Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sideswipe

What do you get when you put a stir-crazy unemployed actor in a room with a stack of gossip mags and a camera? See link below for more of Californian Jeff Polage's work.

By Ana Samways

Signs you may need a new job soon:

11. The security guards begin wearing body armour.

10. They turn off your computer after 1pm to "save on electricity".

9. They move your desk to the basement and take away your stapler.

8. You're listed as part of the inventory.

7. Your CEO just fell past your window.

6. Your new business cards now have an expiration date.

5. The cafeteria menus now say "Food , may contain 10 per cent recycled content" in tiny letters at the bottom of each page.

4. There's a meeting on the schedule for "Employee Liquidation".

3. The people in Human Resources start acting really nice to you.

2. Your boss asks if your skill set includes cock fighting.

1. Your boss says "Remember, there is no u in team."

(Source: satirical website BBSpot)

* * *

Overheard in Farmers, St Lukes:

Customer: Do you stock any Calvin & Goliath pyjamas?

Sales Assistant: Calvin & Goliath?

Customer: Yes, I was hoping to get a pair for my friend's birthday.

Sales Assistant: Could you be thinking of David & Goliath?

Customer: Maybe ...

* * *

A reader writes: "Last Thursday I flew from Auckland to Wellington overnight for business and when I returned to my car at Auckland airport, a green Toyota Prado, I noticed a note on an Eastridge New World receipt under the wiper blade.

It read "Thanks for scratching my door, asshole", which confused me a little as I drove away. Yesterday when I finally got around to the monthly wash I noticed that the note-person had also used a key to gouge an even more sincere signature along my door.

To that person, who obviously lives in the Eastridge area, it wasn't me, but thanks for the kind words and the panel job, may karma be with you."

* * *

Gallery of the Absurd

Editorial: No excuse for blunder in Pakistan

The United States fired missiles into a village in Pakistan at the weekend, believing the second-in-command of al Qaeda to be there. If he was there he had left by the time the missiles hit, reducing three houses to rubble and killing 18 people. Pakistan has duly protested to Washington but little good that will do. The world has become resigned to America's assumed right to act in a way that would not be tolerated from any other state save perhaps Israel.

Both the US and Israel reserve the right to carry out aerial attacks on foreign soil where they see a potential threat to their security. But Israel has been at least discreet about it, and deadly efficient. The US is prone to the kind of blunder it committed at the weekend because its intelligence in the Middle East plainly remains deficient. Success, of course, cannot justify invasions of other nations' jurisdiction but failure leaves attention focused on what the Pentagon calls collateral damage.

The US has long made it clear it will not necessarily respect national boundaries in conducting a "war on terror". It is pursuing a state-less enemy and argues that any country which lets itself be a haven for known terrorists has to accept the consequences. Pakistan's remote mountainous border region with Afghanistan is undoubtedly a refuge for al Qaeda militants who escaped US forces on the ground in Afghanistan four years ago. The organisation was based in Pakistan, as were the Taleban before the latter took power in Kabul.

A US missile attack on a Pakistani border village a few weeks ago succeeded in killing an Egyptian, Abu Hamza Rabia, reckoned to be ranked third in al Qaeda behind the man they missed last weekend, another Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Pakistan undoubtedly harbours the enemy, but hit-and-miss methods of this kind can only discredit the cause for which the war on terror is being waged.

Wherever the US can prosecute this war within civilised international conventions it should do so. Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, is an ally of the US even if this does not make him popular there. His Government's authority does not extend strongly into the border region but the US could surely do something to change that. Instead, Washington seems content to stand back and wage this war from the air, using mostly unmanned craft controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA will have contacts among the tribesmen or villagers of the Afghan border region and when they get word of an al Qaeda leader's presence they call counsels of war in Washington. The intelligence has to be quickly assessed, along with the number of innocent people likely to be in the vicinity, and decisions made before the quarry moves on. It is a hasty, haphazard operation. When it goes wrong it leaves the US looking little better than its enemies who bring death to civilians in distant places.

Terrorists might not respect international conventions but the US should. It ought to have agents on the ground in Pakistan capable of pursuing al Qaeda leaders with a good deal more precision than the "smart weapons" launched by stand-off forces. And it ought to be acting at all times with the consent of the Pakistan Government.

If a war on "terror" can ever be won it will not be by outdoing terrorists at their own methods. It must be waged with international co-operation and respect for the independence and integrity of friendly states. The US would not allow others to act with such disregard for sovereign territory and it should impose the same discipline on itself.

Tony Garnier: Time to fix Auckland's Third World roading mishmash

As a former transport planner, Phil Chase should know better than to argue that completion of State Highway 20 is a gigantic mistake. He couldn't be more wrong.

In a report prepared over two years by transport planners from the Auckland Regional Council, Auckland City, Manukau City, Waitakere City, Transit New Zealand and the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA), the message is clear : "SH20 should be completed, through to the Northwestern Motorway."

"This is to provide additional transport capacity in the region, to improve accessibility, assist economic development and support the [region's and Government's] growth strategy.

"It will also assist other transport improvements, such as greater bus priorities along Mt Albert Rd and allow greater emphasis to be placed on pedestrian and cycle activity in the Avondale and New Lynn growth centres."

Given that for two years Auckland politicians have sat on undisputed Australian research showing that the economic benefit from completing the western ring route will generate an additional $830 million GDP growth a year, a decision against completion of SH20 is unthinkable.

Chase claimed that by OECD standards Auckland already has one of the most extensive motorway networks in the world.

The Auckland reality is that we have a one-third completed motorway network made up of a single north-south State Highway 1 corridor used by national, regional and local traffic - a Third World network trying to service a First World city.

The rest of the region's so-called strategic roading "network" is a mishmash of short motorway sections, a number of arterial roads and upgraded local roads that, predictably, give Auckland a daily traffic nightmare and make provision of reliable regional bus services impossible.

Auckland's aspiration to be a high quality world city requires that it have a modern, integrated transport system - one that comprises both a strategic roading network and a high quality public transport service.

The issue is not about trading roads for public transport, but how to get the right balance of roads that will enable a better quality public transport service to be provided.

In the absence of a truly "strategic" roading network, efficient and reliable public transport services cannot be provided.

Modern cities like London, Sydney and Vancouver can provide good public transport only because they have built an integrated "network" giving commuters options such as Sydney's orbital road or the ring roads that encircle metropolitan London, Vancouver and Oslo.

Construction of a completed SH20 will not only directly service the economic (freight and businesses) growth centres in the four cities along its route - Manukau, Auckland, Waitakere and North Shore - by improving accessibility, it will also reduce traffic through the over-stressed SH1 central corridor.

Auckland's predicted vehicle growth - 51 vehicles a day regardless of what improvements are made to public transport, not the 100 that Phil Chase suggests - means that congestion will get worse.

Part of the solution Auckland needs to action without delay is to build a viable strategic regional ring road network.

An efficient bus service from Waitakere to Manukau needs an efficient roading infrastructure.

An overwhelming majority of Aucklanders (and politicians) want Auckland looking its best by 2011 and the Rugby World Cup, and this means getting on with building the western corridor - not launching another round of relitigation and debate.

The key solution to Auckland's transport woes is not in building more roads, but in ensuring that the roads that are built contribute to the completion of a strategic motorway network that helps Auckland's economy to perform at a higher level, makes efficient public transport services possible and the city to be a more enjoyable place to visit and move easily around in.

With central, regional and local government officials and politicians (from left and right) at last all on the same page, and seemingly in agreement that completion of the western ring route is top or near the top of the list of regional, if not nationwide priorities, the focus of debate has moved on.

The project status and debate now needs to be moved from a decision "in principle" to a published project timetable, that includes confirmation of funding and a rolling construction programme leading up to the western ring route opening in 2014, or earlier.

An overwhelming majority of Aucklanders want nothing less than the completion of the western corridor as fast as possible.

* Tony Garnier is project co-ordinator for the Auckland Business Forum.

Mirko Bagaric: Evil must be stopped by whatever it takes

Many of us are barracking for the head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Paul Watson, as he tries to harass the Japanese whalers. His passion, commitment and bravery are an inspiration.

Go below the icy waters of the Southern Ocean and you'll see that it's not only the whales that should be grateful to Watson.

His activities and our response to them have the capacity to teach us profound lessons about the moral fog within which we live and the rationality-free zone that occupies mainstream moral discourse.

What is illuminating is the lack of criticism from civil libertarians and greens over Watson's law-breaking, life-endangering escapades. Civil libertarians are invariably hot off the blocks to denounce any interferences with rights.

They loudly condemned the new counter-terrorism laws in Australia, Britain and the United States which provide for control orders and detention without trial for terrorist suspects, and were appalled by the "rendition" trips by United States forces keen to prevent the next suicide bomb being detonated.

"The end doesn't justify the means" is the catchcry they trumpet most loudly. If the end justifies the means for the whales, why doesn't it justify the means for humans?

The truth is that it does. Failure to realise this is symptomatic of a self-righteousness that freezes one's moral compass, foreclosing consideration of the thing that matters most - the common good.

The reason that civil libertarians are cheering for the whales has zero to do with the application of universal moral principles and everything to do with emotion - particularly their emotions.

The fact that their emotional response fits the morally correct stance in this case is a happy coincidence.

The bloodied waters of the Southern Ocean have swelled the civil libertarians' compassion gland to a point where they've lost their balance and fallen off their wonky moral high horse.

Hopefully that's where they will stay and join the rest of us and come to understand that the end does justify the means. Always has. Always will.

No action is intrinsically bad or good. No principle is absolute. Matters are always context sensitive.

Plundering organs (in the form of kidneys and bone marrow) is permissible if it is done with consent to save lives; engaging in conflict that will result in the certain deaths of many innocent people is permissible to save many others (as is the case in Iraq), and detaining suspects without trial is morally sound where it is likely to prevent innocent lives being lost.

The best way to deal with evil is to pulverise it. As we did (although far too late) with Adolf Hitler and should have in relation to the likes of Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein.

The good news is that evil is not transmittable. Ostensibly harmful acts are permissible if they are for the greater good.

The moral and political debate in relation to important societal issues must move on from whether the end justifies the means, to what end we as a species should be attempting to secure.

In this regard, there can be only one answer.

The ultimate end is to maximise net flourishing, where each agent's interests count equally - even those which do not excite our emotions.

Animals get a look-in to this equation because they possess the most important attribute that qualifies an entity for moral standing: the capacity to feel pain and hence suffer.

Suffering is suffering, whether experienced by animals or humans.

The world would be a better place if we all applied our energies towards securing the right end, for whales, humans and even less sympathy-inducing creatures.

* Professor Mirko Bagaric is head of the Deakin Law School and author of How to Live: Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

Mason Durie: School leaders of tomorrow will need more than charisma

In 20 years' time, if not earlier, New Zealand is likely to face a leadership crisis in secondary schools. One third of teachers are aged over 50, and almost 10 per cent of teachers left the profession between 2003 and 2005.

If we don't radically rethink the way we look at the leadership of secondary schools, our education system will struggle to keep up with the rest of the world.

At present, leadership is strongly linked to age. Teachers are expected to do their time in the classroom, and wait for promotion.

But there's no reason why a good chemistry teacher, for example, necessarily makes a good principal. In fact, a bad chemistry teacher may well be better at the job.

We shouldn't rob classrooms of the best teachers, or write off teachers who have management potential but aren't popular with students.

The solution may be to make management a specialist area for teachers. Leaders could be identified at an early age, taken out of the classroom to prevent them getting set in their ways - or inflicting boredom on learners - and started on a high-powered leadership programme.

A teacher might decide to train for a leadership role a year or two after completing training, rather than waiting for promotion 20 or more years down the track.

New Zealand's health sector has already been through this change. Up until the 1980s, most managers were doctors or nurses.

Now, the sector is led by professional managers able to handle a complex and dynamic environment. Some have a clinical background, but many, if not most, do not.

The change has been controversial, but the new generation of management leaders have a broader range of skills than the old-style clinicians.

Some teachers may believe it's important for principals to have extensive classroom experience, but perhaps we should ask whether this is still relevant. In the future, school leaders will have to be able to establish connections internally, with other schools, and internationally.

They will have to look outward, not inward. In the face of global competition, schools will have to be much more skilled at negotiating their environment than they are now.

The tools of the trade for the next generation of school leaders will not necessarily be a high level of community support, or political acceptability, or popularity with students - although these qualities may be helpful.

Many schools are now run by charismatic leaders who may use hunches, intuition and their own individual vision to make decisions.

But charisma will not be the most important quality for tomorrow's leader: leadership is a learned process that involves being able to form strategies after analysing whatever evidence is available.

Traditionally, schools and the wider education system struggle to look three to five years into the future. Most of us have no idea what schooling might be like for the children of students who are now in year seven or eight.

One response to this uncertainty is to provide a smorgasbord of educational options. Another is to work hard to maintain the status quo. But, given the scale of the changes expected, we need a more deliberate approach to exploring the future and a more forward-looking type of leadership.

Perhaps the answer is an academy of educational leadership. England has a National College for School Leadership, and a similar national institute has been proposed for Australia.

If we don't consider setting up a centre of our own, the result may be secondary schools that flounder because they have no strategic direction nor any sense of futuristic leadership.

Schools may change beyond recognition in the next 20 years. Students will be able to learn anywhere and at any time.

E-learning could be much more common: schools as we know them may become obsolete and learners may enrol in a number of learning centres at the same time.

New Zealand has many successful students, but it also has a large percentage of students who do not do well. Instead of exploring other styles of learning that may suit them better, we've assumed everyone should be able to benefit to the same degree under a similar system.

Perhaps those students would learn more in an informal situation, out of the classroom. The best way to reach students who care more about sport than studying, for example, may be to build the curriculum around their sporting activities.

To encourage people to take a more long-term view of education, Secondary Futures has drawn up four scenarios, based on OECD work, for schooling in the future.

In the first scenario, schools are social centres that not only have a complex curriculum but provide health services, recreational opportunities, counselling, careers advice and community information.

In the second scenario, schools concentrate on delivering a narrow curriculum with an emphasis on academic excellence benchmarked to international standards.

In the third scenario, schools are part of a networked society. They may be based at a shopping centre, marae, alongside an industry, within sporting academies or in art galleries and museums.

Students have a learning adviser who brokers the best courses for them: they may go to one school for maths, another for English, another for rugby, and do the rest of their learning at home in front of the computer.

The fourth scenario is about individual choice, with students planning their own programmes and gaining international qualifications on the internet.

This model would help New Zealand cope with a national shortage of teachers.

Many New Zealand schools already have elements of each of these four models.

Community colleges would say the first model sums up their core business, while grammar schools largely emphasise the second model. Many school leaders are actively exploring the different models, and deciding which elements of each best suit the areas they serve.

Whether we like it or not, schools of the future will be part of a global community. Already, league tables increasingly compare Auckland schools with schools in London or Tokyo rather than in other parts of New Zealand.

The shrinking globe will result in growing numbers of students who aim to study overseas, either because their families work offshore or because they see themselves competing internationally for jobs and academic, sporting, artistic or musical opportunities.

Parents will ask why they should send their son or daughter to a local high school when there is a school in the United States that achieves better results in their child's chosen subjects.

We could well send our children overseas to study in the same way that Samoans, Koreans and Japanese now send their children to study in New Zealand.

We'll expect students to be able to transfer to overseas schools with minimal disruption and maximum cross-credits, and we'll expect schools to have made the process easier by forming global networks.

International enrolments are already the norm for many New Zealand schools, and are predicted to escalate.

But while we've accepted Asian students for economic reasons, we may have to ask ourselves whether we have an ethical responsibility to ensure the qualifications they gain are relevant when they return home.

Schools will be under more pressure to meet other countries' educational benchmarks and equip them to be ready to take up higher study or work in their homelands.

Education is likely to become a valuable export earner for New Zealand.

The flow of teachers to overseas schools is seen as a negative development - part of the brain drain - but it doesn't have to be. New Zealand teachers have a great reputation around the world, and if leaders become similarly sought-after it would give people an incentive to start a career in educational leadership here.

As well as exporting teachers and educational leaders, we will export ideas.

There will be more opportunities to develop courses that are portable and can be sold overseas for use in foreign classrooms.

The Kiwi talent for innovation will help us meet some of these challenges, but No 8 eight wire can't be relied on to fix everything.

If we want New Zealand students to continue to hold their own internationally, we need to urgently look at giving our educational leaders the level of professional training they need to cope with a world that is changing at an unprecedented pace.

* Professor Mason Durie is Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Maori) of Massey University and chairman of the four Guardians who lead Secondary Futures, a project set up by the education sector and the Government to create a national discussion about what education might be like in 20 years' time.

Eye on China: The good oil on the need for technology

What does China's bid for Nigerian oil assets for US$2.3 billion ($3.3 million) this week mean? To me, it shows that the Chinese Government is rather sceptical about neoclassical economics. That's the name for the economic system which was first formulated by the likes of Adam Smith and David Ricardo 300 years ago.

The debate about the relevance of neoclassical growth models to countries like China is highly significant. Deciding how to promote growth goes to the heart of the controversies over technology copyright piracy, the role of the World Trade Organisation and the usefulness of the World Bank and its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund.

The reason the Chinese bid runs counter to neoclassical economics is that China is supposed to buy oil through its export earnings. China's "comparative advantage" - as economists describe an economic activity at which a country excels in comparison to other countries - is, of course, labour-intensive light industry. As the country's recently announced record trade surplus shows, there would appear to be some substance to this argument.

But what does the trade balance show? Some economists argue that it doesn't show very much. The especially large surplus with the US doesn't mean that China is performing well or that the US is performing badly. One could argue that the gauge of the US's economic effectiveness is not the size of its trade deficit but the speed at which economic productivity is improving.

It's the improvement in productivity (since by increasing the output per worker through better productivity the worker will be better off even if his share remains static) that generates prosperity. Productivity in the US, quite logically given its unparalleled economic power, is one of the highest in the world, while productivity in China is about average for an economy at its stage of development.

The importance of productivity raises the debate over technology piracy to new levels, since technology is a key component in improving productivity. Let's note first, however, that it's ironic that the US, the most ardently neoclassical economy in the world, should be complaining about China's copyright infringements.

That's because according to the founding fathers of neoclassical economics, technology is a "public good" freely available to everyone. Technology, by this view, cannot be responsible for growth - only increases in the factors of production (land, labour and capital) can achieve growth, and only steady growth at that.

To the Chinese, the importance of technology is obvious, which is why they are pouring astonishingly large resources into creating their own high-tech sector - quite contrary to the spirit of neoclassical economists, because they are duplicating efforts in Japan and the US, which have a comparative advantage in those sectors.

Many conventional economists think the Chinese attitude is silly.

Their attitude is encapsulated in a comment of breathtaking naivety made by Michael Boskin, adviser to George Bush Snr in the 1990s, namely that "chips are chips". He meant that it was irrelevant if countries produced microchips or potato chips, as long as they did what they were best at.

Chinese people can't believe their ears when they come across such rhetoric.

The most obvious reason is that technology is crucial for an effective military. Producing potato chips, unfortunately, doesn't permit much in the way of modern fighters and nuclear-powered carriers.

In a business context, some of the most powerful companies in the world are those like Microsoft, Intel, Apple and Sony that have capitalised on new technology. Korea's Samsung shows that, irrespective of neoclassical theory, countries that approach the technology deficit in the right way can close the gap and become world beaters.

Technology has also been shown to have extensive spillover effects, whereby the rest of society benefits from value-enhancing techniques.

Controversially, this makes the role of the state particularly important, since firms might not think it worth investing in technology unless they get 100 per cent of the benefits. The state, however, is only concerned if the economy as a whole benefits and doesn't mind picking up the tab. A powerful state can, therefore, play a key role in stimulating technology.

Again, this contravenes neoclassical theory, which posits the central role of the markets over that of the Government. The market - the "invisible hand" in Adam Smith's words - miraculously calibrates the economy through the laws of supply and demand, eventually bringing everything back into balance.

Giving the Government too big a role, argues the neoclassical school, is bad because the Government is more likely to pick losers than winners and may, in addition, be captured by special interest groups.

One of the most interesting examples of China's contrarian economic polices is production, or overproduction as many observers describe the seemingly irrational situation whereby Chinese companies churn out products way beyond what the market will apparently bear. This would appear not to benefit the firms because prices fall, thereby exposing all participants to rising losses.

This view is perfectly correct by neoclassical standards which posit rising costs for rising outputs and, hence, diminishing returns. But it omits one important point, namely the significant cost reduction triggered by increasing economies of scale.

The relationship between economics and politics is an interesting one. For a "science" that prides itself so much on its rigour, it's surprising how much it's been subverted as an ideological tool. We will see more of that next week.

* Dan Slater is a journalist based in Beijing.

Mathew Ingram: Canada shows the way to boosting high-speed internet

There are plenty of areas where Canada falls short of other nations - in the size of its armed forces, for example, or its per capita income. But when it comes to high-speed internet access, the Great White North is right up there with the best. In fact, Canada is number six when it comes to broadband penetration, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development statistics.

New Zealand, however, is down near the bottom of the rankings - 22nd out of 30, to be exact. And that's despite almost doubling the proportion of the population with high-speed access over the past year or so. The nation still comes in behind Australia (at 17), France (14) and Italy ( 19), and is well behind the United States, which is in 12th place.

For the past several years, in fact, New Zealand has been pulling up the rear. Colin Jackson, president of Internet NZ, has been quoted as saying that this "is a great shame for all of New Zealand. It's sad to see us so far down in the rankings."

Some industry watchers say the low levels of penetration are disturbing because Kiwis are traditionally early adopters of technology, and the country has had high-speed access longer than several other countries on the list.

Why the dramatic difference between Canada and New Zealand? There are a number of theories. If you look at the OECD rankings, you might be tempted to conclude that cold, northern countries do better; in the top 10 are Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland, plus Canada.

Of course, these countries are also fairly small (apart from Canada), which probably made it easier to string the fibre-optic cable required for high speed. That doesn't really explain why New Zealand is so low, however.

One possible reason is the level of competition between providers of high-speed access. Something that stands out from the OECD ranking, which breaks broadband down into cable and DSL, is that many of the countries in the top 15 are split between the two forms of access.

Although DSL has a greater share in most cases, it doesn't completely dominate in most countries. In Canada, the two are almost even. In New Zealand, however, broadband access is virtually all provided by DSL.

Although TelstraClear provides cable access in Wellington and Christchurch, the distances between major centres, a sparse population and the difficult terrain has led to low levels of cable penetration. The result is that Telecom has had a virtual monopoly on high-speed internet.

Although the company is regulated and allows other internet service providers to use its network, it has limited the speeds available, and prices have remained relatively high.

In Canada, by contrast, most provinces and regions have a strong telecom company and a strong cable company that have competed for the growing high-speed internet market. While Canada has not had the cheapest broadband access, adoption and penetration rates have been faster than in many other countries.

In several cases, when cable or telecom players introduced usage caps or other restrictions, which are common in New Zealand, they quickly removed them for competitive reasons, and have continued to boost speeds as well.

The average high-speed account in Canada offers 3 megabits per second down and 800 kilobits up, while New Zealand's average is 1.5 megabits down and 128 kilobits up. Even those speeds are relatively new - as of 2004, 256-kilobit service was still the most common. It's a speed that most other countries wouldn't consider broadband.

Some telecoms experts say Canada wound up, whether by policy or by accident, with the right mix of regulation and competition. Telecoms companies - which are federally regulated - were not overly hamstrung in their efforts to compete with cable, which made for a relatively healthy market. In the United States, however, high-speed proponents complain that regulations have prevented phone companies from competing aggressively, and that has held back broadband penetration.

The key, many market watchers say, is the unbundling of the "local loop", which gives competitors access to the line from the phone company's central switch to a customer's home.

In the United States, telecom players have resisted this move, while in New Zealand the Government looked at local-loop unbundling and rejected it in 2003. In Canada, regulators unbundled the local loop, in part to try to foster local telephone competition, but the move also helped spur DSL competition.

Is faster and cheaper high-speed internet reason enough to pack up your family and move to Canada? Probably not. But many New Zealanders are concerned that their country's lack of broadband penetration could hold the nation back at a time when the "knowledge economy" and internet-based businesses are growing quickly.

And growth rates will have to pick up substantially if New Zealand wants to get into the top 10; even though broadband usage has doubled, the country is still stuck in 22nd place, right where it was a year earlier.

Jim Eagles: Horrors of holidays in hell

Welcome back to work. How did the holiday work out? I don't think I've ever had a really bad holiday. In fact I'd almost consider the very idea an oxymoron. How can you have a holiday that isn't enjoyable?

It's a question that arises quite often when people discover you're a travel journalist. "What would you do if you went on a trip which was terrible?" they want to know. "Would you really write a story saying it was no good?"

The answer is that, yes, of course you would, otherwise you'd lose all credibility. The first responsibility is always to provide accurate information to readers.

But, that said, it hasn't happened yet and I'd be surprised if it did.

For one thing, a travel company would be crazy to send a journalist somewhere unpleasant. For another, what's not to enjoy about being paid to visit new places and have new experiences?

Sure, over the years I've had some tricky moments, but they usually end up seeming amusing more than anything else.

For instance, there was the holiday in Spain when a machine-gun toting officer at the airport picked me out for special attention - I suspect it was the beard - insisted that my passport had expired when in fact it had been renewed, searched my belongings several times and refused to let me board the flight until the last minute.

Or the camping trip in Wales when we had to put up a tent in a high wind, at which point our baby daughter swallowed a blade of grass and made choking noises, my wife let go and went to investigate, and the tent took off, sustaining a few rips before I managed to get it back under control.

I think the most galling part was having our travails watched by a couple of Poms in Pierre Cardin camping outfits who sat in front of their caravan, sipping pink gins with their little fingers cocked and stirred not a muscle to help.

Or the flight via the United States, when my wife and I and two young children ended up spending eight hours under armed guard in a Los Angeles departure lounge, with nothing to eat or drink until the very end, missing all our connections and unable to advise the people who were meeting us because some idiot had left a parcel on a plane.

Or the hotel in Myanmar where the floor of the en suite shower and toilet - a rare luxury - was covered in a mysterious growth several centimetres deep, which looked so scary that we created a bridge out of a loose board to avoid standing on it.

Or the visit to Paris when I was caught up in a general strike, the restaurants closed, the streets filled with rioters and police, the train back to the relative tranquillity of Britain was cancelled and the New Zealand Embassy was entirely unhelpful.

Or ... but you get the idea. None of them ruined the holiday. On the contrary, most were funny even at the time and made good talking points afterwards.

On the other hand, I know some people do appear to have bad holidays. In fact I've just read a book about them.

The Idler Book of Crap Holidays, edited by Dan Kieran (Bantam Books, $34.95), contains "50 tales of hell on earth" sent in by readers of the British magazine The Idler (www.idler.co.uk).

They include:
* The cruise to the Bahamas on which all the passengers, and most of the crew, spent most of the time puking over the railings, into the rubbish bins or anything else available.
* The guilt-ridden week at a Cuban resort, where politically sensitive tourists sunbathed on a beach from which locals were excluded, courtesy of a barbed-wire fence patrolled by armed guards.
* The rustic chalet on the shores of Lake Champlain, in New York State, which turned out to be in the middle of 500 other chalets all occupied by heavy metal fans while the nearest thing to a beach was a busy oil-slicked boat ramp.
* The holiday on Ios in Greece, where the highlights included a chicken which relieved itself in the hotel beds and cheap sunblock which resulted in a disastrous case of sunburn.
* The diving trip to Egypt, which a bad case of diarrhoea transformed into a week in a hotel room where "the only entertainment involved scorching passing cockroaches with my lighter and a can of deodorant".

Together they make an entertaining read though, for me, the fun was a little spoiled by excessive use of obscenities as a means of emphasis.

Probably the most amusing is this little gem about a two-week, 2500 ($6390) holiday in Bulgaria, submitted by a disconsolate John Johnstone:

I realised something wasn't quite right about this family holiday to Bulgaria on the Balkan Airlines plane on the way out. The in-flight meal was a cucumber salad, which involved cutting whole cucumbers in half and presenting each passenger with half a cucumber - not sliced or peeled or washed - just half a cucumber and nothing else.

The wreaths of cigarette smoke from the many smokers a few inches away on the opposite aisle forced me to complain because we had specifically asked to sit in the non-smoking area.

"You are," said the stewardess. "The whole of the left side is non-smoking and the right side is smoking."

The hotel on what had been advertised as "Sunny Beach" seemed to be mainly occupied by seriously drunk Swedish guys taking advantage of the beer at 10p a pint. Some of them appeared to have messed their pants at some time over their stay.

One particular guy was scarily loud and aggressive and although the hotel had hundreds of rooms it was, of course, inevitable that he occupied the one above ours.

His favourite sport was to scour the hotel for glass ashtrays to smash down on to our balcony into the small hours.

In our room it appeared at first as though the previous occupants had wet the bed but fortunately it turned out just to be damp accumulated over the winter as the sheets waited for us to arrive.

The family holiday consisted of my Yorkshire in-laws, their six children and partners with a few grandchildren chucked in for good measure.

We all headed for the poshest restaurant we could find where the choice was veal, Wiener schnitzel or chef's surprise, which was also veal, but did come with a choice of three salads: tomato, cucumber or mixed salad. We went for mixed, which was, of course, the first two mixed together.

The following night we tried the next poshest restaurant as it boasted chicken. The 17 of us were first in when it opened.

"What would you like?" said the waiter. "Chicken please," said the first. "OK," said the waiter, "and the next?" "Chicken for me too." "Sorry, sold out," he said.

We asked for a bottle of their best Bulgarian wine. "That will be from Morocco then," he said, "we re-label it and export it to England."

And so it went on. From the beach strewn with broken ashtray glass and the thousands of sellers on the beach (NO, I DON'T WANT TO BUY ANY &^%$@ SHELLS!), to the indoor hotel pools mysteriously full of water and soil.

"When do you sleep?" I asked the hotel manager (cum-night-porter-cum-waiter-cum-illegal moneychanger) as we left. "September," he grinned, "till then the drugs."