Saturday, November 19, 2005

Sideswipe

Winston gagged or just a well-placed address sticker?


While on holiday in Europe this year, a reader overheard two American friends talking about their time in England. One said to the other, "Oh, Windsor Castle is so beautiful ... It's just a pity they built it so close to the motorway."

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While following a Mt Albert mother and her preschooler, another reader overheard a lesson in times tables ... "Come on, you've just forgotten ... say after me: Three sevens are thirty-seven."

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The first sentence of Hunter S. Thompson's hilarious, drug-fuelled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." The first sentence of Donny Osmond's soon-to-be-published autobiography Life Is Just What You Make It: "It happened one night at a gas station somewhere around Fresno, California." But there, unfortunately, the similarity ends.

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The consensus regarding Orlando Bloom's acting ability is, no, the pretty boy can't act: This reader sums it up perfectly ... "Orlando Bloom is quite good on the eye but positively tragic as an actor. Anyone who had the misfortune to see him in Troy can testify to the fact that he was so wooden they could have used him as the horse."

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Is it reading too much into the fact that the TVNZ HQ in Wellesley St has a three-storey banner hanging from it with the words

Rescue me across the bottom?

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Sucking up to the boss outranks office gossip and serial late starters as one of the most hated behaviours at work. A survey of 766 people by networking website company LinkMe.com.au found 41 per cent of respondents absolutely hated it when their colleagues sucked up to the boss. Inconsiderate behaviour towards colleagues also irritated large numbers of workers, with 51 per cent saying they were peeved when their workmates did not take their feelings into consideration. Gossip mongering colleagues made 37 per cent of respondents' livesa misery at the office, while 30 per cent said they became upset when their workmates arrived late for work.

Also making the list of annoying behaviour at work were smoke-breaks, swearing at computers, listening to the radio and laziness. LinkMe spokesman Tony Mittlemark commented: "Most employees work in tight spaces with colleagues in cubicles, open plan offices or workstations. You get to hear their arguments with their partners, you become au fait with their personal grooming habits, you are the brunt of their sneezes, coughs and viruses, and watch while they eat weird food concoctions at their desks." (Source: AAP)

Te Radar: A forgotten triumph of New Zealand sporting prowess

If I was to produce a lovingly crafted sculpture of a 16-year-old Lolita, lolling topless and wistful, and proposed to install it in a prominent public place, I would no doubt be labelled a pervert.

For this reason alone I am glad Pania is safely bolted back in place, as a reminder not only of a wonderful tale, but of a more innocent age.

Thankfully the coquettish Pania is now under 24-hour video surveillance, to ensure no more reprobates will snatch her for their own nefarious delight.

But it was another, less fortunate, bird that elicited the world's sympathy this week.

Had it not been for the uncommon execution of a rather pesky common sparrow, I would probably never have discovered that on July 1, 1979, New Zealander Alistair Howden and his team in Auckland set a new world record for toppling 255,389 dominoes.

This record was not broken until January 1984. It is a national shame that this feat remains unrecalled in the annals of New Zealand sporting history.

Still, had it not been for the ongoing attempts to further push the envelope of extreme-domino-toppling, a man in Holland would not today be in fear of his life for assassinating a rogue sparrow.

The unfortunate bird had somehow found itself in the arena where, over the past month, more than 100 humans have toiled to position 4.1 million dominoes in anticipation of a new world record.

In its consternation at being in such an environment, the sparrow fluttered around, knocking down around 23,000 dominoes.

It was decided to sacrifice its life for the greater good, and an exterminator was called in. For some reason the thought of a Dutch exterminator with an air rifle, hunting a sparrow in a room full of delicately poised dominoes, seems like an oddly compelling drama.

The exterminator, having despatched the hapless bird, is reported to have himself received death threats - this at a time when the global paranoia caused by bird flu is reaching levels of premillennial madness.

Nowhere is this more evident than China, where they intend to vaccinate their entire poultry population, some 14 billion birds. Not surprisingly, they have given no timetable for the campaign.

Given the industrious nature of this crusade, it should come as little surprise that it is a Chinese woman, Ma Li Hua, who is the world record holder for the greatest number of dominoes single-handedly set up and toppled, a staggering 303,621.

The most obvious question this entire incident evokes is why we do not once again challenge for the title.

TVNZ would be the perfect sponsor. It would certainly give Ian Fraser something constructive to do, since he is to be paid $300,000 to impotently complete his term. At just under a dollar a domino, it would represent superb value for both him and the taxpayer.

The visual metaphor of the toppling dominoes would be ideal charter television.

Editorial: Midwives' record under fire

A Wellington coroner has revived a debate about childbirth that ought to have been resolved by the experience of 15 years. It is that long since midwives were given the right to compete with doctors in the provision of maternity care, and most doctors have long since quit the field. Now an inquest into the deaths of two babies in Wellington has caused coroner Garry Evans to call for an urgent review of midwifery training, with a reintegration of doctors into state-financed maternity services, a national audit of births and more clinical supervision of graduating midwives.

General practitioners welcome the coroner's call but the College of Midwives says he has over-reacted to two rare mistakes. The new Minister of Health, Pete Hodgson, has asked his officials to investigate whether a review is warranted. Published figures would suggest it is not. The number of early neonatal deaths, which may not be a reliable indicator considering advances in life-prolonging technology, has not risen appreciably since midwives came to dominate the service. In 1991 there were 3.4 deaths per 1000 births, in 1995 there were 2.3, 1997 recorded three and 2001, 2.5. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from GPs about the failings of midwives but no public clamour for change from parents and parents-to-be.

In fact, the main problem of late has been a dire shortage of midwives in many districts, caused in part by the 20 per cent pay increase won by nurses, which made specialising in midwifery services less attractive. The Government has responded by boosting the fee it pays midwives from next month, at a cost of $18 million a year.

But it would be too much to hope that facts and figures might settle this debate. To many it is an issue loaded with differences of health philosophy, values and even gender. Childbirth, in one view, is a normal, healthy procedure that had become unnecessarily dependent on medical supervision and assistance. Maybe so, say others, but it is better to be safe than sorry if it turns out, as it did in the Wellington cases, that midwives failed to spot complications needing a doctor's attention.

The temptation for a Government presented with an issue such as this is to try to satisfy both sides. That is what happened when Helen Clark, as Minister of Health in the previous Labour Government, opened the door to midwives. Women were able to have their pregnancies monitored by both doctors and midwives, with the result that hospital midwives left the public sector in droves to set up in independent practice and the cost of the maternity benefit went through the roof.

To contain the cost, the next Government set up a system of "lead carer", which could be either a doctor or midwife who would engage other specialists as the lead carer thought sensible. The payment system satisfied the independent midwives but not general medical practitioners, who steadily withdrew from the services. Of the 600 GPs offering maternity care in 1997, only 20 still do so today. If people are willing and able to pay for specialist obstetric attention throughout a pregnancy, they can get it. But if they want the state's free maternity services, they have almost no choice but to put their faith in a specially trained nurse.

If two neonatal deaths, dating from 2001 and 2003, cause the Clark Government to reconsider this arrangement, the cost escalation is likely to return. GPs will need a better rate than they have been offered and the Government will feel obliged to offer the same rate to midwives. But the coroner was lacking solid data to support a review, hence his accompanying suggestion of an audit of births. The audit at least should be done. It is needed to ease the minds of prospective parents and confirm that the vast majority of available midwives are sensible and safe.

Brian Rudman: Roads to nowhere versus things that matter

What a fabulous city we could build if every now and again we declared a year's moratorium on new roading projects, and diverted the money into things that really made a difference.

I suspect I might have had these heretical musings in the past, but they surfaced again yesterday as I read Auckland City proudly patting itself on the back for scraping together $4.6 million from various budgets towards a $12.5 million little theatre project off Aotea Centre.

Alongside it was a story about Manukau Mayor Sir Barry Curtis advising proponents of a $3.5 million Youthtown project for Mangere to lower their horizons and aim for a more realistically priced $1.5 million alternative.

This on the day Transit New Zealand was inviting Mangere residents to a consultation session at the local primary school to reveal plans for a $184 million bridge and associated highway development across the Manukau Harbour and through their neighbourhood.

Perhaps, if the locals asked nicely and promised not to kick up a stink about the road, Transit might find a home for the youth facilities beneath the bridge?

In Auckland City, priorities are just as askew. Here there's a budget of $200 million to transform the CBD into that vibrant, world-class, first city of the Pacific vision of the publicist's hackneyed pen. But what's it to be spent on? Mainly ripping up the existing paving and replacing it with Chinese bluestone and tui-feeders and new light poles.

There's $30 million set aside for the Queen St facelift, $1.2 million (and now rising) for the aborted Vulcan Lane makeover, and $2 million for the similarly stalled Khartoum Place tart-up. All of it mere plastic surgery.

But imagine how lively the city would become if the year's budget for these non-essentials was diverted into making a real difference. Like building the new theatre. Instead, the council is dangling $4.6 million in front of the theatre's champions, and telling them to go hustle up the rest.

Perhaps it's my advancing years, but I say, warehouse the bluestone for a year, and get on with projects that will genuinely enrich the city.

Which just happens to remind me of another item on my roads-can-wait wishlist. That's the Town Hall organ.

Last week I got the chance to clamber round the innards of the emasculated instrument with English organ builder Ian Bell. Fresh from overseeing the rebuilding of the mighty Royal Albert Hall organ in London, the most recent of 50 major rebuilds he's been involved in, Mr Bell is fizzing about the "can-do" attitude of the Town Hall organ trust, which has retained him to lead the Auckland project.

He agrees that the instrument is just a whimper of its once-grand Edwardian prime, but promises to bring back the "shake-the-earth grandeur" it once had.

It's a dramatic building, he says, and "citizens are meant to come into it and feel proud if it". Part of that "is the organ suddenly letting go and people saying, 'Wow, what was that?"'

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened since the ill-fated rebuild of the early 1970s. Mr Bell's plan is to rip out those "improvements" and build a modern organ that not just recreates the power and style of the 1911 instrument, but throws in a few modern touches as well.

But getting back to the point. The probable cost of this restoration? No more, it seems, than the $3.2 million-plus being talked about to redo Vulcan Lane and Khartoum Place.

Given the controversy surrounding those two projects, I know where I'd be putting the money first. That's into an instrument which, when Mr Bell is finished with it, will be, he says with no false modesty, "internationally known".

But like the little theatre, our city fathers and mothers are treating the organ as a luxury present that we kids will only appreciate if we save up our pocket money to pay for it.

Some time back, the council promised a miserly $1 million towards the project. A trust has since been formed and told to raise the rest. The ASB Trusts at one stage offered to match the city's contribution and I'm presuming that offer is still live. But that still leaves another $1 million or so.

Perhaps the solution is to rename it Organ Bypass and get it on the transport agenda. Then it would be up and blowing by Christmas, with a queue of politicians claiming credit.

Jim Hopkins: Just what the nation needs

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesmannnnnnnnnn!!! Yes, wherever danger lurks and and deadly Beryls stalk the night, there you will find the mighty Man of Steal.

Born on the planet Perkton (and still often found in outer space) our cApec'd crusader possesses every superpower a shabby coalition could desire. Stronger than a pudding, the fearless (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman can offend entire nations with a phrase, leap both ways in a single bound and break promises with his bare mouth!!!!!!

What a guy!! What a hero!!!!! Nothing can touch him. Or nothing on earth, anyway. His one weakness is Perktonite, the mysterious mineral found only on the far-off planet of his birth. Stick a bit of Perktonite down his tights and this mighty superhero immediately goes all pink and Ministerial. Thank heavens his arch-enemies had some on hand when they needed it most!!

In our last episode, (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman was heroically struggling to keep his own colleagues in line. But now he's needed elsewhere. A plaintive cry of "Help!" (inaudible to all but him) is evidence enough. The nation needs him! Sensing imminent danger (not to mention an opportunity for First Class travel) our hero is up, up and away at the speed of lightweight. Now read on ...

Zooming low over the South China Sea, (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman scanned the far horizon with his X Box vision, in search of his destination.

"Ah ha! That must be it," his superlarynx murmured, "they're all driving badly."

Confident he'd found Korea, the Man of Steal zoomed earthward, a meteoric blur flashing crimson through the azure sky.

There was a mighty Crash! (and a fearsome Wallop!) as (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman smashed through the Walls of Protocol, Principle and Prudence before gently landing in front of the astonished Chinese Foreign Minister, Go Bak Hoem.

"Gidday, y'old crime-spreading, drug-smuggling, dole-bludging, bad-driving, house-snatching Triadaddy," grinned (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman."How's it goin'?"

"Good," gasped the even more astonished Chinese Foreign Minister, "but even better now you here, Mr Baublesman. What do you want, mighty superhero?"

"I'm glad you asked," beamed New Zealand's proud ambassador. "See, Helen offered me this part time job - she reckoned it involved sex and travel - and I said, 'Sure, babe! glad to help.' And now I'm Minister of Foreign Affairs! Cool, ay?

"Yeah, it is," he continued. "My country's very lucky. Which leads me to why I'm here, Go Bak, baby. I'm here to tell you guys you should be sending a whole lot more big-spending, course-cramming, pots-of-dosh, don't-fit-in students over to fabulously friendly New Zillun. Whadda ya reckon?"

The Chinese Foreign Minister smiled politely. "We send more young people to friendly New Zealand?"

"Yup," beamed the Man of Steal, giving his new chum a hearty slap on the back.

"So that means you staying here?" asked Go Bak Hoem, politely.

"Watch it, sunshine," snarled (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman , clenching his fist so tightly the whisky glass shattered. "Any more of that and I'll be investigating your links with Saddam, dig???"

"All right," replied the chastened Chinese. "We consider proposal. Meanwhile, what you say about Free Trade Agreement?"

"I'm against it!" bellowed our cApec'd crusader. "And I'm allowed to be! Not that it matters 'cos I don't do Free Trade... "

"Ah! How about better relations with US imperialists, maybe with assistance from Australia?"

"Yeah, I do that. But not officially."

"Okay. So...officially, you do protection for foreign students?"

"No!!"

"Improved regulations to safeguard student investments if school fails?"

"No. I don't do that either."

"Okay, maybe you do International Agreements, Conventions, Protocols, multi-lateral negotiations about your SAS?

"Hell, no. None of that! Far too boring!!"

The Chinese Foreign Minister stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Then what you do do?"

"Ummm ... photographs. They're good!" chuckled (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman, gripping his counterpart's shoulders in a manly fashion. "Let's get one now. Show the folks at home what I'm doing."

"Ah, Mr Baublesman," sighed Go Bak Hoem, "we Chinese have much to learn about democracy."

"And I'd love to teach you," quipped the Man of Steal, but right now, my super-sensitive, ultrasonic Perkton hearing tells me there's a damsel in distress ... somewhere." (Fanfare and Echo) Baublesman turned away, struggling to decipher the faint signal.

"Gadzooks!" he yelled. "It's the Prime Minister. In Dublin. What's she saying ... 'Come quickly, Man of Steal. We need you to spear tackle our opponents', Damnation! If only I could find Andrew Downer. He might be able to help."

The international, interplanetary superhero gave his companion a cheery wave. "Gotta go, Go Bak," he said. "I'll see ya' later, legislator, but right now China can wait. This superhero's got a World Cup to rescue. And if I don't superzoom our Helen to the IRB, they'll all say the bird flew Qantas ..."

"Oh, sorry, Bakky, boy. They told me not to mention bird flu ... "And with a deafening "whoooooosh" and a sonic "booooom", the man from another planet was gone.

Paul Buchanan: Law change a recipe for abuse of power

Debate about the expansion of anti-terrorist legislation in Britain and Australia demonstrates the problem that arises when democratic governments attempt to separate politically motivated crimes from the main body of criminal law. In giving political crime (that is, felonies that are ideologically motivated) a special status above standard criminal violations, such offences are elevated in exactly the way that perpetrators hoped them to be.

They become the lifeblood of martyrdom, mythology and uncompromising political belief, demonstrating loyalty to the cause in spite of the gravest of consequences and harshest of treatment. This makes political crimes a source of inspiration to some, even as the many are revolted by the acts committed.

Whether witches, Moors, ethnic nationalists or anti-monarchists, in bygone days heretics and non-believers were reserved special forms of torture and death not given to the most heinous of common criminals.

The idea behind the cruelty was to teach the lesson that political dissent was the ultimate crime and would suffer the most horrid of fates, in public, to no advancement of the cause being espoused. In many cases, it worked as a deterrent, but in others it did not. Therein lies the problem.

Special categorisation of political crimes often plays into the hands of those who commit them. They and their cause get more attention than they deserve, at least if the cause is truly lacking in popular support. As opposed to dictatorial regimes, legitimate democratic government has little to fear from ideological extremists, since the majority adhere to rules of political moderation that allow for diversity of opinion and voice. Thus, creating special categories of political crimes (such as sedition) raises the profile of views that otherwise would have no popular appeal. Instead, it serves as a forum and rallying point for those who passively support the ideological objectives under-riding the illegal approaches to politics.

Criminal acts of political violence are no more than that: politically motivated behaviour that is not sanctioned by the state. In democracies the rules of political behaviour require that players act non-violently and institutionally. That is, they must adhere to legally sanctioned channels for individual and collective voice (and redress), and they must not cause physical harm to people or property.

Violations of this code of conduct are criminal offences, no matter what the specific belief behind the transgression.

If there is a deterrent for ideological extremists, it is in being caught, not the severity of the sanction applied or the code of justice under which the sanction is authorised. Thus, creating a separate body of counter-terrorism legislation offers no greater disincentive structure for political outlaws, and in fact, by its very separation from "normal" criminal justice provides a perverse incentive.

Security agencies use bureaucratic rationales of self-justification to take advantage of political climates of fear in which expanded counter-terrorism legislation is passed, but the people most affected by increased limitations on personal and collective rights are common citizens.

Loosening of the rules of evidence and denial of natural justice to terrorist suspects and defendants, such as the case at Guantanamo Bay, give authorities vague and flexible powers of detention, surveillance and use of force. This is a recipe for abuse of power. Basic rights to legal defence under normal criminal law balance the rights of defendants, security agencies and prosecutors, which places the onus of truth on the quality of police and intelligence evidence deemed admissible in court. Loosening normal standards of evidence will only encourage shoddy and politically expedient detective work.

The Blair and Howard governments propose to change laws governing the rights of suspects (and defendants) when it comes to "political crimes" involving violence. This may or may not involve "terrorism," depending on how "terroristic" acts are defined. Racial or ethnic profiling of political dissidents is bound to expand, and mere suspicion will replace concrete evidence as a basis for detention. "Extremist" speech will be added to the list of reasons for detention of suspects.

But talk is not an indication of real motive or intent, much less the capacity to act upon the rhetoric. What constitutes "extremist" as opposed to "normal" speech becomes a matter of (political) definition. For example, white supremacists and neo-nazis regularly preach hate in Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the United States, and all have records of committing violent acts in pursuit of their ideological goals, yet virtually all attention since September 11 has been directed at purported Islamicists and their calls for jihad (who in countries such as New Zealand have no record of activity).

The bottom line is that making ideologically motivated violence a separate category of political crimes subject to more severe forms of counter-measures that violate basic principles of civil liberties and natural justice is a bad idea for democracies. It elevates the stature of ideological extremists while denying rights to the law-abiding majority.

Counter-terrorism measures can be enhanced through better inter-agency and international co-operation, increased security professionalism and improved human and technical intelligence gathering. There is little need to dramatically revamp counter-terrorism legislation, especially if it offers the potential for abuse and denies the basic liberties that are a cornerstone of democratic judicial systems.

The issue is also contextual. New Zealand's geopolitical and strategic position is far different from that of the frontline triad in the "coalition of the willing" (Australia, Britain and the US), which makes for significant differences in the threat environment confronted by each. Hence, there are ethical, legal and practical dangers in following the calls of those who wish that New Zealand would emulate its larger neighbour when it comes to counter-terrorism measures.

Assuming they are competent, existing legislation allows New Zealand's security agencies ample room to counter ideological extremists without resorting to the type of authoritarian measures that make certain types of violent political dissent a special category of crime. New Zealand is not Australia, nor it can or should be when it comes to national security. We should feel comforted rather than discomfited in knowledge of that fact.

* Paul G. Buchanan is director of the Working Group on Alternative Perspectives at the University of Auckland. His latest book, With Distance Comes Perspective, focuses on issues of international and domestic security, terrorism and unconventional conflict.

Graham Reid: Drama in a Chinese diner

Sonny - that's what the Big Bellowing Men called him - owns a restaurant in Klamath Falls, halfway between San Francisco and Portland in central Oregon. His place, the Dynasty, boasts authentic Chinese food and Sonny is from Taiwan.

This town was originally called Linkville Falls but a century or so ago the people decided they wanted a more dramatic name for their town on the edge of the Upper Klamath Lake, so they named it after the small waterfall nearby.

You had to be tough to live in a frontier town like this and fistfights were as much part of the local entertainment as theatre, saloons and brothels.

Damming and changes of water courses mean that today there are no falls in Klamath Falls.

But the town sits within an easy day's drive of the beautiful Crater Lake National Park, so the small airport is busy bringing in visitors, and Sonny's place at the southern entry to town does a good trade with people coming up from California just across the state line.

The woman in the motel opposite Sonny's recommended it to me when I asked if there was a quiet place nearby where I could have a drink and read the papers.

And that's what I was doing at the bar when the Big Bellowing Men arrived.

"Lotsa shrimp, big jumbo prawns and not too hot," one demanded as he took his place at the bar.

"No, hot but not-hot," said Sonny, taking the other orders then racing off to the kitchen.

The Big Bellowing Men settled in, ordering beers and shooters as Sonny brought huge plates of steaming food and waited behind the bar while they ate and bellowed at each other.

"Man, she likes you and she ain't nasty. Marty knows some nasty women, an' she ain't one."

Sonny stands quietly waiting, listening to all this.

"I can't remember what I said to her, but she liked my package."

Sonny waits quietly.

"Hey, where did Adam go? He go outside?"

Sonny waits.

"You think I'm gonna put up with that from him? I'm gonna take him down, man."

This goes on for half an hour as Sonny gets more beers or fills another shot glass.

"And can I get a barbecue pack with hot mustard and some fries to go?"

Sonny races off to the kitchen.

I am invited to sit with the Big Bellowing Men and we chat about our lives as they pack away dozens of prawns and plates of sliced beef and mushrooms, and fish pieces with fried rice.

A table of slight Indian men in the corner have tolerated the noise for long enough and leave.

A guy built like an oak comes in with his wife and takes a seat further down the bar. Sonny comes back and serves them.

Then serves the Big Bellowing Men, then me. The sweat is visible on his brow.

I go to the bathroom and when I come back shouting has started. Oakman has taken offence at a look from the Big Bellowing Men. He is on his feet. His wife is hitting him on the back but his anger and horny hide make him oblivious to her.

Sonny, the top of his head barely reaching the man's chest, is trying to restrain him. The Big Bellowing Men don't move from their stools which probably prevents things from exploding. Sonny and Oakman's wife hustle Oakman out the door.

"Hey Sonny, you should have done your kung-fu on him," says one of the Big Bellowing Men.

Sonny says he doesn't know kung fu and takes his place behind the bar waiting to serve them more drinks.

But they are done. They pay and tip heavily.

I wait and speak with Sonny briefly about Taiwan. He tells me Oakman comes in here and does that all the time. He'd never seen the Big Bellowing Men before.

I leave and walk around the block. The night is crisp but the rain is starting and the sky is a starless canopy.

I see Sonny, standing out the back of his restaurant by the rubbish skips, quietly smoking a cigarette by himself, looking up into the black of a rainy night in Oregon.

Peter Griffin: Internet is doing just fine, so politicians, lay off

The United Nations has failed in its bid to take control of the internet, and good job, too. The last thing we need is a bureaucratic body meddling with the infrastructure of one of the most persuasive and powerful networks in the world.
The current batch of innovative web companies, led by Google, are doing just fine giving a world audience useful web applications without intervention by the UN or any other geopolitical body.

Use of the internet is growing at a very fast rate without the UN's help. Its growth is tied to economic, social and technological development.

The barriers of entry to the internet are getting lower and in developing countries, where wireless technologies are being used to build the communications networks they lack, access will play a huge role in bridging the digital divide.

The small United States-based body Icann has until now run the internet, assigning domain names and co-ordinating technological improvements to the network that fires information round the world between millions of computers.

Icann's remit is about to expire. This has led to much hand-wringing among people who think control of the internet should be more widely distributed.

But why meddle with something and add layers of bureaucracy when it is already working fine? That's what most of those attending the World Summit on the Internet Society in Tunisia this week were asking.

At the UN-sponsored summit, officials argued for the formation of an international body within the UN to govern the internet in the interests of lessening the digital divide between those countries with good internet representation - the US, Europe and Japan - and those without, mostly in the Third World.

Tunisia was an ironic location for the summit - many consider the country one of the worst offenders when it comes to internet censorship. It has low broadband and telephone penetration. Reporters covering the conference were harassed and, in at least one case, beaten up.

The world may be united on many issues, but when it comes to the internet there are huge philosophical differences on how it should be run and what level of control governments should have over the information their citizens access.

The problem is that the countries calling for the internationalisation of the internet are often those guilty of filtering web content to suit their political agendas.

The big villains here are China, Myanmar [Burma] and Iran. The real battle should be to ensure that the world's citizens have access to the same information, in the same format, wherever they live and whoever they are governed by.

A global summit to discuss the manipulation and censoring of internet-based information would be much more beneficial to the people supposedly served by the UN - the citizens of the world. That was off the agenda in Tunisia - too touchy a subject for public airing, it seems.

Why is the issue of who controls the development of the internet coming to a head now? It's because the promises that were made five or 10 years ago about how the internet would change the way we work and live are starting to look realistic. The success of Google, which offers from central servers via the web everything from email and mapping services to instant messaging and internet telephony, has inspired a technology industry that has so far not really managed to pull off the web services model.

Web services were all the rage at the start of the millennium when the so-called allocation service provider (ASP) model gained ground. We were told that every facet of business and many of our personal transactions and dealings with Government would take place online. This has been slower to happen than expected, but the worm is turning.

Google's recent tie-up with Sun Microsystems, which is a specialist in network architecture, only strengthens its play in web services.

And now we have the arrival of Microsoft Live, the company's co-ordinated punt at entering the web services market on a huge scale. Next year will see the debut of Office Live, a service that adds real-time, online elements to Microsoft's uber-successful Office productivity software suite.

But this time Microsoft is well and truly on the back foot, with Google, Yahoo and even eBay and its new Skype acquisition leaving the world's biggest software company to shame in its laggardly approach to web services so far.

A new battle for supremacy in web-based services is kicking off. As a result, we're likely to see the arrival of applications that profoundly change the way we use the internet. In this environment, two things will become hugely important: high broadband penetration, especially in developing countries, and an efficient next-generation infrastructure model. Web traffic is only going to increase hugely as more people connect to centralised web services through browsers.

The internet is going gangbusters right now. The international community needs a voice in how it evolves, but let's not ditch what has been a very successful formula.

Tracey Barnett: The idea is to pass the ball

Why, Key Aura, Mr American Ambassador. Welcome to New Zealand from one Portland, Oregon expat to another.

Trust me, you'll love it here in the land of the long white mushroom-free cloud. The people here are wonderful. Don't be discouraged in your first week by the Prime Minister applying the brakes on a comprehensive dialogue with the United States.

Perhaps your opening suggestion that the ball is in your court on nuclear policy just stirred up her dislike of political sports analogies.

You were thinking basketball. She's thinking netball. Perfectly understandable.

It is tough to play with the nuance of diplomacy when we're so damn big and powerful. They may have created King Kong in New Zealand but Kiwis certainly don't let Peter Jackson determine political policy.

If we start crashing through the streets of Wellington with ape-sized footprints, the natives are certain to run for the Beehive.

Trust me, Helen Clark is a lot more formidable than a pint-sized Naomi Watts. Have you ever seen her running late for a rugby match?

But don't be deterred. Look, when a woman MP says no new talks, we all know she means yes, yes, yes. That is the beauty of our American foreign policy. One must play with the ambiguities.

Let's be honest, the language of politics is entirely different than at home. We know that Clinton was nicknamed Bubba and George Dubya has been dubbed Shrub, but we can't expect Kiwis to learn our subtitles right off the bat. It goes both ways. Mr Peters may not always smile for photos but that doesn't mean he isn't happy to sit next to you.

Isn't diplomacy like interpretative dance anyway? Just keep waving your arms and pirouetting about the world scene and others are bound to join in your invasions. Okay, so maybe Iraq didn't elicit a haka here but there are hints New Zealand might join America for a pas de deux with additional New Zealand troops in Afghanistan.

Far be it from me to instigate yet another sports motif, but maybe the Prime Minister is considering our basketball ways after all.

We don't see it as playing with human lives - we see it as passing the ball.

What's more, Mr Ambassador, it's a sign of your magnanimity that you respect New Zealand's nuclear-free policy. But don't underestimate how effective a few glowing comments can be in winning over Kiwi hearts and minds. The beauty of this country is that it is so small you can have everyone over to the Ambassador's residence for a cuppa and some ginger crunch, and before you know it Stewart Island could be the new Guantanamo Downunder.

I know you understand you hold a great responsibility in your large hands. Let's face it, we have so much to teach these good people.

They've missed the compelling drama of the Iraqi war, the excitement of terrorist capture on one's home ground, sucking new governments out of a vacuum of power - it is the stuff of legend or Peter Jackson movies, our new common ground.

With some diplomatic finesse and mutual respect, think of the possibilities for both countries. Our hiccup has always been our disparate size and assumed balance of power.

There has always been a great affection between our people. I mean, when King Kong lifts up Naomi Watts in the palm of his hand and they finally see eye to eye, who's to say which one holds the most power in the end anyway?

Maybe we should start from there.

* Tracey Barnett is an American journalist working in Auckland.

Jenny Ruth: Equity issue preferred to Blue Star's bonds

When Blue Star Print Group's management bought the company from its bankrupt parent, US Office Products, in 2001, I criticised the $45 million capital bond issue it used to help fund the deal.

If ever a company was in need of equity rather than adding to an already onerous pile of debt, it was Blue Star, I thought. Now Blue Star has come back to the market with a new capital bond offer, this time for $75 million plus over-subscriptions of up to $30 million.

This time around I'd still prefer to see it issuing equity because it would be a far better deal from an investor's point of view. Superficially, not that much has changed. In fact, you could say the company's balance sheet has deteriorated in the past four years.

Back then, the management buyout team put up $15 million in equity and paid US Office Products $165 million. At June 30 this year, equity was down to $14.8 million, thanks to the shareholders paying themselves more in dividends than the company earned in the previous two years.

The company earned $24.53 million in net profits in the two years and the shareholders paid themselves $27.75 million in dividends, not a bad return on a $15 million investment.

The big difference is the $32.5 million in redeemable preference shares which US Office Products left in the company to ensure the buyout took place. The preference shares earned 10 per cent annual interest to July 1 this year and will earn 14 per cent a year through to when they mature on July 31, 2010.

While the preference shares earn interest, that money isn't payable until the shares mature and no interest is payable on that money in the meantime, lowering the effective interest rate. At June 30, Blue Star owed $12.7 million in income on the preference shares. The preference shares are treated as equity in the balance sheet and, while they were held by a third party, I regarded them for what they really are: debt.

However, since then chairman Tom Sturgess, previously the chief executive and leader of the management buyout team, has bought the preference shares. Sturgess also controls the major shareholder, New Star One.

Sturgess said that at the outset he "designed the redeemable preference shares to be very benign instruments". As well as the deferred dividend payments, he had the right of first refusal to buy them.

He doesn't think the capital bond investors should worry about what might happen when the preference shares mature. "From a financial reality standpoint, I'm unlikely to do anything to injure the company because I also own everything below that."

Not quite, since management and independent directors own 15.85 per cent of Blue Star.

On paying dividends on the ordinary equity (none were paid until 2004), Sturgess says the after-tax profits "aren't a reasonable proxy for the after-tax free cashflows". Indeed. While net profit in the latest year was $15.1 million, net cashflow from operating activities was $38.3 million and free cashflow before financing activities (after capital expenditure) was $25.3 million.

"That's the barometer we use for the health of the balance sheet," Sturgess says. That does have to be balanced against the fact that there's a reason the company's depreciation is so high - $13 million in 2005. The printing industry is capital intensive and technology continues to develop. The prospectus says Blue Star has invested $89 million in technology over the past four years.

He says it's "completely appropriate" that the shareholders participate in the company's income. "They get to eat last, but that doesn't mean they don't get to eat."

Another thing the latest Blue Star offering has going for it is another four years of solid operations. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda) in 2002 were $34.2 million, above the original prospectus forecast of $33 million.

Directly comparable results for earlier years aren't available since the present company was made up of the combined Australian and New Zealand operations. Still, the combined results in the three years ended April 2001 showed ebitda declining from $34.9 million to $29.4 million. Ebitda dipped to $33 million in 2003 before rising to $45 million in 2004 and $51 million in 2005.

Sturgess said the 2003 dip reflected economic conditions and the lagging effect before the company started reaping benefits of its increased capital spending.

"The company's shown it can maintain a prudent balance sheet. It can invest in its own growth, it can service debt comfortably and pay taxes," he says.

One guide to how much the equity might really be worth is that the company is required under certain circumstances (such as if managers leave the company) to buy back the 15.85 per cent stake owned by management and directors.

The prospectus assumes that the nominal $1 shares might be worth $5.50 on July 1 next year, making that stake worth $13.2 million.

Sturgess said that if you assumed that about five times ebitda would represent a fair price for the company, then its likely worth was between $95 million and $100 million.

"It doesn't mean the company's worth that. I'm just doing arithmetic."

His intention is that the proceeds of the bond issue will completely replace the previous bond issue, repay some bank debt and possibly pay dividends on or redeem some of the preference shares. Despite the deferred structure of the latter, the company can elect to pay dividends or redeem them before maturity.

Those holding the $45 million in existing capital bonds might not be all that happy with the situation. They're receiving 10.75 per cent in interest annually and the bonds aren't set to mature until October 2008.

The new bonds, maturing in September 2012, will pay the higher of 9.1 per cent or a 2.8 per cent margin over the equivalent government stock rate. Yesterday, the November 2011 government bonds were trading at 6.02 per cent and 5.95 per cent, suggesting the actual rate will be 9.1 per cent.

Sturgess says holders of the existing bonds aren't likely to have the option of holding on to them, unless something goes wrong with the current bond issue.

Blue Star has the right to buy back the existing bonds at 103.5 per cent of their face value on 60 days' notice.

The current issue isn't underwritten, unlike the first one, but Sturgess says $75 million has been fully allocated. His advisers "assure me a fully allocated issue has never been reneged on in New Zealand so a firm underwrite doesn't really provide any extra comfort" but costs a lot more. The issue is expected to cost $2.9 million if $75 million is raised.

One fillip offered investors is that if there ever is an equity issue, the bondholders will have a right to participate at a 3 per cent discount. The downside is that the company has no intention of going public.

However Sturgess leaves that door slightly ajar: "What makes sense today might not make sense tomorrow."

Who, what, where

* Blue Star Print Group headquarters: 30 Constellation Drive, Mairangi Bay, Auckland.

* Profile: The company provides web offset and sheet-fed printing, digital printing and document management services in Australia and New Zealand. It is the largest business of its type in New Zealand and one of the largest in Australia.

* Latest results: The company made a net profit of $15.1 million on sales of $368.4 million in the year ended June 30, up from a $9.4 million net profit on sales of $338.6 million the previous year.

* Management: Managing director Keith Brodie and chief financial officer Graeme Archer.

* Major shareholders: New Star One, controlled by chairman Tom Sturgess with 84.15 per cent (the remainder is owned by management and independent directors).