Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sideswipe

Dedicated parenting for the broadband era, taken by a New Zealand traveller at Nadi Airport.

By Ana Samways

One mother curses the back-to school chore of book-covering. She writes: "With two primary school children, not only did I spend hours battling the sticky rolls on to the covers of flimsy exercise books, but there was also the agony of choosing the stupid stuff in the first place. When did we start this crazy fad of covering books and why? My two children's combined school fees and stationery packs cost $707.25, which includes $13 just for very ordinary, non-branded book coverings. I checked in my children's wardrobes and not one of the schoolbooks that came home from last year were covered. Where did the covered ones go? Used and chucked after a couple of months. So I ask, if our school exercise books are so weak and easily damaged that they need covering, wouldn't it be a really great idea to make the books with stronger covers? Nevertheless, am I brave enough to send my children to school with naked school books? No way. Imagine the humiliation. Pass the next 1B5, I'm on a roll."

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Driving north on the Hauraki Plains on Waitangi Day a reader read road signs promoting road safety which really made him think. They said: "18 per cent of accidents involve trucks, 41 per cent of accidents occur on corners, 35 per cent of accidents occur through poor observation. So that also means 82 per cent of accidents don't involve trucks, 59 per cent of accidents occur on straights and 65 per cent of accidents happen to alert drivers. Taking this logic to its limits, I figured that if you only drive trucks, only drive around corners and wear a blindfold, you have a much reduced chance of being involved in an accident."

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Creative copywriters: An ad for a property in Mosman, Sydney, offering "filtered water views" is beaten only by a large real estate sign on another property near Lake Macquarie advertising the kitchen style as "shabby sheik". (Source: Sydney Morning Herald.)

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A reader would like to share his experience at the Mission Bay Jazz and Blues Festival: "As an under 20-year-old (18, to be precise) I was appalled by the lack of manners shown to me by the 50-plus age group. While dancing away to one of the bands an older (50-plus) 'gentleman' grabbed me by the neck and told me, 'You have 10 seconds to move or sit down, or I will drag you out'. And they say that my generation has no manners. A simple 'Excuse me, my wife can't see, would you mind moving please?' would have sufficed."

Editorial: Broadband blues need regulation

The statistics relating to New Zealand and modern telecommunications technology have one major advantage. So woeful are they that they negate any suggestion that the status quo can be maintained. A country with such a huge stake in efficient communications cannot afford to remain ranked 41st of 42 high-income nations in telecommunications investment, or to be rated 22nd of the 30 OECD countries in broadband internet uptake. Competition-inspired infrastructure investment is desperately needed.

Not for the first time, a Communications Minister has recognised as much. David Cunliffe expects a regulatory review to be completed by the middle of the year, and promises action thereafter. That could take several forms, but it will be hard for him to look past opening the local loop to competition through a process known as unbundling. This would open Telecom's phone network to competitors. It is a process that should have been instigated at the time of privatisation. The failure to do so has presented the company with the defence of property right.

Unbundling is, however, a fact of life in all other OECD countries except Mexico. As far back as 2000, it was also identified by a Hugh Fletcher-led ministerial inquiry as the way forward for this country. In 2003, the Telecommunications Commissioner came to the same conclusion, only to later change his mind. The Government heeded that about-turn, contrary to the wishes of then Communications Minister Paul Swain, and allowed Telecom to embark on a target-based broadband customer scheme.

The company's announcement last week that it had fallen short of enticing the agreed number of wholesale customers - although it now denies there was such a target - confirmed the shortcomings of that approach. It also suggested that regulation had to come. In 2006, the Government can no longer allow itself to be cowed by Telecom, as happened two years ago when chief executive Theresa Gattung warned that unbundling would cause the company's share price to slip 30c, affect the sharemarket and, ipso facto, the economy.

Unbundling will be painful for Telecom. But probably not too distressing. It is likely the market has already accepted that the company will face some form of regulation, and has factored this into the share price. Furthermore, Telecom's massive presence and profile means it is well placed to take on competition in the broadband market. It will also have the plus of some form of compensation for its property right, perhaps involving a leavening of the restrictions imposed by the Kiwi Share.

The Government's major concern, in any event, must be the wider economy. While it is hard to quantify the exact pluses of broadband technology, it is clear that, at the very least, it offers efficiency and productivity benefits, and, at the most, opens new business avenues. The present situation, in which Telecom controls 92 per cent of broadband connections, provides no impetus to boost speeds and data limits, or to lower prices. The company, understandably, is perfectly happy with that situation. Only competition will spur high-speed action and innovation.

This is not something that will simply go away if the Government does nothing. The case for significant action, preferably by unbundling, has been a recurring theme of the past five years. If New Zealand remains slow on the uptake, even as new technologies make the demand for action ever more imperative, it will keep having to be revisited. This year, the Government must grasp the nettle.

Brian Rudman: The green, green grass of mid-city park

These days there are all sorts of computer programs to help us redesign the kitchen, or for that matter the whole house, before we start taking to the walls with a sledge hammer. But nothing quite prepares you for the real thing.

Yesterday, Heart of the City boss Alex Swney dragged me down to the back end of the Britomart rail station to admire the temporary transformation taking place on what is normally a drab asphalt carpark.

His organisation and Britomart developer Bluewater have laid 2500sq m of grass to create The Green, an instant park to provide a setting for the travelling Coexistence art exhibition which is to open on Friday evening.

And even littered, as it was, with the metal pipework of the still-to-be-erected picture frames, what an instantly welcoming, relaxing place this arid concrete jungle had suddenly become. How depressing to think than in three weeks the cars and tarseal and reflected noise and heat will return.

But it did make me warm to the idea being canvassed that the solution to the Jean Batten Building quandary is to amend the Bank of New Zealand's masterplan, which is to knock everything standing on the 70-80 Queen St site, historic Jean Batten Building included, to make way for their new headquarters tower block.

The alternative solution would be to knock over the cruddy 1970s BNZ mini-tower as planned, but leave the historic Jean Batten building. Alongside, the 1328sq m cleared site fronting Queen St would become a city park. Something akin to Wellington's popular Midland Park.

With seating and some shade trees and a row of food and drink shops linked to a spruced up Jean Batten Building, it could be the friendly, welcoming, square that so far our city fathers and mothers have failed to deliver. It would also give breathing space, and draw attention to, the attractive historic buildings surrounding it. Just how this would all come about is the tricky bit I haven't quite solved yet, but a vision is always a good place to start.

And aren't our civic leaders always badgering us to have vision, and vibrancy and vigour?

Perhaps we could call it Foreshore Park, to remind us that the sea once stopped at Fort St. Or Market Square, to remind us of the city's first market, which grew up here in the 1840s alongside the original Government Store.

With the Historic Places Trust decision on December 19 last year to register Jean Batten Building as a Category 1 historic place - its highest grading - the bank's grand plans for the site seem dead in in the water. This is believed to be the first time the trust has slapped such an order on a threatened building since the act was amended in 1991, a good indication that this is a battle it has decided to take on as a test case, through the courts if necessary.

Whether the Australian-owned bank has the stomach to risk its "good citizen" reputation we'll have to wait and see. But there must be other central city sites that are looking increasingly attractive.

Of course there is the little matter of paying for this new park. I was hoping to reveal we Auckland ratepayers already owned it. We certainly owned the land in 1852 when it was part of a Crown grant bequeathed to the young borough of Auckland.

We still owned it in 1974 when the Herald reported the BNZ was negotiating to buy the lease of the late lamented Victoria Arcade, which it later bowled in order to build the existing bank building.

Sometime after that - one usually reliable guide has it still in city hands in 1998 - the freehold passed to the BNZ. As of yesterday afternoon, I was still trying to pin down when and why this jewel of a property slipped out of city hands.

As of July 2005, the site had an official Quotable Value capital valuation of $19.5 million, of which $18 million was the land value. Which would make it a rather expensive park. Then again, everything is relative. The city sees nothing wrong with spending more than $100 million on titivating the central business district.

And who knows, we could always trade the BNZ an attractive site with sea views at the Tank Farm.

Audrey Young: Peters' past shapes present potential

Winston Peters stepped from his limo in Suva last night looking as cool as an ice cube despite wearing a grey suit and tie in the 30C heat.

This will be a testing week for Mr Peters, and not just heat-wise.

His first foray into the Pacific as Foreign Minister may be a good indication of whether he will gain respect for doing a decent job.

Fiji is an appropriate place to start. It is important, it is complex and it is prickly. (Mr Peters might feel at home.)

Fiji also offers a fresh start for Mr Peters after his media wars overshadowed his first few months in the job.

Helen Clark has made it clear she wants him to desist from elevating his private vendettas with elements of the news media into public events.

The aim, surely, for Mr Peters is not to match his seasoned predecessor, Phil Goff, but to do his job differently - to add value in ways that Mr Goff and even Helen Clark could not.

Power-wise, Fiji is almost in a state of limbo, with an early election due to be called at any time by Laisenia Qarase to renew his mandate to perhaps more firmly handle the unpredictable military commander, Frank Bainimarama.

Despite his public threats, Bainimarama dare not seize power and Qarase dare not sack him for his outbursts.

Mr Peters will meet them both.

That is something Helen Clark probably could not do, nor Phil Goff.

Helen Clark said yesterday that there was no big deal about Mr Peters meeting the military leader.

That would be true for Mr Peters but not for her.

It would be inconceivable for her or a Labour Foreign Minister to meet someone who was threatening the rule of law in Fiji, albeit hollowly. Labour stands on its dignity and principles.

Mr Peters has cut-through and, when he summons it, charm.

Labour Sports Minister Trevor Mallard snubbed Fiji's games at the 2001 rugby Sevens because the military had installed an unconstitutional Prime Minister to end the Speight coup; Mr Peters invited Commodore Bainimarama to join him for dinner at the Green Parrot in Wellington.

Admittedly Mr Peters was in Opposition then, and their previous social encounters go some way to explaining their plan to meet in Fiji this week.

But the arrangement is also an example of how Mr Peters could make a difference, with greater personal connection to people.

That is especially so in the Pacific, given his status as arguably the best-known Polynesian politician around.

NZ First's foreign policy has always advocated a stronger relationship with the Pacific. This is his chance to show how.

Tapu Misa: The pain of losing a parent

One of these days, I may want to stop talking about my mother. I may start to take more than a passing interest in the events consuming the rest of the country.

I may even start to think that much of it isn't superficial nonsense, irritating background noise that distracts us from the things that really matter in life.

But not today. Today I'm grieving, which I realise is not a concept that fits neatly into our busy, modern society.

My mother died suddenly a month ago. The funeral - a lovely one apparently, though I was too light-headed from weeping and sleep deprivation to judge - is over, and life is supposed to return to normal.

My family and I are expected to have mourned her, dealt with our grief and moved on.

Modern life demands that you get the crying out of the way so you can get back to work and whatever constitutes normality.

But the reality is somewhat different. No one tells you about the overwhelming sense of loss and sadness, those feelings of devastation, anger, blame, guilt and regret. And the need to be able to talk about your loved one, to have that loss acknowledged.

It is only now I find out from a colleague that, after losing her mother, she had cried in the shower every day for three months. And from another that her best friend told her she had cried every day since losing her mother several years ago and she hadn't even liked her mother.

How long does this go on? One of my sister's friends told her that she had started feeling better 10 years after her mother's death.

I've never really understood grief, though I've lost family members before. I remember a reader writing me a long letter in which she thanked me for making her laugh for the first time since her brother had died.

That had been many months before, but she was still on what she called her grief diet. At the time, her grief had seemed excessive.

My mother's twin sister, who had a forewarning of tragedy on the day of my mother's heart attack, and was the epitome of Christian kindness and joy before Mum's death, admits to days of being angry and not caring overly much about anything else.

Grief does strange things. I remember my sisters laughing at me when I seemed to lose the facility to speak English; when my selective blindness meant that I kept driving past the funeral home without seeing it.

But I think blindness and numbness are good defences. It kept us emotionally sedated for long enough to cope with the awfulness of those days at Auckland Hospital's critical care unit, where we lived for several days, suspended between denial and acceptance, hope and resignation.

How else could we have coped after the life support was turned off and we waited for my mother to die? Back then we couldn't even say the "d" word.

It was the numbness and that sense of unreality, the feeling that none of it was real, that got us through window-shopping for Mum's final outfit, checking out the burial plot that a cousin wanted to gift her, right next to her sister, choosing a casket, and then, painfully, painstakingly, dressing my mother in the nice cream suit that she had worn to my youngest sister's wedding.

The numbness was helpful during the funeral service, too, after our father asked us to stem our tears long enough to say something sensible about our mother.

By then we had entered a twilight zone in which the old world we had known had ceased to exist.

Our mother had been the centre of our world, the glue that held our family together, our anchor.

She was the best person I have known. She was our Christmases and New Years, our birthdays and weekends. She loved us without judging us, and was as proud of our achievements as parents as she was of our professional lives.

We spent time with her because we liked her, because she was fun, and exuded joy and a deep faith that warmed us and made us feel protected, even if we didn't always share it.

She loved colour and bling, shopping and bargains. It was her idea to bring our family to New Zealand, and her stubborn determination that kept us here even when the dream failed to live up to our expectations.

She pulled us through our poorest years by being creative and practical, but it was those years that shortened her life.

Mum genuinely loved people, had been adopting them into our family since she was a teenager, among them the over-achieving brother who is only eight years her junior.

Some of her surrogate children I hardly knew, like the young man who turned up at the hospital looking as stricken as we felt. He'd never known what it meant to have a loving parent until he lived next door to my mother. He called her "Mum" and his kids called her "Nana".

Ageing parents are supposed to die when their time comes, and it is assumed that their adult children, no longer emotionally or financially dependent on them, will cope.

But nothing really prepares you. Mum was only 68. Her siblings are in their 80s, and their mother was 93 when she died. I'm told it hurts just as much to lose a parent in their 80s or 90s, but my brothers and sisters and I still feel envious, cheated of those lost years.

There is, too, a sense of failure, the feeling that we didn't look after her well enough, that we didn't save her when she really needed us. We have a ton of regrets, and if-onlys.

The last time I really saw my mother, she was standing on her porch waving until we were completely out of sight.

Mum always said "goodbye" as though it was the last time she might see us. I'm glad we'd told her we loved her, as we always did on parting.

Life moves on, yes. But it doesn't feel as sweet without my mother.

Denis Dutton: Why loving art's a matter of survival

Across cultures, the arts of homo sapiens demonstrate universal features. These aesthetic inclinations and patterns have evolved as part of our hardwired psychological nature, ingrained in the human species over the 80,000 generations lived out by our ancestors in the 1.6 million years of the Pleistocene.

The existence of a universal aesthetic psychology has been suggested, not only experimentally, but by the fact the arts travel outside their local contexts so easily: Beethoven is loved in Japan, aboriginal art in Paris, Korean ceramics in Brazil, and Hollywood movies all over the globe.

Our aesthetic psychology has remained unchanged since the building of cities and the advent of writing some 10,000 years ago, which explains why The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh remain good reading today. We haven't lost Pleistocene tastes for fat and sweet foods, nor have we lost our ancient tastes for artistic entertainment.

The fascination that people worldwide find in the exercise of artistic virtuosity, from Praxiteles to Renee Fleming, is not a social construct, but an evolutionary adaptation.

Displays of virtuosity make audiences' hair stand on end, regardless of their specific cultural context. It's no surprise this is a universal aspect of human nature: Over thousands of generations, hunter-gatherer bands that exercised dexterity, and encouraged it by admiring it, would have survived better than their less skilful cousins against predators and the rigours of a hostile environment.

Darwinian psychology has other interesting applications to aesthetics. Studies of landscape preferences repeatedly show a human liking for alternating copses of trees and open spaces, often hilly land, with animals, water and a path or river bank that winds into an inviting yet mysterious, bluish distance.

This preference for the landscapes of the Pleistocene era, which has been experimentally verified as a cross-cultural constant today, shows up in the painting of early European artists, such as Albrecht Altdorfer and Salvador Rosa, and is found today on calendars in kitchens and offices worldwide. It is very marked in 19th century Australian landscape painting, the result of European artists taming their new vistas. It can be seen in the design of public parks from New York to Kyoto to Melbourne.

Cross-cultural studies also show persistent themes in drama and story-telling. When Aristotle described the basic plot points of Greek tragedy, he may have thought he was only speaking for his culture. Not so. The themes of family breakdown are found in Chinese fiction and Mexican soap operas.

What often arouses our interest is hate-filled struggle between people whom we'd expect to love each other - the mother who murders her children to get back at her husband, the two brothers who fight to the death - struggles that threaten the survival not just of individuals, but, more essentially, of their genes. Stories of adventure, of overcoming evil, injustice and obstacles to love, are found everywhere. Usually, they involve beautiful young women, strong men, children needing protection, wise old people. The universality of these themes and situations are of particular interest to Darwinian literary theorists.

The Darwinian origin of art is a subject of much dispute. It's unlikely the arts came about at one time or for one purpose: They evolved from overlapping interests based on survival and mate selection, and they explore and make use of emotions experienced even by our pre-hominid ancestors.

The usefulness of the arts for survival is demonstrated by the universal human tendency to reconstruct reality in the imagination. The rehearsal of dangers and conflicts in fiction is a way of learning about the world without having to take actual risks. Those of our ancestors who derived pleasure from fictional "practice" for real life gained an evolutionary edge: They were better prepared to deal with the real world.

The arts also echo the sexual display that accompanies Darwinian selection.

The heavy, glorious tail of the peacock has no survival value in the wild. To the contrary, it slows peacocks down and makes them more visible to predators. The peacock's tail is a product of pea-hen choices: females choose males with the biggest, most perfectly formed tails. Much of the human personality was similarly formed by women and men choosing clever, affectionate, kind, and skilful mates in the Pleistocene. This too would permeate not only the arts as a "show-off" demonstration of virtuosity, but our large-brained capacity to creatively use memory and language to levels far beyond mere survival requirements.

How we scan visually, how we hear, our sense of rhythm, the pleasures of artistic expression: All of this and more will in time be illuminated by Darwinian aesthetics.

Though it is possible to identify persistent themes and subjects in the arts, human beings everywhere are also inclined to enjoy what's new. There is a tendency for all artistic genres to develop in the direction of greater emotional content in time. Music moves from baroque to classic to romantic, with modulations becoming more striking, emotions stronger, orchestras larger. Movies go from merely illustrating stories to becoming more graphically exciting.

These patterns can be put down largely to satiation: the process by which we simply get tired of anything we consume and crave more excitement from it.

Darwinian aesthetics have hardly got off the ground, and much work remains to be done. Nevertheless, I've already seen a knee-jerk resistance to the very idea among academics in the humanities. It's odd that the academics who express outrage that religious conservatives want to keep Darwin out of biology classes in the US are unwilling to admit Darwin into their own seminars. Aesthetics approached with intelligible, scientifically valid research techniques would clearly be a threat to the reigning orthodoxies.

But there's no cause for humanists to worry. Culture, the central idea of the humanities as they now exist, makes an enormous contribution to the meaning of art, and Darwinian aesthetics has no desire to deny it. Indeed, Darwin saw human beings as culture-creating animals. Darwinian aesthetics only denies that culture is the whole story of art.

The most complete explanation of great works of art will address form, narrative content, ideology, how the work is taken in by the eye or mind, and indeed, how it can produce life-transforming pleasure. Darwinian aesthetics are about understanding the deepest nature of our apprehension of beauty. Some of this will always remain a mystery, of course, and there is no harm in that either.

* Denis Dutton teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury. He is editor of the online website Arts and Letters Daily and is writing a book on Darwinian aesthetics.

Noel Cox: Governor-General role needs update

The notion of an elected Governor-General is not as strange as it may at first seem. There are several contemporary examples of elected vice-regal representatives, though none of direct election by the people. In the Solomon Islands the Governor-General is elected by parliament, and in Papua New Guinea they are nominated by parliament. Either model could be followed by New Zealand.

Examples from the past include some of the North American colonies (the so-called chartered colonies), where the governors in the 17th and 18th centuries were elected by the legislature rather than appointed by the Crown.

Whether this led to their having a greater and more effective role is uncertain. In any event, they survived being swept away by the American Revolution.

In the 19th century there were proposals for the election of the Governor-General in parts of the British Empire (what we now call the Commonwealth), but none of these were put into effect. None of this means we can't consider the option for New Zealand, even if we then reject it as unworkable or unnecessary.

The starting point should perhaps be establishing a clear rationale for such an innovation. Clearest may be a desire to remove or limit the Prime Minister's discretion. Current practice leaves the choice of Governor-General largely in the hands of the Prime Minister, though there is a requirement that the Leader of the Opposition is consulted. In the past the Queen also took an active role in the process. She may still do so, but it is not clear whether recent Prime Ministers have allowed her to express her views before they make their own choice of nominee.

If the Governor-General were nominated or elected by Parliament or the electorate, the role of the Prime Minister would be greatly reduced as would, to a lesser extent, that of the Queen.

The effect, as we have seen elsewhere, could extend well beyond the elimination of a Prime Ministerial monopoly. If the choice of Governor-General lay in the hands of Parliament, rather than being an exercise of the royal prerogative on the advice of the Prime Minister, it risks becoming a prize for politicians to fight over.

If election were by the general public, or by some form of electoral college (similar to the way the United States President is elected), then it would do much to increase the independence and authority of the Governor-General.

This in turn could lead to some interesting and important ramifications. The office would potentially becomes politicised (due to its link with a particular party), something which is currently avoided by the twin devices of leaving the Governor-General with primarily ceremonial duties, and taking the appointment process entirely out of the public arena.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, an elected Governor-General (and especially one elected by the people rather than by politicians) would be a potential threat to the status and authority of politicians. Such a Governor-General would have a greater democratic mandate than the politicians, since they would be elected by the people, and not merely exist as the appointee of a political party or the choice of a single electorate. This mandate would entitle the Governor-General to argue they had the support of the people to advocate policies which might be at odds with those of the government. Again, whether this would be desirable or not is a matter for the people to decide, but may not be popular with Ministers, or Members of Parliament.

It suits both for the Governor-General to have a low profile and to be dependent upon them. Currently the Governor-General normally acts only on the formal advice of Ministers of the Crown, and is unwilling to venture into any political controversy.

One might speculate on the real motivation for suggestions that we elect the Governor-General. Could it be a cunning ploy to introduce a republic by stealth? Possibly, though the Governor-General would remain the representative of the Queen, whether they were formally nominated or elected by parliament or by the electorate. Could it be to provide a counterweight to the perceived dominance of the political executive (the Prime Minister and the Cabinet)? Perhaps there are several possible motivations. But whatever they might be, any process by which the appointment of Governor-General passes from the hands of the executive to Parliament or the electorate, raises concerns over the constitutional balance.

Currently the Governor-General is perceived as having a mainly ceremonial function. They do not have an active political role because they are appointed by and responsible to the Queen, on the advice of the Queen's First Minister, the Prime Minister, and, like the Queen, are above party politics. Giving the Governor-General a new and separate source of democratic legitimacy could result in a separation between Ministers and Governor-Generals. Rather than the Governor-General having the right to be consulted, the right to advise, and the right to warn Ministers, the Governor-Generals would have their own independent popular mandate, and become potential political rivals of the Ministers.

Rather than politicising the office of Governor-General by making it an elected office, steps could be taken to raise its profile. Despite some suggestions to the contrary, it is doubtful that the public profile of the Governor-General is higher now than it has been in the past. Indeed it seems likely that the opposite is true. For instance, until a few years ago, the main public exposure the Governor-General received was during annual Waitangi Day events. They were welcomed to Waitangi as the Queen's representative, receiving significant media attention. Yet recently media attention has turned to the Prime Minister. Let attention focus again upon the Governor-General, when she is carrying out the duties for which she was appointed.

The profile and role of the office can be expanded without turning it into an elected position, which would introduce additional uncertainties in a country which relies heavily on a finely-balanced constitutional and political arrangement. Attempts to raise the political profile of the Governor of Tasmania recently showed how dangerous these changes can be. Richard Butler was cast as a US-style state governor, a political figure. This attempt to distort the office led to great embarrassment to all concerned. We don't need to follow this sort of example.

* Noel Cox is Associate Professor of Law at the Auckland University of Technology