Monday, November 28, 2005

Sideswipe


Brad just rolled his eyes when Angelina came home from yet another shopping spree.
The best caption ever from World Of Wonder's weekly caption contest (see above).

* * *

A nameless Kerikeri farmer took his cellphone out with him while making hay in case he needed to be contacted. Despite this excellent rural communications planning, the wife of said Kerikeri farmer rang the mobile and was unable to get hold of him. When the farmer returned home, it transpired that the mobile phone was lost and assumed to be snugly packed in a bale of hay stacked in the shed ready for next winter.

* * *

Extreme multi-tasking: In morning peak hour traffic on Friday a reader followed a woman driver who spent much of her time looking into her back seat and then turning and looking into the passenger seat. In the process, her car weaved freely about her lane and she executed some exciting sudden stops when she looked up and found the traffic in front had slowed. It turned out she was sorting and folding her washing, taking items from the back seat, folding them and placing them in a neat pile on the front seat.

* * *

What's yours is mine: The day after attending a wedding at an upmarket venue in eastern Manukau City a reader from Howick realised that she had left her jacket behind. She went back to the venue and asked if there was a Lost & Found. She writes: "The woman who was the duty manager from the previous evening told me that if anything was left behind - there are often cameras, cellphones, bags - the cleaners or other staff get to keep it. I was so horrified I contacted the management. Within a few minutes another woman rang me back to say she had my item and returned it within an hour. PS: There was also some suspicion staff ate the remains of the wedding cake."

* * *

Is there nothing your trusty mobile can't do? Chicago-based PDAHealthWare has spawned the latest mobile trend for wanna-be reproducers. The EggAlert program sends customers a text message to let them know they are ovulating and therefore most likely to conceive. Women submit their cellphone number and enter data detailing their last month's menstrual cycle to give the system a baseline. The EggAlert software predicts the next ovulation period and sends out a message five days before their expected peak fertility day. The company also offers a text message alert six days before the probable start of their next menstrual cycle. Helpfully, partners of the women can also get the message. (Source: Wireless Week Magazine)

Editorial: Grand end to season of promise

So ends a stellar year for rugby. The defeat of Scotland has confirmed a Grand Slam tour of the British Isles, the perfect complement to a clean sweep of the Lions, victory in the Tri-Nations and the retention of the Bledisloe Cup.

One loss, to South Africa in Cape Town, was the only blemish during a stern 12-test examination of the 2005 All Blacks. Add in the unexpected capture of hosting rights to the 2011 World Cup and the ongoing success of the national sevens and women's teams and this has been a remarkable season.

The All Blacks' record bears comparison with that of the great New Zealand sides. But any examination of those credentials also uncovers a warning for those who assume that winning the 2007 World Cup is now a formality. Casting back less than a decade reveals the dangers of the assumption.

John Hart's 1996 All Blacks claimed not only the inaugural Tri-Nations but were the first team to win a test series against the Springboks on South African soil. They lost only one test, against South Africa, when the series had already been decided.

The following year, the All Blacks were even more dominant, going undefeated in 12 tests. The only hiccup was a draw against England in their final international.

That great team was undone by the retirement of leading players, a situation compounded subsequently by quirky, and unsuccessful, selections during the 1999 World Cup. The task for Graham Henry and his coaching panel is to ensure a similar fate, for whatever reason, does not befall this year's outstanding performers.

The signs are encouraging. In the first instance, this is a relatively youthful squad which, subject to injury, should remain intact for the World Cup. The only doubt surrounds the captain, Tana Umaga. The Grand Slam tour also helped to remedy a shortage of positional cover, a weakness that has hindered the All Blacks at successive World Cups. Depth is being built in all positions, albeit in daunting circumstances for those required to make their international debuts in testing arenas.

While the loose forward mix, in particular, needs fine-tuning, impressive strength is now apparent in most positions.

The Grand Slam tour also put the All Blacks under pressure of a sort that will have to be withstood if the World Cup is to be claimed. In Cape Town, they wilted before the Springboks' rushing defence. Against England, they found the composure to withstand not only stifling tactics but the loss of players to the sin-bin. In recent seasons, such setbacks would not, as a rule, have been overcome.

Even so, it was a close-run thing at Twickenham. Leading players made uncharacteristic mistakes, and, when the pressure was most intense, important back-to-back lineouts were lost. But the ultimate response combined fortitude and maturity. It spoke of a team growing in stature.

The All Blacks, having established themselves as the best team in world rugby, must now maintain their edge. New Zealand, according to a stock joke, plays its best in the years between World Cups. It is in that situation again, thanks to a game plan that embodies traditional forward virtues and expansive back play, with a particular emphasis on offloading in the tackle and explosiveness at the breakdown.

Over the next two years, other countries will seek either to mimic or counter this approach. The All Blacks, in response, must develop and refine their tactical options, and the understanding of when and how to employ these. If they are able to keep one step ahead, we can look forward confidently to the World Cup.

Brian Rudman: Watch out, Air NZ's dreaded asterisks are back

Yet again, a judge has come to the same conclusion as every air traveller in the land, that the national airline has for years been hiding the true cost of its flights in the "microscopic" print at the bottom of its advertising.

So what does Air New Zealand do? True to form, it resorts to the small print. In Friday's Herald, group general manager of marketing Norm Thompson's reaction to the caning by Judge Stan Thorburn was to declare "we have to clearly understand the subtleties of his ruling and ensure future advertising is within the precedent he has now set".

If Air New Zealand's past behaviour is anything to go on, that comment sounds suspiciously like "excuse me while I dial up the QCs to find the loopholes".

In October 2000, Air New Zealand's budget off-shoot Freedom Air was fined $4000 for making false or misleading claims about prices. Two years later, Freedom was fined $10,000 on similar charges. Soon after, Commerce Commission director of fair trading Deborah Battell said she would prosecute Air New Zealand and Qantas for misleading advertising of fares.

The reaction of Air New Zealand's then chairman Ralph Norris was that the company was looking to advertise an "all-inclusive" fare price. Three years on it still seems to be just looking.

Judge Thorburn dealt with a representative sample of 20 of the commission's 355 complaints, finding one falsely represented a fare and 13 were misleading. Six complaints were dismissed.

Far from the airline getting the message back in 2002, Judge Thorburn was left with the impression it has spent the time since trying to work out how close to the wind it could sail.

He notes: "The court was told that Air New Zealand now includes additional charges in its headline price. Indeed, there was evidence that it had advertised in this way in Australian dailies before it began doing so in New Zealand."

This development left him "with a feeling" that between October 2001 and June last year "Air New Zealand had resorted to various formats, styles and terminology in its New Zealand advertisements to draw a reader's attention to the existence of additional costs, rather experimenting, it might seem, in an effort to find an acceptable approach to promotion".

Judge Thorburn ruled that prominently advertising a "headline" fare, but hiding away in the small print add-on costs, was, in the case of passenger insurance, misleading representation, and in the case of the fuel surcharge, "a false" representation. The hidden fuel surcharge "is the one which smarts most unpalatably of sharp and unacceptable practice".

But as we await the next court session where appropriate punishment will be debated, the game of cat-and-mouse over what is or isn't misleading or false advertising continues.

Click on to the internet and there's Air New Zealand offering "year-round lowest fares" to London and back for $2299*. Follow the asterisks into obscurity and you are asked to "please add round-trip taxes and surcharges [unspecified] from $412".

And in yesterday's Herald on Sunday, readers were urged to "book today" so you "don't miss out" in the airline's "huge domestic sale".

It sounded good. Auckland to Christchurch, for example, one way for just $89. But wait, there's a dreaded asterisk, pointing to the small print. There you discover it's going to cost you an additional $15 service fee "per one-way journey" to actually buy the ticket via the advertised 0800 number.

So what of the $89 come-on price? I'm guessing it might have something to do with the separate piece of small print beneath saying "internet fares".

Of course Air New Zealand is not the only offender. The whole travel industry seems out to seduce the unwary. Harvey World Travel headlines a trip to Europe "from $1898", slipping in underneath that taxes and surcharges will be from $412. And just to keep you on your toes, Flight Centre, in a raft of flight offers, tempts with two nights in Queenstown from $121. But what's this? Oh dear, the price is "based on accommodation only [airfares are additional]".

But back to the national airline. The most irritating thing is that, whatever the fine, it's the muggins customers who will end up paying. And you can guarantee that's one surcharge the airline will not be separating out in the big or the small print. Unless, that is, the judge made it. Now isn't that an idea.

Germaine Greer: The feminist and the footballer

I was standing at the bar, waiting for my order, when someone tapped my arm. I turned round to find George Best smiling at me. The fact that his eyes were on a level with my chin lessened their impact, but not much.

His deep-blue eyes, by the way. I've had the argument so many times I'm sick of it, but now that the nation has seen in a thousand photographs those same eyes staring widely out of cavernous sockets, the only living things in George's wasted face, there can be no argument about their colour: deep, stormy ocean-blue.

Many a drunk in many a pub from Enniskillen to Sydney has those heart-breaking Irish eyes.

George was speaking. Even when my ears weren't drumming I had to struggle to understand his Belfast-speak, delivered as usual very fast from behind his teeth. What he was saying was, I worked out: "Why d'ye not fancy me?"

"Not fancy you? Don't be ridiculous, George. Everybody fancies you."

"So why not you?"

"I do fancy you, George."

"So why d'ye do nothing about it?"

The year was 1968, George Best's annus mirabilis, the year Manchester United won the European Cup, and George was named European Footballer of the Year and English Footballer of the Year.

The place was the Brown Bull in Chapel St, Manchester, two minutes away from Granada where I was employed two days a week making a TV series with Kenny Everett. Kenny preferred a quiet night and all mod cons at the Piccadilly Hotel. I chose to risk assorted adventures in the shabbier purlieu of the Brown Bull.

One night I opened my bedroom door to find most of the Manchester United football team standing behind it with their fingers to their lips, because the police were downstairs.

I sat on my bed, with footballers standing silent and immobile all around me, until we heard the police cars drive away and everyone went back downstairs, which is as near as I ever got to bedding an entire football team. George wasn't there that time.

George wasn't often seen out with the rest of the United team. George had his own team of mop-haired twentysomethings in designer suits, with nipped waists and wide lapels, high-collared shirts with double cuffs well-shot, and chelsea boots.

They were involved in various ways in George's business ventures, hair salons, fashion outlets, car showrooms. I never knew whether they were spending his money or he was spending theirs. George was generous to a fault; there was nothing grasping about him. His hangers-on, mostly Mancunians, were altogether craftier.

"Because I'm not a fool, George. Every time you come in here you've got a different blonde on your arm."

Possibly because George was paying for the drinks, his courtiers were seldom accompanied by women, but George invariably displayed his latest trophy. I recognised some of the women he brought in and I was surprised he could set his sights so high, but even the classiest of them would not be seen twice in his company.

George was just 22. There is a sentimental belief that Sir Matt Busby acted as a father to the lad, but I saw no sign of it. When George had been shipped out from Belfast like an Irish racehorse at the age of 15, he had been left so frightened and lonely in his first two days that he ran away. When he got home, his father rang the club and got him shipped back again.

Even in 1968 George seemed to have no mates at the club. This may have been because he was arrogant and chippy and/or because the older and uglier men were jealous.

It seemed to me that if the fans came after George for autographs, the rest of the team walked away, and signed different autographs for different people. It was as if George had one public and the club had another.

The legendary threesome of Charlton-Law-Best was just that, legendary. I wasn't surprised when George didn't turn up for Sir Bobby's benefit. Bobby admitted recently he had been "hostile" to George.

The older men should have been smart enough to find a way of guiding the boy but, as far as I can see, they never really tried. So what if he was cheeky and insubordinate? That's what boys are, and that's what their elders and betters are meant to knock out of them.

George's problem was that he was just too good and they couldn't forgive him. If the men in charge at Old Trafford had taken their job seriously they would have made sure George Best didn't become alienated from the team, but they didn't.

His development as a player had come to a halt long before United dropped him in 1974. He may have wasted his talent, but the club didn't help. It's typical of George that he never blamed anyone but himself.

I decided to tease George, if only because he was teasing me.

"Besides, there's someone in the team I fancy more." It worked. George was genuinely astounded. "Who?"

"Guess." George went right through the team: Alex Stepney? Tony Dunne? Billy Foulkes? Shay Brennan? Paddy Crerand? Bobby Charlton? Brian Kidd? John Aston? No to all of them. George was stumped.

"I'm not surprised you can't work it out," I said reprovingly. "He's been playing opposite you and you haven't even seen him yet, let alone passed him the ball."

This was always my beef against George the player. If he got the ball, he kept it. He made the other players look bad (Beckham makes them look good).

Everyone who discusses his brilliance as a footballer talks about his amazing ball skills, his courage, balance, grace, speed and dexterity, his way of slipping through the defence and leaving the keeper standing.

No one talks about Best's team play. As far as I could see, there was little of that.

George eventually figured out who had taken my fancy and, typically, went out of his way to make sure we got a chance to get together, but that's a different story.

One of my reasons for not entering into a flirtation with George was he thought women were to be lied to, but if you were a mate, he was four-square.

Because everyone else asked him for favours all the time, I never asked him for anything, until one day somebody begged me to get hold of tickets for a Manchester United-Queen's Park Rangers game so he could take his little boy who was about to go into hospital for an operation.

George told me to show up at a hotel in Russell Square, where the tickets would be waiting for me. When I got to the hotel the team had already left for the ground. The commissionaire eyed me with disdain. "George Best has left you tickets for the game, you say," he sneered. "And why would George Best be doing that?"

"He said they'd be at reception. Could you go and look please?"

"There's nothing at reception," he said. I was about to turn and go. But I pushed past the commissionaire, walked up to the desk, leant over and started looking for the left mail. This brought staff running, and a minute later I had an envelope in my hand with three tickets inside. There are a few who could tell you this thoughtfulness was typical of George, but not many of them are women. His pattern of emotional and physical abuse of the women who shared his bed, together with a strong but mostly notional attachment to his mother beside whom he is to be buried, is depressingly familiar.

George was a genuinely hard man, but hardness results in fragility. His working-class Ulster-Scots upbringing afforded him no way of coming to terms with that fragility, except to deny it and order another round of drinks. Throughout his illness, he showed that, though he would not conform, would not make even the slightest attempt to deserve his new liver, he would not complain either.

His was an unforgiving world and he was not about to ask forgiveness. No matter how far away he travelled, how much money he spent or how bright the sun shone, his soulscape remained as grim and narrow as the streets of the Cregagh estate.

Even in his moment of triumph I was concerned for George. It made me rug up on a cold dark October evening and risk the crowds at Old Trafford to see the second leg of the World Club Championship final against Estudiantes. I didn't follow football and I wouldn't have been a United supporter if I had, but I felt I couldn't stay away. The first leg had been vicious. Nobby Stiles, harassed from the time he set foot in Argentina, had been sent off, George had been virtually locked down and Man U had lost 1-0.

From the kick-off it was clear Estudiantes were determined to put George out of action. For many long minutes he eluded bone-crushing tackles, as huge defenders moved in on him in twos and even threes. Then, directly in front of me, Jose Hugo Medina turned, leant back then forward, and spat in George's face.

The response was so swift I didn't see it, but there was no doubt Medina was flat on his back and George's punch had put him there. Medina had to stay down for a bit before he could figure out he and George had both been sent off. Ultimately the game was drawn, the cup lost and I was left with a glimpse of just how tough it was to be George Best.

The last thing George would want is that people should feel sorry for him. All kinds of people are going to have their say about him, but by my reckoning he will have left more people better off for having known him than worse off. So, goodbye, George, and, again, thanks.

Laurie Loper: A massive waste of potential

Columnist Tapu Misa's probing piece, "Doing some homework on closing the gaps" (Herald, Nov 9) reminds us that we don't have remedies for the underachievement "tail" issue. It implies there are gaps in our understanding of what's involved and that we need to find better answers.

As Misa indicates, these gaps have a habit of sticking around. She quotes an American magazine, City Journal, that points to "40 years of failed and costly programmes aimed at closing the educational gap between the poor minorities and middle-class whites". And gaps have serious consequences - Misa cites the recent Paris riot situation. Our gap is serious too; we're currently ranked second-worst of the OECD countries. Making it more so, "our tail is disproportionately Maori and Pacific Island", signalling possible future, violent, social unrest.

Which brings us to causes. Here countries identify very similar things. They're mostly the all too familiar social, economic, and cultural disadvantage things. Parents usually cop a fair old rollicking, as do teachers. Boys learn differently to girls, some think. However, history tells us that no matter what's identified, and targeted, that achievement gap never disappears.

So how do we fix things? In New Zealand we are doing lots of things. One recent one is interesting. It's called Team Up. Expensive at near $16 million, it's a government attempt to get parents and teachers working together to boost learning. Snaring Tana Umaga to front it was a coup - I hope it's not the worst hospital pass he's ever been thrown. For this is yet another in the tradition of "commonsense" solutions, and these, being belief-based, don't have a good track record. Some believe you've got to fix up the disadvantaging factors before getting educational things happening. Others, like me, would argue for the opposite .

But it's when we look to the things in education that need fixing that I think I part company with Misa. The best we ever get from specific gap-changing schemes are minor and/or temporary improvements and then only in particular and limited contexts.

Such initiatives don't improve student-learning outcomes simply because they can't. They don't treat the main issue, the inherently ineffective way we learn.

We know all this now from one of our own, the late Graham Nuthall, ex-Professor of Education, Canterbury University. Using innovative, data-based techniques, he discovered how learning works in classrooms and how students learn. Importantly he found that not only teachers, but all of us hold to these mythical beliefs. They constitute an ancient, inherited culture of learning that's out of whack with how learning actually works in classrooms.

The main offender here is something he calls the "teacher-as-classroom-manager" model.. It effectively ensures few if any students will ever learn at their best. Partly, it makes teachers so busy they simply can't attend to everything that's going on.

But other things operate here too. For instance, what teachers typically use to monitor learning isn't good at telling them what's happening.

Teachers also don't know that learning is almost entirely a student-generated process, and that it's unique to individuals. They don't know that the capacity to learn is in fact spread remarkably evenly among all students so it's entirely possible all students might learn equally well and at levels higher than do the best.

Much reputable research, Nuthall's included, suggests the conversion rate of latent student-learning capacity in every place of learning is very low, possibly lower than 50 per cent.

We're talking here of a massive waste of human potential. Since low achievers aren't that big a fraction of the total student population, even if we're successful with all of them, it won't significantly reduce the total wastage - it won't ensure the skills to raise efficacy reach to the wider teaching force, and it won't reduce the number of future underachievers.

Ask parents with non-achieving offspring what's wrong and they'll say schools aren't doing their job. Ask schools and they'll say parents aren't doing theirs. But here's a curious twist. Both of these opposed groups share a strong belief in the very thing that's been found the villain here - the good-teaching model that all schools strive to provide.

We should note here too, everybody, the Government, the Education Ministry and the ERO, thinks this model is tops.

So here we are, we're all pushing the very model of learning that's stuffing the system up. I wonder how long this destructive nonsense will go on.

* Laurie Loper is a registered psychologist from Tauranga with 50 years' experience in education, mainly in special education.

Jacqueline Rowarth: Drought help and welfare

Farm welfare assistance has become a hot topic in Australia once again, with the release of a report assessing drought support programmes.

Mike Young, a senior researcher in the land and water division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Jim McColl, a former state Director-General of Agriculture, have concluded that helping struggling, drought-stricken farmers to stay on the land merely prolongs the agony for them, and results in more land degradation.

Under a normal autonomous adjustment process, say the authors, these people receiving assistance would leave.

Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran disagrees, describing the report as a "callous and highly inaccurate judgment".

In contrast, the National Farmers Federation has welcomed the contribution the report has made to the debate. Federation president Peter Corish has suggested that the federation agrees with the main statement of the report that Government policy should not impede natural adjustment within agricultural industries, and in doing so prevent viable farmers from expanding their enterprises and improving their economies of scale.

The debate is now likely to focus on the aim of the "welfare". Is it to assist people to stay on the farm at all costs (the CSIRO implication) or to provide viable farmers who face exceptional climatic stress with the short-term resources needed to maintain and protect Australia's agricultural and environmental resource base?

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics surveyed farms receiving assistance in 2004 and found that most of farms self-identifying as "unviable" did not receive farm business support but did receive welfare help.

Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, has suggested that the unpredictability of Australia's rainfall is perhaps even more of a problem than its low average.

When Australia was first settled, potential farmers had no way of knowing that the rainfall was driven by the El Nino Southern Oscillation; it is difficult to detect in Europe and has been recognised by climatologists only in recent decades.

The first farmers, says Diamond, had the misfortune to arrive in a string of wet years. They started farming in the expectation that what they were experiencing was normal.

Diamond estimates that the rainfall in most of Australia's farmlands is sufficient to raise crops to maturity in only one in two years. In some areas crop maturity can be obtained in only one in five years.

This contributes to making Australian agriculture expensive and uneconomic: the farmer goes to the expense of preparing the land and sowing the crop, and in half or more years there is no resulting crop. Furthermore, the prepared and exposed soil is then subject to erosion, which has long-term impacts.

Australian policy states that farmers must manage for drought. It provides rescue packages for exceptional (once in 20-year) events.

The Howard Government established a farm management deposit scheme which allowed money to be deposited, untaxed, in a good year, and withdrawn, with tax, in a bad year.

While the debate will continue, there are clearly some pointers for New Zealand as climatic variability increases.

Not subsidies, but intelligent incentives to plan ahead, should be on the agenda for the new Government.

* Jacqueline Rowarth is director of the Office for Environmental Programmes at the University of Melbourne.