Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sideswipe

Take another look at this billboard in Rotterdam

By Ana Samways

There's no fool like a media fool: Published on the front page of the Dominion Post newspaper yesterday, a fascinating news story claiming extreme laziness has a medical cause. Any news hound worth their salt would've smelled a rodent at this stage, but not the Dom Post, even when the red flags were coming thick and fast. The story claimed that "motivational deficiency disorder could be fatal, because it crippled the motivation to breathe". Alarm bells anyone? The story quoted a guy called Leth Argos ... geddit? Who supposedly told the British Medical Journal that "one young man who could not leave his sofa is now working as an investment adviser in Sydney". Forbes.com explains: "It has long been the policy of the highly regarded British Medical Journal to throw off its shackles of respectability on April 1 and treat its readers to scientific inquiry into little-known and completely fabricated 'medical research'." The only thing more embarrassing than publishing the story, is leaving it on your website for 10 hours, and counting.

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A reader writes: "While in Oamaru, I needed to feed the pay and display machine. Unsure of how much it is to park in Oamaru, I fed the machine $2. This gave me parking from 2.57pm on Wednesday until 10.47am on Thursday. That's 20 hours parking for $2. I was due to return to Auckland on the Thursday night so I had my car dropped off at the airport for me to pick up. It was dropped off at 3.34pm and picked up 6 hours later. The cost? $26."

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A Ponsonby reader wonders whether the Soho Square "developers" would be having an easier time if they had chosen a name New Zealanders could relate to. "Contrary to what they might think, we don't all wish we lived in London or New York - and in any case, London's Soho Square has been Wino Central for decades and New York's SoHo isn't exactly glamorous, either."

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Among the Top 87 Bad Predictions about the Future, from www.2Spare.com:

"Atomic energy might be as good as our present-day explosives, but it is unlikely to produce anything very much more dangerous." - Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister-to-be, 1939.

"The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad." - The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903.

"If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women." - David Riesman, conservative American social scientist, 1967.

"It will be gone by June." - Variety, passing judgment on rock'n roll in 1955.

"Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." - Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

Editorial: Tank Farm top site for art gallery

Several weeks ago, when the Herald asked Aucklanders how they envisioned the redeveloped Tank Farm, an overwhelming majority plumped for a truly iconic structure as the centrepoint. There were various ideas on what this should be: a sports stadium, a sound shell or perhaps even a power station fuelled by sun, wind and waves. Now, kismet-like, an obvious candidate has emerged. The increasing problems associated with Auckland Art Gallery's $90 million expansion on its present site suggest it should be that iconic structure.

Whatever the architectural merits of the French-style colonial building that at present houses the gallery, the Kitchener St location has inconvenient features. Free parking is always problematic, a not insignificant factor when it comes, in the words of its director, Chris Saines, to making the gallery "as inviting as possible". Added to this is the controversy that has surrounded the plans to expand and restore it. When these were unveiled last July, the initial criticism was of the attempt to marry old and new architecture. The incongruity was enough to garner the attention of the city council's urban design panel.

Many of the panel's worries, if not, perhaps, public unease, seem to have been allayed by a revised plan. But the site-related obstacles keep mounting. The expansion will mean the destruction of four trees at the rear of the gallery in Albert Park and the loss of 915 sq m of park land. Those who led the Save Auckland Trees campaign in Queen St are, naturally, keen to see the details. Even more serious, potentially, is the fact that, depending on geological interpretation, the gallery sits either on the southern edge of a volcanic cone, or on volcanic ash. Already, the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society is making noises about excavations involved in the gallery expansion, and the protection for cones enshrined in a 1915 act.

Most Aucklanders probably do not associate Albert Park with a volcanic cone. They might also look askance at the society's objection, given that Princes St has already been carved through Rangipuke. Nonetheless, a council that has introduced a special levy to protect the city's volcanic heritage can hardly dismiss the society's viewpoint out of hand. That and the other concerns suggest the schedule for starting work on the gallery expansion next March is highly optimistic.

The idea of rehousing the city's collection of paintings and sculpture, the most comprehensive in the country, on the waterfront is not new. It was first suggested by Heart of the City. The concept failed to gain traction then, but that was before the problems associated with expansion on the present site became apparent. Auckland now has the opportunity to create a world-class gallery and distinctive landmark structure in an ideal location.

A site at the Tank Farm would, quite comfortably, include room for storage, comprehensive exhibitions and future expansion, a far cry from the tiny and confined space that will forever limit the present location. The spending of $90 million there will realise only 50 per cent more space for exhibits. A new gallery would also erase any thoughts of not doing justice to the international exhibitions that now find their way to Te Papa because of what Mr Saines refers to as Auckland's Dickensian facilities. Likewise, the gallery would be able to boast the drawcards of excellent cafe and seating arrangements, inside and out.

All this has the makings of an art gallery that would attract far more than the present 200,000 annual visits to the Kitchener St site. That, alone, would go a long way towards ensuring the Tank Farm is a place where people want to be. And that is something the vast majority of Aucklanders also want for this splendid location.

John Armstrong: Brash playing into Turia's hands

Thank you, Dr Brash. The Maori Party could not have hoped for a better advertisement to kick off its campaign to boost the number of Maori seats than the National Party leader threatening once more to abolish them.

Don Brash's criticism of the Maori electoral option as "state-sanctioned separatism" instantly lifted the profile of the post-Census exercise which determines the number of Maori seats in Parliament.

The outcome hinges on the size of the Maori roll and - as one Government MP observed yesterday - nothing is more guaranteed to drive Maori on to the Maori roll than Dr Brash threatening to axe the Maori seats.

The Maori Party should be grateful for any help it can get. The four-month option comes at a crucial period in the fledgling party's history.

First, Maori voters are voting tactically, casting their constituency vote for the Maori Party and their party vote for Labour. The more Maori seats, the more chance of the Maori Party winning them and the greater its ability to really hold the balance of power in Parliament.

Second, the next option does not occur until 2012. The current exercise will set the number of Maori seats for the next two elections - the critical period during which the Maori Party will either establish itself as a lasting political force or the seats revert back to Labour.

Technically, there would be 13 Maori seats if every Maori voter went on the Maori roll. The expectation is that the number will increase by one, but by no more than two.

The Maori roll has almost trebled in size since 1990, suggesting it will be difficult to get many more voters to switch from the general roll.

The last option in 2001 saw just under 14,000 voters switch to the Maori roll. But nearly 5000 went back the other way.

The Maori seats went up by one to seven.

While the Maori Party has identified general seats with a high Maori vote - East Coast, Rotorua, Northland, Taupo, Whangarei and Bay of Plenty - a successful option requires the party to mobilise at a grassroots level for four long months just six months after an election campaign.

It will be hard graft, despite the standard Government-funded advertising campaign and voter enrolment drive.

However, there is one key difference between this option and its predecessors: the presence of the Maori Party itself.

The party's performance will be a significant factor in whether people switch to the Maori roll.

It was not helped by Labour's refusal to include it in its post-election negotiations. It has nothing concrete to show in terms of policy victories. Tariana Turia has sought to make a virtue of rejection by reinforcing the party's independence from Labour and its bargaining power in future coalition talks by indicating her party might conceivably strike a deal with National next time.

That has been flagged very carefully. Mrs Turia and her colleagues are wary that many of their supporters cast their party vote for Labour.

So, for every nod towards the right - such as Mrs Turia's surprise appearance at the Act conference - there is a corresponding tilt the other way, such as yesterday's warning to National not to count on Maori Party backing if it persists in trying to abolish the Maori seats.

The Maori Party clearly intends being the best advertisement for switching rolls. Its voting for Opposition measures has seen it start making a difference. But not a big one as yet.

Its understandable caution as a new party swimming in dangerous parliamentary waters may yet prove an impediment in persuading Maori to shift rolls in sufficient quantity to force a radical redrawing of the electoral map.

Neil Sanderson: DIY journalists must pass the trust test

Feeling frustrated that the news media don't give enough coverage to topics that interest you? Want to do something about it? Sounds like you could be a citizen journalist in the making.

Citizen journalism ("citJ") is one of the hottest topics among online publishers. Maybe you've noticed how many news websites are asking you to post your pictures, add your comments to stories or even write an article.

Supporters of citJ contend that the mainstream media miss out on stories which could be covered by amateurs. They suggest that cellphones, digital cameras and portable computers now give just about anyone the tools to gather news. And you don't need to work for one of the mainstream media companies to get your work published. Just set up a blog, make a page on MySpace, or add your pictures to the thousands on Flickr.

With so much content being produced by non-journalists, the mainstream media are trying to work out how to incorporate the best of it into their own services.

Steve Outing, a US online pioneer who is developing citJ sites on sport and recreation, says newspapers need to abandon "the walled-garden approach" to the news, and let more outside content on to their websites.

"We're starting to see some newspapers open the door at least a crack," Outing told Publish.com.

"WashingtonPost.com, clearly an industry leader, now puts Technorati links to blogs on its articles, so readers of its website can see what bloggers are writing about Post stories (and some of it will be extremely critical).

"To the internet community, that's no big deal, but for newspapers it's a major change."

At some newspaper sites, content created by citizen journalists is posted alongside the work of professionals or in a designated area. The publisher may even offer basic training in journalism to volunteer contributors.

The clear leader in citJ is South Korea's OhmyNews (english.ohmynews.com), which claims to have more than 40,000 contributors who produce about 70 per cent of its content. The site also employs more than 50 journalists, and contributors' work is checked by professional editors. OhmyNews, which is reported to be making profits from advertising, fills a niche in Korea, where most other media have been reluctant to challenge authority.

In the US, sites such as YourHub, Backfence and Baristanet invite the public to contribute news but, from what I've seen, the citizen-generated content is pretty patchy. Much of it is the sort of announcement you'd expect to see tacked up on your local supermarket notice board, plus raw press releases, and advertising pretending to be news. The few real news stories are typically no more than a sentence or two followed by a link to a professional news website.

The problem seems to be that citizen journalists report on the things that interest them personally, while professional journalists report on the things that interest their readers (or at least what their editors believe will interest readers).

That's probably why so much of citJ sites appears random and incomplete. There may be value there, but who has the time to search for it?

Another problem: the concept of citJ presumes that members of the public want to be unpaid journalists. I doubt it. If journalism is what turns a person on, there are lots of opportunities to make a career in it.

What's more likely, I think, is that some citizens perceive gaps in news coverage and are trying to fill them. But who will be accountable for the accuracy and balance of their reports?

As an alternative, I like the notion of "participatory media", which can include everything from reader feedback to online communities built into news sites, and which seems to describe the vital relationship that ought to exist between journalists and the rest of society.

Here are some ideas on how citizens can participate in media:

* Create and publish expert commentary and analysis (mainstream editors ought to invite the best of these commentators into their publications too).

* Hold mainstream media to account by telling us when we get it wrong.

* Send news tips, pictures or video to favourite publications for follow-up.

* Post community information and announcements.

None of this is intended to suggest that we shouldn't applaud increased interactivity. A small but growing number of web users now routinely go beyond the basic consumption of information. They scan multiple sources using RSS, they rate stories on sites such as Digg, and they publish their thoughts on wikis and blogs.

As news consumers, we assess the value of published information against various criteria. But one of the most important factors must surely be how much we trust the source.

The newspapers we read, the radio and television news we rely on and the websites we return to will be the ones that adhere to professional standards and show themselves to be accountable to their communities. How many citizen journalists will pass that test?

* Neil Sanderson is editor of nzherald.co.nz

Gwynne Dyer: Supervillains? No, sad sacks

You're allowed to lie for jihad. You're allowed any technique to defeat your enemy," Zacarias Moussaoui told the Virginia courtroom on March 27, trying to explain why he had changed his story about not being directly involved in the September 11 plot.

Now he wants to die a martyr, not rot in an American prison for the rest of his life, so he claims that he and the pathetically incompetent British shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, were scheduled to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House on September 11, 2001.

That's not what he said before, but you're allowed to lie for jihad.

Moussaoui initially denied knowledge of the plot but subsequently signed a confession that he was the missing "20th hijacker". (Three of the four hijacked planes on that day had teams of five hijackers aboard, but one was a man short.)

Then he repudiated his confession, explaining that it was only a joke, and now he has repudiated that repudiation, insisting that he was indeed part of the plot. You have to lie a lot for jihad.

The main reason Moussaoui keeps changing his story is that he is a seriously disturbed individual: his court appearances have often been incoherent, abusive and even hysterical.

To qualify for the death penalty he must show that he had foreknowledge of the attacks and deliberately withheld it. Otherwise he wasn't responsible for any deaths, and cannot be executed even under United States law.

After September 11 he happily signed a confession admitting that he had been part of the team, because he felt that that would bring him honour.

The truth is probably that he was initially asked to take part in the plot but had been excluded from it well before it took place.

The leaders of the attack, while not exactly paragons of stability themselves, were unlikely to have wanted him along as he was clearly a security risk.

Since that is too humiliating a truth for Moussaoui to bear, he flops back and forth between claiming some role in the operation and denying any connection with it, as he veers between wanting to live or wishing for a martyr's death at the hands of American executioners.

In his latest story, he and Richard Reid were to have had their very own hijacked plane to crash into the White House.

Moussaoui's testimony is worthless - and yet his trial does tell us some important things about September 11. It reminds us of the spectacular incompetence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI did not seriously interrogate Moussaoui for almost a month after his arrest on immigration charges on August 16, 2001, so he was under minimal pressure to spill the beans about September 11 (if he had any).

It also reminds us that the White House wasn't paying attention to intelligence about terrorist threats anyway, so focused was it on building a case for invading Iraq.

Above all, it reminds us of what sad sacks the terrorists were.

Over the past four and a half years, the Bush Administration has constructed its entire foreign policy on a "war against terror" which presupposes a serious opponent on the other side.

The imagery is straight out of an old James Bond movie: supervillains in caves with plans for world conquest sending out legions of fanatical, high-tech Islamist terrorists to murder innocent Americans.

The reality, as Moussaoui amply demonstrates, is a bit less impressive.

In an alternative universe where they had not come under the influence of Osama bin Laden, Moussaoui and his colleagues could have been the subjects of an Arabic-language sitcom about hopeless losers adrift in the West and lost between two cultures.

The only reason they managed to pull off the September 11 attacks, despite scattering clues around like confetti, was that nobody was looking. In four and a half years, it hasn't happened again.

Indeed, nobody has been killed by terrorists in North America since September 11, the longest completely terrorism-free period since the 1960s.

And none of the terrorist attacks elsewhere during this time (only two of which happened in Western countries, Spain and Britain) were at all innovative or high-tech. It's back to truck-bombs and backpacks stuffed with explosives.

In all the terrorist attacks since September 11 by people who are in some way linked with al Qaeda and its various clones and affiliates (apart from those in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are directly linked to foreign occupations), the total fatalities all around the world are well under 1000 people.

Less than one person a day worldwide is being killed in so-called Islamist terrorist attacks. More people than that are dying of dog bites.

This is not a global crisis, however much President Bush strives to define it as such.

From the start, the "war on terror" has served as a cover for various plans for asserting US military and political hegemony around the world that were already on the agenda of the neo-conservatives for years before they took control of US foreign and defence policy with the inauguration of Bush in January, 2001.

It has been one of the longest and most successful hoaxes in history - but the strategies that hide behind it are still doomed to end in failure.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Eye on China: Big cost to business success

By Dan Slater

Once in a while you come across a book about China that deserves to be made known to as wide an audience as possible. Rise of a Hungry Nation: China Shakes the World by James Kynge is such a book.

Kynge is the former Beijing correspondent of the Financial Times and he makes an excellent guide.

Unlike many writers on China, he has cast-iron credentials. He studied Chinese at Edinburgh University in the late 1980s and has spent most of his time since then living in China and writing about it. He has since left the FT but continues to live in Beijing.

Anyone who has met Kynge will confirm he is man of great charm and presence. Those qualities, plus a little cheekiness, have enabled him to access a wide range of Chinese people. His linguistic ability is priceless.

It's shameful to report but many Western journalists in China can't speak anything but the most brittle Mandarin. An inability to speak the language makes it impossible to get a real feel for what's going on.

But Kynge is able to supply the reader with a stream of anecdotes which tell you more about China than any host of news reports or dodgy statistics. Sly officials, peasant champions and insane entrepreneurs all appear before the reader in their own words in a way that brings them vividly to life.

In the first part, Kynge's skills enable him to provide an unusually empathetic description of the ambiguity of life in the new China. New mobility permits farmers to flock to the cities and find salaries dozens of times what they earn back home, but such movements make them vulnerable to a harsh and capricious environment and cut them off from their families for years at a time.

Kynge interviews girls hired as nannies who live for years in the West hoarding every penny to send back to their families and the bold souls who join the snakeheads in making the risky journey abroad. The stories of these people striving for human dignity are very moving.

The heroes are new, but the villains haven't changed. Government officials routinely abuse their powers. One case Kynge describes is an official stealing the identity of a working-class girl who had succeeded in making the difficult leap to university.

Yet she is told she has failed and the official's daughter, who really had failed, takes her place.

One has to surmise that human beings don't have souls, because if they had, there would be a record of a Chinese official stealing one.

This part of the book provides important balance to the second part of the book, when Kynge shifts his sympathetic gaze to the small, long-established communities in the West withering because of impossibly cheap imports from China.

The rise of Wal-Mart (which sources an enormous amount of goods from China) is an ironic part of the story: As working-class United States citizens get poorer, the only place they can afford to shop is, indeed, Wal-Mart.

Economists will, of course, argue that China can't have a comparative advantage in everything. That cuts little ice with people facing a value chain increasingly migrating over to China.

As one specialist car component manufacturer in the US puts it, his only advantage will soon boil down to his distribution.

Kynge's conclusion is pretty radical. He sees a state-driven and heavily subsidised capitalism (in the sense that energy is underpriced, pollution unpunished and companies don't make any meaningful social security contributions) pouring out of China and on the way to suffocating economic activity in the West.

It's a capitalism which is causing not just many victims in China, but increasingly degrading the lives of other nations. And one reason it's spreading so fast is that multinationals have a huge vested interest in the status quo, whatever the cost to the nations they originally sprang from.

It's an interesting fact that books written by Britons compare rather well to those written by Americans.

Americans will collect reams of statistics and interview all sorts of people. The result is all too often a book which ends up misleadingly authoritative: Punchy, well-written and wrong.

Kynge's book is more subtle. He clearly possesses a natural and lively curiosity about China.

The fact that he's from Europe also provides the readers with some valuable insights that would not be garnered otherwise.

He visits Italy to examine the devastation wrought on the local clothing industry by Chinese competitors.

It's valuable because the United Kingdom has been relatively untouched by the rise of China - after all, we began handing over the manufacturing industry to the Japanese in the 1960s and have never looked back.

* Each week, the Business Herald's columnists track the latest developments in the world's two emerging economic superpowers. Dan Slater is a Beijing-based journalist.

Diana Crossan: Why it's vital to be money-smart

For many generations the "three Rs" have been considered a cornerstone of our children's education. The basics of reading, writing and arithmetic give people the tools for the demands of adult daily life, both inside and outside the workplace.

There is now a fourth tool fast emerging as essential for life's toolkit - financial literacy. I don't mean just adding and subtracting and the times tables, I mean the ability to make informed judgments on the management of money.

Funded by ANZ, the Retirement Commission with the support of the Ministry of Economic Development surveyed adult financial literacy to identify what people know about personal finance, and the gaps in knowledge, so we could concentrate on those areas. The overall finding was similar to that in other OECD countries - financial knowledge increases with socio-economic status. It also showed that most New Zealanders have a reasonable level of financial knowledge.

But many, including those with a higher education or income, didn't know what they should. Many people were not able to match definitions of terms or concepts associated with money management such as "equity" and "capital gains". While basic interest was pretty well understood, the concept of compound interest was tricky for some.

The survey results are a timely reminder that the more people understand about money concepts and terminology the better they will be able to manage their finances day-to-day and to plan for the longer term.

In New Zealand this is particularly relevant. Easy credit and student loans mean young people need to be equipped to make financial decisions early.

The financial market is relatively unregulated and encourages competition so consumers need to be able to compare products to make the best decisions.

In addition, New Zealand's retirement income framework means there is a voluntary approach to saving for retirement.

Many people will want and need to save from their own resources to top-up their New Zealand Superannuation, and this requires an understanding of savings, investments and basic money management.

Groups with lower levels of personal financial knowledge are more likely to be young (18-24) or older (75 years and over) with lower levels of education, income and net wealth, and tenants rather than homeowners.

The commission believes that everyone should be financially literate. Having an understanding of the gaps in knowledge is particularly useful given the forthcoming introduction of legislation to establish the workplace savings scheme, Kiwisaver.

The commission will be helping to address these gaps and tailoring the public education programme to help give people the information that they need.

Research has shown that workplace saving is one of the easiest ways to save because the money is put aside before people have access to it.

In addition to the workplace savings education programme, the commission will also review its website www.sorted.org.nz. We will look at the language we use in Sorted to ensure that the less understood terms are replaced or at least explained clearly and simply.

We are working with the Ministry of Education, NZQA, teachers and colleges of education to integrate financial education into the school curriculum by 2009. We are also extending a financial education programme with Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu running in bilingual primary schools.

Work is also being done with tertiary providers to include financial education in trade and other adult training. And of course we will continue to help provide a financial education programme in 100 schools in New Zealand through a partnership with the Enterprise NZ Trust.

The key goal of this programme is to teach senior secondary school students personal money management skills.

Our ultimate aim is for younger generations to have a firm grip on personal finance so in the future most adults have a high knowledge of money matters.

* Diana Crossan is the Retirement Commissioner.

www.retirement.org.nz