Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sideswipe

When a photo just won't do: These creepy "forget-me-not dolls" are soft-cloth dolls with the image of a loved one used on the face. Varieties include wedding couples, children and pets.

By Ana Samways

When Nick Lenthall drove past a group of police officers manning a speed check near Bournemouth, England, he honked his horn and gave them a thumbs-up. The entire unit then got into a van, chased him down and gave him a ticket for "unnecessary use of audible warning equipment". (Source: reason.com)

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Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a high-tech device with potentially a multitude of uses: a boredom detector. A talker, via a wearable camera and software that measures facial expressions and movements, could detect whether he/she has lost touch with a listener (via signals from eyebrows, lips, nose, etc). The device was designed for the autistic (who are typically oblivious to other people's reactions), but would be useful for anyone under-skilled at being interesting. So far, the software is said to be accurate 64 per cent of the time, according to a March report in New Scientist.

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James Bond not licensed to shoot: Darren James Bond faced the consequences of shooting without a licence when the Whangarei District Court fined him $2210 for hunting without a game bird licence in March.

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The Missourian newspaper reported that Columbia resident Adam Ballard, 22, in his second year in the Army, is over-eating and under-exercising so he can gain weight rapidly and exceed the Army's body-fat requirement, which will force his discharge rather than being sent to the Middle East war zone. The Missourian says 3285 soldiers were discharged for excess body fat in 2004 (although not all were war-zone shirkers). Ballard said he had no qualms because recruiters had originally assured him a desk job. (Source: News of the Weird)

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A reader was amused by a police spokesman's statement in the Herald on Sunday that "Interpol and the Henderson fraud office are working together very closely on this one". "I'm sure the Russian skimmers they are after are quaking in their Canadian penthouse at the prospect of the Henderson fraud office being on their trail."

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Kay from Howick says the reason there was a shambles at the Stones concert, and too many people in the general admission/hill area, was because Ticketmaster made a complete balls-up with the ticket printing. "Our group of six had paid $100 for the terrace area and were sent tickets for the hill area. We complained before the concert started and were relocated to the terraces. My neighbour paid $100 for the terraces and was allocated tickets in the front row, which should have cost him $350. Someone at Ticketmaster got it very wrong."

Editorial: Upham's legacy is priceless

It is a sad and tawdry fact of life that many a family, contemplating a deceased father's or grandfather's war medals, decide to sell them into the thriving market for military memorabilia. Even the Victoria Cross, our highest award for gallantry, can be acquired for cash these days because some poor recipient's descendants have capitalised on his honour. But no matter how many horses have bolted since this stable was opened, there is one medal that must be kept.

The Victoria Cross and bar awarded to Charles Upham for valour in World War II have been on loan to the Army Museum in Waiouru, and there they should remain. The family of Captain Upham, who died in 1994, agree that their father's medals should stay where they are. Unfortunately, they are also discussing their sale, preferably to the New Zealand Government.

The Government, quite properly, is not bargaining. Defence Minister Phil Goff says he hopes the family will decide to gift the medals to a museum, as the families of 19 other VC winners in New Zealand have done. Amanda Upham, whose twin sister Virginia Mackenzie made the approach to the Government, told the Weekend Herald, "The Government are not interested. It would mean they have to fork out for the other VCs."

By fobbing off the family's unseemly claim with that excuse, Mr Goff is guilty of under-stating the singular value of the Upham medals. Captain Upham is one of just three people anywhere who have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice. Worthy as those 19 gifted VCs may be, they would not necessarily warrant the same treatment as the double award pinned on the chest of New Zealand's most celebrated soldier.

Captain Upham was admired throughout his post-war life not only for the fighting qualities exemplified by his actions in Crete, 1941, and the Western Desert, 1942, but just as much for the modesty and unassuming manner he maintained through years of adulation as a war hero. He was the epitome of the ordinary soldier, and respected as such by former officers who may have outranked him in wartime but would not let themselves precede him in post-war commemorations, which he attended assiduously.

It may have been in the character of a self-effacing man to allow his daughters to believe they could cash in his medals after his death at no dishonour to his memory. But it seems unlikely he would have wished it. He always said the award belonged as much to the men of his unit as himself. He once turned down an offer from his home province, Canterbury, to help buy a farm, explaining, "The military honours bestowed on me are the property of the men of my unit as well as myself and were obtained at considerable cost of the blood of this country. Under no circumstances could I consent to any material gain for myself for my services."

If he gave his daughters to believe differently, they should now reconsider. They have failed to do a quiet deal with the Government for the sum they were seeking, $3.3 million, according to Mr Goff. They may get offers exceeding the $1.1 million made at the weekend by an Auckland collector, who also said an Australian auction house was interested in trading them, but at what price to a proud name?

The family say the Government could stop the medals being sold overseas by invoking the Antiquities Act. But it is hard to see much point in stopping the medals at the border once they have disappeared into private collections. Their value lies in public access to them. They memorialise a national hero who risked his life in the service of this nation. No price can be put on his legacy. Let us hope none is paid.

Fran O'Sullivan: Plan to divide and conquer in tax battle

It's taxing stuff, this tax reform business. Particularly around Budget time when the business clamour for outright cuts is always increased, even if this Government has done little to heighten expectations.

Prime Minister Helen Clark and Finance Minister Michael Cullen are once again facing down the business lobbyists.

But the united front they have presented on tax issues may yet develop chinks as the Cabinet finalises the upcoming Budget.

It has been left - yet again - to business groups to push the Government to make the only meaningful reforms that count to them in an internationally competitive sense: outright tax cuts.

Lobby groups representing farmers, employers, big and small businesses have not wasted their time pitching to Cullen alone for some $4 billion of cuts.

They have also painted Clark into their lobbying campaign, reckoning she might be prepared to do a John Howard and exert some influence on her own Treasurer to put policies in place that business wants and remove a future electoral liability.

This is seen as mirroring the way in which the Australian Prime Minister intervenes to ensure the Coalition's policy mix stays electorally viable.

The decision by Federated Farmers, the Business Roundtable and the Chambers of Commerce to write directly to Clark urging her to introduce a lower, flatter tax structure is symptomatic of general Government-business relations.

The lobbyists know that Cullen is their man when it comes to big picture issues, like solving Auckland's problems where he has taken a more influential leadership role than the Mt Albert-based Clark. They also know he is the one when it comes to dealing with some structural issues getting in the way of a stronger transtasman relationship.

They like where he's going with tertiary education trying to match up skills and training with jobs.

He's broadly respected by chief executives associated with the Government's Growth and Innovation Advisory Group.

But they also know that Clark is the longer-term player.

Business has learned from another lobbyist, Labour Party president Mike Williams, that Clark is intent on a fourth or maybe even fifth term as Prime Minister.

They know that Clark, shocked by the narrowness of her victory last September, had signalled a willingness to be more visionary and institute bold changes to get New Zealand pushing up a growth curve.

She opened her doors to a number of chief executives and business lobbyists straight after the election, taking soundings on the appropriate policy mix for her third term as PM.

But Clark needs to make another shove.

After more than six years in the job its become abundantly clear Cullen likes the sort of tax reforms that don't result in any immediate cuts to the top income tax rates at either corporate or personal level.

The lobbyists believe that Clark - whose staffers let it be known that she had favoured outright income tax cuts for last year's Budget - is a softer target.

Cullen's parsimonious offer in last year's Budget to marginally lift the earnings threshold at which taxpayers are hit by higher levels of tax is about as far as he has been prepared to go down this particular route.

Labour paid an electoral price for his obduracy at last year's election when National's John Key promoted tax cuts that won favour with many voters.

It was during the heated election campaign that Clark's own dissatisfactions with the 2005 Budget moves were made known through news stories.

And not long after that speculation over Cullen's own future in the Finance portfolio began.

The rumour-mongering has been fuelled by some imprudent comments by Clark.

But also by some positioning statements by pretenders to Cullen's job. Trevor Mallard, who is now seen as the obvious successor, might be head-down with the Economic Development portfolio, but that doesn't stop him commenting on the issues outside his area like the exchange rate. Or having a view on whether tax cuts promote economic growth as Treasury has repeatedly told Cullen.

Phil Goff, quickly burnishing credentials in trade, has been dubbed as a young pretender by Cullen in a parliamentary aside.

But the betting seems to favour Goff as Deputy Prime Minister and Mallard as Finance Minister in the longer term.

Cullen's not for shifting yet.

He has focused on simplifying the system, playing about with depreciation rates and a myriad other number of imposts that do pose a real cost to business.

He doesn't seem particularly fazed by the lobbying issue or the campaign that Guinness Peat Group's local chief Tony Gibbs is waging for a special case to exempt GPG's many local shareholders from the effects of a punishing capital gains tax on their London-based investment.

Brierley Investments also played that particular lobbying card to huge effect years ago, pressuring a previous Government to protect its shareholders from an upcoming tax change.

But the company lost the confidence of its shareholders anyway and has long departed these shores to be swallowed up by a canny Asian investor.

There's no sign that Cullen is so biddable.

Or, for that matter, that Gibbs will be able to muster GPG's New Zealand shareholders into a fighting force and gain a special exemption from the legislation. But it's a fair bet that GPG will muster considerable support elsewhere in Parliament to push for legislative changes in its favour.

And there is no sign that Cullen intends to use his May 18 Budget to outline the Government's intentions in its review of business taxation.

The only person championing tax cuts even vaguely on his side is Revenue Minister Peter Dunne who secured the review as his party's price for supporting a Labour-led Government.

The business sector will be looking to the upcoming discussion paper to put a distinction between two separate subjects: tax reform and tax cuts.

But already there's speculation that Cullen will promote a payroll tax to offset any tax revenue that might be lost if he lowers the corporate rate from 33 cents.

Business also wants to see if he will go along with the chartered accountants who want to see the top personal and corporate tax rates the same.

Will Cullen buy the argument that doing otherwise simply penalises the large number of sole traders in New Zealand?

Or will Cullen stay mired on the reformist side, defending the Government's family welfare system and tax rebates to the detriment of the so-called wealth creators?

These are serious issues that Clark in particular will want to focus on as she deliberates strategies that could help her propel her way into the history books.

From a business perspective it's economic growth that matters most, not creating more state beneficiaries.

Jim Eagles: Pilgrims pursuing a vision

Increasing numbers of New Zealanders are walking across Europe on the medieval Way of St James, for instance, or travelling to India in search of ancient wisdom.

The books reviewed here are all about pilgrimages of one sort or another, involving travel into difficult places in pursuit of a vision.

All are interesting travel stories in their own right, but they're also a source of inspiration to anyone who thinks of at least once stepping outside the ordinary to pursue a dream.

You Must Die Once
by Ian D. Robinson

HarperCollins, $29.99

Ian D. Robinson is an old-fashioned adventurer who knows how to tell a rattling good yarn. His first book, Gantsara, described riding alone through the wilds of Mongolia back in 1992, when the place was even more lawless and unfriendly than it is today.

The latest exploit by this part-time English teacher from Auckland is a pilgrimage across Tibet in defiance of the Chinese authorities. It's not quite Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark or Roald Amundsen, but it's pretty darn daring and definitely dangerous.

Robinson's quest is ostensibly the result of a vow to take the ashes of his Tibetan Buddhist teacher to the sacred peak of Mount Kailas.

But in truth it seems to be more a mix of his love of adventure and the hope that making the pilgrimage to the mountain might - as tradition suggests - help him to advance on the Buddhist path.

Either way it was no easy task he set himself. For one thing, the Chinese authorities have closed much of Tibet to foreigners and travelling without the required permits was to risk arrest, imprisonment and expulsion.

For another, his route on horseback across Tibet, steering clear of towns in order to avoid the authorities, took him through some of the most inhospitable places in the world, where the air is thin, the climate bitter, and food and shelter are short supply. He risked hypothermia, hunger, sickness and even death.

Most of those bad things did indeed happen, and midway through his journey he was arrested and expelled. But he returned two years later as part of a tour group, abandoned the tour and finished his ride. Along the way he was often cold, hungry, sick, miserable and close to despair.

But he also had some marvellous experiences, enjoying extraordinary hospitality from monks, villagers and nomads, riding through majestic scenery and visiting ancient platforms, shrines and temples which have been holy for hundreds of years.

Furthermore, against all the odds, he did complete his pilgrimage to Kailas, one of the most revered places on earth, being sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Asian Shamans, as well as the source of four of Asia's greatest rivers, the Indus, Karnali, Brahmaputra and Sutlej.

For Robinson, the journey does indeed seem to have been a life-changing experience. One of his Tibetan friends commented when he returned to Lhasa, "I think your journey was good for you, Ian, you seem like a different person now."

For readers, the book provides an insight into what life is like in a part of the world few of us will ever see, and a taste of what a real pilgrimage can be.

Mantras and Misdemeanours
by Vanessa Walker

Allen & Unwin, $29.99

Vanessa Walker is another New Zealander to find fulfilment in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, but her pilgrimage was to the Indian town of McLeod Ganj, where the religion's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile.

Her aim was to write a book about how Tibetans and their unique form of Buddhism are coping away from the land in which the roots of both lie.

But she also found herself becoming increasingly involved with the Tibetan community, even falling in love with and marrying a derobed monk.

The resultant story is a mix of interviews with leading Tibetan figures, her observations about life in the McLeod Ganj community, and the saga of her romance, marriage and efforts to find somewhere safe to have their baby (Walker, her Tibetan husband, and their baby now live on the North Shore).

As a book it's something of a mixed bag, but it does paint a marvellous picture of life in McLeod Ganj, a much broader one than is seen by the huge numbers of tourists attracted by the romantic image of the Dalai Lama.

This is a place where a Miss Tibet contest and ancient religious ceremonies, mass meditation and gross materialism, can exist side by side.

If you can't go yourself, Walker's book offers as good a picture as you're likely to get of the reality of life in McLeod Ganj.

Why Walk When You Can Ride? How to Find and Lose a Horse in Ecuador
by Tania Krupitza

Cayambe Press (cayambe - press@yahoo.co.nz), $27

Ecuadorian people coined the phrase "gringas locas" (the crazy women) when they heard that three young veterinarians - two Kiwis and a South African - planned to ride on horseback around their beautiful but sometimes inhospitable country.

But once a Kiwi girl gets the bit between her teeth there is no going back, even when there are no horses to ride and the plan of action is fluid.

In Why Walk When You Can Ride? author Tania Krupitza and her friend Lauren decide that Ecuador will let them indulge their love of horses and riding in a major way because the country is small, has great scenery, few cars and tracks which pass for roads. It is also cheap.

They rope in Bridget from South Africa, another vet, and arrive in Quito, the capital.

Where to begin? Well, let's buy the horses first. Yes.

Half way through the book the trio still haven't bought any horses, but they have made lots of friends, luckily for them mostly wealthy, influential men, who let them ride lots of horses they own, and who seem to help out one way or another every time there is a problem.

And problems the girls do have aplenty, including the macho Ecuadorian who thinks women should be at home, not riding around the countryside.

But that's all part of the adventure, and when finally horses are purchased, a route is mapped and the expedition sets out.

It is a brave journey, often fraught with bad weather, dreadful tracks and frequent advice from locals that the horses will never survive in the foothills of the Andes.

The rewards, however, are huge: magnificent views, lost Indians, cantering across plains and soaking in steaming hot pools.

This self-published story is an entertaining read, but it would have been improved by a little background on the author and her companions, and it is badly let down by the quality of the photos.

Aussie Malcolm: Dehumanising immigration policy reflects our attitudes

Recent articles in the Herald about the hopes and disappointments of two skilled young couples seeking to migrate to New Zealand have put a three-dimensional human face on people who, once they arrive here, are often seen by us in terms of two-dimensional stereotypes.

Hopefully, those articles may help to change our perceptions.

Reading about the immigration process from the migrants' point of view may also change our perceptions about our own system. Did we appreciate how inconsistent and frustrating our policies can seem when viewed from the other side?

I was particularly moved by the circumstances of Emilly and Guang, who spent months on research, paid hundreds of dollars to the New Zealand Government and travelled extensively by train, pursuing an application that was doomed from the start.

It was not dodgy consultants or lack of research on their part that caused their dream to fail. It was New Zealand's immigration policy that, in spite of reams of taxpayer-funded paper and scores of web pages, is extraordinarily difficult to navigate.

Not only are the immigration goalposts sometimes hard to see from a skilled migrant's point of view, they have, as Emilly found out, a frustrating tendency to keep shifting.

Although Emilly was from China she had a postgraduate degree in computer programming from an English university and a determination to stay in and work in New Zealand. Don't we need young people like that?

In fact, while she suffered particularly from elements of policy that some would say are prejudicial against Chinese, her experience with New Zealand immigration has been shared by many intending migrants of all ethnicities.

How does this happen?

In New Zealand we have become absorbed by domestic arguments about migration (many irrational, and some simply racist), with party political point-scoring, with refugees and terrorists, and have developed a strange fascination about "getting the numbers right".

I don't care whether the numbers are 30,000 or 50,000. But I do care whether the people who make up those numbers are skilled, have jobs to come to, and are the sort of people who will make superb New Zealanders.

Our fascination with numbers and political arguments has created immigration policy machinery for skilled migrants that is designed principally to protect politicians from each other's attacks.

The skilled migrants become dehumanised, reduced to numbers and ciphers by complex points systems, and processed by a machine that neither understands nor respects them.

I am constantly amazed at the perseverance and patience of those who make it, and reflect that at least it ensures that our skilled migrants are an extremely determined and durable group in our society.

But as an immigration specialist I am also acutely aware of the families that my fellow New Zealanders seldom see - the thousands of good, skilled, keen people throughout the world whose desire to come and contribute to the growth and development of our country is rewarded by their being sucked in, chewed up and spat out by our system.

Is this all the fault of a heartless immigration bureaucracy? No, it's not. Immigration New Zealand simply does the bidding of its political masters who are, in turn, responding to us, the electorate.

New Zealanders have been looking at migration and migrants with stereotyped thinking and debating what they do to our society rather than for our society. We have ignored their humanity and their feelings, and have talked about them as though they were not in the room.

Our present policy is inconsistent, exploitative of skilled migrants and dehumanising - but it is only a reflection of our own selves.

The Government is committed to a major review of immigration policies. That's not a specialist subject. It's an issue that affects us all and shapes our futures. What the Government comes up with will in part be a reflection of what we as a community say we want.

For my part, thinking of my senior years and considering who is going to be employed and paying taxes to support me, who are studying to gain the skills to care for me, who is creating the skill base that will provide opportunities for my grandkids, I wonder if it's not time for the pendulum of public opinion to swing back a little.

Might it be time for us to recognise the humanity of our skilled migrants and to understand that, in wanting to come and put their shoulder to our wheel, they are paying us a great compliment?

I know it's a radical suggestion, but we might even consider, sometimes, being just a little bit grateful.

* Aussie Malcolm is a former Immigration Minister.