Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sideswipe

Gary Clifford of Titirangi took heed of this warning at Adelaide Airport and refrained from drinking the toilet water.

By Ana Samways

A job ad for a secretary at Massey University asks applicants to be able to perform "critical analysis and interpretation of the Pro Vice-Chancellor's schedule" ... A pretension-ectomy reveals this is "keeping a diary." (Source: thebigidea)

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Unhinged celebrity quotes: "My God is a God who wants me to have things," Mary J Bilge told Blender magazine. "He wants me to bling. He wants me to be the hottest thing on the block. I don't know what kind of God the rest of y'all are serving, but the God I serve says, 'Mary, you need to be the hottest thing this year, and I'm gonna make sure you're doing that'."

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Keep your Viagra on hand, with a classy storage facility. "I got tired of picking pocket lint off my Viagra, so I got a ViagraRing," says a satisfied customer on the testimonial page. (Source: viagraring.com)

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A man from Colorado was fined $50 when the cops caught him using a gadget that changes traffic lights from red to green. Jason Niccum says that he paid $100 on eBay for it and had been using it for two years and that it had paid for itself by getting him to work faster. The device, called an Opticon, is similar to what firefighters use to change lights when they respond to emergencies. It emits an infrared pulse that receivers on the traffic lights pick up. Niccum was caught out after city traffic engineers noticed repeated traffic light disruptions at certain intersections and spotted a white Ford pickup passing by whenever the patterns were disrupted.

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As a cost-cutting exercise the Star Tribune in Minneapolis announced that free copies of the paper would no longer be available for newsroom staff. Instead, staff were offered the online edition. If staff wanted the tactile version they would have to pay half the retail cost, from boxes around the office. Later in the week, the paper's senior vice president for circulation issued a memo: "During the first week that the additional on-site racks were in service, 43 per cent of the Star Tribunes removed from those racks were not paid for. For the second week the rate was 41 per cent. This is called 'pilferage' in our business; but put more plainly, it is theft, pure and simple." (Source: David Carr in the New York Times)

Editorial: Boys lost in changes to schools

Two years ago we applauded the Minister of Education for setting up a panel to examine why boys are not doing as well as girls in today's schools. The problem had become increasingly apparent to teachers and parents over the previous 10 years, but education theorists were reluctant to recognise it. An academic study once commissioned by the Ministry of Education concluded that if there was a problem it had something to do with "homophobia" and its solution was to "deconstruct" male sexuality. The minister's panel, which included principals of boys schools, sounded more promising.

But it seems we applauded too soon. One of the principals on the panel, Dr Paul Baker of Waitaki Boys High, told a conference yesterday that it had held just four "stage managed" meetings in two years. "We wonder if it was all a sham to defuse a politically hot topic," he said.

The response of Education Minister Steve Maharey suggests the reason for inaction is the same as ever: Policy makers don't want to recognise the problem in gender terms. Mr Maharey says the main problem is literacy and the Government has put $32 million a year into literacy improvement. The research Dr Baker presented yesterday suggests the reason for boys' poor results lies much deeper.

He has found that in subjects such as English, other languages and art, where boys have never performed as well as girls, the gender gap has hardly changed since 1970. The gap has narrowed most in subjects in which boys traditionally did better, such as physics, economics and accounting.

The reasons that boys are doing less well than girls overall, he suggests, can be found in recent changes to the curriculum, methods of teaching and assessment. Additions to the curriculum, such as agriculture, horticulture, human biology and Japanese, all favoured girls, he says. So did the reconstruction of traditionally "male" technical subjects. Tech drawing has become graphics; workshop technology is now design technology.

Methods of teaching have changed, he says, "from closed, structured, information-dense activities, which boys did better, to open-ended, experiential, reflective activities". In other words, boys do better when presented with clear, concrete things they need to learn and do. They do not do as well as girls when asked to use their initiative, imagination and powers of expression. The problem may be best illustrated by physical education. Boys did better, says Dr Baker, when that was purely a subject to do. Now they have to plan and write about it too.

The new examination system NCEA, he points out, "requires understanding and meticulously meeting complex written instructions. This clearly favours girls because of their superior language and organisational skills and ability to understand and deliver what others expect of them, which many teenage boys have never been too bothered about."

The changes in education that have favoured girls are also the changes needed to equip boys and girls better for the modern economy. Industries requiring rote applications of limited knowledge are declining in developed economies, which see their growth prospects in imaginative adaptations of sciences and technology and advanced design and creativity.

The success of girls in today's education is greatly welcomed, but boys cannot be consigned to relative failure without severe social consequences. If girls were lagging behind boys in most subjects today, the Government would be doing something about it. Dr Baker's research, his tentative conclusions and courage to speak out yesterday ought to be the spur some need to start taking boys' education seriously.

Linda Herrick: Stiff out of luck on One

One of the best lines in Murray Whelan: Stiff, which screened on TV One a couple of weeks back, went like this. Victorian Labor Party hack and amateur sleuth Whelan, played in a typically understated way by David Wenham, is separated from his Canberra-based wife or, as he prefers to put it, he hasn't had his "end away" for quite some time.

When Murray's erstwhile roofer, a story in himself, told him his wife seemed very nice, Murray replied, "Yes, she does impressions".

Stiff and its successor Murray Whelan: The Brush-Off, were two fine products made by a loose circle of Melbourne friends with a lot of talent and not much time or money to get the job done.

Inspired by the Murray Whelan comic thrillers written by Shane Maloney, the production team included Sam Neill and John Clarke, who each directed an episode.

Both were huge ratings winners for Channel Seven in 2004. Here, they were sunk into a late-night Saturday slot, with little fanfare. TV One's promo department certainly did nothing to make sure they had an audience.

A shame. It's always nice to see Sam Neill on screen in a non-Merlin, non-blockbuster role and in the Clarke-directed Stiff, he had a small but pivotal part as Lionel Merricks, captain of industry and a pompous prick.

Good as Stiff was, as Murray demonstrated his flair for accidents and nose for corruption, this time within the meat industry, The Brush-Off was even better, with its delicious satire of the Melbourne art scene and misuse of government funds to line private pockets. Joel Tobeck was particularly effective as a sinister black-clad chauffeur who turned out to be an undercover cop.

The Brush-Off was Neill's debut as a drama director - and what an assured job he did. While there was plenty to snigger at in Stiff, The Brush-Off delivered a much broader sweep of humour.

The scene when Murray was locked in the basement of the art collective then electrocuted himself while trying to escape via a ladder, and ended up catapulting himself into a huge inflatable woman, sounds puerile but was one of the most hysterical, perfectly executed pratfalls I've seen on the telly for ages.

Neill, the cunning old fox, has created a persona of ironic self-deprecation, seeking privacy in his little vineyard in Central Otago. But the same weekend Stiff screened, he seemed to be all over the screen, playing himself.

He was on BBC World's Peschardt's People, a half-hour interview with Michael Peschardt as they strolled around the grapes discussing race relations, politics, his accidental career and going for a tootle in his vintage truck.

Lo and behold, half an hour later, there he was again on the Living Channel's Great Outdoors programme - same location, same truck, same wry chit-chat about his accidental career.

Come on Sam! Admit it: you've been a terrific actor since the mid-70s, although I far prefer the Sam Neill of the Death in Brunswick genre rather than the Sam Neill of the Jurassic Park- Merlin-Bicentennial Man schools. But those big Hollywood movies pay the bills for the vineyards, the privacy, the access to low-budget work like the Murray Whelan projects.

Let's hope Clarke and Neill will be able to make more telefilms from the Whelan series, with remaining novels Nice Try, The Big Ask and Something Fishy just begging for small-screen adaptation. In the meantime, on Easter Sunday on TV2, Neill was back again in Merlin's Apprentice. Awful ... but it would have paid some bills.

Garth George: Arrogance of lost generation

Anyone who has read this column for any length of time will know that I hold a rather low opinion of the indisciplines of psychology and psychiatry.

And I have learned that when I read the words "new research" these days I should reach for the salt cellar and shake out a few big grains.

So when I came across both "new research" and "psychologist" in the same sentence in a story in the Weekend Herald on Saturday my critical faculties antenna began twanging like Keith Richards' guitar strings.

By the time I had finished the article, headed with the immensely arguable statement "You can change your partner ..." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I did neither for I was speechless at the insufferable arrogance and self-centredness of the proposition that one human being should set out to change another just because he or she doesn't like the way the other is. But that is what this "research", undertaken by Auckland University psychologist Nicola Overall, was all about.

Her research, reporter Simon Collins told us, was based on interviewing people about how much they try to change their partners, filming them in a five or 10-minute conversation in which they try to change each other, and following up with phone interviews over the subsequent year to see whether their strategies worked.

We are not told how many couples were involved, and I find the methodology rather strange. Because I know that if I were in that situation, arguing with my partner before a camera, I would put on the best performance I could to make myself look good.

And I would be grateful that the follow-up contact was by telephone because I could be certain that my body language and my eyes would give nothing away.

The results of the study, however, were unsurprising: between 94 and 98 per cent of people want to change at least something in their partners; and the average success rate of those who try is dismal, at 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 7.

I say unsurprising because one of the great lessons of life I have learned is that you cannot change other people, you can only change yourself.

And that, human nature being what it is, changing oneself is no easy matter and invariably results, not from the opinions or urgings of others, but from a chronic inner conflict which eventually becomes intolerable.

It seems to me that the generations which have followed that of the so-called baby-boomers are suffering an epidemic of low self-esteem which, I think, derives from an absence of certainties in their lives.

Young people today (anyone under 50 is young to me) seem not to know where they are, where they come from, or where they're going.

An increasingly secular and rampantly materialistic society and the poison of political correctness seem to have robbed most young men and women of the ability to see themselves clearly and to understand that they are unique and valuable just as they are.

That has spawned a vast industry of advice-givers - counsellors, certain social workers, life-coaches, motivators et al -who are coining a fortune by trying to help screwed-up people to sort themselves out.

And, judging by the divorce rate and other partnership break-ups, the number of one-parent families, the abortion toll, the road toll, pandemics of binge drinking and drug-taking and other rents in our social fabric, without much success.

Unfortunately for many, there are no psychological or behavioural-modification answers to what ails them because deep down the malaise is spiritual, not physical or mental.

My generation, and the one that followed, at least had available to us an ingrained knowledge of what was considered right and what was considered wrong (a sense of sin, if you like), of our family history, our nation's history, of our community's mores.

Christianity was alive and well and Sunday Schools thrived, in which children learned the basics of traditionally acceptable behaviour. Boundaries were set, and while many of us wilfully exceeded those boundaries at every opportunity, we knew there were penalties to be paid if we were caught out.

Good manners - the mortar which binds the bricks of society - were valued and society was quick to condemn those who offended.

We knew who we were, we knew where we were, and we had a pretty good idea of what was expected of us. We knew, although many of us perhaps at a subconscious level, that we were entitled to be and to do, but within a framework that went far beyond self.

In today's society, however, which preaches "tolerance" but means anything goes; in which children have "rights" but are taught nothing of responsibilities; in which dog-eat-dog and every man (and woman) for him/herself are seen as virtues; in which those who believe in nothing end up believing in anything; and in which money, property and prestige are the be-all and end-all of existence, self is all that is left.

Which goes a long way to explaining why so many people, desperately unhappy within themselves, demand that others change to suit them, and why a psychologist would take the time to study that phenomenon.

Well, now for the good news. It is possible to change your partner. You simply bugger off and find a new one, which thousands of men and women do all the time in a futile search for the one human being in the world who doesn't exist - the perfect mate.

Brian Fallow: Take your seats for the Arena showdown

The Vector Arena fiasco is the kind of thing that gives public-private partnerships a bad name.

Defenders of this model for delivering public amenities or infrastructure would no doubt regard that conclusion as premature. After all, they might argue, the multi-million-dollar cost over-runs and litigious argy-bargy are all between the council's private sector partners, their contractors and the architects.

It will not, Mayor Dick Hubbard assures us, cost ratepayers a cent. Apart from the $68 million they have already paid, of course.

And Hubbard's assurance assumes the council's private sector partners will not go belly-up. The Auditor-General's office says that business failure would mean the council would have to take over the Arena, using its step-in or termination rights under the agreement.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are much more common in Australia and Britain than they are here. They can take various forms, of which the build, own, operate and transfer model adopted in the Arena case is only one.

Typically, they involve a public agency contracting with a private company or consortium to provide finance and arrange design, construction and ongoing operation or maintenance of the facility.

Typically, the contract spans a large part of the life of the facility, often decades. At the end of the contract, control of the facility is returned to the Government or local body.

A paper by Treasury official Dieter Katz sprays cold water on the concept (although it is worth noting that he says the usual disclaimer that these are his views and not unnecessarily the Treasury's are "particularly pertinent in this case").

Two main benefits are commonly ascribed to PPPs. One is that the use of private money allows infrastructure to be built sooner than would otherwise be the case. The other is that they are better value for money because of the incentives the private sector partners have to be innovative and minimise cost over the whole life of the asset.

But there are other ways of accessing private sector finance, Katz says, and most of the advantages of private sector construction and management can also be obtained from conventional procurement methods, where the project is financed by the Government and construction and management are contracted out separately.

As it is, design and construction are almost always contracted out to the private sector, there being no Ministry of Works any longer and, in the case of the highways, Transit NZ contracts out maintenance, too.

Defining PPPs more broadly, as the Auditor-General does, they include project alliances such as that Transit used successfully for the Grafton Gully project and is using again for the northern motorway extension at Orewa.

Instead of the conventional model of a fixed-price contract, which can set up an adversarial relationship between the funding agency and the contractors, the aim of an alliance is to foster a team approach in which risks, rewards and responsibility for solving problems are shared.

Only after the preferred team is chosen is a target cost negotiated, including what an external auditor considers is a normal profit margin for the private partners.

And, crucially, a formula is agreed for sharing among the partners the gain or pain if the project comes in over or under target.

Because of the substantial set-up costs, it is a model better suited to large and complex undertakings - $100 million rather than $2 million projects.

High tendering and contracting costs count against the PPP model generally. That is especially likely where there is to be a long-term relationship between the partners and a need, therefore, to anticipate all the possible things that could go wrong.

Katz cites estimates that tendering costs represent about 3 per cent of the total costs of a project, compared with about 1 per cent for conventional procurement.

Where the service delivery elements of a partnership extend over decades, there are risks that the private sector partner will either go under or make very large profits, creating problems for the Government partner either way.

Melbourne's tram and train services were contracted out in 1999 but patronage did not increase as much as expected. The operator threatened to fail and the Government had to increase its operating subsidy.

The Auditor-General quotes his Victorian counterpart reflecting on a PPP for Latrobe Regional Hospital: "The social responsibilities of the State meant that any threat to public health and safety or hospital service provision could not be allowed to occur ... The State stepped in when it appeared a risk to ongoing hospital services was increasing. The final outcome was that [the private sector consortium] was able to avoid the full financial risk obligations embodied under the contractual arrangements."

Katz argues the risks of commercial failure and excessive profits can be mitigated by writing profit- and loss-sharing provisions into the contract, but that reduces the very risk transfer from the public to the private partners, which is one of PPPs' advantages.

He concludes that the transfer of risk made possible by PPPs results in better project evaluation and stronger incentives to to innovate and minimise costs over the whole life of the asset.

"But these advantages must be balanced against the large contract negotiation costs, the inflexibilities of a long-term contract and the reduced competitive pressures on performance after the contact has been entered into, compared with a situation where the contact is re-tendered periodically over the life of the infrastructure."

And of course the private sector partners face risks as well, as the Auditor-General points out. Political control of the public entity may change and affect the partnering arrangement.

Papakura District Council's contracting out for 30 years the operation of its water and waste water services is a case in point.

None of this is likely to cut much ice if you are on the wrong end of some roading bottleneck or antiquated infrastructure that is languishing down the list of priorities.

But before latching on to PPPs, it is important to identify where the constraint lies. If it is a finance, is the real problem the Government's unwillingness to loosen the fiscal purse strings? Relaxing its debt-to-GDP target sufficiently to release more funding for capital projects may well be a better solution than having to devise a long-term dedicated revenue stream to service project-specific private investment.

Or is the problem a shortage of the expertise, skills and capital equipment needed to design and build the infrastructure? In that case it is not clear PPPs will help much.

Talkback: Having the creative right stuff is not a matter of degree

Talkback: Having the creative right stuff is not a matter of degree

20.04.06
By Mark Champion

Would Peter Jackson be a better film-maker if he had a tertiary qualification in film studies from an international university?

Potentially, but the hard years spent honing his craft while balancing a day job toughened him up for high-level film negotiations while jobs as a photo-engraver and film editor helped pay the bills and consolidate vital skills.

Like many of our most creative people, Jackson's journey to success has taken him down an interesting and varied path, and he has managed to achieve success on a global scale without having to rely solely on a vocational degree.

While few would argue against the value of a tertiary qualification, it's an indisputable fact that creative success comes from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. As advertising guru David Ogilvy once remarked: "Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among non-conformists, dissenters and rebels."

Unfortunately, these arguments are lost on our short-sighted Government which has its head in the sand when it comes to the skills shortage in one of our most creative industries.

The communications, advertising and marketing industry is facing a serious skills shortage that cannot be filled by local talent alone.

The Communications Agencies Association New Zealand (CAANZ) and recruitment specialists Marsden Inch have made two detailed submissions to the Department of Labour to have the industry added to the skills shortage registry. Addition to this list would make it easier for agencies to recruit the global talent needed to fill our local skills gaps.

We've provided detailed job descriptions, research and other material that offer clear evidence of the shortages in media planning and buying, account management and direction, strategy and copy writing.

But we've reached an impasse with the department. Government policy is being doggedly interpreted to mean that any potential migrant without a tertiary qualification cannot claim to have the creative prowess to make it in New Zealand - despite evidence of relevant experience and success in their home country.

As the professional body for the communications industry, our first priority is to upskill local talent and plug the gaps. To this end, we have developed the CAANZ/AUT Communications School which is a partnership with the Auckland University of Technology.

This year, 15 courses will be presented in Auckland with two of the programmes also available in Wellington.

They will feature top New Zealand and international talent including Mat Baxter (Naked Communications Sydney), Sharon Henderson (DDB), Rob Tillotson (Colenso BBDO), Tom Eslinger and Jason Dooris (Saatchi & Saatchi), Rebecca Houston (OMD), Wayne Lotherington (Allsorts Habit Creation Singapore), David Nottage (Torque), and Kate Smith (eat big fish). The school has been based on the highly successful IPA (Britain) and AFA (Australia) education models with a core focus on "best practice".

Industry practitioners develop the courses with the assistance of AUT with the university ensuring the programme meets degree standards.

Unfortunately, the CAANZ/AUT Communications School will not be able to upskill people quickly enough to fill the skills shortage.

Without the people we need, the communications industry will suffer and so will New Zealand business as a whole.

We are the lubricant that makes corporate and business growth possible and are a $2 billion industry in our own right.

We are also a test bed for many of our most lauded creative talent. People such as visual artist Dick Frizzell, film-makers Christine Jeffs, Nicky Caro, Andrew Niccol and Vincent Ward and business and community leaders Geoff Ross and Bob Harvey have all worked in the advertising industry at some stage of their creative careers.

With business growth at risk and the global spotlight on New Zealand creativity, the time is right for the Government to walk the walk.

* Mark Champion is chief executive of The Communications Agencies Association New Zealand.