Watchmen-maker

(Spoiler-free review.)

Alan Moore famously considers his creations - all of them - unfilmable. Having watched the latest, much-touted effort, I think I see what he means.

It's easy to see why Hollywood loves to adapt comic books. After all, the original artist has already done not only the scriptwriting but also the visualisation, much of the hard work of costume and lighting design, and quite a lot of the photographic direction. You might think this would make the two media a good match.

But somehow it never quite comes together. Comic-book movie adaptations have run the gamut from acknowledged disasters (The Hulk, Catwoman, Daredevil, Batman & Robin) to merely lacklustre movies. I really wanted to like such massively hyped efforts as The Dark Knight, Spiderman, V for Vendetta - but I really didn't. And after watching Watchmen, I think I know why.

The story of Watchmen - the book - unfolds like a magnificent origami decoration. It's told in an intricate non-linear structure to which the medium is beautifully adapted - cutting and chopping between storylines is not merely smooth, it's practically inevitable. At the end of each chapter there are several pages of dense text to read, creating background and atmosphere for the main story. There's a whole story within a story - one (very) minor character spends his time reading comic books at a newsstand, and we also get to enjoy the adventure story he's reading as a bonus. And Moore skilfully weaves all these strands - even the comic-book story, which is a rattling good yarn with pirates and sharks, death and undeath and insanity - into the baroque tapestry that is the Watchmen Experience.

The movie takes some of these same threads, and tries to string them together into an epic of naïve idealism versus entrenched, institutional corruption. Somehow, the multi-dimensional tale of the book has been reduced to a cliché. The budget may be bigger than Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but the story really isn't, not any more.

In the reducing process, it's succeeded in making the story dull. There's simply not enough left to fill 163 minutes. Jimmy Stewart took just over two hours, and frankly even he drags sometimes.

Here, the action scenes and the sex scenes take on far inflated importance. Take, for instance, the episode where two of our heroes (in plain clothes) get ambushed by muggers. In the book, the fight scene fills a total of five frames, interspersed with wordy frames of Dr Manhattan's fateful TV appearance. In the movie, we're treated to what feels like a full minute of choreographed, gratuitously brutal violence. Evidently the producers felt the story was dragging at this point.

And they were right. Their error was in thinking that the fight would improve matters.

In a vain attempt to soften Alan Moore's righteous wrath, the producers have tried to follow the source material slavishly (with a few notable exceptions). The thing is: what works on the page, doesn't work on film.

Back to the abovementioned fight scene, for instance. On paper, the fraction of a second it takes to glance at the fight before getting back to the interview contrasts with the time it takes to read the speech frames. The effect is that you're reading the speech while looking at the fight. But rather than running the speech over the silent film of the fight, here the director - with a devastating failure of imagination - literally cuts between scenes.

Laborious. Tedious. Dull.

Many of the more memorable lines are lifted directly from the book. That's fine, except that half the time the actors don't seem to understand their own lines. In a comic book, the words and the artwork are used to create the character. Onscreen it's the actor who creates the character, and sometimes the words no longer fit.

I call this "Christina Ricci syndrome", after her memorably detached performance in Sleepy Hollow. The characters of Dan Dreiberg and Adrian Veidt, in particular, suffer from it: two major figures who simply don't seem to be in the same movie as everyone else.

(And what is it with Dreiberg's glasses? An eight-digit f/x budget, and they still can't make it look like the lenses actually refract light?)

Where the script does depart from the book, it makes matters worse. Now that the Cold War is a fading memory, the film feels it has to go to great lengths to Recreate the Era of Nuclear Paranoia. In doing so, it is both gratuitous - every channel and every paper is filled with end-is-nigh doom-mongering - and intellectually dishonest (fielding Richard Nixon, as a president who has somehow weathered not merely Watergate but also the 22nd amendment - as all-round scapegoat and shorthand for unchecked corruption). Thus this part of the story is reduced from an imaginative fable to a political cheap shot - and a very dated one at that.

Another failure: in the book, Laurie (Silk Spectre II) smokes. (That's why she accidentally fires off Arcimedes' flamethrower - she mistakes it for a cigarette lighter.) In the movie, she doesn't smoke, and just presses the button for the hell of it. It wouldn't be a big deal, except that the movie makes it so by sticking so closely to the appearance, costume and words of the characters in every other respect. Now, of course, it's practically illegal for a sympathetic character in a movie to smoke; but this was the 80s, and that's the era the film is supposed to be capturing.

I wish Zack Snyder, who pleased a lot of people with 300, had shown just a little more courage and cut out some of the back story. Who cares about the involved history of the Minutemen, the Comedian, Silk Spectre, and all the heroes who died long before the story begins? Let it go. If you can cut out the undead pirates, you can cut that too. In the book it adds depth and weight. Onscreen it's just confusing and distracting.

Lots of people, mostly I'm guessing those who don't even remember the 1980s, seem to like this movie. That probably means Snyder will get to make more. God help us.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Soothing the savage brats

Barry Manilow must have a phenomenal agent.

I'm not old enough to remember when he was a popular singer. The first time I heard his name, it was a punchline. And yet he's still performing, his records are still selling, and he can still make headlines.

His latest incarnation is as a sonic weapon. In Christchurch, a local business organisation has a plan to drive surly teens away from shopping areas by playing Barry Manilow at them. It's not a new idea. The Australians have been experimenting for years with the likes of him and Bing Crosby, and it looks like Manilow's indefatigable agent has persuaded someone that it's been a success.

Various business mouthpieces seem to like the idea. The local plod approves it. Central City Business Association manager Paul Lonsdale is evidently a Manilow fan: "You can create a nice environment by introducing nice music," he rashly told a reporter.

One Christchurch teen threatened retaliation. "We would just bring a stereo and play it louder", she promised - conjuring a Pythonesque image of escalating noise pollution, in which advertisers, buskers, youths, passing vikings and the Salvation Army contend to build a cacophony of Jerichoic proportions.

Of course there are laws against that, but it seems rather unfair that noise pollution ordinances can be deployed to keep J Random Teen's ghettoblaster to a lower limit than Mr Lonsdale's loudspeakers.

There is, I would think, a real likelihood that the cure will be worse than the disease - that a relentless diet of "O Mandy" will drive away more shoppers than loiterers, to say nothing of the impact on Christchurch's already-disturbing suicide rate.

But then, maybe it's just a plot to increase sales of MP3 players, to young and old alike.

Personally, I say: if you want teens to behave, forget Manilow, play them Bach. They'll still be standing about, talking (increasingly loudly) about how lame it is, but even while they're bitching, they'll be lulled into a well-tempered Germanic sense of calm.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A wunch of bankers

(One more rant. I'm sorry. I promise I'll give it a rest - just after I get this off my chest.)

Back home, the Royal Bank of Scotland has announced the biggest corporate loss in British history. That's - my bank, since it swallowed up NatWest early in its greed-fuelled acquisition spree. And last year it lost £24 billion. That's more than General Motors. Its share price has dropped more than 98% in the past two years.

Impressive as these sums are, they're barely the tip of the RBS iceberg. The truly breathtaking number here is the amount of debt that the RBS has asked the British taxpayer to underwrite: £300 billion.

Three hundred billion pounds.

It's an unthinkable amount of money. If we simply printed it out and distributed it equally to every single man, woman and child on earth, they'd each have enough to buy a brand-new DVD player.

Three hundred billion pounds.

To put it in context: it's half the annual government budget of the UK. In other words, enough to give the entire population a six-month tax holiday. It's 20% - one fifth - of the country's entire GDP.

Three hundred billion pounds.

How do you lose that kind of money? How do you get it in the first place? If you're a bank, of course, you don't - you just pretend you've got it, lend it out to other people, and hope nobody asks for actual cash. Then you write the whole thing up in your books as a record profit. Added value? - don't make me laugh. Ponzi schemes look honest by comparison.

Three hundred billion pounds.

That's over US$420 billion - equivalent to more than half of Obama's entire stimulus package, swallowed up by one company. Truly, British banks are world-class. If the British economy were steaming ahead at full throttle, such a blow would probably be enough to put it into recession all by itself. With the economy already in recession...

I shouldn't complain - as an ex-pat, erstwhile depositor with the bank, I'm more beneficiary than payer. I'm just glad I got my money out. No, the losers are people like poor ol' former CEO Sir Fred Goodwin, who finds himself jobless and probably unemployable at the tender age of 50, with nothing but his half-million-a-year pension to fall back on...

Surely - surely - the time has come to abandon the pretence that "banking" is some kind of industry. "Industry" implies a process whereby inputs of land, labour and capital are translated into goods or services of greater value than what goes in. When companies find themselves unable to do that, they go out of business, so that their land, labour and capital become available to someone who has a fucking clue about what they're doing.

None of which, evidently, happens in banking. Taxpayers, it turns out, are underwriting the losses. So where was our share of the profits?

The conventional answer to that was that banking was essential to "fuel" economic growth, which benefits everyone. But what should we conclude, now it turns out that most of that growth for the past ten years has been an illusion - that the banks have "improved" our living standards only by running up our debt? Without asking us?

As far as I'm concerned, there's only one agency that's entitled to spend my money on my behalf without giving me some kind of option to veto each transaction... and that's my government. If banks are going to be doing that, then they need to be openly and accountably run by said government.

I'm not so naïve as to think that will make us any better off. But at least it'll stop Sir Fred and his cronies from being role models. They'll still be robbing us all, and no doubt they'll still get knighted for it, but they'll be seen for the idiotic, wasteful bureaucrats they are.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Auction without tears

I think I've worked out why house auctions are so depressing. Apart from the obvious casino stench of fear and disappointment and greed, obviously.

30 Anita Ave, Mt Roskill, was too big for us. Five bedrooms plus rumpus. What would we want with so much space? But it's in pretty good shape, nice area, has a large living room and beautiful views. If we could get it at a bargain price, it'd be - well, a bargain.

Prowling around the rooms before the sale, I felt a distinct chill in the region of my feet. That is, of course, what you get if you lay carpet directly on a concrete floor with no underlay. But it's also what happens when you're thinking of paying every penny you can scrape up, for a house that's in urgent need of new windows.

Back in the living room, we had ample chance to see just how spacious it was as more people filtered in. The family, their friends and extended family, neighbours panting with anticipation to see how much they could get for their own houses, or perhaps - more charitably - simply wanting to get an early view of their own new neighbours. Estate agents, drawn to the money like flies to a cowpat. And quite possibly a couple of random passers-by, sheltering from the rain.

Among this crowd - easily forty people - the actual bidders were easy to spot. They were the ones who were looking about appraisingly (as I was), sizing up the crowd (as I was), checking the terms of sale for last-minute alterations (three paragraphs about vendor liability had been crossed out). There was a tall, patriarchal Indian man, about my age; an attractive Malaysian couple, with older relatives in tow; a Pacific family (I have yet to learn the ethnic tells that allow one to distinguish between Maori, Fijian, Samoan and other related peoples); and a vaguely Latinate-looking pakeha couple.

And all of these people, myself included, had the same body language: uncommunicative, defensive, as if trying to cut themselves off from all distractions and focus only on not getting screwed.

Proceedings began punctually at noon. The auctioneer rattled through the documents (excusing the crossings-out), reassured us what a wonderful house it was and how happy the current owners had been here, and tried to open the bidding at $400,000.

I wondered if I'd heard correctly. The CV of the house was $495,000, and it was surely going for more than that. What's the point of starting so low? I looked around at the other bidders. They looked at me. They looked at each other. Nothing happened.

The auctioneer was quite unfazed, sticking to her figure. "Come on, you have to agree it's a bargain at that price, don't worry, you'll be in no danger of buying, won't someone offer me - thank you, madam!" The Malaysian woman had cracked, and raised her hand.

Now she wanted increments of $10,000. I looked at the bidders. They looked at each other. The auctioneer was shouting $400 for the second time when the pakeha guy raised his hand.

Good grief, this was painful.

The hell with tactics, I thought, we'll be here all day. I started bidding. $420, 440, 460, 480, 500. There we paused. For a moment I wondered if I'd actually bought it. Oh please god no...

$510. The Malaysian girl wasn't done yet. Now it was out of my hands; I heaved a sigh of relief.

With me out of the bidding, the Indian man took over, offering increments of $5000, then $2500. Progress was still slow, but not as agonising as the beginning. We watched, dispassionately, as the bidding crept up to $550, then one more step... Finally, it seemed, we were done. So that's what this house was worth. The auctioneer kept talking. One of the agents tried to get me back in, but that wasn't going to happen.

"I can't sell it at that price", announced the auctioneer.

I was surprised, and a little disappointed. I'd liked the family, and found it sad to see how greedy they were being - more than 10% above CV, in a declining market? Please. It's not like you've maintained it so immaculately...

The custom is that, at this point, the final bidder gets to haggle with the vendor one on one. I don't know what the procedure is for that, but I had no wish to hang around and find out. We slipped through the crowd, found our bearings in the huge sea of shoes by the entrance, and set out to get on with our weekend. My heart, I found, was lighter for knowing that the place was hopelessly out of reach.

Very different from the last time we tried to buy at auction. We are indeed hardened house-hunters now. Tougher, more efficient, more ruthless. And yet I can't help feeling we've lost something.

Where's the heart? What happened to the love? For all that we've been seeing "better" houses, I can't recall the last time I walked into one and thought "Yes! I want this place!"

I miss it.