Monday, August 31, 2009

Party poopers

It's not a good sign when an am-dram actor takes the time, in their programme entry, to tell the audience how little sympathy they have for their character.

Why would he do that? Isn't it an actor's job, to take on a persona that is different from their own? Actors routinely play staring fanatics, raving lunatics, psychopaths, rapists, child molesters and serial killers without feeling the need for any disclaimer. But playing a Labour politician - apparently, that's a step too far.

Perhaps that lack of sympathy explains why the actor kept forgetting his lines. He wasn't the only offender, but he was the worst by some margin. Which is a bad thing to happen, because the humour of farce depends on the audience identifying with the characters. That's hard to do, when the characters obviously don't identify with themselves.

It's a shame, because the company is better than this. Our past experiences with Shoreside Theatre have been pretty good. But their production of The Party Spirit was so lacklustre, we left at half time. I had a headache, and frankly the strain of trying to decide which lines were funny enough to giggle at was too much for me.

It was a good move, I think, to update the play from 1954 British to 2009 New Zealand politics. After all, who remembers the names and atmosphere of those times? The company's mistake was in trying to revive this horribly dated piece in the first place. They probably thought it was topical because it's a farce of political corruption and fiddling - but unfortunately, "topical" isn't enough to make it up to date. That would require the authors to assume that the audience had seen political dramas before.

We don't need every character to speak every thought that passes through their heads, and we don't need to see characters shaking their fists and chewing the scenery to know when they're angry. I can't speak for theatre audiences of 1954, but nowadays we actually like to be left some blanks to fill in for ourselves.

I'm reasonably sure we'll be going to the Pumphouse Theatre again. But not The Party Spirit - it's a piece of its time, best left buried.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Things that are Not OK

Well, John Key has replied to the Great Smacking Referendum. He's been on every TV news programme this week, promising to "review the working of the law" (not the law itself, you'll note) and make sure that parents aren't being prosecuted for minor slaps delivered to their children. We should all be reassured, he reassures us, that the law will not be allowed to run amok.

Clearly, he's hoping to ride the whole thing out until we all get bored. I do hope he doesn't get away with it.

The referendum question, for all its many faults, was very clear on one thing: this action, whatever it is, "should [not] be a criminal offence". It's not just about being prosecuted: it's about being a criminal.

On my first visit here, in 2001, I drove most of the length of the North Island, from Auckland to Wellington. It's a long drive, involving great stretches of open road with few other cars in sight, where the speed limit is 100 km/h (a shade over 60mph). The road is single-carriageway, but it's reasonably straight and well maintained, and I fully expected to see people barrelling along it at 120 km/h or more; but I didn't.

Not once.

Kiwis, I concluded, tend to respect the speed limit even when there's no obvious reason for it.

That's not a universal trait by any means - we've got our share of lunatic petrol-heads here in Auckland, and every other major town as far as I can tell - but it's a lot more common here than it is in some places I've driven.

And so it is with smacking. What the prime minister wants parents to swallow is: "You will be criminals, but we promise not to prosecute you.".

The pro-smackers, however, are having none of this. And they're right.

For a government to criminalise a large segment of its population is bad enough. To declare that it will neither enforce nor repeal a law that it helped to put in place is truly disgusting.

As usual, I voted with the minority in the referendum. But I agree with the majority on this. It's not about keeping parents out of jail, and it's not about protecting kids - no law can do that, what we need is properly resourced education and social services. No, it's about honesty. Writing a law with no intention to enforce it - is dishonest.

And it's not OK.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Smack my botch-up

Good news on the referendum front: apparently, the 'No' campaign - that is to say, the people who organised and pressed for the damn' thing in the first place - were sponsored by "Focus on the Family", the notorious American pressure group founded by certifiable idiot James Dobson. Maybe that explains why the question was so... professional.

That's good news because it means Dobson's money, to the tune of an alleged $1 million, was paid to people in New Zealand, to finance their efforts to gather signatures for the referendum. I'm not clear what they did with it - there was no advertising that I noticed - but whatever, the point remains that it's American money flowing into the country. Which I guess means that "politics" is now an actual export, in the economic sense of the term.

Granted, the referendum itself cost us taxpayers $9 million. But that's money that was spent within the country - mostly for printing forms, advertising, and postage. So that's a total of $10 million injected into the economy, for a cost of only $9 million added to the public debt.


And it's even better news for Americans, because Dobson now has NZ$1 million less to spend on corrupting their politicians. Which can only make for a better country.

The result was much as predicted. 47% of New Zealanders voted "No", 6% voted "Yes", and 46% didn't even bother. That's significant, because the last of these referendum thingies attracted a turnout well above 80%. Also, an impressive 10,000 people took the time to spoil their ballot before sending it back. Since the ballot itself was pretty hard to mistake - two boxes, "Yes" or "No" - it's reasonable to assume that they did this on purpose.

Now: although there's a lot to resent here - $3 of my taxes to pay for this fiasco, the blatant dishonesty of the question and the slick "No" campaign, foreigners actively meddling in my country's politics - I'd have to concede that some good has come from it. Most notably, it's highlighted the earlier dishonesty of John Key's compromise on the smacking bill first time around: "It will be illegal, but you won't be prosecuted for it". Such a cowardly, treacherous "compromise" deserved to be met with opposition. And now it has been.

I only wish one side was willing to stand on some kind of "principle". In this instance, two wrongs might end up making a right, but at what cost? The political system has been debased, and now everyone has seen that the way to get things done is to lie, manipulate, cheat and spend other people's money.

That's not really a lesson I wanted people in this country to learn.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dumb ideas

"This US healthcare business is so boring." Thus Susan to me the other night, as we watched Jon Stewart dutifully mocking the president's wavering on the public option.

She's got a point. It's beyond irritating, how that "debate" is spilling out to the rest of the world.

Fortunately, New Zealand politics is livening up a little - as tends to happen in the first term of a new government, while there are still some fresh ideas. This month sees the frankly embarrassing referendum on the thorny question "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

I don't know if there's any official worldwide record, but I'd like to nominate this as quite possibly the dumbest question ever put to a national vote. And certainly one of the most dishonest. ("Parental correction" isn't illegal, it's discipline that is.)

I voted Yes, because I figure that's the answer more likely to irritate the referendum's initiators. But I have no illusions about the outcome.

The bright side is that the prime minister, John Key, is so mortified by the whole thing that he's felt impelled, in the closing days of voting, to make a real effort to deflect the headlines.

Yesterday, that effort took the form of a 60-page document from the Ministry of Transport listing 62 ideas to make our roads safer. A selection at random: raising the driving age to 16, raising the driving age to 17, lowering blood alcohol levels, making signs clearer, encouraging bikers to wear reflective gear, lowering speed limits, compulsory third-party insurance, ever-increasing anti-speeding/anti-drink-driving/anti-cyclists-and-pedestrians-as-targets publicity campaigns...

Much of this I'm all in favour of. But there are some truly dumb ideas in there, presumably on the basis that "everyone who's talking about this, isn't talking about That Bloody Referendum".

Making "driving while fatigued" an offence, for instance. Just what form would a roadside "fatigue test" take? The report mentions that in New Jersey, if you've been awake for 24 hours and then get in a car and kill someone, you can get 10 years in chokey. But there's a world of difference between "driving while fatigued" and "killing someone by driving while fatigued". The latter is relatively easy to detect - corpses on the road tend to draw at least some attention fairly quickly, even in New Jersey.

Then there's an idea to make child seats and restraints compulsory for all children under 148cm (4'10"), regardless of age. It's bad enough that when you drive your teenager and her short friend together, one of them will have to endure the humiliation of a booster seat. But even some adults are shorter than that. Do we have to strap them in, too? And who's responsible for that - the driver, or the adult? Can we expect to see taxi drivers turning fares down for being too short? Will short people be required to sit at the back of buses? Can we look forward to identification cards being issued to people who look kinda short, to certify that they are in fact at least 149cm tall?

All of these distractions I leafed past, in my hunt for the change that the new government hinted at last year. It's not attracting much attention right now - but it's in there, at number 17: "Change the give way rules for turning traffic". (Page 22 of the ministry's document (PDF), for completists among you.)

Not a minute before time, as the present rules make less sense than a musical about cats.

Oh wait...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The tree of nuts

There's something that bothers me about the sight of an armed man talking about "watering the tree of liberty".

(I would reprint the picture here, but I can't find a copyright-free version, so you'll have follow the link if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

It's not the sight of an armed man apparently so close to the president. I'm sure the Secret Service is on top of that, and anyway, it'd do any president good to feel a little less cocooned from time to time. Nor is it the reference to blood, or the implied threat. Well, not wholly that, anyway. No, what bothers me most is the double standard.

In 2004, Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker was publicly charged with threatening the life of the president from an ocean away, with no more than an ironic joke - in a television review column. After an almighty ruckus, the Guardian was forced to not only issue an apology, but also delete the article from its website. You want to read it today? Tough.

But when a man who's actually got a gun makes a much more specific and personal threat, from within the same town as the president himself, that's free speech?

Yeah, I'm seeing how that works.

People who talk about "liberty" need watching. It's not the same as "freedom". Freedom is harmless - you're born with it, you decide every minute of every day how to exercise it, and most people manage to do so their whole lives without ever seriously endangering another human being. But "liberty" is something positive, it's a thing that has to be seized from the cold, dead hands of "tyrants". The very word is drenched in the blood of martyrs. "Freedom" is an assertion; "liberty", an accusation.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The worst laws money can buy

Sometimes it seems the only advantage of a small democracy is that the corruption is more transparent. This morning's news: New Zealand has joined the shameful list of countries that ban cellphone use while driving, unless you're using a hands-free set.

All commentators agree that the evidence is quite unambiguous: hands-free cellphone use is just as dangerous as handheld. Yet no-one seems to question that part. In particular the ACT party, which makes a lot of noise about opposing government interference in private lives, is saying what a great idea it is.

Because ACT, like most right-wing "liberal" parties, couldn't care less about government interference so long as there's an option to buy your way out of it. Take away the hands-free clause, and they'd be yapping like an abandoned Pomeranian.

Memo to all governments everywhere: Good laws are ones that are just as inconvenient for rich people as they are for poor people. If you can pay to get away with something - that's not a law, it's a corruption.

Cellphone operators are in favour (well, naturally - it expands the cellphone-accessories market). Police are in favour, although their motives are less clear. After all, there's already a perfectly good law against careless driving. Talking heads are spouting incredulity that some people actually have the nerve to text while driving, taking their eyes off the road for up to five seconds at a time! What are they thinking?

Well, I've done that. If I'm sitting in a traffic jam, with no prospect of moving at all for 30 seconds or more, why exactly is it dangerous for me to take my eyes off the road for a few five-second intervals?

But does the law take account of traffic conditions? Does it hell.

It could be worse. In New South Wales, apparently it's now illegal to cross the road while wearing earphones.

Now, I'm walking to work these days. 25 minutes each way. It's some quality iPod time. In the process, I have to cross five roads. Only one of these crossings is at all hazardous; of the other four, one is at a zebra crossing, and three are extremely quiet roads - I can just look both ways, then stroll across with no moving cars in sight at all. But in NSW, I'd have to take the earphones out and interrupt my enjoyment of my podcast.

Five times. Each way.

Way to incentivise me to get back in my car, guys.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Home improvements

Our garage is not the most practical of spaces.

It's narrow - if you drive the car into it, you'd best be going straight. And it's short - if you fit the car inside and shut the door behind, there's no room to walk around the front. The door to the inside of the house is a rickety sliding thing that is, quite literally, hanging off its track by two barely-attached castors. And the door you drive in through is broken - it takes a good deal of dexterity, strength and, not least, raw courage to open and shut it.

The former owners didn't use it as a garage. The male half of the sketch, whom we'll call Malcolm, claimed it was an office - there was a computer and a phone in there - but I've since discovered that the phone point wasn't actually wired up, so I have my doubts that he did a great deal of productive work. More likely it was just a space to hide from the kids and play Age of Empires.

And he stored his kayak in there.

That's not as noteworthy here as it would be back home. Remember, here in NZ every able-bodied male between 15 and 30 is pretty much required by law to take part in some kind of strenuous physical sport on a regular basis. (Well, there is no actual law, but since most other activities are either illegal, financially impracticable or socially ostracised, it's near enough.)

This particular kayak lived a pampered life, roosting contentedly in an elaborate mostly-wooden frame constructed around the ceiling of the garage. The former owner, who described himself as "a carpenter", built this structure himself. I hadn't given it much thought, until the garage door salesman - a gentleman named Trevor - told me that the huge chipboard platform on which the kayak used to rest, would have to go.

Easy enough, I thought, and budgeted Saturday morning for the job.

Saturday afternoon, then, found me in the garage armed only with a stepladder, a stout steel hammer, and some ill-assorted gardening tools, admiring Malcolm's handiwork.

I have had occasion before to worry about Macolm's finesse as a carpenter. It has seemed to me that he subscribes to the school of workmanship that holds that strength derives not from engineering or design, but from the sheer mass of timber. Hammer enough nails into enough wood, holds this school, and you can make pretty much anything stand up. And indeed, in the kayak's nest, Malcolm had outdone himself. The structure I now found myself contemplating involved at least 12 separate pieces of stout timber and a huge platform of chipboard, the whole nailed firmly together and covered with a coat of glossy white paint. According to Trevor's instructions, about half of this structure had to come down.

With ease and grace, I removed the two and a half metres of cushioned steel pipe that the kayak's prow had rested on, standing my trophy to the back of the garage. Then it was time to attack the frame proper.

Initial skirmishes established that it was possible, with patience and strength, to remove a three-inch nail using nothing but the trusty hammer, plus some leverage that was best applied by abusing the hedging shears. I learned from experience that there is an angle, in prying nails, at which when the hammer inevitably slips, the handle will connect sharply with one's nose. With an unaccustomed burst of fellow-feeling for Oliver Hardy, I resolved to eschew this angle in future.

After about 40 minutes, I had removed all the nails holding the chipboard platform in place, and was ready to take it down. But how, precisely, does one safely move 30 kilos of MDF, in the approximate size and shape of a queen-sized bed, from above-head-height to ground level?

My first plan was to pull it out of its far resting place, and let the far end drop as the gentle dew from heaven upon the floor beneath. That plan was thwarted by the garage's sliding door, which perversely persisted in holding up one corner of the damn' thing. By now it's wedged between other pieces of timber, and it won't be budged sideways. Not by me, anyway.

Then I thought of standing below, and dislodging it using the steel pipe. I trusted I would have enough time to leap nimbly out of the way. But once again, the stubbornly supportive sliding door baffled my every attempt to move it. In some frustration I pounded on the bottom of the platform, to be rewarded with small, pipe-shaped indentations appearing. I left the pipe propping up the far side of the platform, reasoning that anything that changed the equilibrium could only be to the good.

I re-mounted the stepladder. The platform and I glared resentfully at one another.

After a few more minutes of this uffish thought business, it seemed to me that there was, indeed, a direction in which it might be possible to move the damn' thing. With huffing and puffing, seeing and sawing, straining and cursing, I manoeuvred it out of its stuck configuration and slid it back, further towards the far end, until suddenly the near end was loose of its support.

At the far end, the makeshift pole swivelled and tilted alarmingly towards the garage's huge window.

At this moment, it dawned on me that this was a two-person job.

Here was I, standing atop a stepladder and reaching over an eight-inch wooden beam to support half my own body weight in solid MDF. Releasing it now would, I suspected, result in complications to the tune of a two-metre radius of shattered plate glass. Going back was impossible; the only way was down. And that involved climbing down, while holding up the platform...

"Darling!", I bleated plaintively for the helpmeet. She, I realised, was in the back garden, well out of earshot.

"Help!" I yelled at the top of my lungs.

I dug my mobile phone out of its holster, and texted her: "Help!" From near at hand, I heard her phone beep.

I dialled the house's landline number. Surely, I thought, she'd hear that thing ringing even from the garden. That hope buoyed me through another three minutes.

Theoretically I could stand here and wait until she came back for the shears or the pruning saw; but she's grown very keen on the garden, and is quite capable of spending the entire afternoon doing nothing but grubbing out suspected weeds. Waiting doesn't appeal.

I could call our friend Matt, there's a good chance he's at home right now, he could be here in ten minutes. But even if he were available, that would entail a certain amount of good-natured ribbing. Besides, he said he was working this afternoon.

No, I'd started this thing on my own, and that was how I would have to finish it.

With the last reserves of my strength, I hefted the platform back up and shoved it back across the top of the amazingly supportive sliding door. The pipe-pole teetered.

Then I clambered down the stepladder, straining to hold up the unsupported corner as I did so. At any moment I expected the platform to twist and lunge for its revenge. To my gratified surprise, I achieved the ground without that happening.

I secured the pole, then gave the gentlest of tugs on the free corner. The platform, gracious in defeat, crashed harmlessly to the floor.

The rest of the structure, by comparison, came quietly. A determined attack with the pruning saw reduced the proud, stout beam to two easily-twisted cantilevers. It was the work of minutes to demolish the rest of Malcolm's handiwork, and consign the wreckage to the garden shed.

And our garage is one step closer to being used for its designed purpose.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Local differences

I saw an intriguing news story this morning, about some study of the quality of husbands in various countries. Well, twelve countries anyway. Norwegian and Swedish men fared best, followed by Britons, Americans and miscellaneous other Europeans. New Zealanders came in eighth (out of 12, remember), beating Japan, Germany, Austria and, most importantly of course, Australia. Australian men, it seems, are like my ex-cat, who would instinctively flee the house when faced with a vacuum cleaner.

(Come to think of it, I don't recall him ever washing up either. But I digress.)

No surprises so far. Scandinavian countries always seem to do best in these kinds of sociological comparisons.

But there's a certain amount of, shall we say, difference in emphasis between how various agencies cover the same story. America's FOX News has a particularly novel spin. Study: American Men Make the Best Husbands, attributing the report to "Dr. Almudena Sevilla-Sanz from Oxford University in London", characterises the findings as "American men were considered the best husbands, along with men from other “egalitarian” countries such as Norway, Sweden, England and Northern Ireland."

Hmmm... I know "accuracy" isn't FOX's greatest strength, but is it asking too much of them to work out that Oxford University, surely one of the world's more famous universities - is in Oxford? Apparently. As for the loose use of "England" to describe Great Britain...

ABC Local (local to where? - Los Angeles and Southern California, apparently the only part of the US that might be interested) at least got that right, only to blow it by referring to "North Ireland".

Seriously, does nobody employ subeditors any more?

Australian coverage, such as it is, leads (naturally enough) with Australia's poor ranking. Reader responses are disappointingly muted: the only really good quote I could find was
"Do the housework and quit your whinging." - Wally R.

Way to hold the position, Wally.

The Swedes, however, do not disappoint. An English-language Swedish news site, confusingly named "The Local", gloats unapologetically, and its reader responses immediately degenerate into exactly the kind of intensely pointless bickering you'd expect.

Here in NZ, only one thing matters: beating Australia. The rest of the world is a distraction. We came higher than the Aussies, which means we win, end of story.

Isn't that nice?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


We finally bought a lawnmower on Saturday.

I can't be having with petrol-powered mowers. For one thing, it means keeping petrol on the premises. And electric mowers, as a rule, mean trailing some huge extension cord around the lawn with you.

A push mower, then? Been there, done that. Never again.

The answer we found was an irritatingly-named battery-powered jobby.

"Almost as light as a feather" says the blurb on that page. At 36kg, that's some feather. I can only assume the idiot who wrote that got some bigger idiot to deliver it to her house. I didn't have that luxury: I had to lift the damn' thing into and out of the car myself.

"Battery fully charged", the salesman assured me. I was actually looking forward to mowing the lawn on Sunday. A fitting culmination to our endless house search, I thought. When Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, I was down in the garage, assembling the new mower and reading the instructions.

In retrospect, maybe reading the instructions was a mistake. They don't mince their words. "Charge the battery for at least 16 hours before first use, or you will definitely cause the mower to explode and level all non-brick structures within a 20 metre radius." I may be paraphrasing slightly, but I definitely got the impression that pitching straight in would void the warranty. Sighing, I put the battery on charge and the lawnmowing on hold for one more day.

Last night, then, I arrived home at 5:30 and broke out the mower, in the failing evening light, for its first run.

Our house borders on a small patch of common ground that's shared between the five houses in our block. Since ours is the only one of the five with a lawn - and therefore the one with a mower - the job of mowing this common patch also defaults to me. I started with that patch first. It's bumpier than it looks, and liberally endowed with weeds, but I think I made a reasonable job of it. Then emptied out the catcher before moving on to our own lawn.

By the time I got to that, it was almost dark. I worked quickly around the edges while I could still see where they were, then - trying to avoid the gathering clouds of insects, and navigating by feel of the bumpy ground - set to work mowing up and down in the traditional stripey pattern I learned from my parents.

I didn't have the heart to look at it this morning. Sufficient unto next Sunday, I figure, is the evil thereof.