Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sideswipe

City folk may be confused by this one from the Franklin County News - rams in ballet costume, perhaps? Apparently it's a misprint for "two tooths", which is how you measure a sheep's age


The power of advertising: A 2 1/2-year-old watching television with his nana looks up, sees the Evers-Swindell twins and says: "That's Beef and Lamb!"

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As Sue Crawshay was flying Air New Zealand to Brisbane, she saw a promotional video, which included scenes from a Gondwana rainforest exhibition at Southbank. Worth a visit, she thought, and turned up on her last day to find the exhibition had been closed for nine years. "Not Gondwanaland but Gone dwanaland," she writes. "I rang Air NZ when I arrived home to be told it should have been withdrawn some time ago. They got that bit right!"

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Bookseller magazine has given its Oddest Book Title of the Year award to a self-help book on being haunted, entitled People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It. In a close fight, the runner-up was Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum Standards and Best Practices from East and Southern Africa.

Previous winners have been Bombproof Your Horse and Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers.

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Is this a rip-off? John Sumner had to fork out $4 for a cup of hot chips at the NZ vs. Windies game on Saturday. He thinks that's a bit steep and wants to know if it's typical of other venues.

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We know the people delivering Census forms are getting desperate to make tonight's deadline, but this surely goes a step too far. Received in an Auckland letterbox this weekend, a note reading: "Hello, I need to deliver your Census forms prior to Tuesday. Please call Julie on 810 **** for a good time."

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A not-so-sympathetic response to the angry reader from Grey Lynn, who struggled to find a copy of the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack: "Perhaps you should mark this moment as the time when you truly became old and irrelevant? I'm sure Sounds exists to make money, and as such it would much rather sell the far more popular 'foul and revolting imported hip-hop' than waste its time getting you and the other two people who want one a copy of the soundtrack. But of course it's hard for you, given that Sounds is the only music store in the country ... "

Editorial: Census a duty worth performing

Of all the official forms we have to fill in none is more important than the questionnaire we must answer tonight. "Must" is a word that raises the hackles of some, particularly when they meet questions that seem pointless or impertinent, but must is the word. Failure to fill in the Census is a punishable offence. Officialdom needs this snapshot of the population to get an idea of who we are, how we live and in what ways we are changing.

Who we are is always the most contentious question. The Statistics Department asks it in two ways: first, where we were born and, second, what ethnic group we belong to. The second is a distasteful question for many in the largest ethnic group who are designated in the Census as "New Zealand European". The Census designers would have been better advised to describe them as "New Zealanders of European descent", or even "European New Zealanders" to satisfy those who do not distinguish their ethnicity from their nationality.

Some of them always write "New Zealander" into the space provided and this time Statistics NZ says it will no longer add them to the "European" category; it will count them as a distinct group. What this will do to the results is anybody's guess. If most of the "New Zealander" category are European it will deflate the numbers in the latter category, which already has been artificially deflated in a different way in previous counts.

Problems have arisen previously from the way the department has counted people who put themselves in two or more ethnic groups. They were counted in only one group in order to ensure the ethnic proportions of the population added up to 100 per cent. If they were part-European they were always put in their other category. This time the department has changed its policy and will count people of mixed ethnicity into all the categories they put themselves. Consequently the ethnic composition of the population will add up to more than 100 per cent. It will be interesting to see how social research deals with that.

The Maori figures were those most distorted by the previous counting practice, since everybody who was part-Maori was put only in the Maori category, and those figures might be the most affected by the change of policy. Some exaggerated projections of the future Maori population might have to be revised in the light of this Census. But the proportionate decline might not be as marked if the European tally is also reduced by the numbers who write in an indeterminate ethnicity such as New Zealander.

What is ethnicity anyway? One social scientist, Professor Paul Spoonley of Massey University, Albany, defined it in the Herald as membership of a particular cultural tradition or community. Despite his European ancestry, his ethnic identity was "a product of being born and raised in New Zealand" but he did not think it appropriate to answer "New Zealander" to the ethnic question.

"To insist that we should be only New Zealanders is to deny Jewish, Samoan, Dutch or Maori New Zealanders, and others, an identity that is important to them. The Census is one opportunity to indicate that they remain proud members of such communities," he wrote.

But if that is the reason the Census includes an ethnic question, he ought to allow everyone the identity most important to them. There should be provision for those whose proudest cultural tradition is New Zealand. Their number seems as useful as other data the Census will discover. It is through the five-yearly Census that everyone contributes to the sum of our self-knowledge. Do it dispassionately. Good social decisions depend on it.

Peter Nowak: Chance to get unbundling process right

The Government's decision in 2004 not to unbundle Telecom's local loop is the best thing to ever happen to telecommunications in this country.

That's overstating it, but the optimist could say that New Zealand now has the benefit of hindsight. Our Government can look elsewhere to see what has worked and, more importantly, what hasn't. As far as regulation is concerned, we're in the very favourable position of having the chance to be best rather than first.

During the initial debate in 2003, Telecom argued there wasn't a lot of evidence to show that unbundling would lead to an increase in broadband uptake. A wholesale scheme, it said, would be a much quicker way to get the masses using broadband.

Telecom was right on three counts: There wasn't a lot of proof; subsequent evidence has shown that unbundling alone doesn't automatically boost uptake; and the company's wholesale scheme probably was faster.

But - and this is a giant 'but' - all of that is based on the idea of simple unbundling. As British Telecom's example shows, the United Kingdom has had unbundling since 2000, yet broadband uptake has only surged since 2004. Why the delay?

It's because of the way unbundling works, which really isn't all that different from the current wholesale setup. Now, Telecom rents its lines to competitors, who add in their own charges and profit margin and then resell services to customers. The deal TelstraClear signed in January, for example, would see it pay Telecom up to $30 per customer. TelstraClear could then reasonably be expected to resell services for between $35 and $45.

This wholesale scheme has proven to be flawed, as our woeful broadband uptake rankings can attest to. Essentially, Telecom still largely controls the prices and speeds its competitors can offer.

Unbundling has a similar pricing setup in that competitors need to pay the incumbent for usage of its lines. If simple unbundling had been instituted in 2004, Telecom could have charged whatever rents it wanted. In the end, there would be no real difference between Telecom charging TelstraClear $26 under wholesale or $26 under unbundling.

This is precisely the reason unbundling - and thus broadband uptake - failed to catch on in the UK for the first four years it was available. In 2004, the regulator stepped in and forced BT to lower its unbundled rents - lo and behold, broadband uptake has skyrocketed since.

The lesson to be learned is that when the New Zealand Government institutes unbundling - and from what I understand this is a case of when, not if - it needs to attach additional terms to the regulation.

A set rent needs to be implemented. Service provider ihug has said it would be happy with a charge of about $12. Such a price could allow it to offer broadband for about $25 a month.

Industry sources indicate the Government understands this need, and it is thinking of instituting an even lower rent - perhaps as low as $9 a month. Now that would be progressive.

But even price regulation is not the whole answer. Everyone agrees that infrastructure-based competition is the best solution for all problems. Unfortunately, it hasn't materialised here for a number of reasons - the main being the immense cost of building doesn't stack up to the relatively paltry small-market revenue to be gained.

Regulation therefore needs to include investment guarantee clauses - if a competitor wants unbundled access to Telecom's network, it needs to invest a certain amount each year in rolling out its own infrastructure.

This will lead to industry consolidation, as most internet service providers won't be able to afford any form of building. But with almost 30 ISPs around, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The other end result is that in a few years time, there will be enough infrastructure to facilitate proper competition.

Lastly, the Government needs to be wary of Telecom's gaming in regards to the next-generation network it is building. The company has already suggested that if unbundling is instituted, it won't be able to invest in its network properly. This is a transparent bluff that must be called. If there's money to be made from customers, somebody will invest to make it - whether that's Telecom or one of its competitors is irrelevant.

Once unbundling is instituted, Telecom will also argue its new network is different from the old one and therefore not subject to unbundling rules. If that line is bought, it's back to square one. The unbundling rules need to have clearly defined and broad perpetuity clauses that apply to any future infrastructure.

The big difference between now and 2003 is that the Government seems to understand the issue. Last time around they missed the boat, so let's hope they don't squander the learning experience.

Graham Reid: Chance encounter with a lucky man

The streets of midtown Manhattan were melting in the late summer heat. I'd already walked three blocks too far in search of something which obviously didn't exist: an internet cafe.

Being used to travelling in Asia where such places are on every corner, I hadn't even considered New York might not have them. But after tramping down Sixth Avenue for half a dozen blocks I was ready to acknowledge the obvious: people in this city didn't need internet cafes, they all had laptops.

I was frustrated, hot and weary, and in need of something cool to drink. A Dos Equis sign above a battered wooden door told me I'd found what I was looking for. Not an internet cafe but something better, an air-conditioned oasis.

I pushed the door open and peered into the dark bar and read the place quickly. It was an Hispanic bar and behind the counter was a willowy young woman whose dark eyes and bare midriff conformed to every cliche of sultry Spanish passion.

Three old men in one corner were hunched silently over beers as she rattled off at them. A jukebox was playing what I took to be South American folkloric music; lots of quivering and passionate singing over the top of busy acoustic guitars.

I sat on a stool a few seats away from the old men and ordered a beer. When it arrived I asked the young woman where I might find an internet cafe.

With a shrug of indifference she walked away and I thought that would be the end of the matter and I would have to drink my beer in an uncomfortable silence. She hip-swayed back to the old men and resumed what sounded like a non-stop Hispanic harangue while they listened either engrossed or in a state of fear.

Then, amid the barrage of Spanish, I heard the word internet.

There was some animation from the old boys and in fractured English one of them asked me if I had a telephone line. I said I didn't and they all spoke among themselves again.

Over the next 15 minutes things became very confusing: the woman obviously had to explain to the old guys what the internet was - hence the confusion about the telephone line - and then somehow in Spanglish they tried to tell me there was no such thing. Then they argued among themselves and with the girl about it.

The situation was absurdly funny so I ordered another beer and sat back to see what might happen next. But it was utterly unexpected.

From the darkness off to my left in the long bar there was a movement in my peripheral vision. A man I hadn't noticed approached me and said there were free internet computers at the public library a few blocks down and across town.

The young woman said I should believe him; he was lucky.

And he was. This middle-aged Indian man with a slight belly and appalling taste in shirts had won a New York State Lottery. I asked to shake his hand in case the luck would wear off - but then some scepticism kicked in.

But no, he really had won something like US$60 million ($90 million) and from his wallet produced a newspaper clipping of him shaking the hand of a middle-aged man in a suit and accepting a cheque.

He hadn't taken the money in a lump sum but had opted to take it as however many millions a year for the rest of his life, and it would roll over to his wife for the rest of her life in the event of his death.

He'd been a jeweller - still was, still went to work - and had been cautious with his winnings: he'd bought a bigger house, given money to his kids for their university education, taken them all back to India to see family, brought his parents over from India and put them in a house near his own ...

It seemed the sensible, ordinary stuff - and he still had the occasional beer in this slightly seedy bar because that's where he was used to coming.

But I had to ask, "Are you still married to the same woman?"

"Oh yes," he replied with a great guffaw. "I have to be; it was her who made me buy the ticket. I was leaving the house and she called me back and made me take the numbers down and buy the ticket. She tells me she was really the one who won it."

"And she doesn't let you forget it?"

"Never," he laughed, and we clinked bottles.

I shook his hand one more time for luck, tipped the young woman, thanked the old men for their help, opened the door on to the afternoon heat and headed for the internet.

For your information, luck in lotteries isn't contagious.

Dean Parker: Award for best union-basher ...

Amid the frocks and fawning of the Oscars, let us acknowledge their devious history, and spare a thought for the union movement the Academy tried to crush.

When the curtain fell on silent movies and rose on the 1930s, the only unions in the movie industry were one small craft union covering musicians, and an International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees covering electricians, carpenters, engineers and lighting technicians.

The talent -the writers, actors and directors -were unorganised. And that is how the Academy Awards came about - to keep it that way.

The Academy was the creation of Louis B. Mayer, studio boss of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Mayer wanted to emphasise the non-union character of the industry by creating a collegial Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, bringing together those who did the hiring and firing and those hired and fired.

As it still does today, the Academy honoured its members with dinners and annual affairs where it presented awards for the best films, best performances, best direction and best scripts.

But its principal role was to function as a form of company union.

My union, the New Zealand Writers Guild, is allied to the American Screenwriters Guild and the birth of that guild is a telling tale.

When silent movies gave way to talkies, Hollywood producers needed writers adept at something more than writing titles on slates.

They hired playwrights, novelists and journalists from those literate cities, New York and Chicago.

These writers brought with them a union background. They were writers like Dorothy Parker, who advised: "Looking to the Academy for representation is like trying to get laid in your mother's house. Somebody is always in the parlour, watching."

The writers were hired in bulk and worked as teams.

It's no coincidence that the unionisation of scriptwriters in New Zealand occurred in the same year as the launch of our first TV soap in 1975, when writers worked on assembly-line scripts, different writers providing different elements and discussing among themselves who was being paid what.

Meanwhile, as the Hollywood writers were being mustered into the writers' blocks at MGM and Paramount, the 1930s Depression was starting to bite. Studios took the opportunity for pay cuts.

There are accounts of Louis Mayer, sleepless and unshaven, summoning his vast workforce, standing before them hands held out in supplication, crying out:" My friends, my friends" and breaking down. Metro Goldwyn Mayer had run out of cash, it was the Depression, there would have to be 50 per cent pay cuts.

As he left he was seen to whisper to an aide, "How did I go?"

While those on individual contracts, such as writers, took the cuts, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees refused any claw-backs to its union contract. And it won.

All these elements came together into a struggle for writers' union representation.

In 1936, the mild-mannered Dudley Nichols caused a major shock when he refused to accept an Oscar for Best Screenplay (The Informer) because of the Academy's attempts to stop a screenwriters' guild being formed.

The wars continued, with the writers announcing a strike and the studios setting up their own company union, having lost the ideological battle over the role of the Academy.

Finally, in June 1938, the National Labour Relations Board ruled that under new legislation screenwriters could join the organisation they wished and producers had to negotiate a contract with that organisation.

Newly emboldened writers streamed out of the studio's yellow union and into the guild.

It was all sweet victory, deserving of its own Oscars: Best Site Organiser in a Leading Role, Best Supporting Role on a Picket, Best Chorus Line of Abuse ...

* Dean Parker is a member of the New Zealand Writers Guild and the Workers Charter initiative

Eye on China: Congress talks two faced

By Dan Slater

If you ever want a more gritty reality show than the carefully-orchestrated nonsense you normally get on TV, you might check out a Chinese programme called Law and Order. The format involves sending out journalists to get to the bottom of rural crime cases.

These crimes involve the expropriation of Chinese peasants by networks of government cadres and thugs, and the pictures they give of Chinese society are hard to stomach.

There is nothing quite as bleak and depressing as a Chinese village many kilometres from the prosperous coastal strips and the giant cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Cold, grey weather, tumble-down dwellings, muddy roads and a lack of basic infrastructure combine to project an image of millennial misery.

With peasants being forced out of their dwellings so that the officials can sell the land to property developers, conflict in these villages is rife.

But it's on hugely unequal terms. There is little a farmer can do, weighted down as he commonly is by the need to ensure the safety of his wife and child, and scanty resources.

During one recent case, (which I watched in the comfort of my luxury gym in Shanghai), a farmer was beaten up and sent to hospital and his wife put out on the street.

The programme followed her efforts to negotiate with the County Government to get her house back and for help to pay spiralling medical fees. The woman's gentle persistence in the face of the gangs of weasel-faced men opposing her was heartbreaking. Deserted by friends and neighbours, she lacked that crucial element in Chinese society, sheer weight of numbers.

In contrast, wherever she went in the course of seeking justice, she was met by large groups of officials and their henchmen in what came across as a carefully organised effort to frighten and intimidate her.

In one especially cold-hearted instance, the officials took her to the hospital where her emaciated husband, looking more dead than alive, was stretched out.

One female official then spent 20 minutes exhorting him to back the official version of events. When it became clear he was too sick to speak, she barked at him to nod or shake his head in answer to her questions. Her implacability was a terrible reminder of the stress and terrors that being poor in China involve.

In contrast to these miserable scenes occurring in the countryside, you have the carefully organised National People's Consultative (NPC) meeting in the capital this week. The week-long meeting is supposedly the opportunity for the country's legislative arm to set the agenda for the following year.

It's all tosh, of course. What happens is merely a series of tedious, long-winded speeches by the country's top leaders, to which foreign and domestic journalists pay slavish attention, despite the repeated absence, year after year, of any genuinely new pronouncements.

Here, the scenario is a deliberate inversion of the splintering of Chinese society that is occurring at local level: all is red flags, official rhetoric, cavalcades of limousines and a carefully arranged impression of unity, firmness, order and progress.

Foreign observers always seem a bit baffled by this quintessentially Chinese piece of theatre. This is the government flexing its muscle and, unlike so much showboating in China, it's not for foreign consumption.

That makes things difficult for foreign observers, who generally love dwelling on those aspects of Chinese society that show China is becoming more similar to the West.

Hence, the thousands of articles carried in international newspapers pointing out China's sexual revolution, and the rise of a car culture and modern consumer behaviour.

These same observers are far less comfortable with aspects which show China to be profoundly different.

It's amazing that foreign journalists find it hard to engage in more critical thinking given that most of us grew up with George Orwell and his observations on the way language is manipulated in totalitarian society.

The documents and speeches coming out of Chinese ceremonies show that the same linguistic totalitarian strands Orwell describes so well are still active in China.

Unlike the English language, Chinese loves repetition. The same point, framed in long, clumsy sentences, will appear in identical form several times in a brief article.

Hard data, in contrast, will be minimal, despite numerous claims in the text that the analysis is 'scientific','sincere' and 'rigorous'.

To any intelligent human beings, these documents are an affront. Their implication is that nothing needs to be explained or justified, since they have been spoken by a supreme authority, the Government.

The citizen's job is to sit still and listen, just as the thousands of comatose delegates have to do in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Tianamen Square. As far as the Government is concerned, a good coma is the ideal condition for its subjects.

* Each week, the Business Herald's columnists track the latest developments in the world's two emerging economic superpowers.

Martin Robinson: Foreign aid curse of Pacific

The global aid industry is wrecking small South Pacific island nations, exacerbating dangerous economic and social divisions, feather-bedding aristocratic non-performing elites, and creating a situation of permanent aid dependency, endemic corruption and economic stagnation or decline.

Take Independent Samoa, supposedly a South Pacific success story.

Last year 42,000 of its 177,000 citizens applied to emigrate to New Zealand. This stampede is hardly surprising, considering that even with a pathetic minimum wage of 88 cents an hour, unemployment is probably over 30 per cent.

The tragedy is that Samoa hasn't always been an African-style economic basket case - policies pursued by island governments and international aid agencies over the past 40 years have made it that way.

At independence in 1962 it exported enough goods to New Zealand to cover 60 per cent of its imports from New Zealand. Last year the container boats arrived at Apia full but returned almost empty - less than 2 per cent of imports from New Zealand were covered by exports to New Zealand.

The decline in Samoa's real economy has been continuous since independence. Yet aid agencies refuse to admit that their policies have failed. For them, the way forward is more aid to improve health, education and living standards.

But South Pacific aid - not to mention remittances which exceed ST$200 million ($110 million) for Independent Samoa - already has lots of noughts.

The Cook Islands expects to receive US$16 million ($24 million) this year, although 90 per cent of the people have already left.

The 1600 folk left on the Tokelau Islands receive $10 million from New Zealand taxpayers.

American Samoa's population of 59,000 receives more than US$100 million ($150.3 million) in federal American grants, and yet always complains it needs more.

This year Australia is proudly donating A$1000 million ($1118 million) to South Pacific nations, while New Zealand is handing out $122 million.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Japan, China, Taiwan, the US, the EU, the Asia Development Bank, the IMF, the World Bank and UN agencies hand out equally large amounts.

In Independent Samoa this year, China built a ST$30 million ($16.5 million) swimming pool complex; Australia handed over A$20 million ($22.4 million), mainly to the police; New Zealand gave $8 million for schoolbooks and scholarships; Japan renovated polytechnic buildings and wharf facilities at a cost of US$11.6 million ($17.4 million); a Singapore charity donated a kidney dialysis machine worth ST$50 million ($27.5 million) plus staff; and the international rugby board gifted more than ST$7 million ($3.8 million).

It's no wonder the ruling party in Samoa is expected to continue its almost unbroken 30-year reign at next month's election, since it claims these aid projects as its own achievements.

Tiny Nauru (21 sq km, 12,000 population) has squandered the most spectacular amounts of money, but the story is the same across the Pacific. Governments routinely rack up multimillion dollar deficits and continue to operate loss-making, grossly inefficient public utilities.

Unfortunately, nearly all aid is on a Government-to-Government basis. This leads to bloated bureaucracies which behave like cuckoos that push weakling private sectors out of the nest.

Government regulations and restrictions are a way of life. Talented, skilled people have to work for the Government or go abroad.

Aid projects rarely if ever produce any long-term economic development. Agriculture production on the islands declines irrespective of how many millions of aid dollars are poured into agricultural projects. Aid projects are simply welfare payments.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples recently put it like this in the context of Maoridom: "It's really about New Zealand finding a way to empower families and allow families to be strong in themselves, to look after their own and not have to rely on a whole stream of welfare-type hand-outs."

So what needs to be done? Island Governments need drastic downsizing to a level commensurate with their population and national resources.

Island Governments should become like modest local councils and shed their expensive and extravagant ministers, MPs, embassies, central banks, high courts, UN memberships and so on.

Guam (population 160,000) holds the over-governed world record with no fewer than 55 Government ministers and departments. What Guam needs is a mayor and 30 councillors.

Careful, planned privatisation would be a huge step forward. Independent Samoa has made a successful start to this process but there is still a long way to go.

Unnecessary economic regulations and restrictions should be shredded.

Foreign investment needs to be urgently sought. Yazaki in Apia employs 3000 workers but pays only just above the minimum wage. The country needs more Yazakis so that wage rates increase to a more reasonable level.

Communal land ownership must be adapted so that individuals have incentives to improve their land.

Land reform is urgent and essential - if New Zealand had retained communal land ownership it would probably be importing rather than exporting food and be an aid recipient rather than a donor.

Aid should not be a welfare payment without strings but tied to real economic targets, land reform and good governance. Aid agencies need to be tough - sadly, the more liberal the donor, the more corrupt the recipient becomes.

Birth rates need to be reduced. What is so great about ignoring this problem and then having families who cannot feed their children properly, let alone prepare them adequately for life in the modern world?

Many countries have succeeded in reducing birth rates, and there is no reason why the South Pacific cannot do the same.

All these changes - land reform, a drastic shifting of resources from the public to the private sector, reducing the birth rate - are usually put into the too-hard basket. But if giant China can do it, so can small Pacific islands. * Martin Robinson has travelled widely in the South Pacific and written about the area for publications such as Islands Business magazine.