Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sideswipe

Felicity Huffman is girlied-up on the DVD cover (left) for her Oscar-winning performance in Transamerica and (right) how she actually appears in the film from the theatrical release poster.

By Ana Samways

An actor playing one of the hijackers in the new 9/11 film looks likely to miss the premiere because the US won't give him a visa. London-based Iraqi actor Lewis Alsamari plays Saeed Al Ghamdi in United 93 premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. According to Variety magazine, he has been denied entry because of a stint in the Iraqi Army more than a decade ago. "I think this was because I am still an Iraqi citizen and fought in the Army - but that was only because I was forced to," Alsamari told the Evening Standard newspaper. He was previously given a one-off visa to film United 93 in New York.

* * *

Former 90210 bad girl Shannen Doherty will star in a reality show where she will, according to Variety, "rescue people trapped in toxic relationships. In each episode, she'll go undercover to assess the situation of her client and, if a relationship seems doomed, she'll instigate a breakup." It's called Breaking Up With Shannen Doherty.

* * *

Wendy Schick, owner of Tumbleweed garden centre in Matakana, clarifies her "Feijoas 10 for $40" sign. "As Danielle and her husband are so good at reading signs they would have noticed that they were at Tumbleweed Coastal Plants, a garden centre, not a fruit and vegetable shop. These are grown plants and I doubt they would be available in Auckland as low as this. The plants are selling like 'hot cakes' ... oops, perhaps Danielle may think we are a bakery as well."

* * *

Remember John Davy, the former CEO of Maori Television, who according to his CV was a champion fencer, chair of the World Wildlife Fund and had written a hit song? The Washington state Senate has approved a bill that could send those who pad their resumes to jail. Senators unanimously approved the bill, which would make using a fake or unaccredited degree a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The bill would also make it a criminal offence to lie to get a job or other kind of benefit.

Anzac spirit alive and well at RSA

This year's Anzac Day has a special significance for the organisation that set the tone of the annual commemoration and, through thick and thin, has overseen its development into this country's most revered occasion. Almost 90 years ago to the day, what is now the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association was formed. Its immediate aim was to help the first soldiers coming home from the bloody slopes of Gallipoli. But its ambition soon prompted a public holiday on the anniversary of the landing in Turkey, and a commemoration centred on public services, not church-bound remembrances that would have scattered returned soldiers among a variety of congregations.

Some things have changed since then, but much remains the same. The RSA, contrary to the views of the occasional doomsayer, has not only endured but is flourishing. It serves as the umbrella group for more than 200 local associations and branches. In most towns, and in the suburbs of large cities, RSA halls stand as a visible reminder of the sacrifices of this country's servicemen and women.

The organisation has survived in large part because of its willingness to embrace the wider community. RSA membership is no longer reserved for those who have served in wars or war-like situations overseas. There are also the service members who are currently in the armed forces, and associate or social members. Public interest in such membership would have been minimal if the association had been viewed as an irrelevant relic of 20th century conflicts. Perhaps out of design, perhaps out of necessity, that is not the case.

The RSA welcomed the changed emphasis that will again be apparent at today's commemorations. Much of this revolves around the presence of a large number of young people. No longer are services the domain of row upon row of returned soldiers, their medals jingling in the thin dawn light. To a certain degree it must be this way. No survivors of World War I remain, and the ranks of those who fought in the 1939-45 war are dwindling. But the services today are impressive in their own way as a cross-section of the community remembers the sacrifice and sense of duty of those who so willingly served, and died for, their country.

In the past decade or so, Anzac Day has developed new layers of meaning and symbolism. Most of all, it has sponsored a sense of national pride and heritage. There is now a greatly increased interest in those who went to war. How else to explain the huge interest in the fate of Charles Upham's Victoria Cross and bar. Or the debate that ensued when a new book dwelt on the fact that Clive Hulme wore German paratroopers' clothing during the action which won him a VC on Crete. Hulme's mode of operation had been known for many years, and had attracted virtually no comment. It is a mark of our deeper interest in New Zealand's history, and the men and women who shaped it, that it should do so now.

For those who have returned from war, Anzac Day is a celebration of mateship, self-sacrifice and togetherness, as well as a commemoration. The RSA halls that sprang up around the country in the wake of World War I offered the opportunity to honour those values without the intrusion of people who could not know the horrors of war. A closed shop could still be the consequence. Fortunately, it is not. The RSA has been able to shape a role in the community while not only preserving but increasing the reverence accorded Anzac Day. That, like the achievements of those we remember today, is no small feat.

Leon Benade: Parents key to boys' success

Boys' success or lack of it at secondary school has a great deal to do with parental expectations and involvement, with material life circumstances and something to do with the quality of teaching that takes place.

Steve Maharey, the Minister of Education, was reported as saying that discussions about boys' attainment had to take in factors such as wealth and ethnicity.

Pita Sharples, in his address to the Challenging Boys conference at Massey University last week, made it clear how important he believed whanau involvement was in the education life chances of children.

If I was to mimic Stephen Covey, and produce a list of seven habits of highly effective learners, something like this might find wide acceptance: 1) Organisational ability; 2) Understanding the layout of the exam or requirements of the assessment activity; 3) Ability to pre-plan or scope the task; 4) Effective reading skills; 5) A capacity to reflect and give thought to the task or activity; 6) An ability to process all that has been analysed and put it all back together; and finally 7) An ability to write coherently.

The trouble with this list is that it focuses on academic achievement, which is only one kind of success. So we may want to add to this list such points as perseverance, reliability and a strong work ethic.

The key habit that supports the others is reading. So none of these habits will ever be cultivated in boys (or girls) if mum and dad cannot, do not or will not read to their children from birth until at least age 12, if there are no books in the home, if the TV and PlayStation are the baby-sitters of choice, if the people do not believe that getting a good education is important, and if there is not a strong work ethic in the home.

That some boys (and girls) are able to rise above these impediments of misguided parenting tells us a great deal about the intelligence and character of these fine young people.

But what is true, to some extent at least, is that even with some or all of the seven habits mentioned, many boys still have serious difficulties understanding what they need to do to be successful.

Dr Paul Baker, rector of Waitaki Boys High School in Oamaru, correctly diagnoses the NCEA as a major problem. Essentially, boys do not want to talk about the rules of the game - they want to rip into the game.

NCEA assessments are so word-heavy that even articulate heads are left spinning. For example, a creative writing task in English provides no less than 10 written instructions to the student before the tasks can even be considered.

Dr Baker points out that the curriculum is feminised. This from the same creative writing task, entitled Memories are Made of This: "All sorts of things can trigger a memory: a song, a photo, a letter, a date, even a smell!" Well, what sorts of memories do boys write about? They write about fast cars, girls, parties or rugby matches. To produce the required 400 words boys will sweat, strain and struggle. As Dr Baker suggests, boys do not want to navel gaze.

On March 20, the Herald carried an item from Britain where research has shown that boys would prefer science lessons to focus on weapons of mass destruction and the effect of chemical weapons on the human body, while girls prefer to learn about how to deal with anorexia or the significance of their dreams.

As well as not wanting to navel gaze, boys want to organise their time so they get the most benefit from their studies in the shortest time, hence their penchant for cramming for exams.

Unfortunately, NCEA has scuttled this approach too, as much emphasis has now shifted to carefully accumulating evidence through the year of a student's ability to meet the standard. This requires perseverance, planning and organisation, qualities that favour girls over boys.

Is the problem that there are not enough men in teaching?

That is certainly a major issue. But more important is that waves of school leavers are emerging from schools having been taught in the soppy, politically correct and flabby style of facilitation Dr Baker rails against.

Those who choose to enter teaching (be they male or female) are subjected to more of the same in their pre-service education. They are required constantly to reflect on their own practice rather than focus on some tough academic disciplines and how best to teach these, or on other crucial basics, such as learning how children learn to read.

Many of us know what the problem is. Who will have the political will to fix it?

* Leon Benade is deputy principal of St Paul's, a Catholic boys college in Ponsonby, Auckland.

Gwynne Dyer: Middle classes to blame for oil prices

Welcome to the world of US$75 a barrel oil. That's if there is no crisis in the Gulf over Iran's nuclear ambitions. If there is, then get ready for US$140 a barrel. Oil briefly breached the US$70 barrier eight months ago, but this time it is going up for good.

Almost exactly one year ago, the investment bank Goldman Sachs issued a paper suggesting the "new range" within which oil prices will fluctuate is US$50-US$105 a barrel. The old range, still used by most of the oil industry when deciding if a given investment will be profitable, was US$20-US$30. The price could surge well past the upper end of the Goldman Sachs' range if the United States launches military strikes against Iran, but it's going up permanently anyway.

Whatever his longer-term plans, President Bush is unlikely to attack Iran before the mid-term Congressional elections in November, for three of the past four global recessions were triggered by a sharp rise in the oil price.

But even without a Gulf crisis, the oil price will only stabilise at a price a good deal higher than now because the major players in the market understand the long-term trends.

Transient events such as the Iran crisis and the political unrest in Nigeria, which has cut that country's exports by a quarter, drive the daily movements in the oil price, but the underlying supply situation is so tight that oil would stay high even if Nigeria turned into Switzerland and Iran opted for unilateral disarmament.

"On production, there is nothing we can do. Opec [the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries] is already producing at maximum output," said Abdullah al-Attiyah, Qatar's Oil Minister.

This is not about "peak oil", the notion that we are already at or near the point where total global oil production reaches its maximum and begins a long decline. That may well be true, but the present price rise is just about rising demand for oil as the big developing countries, especially in Asia, lift large parts of their populations into the middle class.

Middle-class people buy cars. They also run their air conditioners all summer, and take holidays abroad, and do other things that have big implications for total energy consumption. But above all, they buy cars. For the foreseeable future most of these cars will run on some form of refined oil.

The rising demand that drives up the oil price does not just come from the middle-class Americans (and, increasingly, Europeans) who insist on driving enormous SUVs with macho names like "Raider", "Devastator" and "Genocidal Exterminator".

It also comes from the new middle class of unassuming Chinese, Indian, Russian and Brazilian families who only want a modest family car for the school run and the weekend. There are just so many of them. This is the first big price rise that has been caused by rising demand rather than some temporary interruption of supply.

Goldman Sachs also predicted last year that in 20 years more cars will be in China than in the United States - about 200 million of them.

Ten years after that, India's car population will also overtake America's. Within 20 years Russia and Brazil will each have more cars than Japan. We are headed for a billion-car world (unless all the wheels fall off first), and that means permanently high oil prices.

Good. If the oil price rises gradually from US$70 to US$100 over the next five years, people and governments will start paying serious attention to energy conservation and alternate energy sources, including nuclear energy.

The sooner that happens, the less-extreme the global warming that we will have to contend with as the century progresses.

But if the oil price leaps to US$100 or more in one swift jump we will have the mother of all recessions, then a desperate shortage of funding for developing alternative sources of energy.

A US attack on Iran is not the only threat to oil prices. If the markets should ever collectively decide that "peak oil" is upon us and that the supply of oil is heading for decline, the price would soar out of sight overnight.

The oil companies and the Governments of Opec reassure us that oil reserves are ample to cover consumption at the present rate of world economic growth for decades to come, but they would be saying that whether it was true or not, and there is reason to suspect it is not.

Never mind the geology. Just consider the fact that in the years 1985-1990, when Opec's declared reserves grew by a massive 300 billion barrels, no major new oilfields were brought into production.

The "growth" was achieved by recalculating existing reserves, and the incentive for exaggeration was provided by Opec's decision to set production quotas in proportion to the total size of each member's reserves.

So over a quarter of the world's total "proven" oil reserves of 1.1 trillion barrels may be no more than an accounting fiction.

The best we can hope for in the coming years, therefore, is a relatively slow and steady rise in the oil price, rather than a steep, fast rise that upsets everybody's applecarts. The party is definitely over.

Paran Balakrishnan: Great Indian retail gold rush starts

Wal-Mart chief executive John Menzer has a dream. He'd like to turn the Indian bazaar into kilometres of gleaming supermarkets, seeing India as a huge organic growth opportunity for his company.

Menzer isn't the only one who's pawing the ground waiting for the starter's gun on the great Indian retail gold rush.

The biggest names on the global high street, such as Carrefour and Tesco, have sent in crack teams to scour India and hold talks with local partners. Other retail giants waiting for the green light include Ikea and Debenhams.

The Wal-Marts and Tescos aren't the only ones turning their gaze on the Indian shopper. India's top business houses - names more usually associated with oil refineries, steel and telephones - have suddenly decided that there are pots of gold waiting at the end of the retail rainbow and they are drawing up billion-dollar blueprints to lure Indian shoppers.

What's all the excitement about? Everyone has suddenly woken up to the fact that the Indian retail sector is one of the most fragmented in the world and is almost entirely dominated by small mum-and-dad stores or even push-cart vendors. Only 3 per cent of Indian retail is in the organised sector. That's compared to about 20 per cent in countries such as China and Thailand where companies like Wal-Mart and Carrefour have changed the way people shop.

Since everyone now believes that India is following Southeast Asia and China when it comes to growth patterns, it's hardly surprisingly that they've homed in on the sector. So, every Indian business house with cash or land to spare is figuring out the quickest way to become a retail giant.

Most ambitiously, there's India's homegrown oil and petrochemicals colossus Reliance that's frightening the competition by putting together a five-year, US$6 billion ($9.4 million) scheme to straddle the retail sector in everything from supermarkets to luxury boutiques. Reliance is even said to be talking to foreign luxury brands like Giorgio Armani and shoemaker supreme Manolo Blahnik. Reliance is playing its cards close to its chest but it has already hoovered up a team of experienced managers to head the different arms of its retail ventures.

In terms of pure ambition, Reliance is far out in front. But the others aren't thinking small, either. Mobile phone giant Bharti, for instance, started by manufacturing telephone handsets during the 80s and then morphed into India's largest mobile phone conglomerate during the past decade.

Today, owner Sunil Mittal says he will focus on agro-products and retail and is on the verge of striking a deal with Tesco to start a chain of supermarkets.

Similarly, the Tatas, one of India's oldest business houses with interests in everything from steel to cars to telecom, has tied up with Australia's Woolworths and has plans to start a consumer durables chain, most probably under the Dick Smith label.

The Tatas also own the Westside department chain and are looking for ways to expand it quickly.

Also in the fray are other entrepreneurs who spotted the retail opportunity back in the 90s. Leading the pack is retail giant Kishore Biyani, who has a chain of department stores, supermarkets and is putting up his own malls. He's also looking at anything in retailing, from jewellery chains to furniture and pharmaceuticals.

Biyani started with a tiny company called Pantaloon, making readymade trousers in the late 80s. He now has about 280,000 sq m of store space and wants to increase that to more than 600,000 sq m by the end of next year.

Biyani is India's retail king but a string of others are trying to emulate him on a smaller scale. The Godrej group, for instance, is hoping to turn its vast land holdings into retail space.

There's one catch that must be overcome before many of these corporate dreams become a reality. Under present rules, most foreign companies may not invest in the retail sector. The Congress-led Government is eager to throw open the sector but has been stopped by the communists on whom it depends to stay in power.

The Government has already taken a few tentative steps, despite squawks of protest from its allies. A few months ago, it permitted single-brand stores to set up shop. Nobody has yet tested this rule but it probably means that companies like Nike can now open company-run stores to sell their own products. Everyone is cheerfully working on the assumption that the market's about to be thrown open to foreigners. Wal-Mart's chief was in India not long ago and Woolworths has confirmed that it has struck a deal with the Tatas.

In fact, everyone's now convinced that India is likely to follow the Chinese model when it comes to opening up the retail sector.

China began by allowing the Carrefours and Wal-Marts to open shop in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and the provincial capitals.

They have prospered in China, and they'd be quite happy if India moved the same way.

But all the ambitious plans will face plenty of hurdles in the coming years.

Topping the list is the shortage of talent.

Since there's no retail tradition in this country, there are no managers with experience of the intricate retail game.

And, at the shopfloor level, there are no sweet-talking salesmen trained to handle pernickety customers. At a different level, Wal-Mart says India's poor infrastructure will make it difficult to run efficient supply chains.

But whether the foreigners are allowed in or not, the new Indian retailers are already changing the way the game is played.

Retail consultant KSA-Technopak says the total space controlled by organised retailers will triple between 2005 and the of end 2007 to about 8.2 million sq m.

Past experience in countries like Thailand has shown that the retail trade can change at warp speed. About 20 years ago, Thailand was where India is today, with about 3 per cent of business in the hands of organised retailers.

Today, it has changed beyond recognition. And all the giants on the prowl, Indian and foreign, are hoping that the same scenario is about to be played out here.

* Each week the Business Herald's columnists track the latest developments in the world's two emerging economic superpowers. Paran Balakrishnan is an associate editor of the Telegraph, Kolkata.