Friday, January 20, 2006

Sideswipe

En route to Samoa on Polynesian Airlines, Kim Mazur of Western Springs found the comfort suggestions in the in-flight magazine a little too ... er, suggestive.

By Ana Samways

Hip Ponsonby Road take-out Otto Woo didn't mind slumming it last week as its frontage was transformed into a McDonald's. Pork-wah? The minimalist white-on-white food establishment lent its exteriors to a film crew for use in a McDonald's UK television ad - which came complete with a double-decker bus and London phone booth. Woo's doors were even replaced with ones bearing golden arches. A hungry punter, terrified at the prospect of having to have a cheese burger instead of his cashew chicken, was relieved to see that behind the gilded doors it was business as usual.

* * *

Sound familiar? "We know they are having parties next door, the loud hiss of the pressure-cooker, the mixer-grinder, they're pounding something like turmeric - we don't know, so the excitement - the yelling - it's all going on ... Yes, one of the worst things is the man's laugh, it's short, it's sharp, it's staccato, it's punctual - just to give you an idea, this is how it goes: "Ah ha ha ha ha, haaa ha ha ha, haaaaaaaaaaa, ha ha ha" - it goes on, louder, how much can we take? We are only human, after all ... " If you would like to air your neighbour's dirty laundry and be a part of the a new series of Neighbours at War check GreenstonePictures.com or phone (09) 630-7732 (in confidence).

* * *

Captain Kirk sells kidney stone for US$25,000? William Shatner sold the passed kidney stone to the Golden Palace Casino (the idiots who purchased the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich off eBay) and is donating the money to Habitat for Humanity. The stone was so big, Shatner said, "You'd want to wear it on your finger ... If you subjected it to extreme heat, it might turn out to be a diamond." The Associated Press news agency said Shatner turned down the original US$15,000 offer saying his Star Trek tunics have fetched more than US$100,000."

* * *

Not such a rip-off after all? Kmart New Zealand responds to the story about a reader buying a Stockman Weekender tent on Trade Me for $500, only to find it sold at Kmart with a regular price of $299. "This tent is not yet being sold in the Kmart NZ store. This price is the Australian retail price. I cannot say when New Zealand Kmart's will get this tent in our stores but can advise the the NZ regular retail price for this tent is in fact $499".

Fair enough - but it still makes you wonder why Aussies pay about $200 less for the same thing.

Editorial: Much more at stake than trees

It has become tiresome and cliched, but the catchcry "just move on" shows no sign of fading from popular use. Usually, it is uttered by people for whom the topic at hand is inconvenient or embarrassing or simply too detailed for them to dignify with any more attention.

Predictably, it is now being aimed and fired at this newspaper and those who have bothered to question the Auckland City Council's plans to remove exotic trees from the city's premier thoroughfare, Queen St. The council has paused briefly for breath after a substantial public reaction and will now proceed to take out the first trees much as originally intended.

Apologists for the council and those simply jaded by such civic scrutiny affect to believe that the public condemnation of the Queen St plan was all about 20 trees only, between Wellesley St and Mayoral Drive. Now that 17 of those trees will go to meet their maker, the "storm-in-a-teacup" and "just-move-on" brigade complain that nothing was at stake and nothing was achieved.

They are wrong, of course.

Auckland City's plan for Queen St is a multi-stage reform. Phase one involved the 20 exotic trees; further phases over the next decade or so were to see the progressive removal of all exotic trees down the length of the Golden Mile, and their replacement with natives. For instance, the area of the original shoreline between Fort St and Customs St was to have nikau palms and flax.

These wider schemes were always of more concern than the smaller number of exotics which the council wanted to chainsaw in the height of the holiday season two weeks ago. Having challenged and ameliorated that aspect of the works, the opposition by campaigner Lesley Max and her supporters to the no-tree or native-tree future for Queen St must continue.

Yet the aesthetics of that shopping strip are only part of the problem. This controversy has again shown the city to be ineffective in communicating (rather than its pro forma "consulting") with ratepayers on its plans. It has revealed woolly and politically correct thinking behind proposed changes. It has brought to the surface deep ratepayer resentment at the perceived difference between the way the council controls its own actions and the way it controls change on individual residential properties. One complainant to the Herald told of a council refusal of a request to remove an unloved, shade-throwing Norfolk pine (an exotic tree) and replace it with pohutukawa and nikau palms (lately so favoured for Queen St) because it would affect the neighbourhood treescape.

The row has succeeded, also, in making more ratepayers question the spending programmes of their local body. Many Herald readers who joined the chorus against the removal of exotics from Queen St related tales of Auckland City projects of dubious merit and high cost. One was the near $1 million "upgrade" of the Remuera shopping strip, including two park benches angled precariously on a downhill footpath and invented, metalworked coats of arms for the Remuera business centre. Some trees will soon be cut down in Queen St. The future of many fine specimens further up and down the road, the redevelopment of the shopping strip itself and myriad other public projects must remain the subject of careful public examination. Now is the time to "keep on", not "move on".

Jim Hopkins: Eco-terrorist invasion has the nation feeling antsy

Blame the radio. This would have been a perfectly sensible column otherwise. Quite what it would have been sensible about is a moot point but it definitely would have been sensible about something.

Argentine ants, perhaps. They are "taking over" the country, after all.

Any sense of jubilation engendered by reports that Osama Bin Laden may have popped his potty clogs was quickly dispelled by Tuesday's shocking news that these tiny South American "eco-terrorists" are ruthlessly invading Outer Roa.

This is not idle speculation. This is the widely reported opinion of an "international ant expert".

True, the Press Association story didn't explain how you became "an international ant expert" (or why, for that matter), but its contents remain profoundly disturbing, especially since our Orion is currently on the ice protecting Patagonian Tooth Fish and therefore unable to do so much as drop a life raft on the little swine.

But something certainly needs to be dropped on them. Having (presumably) ravaged Argentina - and possibly various other countries first discovered by a Chinese eunuch - these vile toads are now ruthlessly colonising our little nation. Or everything north of Ashburton, anyway.

At this stage, it's unclear why they've stayed out of Ashburton. It could be for aesthetic reasons, or it could be because they've got enough on their hands terrorising Christchurch, Nelson and the entire North Island, including those contentious bits near Mangonui where all the fences have been cut by an angry iwi legitimately pursuing a Treaty claim.

Well, they'd better sort it out quickly because the ants aren't likely to be sympathetic. It's not in their nature.

They'll probably just laugh in a nasty Argentinian manner and keep on swarming over properties, "making it almost impossible for people to sit outside".

Or cut any more fences, either!

Clearly the authorities have slipped up on this one.

It's all very well having contingency plans for bird flu ("MPs and children first") or putting bananas, apples, blueberries and pears on the dangerous foods list, but that's precious little use to some luckless couple in Dargaville when they wake up to find Argentinian ants swarming all over their most intimate nooks and crannies.

Too late to worry about sugar then!

Indeed, if you had some, you could sprinkle it on the children, or the pets, to create a distraction while you made your getaway.

Assuming it worked.

We need action on this - official action.

We need research. Boffins and boffinettes doing tests in the lab to see if these hideous little reptiles hate Don't Cry For Me Argentina as much as everyone else does. And whether playing it loudly might send them screaming from the room with their antenna over their ears.

Alternatively, we need to know if a big photograph of the Argentinian Stern Weevil or a ravenous anteater on the fridge door might scare them off.

Or if we should simply take the line of least resistance and offer them free trips to Australia. On one of our apples, maybe.

And this is where the radio comes in. As you're probably aware, the old "free trip to Oz" bait has already been laid; not by any fighters but by sperm hunters.

There appears to be a shortage of this relatively essential reproductive ingredient on both sides of the Tasman, which has led one Australian Fertility Clinic to offer potential donors the travel inducement, presumably not on Virgin Airlines. Needless to say, this has alarmed local Fertilisers, one of whom was interviewed by a chap on the wireless.

"Do you have enough people?" he asked.

"We've got a steady trickle of donors," replied the lady from the clinic, adding that they would always like more.

Legally, we're not allowed to pay people, she explained, so we have to rely on altruism.

"Well, let's hope more people lend a hand," said the interviewer, and it was this second, seemingly unwitting entendre that sparked a subversive thought.

It is utterly illogical to have laws which sanction payment for the use of someone else's hand but forbid any remuneration when the digits are your own.

Furthermore, it is entirely illogical - and wrong - to make legal the payment for sexual acts but not their consequences, or any precursor of those consequences.

If people are legally allowed to sell sex they should be allowed to sell pregnancy or the fluids that produce it.

This may seem repugnant, and may very well be so, but morality was not an issue for the Prostitution Law Reformers.

There was a demand, they said, and it should be met in the most prudent and safe manner.

In which case, the same applies to children.

There is definitely a demand. People want babies. And, with the birth rate dropping sharply in recent years, a utilitarian argument could be made for doing everything possible to meet that demand.

If the sale of one part of the body is legal, then perhaps the sale of others should be, too. As it is with the act, then so, surely, it should be with its outcome.

The state may have no more place in the fertility clinic than it does in the bordello.

Brian Rudman: Struggling to get out of the cultural quicksand

At last, an outbreak of common sense in the matter of the Department of Corrections and its use or abuse of Maori welcomes. It comes from Maori Party spokesman for arts, culture and heritage Dr Pita Sharples who says instead of bastardising (my word) the ceremonies of another culture, Corrections should create its own.

Hallelujah. A way forward at last. Though whether the entrenched hierarchy at Corrections, and for that matter the State Services Commission, will take the nudge is another matter.

Dr Sharples was reacting to Corrections' attempt this week to end the sexism in the department's Maori farewell ceremony that Onehunga probation officer Josie Bullock had complained about last year, a complaint which led to her being sacked for her troubles.

Chief Executive Barry Matthews said on Wednesday that in future "the less formal whakatau will be used". He explained that "key features of a whakatau include the same roles for men and women, which will be reflected in the seating arrangements, and the use of language other than Te Reo Maori if 'required'."

Dr Sharples rejected Mr Matthews' narrow definition, and the attempt to hijack a Maori ceremony, saying the form and content of whakatau varied from iwi to iwi. He suggested an alternative solution.

"I would have thought the safest and most appropriate function for a government department to take up is to work out its own welcoming protocols, without culturally appropriating those of another culture.

"They should have their own prison welcoming ceremonies and they can seat people where they like."

He added that if they wanted to add a Maori element, that should be decided on a case-by-case basis in consultation with local tangata whenua and prison authorities.

He also asked why the prison authorities had only targeted Maori in their press release on cultural practice when 35 per cent of prisoners were European, 11 per cent Pacific Islander and 4 per cent Asian.

"Are they saying that Maori are the only ones who have a culture?"

As an educator respected by tangata whenua and Pakeha alike, is it too much to hope that Dr Sharples' proposal might just have a chance of being accepted as the way out of the cultural quicksand, not just Corrections, but government as a whole has become entrapped in, in recent years.

It's the new All Black haka solution really. In rugby's case, they borrowed some traditional Maori and threw in a bit of the wider Pacific.

State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble is proposing other departments follow Corrections' path. But with Dr Sharples' "strongly objecting" to this "commodification of whakatau", Dr Prebble would be smart to take the hint and jump quickly on to the All Black solution.

Let each government department come up with a greeting or farewell ceremony that suits its culture. Who knows, some might even decide a speech, a handshake and a sticky bun is the most appropriate answer.

As for the Maori ceremonial with its mix of troubling, to some, prayers and sexist behaviour, let it return to where it is most comfortable - its own cultural setting.

Which brings us back to whistleblower Josie Bullock, who remains fired, despite Mr Matthews admitting that the department's change of policy is a result of her protests. He said "there was a potential conflict with the rights of women" in the existing ceremonial. It was not just a potential conflict, it was a conflict, and despite earlier protests by Ms Bullock and other staff members, the hierarchy did nothing until Ms Bullock went public.

For her sins, Ms Bullock got booted out for repeated acts of "serious misconduct" which "reflected badly" on her bosses. Her crime was to go to the media "without authorisation" to complain that she was forced to accept sexist behaviour in her workplace.

Mr Matthews is refusing to back down and the case now goes for mediation with the Human Rights Commission next month.

It wasn't Ms Bullock's behaviour that reflected badly on Corrections, it was the illegal workplace sexism within a public service organisation that she exposed.

Instead of hounding the whistleblower further, Mr Matthews should be thanking her for dragging him and his managers into the 21st century. And reinstating her with appropriate ceremony. Any suggestions?

Peter Griffin: So long, spammers, your reign is on the wane

It's too early to say what we all want to hear - that spam email, the unwanted refuse that clutters our inboxes, is dead. But it's definitely on the wane, the activity of spammers curtailed as internet users become less gullible and use better software to filter unwanted messages.

It could be that 2006 will be the year in which spammers throw in the towel, disillusioned at the dwindling response to their badly written adverts for everything from cut-price computer software to pornography.

Antivirus software maker Symantec estimates that two-thirds of all email sent in the world last January was spam. By June that had dipped to 53 per cent. For the first six months of last year, the overall figure was 61 per cent, up slightly on the first six months of 2004, but most email filtering companies expect spam levels to stabilise this year, which suggests that the worst is over.

America Online, for example, says the amount of spam reaching its users has dropped 75 per cent since late 2003.

If my experience is anything to go by, internet users are still receiving spam, but are confronted by it less often. That's because the email messages are being blocked by the gatekeeper, the internet provider - or diverted to spam folders once they get to the user's computer.

If you actually take the time to train your email filtering software, adding offending senders to a blacklist and friends to a white list, you'll end up dealing with very little of it.

We haven't yet seen the magic solution to spam, a technological answer that Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke of at an economic talkfest in the Swiss mountains two years ago.

But common sense is turning out to be a good solution, and internet users are catching on. By and large, spam has become surprisingly easy to pick out.

The hundreds of millions of users on free webmail services are also well served these days when it comes to spam filtering. Spam sent to Gmail accounts, for example, is very efficiently diverted to a spam folder. I've never had a false-positive result where legitimate mail is incorrectly classified as spam.

I have a POP 3 mail account that receives most of my spam, since it's associated with my own personal domain name, but Norton Internet Security detects most of it when it appears in Outlook Express. I've got a big anti-spam folder, but I rarely look in it, except to see what the latest fad is.

My Xtra account gets next to no spam these days thanks to ISP-level scanning.

My Hotmail account, once a collection point for spam and little else, is finally free of the blight, although one major offender - who goes by the name "Doctor" - still pops up from time to time.

The Doctor represents the Ultimate Online Pharmaceutical store which, despite its name, doesn't sell any drugs I want to take. A look around the web shows the drug-spam pusher to be prolific. If the US Government were to send a cruise missile into the headquarters of the Doctor, world spam levels would probably fall off considerably.

Instead, Governments have taken a more diplomatic approach, opting for anti-spam legislation such as the Can Spam Act in the United States.

While that has led to landmark lawsuits and raids on geeky teenagers in basements, spammers generally laugh in the face of the law, routing their spam via dodgy offshore internet providers to cover their tracks.

New Zealand's own spam legislation will probably be passed into law this year and while the sensible opt-in system designed to protect users against spammers has been applied, the proposed law is looking less relevant by the day. Common sense beats the law hands down.

Spammers have been forced to become cleverer. I'd never really considered blog spam until I started my own web log and began noticing strange comments left by people who thanked me for my interesting thoughts. They'd normally add a link to their own website, and sure enough they'd lead to a site peddling one product or other.

But this kind of spam may not be a big problem. The service I use, Google's Blogpsot.com, allows users to activate a system that requires comment-posters to enter a randomly generated password, which is something a spam robot can't do. Problem solved.

The same approach has significantly cut down on the proliferation of web mail accounts that exist for no other reason than to send spam. The word puzzles most webmail providers now employ are working.

But while we're worrying less about spam, the fact remains we're still receiving it. Around 80 per cent of the 556 billion messages received last year were spam, which translates into about 60 per cent or more of the average ISP's processed email traffic.

That's a great waste of computer servers and internet bandwidth, and does nothing to help to lower the cost of broadband, a particularly touchy subject in our neck of the woods.

Where spam is concerned, it has become a case of out of sight, out of mind for many internet users. Now spammers will hopefully realise the futility of their enterprise: the message simply isn't getting through.

Graham Reid: You look familiar

Ever been in a place where everything is the same, but different? Let me illustrate.

It was close to midnight in Florence and after a fine dinner I went for a lazy stroll through the lamp-lit streets, then stopped at an outdoor cafe in Piazza della Repubblica for a nightcap of grappa.

From across the broad square the distant sound of a woman singing opera mingled with the disco-dance from a bar, but otherwise the night was pleasingly quiet as couples and small groups ambled past.

I relaxed into my chair and then glanced around at the other patrons scattered about beneath the umbrellas.

To my left, seated against the wall of the cafe, was a man who looked exactly like the German actor Kurt Jurgens (1915-82), and a little further along Salman Rushdie was chatting with Mr Heppleston, my old third form social studies teacher. He hadn't aged a bit.

On the other side of the cafe, Meryl Streep - who had clearly put on weight for some upcoming role - was talking with a group of friends which included Jay Leno and that guy who played the father in Dennis The Menace on television in the early 60s. He'd either had work done, or had a hideously ravaged self-portrait in his attic.

The evening was becoming more disconcerting by the minute - and the grappa hadn't even arrived. When it did things became no more clear. My waiter was Peter Falk, poorly disguised by a brush moustache.

I sipped my drink, listened to the far-off music, and then a group of minor league cast members from The Sopranos (second series) arrived.

As I watched this parade of doppelgangers I felt like Mr Palomar in the stories by Italo Calvino, a man who is increasingly bewildered by the world the more he tries to make sense of it.

I finished my drink a little later when the woman from Boney M turned up with a group of friends.

It was an odd and amusing hour - I wondered who I was in this pantomime - but I put it aside as I walked back to my hotel, on the way bidding a cheery buona sera to the late Anthony Quinn walking arm in arm with Mary Tyler Moore.

Ian Axford: Natural disasters warnings of worse to come

James Lovelock's apocalyptic vision (see link to article below) of a vengeful Gaia wreaking havoc on the climate in response to humankind's careless injection of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere reads like an extract from the Book of Revelations.

He is right in general, except perhaps for introducing the unnecessary hypothesis of the Gaia.

At the current rate of increase, with the present atmospheric content of such gases (particularly carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and CFCs) equivalent to about 450 parts per million of CO2, most conservative estimates indicate an average global temperature increase of 2C by about the year 2050.

Average, however, does not mean uniform. At this point, regions with continental climates will suffer much larger increases - for example up to 10C in sub-Arctic regions such as Alaska, northern Canada and Siberia, where the Eskimos are already complaining.

There will be smaller but uncomfortable average temperature increases in southern Europe, north Africa, Asia generally, Australia and the northern parts of South America.

Even with the present average global increase of about 0.8C, the effects of warming have been clear in southern Europe (the heatwave of 2003 which resulted in about 25,000 deaths in France), the Gulf of Mexico (the increase in the number of class three to five hurricanes over the past 20 years) and the devastating monsoon in India last year.

These few examples must be considered as warnings of worse to come.

New Zealand, in contrast, is protected by its isolation, so the increase should be tolerable, perhaps an average of just 2C, although we're likely to suffer from more frequent extreme weather events and more prevalent drought in some regions.

It is to be expected that this global situation will lead to large-scale and rather aggressive migration affecting billions of people, and New Zealand would be a tempting target - something for our Government to consider seriously.

Lovelock makes the valid point that the prognosis is much worse. There are feedback effects that exacerbate the situation, notably the shutting down of forests and, to some extent, the ocean as absorbers of CO2, and the emission of methane from melting peat bogs in sub-Arctic regions.

These could appear relatively abruptly, offering no possibility for counter-measures. The level of warming in Siberia already corresponds to about 3C and the effects of melting are apparent.

For these reasons we must be prepared for some uncomfortable changes in the next few decades - well before 2050.

What should we do in New Zealand? If the answer is "nothing", it might not affect global developments much - except for the voice we have on the international scene. Our climate could be warmer and perhaps less pleasant but otherwise tolerable.

However, we are likely to be more isolated than ever, since aircraft and coal and oil-driven shipping will become unacceptable - leaving nuclear-powered and wind-driven ships to convey our imports and exports.

I believe we must follow the philosophy of the Kyoto Treaty and reduce our greenhouse emissions. This is not a difficult task since ruminant-produced methane is our biggest problem, and it seems we may be able to eliminate at least 70 per cent of these emissions.

Carbon dioxide is more difficult, but by concentrating on water and wind power and reducing the use of fossil fuels for transportation, we could produce a marked change in our emissions in 10 to 20 years.

We would then be in a position to complain about others who like to pretend there is no real problem or that it will ultimately be solved by "technology".

We have to hope that such recalcitrants will develop their nuclear power resources before they do much further damage to the climate - as recommended by Lovelock - whether we like it or not.

For New Zealand this is not an option: we have no nuclear technology and the cost of developing it or buying everything abroad would be well beyond our pocket when we are already suffering from a deficit in our current account and have a large external debt.

In Tuesday's Herald, Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, argued that it is not too late to act over climate change (see link to article below).

Given the expected developments in China and India and the foot dragging of Australia and the United States, I find it hard to be quite so optimistic.
We will have to consider ourselves lucky if these countries do not burn all the fossil fuel they can lay their hands on, which would double or triple the amount of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere.

As Lovelock argues, nuclear power is a more acceptable option than the vengeance of the Gaia.

* Ian Axford is a member of the Academies of Sciences of the US and Europe, and of the Royal Societies of London and of New Zealand, and is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union. He was director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research for 27 years, president of COSPAR, the Space Research Committee of the International Council of Scientific Unions, and of the European Geophysical Society, and vice-president of the Asia-Oceania Geophysical Society.

Greens welcome global warming debate in UK