Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Kids grow up so fast these days: Chris Melville's 3-year-old spotted these in the toy section of the Glenfield Westfield $2 shop last weekend.

By Ana Samways

Petrus van der Schaaf wonders if Sky City has any defence for using playing cards in which the red suits are markedly maroonish/brownish, rather than the standard bright red, or are they simply exploiting the fact that around 12 per cent of men have colour-blindness that makes such a dull red much harder to distinguish from the black, which - in moments of quick decision-making - would be a minor, but significant, disadvantage to the player?

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Unusual Coffee Table Books:

1. Still Lovers by Elena Dorfman is a collection of art photos showing the complex relationship between sex dolls and their owners.

2. Dictators' Homes by Peter York is a breezy guide to the taste of dictators, documenting their crimes of interior decorating. (Source: www.worldofwonder.net)

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Sarah Zapolsky was checking in for a flight to Italy when she found that her 9-month-old son's name was on the United States' "no fly" list of suspected terrorists. "We pointed down to the stroller, and he sat there and gurgled," Zapolsky said, recalling the incident at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D. C. "The desk agent started laughing ... She couldn't print us out a boarding pass because he's on the no-fly list." Zapolsky, who did not want her son's name made public, said she was initially amused by the mix-up. "But when I found out you can't actually get off the list, I started to get a bit annoyed." She isn't alone. According to the Transportation Security Administration, more than 28,000 people have applied to get on the "cleared list" - which takes note of individuals whose names are similar to those on the watch list - but even making the "cleared list" does not guarantee an end to hassles. (Source: Reuters)

Colin James: Laid-back lizard with a tongue that's ready to strike

It's the time of the year for political plaudits. My first goes to John Armstrong. He does not do politics. He watches and analyses politics for this paper. He does that with honesty and clarity, and every now and then with punch. One of his punches in 2003 knocked out Bill English.

For that honesty and clarity and punch, he is much respected by peers and politicians. He is without superior in our trade.

And it was a great trade to be in this year. Scams, muckups, public relations disasters, wildly divergent polls and the sweatiest, closest-run, meatiest election in a quarter of a century, with a juicy dessert to follow in a bizarre new type of government that has a Foreign Minister who both is and isn't.

The star of that contest was John Key, I wrote at election time, listing a rare concatenation of qualities. Now he is climbing the preferred prime minister rankings. He learns fast and he learns well. Armstrong made Key his politician of the year with good reason.

I can't go that far yet. Key's currency-dealer gut instincts for the most part serve him well, but they are too thin to run a government. There is still a large gap between trader John and Prime Minister Key - even Treasurer Key.

And his side lost. As the National Party used to say before it lost the art of winning, there is no second place in politics.

Which takes out Don Brash, too. He got National on the board with his tough believability but lost himself in the campaign, trading his PhD in economic principle for auction politics - then regressing to undergraduate post-election to make Wayne Mapp, PhD, "political correctness eradicator". The remarkable thing is that Brash and Key nearly got there. The unremarkable thing is that they lost in part because they were not ready. Next time, however ... They had company. It was a year for losers.

The leaders of all small parties, except the Maori Party, lost - the Greens least (but they lost Rod Donald); Rodney Hide, most. Prestige-hungry Winston Peters grabbed the baubles of high office but lost Tauranga (and nearly his party) and, if he doesn't learn one adage, "head down and tail up" might end up proving another, "Be careful what you wish for ... "

One winner won by losing. Paul Swain has resigned from "Swainy and boys". He is now Mr Work-life Balance, valuing his new wife and year-old daughter above the baubles of office. Cherubic is the only way to describe him cooing over the baby who fired his midlife wobble.

Plenty of others are un-cherubic these days: David Benson-Pope, now seriously wounded, and the swag of Labour MPs who lost electorate seats, including Jim Sutton, whose dismissal is arguably Helen Clark's biggest mistake this year.

Yes, she makes mistakes, especially when her pride is at stake. But, make no mistake, Clark is a winner. This was her and Labour's election.

It should have been a romp on the back of the debt-fuelled economic boom. And it should have been a rout at the hands of ordinary, once-Labour folk flustered by Treaty correctness and political correctness. So it was knife-edge.

Clark muttered darkly to one senior politician a couple of days after the big day that Labour's big losses in the provinces were the product of too much social engineering. The conservative farm girl is increasingly evident in this supposedly "left" government. And they breed'em tough down on the farm. When others lost heads and hope in the final week as Labour's own polling foretold doom, Clark mined her prodigious reserves.

She is the sort of contestant who crashes the pain barrier to win, the sort in sport whom this country adulates.

But in this country politicians are sport, to be kicked around.

Which brings me to a man who has kicked around in politics for 30 years, mostly in the back rooms but with a profile, too.

In a tight election no one factor decides the outcome. Clark's fighting spirit was critical, as were her ruthless nuclear attack on Brash and her massive bribes. But so were National's not-quite- readiness and too-hard Treaty line, the Maori Party's delivery of previously non-voting young Maori to Labour's party vote, and Labour's "registered non-vote" project.

In 2004 a few hard-headed dreamers reckoned Labour had a large dormant vote in state houses and low-income suburbs. They did a census, devised a strategy, and ran a "factory" in the election's second last week which blanketed those areas with scary "you will lose your house if you don't vote" messages and put platoons on the ground to get them to the polls.

This was the work of many but one man gave it unique energy - a genial pig-in-muck in politics who charms money out of boardrooms into Labour's war-chest.

He has the hooded eyes of a lizard but is as quick as a lizard's tongue to tap an idea or score a point - and too much a lover of the game not to make mistakes. He made a whopper at Budget time, which cost Labour dearly.

So he's human. He's my politician for 2005. He's Labour president, Mike Williams.

Editorial: Judges got Clarkson ruling right

The idea that personal wealth should not confer an advantage on candidates for Parliament is fundamentally sound. But like most principles it can be taken too far. Winston Peters attempted to take it much too far in his High Court action against the man who took the Tauranga seat from him at the general election, National's Bob Clarkson.

Individual candidates are allowed to spend no more than $20,000 on their campaign in the electorate. Mr Peters argued that Mr Clarkson had spent more by counting some services supplied at no cost to the candidate. Among them was a telephone "push-poll", a sign on a van and the signage on Mr Clarkson's campaign headquarters, the lease of which allowed him to use the exterior.

The Electoral Act makes it clear that the spending restriction includes the market value of any materials provided to the candidate free or at a discount. The three judges who heard Mr Peters' case decided that only actual materials such as timber and paint are covered by the act, not the notional value of advertising space on a building or vehicle. Counting that sort of material, the court estimated Mr Clarkson's spending to be much more than he declared but within the $20,000 limit.

Mr Peters is not the only person displeased by the decision. Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said it proved "a truck can be driven through the current constraints" and he expected the justice and electoral select committee of Parliament would look hard at the judgment when it reviewed the election. "It is reasonably clear that aspects of what is allowable spending will have to be revisited," he said.

The Labour Party is ever-ready to tighten controls on campaign spending, ever-conscious perhaps that Labour candidates are less likely to own or lease property in highly visible locations, or have supporters who can provide commercial services at little or no cost. But Labour probably over-estimates the impact of these things, and under-estimates the ability of the voters to make allowance for it.

What, in any case, is wrong with a candidate making use of certain advantages? Nobody wants to restrict the voluntary labour that supporters are allowed to supply to an electorate candidate, though some parties might be naturally better endowed than others with politically dedicated workers. The energy and enthusiasm of supporters ought to be a factor in election campaigns, as should their donations of whatever they can offer.

It would be a sad day that the legal restrictions went beyond what candidates purchased for their campaign and included anything of value they or their local party members possessed.

The High Court has concluded that the Electoral Act through several revisions has always taken care to define what constitutes a restricted electoral expense so that the net is not cast discouragingly wide.

If candidates were obliged to include every valuable non-cash contribution in their spending declaration, they would dare not accept such donations for fear of miscalculating their market value, which is an imprecise measure in any case. Many legitimate commercial factors might explain a variation in prices for printing or the like.

The court has decided that some of the signs and newspaper advertising that Mr Clarkson did not regard as candidate promotions were assisting his campaign and ought to have been declared. But its estimate of their market value lets Mr Clarkson's election stand. The judges have taken a liberal approach to campaign restrictions and so they should. Parliament now should leave well enough alone.

Brian McCartan: Gloomy news obscures progress of humanity

Judging from the headlines, 2005 was a gloomy year indeed. The devastating earthquake in Kashmir, ongoing war in Iraq, civil war in Sudan, renewed famine in central Africa and the threat of a worldwide flu pandemic darkened the news.

But these headlines obscure a far brighter underlying trend: on average, people across the planet are living longer, healthier lives, with greater opportunity for education and political freedom than ever before.

We unavoidably view our world through news articles that break up an otherwise overwhelming stream of information into digestible bites.

As a result, we often "lose the forest for the trees" by focusing on sensational short-term stories that impact on relatively few people.

It is difficult to place these singular events in context, and it is all too easy to lose sight of more fundamental developments. If we step back from daily headlines and examine broader global trends in human progress, an encouraging picture for 2005 emerges.

Income: Worldwide incomes are at their highest levels in history and are rising. Since 1960, more than a billion people have pulled themselves out of the direst poverty. This trend caused the World Bank to conclude that "the past two decades have witnessed one of the most rapid reductions in poverty in human history".

This success has been propelled by China, which alone has lifted over 400 million out of poverty in the past 20 years.

Other countries, such as Bangladesh, have made substantial strides in poverty reduction, without China's high rates of economic growth, through progressive Government programmes focused on improving health care and education.

The rapid globalisation of the world economy and industrialisation of many formerly agricultural economies, which has unquestionably brought environmental loss and social upheaval, has also raised incomes for literally billions of people.

Health and education: Across the planet people are living on average seven years longer than they did in the 1970s, and the gap between life expectancies in the richest and poorest countries has closed by 10 years since 1960.

Childhood mortality, a key indicator for advances in health systems, has steadily declined worldwide. In the past decade, 1.2 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water.

Literacy has slowly risen in lower-income countries, now reaching 76 per cent.

Primary school enrolment has advanced steadily, with more than eight out of 10 youngsters now in school.

The devastating expansion of HIV/Aids has been a notable and troubling exception to these positive trends.

Political and civil rights: Half the world's population now lives in countries that have multi-party electoral systems that respect basic human rights - the highest level in history.

The breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991 precipitated a move towards Western system democracies, not only within the borders of the former Soviet Union but also within former "client" states.

More than 80 countries in central Europe, East Asia, Latin America and parts of sub-Saharan Africa have all notched gains in political and civil rights, and more than 30 military dictatorships have been replaced by civilian Governments.

About two-thirds of the world's population now has a free or partly free press.

Armed conflict: While the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, the number of armed conflicts has declined steadily from about 50 in 1990 to below 30 today - nearly the lowest level since the end of World War II.

The number of men and women in uniform and total world military spending have eased from Cold War peaks.

Catastrophic wars between major states that pervaded Europe and Asia until the end of World War II have largely been replaced by smaller-scale internal conflicts, primarily in lower-income countries.

Almost half the conflicts are on the African continent, including by far the most deadly war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The number of refugees and displaced persons hit by civil unrest worldwide peaked at more than 35 million in 1990 and has since declined to about 20-25 million. The decline in refugees directly reflects reduction in the number of armed conflicts.

However, progress towards a safer world, unlike progress in health, education and income, can be quickly reversed with the outbreak of a single major conflict. Recent brinkmanship between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan is the most chilling reminder of this danger.

Such a sweeping survey of the state of our species is doomed to overlook and oversimplify, masking the still troubling worldwide problems of poverty, strife and injustice.

Have we sacrificed our environment and quality of life in pursuit of higher incomes? Do our democracies sufficiently recognise minority interest or full expression of political freedoms?

We cannot shirk from addressing these issues and facing the deep divisions in our world.

The progress of the many has been mirrored by a retreat for more than a quarter of the world's population into isolation, poor health and extreme poverty.

People living in part of sub-saharan Africa and some countries of the former Soviet Union have actually seen their well-being decline over the past decade.

These global problems can be overwhelming and appear to defy our best intentions and efforts. Yet the unmistakable progress of the majority of humanity strikes a brighter note.

This progress should not make us complacent, but rather fuel optimism that the human industry and creativity that have achieved suchtremendous progress can be further tapped to tackle our unmet challenges, allowing us to begin the New Year with confidence and resolve.

* Brian McCartan is director of the Global Trends Project, a Seattle-based non-profit research group.

Victoria Beck: Door opens to a wider world

When a child, like those mentioned by Auckland city missioner Diane Robertson, I had no idea when my birthday was. I had no idea that breakfast, lunch and dinner were eaten in that sequence, that a beach lay within walking distance from where I lived.

So bless those hardworking, empathetic, caring and inspirational teachers who somehow get through to those like I used to be, that there is a wider world "beyond the dairy".

They know themselves to be the vital link between whether an "underclass" child is better equipped with the necessary tools for a life of richer experiences and participation, or one of abysmal ignorance forever doomed to live without any control of personal circumstances.

Encouragement, spoken English, time for family discussion, toys, books, newspapers, radio, television, organisation and routine were not part of my world. No one's fault, just the way life is for some.

What I was fortunate to have, though, was a mother who was hardworking, resilient and resourceful.

She was the sole breadwinner and, without knowing English or how the New Zealand system functioned, she brought up six of us in an alien land, never once feeling sorry for herself.

Having no concept of the welfare state, she worked long hours.

It is difficult for those from mainstream middle-class homes to comprehend how much of what they know and take for granted is absorbed by osmosis and how some home environments can be so totally lacking in everyday knowledge, information, order, opportunity and joy.

Research indicates that the child who reads can transcend lack of knowledge and financial capital. I know from my own experience that it can be the key to parity in educational achievement at earlier levels.

Primary and intermediate school were for me a Utopia, full of stimulating learning and activity, even though I did not understand a lot of what was going on much of the time. There was no one I could ask. But it all came to make sense decades later.

I still recall the helplessness I felt because I had so little to say at the opening of a concert for staff and pupils that I had organised to fundraise for Corso.

I now know that verbal facility and confidence arise out of frequent opportunities for children to voice their thoughts.

Such occasions are seldom afforded to those from certain backgrounds. I am grateful to those teachers who overlooked the poor communication skills to foster the "can do" attitude, so giving me a sense of competence.

In other words, they understood that the quiet, seemingly backward child with poor English had strengths which could be developed.

The privileged sometimes see common sense and enjoyment of everyday delights as an aspect of intelligence but I think them to be part of the learning package in a good home environment.

A friend mentioned how much he enjoyed sunsets when his brother reminded him how often their mother had taken them to the beach to enjoy them at day's end.

Why am I writing this? Because I firmly believe that our taxes would be well spent funding more good teachers in impoverished areas, so that those working at the coalface do not "burn out" and leave the profession. They are the ones doing society's rescue work.

It's of no benefit channelling vast sums into never-ending research, consultants' reports or commissions to investigate the outcomes of poverty.

Such exercises benefit only the educated elite with almost no trickle-down to those desperately in need of help now.

* Victoria Beck is a volunteer worker, formerly a student of sociology and education, and a business owner.

Dan Slater: Attitudes trip up trade talks

The people who ensured that last week's World Trade Organisation talks made so little progress were the participating countries, not Korean farmers jumping into the harbour.

Numerous protesters were hoping the talks would fail and will no doubt claim the credit for the meeting's lacklustre result.

But the biggest irony is the talks showed attitudes to the WTO from the member countries themselves are still as deeply ambiguous as ever.

If nothing else watching the talks unfold in Hong Kong was educational. If you have been reading the press coverage from conservative publications such as the Economist you can picture witty and intellectual writers wearily telling the Third World millions to "just be sensible and get with the free-trade programme".

But talking to southern delegates (southern these days means undeveloped or poor in politically correct terms, although where that leaves Asia, mainly located in the Northern Hemisphere, is a mystery) it seems that the conservative reports don't really cover all the angles.

Many editorials have understandably criticised developing countries for having high tariffs against each other.

Thus, developing countries (as opposed to less-developed countries (LDCs), the poorest of all, have tariffs that are twice as high on average as the European Union. That hurts trade between poor countries.

Some commentators also say that poor countries should stop calling for the end to agricultural subsidies in the rich nations: after all, the poor benefit from the import of cheap food from these countries.

Such clever arguments apart, the poorer countries have been kept back by splits within their own ranks.

For negotiating purposes, the LDCs and developing countries should ideally show a united front but, in fact, they often have divergent views.

In many cases, LDCs have bilateral trade deals with rich countries which they are reluctant to renegotiate within the WTO framework to benefit all countries. Many LDCs are also willing to accede to demands by Western countries that China, Brazil and India be treated differently as (highly successful development models) not in need of special treatment. Developing economies see this as giving in to "divide and rule" policies by the West.

Developing countries in some ways had the most to win or lose at the Hong Kong talks. While the rich nations are willing to help out the LDCs, they are wary of the growing economic clout of the medium-income nations.

One Venezuelan delegate told me that his country was ranked as a developing country despite having pockets of serious poverty. "But we still need help. It's not enough to look simply at a country's GDP to decide whether or not it's developing."

What's clear is the different way in which rich and poor countries regard the WTO.

Many southern delegates see the WTO as a development tool with all the bells and whistles - including large dollops of aid- while Western conservatives prefer to see it as a trade liberalisation forum. For them, classical economy is clear on the inherent benefits of free trade.

Trade liberalisation indeed sounds good on the surface, but I was shocked to hear some of the comments made to me by southern delegates.

They complain about two aspects especially, the Trips and Trims, referring to trade-related intellectual property issues and trade-related investment measures.

According to the first, developing countries may not engage in reverse engineering. That simply means taking a Japanese or US computer, stripping it down, learning how it's been manufactured and then making and selling your own.

Not being able to do that is a huge disadvantage. If they can't do that, how can they move up the technology ladder quickly and cheaply? In effect, it's preventing them from taking the same path as Japan and other Asian countries.

Trade-related investment measures are even more disturbing. This refers to measures which give exporting companies (huge multinationals located in poor countries) the right NOT to source products locally, but from their own subsidiaries, even if they are overseas.

For southern delegates, this removes much of the benefit they were hoping to achieve from free trade.

"You could have a situation where the poor country's GDP is growing, exports are booming - but there is only a limited domestic knock-on effect in jobs or income levels, because the exporting companies are sourcing from overseas," one delegate said.

In effect, he's saying that the domestic small-to-medium enterprise sector, the backbone of any Third World country, is frozen out from playing the role of supplier to the exporting multinationals.

What it boils down to is this: developing countries are not interested in producing value-for-money commodity goods, however much it conforms to classical economic theory. What they want is economic interaction with the West which will enable them to move up the income ladder. That means gradually moving up from producing coffee, rice and bananas to producing cars, electronics and steel. It's the better salaries and living conditions associated with these industries which will enable developing countries to tackle their number one priority - poverty.

While it may be economically advantageous for each country to stick to what it does best (as stipulated by Adam Smith's theory of comparative economics), that's simply not ambitious enough for most developing countries.

Yet developed countries are reluctant to be drawn into changing the WTO into a huge poverty alleviation project. Many of these problems are domestic and should be solved locally. That, after all, is one of the purposes of national governments.

And the record of outside interference in improving domestic conditions is certainly ambiguous.

Next week we'll take a look at what WTO membership has meant to China.

* Dan Slater is a journalist based in Beijing.