Friday, March 03, 2006

Sideswipe

A poster in Hanoi, Vietnam (L) and Henrietta Chicken in a Boston Pet shop.

By Ana Samways

These unappetising, government-issued warning posters (above) in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, are enough to put you off eating any of our feathered friends. Loosely translated, it says: "To minimise the risk of contracting bird flu, please boil the bejezus out of all poultry before you eat it." (Source: stickyrice.typepad.com)

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Somebody is deeply offended by the bikini-clad, rubber-chicken doggie chew-toy in the window of a Boston Pet shop (above). In his complaint to store owners the offended passerby begs them to remove the suggestive latex Henrietta Chicken and asks how he is "supposed to walk his children by our store and explain to them why there are naked chickens in the window". Indeed. The owner tries to explain to him that all chickens are naked, they usually don't wear clothes and that Henrietta is actually wearing a purple polka-dot bikini, and so was not naked. But offended passerby remains unconvinced and threatens to call the Mayor's office and complain.

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While waiting to cross the intersection of Ponsonby and Richmond Roads, single male noticed an attractive blonde standing chatting to the driver of a car waiting to turn right. The lights changed and the first two cars pulled away; the third car didn't because there was no driver! The penny dropped; the blonde was the AWOL driver. But did she rush back to her car? Did she seem embarrassed at holding up at least 10 other cars waiting to turn right? No, she continued to chat, even after other drivers started to honk their horns. Eventually, with pursed lips and slightly haughty air, she climbed back into her car and pulled forward to the now red light. It was probably a really important conversation though, a cure for cancer perhaps or a solution for Iraq.

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A letter to the editor of the Christchurch Press: "A request: would it be possible to persuade your sub-editors to use 'probe' more sparingly in headings? I ask because I have an enlarged prostate, which means I am subjected to an undignified but necessary digital examination from time to time. Your paper's use of the word can lead to some unease and distress." Sam Noble, Diamond Harbour.

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It's not unusual for executives to take work home at night, but increasingly they take it into the bathroom, reports News of the Weird. Laptop computers, high-speed connections, flat-panel televisions and speaker phones, are accompanying their owners everywhere they go. However, there is a downside. For example: the "sound-chamber" effect (the hollow voice created by typical bathroom acoustics usually gives away one's location) and the "BlackBerry dunk" (with one repair shop saying it gets a half-dozen jobs a day of portable devices accidentally dropped into the sink or tub, "or worse").

Editorial: Howard's 10 years at the top

Australian history is rich in larger-than-life figures from all sides of the political spectrum. The likes of Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser. There is flamboyance, also, in many of the present generation of politicians. Yet they have fallen by the wayside during John Howard's 10-year tenure as Prime Minister. A man boasting all the charisma of a suburban bank manager is this week celebrating what all his predecessors, with the exception of Sir Robert Menzies, failed to achieve. By any yardstick, it is a remarkable accomplishment.

In analysing Mr Howard's success, much is usually made of both his luck and genius for staying in touch with the pulse of the Australian people. Both are undoubtedly true, but good management is necessary to make the most of good fortune. Equally, Mr Howard has been willing to swim against mainstream thinking. Polls suggest a majority of Australians oppose their country's involvement in Iraq, just as most were against the introduction of GST. Yet the Prime Minister has been able to defy this, and to emerge unscathed.

The reason lies in one of politics' great axioms: that economic wellbeing is the path to an electorate's heart. His Government, aided by a resources boom, has maintained Australia on a path of steady growth. This prosperity has laid the foundations for a comfortable and relaxed populace, the very thing Mr Howard promised when elected to power in the 1996 election.

This sense of comfort, however, has never extended to his Administration. Mr Howard has warned his Liberal Party colleagues repeatedly of the dangers of complacency; that Governments devoid of ideas or agenda are unlikely to survive long, even in prosperous times. Cautiously, but efficiently, his Administration has set about transforming Australia's economic framework, borrowing from, and finessing, reforms already implemented on this side of the Tasman.

As a statesman, Mr Howard has also wrought substantial change in his country's foreign relations. Backing the United States to the hilt in Iraq, and earning derision as a deputy sheriff of the Bush Administration, was a stumble that even a subsequent free-trade agreement could not justify. But the establishment of better relations with Indonesia has been of great significance to the Asia-Pacific region, and New Zealand's security. Decades of barely concealed hostility were swept aside by Australia's generous response to the Boxing Day tsunami. During the same period, Mr Howard has also ensured that relations with this country remain warm, despite deep concerns over New Zealand's defence spending and nuclear-free policy.

Australia's robust backing of the war on terror has, of course, erased some of the comfort delivered by economic security. With their country identified as a potential terrorist target, Australians have every right to question their safety. Paradoxically, this fear and trepidation has probably strengthened Mr Howard's hand. He has a record of tough, decisive action, first demonstrated in the gun laws enacted after the Port Arthur slayings. Nervous Australians demand a similar approach to national security.

At the moment, therefore, Mr Howard's position is unassailable. One recent survey found that only 6 per cent of those polled thought he should hand his deputy, Peter Costello, the prime ministership before the next election. Another decreed him Australia's best Prime Minister of the modern era. A largely contented nation will tolerate his mistakes and misjudgments - but only so long as the economy remains healthy and his Government avoids an inertia born of complacency. That is the next challenge for this most ordinary of extraordinary politicians.

Te Radar: Apple a day keeps prison away

Certain folk this week were somewhat infuriated over the revelation that Hawkes Bay sex criminals have been running their lascivious fingers over the budding fruit of Eve.

A shortage of fruit-pickers, caused no doubt by the low pay, monotonous nature of the toil, and, some would argue, the inherent laziness of the long-term unemployed, has resulted in squads of prisoners being shipped in to pick apples.

For some reason there aren't enough illegal immigrants, overstayers, or tourists without work permits to fill the void.

So, rather than criminalise such people for undertaking this most essential of labours, some wise soul clearly decided to simply utilise people who are already criminals.

Reassuringly, authorities stated that prior to being placed on the work detail the inmates were carefully vetted. This surprised me somewhat, given the amount charged by vets compared to ordinary doctors. Still, it does conjure up a suitable animalistic image of these latter-day chain gangs being paraded and prodded like so many slaves.

What is surprising is that so few prisoners seem to be involved.

In an area so bereft of fruit-pluckers one would have imagined that the enforced labour of the criminal would be the logical solution to the problem, and that as many as could be mustered would be shipped in for the good of the economy and our children's teeth.

After all, it isn't like the work makes the prisoners wealthy, as they're paid only between 20c and 60c an hour, with the remainder of their payment going back to the prison.

As a perk however they do receive access to as much free fruit as they can stomach before nature takes its toll at no cost to the taxpayer.

Better still, given the prevalence of P in prisons, it is likely that the jailbirds are also very productive workers.

Hopefully, some of them may even have an apple fall on their heads, so that like Isaac Newton, they too can realise the gravity of their situations.

And it will keep their busy little fingers and minds occupied. Other criminals with too much time on their hands decided to expend their energy bashing each other, as gang violence broke out in Wanganui. There seems to be an easy way to rectify that situation. Simply leave them to it, and then jail the survivors.

The fact that the inmates are picking apples - the most symbolic of fruits, representative of sin, temptation, and the fall of Man, after it was plucked from the Tree of Knowledge and passed to Adam by Eve (if we are to believe some versions of history) - only adds to the irony.

It could be argued that the sex offenders should continue their labours into the pruning season.

Each day they could be issued a pair of pruners and asked to think of the heavy-handed metaphor associated with their toil each time they snip a branch. They could chant, "This could be me if I interfere with someone again" as a mantra, while they clip and snip their way to rehabilitation.

Brian Rudman: Census should allow 'Aucklander' as an ethnicity

Over the weekend I had planned to repeat my little protest of past Census days and write in New Zealander or Pakeha when I got to the ethnic box.

But now that National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee has jumped on the bandwagon, all the fun's gone out of it. Looks like I'll have to go with Aucklander instead.

And why not? The rest of the country thinks we're a different breed anyway.

Only flaw here is that when I checked with Statistics New Zealand, they told me they don't consider Aucklander an ethnicity and will file any form claiming to be from an ethnic Aucklander in a never-neverland labelled "Outside scope." Which at least is better than in past Censuses, when the write-in anti-European protest was unceremoniously tossed back into the European pot anyway.

But Statistics' ruling against Aucklander being an ethnicity does seem a tad unfair. If New Zealander can suddenly become a new ethnic group, then surely Aucklander is no less or more qualified.

This miraculous discovery of a new ethnicity, of course, has nothing to do with scientific research into skin colour or religion or culture or the comparative width of one's cranium.

It's a Government department's slick way of handling growing popular disaffection, which in 2001 had 78,000 people - mostly Pakeha but at least 3000 Maori or Pacific Islanders as well - labelling themselves New Zealander or Kiwi.

The listing of these two new fake ethnicities has already been called a tragedy by Auckland University geographer Ward Friesen, who sees it as a major setback for social analysts like himself. Poor chaps. Apparently it will be harder for them to make their numbers add up.

But on the plus side, by separately classifying the protesters - or pathfinders - Dr Friesen and colleagues will be able to dry their eyes, crouch over their computer screens and discover whether self-labelled New Zealanders and Kiwis have fewer cellphones and more sex, get divorced more often and earn less money than traditional stuck-in-a-colonial-rut New Zealand Europeans.

They'll also be able to match the results up with the other listed ethnicities such as Maori, Chinese, Tongan and Indian.

I'm not naive enough to think we can all become one big happy family if we pretend we don't come from different ethnic or racial backgrounds.

But the New Zealand European one has always seemed meaningless, taking in, as it does, everyone descended from a former inhabitant of the continent stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea, not forgetting the off-shore British Isles.

It certainly meant little back in 1946, when an official Dominion Population Committee divided New Zealand's population into just three categories, Europeans, Maori and "race aliens". While Europeans were lumped together as one group, those of "British stock" were to be migrants of first preference, and if we couldn't get them, then lookalikes from Scandinavia and the Netherlands came next.

As for the swarthy southern Europeans, the population committee noted that "these types" had caused problems in the past, being "itinerant" and "without any real feeling of allegiance to this country."

Leaping forward 60 years, it would be nice to think we've progressed beyond these crude stereotypes and it would also be nice to see Government departments taking a lead. Do Census takers have to sit us down every five years and demand we compartmentalise ourselves into some historically based pigeon hole?

Why do they need to know, any more than why, a couple of years back, did an Auckland Regional Council pollster, surveying me on a recent rates hike, want to know whether I was a Maori, Pacific Islander or European? What did it have to do with the time of day?

Chinese, I would have thought, is as meaningless as European, lumping in locally born "Old Chinese" with migrants of widely differing backgrounds from across the globe.

Ditto Indian, who could be local, from Fiji, Africa, the subcontinent or anywhere else.

If the researchers want to know where people come from, then place of birth is surely a better guide. If they want to identify pockets of deprivation, then why no return to the obvious indicators like low income and poor education.

On second thoughts, I'm happy Gerry Brownlee has seen the light about this. Let's hope, by next Census, we can persuade him to oppose the whole cluster of ethnic questions.

Chris Barton: Spammers rule despite the net police

This is my fifth year of spam sampling - a survey I do at this time of year. I survey 100 unsolicited junk email in an effort to determine trends, not just about spam but about the human condition.

First the bad news. Contrary to some reports, the spam deluge is not slowing. For the past two years it has taken 2 days to get 100 spams in my inbox. This year I'm sorry to report I get 100 spams in just over a day.

The good news is that for the first time the company's spam filter actually works. Nearly all my spam is automatically routed to a "blocked" folder - although four or five a day still get through.

Soon, the company says, it will automatically delete the spam before it gets in - but not before giving us a chance to view the corralled delinquents. This is particularly important for journalists because, as we all know, we're always getting sent emails about scams and other salacious matters because they make such good stories.

The problem with spam filters is that they jump on banned words without thinking. Even the manager who sent out an email to us all headed "Spam relief in sight" got caught out because the spam filter didn't like the word "spam" and immediately quarantined his missive - the result being that many at the Herald never got the good news.

The number one category of spam this year was offers to buy pharmaceuticals (39 per cent) - with 25 per cent of them being for either Viagra or Cialis.

Online drugs have topped the list for the past wo years and the trend is correlated with a corresponding decline in specific offers for weight loss (only 4 per cent) and other remedies for erectile dysfunction (5 per cent). Online pharmacies are clearly the new El Dorado: "Click here for getting your health problems away."

The next biggest category was buying advice for stocks and shares (15 per cent) - mostly from a dubious crowd calling themselves Smart Money Equities. Such offers have featured every year in my sample but never before in these quantities.

"We would like to introduce you to a company involved in the nanotechnology field. It is widely believed among experts that this could be the next sector to lead an economic boom."

Unreadable spam - email that ends up as hieroglyphics on screen or is in a foreign language - was slightly down (13 per cent compared to 19 last year) and it is noted the spammers are using all sorts of new tricks, such as spaced-out text and images, to beat the spam filters.

Another older trick is to use non-sequitur quotes in the messages: "After they had secured all the booty they could find, the tall Turk, who seemed the leader of the three, violently kicked at the prisoner with his heavy boot."

Spammers also continue to use ridiculous monikers to ply their trade. Names such as Brusque Vinson, Hiram Jorgensen, Icarus Sidle, Heineken Q. Frieda and Timothe Tolle. Apparently we, and the spam filters, are supposed to believe these are real people.

Scams (7 per cent) make a comeback this year. As always there's at least one Nigerian version, but most of the others come from Ecolife - "one of the largest cleansing facility dealers in the world" - which seems to want your bank account number so they can offer you riches and then take you to the cleaners.

Cheap loan offers (8 per cent) are down on last year, as are replica watches (3 per cent). Software sales are steady on 5 per cent and exhortations to view porn almost non-existent (2 per cent) in contrast to 2003, when they featured in 15 per cent of the spam.

What does all this tell us about today's net zeitgeist?

The drugs seem to be working so no one needs porn any more, people still believe money grows on trees and spammers, despite the efforts of the spam police, still rule.

Stock takes: Positive vibes

By Liam Dann

The broking community has been given a rark-up by NZX boss Mark Weldon, who is more than a little peeved with what he sees as unjustified negativity about new and prospective listings on the exchange.

Weldon raised the issue at a meeting of the NZX board last month and his views appear to have divided broker opinion.

There are some who accept his point - that bagging a prospective IPO to clients and/or the media prior to the release of pricing details is unfair and counter-productive to the greater good of growing the market. But others have taken umbrage at the suggestion they should restrain their opinions if they don't like the look of a company.

It's true that Goodman Fielder has well and truly exceeded the low expectations that were set up by early criticism. Now there is concern that the Delegat's and Baycorp floats may be suffering from similar scepticism.

This is hardly the Danish cartoon controversy but it is a difficult issue. In theory, the exchange needs all the new listings it can get and it would be a shame if any were sunk by petty and unfounded criticisms. But it is also true that poor timing and execution have bought some dogs to market in the past. These public failures really turn off investors and do the market more harm than good. So it would be a shame if brokers pulled back from engaging in full and frank discussion.


Finance humming

It is tempting to view investment company Pyne Gould Corp as just a spin-off of rural services company PGG Wrightson (or more accurately its pre-merger version Pyne Gould Guinness). PGC's half-year result this week was certainly flattened by the rural blues and it reported a profit of $26 million. But take out a $14 million one-off gain and the result was slightly down on the same period last year.

However, the good news was that PGC's Marac finance business looks like it is still humming. ABN Amro Craigs analyst Mark Lister points out that Marac is well managed and is a pretty good barometer of the wider economy. Marac's net profit was up 9 per cent and the commercial division - which finances new plants and equipment for small businesses - had a 13 per cent growth in receivables.

PGC has been cautious about its longer-term outlook but remains confident about the year to June. So there is still a bit of life left in the economy - for now at least. PGC shares closed at $4.10 yesterday.


Moving on

Popular broker and sometime media commentator Brett Wilkinson has left Direct Broking to set up shop for himself.

The shell-company enthusiast and fan of the NZAX has relinquished his broker's licence to get more involved at the front end of the investment game. Wilkinson plans to focus on sharemarket placements, pre-IPO investments, private equity raising and, hopefully, bringing some new issues to market. Watch this space.


NZAX rules

A process that should finally see some changes made to the trading rules for the NZAX is about to get under way.

Brokers have been complaining for some time now that rules - like a 2c minimum price point for making trades - have hampered liquidity.

These companies often have share prices of just a few cents each and it's a lot to expect people to buy and sell on incremental jumps of 10 or 20 per cent.

Geoff Brown at the NZX agrees, saying this is one rule that is likely to be changed. The powers-that-be will meet on Monday and a time line for a review of NZAX rules will be drawn up. That process is likely to involve a round of public submissions.


Taxing problem

The Government has really failed to think through the ramifications of its capital gains tax on overseas investments, says broker Ian Waddell.

OK, so it looks like a softening of the policy with regards to Australia, but Waddell offers this real example of how a capital gains tax in the US would force an innovative local company to move overseas:

A South Island-based medical equipment company has designed and manufactured an impressive new device but can't raise the money locally to get it into mass production.

The big market for these things is in the US so the company goes to venture capitalists there who tell it that it all looks wonderful.

The US fund values the company's effort so far at $3 million. But, as a condition of handing over another $3 million to the business, they want its headquarters to be in San Diego.

The company is unlikely to make money for three years, but it technically becomes an overseas investment. So under Michael Cullen's proposal, the innovative mainlanders will face a 6 per cent tax on their unrealised gain.

"So these poor buggers, who haven't got two bob to rub together but have been given $3 million worth of shares in a company based in the States, now have a tax liability of $180,000," says Waddell.

"They can't sell the shares, so the actual consequence is that they have to move their manufacturing operation to the States."

These are exactly the kind of companies the Government wants - surely Cullen won't allow this scenario to become a reality for New Zealand start-ups?


Good to go

In case anybody was still wondering, Graeme Hart's takeover of Carter Holt Harvey is looking like a certainty. For the first time in the drawn-out offer (and second offer) process, the shares are trading below or at the offer price. They closed at $2.75 yesterday.

Looks like the hedge fund players have finally given up and are ready to let Hart get on with it.


Not so bad apples

All the bad news about the apple industry late last year seems to have overshadowed some positive growth at Turners & Growers.

Last August, the produce company was forced to downgrade its profit outlook because of the dire situation facing apple exporters. T&G owns ENZA, New Zealand's biggest apple exporter accounting for about 40 per cent of the industry's global sales.

The situation hasn't really improved for growers but there is more to T&G than just ENZA. Its share price did well in February, rising by 7.5 per cent.

And Goldman Sachs JBWere is picking that it may have more upward momentum in it yet. In a research report, analyst Rodney Deacon gives the stock a valuation of $2.60 and says it is likely to outperform the market in the short term.

It is still at a discount on net-asset backing, has a relatively low PE multiple for a company with such a good earnings track record and last week's result was a strong one. On February 22, T&G reported a half-year profit of $13.25 million, up from $10.4 million in the same period last year.

Deacon notes that there are still a few long-term issues, like the volatility of earnings, that could hamper performance... Those dang apples again.

Its shares closed at $2.17 yesterday.


Southern resistance

Investors and the good citizens of the Garden City appear to be rallying against the Christchurch City Council's takeover of Lyttelton Port. Investor opinion (unsurprisingly) reckons the offer is too low. The public opposition probably has more to do with "Johnny Foreigner" getting his hands on "our" assets - the council is planning to sell 49 per cent of the port to Hong Kong-based mega-corporation Hutchison.

One Stock Takes reader notes that the Lyttelton half-year result was later than usual and lacking in the usual dividend. Given that the offer terms dictate that any dividend declared will be deducted from the bid price of $2.10 a share, it's not surprising that the company hasn't issued anything.

"The company certainly knows how to antagonise loyal shareholders," writes our reader.

Lyttelton shares closed at $2.17 yesterday.


A shot in the dark

So liquor company 42 Below is launching a "ready-to-drink" product. What exactly is so "not ready to drink" about their other products?

It's vodka; you just unscrew the lid and pour don't you?

James McConvill: Legacy of fear and loathing

New Zealanders may have missed that John Howard this week celebrates his 10th anniversary and is now Australia's second-longest serving prime minister.

I was initially reluctant to comment on Howard's anniversary. I have never been a Howard fan, but it seemed a bit ungracious to have a go at the man responsible for such a significant political milestone.

It should also be remembered that Howard has presided over a successful economy which has defied the odds in running for more than a decade without succumbing to technical recession (two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth).

Unemployment is low, interest rates are contained, and inflation is benign.

It is important to give credit where credit is due, and Howard deserves enormous credit for steering the Australian economy in the right direction while he has been in charge.

So why do I continue to feel such unease towards Howard? Given that I have an appreciation for sound economic policy, surely I would have been won over by now?

In pondering whether to comment on the 10th anniversary, I toyed with this question for some time. It was more difficult than I thought to pinpoint exactly what makes me so concerned about the country that Howard has presided over and shaped for a decade.

But lightning finally struck watching Australia's political analysis television programme, Insiders, over the weekend. The main topic for discussion was, of course, the 10th anniversary.

In discussing the Howard legacy, journalist David Marr of the Sydney Morning Herald summed it up nicely when he said that Howard has remained in power largely because he is a brilliant architect of fear.

According to Marr, a major reason Australia's voting public continue to back Howard is the belief that Howard will protect them. But protect them from what? Protect them from what Howard has built up to make them fear.

I believe the result is that the present majority of the voting public fears and loathes the present minority of the voting public. This is obviously devastating for Australia as a nation, but helps to fuel the continued operation of the Howard juggernaut.

Over the past 10 years, Australia's culture and attitude has shifted to match our geographic location. Australia has become a backwater.

The majority of Australians have been given a licence to fear Aboriginals, Muslims, refugees, the unemployed, university students, and the list goes on.

And I thought Howard was supposed to govern (according to his 1996 election slogan) "not just for some, but for all of us".

This does not take away at all from Howard's economic credentials. But governing a nation requires more than just steering the economic ship. The ship has to be heading somewhere.

If we were to endorse Margaret Thatcher's statement that "there is no such thing as society" and just ride the wave of economic prosperity, I would be glad to lend Howard my board. But beneath the wave lies an undercurrent of uncertainty and lost hope that needs urgent attention. There is such a thing as society, but it is slowly being washed away by self-interest and smart politics.

If the economy was all that mattered, why not just have a Department of Treasury and Reserve Bank, and toss out the rest of the Australian Government?

Beyond the Treasury are 15 other government departments. The reason for this is that governing cannot be so narrowly focused. Governing "for all of us" extends to health, education, indigenous affairs and a host of other things.

Under Howard, I believe Australians have lost a rich sense of government in the race for a richer economy, and as a result we have a weaker nation with a poorer perception of itself. At the same time, Australians have satisfied Howard's dream of becoming increasingly relaxed and comfortable.

I believe that is certainly something Australians should fear.

* James McConvill is a senior lecturer at La Trobe University, Melbourne. These are his personal views.