Friday, January 27, 2006

Sideswipe

On a holiday trip to Cape Reinga a reader stopped to get a cob of corn, but decided to buy two because of the special deal.

By Ana Samways

A reader was amused to see a courier with the licence plate SPRNTR overtaken by a car with the plate SOSLOW on the Northwestern Motorway last week.

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From the Peru Tribune: "A caller ... told the [sheriff's office] a man was in the middle of the road. The man told officers he was looking for his tooth, which he lost yesterday while eating peanuts. He thinks he may have tossed it out the car window while he was tossing out peanut shells." (Source: News of the Weird)

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Petty, petty promo-wars: 1. Wondering whether TVNZ had to pay someone to say Wendy was "hot" on its "it's not about me" (Yeah, right) ad? The short answer is yes. Turns out the Indian taxi-driver who proclaims Wendy is "hot" is actually a restaurateur from Christchurch. TVNZ said while most on the ad were "real people", two were part-time actors, including the driver who "owns a restaurant and has no previous acting experience. This was his first role". And while no money changed hands for the apparent endorsement of the famous faces in the ad - including Sir Ed Hillary and Ahmed Zaoui - donations were made. The "real people" were given small gifts.

2. Meanwhile over at TV3, their own newsreaders are having huge amounts of fun at their rivals' expense. After Hilary Barry wished sports-reader Clint Brown happy birthday, he said: "Remember Hilary, it's not all about us."

3. And back at TVNZ, backs are up over a new 3 News promo encouraging viewers to send in their own footage, "3 News. Make it your news" sounding like TV One's "One News, your news".

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Russell lives! Sightings of Russell the Rooster by the Southeastern Arterial confirm he either "has a twin or is the chicken messiah", says a reader who saw him "merrily pecking the ground on the side of the southern on-ramp" after Sideswipe's obituary this week. Another reader expressed an outpouring of grief round their office over the apparent demise of Russell (or Jack). "Having seen the rooster for years on the motorway, we are going to have a wake for him. Debra here at work says he is known as Jack to everyone. Could you confirm if this is correct? Is he dead?" It appears not. Another reader is pleased to report that he is "alive and clucking and causing his usual traffic disturbance in the process. And if you ask me, it looks like the Christmas break did him some good - he plumped up considerably." Finally, another reader suggests "the creature hit by the NZ Post van was in fact a possum".

Editorial: Justice by ordeal medieval

A "restorative justice" meeting on Wednesday night, in which property developer George Bernard Shaw faced 60 people angry that he had chopped down a protected pohutukawa, succeeded admirably if its objective was to humiliate someone who had committed an offence against the community, albeit on his own property. However, if the objective was to advance the cause of justice there are reasons to doubt the value of the process, which was initiated by Shaw after months of denial that he had anything to do with the destruction of the 100-year-old tree on his property in Royal Oak.

For restorative justice the guilty party is expected to admit wrongdoing and apologise. This Shaw duly did at the meeting in exactly the same terms as he apologised to the Auckland City Council last year when he also paid $50,000 towards the council's costs in the case and agreed in principle to replace the destroyed tree with another mature pohutukawa.

This is all very well and a great advance on where Shaw stood a few months ago, which was not only to deny all knowledge of the offence but to claim he himself was the victim. However, there are good grounds for suspicion - clearly voiced by some at the meeting - that the apology was a tactical move made when he realised he was in deep trouble.

Shaw has a long history of defying protection orders dating back to 1993. Given his record and an increasing trend by the courts to deal firmly with developers who defy protection orders he would have realised that this time the penalty he was facing was likely to be a good deal more than the $4000 fine he received on three earlier occasions. The maximum possible is a $200,000 fine or two years in prison.

But if the value of the apology is open to question a more serious concern is the introduction of a procedure which in some ways resembled a medieval trial by ordeal. There seemed little room for fairness, discussion or defensive arguments on Wednesday night. Shaw was in a position of abasing himself while accusers assailed him with insults expressed in extravagant language. He was called malevolent and his methods "financial fascism" and "economic terrorism". The suggestion that he might go to jail was greeted with obvious glee.

These aggressive attitudes were matched by a display of intolerance and lack of fairness when one man rose to speak in Shaw's defence only to be shouted down.

No matter the justice of their cause or how righteous Shaw's accusers feel, it is impossible to avoid a profound sense of distaste at the crowd having a lone man in its power and treating him to such a verbal battering. There is a certain dignity in admitting a crime and accepting the punishment, that is lost in this sort of public pillory.

The accusers also demean themselves and, worse, they run the grave danger that by going too far they turn the offender into the victim and thus distract attention from what he did. This would be a pity in this case because it should be a showcase against developers who have no regard for the community interest. Those who chop down protected trees and bulldoze heritage buildings obviously calculate that the crime is worthwhile because no punishment will ever be severe enough to cut their profits.

Such people have a lesson to learn but it is one that should properly be taught by a judge and not a crowd of angry people at a public meeting. To do otherwise is not an advance but a return to rough justice and a denial of human dignity.

Te Radar: In the end, spying is a dangerous game

If I were a governmental secret agent, I imagine one of the first things that would cause me to be both shaken and stirred (not necessarily in a patriotic manner) would be the moment that I was issued with a rectal pistol.

These little (hopefully) beauties were manufactured by the KGB for use by their operatives. As the name implies, they were designed to be hidden on - or to be more precise, in - the person.

I mention their existence only in light of recent Russian revelations that the British were caught in Moscow using a fake rock containing sophisticated data-transmission equipment for nefarious espionage purposes.

It is often the minutiae revealed by these stories that is of interest. The rectal pistol was mentioned as a throwaway line in a sidebar story about other kooky tools of the espionage trade.

I would quite like to have been at the meeting where the concept of this weapon was mooted. Surely the first thing that should have been suggested was that the gun be given a better name.

The rectal pistol is apparently encased in rubber, which is a mixed blessing since it smooths the surface while increasing the diameter. Nowhere was it mentioned if the pistols were issued accompanied by donut pillows.

Neither could I find answers to the following questions: Were counter-espionage agents forced to attend classes in Facing A Rectal Threat, or Fart?

Were Russians schooled in ass-assination techniques?

Would those who proved particularly adept at using these guns be known as "crack shots"?

Being armed with a rectal pistol would certainly add an amusing take to the old cliche, "This is a stick-up". I suspect those on the receiving end of that threat would barely be able to contain their mirth.

Nor would you want to be plagued by a spate of accidental discharges, although no doubt in a truly terrifying situation the removal of the pistol would not present too much of a problem.

All of this goes some ways towards explaining why Russian spies always came across as a tad tetchy.

Fortunately, according to New Zealand's SIS website, our spooks don't carry firearms, so there would be little need to deal with this issue.

While not being averse to having a rectal pistol issued to me if I was employed by our SIS, I would be concerned, given New Zealand's small security budgets, if said weapon was second-hand.

The story made no mention of the Americans having such a weapon. Given their startling intelligence failures of late, there would have been no room for the rectal pistol to be holstered as their heads appear to be filling the allocated space.

One thing is certain: being shot by a rectal pistol would be embarrassing, but it pales compared with shooting at someone using such a gun and missing.

With the pistol containing just a single shot, the ignominy would be the death of you.

Brian Rudman: A kamikaze mayor for whom the tolling tolls

And here was I thinking that Auckland Mayor Dick Hubbard had his heart set on another term in office. Then up he pops yesterday announcing he's off to Wellington on a kamikaze mission to plead with the Government to impose special, Auckland-only road tolls.

Egging him on are those wily old political hands, Manukau Mayor Barry Curtis and Waitakere's Bob Harvey, only too happy, I suspect, to let eager muggins new chum lead the charge into oblivion.

If I was off to the Government about Auckland's perennial transport problems, my message to Labour would be to keep last year's pre-election promises to sort them out over the next 10 years. I wouldn't be fronting up just four months later saying, "Don't worry, we never expected you to keep your word. Tell you what, we'll let you off the hook. We Aucklanders are happy to pay more taxes for our roads and buses than anyone else in the country."

I'd be waving last year's general election statistics showing that increased voter turnout in working-class areas of southern Auckland City and Manukau City saved Labour's bacon, and demanding that the Government repaid this debt.

The most outrageous aspect of this mayoral initiative is that it comes with no mandate.

At the December 2 meeting of the regional mayoral coven, it was resolved to urgently meet Government ministers "to discuss transport funding solutions, including providing Auckland with the power to raise revenue locally, including the ability to charge for the use of existing roads."

The key word was "discuss" and even that was too much for North Shore Mayor George Wood, who asked for his opposition to be noted. Regional council chairman Mike Lee, who was not present, yesterday also spoke out against it.

On December 15, the Auckland City Council voted in support of an "investigation"of the proposal.

Neither resolution gives Mayor Hubbard the authority he seems to have assumed to seek special tolling rights to pay for Auckland transport solutions. He certainly has no mandate from the public. We have been left totally out of this loop, something which I hope Government ministers are quick to pick up on.

Mr Wood got it right yesterday when he said "ministers are dragging their feet on plugging the funding gap to address Auckland's transport woes", and said Aucklanders deserved to be treated better than be subjected to the "desperate cash-grab" proposed by Hubbard and friends, which would have "major social and economic consequences for them".

Criticising the lack of debate, he said, "The least we should do is ask them [the community] about tolling before further charges are imposed."

As I gather it, the three mayors see tolling of existing as well as new roads as a way of getting additional cash to speed the building of new roads, both local and state highways, and for the faster development of public transport.

Apart from the iniquity of expecting Auckland to pay more taxes for transport infrastructure than the rest of the country, my biggest objection to tolling as a general revenue-collecting device is its gross inefficiency.

As I've written before, Cabinet papers released last July revealed that an electronic tolling system to pay for the Orewa to Puhoi motorway would need on-going operating subsidies, with $1.35 of the $1.80 proposed toll gobbled up in administration.

Establishing a network-wide tolling system in Auckland would cost $53.5 million. Cars would have to carry an electronic transponder so that toll-gates could register the journey.

In addition, a network of cameras would have to be installed to photograph the numberplates of cars without transponders.

A huge bureaucracy would be needed to post out bills and chase up the defiant or forgetful.

Of course, there already is an efficient system of tolling in place and that's the fuel tax. It's more democratic than tolling in that it gets everyone using the road system, not just those unlucky enough to choose to, or have to, travel past a toll gate.

The problem, for the politicians, with Auckland-only tolls is they are too transparent.

They would be a constant reminder that the Government expects Aucklanders to pay more for their roads and railways than Wellingtonians and Dunedinites, and that Mr Hubbard and his allies think this is a good thing.

I wonder about their retirement plans ...

Jim Hopkins: A beginner's guide to getting the economy in line

If more people read the business pages we probably wouldn't be in this mess. But the fact is they don't, so we are.

Things are beginning to look increasingly gloomy on the economic front. Indeed, they're looking so gloomy that the economy's been promoted to the front page.

Not as itself, of course. But it is there, cleverly disguised as "Job losses" or "Fuel price hikes" to avoid alarming those decent middle-class folk filling out their new Working For Families applications.

Yet, despite such ruses, it seems we'll soon be replacing Mr Clinton's famous line; "It's the economy, stupid" with, "It's the stupid economy!"

Then, when the Inland Revenue goes into receivership we'll be able to display our unquenchable fortitude by laconically quipping, "It's the stupid economy", and hoping somebody else will buy the next beer.

Alternatively, we can do what we've always done and implement some wide-ranging Economic Policy Management Strategy Options. That should whip the stupid old economy into line.

And since we'll soon need to understand the business pages, here's a quick guide to some of the options being considered.

First is the 4T or Talk Tough To Tokyo Strategy. Actually, some Reserve Bankers tried this in December when they popped over to tell Mr Nikkei he should stick his uridashis where the sun don't shine. Uridashi is the Japanese word for "overseas savings accounts". They're very popular with the Japanese because they don't get any interest at home which explains why they're in an even bigger mess than we are, and why they have to sell us their second-hand cars to pay for the groceries.

Trouble is, their uridashis are our cheap home loans. So the Reserve Bank made it abundantly clear to Mr Nikkei that our economy has a galloping case of campylobacter and "if u'r not careful, u'll all be making a uridashi to the uridunni".

Needless to say, this has had no effect on the Japanese whatsoever.

Option two is BTB or Blame the Banks. This is a beauty because it involves the Min of Fin saying it's the banks' fault because they've been forcing money on innocent customers, creating a giant mess. The solution is simple. He just passes a law limiting the amount banks can lend and everything's all right. There's a sound economic reason why the Gummint should blame the banks. Banks can't vote. Meaning it's very likely to happen, so you'd best call 0800 K-MAN ISLANDS now!!!

Especially since Tax Cuts aren't on the options list. While they may lure new businesses here and generally stimulate the economy, the Gummint's not at all keen on tax cuts, largely because: a) the Opposition thought of them first, and b) they could leave our leaders with less largesse to bestow upon the grateful masses, who might then begin to realise how big a mess they're actually in. And that would never do.

Which only leaves BKM and EW.

BKM or Buy Kiwi Made is basically voluntary Import Substitution (which we tried for 50 years) and should work a treat, provided: a) you're happy with any colour so long as it's black; b) you don't mind paying more, and; c) you enjoy wanting things you can't buy - like plasma TVs and iPods.

EW or Earnest Waffle is more promising since it merely involves an eminent earnest person going on telly and talking about "added value" and "raising our skill base" and "boosting broadband uptake" and, hey presto, everyone feels much better.

"At least the Gummint's doing something," we'll all say on the bus as it's being towed back to the depot with a blazing engine. "So that's okay".

And it might well be. Then again, maybe not.

It is possible the only effective strategy is one mentioned in hushed tones by some of the more advanced economists in the privacy of their own calculators, and that is the Mammal option.

You'll recall, 65 million years ago, how a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. But not the mammals, because they were scrawny little cunning creatures who scrimped and scavenged and hid under rocks and did whatever was necessary to survive in a harsh world that didn't give a uridashi whether they were there or not.

For obvious reasons, the Mammal option is off the table, not least because the thought of being economic mammals doesn't appeal at all. We much prefer being happy reptiles basking in the sun by the watering hole, secure in the knowledge the Gummint can always pass a law to keep things that way.

So us economic beginners can safely predict we'll opt for one or more of the reptilian options, even though they'll all have much the same effect as throwing snowballs in a blast furnace.

But the good thing is they put the blame where it belongs - with other people. Consequently, when the economic meteor does finally hit we can all indignantly chant in unison, just like Simon and Wendy, "It's not about me!!!!!"

Phil Goff: Still much to be done to help rebuild lives after the Taleban

Next week in London, New Zealand will take part in a conference to set the future of international assistance in Afghanistan.

Last year's parliamentary elections mean Afghanistan's main institutions of state are in place, and in London, international attention will move to the next phase of nation building.

The conference will launch the Afghan Compact, which aims to improve the effectiveness of aid by aligning donors to the goals of Afghanistan's new five-year national development strategy, and by establishing joint co-ordination mechanisms.

Afghanistan's stability is important for global security. However, given the scale of the problems facing Afghanistan, and the obstacles to rebuilding the shattered infrastructure and economy, the risk of failure remains real and worrying.

In that context, New Zealand remains committed to continuing to help the Afghan people. Despite our relative geographical isolation from Afghanistan, we have committed $130 million in military and development assistance since 2001.

By just about every measure, Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries. It is rebuilding mud brick by mud brick from the devastation of 24 years of war and civil strife.

Afghanistan's economy is dominated by the opium trade, which fuels corruption, insecurity and indebtedness. Parts of the country are effectively in the hands of local warlords, while Taleban resistance continues in the south.

After years of conflict, a whole generation has missed basic education and access to health care. Over 70 per cent of adults - rising to 92 per cent among women in rural areas - cannot read. Three out of five girls still don't go to school. The average life span is 45 years and the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. Nevertheless, there have been important milestones. As well as successful elections, a new constitution has been adopted. More than 60,000 combatants have been disarmed, 3.5 million refugees have returned home, and new schools and clinics are being built.

New Zealand's contribution has been largely focused on the remote province of Bamyan in the mountainous Hindu Kush , where the New Zealand Defence Force has run a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) since September 2003.

The PRT's work has created a secure environment and earned the goodwill of local people allowing important steps to begin towards long-term development. Over the past four years, many hundreds of NZDF personnel have served in Afghanistan, while New Zealand has committed $20 million in aid. Following an assessment visit last October, NZAID, has committed a further $15 million over the next three years for civilian-led projects through UN agencies, NGOs, and continued funding to the PRT.

New Zealand's focus will continue to be on projects that respond to needs expressed by the local authorities and people. This includes developing sustainable rural livelihoods, maternal health care, education, governance, security, human rights, and support for Bamyan University.

New Zealand Police, funded by NZAID, are helping train and mentor local police officers as an effective police force is critical to restoring order, protecting human rights and maintaining security. The PRT has been building district police stations and providing police vehicles.

Other recent projects have included building roads and bridges, assisting schools and health clinics, and contributing $500,000 to a project helping impoverished farmers to plant cash crops that will reduce their reliance on poppy cultivation.

While recent advances in security and reconstruction have been encouraging, there is still much to be done. Cabinet will soon consider future options for New Zealand's engagement in Afghanistan. It is likely our military contribution there will continue to be a significant element in New Zealand's long-term commitment to international security.

* Phil Goff is the Minister of Defence

Dick Hubbard: Road tolls cut congestion on urban roads

Road tolling has been around for almost as long as roads. The Romans tolled much of their high quality roads through Europe and the revenue was used to finance road developments.

Oliver Cromwell was a great advocate of tolling (although knights were to be exempt under his model).

In medieval England, legendary and real characters such as Dick Turpin and Robin Hood extracted unorthodox tolls - and probably helped to minimise potential congestion.

Tolling in New Zealand, and specifically Auckland, also has a long history. In March 1863 the Turnpike Act was passed by the Auckland Provincial Council to "erect toll bars or gates on Great South Rd for the purpose of raising money towards defraying the costs of repairs thereof".

A toll gate was erected at the corner of Manukau Rd and Remuera Rd (now in the middle of Broadway in Newmarket).

Three years later, a second Turnpike Act was passed and the levies were set: horses (three pence each), carriages (six pence for one horse, nine pence for two and one shilling for three or more), cattle (three pence a head) and pigs, sheep or goats (halfpenny each).

Payment was required only once on the same day. Government employees and members of the armed services were exempt.

Fast forward to 1959 and after decades of political fence-sitting the Auckland Harbour Bridge was opened as a tolled bridge.

The Americans have long had "turnpike tolls" for their long-distance motorways and around the world cities are moving to tolls. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane all have urban toll roads albeit with different ownership and tolling structures and different technologies.

The rationale for tolls has also changed. Although revenue gathering for road construction is still important, innovative tolling solutions are now being used for reasons such as reducing congestion by altering demand through variable pricing, or to subsidise public transport.

Tolling is, of course, politically sensitive and can bring some inequities. But, generally speaking, tolls are acceptable where tangible benefits to the travelling public can be achieved and readily seen.

Before Mayor Ken Livingstone introduced the London congestion charging scheme there was only 40 per cent public support for it.

Three years after its introduction, public support is at 54 per cent and there are some calling for Livingstone's elevation to sainthood.

Clearly, if there had been a referendum on London's congestion charge before it was implemented it would not have proceeded.

In Edinburgh, where a referendum was held on a two-stage congestion charging system, the proposal was soundly rejected. Central London moves, central Edinburgh does not.

It is important that revenue from tolling be used specifically to finance transport solutions, including public transport. Use of tolling revenue to help subsidise the "national fund" would be a political no-no.

Electronic tolling is also helping public acceptance. It does not impede traffic and allows variation of charges during the day as a means of smoothing demand.

Even with electronic means, costs can sometimes be considerable. In London 50 per cent of the revenue obtained is used in costs while in Oslo, Norway, costs are down to 10 per cent of revenue. Fixed costs are high and the efficiency is therefore very dependent on traffic volumes.

Tolls also allow "public/private" partnerships. Private companies can build a road on behalf of government or a local authority and then charge to recover the investment.

Often there is a point at which the road reverts to public ownership (with or without the continuation of tolling).

How does all of this provide lessons for Auckland? There is universal agreement Auckland has major transport problems.

The question that faces Aucklanders is: Do we wait for Wellington to drip-feed money to us or do we get a consensus from Aucklanders that allows us to use selective tolling to control our own destiny?

Aucklanders are well travelled. Most of us have seen for ourselves what works and what doesn't overseas. We are a city that wants action. The choice is ours.

We owe it to ourselves to have informed debate on tolling, to weigh costs versus benefits, to reconcile pragmatism versus idealism and to send a clear signal to Government .

We need to tell our Prime Minister Helen Clark if we want Auckland to be "the fair city for whom the bell tolls!"

* Dick Hubbard is the Mayor of Auckland

Peter Griffin: Big Brother wants to track your cybersteps

Projected up against the wall of Google's reception area at its Mountain View, California, headquarters are random search queries typed into the world's most popular search engine.

Obscene and offensive ones are naturally screened out. Google wouldn't want clients subjected to a string of X-rated search terms as they sit waiting for their meeting slot.

Nor does Google want the United States Government to see what its millions of users are seeking. The internet giant stands apart from the other big search engine providers - Yahoo, AOL and MSN - in resisting Justice Department attempts to obtain a list of a million random web addresses accessed by search engine users and a week's worth of search queries.

Why does the Government want it? To boost its case that internet pornography is too easily accessible to children and therefore that the Child Online Protection Act is needed. Passed in 1998, the act stipulated that credit card or age verification should be required to gain access to adult websites. That provision was thrown out by the Supreme Court because of a First Amendment violation.

Are children left unsupervised on computers able to easily access pornography? The answer is yes, and the efficiency of search engines such as Google only makes it easier. Filtering software and the vigilance of parents, teachers and caregivers is the only real guard against kids being exposed to online smut.

But the Justice Department subpoena request has sparked a deeper debate about online privacy.

Many see the handing over of search results as the beginning of a worrying trend where internet providers furnish the Government with a growing pile of information about our digital activities.

It's a touchy subject in the US, where indignant citizens are smarting from the revelation that the Bush Administration has been wire-tapping international phone calls without seeking the required court consents first.

But allowing the Government to peer at a string of search queries entered into Google, Yahoo or Ask Jeeves really isn't as worrying as being given access to information trawled from email accounts. Even anonymous keyword results pulled from millions of email accounts would give a deep insight into what the masses are thinking and doing. It's not out of the question that, down the line, governments may seek such information for reasons that are "in the national interest".

Will the Government next subpoena Google to supply a list of locations people are looking at via Google Earth, the free satellite mapping service? Or will it ask for transcripts of Google Talk messenger conversations? Just because the data don't identify anyone in particular doesn't mean that's not whittling away our privacy.

We have to assume that everything we do on the internet is being monitored, logged, cross-referenced and categorised for the eyes of corporations and government departments anyway.

Google has to fight the subpoena because trust in the company to protect our privacy is integral to its US$132 billion market capitalisation and profitability, not to mention its very existence.

But there's another reason for its opposition. Google knows what internet providers will only admit off the record - that pornography accounts for a sizable chunk of web traffic. Google's search-based advertising business, which generated revenue of US$3.64 billion last year, makes this fact even more sensitive.

Research company Nielsen//NetRatings says that in December, porn websites attracted 38 million unique visitors, or a quarter of all web surfers. As the biggest search engine, accounting for up to 60 per cent of search engine queries, Google fields a lot of porn queries and therefore derives revenue from porn advertisers.

If it becomes obvious to the Government just how big the internet porn advertising market is, it may move to curtail it, something that would dent Google's search-based advertising business.

If you have nothing to hide when you use the internet, you have nothing to fear. Nevertheless, any encroachment on privacy needs to be zealously examined and perhaps resisted, even when the case for such encroachments seems valid.

Graham Reid: Billy was blue

Billy and I met while he was having his lunch. I joined him with the sandwiches and coffee. Billy didn't even glance at the view of Sydney Harbour and the Opera House outside. He had a house on New York's Long Island - in the Hamptons, I think - so I guess he was used to great vistas.

Billy wasn't exactly down on his luck - I think we could have described him as very well off - but things weren't going well.

For the second time he was involved in litigation to retrieve lost earnings, and both times the money had disappeared thanks to someone he had trusted and known for years.

He was also coming to terms with his divorce, which still troubled him.

He had married above his station, some might say. He had been a tough kinda guy - did some amateur boxing in the Bronx, even - but she was a model and very well known.

Their separation and divorce had played out across the media, and that's what troubled Billy.

Their daughter had to see the headlines in the scummy tabloids about her mother and her new partner every time he went to the supermarket.

As he spoke about this he was just another dad caring about his daughter's feelings, not the guy who had also commanded headlines.

He was also a bit sick of what he was doing - knocking himself out with work - and was considering giving it all up. But what to do? This was all he knew. Maybe some kind of teaching position to pass on what he'd learned? He didn't know.

We ate the sandwiches in silence for a while, then he perked up.

He was still the hard-edged pragmatist who had been knocked about on the tough streets of the Bronx, had made a half-hearted suicide attempt in his early 20s and been screwed around by lawyers and former friends, so he knew he could take all these blows.

Things would improve, it was just that right now ... "well, it gets you down, you know". I said I did, but I didn't. I'd never lost two fortunes and spent months with lawyers and in courtrooms, had my private life splattered across newspapers, or even gone through a career crisis.

We talked some more. He seemed in no rush to go anywhere, but a guy came up and said they needed him for something else. We shook hands and he disappeared off through the gleaming lobby of the fancy hotel.

Later that night I saw him again. He was laughing and at the top of his game. Thousands of people who didn't have a clue or care about his financial and personal problems bayed in appreciation.

From where I sat it looked like for those two hours he didn't care about them either. He was having fun.

I've never much liked his music but that night watching him put everything aside to do his job I came away with a great deal of respect for the piano man, Billy Joel.