Friday, December 30, 2011

Sam Vimes, RIP

I'm a Terry Pratchett fan.

My credentials for that claim are, I think, impressive. I started reading his books before many of his present fans were born. I've introduced dozens of people to the Discworld. Until 2001 I was a leading light of his online fan community, and I have an e-mail address "" to prove it. I once bought the man a drink, and - indirectly at least - he first introduced me to my wife. It's no exaggeration to say, Pratchett changed my life.

So it's not a casual or flippant verdict, when I say that his latest book, Snuff, frankly isn't up to it.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a bad book. (Although I know one reviewer who would.) It was good enough to keep me up late enough to irritate the wife. Say rather that it's - unfinished.

First among its issues is pacing. The first hundred pages are, frankly, tedious. Characters whom we know as terse and economical spend page after page rambling on about nothing. And three-quarters of the way through the book, we're into the nailbiting climax... which drags on for altogether too long before seguing into another chase scene, culminating in... another confrontation, ending with the villain safely captured with 30 pages still to go. No prizes for guessing what happens next.

In between, we skim like a mayfly across the surface of the story, although 'surface' may be too flattering. Because there's also a problem with focus. In the first few pages, it's established that our villains are smugglers who peddle lethal drugs to trolls. A little later the crime seems to have morphed into trading in stolen goblin artifacts. And then there's a whole plotline about slavery. In fact our shadowy baddies are guilty of all these things, although you get the feeling it's sheer lucky coincidence that all these crimes are committed by the same handy villains - but none of them are described in enough detail to make me care as I should like about such atrocities. The evil mastermind never even appears on page, which makes it hard to feel much closure from his implied comeuppance. And at least two promising characters are introduced, then promptly forgotten, only to reappear for some particularly clunky jokes at the end.

The man formerly known as our hero, Sam Vimes, is being sent to the country on holiday.

In this book, the Vimes who has faced down dragons, clowns, assassins and kings is pitted against - a young thug whose very description reads "nondescript". If the calibre of your enemies is a measure of greatness, then Vimes has fallen far. From the indomitable, cynical rage of his earlier books, Vimes is reduced to a sort of selfconscious squirming about his place - both geographical and social.
Vimes lay there miserably, straining his ears for the reassuring noises of a drunk going home, or arguing with the sedan-chair owner about the vomit on the cushions, and the occasional street fight, domestic disturbance or even piercing scream, all punctuated at intervals by the chiming of the city clocks, no two of which, famously, ever agreed; and the more subtle sounds, like the rumble of the honey wagons as Harry King's night-soil collectors went about the business of business.

This sort of detail - which goes on for several hundred more words - would be understandable if it were Vimes's first trip outside the city - but of course it's not, he's been on much longer journeys than this before. It's hard to describe this hideous sentence as anything more charitable than 'filler'.

And that, sadly, is characteristic of the writing in this book. Even when the pace picks up after the first act, the lightness of touch from earlier volumes is gone. In the face of life-threatening urgency, characters noted for terse seriousness find themselves spouting turgid speeches that it is, frankly, hard to imagine anyone staying to hear the end of.

For comparison: here's an exchange between Vimes and Vetinari in Feet of Clay (1996):
Lord Vetinari glanced at a piece of paper. 'Did you really punch the president of the Assassins' Guild?'
'Yes, sir.'
'Didn't have a dagger, sir.'

Now here's the same two characters in Snuff (2011):
Vimes's knuckles reddened. 'They are living creatures who can think and talk and have songs and names, and he treated them like some kind of disposable tools.'
'Indeed, Vimes, but, as I have indicated, goblins have always been considered a kind of vermin. However, Ankh-Morpork, the kingdom of the Low King and also that of the Diamond King, Uberwald, Lancre and all the independent cities of the plain are passing a law to the effect that this drivel goes on for another full page.'

But by far the worst is what's happened to the character of Sam Vimes himself. He's always been a character 'on the edge', wrestling with his inner demons to act as a good man should. But now, this ultimate defender of the downtrodden against the wielders of privilege - repeatedly trades on his own privileged position. At one point the local plod turns up to arrest him, and rather than presenting his exonerating evidence, he simply intimidates the young man with his physical power and personal prestige. Within a few pages, the constable is practically tugging his forelock to his better.

Vimes has become the thing he hates: an aristocrat. He quite literally makes up the law as he goes along. And that's supposed to be all right because he's a good man.

The Pratchett of even ten years ago would have been the first to point out the problem with this. But now he seems to have given up the philosophy, along with the humour. What's left is a workmanlike story with some nice images; but if this were the first Pratchett book I read, it would also have been the last, and my life would have been quite different.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fixing Office

One dialogue box at a time.

You're welcome.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good and bad

This story makes me proud to be a Kiwi. Police are not bailiffs. We'd all be better off if their counterparts in the UK and USA remembered that distinction more often: their job is to keep the peace, not to "enforce" anyone's rights.

This story, I am much less proud of. John Key seems determined to victimise a more-or-less blameless cameraman just because he's been embarrassed.

Nobody looks particularly shiny in this episode. Banks is guilty of campaigning under false colours - he's a National man through and through, the only reason he's standing for a different party is to abuse a quirk of the electoral system that's supposed to improve representation for minorities (of which he decidedly isn't one). The opposition parties are guilty of hypocrisy in exploiting a stroke of luck - it's what I'd expect from Labour, but I'm disappointed in the normally idealistic Greens. And even the poor old cameraman is guilty of, at best, carelessness.

But John Key, now - his hypocrisy is multi-layered, cream-filled and chocolate-coated. He has been instrumental in making the ACT party the joke it is today - and now he publicly dispenses favours, like a medieval monarch, to reinforce its dependency on him personally. He publicised the meeting and made sure there would be plenty of coverage for it.

But the richest irony is in one of his last acts in the outgoing parliament, which was to push through - under "urgency", which is New Zealand-speak for "no discussion" - measures to make it legal for police to make (and use) covert recordings of political dissidents.

What's sauce for the goose, John...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Long live the Acclamation"

(This post started out as a comment on Niq's blog post regarding changing the rules of succession to the throne of the UK. Niq sees it as a modernist plot aimed at undermining the monarchy itself. I disagree.)

I'm wary of commenting on royalty. The medieval doctrine of the King's Two Persons has been updated, in our time, as a dichotomy between the royals' role as National Figureheads and their role as Mildly Irritating Celebrities. No matter how elevated you try to be, it's hard to prevent the discourse from degenerating into How Wonderful Her Majesty Is and whether Charles Should Stand Aside And Let Wills Take Over After She's Gone, which is a subject that interests me marginally less than the salt content of frozen peas.

But behind the soap opera there is a dark magic at work here, one that medieval philosophers understood far better than modern journalists, for all that they never knew whom their king was boffing on the side.

Niq believes that the "defining characteristic" of a monarch was to be a military leader. I think that role was only ever peripheral. It fell into disuse when the army became professional, for two reasons. First, the more reflective type of soldier began to think that it might be better (from the participant's point of view) for battles to be directed by people who had studied the subject full-time, rather than by some playboy in a funny hat.

The second, and more important, reason was that with a professional army, you no longer needed the king to raise his standard in order to signal to the peasants that it was time to down tools and come to fight. And that is our clue to what kings are really for.

A monarch's most basic job is to be recognised. No matter what our disagreements, on topics ranging from eugenics to spinach recipes, we all owe allegiance to the same monarch (which is how we know we're British). And once she announces what our national policy is - re, for example, Libya - that's what the country will do (us included), whether we personally agree with it or not.

(Of course a constitutional monarch doesn't make announcements like that in person, but through her officers in government and/or parliament. But that's a minor distinction.)

So: does changing the law of succession weaken the monarchy as an institution?

On the face of it - no. That's why there had to be a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government, and they agreed to the change unanimously. If just one country had opposed it - or even abstained - then there'd be the real prospect of a split monarchy, and that really would mean the end of monarchy as a useful institution. But they all approved it, so that particular crisis was averted.

If there is a danger here, it's the "can-o'-worms" type: the danger that by drawing attention to the subject, you will encourage people who want to make other, further-reaching changes.

But in truth, they didn't need encouragement.

Speaking from one of the loyaller Colonies, I can assure you that the "Monarchy vs Republic" debate is never far below the surface, particularly during a news drought. Any columnist in New Zealand, faced with a looming deadline and no imagination - which is to say, most of the time - won't hesitate to reach into their bag of pre-mulled opinions and reheat some tired old diatribe about either Shaking Off The Legacy Of Imperialism or Maintaining The Roots Of The Nation.

If anything, I think that changing the rules as a concession to modern ideas of "fairness" will make the monarchy more robust. It reinforces the idea of a living institution, whose rules can change. And it reminds us all that, when all is said and done, the queen is queen not because of who her parents were, but because we say she is.

"Divine right" died with Charles I, and good riddance to it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The soothing properties of suicide by drowning

It's taken a while to hone our routine for getting young Atilla to sleep at night, and the result is quite a drawn-out process. The final step is mine. I carry him around the darkened bedroom, crooning softly while he makes a spirited attempt to play football with my kidneys. Motivated by physical fear, I restrain him as tightly as possible until he loses heart and - usually quite suddenly - relaxes.

Then I continue to walk him up and down while I sing to him.

The show opens with Waltzing Matilda. On a good day that's enough, and I can put him down by the end of the song; but that's rare. Usually, we have to move on at least as far as Tit Willow. Then, if necessary, I work my way through The Lost Chord, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Once in Royal David's City.

I'm not sure quite where this selection of songs came from. Tit Willow came into my mind when he was a newborn, for the lyrics seemed to cover the sheer inexplicability of his crying.
Is it weakness of intellect, birdie? I cried,
Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?
But for the rest, I really don't know. And why the Christmas carols should have lodged in my head, almost three decades since I last sang them at school, is a mystery. But there they are, and now they're being passed on to Tilly.

It's struck me that all these songs were written within the roughly-60 year span that we know as the Victorian era. Victorian music is reassuringly middle-class: it requires no great musical talent to sing in recognisable form, but it does have a distinct tune and words. Earlier music (at least, those works that have been preserved and handed down to us) was written to be performed by professionals for the entertainment of the elite, while later music (at least since the widespread availability of the gramophone) has been written to be performed by professionals for the entertainment of the masses.

But the Victorian period was a golden age of musical democracy, when every middle-class drawing room had its own piano, and to be "successful" as a composer meant writing songs that could be performed, adequately, by people with no talent or training. People like me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An epitaph

Truly, Steve Jobs was the perfect media figure for our times.

Telegenic and persuasive in person, with no qualms about spending money and encouraging others to do likewise. And in death, he's attracted ridiculous eulogies from the usual suspects (Stephen Fry, I'm looking at you) and equally ridiculous vitriol from others. So far his death has, if anything, slightly improved his already uncanny ability to sell pageviews.

I have little time for either the Frys or the Stallmans of this world. But I do have considerable respect for the Jobses.

Thanks to my technophile family, I came early to personal computers. The first machine I played with, in 1979, was a clunky toy that took five minutes to boot, and longer to load any program. It seemed improbable to me, back then, that desktop computers would ever be much more than toys. Certainly I never entertained the idea that they would one day make the television obsolete.

In the 1980s I studied engineering, I met people who could, more or less literally, make computers sing. But most of them, like me, suffered from a chronic inability to finish what they started: once you've solved the "interesting" part of the problem, they'd sneer, the rest is "merely packaging".

And that's where Jobs excelled. He recognised that there's nothing "mere" about packaging; on the contrary, it's the hardest and most important single step in product creation. You can spend decades developing and refining your product, but as long as you treat usability as "mere", you're still going to be stuck with the rump of users who are motivated to learn how your product works.

But Apple products, now... people actually want to learn them.

It seems to me that, when all is said and done, what Jobs did was to focus attention on the user: on what we want to do with computers, and helping us to do that. Jobs showed that you could design technology that people would use and enjoy using - and you could make money doing it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Quantitative unease

Memo to the Bank of England:

If you must print more money, for the love of all that's good and holy, don't give it to the banks.

You got £75 billion and want to stimulate the UK economy? Fine, give every Briton £20 a week for a year. The poorest will spend it (thus stimulating the economy), the richer will save it (thus improving bank liquidity). Everyone wins. Even the people you're robbing (savers) get some compensation.

And maybe the unwashed masses won't be quite so quick to blame you and your cronies for robbing them of their chance to have a stake in society, if you cut them in on the loot.

By giving the money to bankers, you miss all of these opportunities. All you're doing is bribing your own key constituents. That's very nice for you, but at this stage it might not be greatly overstating the case to call it "fuelling the boilers of the revolution".

Monday, October 3, 2011

Poe's paradox

So, I was doing a spot of research on the deployment of smart meters in Texas when I came across this site.

I'm not sure if these people are for real. Maybe the whole site is an elaborate troll or a student prank. But I'm very much afraid these people - who, I have to assume, probably vote - really believe that, and I quote, "electrical induction [is] illegal everywhere in the so-called civilized world".

Now, I have to admit, I was slightly surprised to learn there are smart meters in the world that use wireless communication. I can't see any reason for that. It's not as if the meter had to be mobile, nor detachable from the mains, and there is (by definition) already a wired connection between the electricity supplier and the consumer site. European meters, as far as I can tell, use wired connections.

But even allowing for the silliness of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the sheer level of paranoid hysteria on show here takes my breath away.

Unless that's my wifi network.

There's a rule on the internet, that it's impossible to create a parody so blatant that it won't be mistaken for the real thing. As originally formulated it applies specifically to religious fundamentalism, but quite obviously the same is true in the spheres of politics, economics, technology and health. Now I think that rule needs a corollary: there is no theory so stupid that its supporters can't create and sustain their own community of believers.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Spitting tacks

So, young Atilla has reached the age where he needs to start chewing on nails. Or something. Apparently, between 7 and 12 months, he's supposed to be knocking back 11mg of iron a day.

Doesn't sound too hard, right? But then They, by whom I mean "those busybodies who are never shy to tell us that we're doing everydamnthing wrong", give us this deeply confusing leaflet about how much iron is in different foods, and how much gets absorbed by the body. And doing the sums, to get 11mg into his system, he has to eat around 440g of lamb's liver a day.

That's pretty much a whole liver. Assuming one of the larger sheep breeds.

There are only 40 million sheep in New Zealand. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that there are probably 30,000-40,000 children in that age range. Which means they should be chomping through the entire sheep population approximately every four months.

Now I know why adults so seldom eat offal here - the kids are troughing it all.

Unfortunately, baby Tilly doesn't like liver. But of course that's not the only option. He could get the same results from eating a kilo of lean steak, or about 2kg of pork. For vegetarians, the best option seems to be baked beans - you can get by on around ten litres a day, or slightly less if you can also find room for several bowls of cornflakes and a flagon or two of red lentils.

It comes as no surprise to learn that this leaflet is published by Beef & Lamb New Zealand Inc, easily the most powerful lobby group in the country.

However, the "11mg" figure is supported by the US National Institute for Health. (The UK authorities recommend a relatively modest 7.8mg.) But still, I seriously doubt if any child in the history of the world has ever followed these dietary guidelines. Which kind of makes me want to see the research, if any, behind them.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ten years

I remember exactly where I was on "9/11". I was at work, labouring joyfully in pleasant company at work I was good at. It was Carol, our systems administrator, who came into the room and asked "Has anyone been following the news?"

No-one had. It wasn't until I was driving home with the radio on that I learned the full extent of what had happened. (There was also, which is easy to forget now, the nervous undertone of what might happen next. Was it all over, or was this just the beginning?)

Part of me was shocked, and part of me was scared. But a large part of me, and I quickly learned never to discuss this part in the hearing of Americans, was deeply impressed. At last, someone had figured out a way to attack America on its home turf.

Nobody had ever done that before. Barring some minor incidents involving a handful of private nutjobs - not once, in the history of the United States, had a foreign enemy landed a first-strike attack on the homeland. (Indian nations, and Confederates, don't qualify as foreigners, and Pearl Harbor is an imperial outpost.) Indeed, not within living memory had an enemy successfully struck the American homeland at all - even when its defence budget was tiny. And now some enemy - we didn't know who - had bypassed the largest and most sophisticated military in history, shown up the military-industrial complex for the colossal boondoggle that it is.

Well, we all know what happened next.

For the record, I thought the invasion of Afghanistan was foolhardy (the Taliban were bad, but they were willing to co-operate in arresting Bin Laden; and as every student of history knows, invading Afghanistan is the easy bit). And the invasion of Iraq was, also, a potentially just war (Saddam was a monster), fought for all the wrong reasons.

But the worst of it was what America did to itself.

As luck would have it, in late December 2001 I was passing through Los Angeles on my way from London to New Zealand. LAX is, I have been reliably informed, a hellhole at the best of times, and three months after 9/11 it was carnage. In between two 12 hour flights, being forced to stand in queues for three hours and interrogated by unsmiling officials about why I was entering a country I didn't, in fact, have any desire to enter at all, was not my idea of hospitality. (When I booked the flight, the rule was that transit passengers didn't have to go through immigration and customs proceedings. To this day, I don't know how that change was supposed to improve security.)

In 2002 President Bush announced the formation of a "Department of Homeland Security", and I knew they were in deep, deep trouble. You just don't come up with names like that, if your overriding priorities are peace and freedom.

In 2004 they instituted the policy of arresting all foreigners on arrival in the country, and I sadly concluded that I would never set foot there again. And since then, they have shown no sign of returning to the hospitable, free country I like to remember. Both parties have taken to demonising foreigners, even more than they loathe each other.

This juxtaposition of headline and picture, from the BBC today, says it pretty well. "US ideals" are dead. We may remember them, we may mourn them, but we can't bring them back.

And that's why, even if he didn't win his stated objective, from my perspective at least, Bin Laden won his war. "America" is gone.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The politicians we deserve

The irony is strong in this one. Quite apart from the prospect of talking about "Colin Craig's Conservative Party" ("CCCP" seems an eerily appropriate acronym, for this instinctively statist social-conservative), there's the fact that he's breaking the law in order to campaign for tougher sentences.

This story should be funny. It's certainly embraced as funny by the big New Zealand bloggers.

But for me, the humour is overshadowed by sadness. Colin Craig sums up everything that is wrong with New Zealand. He's "a businessman" who made his money, not by making anything or providing any useful service (like a taxi driver or a hairdresser), but by renting apartments - in other words, by owning land and taxing people who do earn an honest living for the use of it. He's insular (proud of the fact that he never travels) and has no idea of what he really wants (his party platform is self-evidently incoherent). And he honestly believes, simultaneously, that he's better than the great rabble who aren't millionaires, and just as good as people who have comprehensively beaten him whenever they've contested.

On the back of these qualifications, this moron runs for office and sulks when he loses.

How will New Zealand ever drag itself into the modern world, if this is the calibre of our grassroots activism?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


In the face of extreme provocation from the media, I've refrained from venting my opinions on the astonishing implosion of western civilisation as it's unfolded, over the past month, in the USA, Europe and the UK. There's no shortage of people closer to the action who are doing quite enough commentating for all of us.

But just so's you know it's not just you...

Last Wedneday was the bondholders' meeting, at our local racecourse, for those who'd lent money to Blue Star Print Group.

(A brief diversion here: Auckland has several racecourses. Where I used to work, in Epsom, was just down the road from a racecourse. Where I now live, in Ellerslie, is just round the corner from a racecourse. Gambling is big. Sadly we don't have British-style betting shops; even more sadly, we do have the tallest freestanding building in the southern hemisphere, and it belongs to a casino.)

And since it was just round the corner, I thought I'd go along and cast our vote in person.

My first impression was - familiarity. As a magazine editor in the 1990s, I attended scores of press conferences by well-heeled consultancy firms, and those events looked very much like this. I saw a phalanx of spotless business suits. The occupants, none aged over 35, clustered in groups based on what was clearly, among themselves, a well established pecking order. With my years of journalistic training, it was the work of moments to elbow my way through the crowd to the coffee dispenser.

This crowd, however, was not what I expected to see. There had been much talk of "mum and dad investors", and my mental image had anticipated that the suits, and the bodies inside them, would be rather more worn. Clearly, these were accountants - either here as representatives of the auditors or the consultants, or simply drawn to the smell of blood in the water.

Ah, there they were - beyond this antechamber in the main conference room. A scattering of middle-aged, middle-class people, all smartly dressed. I took a moment to wonder why they troubled to dress up in order to be robbed. Must be a colonial thing. I sat down next to a red-faced gentleman in his 50s, who looked fit for a bit of barracking, and waited for the entertainment. After all, I was paying for it.

Proceedings kicked off with an opening statement from the referee - sorry, chairman - who invited some preliminary questions from the floor. Of these, the only controversial one was "will you tell us how many proxy votes you're holding?", which he twice refused to do. Looking back, we should have pressed him on that. He was, he explained, on solid legal ground - but when you're asking people to trust you, surely it's no time to hide behind legalities. He added that he didn't want to prejudice our votes, then went on to introduce a series of presentations plainly designed for no other purpose.

The presentations were slick and, up to a point, persuasive. They pointed to a glowing future for the company, if we would just help them over this little temporary difficulty. But what struck me was that they didn't really seem to be aimed at us. We, the bondholders, still wouldn't get our money back even if this rosy future came to pass. There was a clause specifying, in so many words, that even if the company was sold for its weight in uncut diamonds we still wouldn't get more than about half our money back: the shareholders would keep it.

A few people explored this clause in their questions, but it didn't get much attention, because everything we heard was designed to massage our expectations into a very narrow range - the range in which we would get about half our money back. The chairman said that he'd opposed the clause, but negotiations had been bitter and bloody and in it stayed. (So why would the shareholders fight for a clause that would not be triggered under any plausible scenario? - is just one of the questions that didn't occur to me until some time later.)

For the most part, questions and answers were predictable. Would management and board be taking pay cuts? (No.) Is this really your best offer? (Yes.) Will the banks really call in the receivers if we turn you down? (Yes.) There was a surprising lack of passion, but I was cheered by much talk - and applause - for "voting on principle". Surely, I thought, they can't muster 75% agreement from this crowd unless the proposition includes lynching the shareholders. (It didn't.)

After a couple of hours of this, the crowd dispersed more or less peacefully, and I went home to await the announcement of receivership.

Instead, about 2.30 in the afternoon, I saw the news that the offer had been approved.

I was stunned. I would suspect dirty work in the counting, but that was the job of those nice accountants, and surely if they were going to jeopardise their good name for a quick buck, they'd take it from someone who was more solvent than this? Surely...

Still, the message went out from that meeting loud and clear to the New Zealand exchange: "We small-time bondholders know our place, and will gratefully accept whatever crumbs our betters deign to throw us. There may be such a thing as an offer that is too unfair or treats us with too much contempt, but you haven't managed it yet. Try harder next time."

So there you go. If ever you're tempted to lend money to a New Zealand company, don't. You might as well take it to the races.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Financial analysis

We got a nice chunky package in the mail yesterday.

I was quite excited. After all, nobody takes the trouble to send a chunky package for bad news, do they? A single sheet of paper - that's a rejection letter. An acceptance contains all kinds of inserts - contract, conditions, instructions for your first day, occasionally even a complete employee handbook. A bulky package must be good, right?

Turns out, not so much.

The package is from Blue Star, a troubled printing company in which we invested some money a few years ago. (Mind you, I don't recall anyone using the word "troubled" back then.) We bought bonds. Now - stripped to its essentials - the company wants us to trade in those bonds for new ones that will be worth considerably less. If we don't, they threaten without much ceremony, they'll go out of business and we'll get nothing.

Well, first thing to note is that times evidently aren't so hard that they can't afford to put together a 150-page, glossy, full-colour prospectus for these new and improved bonds. Mind you, it's a printing company, they probably got a good deal on that.

But something stinks about this offer. How can a company renege on its debts, and continue trading? Surely that's the definition of 'insolvent'. If they offered to renegotiate the debt, that's one thing - but this isn't negotiation, this is blackmail.

See, while we bondholders are being asked to take a scalping to the tune of at least half of our investment (and absolutely no guarantee that it won't yet be 100% - in fact, the de-ranking of our debt makes that even more likely), the shareholders aren't being asked to give up squat. On the contrary: one shareholder in particular, Champ Funds, is offering a loan of $15 million - at an interest rate way higher than we've been offered - in return for getting higher ranking among the company's creditors.

Seems to me, that's not the sort of terms you would offer if you had much faith in the company's future.

I was taught, way back in economics class, that it's shareholders who take the risks - when the company thrives, they get the profits, and when it sinks, they take the hit. Bondholders get a smaller return for a smaller risk. But that's not what's happening here. We, the bondholders, are being asked to bail out the shareholders. (Well, one shareholder in particular, but others will obviously get a renewed window of opportunity to dump shares that would be worthless if the company folds immediately.)

The company's own 'independent advisor' - KPMG - endorses the offer in the weakest possible terms. I paraphrase, but the gist of it is: "on the strength of the information we've been given, we can't be sure that this is a complete ripoff, so we don't quite have sufficient grounds to prevent it from being put".

I say the hell with it. If the company is insolvent, let it fold now. If it isn't insolvent, then it can come up with a better offer than this. Worst case, I'm willing to lose a few grand to uphold the principle that shareholders don't get to just take money from small investors.

It may seem irrational to choose nothing over something, but if the price of 'something' is that your economy is to be run by bandits - I'll take a big ol' handful of nothing, thanks.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Microsoft: digging holes since 1997

For a while there, I was almost starting to like Internet Explorer.

When my bosses told me to "slick up" our website, with scrolling headlines and graduated tints and rounded corners and shadows and all that tired old tat, I rubbed my metaphorical hands gleefully and settled down to learn the very latest web languages (by which I mean, HTML 5 and CSS 3). That didn't take long. But then, as I'd expected, the hard part began: learning how to make these gimmicks work in each type of browser.

I'll spare you the ins and outs of that - the stylesheet is kinda messy, and at almost 600 lines it's about three times as long as it has any business to be, but it works. (It's even technically valid, at least according to

When I handed my designs over to my bosses for feedback, they loved them. The pages, though I say so myself, look pretty cool when viewed on PC, Mac, tablet or notebook. For good measure I even checked them on my Nintendo DS. Lovely. My only negative feedback came from - what else - Internet Explorer 9.

But how? I've got IE9 myself. The same version, on the same platform, looking at the same pages - yet the results are completely different. (For instance: my version of IE9 has no problem with supporting display:table-cell, whereas yours evidently thinks it's the work of the devil.) What goes on?

It took me a whole afternoon to work out the answer to that.

Microsoft, rot their vile souls, have built "handy" features into Internet Explorer called "browser mode" and "document mode". Which means that the same browser can apply completely different sets of rules to interpret the same code.

On paper, like most of MS's output, it's not a bad idea. In practice, also like most of MS's output, the implementation is awful beyond description. See, the thing is: there's no way to control which settings someone else's browser will apply.

Oh, in theory there is. There's a tag you can put in your page header to tell it "This page is meant to be rendered in IE 9". That's annoying enough in itself - why would a browser need to be told not to pretend it's something else? And obviously it doesn't work if the client isn't using IE 9. But what's really winding me up, right now, is that it still won't work even if they bloody are using bloody IE9.

For a partial explanation, look at this unholy monstrosity. But even that is only a small part of the horror. See, while the page author has some minimal control over the "document mode", they have no control at all over the "browser mode", which overlaps with and partly overrules the "document mode". The browser user sets that at installation time - usually without even realising what they're doing, because it's disguised as a question about "how would you like to view the web?". And if you've downloaded the page in "IE7" mode, and then tried to apply "IE9" layout to it, the result is an ungodly hybrid that would make Doctor Moreau blench.

To add insult to injury, the mode that sometimes gets applied without realising it is "IE7". So I have to hack the design to work in IE7, despite the fact that nobody in the entire world actually uses IE bloody 7. (Well, okay. To be strictly accurate, according to our website logs, about 10% of IE users do - although I'm guessing most of those are really using later versions that are just pretending to be IE7.)

What people do still use, in their droves, is IE6, which is an entirely different pain in the fundament.

So now I'm having to insert four, count them, four separate stylesheets - for IE6, IE7, IE8 and (every other browser including IE9). And just hoping to goodness that IE10 works acceptably with the IE9 design.

Keynes, famously, is supposed to have argued that in times of recession, it would be worthwhile to pay the unemployed to dig holes only to fill them in again. That's about how useful I've been feeling this week.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Poisoning the cloud

A lot of Europeans seem to have got their knickers in a twist over Microsoft's plain speaking on data protection. Stripped to its essentials, the CEO of Microsoft UK said that Microsoft doesn't do data protection as required by EU law, because US law explicitly forbids it.

I can see why this causes some consternation, but legally it seems quite straightforward to me. Microsoft, by its own account, can't provide a "safe harbor" for personal data on European citizens. Therefore, any European company that tries to store such data in a Microsoft-provided "cloud" service is opening itself to legal action from its European customers (and/or European governments, prosecutors or regulators, depending on the individual country's law). Those companies, in turn, might sue Microsoft for misrepresenting its service (before last week, at least), and they and Microsoft might sue the aforementioned governments and regulators for losses arising from negligence in applying their laws.

All of which could get messy, sure, but it's hardly the gutters-running-red-with-the-blood-of-the-aristocracy.

The interesting question is, why has Microsoft gone out of its way to declare itself incompetent to serve European data storage?

Simple answer: it doesn't want the business. Much better for Microsoft if people don't store data in clouds, but instead spend tens of thousands of dollars on licenses for SQL Server, and training on how to administer it. That's where the profit is.

Of course, in poisoning its own cloud, MS has also poisoned Google's - and every other US company, for that matter, but Google is the one it cares about. And to Google, the cloud isn't a low-margin fringe activity - it's a whole business model.

So what does Google have to say on this story? Not a word, as far as I can tell. Google is just waiting for the whole thing to blow over.

I wonder if a European, at this point, can take out an injunction to prevent companies she does business with from storing their data outside European jurisdiction? Seems to me that the prospect of a jail term for contempt of court would give CEOs more pause than the distant threat of a corporate fine.

Just something for you Europeans to mull over.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What the CIA learned from Trotsky

Good news, sort of, from Syria: at least one person is not in danger.

For a while now, the BBC's line on Syria has been - ambivalent. About a month ago, I heard a very interesting 'From Our Own Correspondent' slot about how the government's brutal repression of protestors wasn't quite as one-sided as most news made it out to be. Long story short: there was plausible evidence that the unarmed protesters were, in fact, fighting back quite violently, and (at the time of that report) more than 50 Syrian security force personnel had been killed.

As compared with several hundred civilian casualties, that may not sound like all that many - but it does suggest that the Syrian government may have a genuine terrorist problem on its hands. Not that the Syrian government is justified, but there is a case to answer

He also pointed out how effective the Syrian opposition had been at taking videos and leaking them onto the internet - a process that takes organisation and planning on an impressive scale. We have solid evidence that the rebels have access to readily concealable cameras, in numbers large enough for many to be present at a single event; and to internationally-operable satellite phone SIM cards. These are, I'm reliably informed, not things that you can just walk into any Vodafone shop in Syria and buy for yourself.

Now, it's easy to characterise the BBC's Mid-East reporting as biased (and here is one self-appointed media watchdog doing just that). But it's not clear why such bias should inspire it to take sides in the Syrian business, nor why there were no comparable doubts expressed about Egypt or Tunisia or Libya.

I'm reminded of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. At the time, I was lucky enough to count among my friends both an American (whose wife had worked in Ukraine) and a Russian. The American regaled me with stories of vote-rigging by the Ukrainian government, while the Russian told me about the Americans who gave out free smartphones and orange shirts to favoured political groups. It was an interesting time.

Now there's this report, which shows that at least one of the causes célèbres of the anti-Syrian-government lobby is a deliberate, systematic fake, created by - an American.

Of course, it's possible that these Americans are all just private citizens exercising their rights to free speech, using money provided by anonymous private-sector donors. And it's possible that "Just Journalism" is a nonpartisan group of citizens with a love of Pure Truth and no financial connection to any government. And it's possible that I'm a brain in a jar.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Conclusive proof that I'm not Elect

The more I read about the Rapture, the dumber it gets.

We all know by now that the latest prediction, by some engineer-turned-numerologist, didn't happen - thus bearing out the predictions of the great majority of both Christians and non-Christians alike. But the last I heard of the prediction itself was that it set not only the date, but the precise time of the event: 6:00 p.m., wherever you happened to be.

Thus it would strike Tonga first, then roll westward across New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Asia, Europe, and finally sweep across America and Hawaii, ending up in Samoa 24 hours after it began.

I'm not clear whether it was supposed to be guided by 'official' time (so that whole timezones would be struck at once), or real astronomical time, so that it would roll steadily westwards at constant rate of approximately 1000mph (at the equator). If official time, then I wonder how long it would take for governments in all points west of New Zealand to hastily amend their own timezones? If astronomical time, then why would it begin at the International Date Line? - I would have pegged Jerusalem as the obvious starting point.

This is what happens when engineers get hold of holy scripture. They (we) are ferociously literal-minded people (Osama bin Laden was educated first as an engineer, before the CIA trained him to be a terrorist).

There's something about a certain type of religious fantasy that appeals to people who believe in "working things out". Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic bilgewater, describes himself as "... raised by a crossword-puzzling, poetic father and an anagramming, word-loving, Latin-knowing, grammarian Mother".

When you look at a crossword, you can be reasonably sure that there is a solution. And when you look at the world as something designed by a higher intelligence, it's very tempting to see it in the same terms - as a puzzle, with clues inserted for those with eyes to see. And if you get your predictions wrong, that's just like getting a 'x' from God - it doesn't mean your whole approach is flawed, just that you've made a mistake somewhere.

For people who think like this, the idea that there are no clues, there is no plan, there is nothing to be worked out - strikes at the heart of their belief.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Take that, Friedman

I keep hearing about how the UK gov't is cutting spending, in a desperate and probably doomed effort to bring the finances into something like balance within a reasonable timeframe.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand government continues spending as if it seriously believes the Rapture will strike on Saturday. In the wake of economic disasters (the collapse of one mine, and the announcement after an investigation that fully half of those remaining open have unsafe working practices), natural disasters (the Christchurch earthquake) and financial disasters (still no end to the stream of financial firms needing bailouts), the government doesn't hestitate to reach for its chequebook.

Yet for some reason, the foreign exchange markets love the Kiwi dollar over the pound. Can't get enough of it.

Each time some fresh disaster strikes New Zealand, the dollar rises. It's uncanny, really.

I can only conclude that free markets (I think the forex markets are about as close to 'perfectly free' as any existing market) believe strongly in the merits of heavy-handed Keynesian economic intervention.

Think about that, next time someone tries to tell you that governments shouldn't interfere because free markets know best.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Crowded Planet guide to Britain

Big news from the UK this week is that the famous Lonely Planet guide is sticking it to Britain's tourist industry.

About time too.

I love England. I love touring around it, I love showing it off to my foreign friends and relatives. (I've had a fair bit of practice at that now.) But there's no denying that the restaurants, hotels, sights and resorts that make the most effort to attract tourists - are those that are the least worth visiting.

There's probably a good reason for this. Every Briton - well, at least every middle-class Briton with my upbringing - knows that the best don't need to advertise. So it follows that anyone who does advertise is, at best, second-rate. Stonehenge doesn't advertise; but the tacky visitors' centre that has pretty much destroyed the point of going there - that advertises like nobody's business.

Whatever the reason, there's no denying: if it's British and you've heard of it, it's almost certainly either (a) crap or (b) laughably overpriced. Sometimes both.

What's important to remember about Britain, though - and England in particular - is the incredible density of it. This means there are two things everywhere you look: people (hence, pubs, hotels and restaurants that your guidebook has never heard of), and history.

It's not exactly secret, but it's not advertised either.

My recommendation, if you're contemplating a visit to the UK, is to do some reading before you go. Either pick a place[1] and read up on its history, or pick a history and identify the places associated with it.

[1] "London" isn't a place - it's about 60 places all wedged together. Trying to do them all is a rookie mistake, and a recipe for (at best) extreme boredom.

And don't take the Lonely Planet. While it's true that most places marketing themselves to tourists are overpriced and disappointing, a guidebook's job is not to lament these pitfalls, but to guide you safely past them. If it can't do that, it's not worth the weight.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Victory conditions

So Osama bin Laden has finally run out of luck. Good riddance, and congratulations to whoever got him.

Not wishing to carp... but the US has spent, so far, more than $450 billion on the Afghan war. That's over $130 million per person allegedly killed by Osama, not even counting the lives wasted.

I say "allegedly", because since he's dead, he'll never have a trial. I bet some in the CIA are toasting that fortunate circumstance, as much as the achievement itself. Now no-one will ever question all the crimes they want to pin on him, and no-one will have to explain (publicly, at least) why it took 18 years*, plus the biggest budget blowout in human history, to catch up with him.

* (Counting from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when the FBI first put a price on his head.)

And if we factor in the Iraq war, the economic costs to the US and its allies, the number of lives lost by the US and its allies, and the horrific damage to US foreign relations and strategic goals (think North Korea), and of course the gargantuan budget deficit - then strategically speaking, Osama has inflicted far and away the most humiliating defeat in US history.

I don't like it. I hate everything Osama stood for. But we should face facts: he won.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Future lies ahead

Last week, we heard that the New Zealand Press Association is closing. One of its joint owners, Fairfax Media, is no longer willing to support it.

I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I've been moaning about the quality of journalism in this country since I got here. (Honestly, it's pathetic.) But now I'm pretty sure it's about to get a whole lot worse.

To explain why, I'm going to have to go into a little context.
  • Fairfax Media is an Australian-owned company that bought into the NZ newspaper business in 2003
  • Fairfax owns the NZPA jointly with its (also Australian) rival APN
  • Fairfax publishes the Dominion Post, Sunday Star Times, and a motley bag of local and suburban newspapers
  • APN publishes the New Zealand Herald plus sundry other titles, and also owns a handful of widely promoted radio stations
  • The NZPA, which has been in business for 130 years, provides news feeds indiscriminately to whoever will pay for them.
The important point to note here is that NZPA is a relic from the days of actual newspapers, whereas its owners are both modern transnational corporations.

But why should that matter? Give me a chance, I'm coming to it...

The reason Fairfax gives for taking its ball home is that it's not happy with the NZPA's output. "Often those stories aren't investigative, they're not stories carved out by the NZPA", says Fairfax's "Group Executive Editor", Paul Thompson.

But isn't that the point of an agency? They're supposed to provide facts, not "stories". Investigating, and writing stories, is the newspaper journalists' job. What an agency provides is the raw materials for this process.

There is, however, no money in facts. Facts aren't protected by copyright; it's impossible to 'own' them (barring a few special cases, such as trade secrets). The only type of information that you can monetise is the type you've made up.

And that's why the most successful media organisations of our time would rather not report news; they prefer "comment", "analysis" and outright fiction. Because we ask to the free market to provide our news, but - now that information is no longer tied to a physical object, or even a persistent medium - we have completely failed to provide any incentives for it.

And that's why Paul Thompson is, quite rationally, doing away with the supply of facts. Oh, I'm sure the decent journalists - of whom there are a few, although criminally overworked - will do their best to be truthful. But fact-checking takes time, which is in ever-shorter supply nowadays; and worse, it often derails the train of your story.

Much easier just to go with what seems likely. Worst case, if anyone calls you on it, it'll just drive more traffic to your website. Win-win.

(Incidentally, I saw this news story on TV3, owned by yet another Australian consortium. Oh well, at least none of them belongs to Rupert Murdoch.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A question of lies

Has anyone but me noticed the very odd form of code that politicians speak, when talking about Libya?

There's "the Libyan army", which as far as anyone can tell consists mostly of mercenaries from Mali. There's the "rebel leadership", who seem to lack even the most basic qualification to lead anything, viz. a sense of their own aims.

(Hint, fellas: read this.)

There was Col Gadhaffi's "ceasefire" on 18 March, which was clearly a signal for "Finish them off quickly!"

When NATO, or whatever they're styling themselves currently, first started bombing, they said it was "to protect Libyan civilians from their own regime. Not, we must stress at length, not to force Colonel Gadhaffi out." So - after all the rejoicing at persuading the good colonel to give up on his weapons and terrorist training programmes, NATO was going to all this trouble to antagonise him, only to leave him in power to live out his days as "the man who beat NATO"? Yeah, right, and I've got this beautiful bridge to sell you...

A few days later, President Obama wanted to "hand over operational leadership from American to international authorities". And so, after days of trivial wrangling, the American operations commander signed over command to a NATO commander, who continued using the same (mostly American) planes and missiles to fly the same missions.

A couple of days ago, it was the African Union's turn to say what they clearly didn't mean. When they triumphantly announced that the regime had accepted their "ceasefire" proposal, it didn't take much of a visionary to foresee that the rebels would refuse it. And thus that this "proposal" had more to do with the need for the AU to be seen to be doing something - taking the initiative, not letting NATO have everything their own way - than stopping the fighting.

Today's headline is "Former (defected) Libyan foreign minister says Libya could become 'next Somalia'". In other words, he's also afraid of the possibility that NATO will fail to finish the job, and so he wants to stiffen their resolve.

In short, everyone and his dog is talking about Libya in these curiously coded terms. It's not hard to see what they really mean. My question is: who are they lying to, and why?

It's one thing for tinpot African dictators who control their own media to talk like this. But in the USA and Europe, surely the Free Press is supposed to keep some kind of a check on what is really going on. And yet, as far as I can see, nobody is being called on this bullshit.

Do we all take it for granted, that politicians won't say what they mean? Are we so numbed by the 24 hour news cycle that we don't even notice? Or are we just comfortable with the pretense, so we don't want to discuss reality? Seems to me that none of these options reflects well on "democracy"...

Monday, April 11, 2011

As seen from the windows

Everyone loves pictures.

A pigeon gathers its thoughts, if the word can be applied to pigeons, after mistaking our bedroom window for a low cloud.

The silvereye is possibly New Zealand's most beautiful native bird. But sadly, also quite shy.

The tui: uglier, but more iconic.

I don't want to point fingers, but this might have something to do with why we don't see more silvereyes around.

And finally: our upwardly Møbler dresser.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rwandan women on top of the world

No sooner had I published my puzzlement at being congratulated for having a son as opposed to a daughter, than the New Zealand Herald chimed in with: "New Zealand is the best country in the Commonwealth [in which] to be born a girl".

This surprised me a little, because it seems to me that unabashed sexism is vastly more widespread here than back home. So I set out to track down the study that the Herald is reporting. It wasn't as easy as it should have been, thanks to the Herald's principled refusal to reveal its sources, but eventually I found it.

It's a study by the Royal Commonwealth Society - an organisation I'd never heard of before this week - into gender inequality in all 54 countries of the Commonwealth. It looks at eight parameters, and assigns each country a grade from A to C for each. The parameters are:
  • life expectancy
  • infant health (defined as proportion of young children reported to be underweight)
  • years spent in full-time education
  • teen pregnancy rates
  • proportion of Commonwealth Scholarship beneficiaries who are women
  • proportion of members in the country's national parliament who are women
  • proportion of medal winners at international sporting events who are women
  • average pay.
So, New Zealand women do better on these values, in aggregate, than those in any other Commonwealth country - right?

Well, not quite. See, while some of the measures are based on numbers relative to other countries (e.g. teen pregnancy), others are based on comparison to men in the same country (average pay, education). So, for instance, Kenya scores an 'A' on pay because, while its people are dirt-poor, men only earn about 30% more than women; whereas Brunei scores a 'C', even though women there earn more in a month than a Kenyan woman makes in a year.

Then there's the 'education' measure. In the UK, for instance, girls spend an average of 13.39 years in full-time education, versus 13.23 years for boys. Better than equal! An easy 'A', surely? Well, no - the UK only gets a 'B' in that category, because the gap isn't wide enough. Presumably the study's designers believe that girls are innately stupider than boys, and need more education to compensate. Bangladesh, meanwhile, gets an 'A' for giving its girls 7.85 years of education - because its boys only get 7.25.

But for real confusion, turn to the final summary page. This ranks all countries by gender equality (which is where NZ comes out on top), and adds in figures and rankings for national income per head. Then, bizarrely, it subtracts one ranking from the other.

"If the figure is positive,", it explains, "it means that the country is doing better on our gender criteria than in its income ranking amongst Commonwealth countries."

Unfortunately, perhaps, this method handicaps all "developed" nations, so that for the richest country in the study (Brunei), there's no way to have a score higher than zero - and for the top ten or so, it's pretty much random. New Zealand and Barbados come out positive, while Australia, Canada, the UK and Singapore all come out negative. By this ranking, the country that takes gender equality most seriously is... Rwanda.

I wish I knew what the Royal Commonwealth Society is, and what it's playing at.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


There's one conversation I had over and over when Susan was pregnant, which still bothers me. It went something like this:
Random Person: "So, do you know what you're having?"
Me (brightly): "A baby, I hope!" (Trying humour to head off the inevitable. Seldom works.)
RP: "No, I mean a boy or a girl?"
Me: "It's a boy."
RP: "Oh, that's great, congratulations!"
At this point I found myself - stuck. It seems uncivil to cavil at the sentiment. Yet I do want to know: why is the sex of the baby considered so important? Would you not congratulate me if I'd said "a girl"?

I discussed this with one of the innumerable, interchangeable midwives who attended Susan during her 47 hours of labour. The best explanation she could come up with was: "He can be an All-Black."

Now, far be it from me to express anything but the deepest respect for New Zealand's most cherished national heroes. They're a fine body of men, and may they enjoy the very best of luck. But really, just now, I'm not thinking of pushing baby Atilla in the direction of any particular career. And if the biggest difference between sexes is that males have a one-in-200,000 shot at being an All-Black, and females don't - that doesn't seem like all that much, to me.

There are, of course, many reasons to take joy in Atilla. If the greatest hope of New Zealand youth is that they have a 0.0005% chance of one day being on a certain team, we're all in trouble.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"No soul to be damned, no body to be kicked"

There's a possibility you've missed the story of Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, being sued by Boston-based NMT Medical over alleged comments about the conduct of a trial that he was, at one time, lead investigator for.

Summary: NMT sponsored the trial of a treatment that it thought could benefit chronic migraine sufferers. The trial showed, fairly conclusively, that the treatment - which is both expensive and invasive - doesn't work. For reasons that I'm not fool enough to go into here, the final published paper glossed over the negative result, hinted at more positive effects (beyond the scope of the original trial parameters) that could be deduced by suitably massaging the data ("excluding outliers"), and ignored potentially serious side effects arising from the procedure. Dr Wilmshurst and one other investigator withdrew their names from the paper before it was published, and Dr Wilmshurst was so indiscreet as to talk about the whole fiasco at a conference in Washington in 2007. His comments were published on the web, and from there it's only a short hop to the High Court.

There's so much Wrong in this story that it's hard to know where to begin. It's wrong that a US company can sue a person under English law for something said to a conference in the US. It's wrong that a speech made - on-topic, by an eminently qualified person - at a technical conference, should be the subject of legal proceedings. It's wrong that lawyers and judges, of all people, are being asked to judge the validity of medical trial methodologies. It's wrong that Dr Wilmshurst has, so far, spent the price of a medium-sized house on his own defence; what exactly are his lawyers doing, to earn that sort of money? It's wrong that he has no prospect of ever getting that money back, since (a) most US courts will (understandably) refuse to enforce an award ruled by a UK libel court, and (b) if he wins, the company will probably be broke anyway. It's utterly, indefensibly, inexplicably wrong that a company can sue for libel - a law that's supposed to protect the reputations of people - at all. This case is the epitome of asymmetrical justice.

And not least, it's wrong that you and I only hear about the whole story through blatantly partisan blogs (like this one). Because, while I know nothing about Dr Wilmshurst personally, I know that he chose to have this fight. And there are plausible people on the other side of the case.

But what's most wrong of all is that NMT's directors are doing the right thing.

If their flagship product doesn't work, their company is in big trouble. It is clearly the directors' duty to do everything in their power to obscure that fact and continue to milk money out of the structure of gullible, vulnerable patients, susceptible doctors, and equally amoral insurers that, collectively, represent their meal tickets. Already the company has lost over 90% of its share price; a decisive victory for Dr Wilmshurst could wipe it out.

It's not optional. NMT's directors have to be as unscrupulous, vicious and amoral as inhumanly possible. It's their duty to their shareholders; anything less could get them sued.

Welcome to the world we've built ourselves. Not only do we reward amorality - we demand it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rumour as news

"Christchurch struck by another major quake, worse than last September's."

That was the news that somehow osmosed into the office yesterday afternoon. The usual New Zealand news sites, unaccustomed as they are to being viewed by more than three people at once, promptly vanished from the web. The Herald, TVNZ, Stuff were all unavailable.

So where to find out what was going on? Experimentally, I tried Twitter.

Now, there are those e-vangelists who claim that Twitter is the only news source you need nowadays. You get breaking news from people on the spot, far faster than conventional media can deliver it. And, of course, unfiltered by editorial policy or bias.

And this is true, kinda. On the other hand, the news is filtered by the fact that it's being written by twits. But now let's see how it covers this breaking news story...

Well, first observation is that it doesn't merit inclusion among 'Trending Topics', being squeezed out by news of greater moment, such as "Libia" and "rafa araneda" (the Chilean TV presenter, of course). If I were relying on Twitter to tell me what's new in the world, I'd have missed this story entirely. Granted, one of these is, objectively, a bigger story - but surely Christchurch should outrank "BIEBER ALERT"?

Hard information from Christchurch? Almost none. What I'm seeing is the accounts of people all over the world who are watching their TVs. New media feeding off old. There are some excellent pictures (I think this one deserves some kind of award, but Lord alone knows who took it or who first posted it online), but if I were watching TV I'd have seen a lot more, a lot quicker.

Decisive victory to old media.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Observing the observers

The local New Zealand media doesn't even pretend to care what's going on in Egypt, not when there are truly important stories such as Lindsey Lohan's alleged kleptomania to talk about. So I've been watching a lot of Al Jazeera lately.

AJ, for those not blessed with its coverage, does care about Egypt. It cares a lot. It seems to have covered absolutely nothing else for the past two weeks. And apart from the obvious partiality of its coverage (it makes no attempt to hide its contempt for Mubarak and his regime), there's one other thing that bothers me about it...

Western media has tended to portray the protests as "pro-democracy". Yet that word is significantly missing from most of AJ's coverage. Rather than aspiring to future democracy, they are passionate about purging current corruption.

Just to prove I'm not imagining this slant, I compared Al Jazeera's coverage with that of several major Western news outlets (by searching their websites for current news stories featuring "Egypt" plus either "democracy" or "corruption" or both). What I found:

Dear Mr Mubarak,

First, congratulations on being Egypt's longest-serving ruler since Muhammed Ali Pasha. Egypt is an ancient and widely respected country, unlike some in your neighbourhood, and having earned a place in that history should stand as an achievement in itself.

And congratulations also on remaining in residence long after many lesser dictators would have given up. You are clearly a man of principle and tenacity. We must stress, however, that at this difficult time it is more important than ever to avoid seriously blotting your record with the Americans. Keep this up, and you can look forward to a retirement peppered with prestigious speaking engagements, talk-show appearances and memoir-serialisation rights that will keep you in both hookahs and hookers for life.

We understand that you're not a democrat. We understand why you're not a democrat. That's fine with us. Our media may quack up a storm about "democracy", but as William Hague made clear on Al Jazeera last week - we're perfectly happy for you to govern Egypt however you like, just so long as you do it quietly. And if you can end your present domestic crisis - or even just ride it out until October - without spawning an international one, then good for you.

And we understand that people in your position should be appropriately rewarded for your efforts. It's a stressful job. Nobody begrudges you a few millions in your Swiss retirement fund. You absolutely should give plum jobs to your unqualified cronies, treat yourself to the occasional duck island or private business trip or bunga-bunga party at your taxpayers' expense. That's expected.

But there is such a thing as moderation. When you've amassed a family fortune that's one-seventh of your country's total GDP, you have run your course and then some. The time to retire was probably about $60 billion ago. You're not Rupert Murdoch.

On your way out, if you could forward this note to every other Arab leader in your address book, it would save us the trouble of researching them.


The People of Europe

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More home improvements

I've been wanting a heat pump, now, for 26 years. That's how long it is since I learned about them in first-year thermodynamics. The idea of getting much more energy out than you put in appealed strongly to the lazy freeloader in me - which, let's face it, has always been a strong if not dominant character trait.

But it wasn't until I came to New Zealand that I saw them widely advertised as a household appliance. We had ours fitted yesterday, a day before - in accordance with the universal laws governing these things - the weather turned cooler.

The installation involved drilling a hole through our wall. I was eager to watch this operation, because I wanted to know if it was true that the wall is, basically, made of polystyrene.

Turns out it's completely true.

There's a thin layer of plaster on the outside, then about two inches of polystyrene, then (allegedly, though I haven't actually seen this) a timber frame, then about a quarter-inch of plasterboard on the inside. Sometimes I'm amazed the house has stood up this long.

But so far, touch wood, it's doing well. And as from yesterday, it's significantly more comfortable, when the weather outside is either inclemently warm or cold.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Atilla the Hon

It's generally agreed, I think, that Christmas babies get a raw deal. His birthday forever overshadowed by the unrelenting promotion of Saturnalia, throughout his childhood he will have scant chance of even seeing his friends on the day, never mind getting his fair share of prezzies and well-wishes from them.

On the other hand, no-one will ever suggest going to McDonald's for his birthday. So, y'know, swings and roundabouts.

My son was born at an antisocial hour on 27 December last. That's as precise as I'm getting in a public place like this - I don't want his identity being stolen before he's even old enough to know it. For purposes of this blog, I'm going to call him Atilla.

I don't intend to bore my public for the next fifteen years or so with a recitation of his boundless genius and achievements. He spoke his first word before he was two weeks old (my father, a devious Scrabble player, assures me that 'erm' is a perfectly good word). He fills nappies industriously, usually within minutes of having one fitted. He needs no alarm clock to wake him with the dawn, or even earlier, despite partying well into the small hours the night before. And although it is customary to describe babies as 'defenceless', he has shown a level of resource and precision in fending off untimely attentions that, I feel, augurs well for his future security.

In short, I'm sure that within a few years you'll be reading about him in the press, so you won't need me to keep you abreast. Which is just as well, as I'm still reeling at how much laundry one small person (who only wears about two garments at a time) can generate.

In the meantime, what to do about his birthday?

We could, of course, simply lie - tell him his birthday was in August or something. But there doesn't seem any likely way of keeping up that pretence. Sooner or later it will dawn on him to wonder why his passport and other official documents show the wrong date of birth, and then his trust in us will be considerably undermined.

Or we could try raising him as a Buddhist, to despise both vain material possessions and arbitrary calendar events. How hard could that be?


My present idea is to celebrate his name day. "Atilla" is celebrated (in Hungary, at least) on 7 January. Perfect, except of course that that's not his real name.

Truly, fatherhood is an awesome responsibility.