Lyndon Hood - relativist, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

There've been earthquakes lately, but none of them have given me the sense that the walls were about to collapse.

That happened when I discovered that I'm related to Aaron Bhatnagar.

Explosions, flames, running for cover, the lot.

For those who didn't follow the controversy, or who tried to and failed, Aaron and I had words late last year. Then Dog Biting Men, with some success, tried to bring other local bloggers into the ruckus and wrote a post about the results.

They muddied the issue by attempting, to the confusion of Russell Brown, to perpetuate the rumour that I am in fact Matt Nippert.

Ironic, considering that I'm actually MediaCow.

Anyway, Random Contributionz and About Town wrote about that, and so the great cycle continued. A minor controversy slowly dissolved and added to the fertile mush which nourishes a few tall trees, a couple of levels of sub-canopy, a bunch of highly specialised insects and a quite staggering number of singles-celled yeasts and bacteria. Which is as good an analogy for the blogosphere as any.

And now it turns out that Aaron and I share a set of great-grandparents, Robert and Rosina Preston. It's been pointed out to me that the technical term for this relationship is 'cuzzies' (I understand that the 'bro' is not required in this instance).

I was vaguely aware that my mother's cousin had married a very rich Indian bloke, so I suppose I could have worked out Aaron was their sprog. But basically the whole state of affairs seems highly unjust and I can't quite work out who to blame. I mean, It can't be my parent's fault.

Incidentally, Aaron's homepage is currently playing a MIDI version of the theme to The Benny Hill Show, for those of you who want to listen to it.

I feel the urge - heaven knows why - to emphasise that ours is not really that close a relationship. For example, as far as the classic genetic markers go, we share neither mitochondrial DNA nor a Y chromosome. And if we were inclined, we would easily be allowed to have a civil union.

Although if I show any signs of actually doing so, readers are encouraged to prevent me by whatever means come to hand.

Bearing in mind that neutralising Aaron will be equally effective.

I thought at the time that our little bitchfight was hampered by a couple of things. One was that we knew very little about each other*. Aaron - I can only speculate as to why - specifically mentioned that he had never met and I'm guessing he hasn't read much Fighting Talk either. So all he could muster in the way of cutting me to the quick was to call me unfunny and (I'm not sure about this one - it might just be that he chooses certain kinds of image without conscious intent) casting aspersions on my sexuality.

I, on the other hand, said he was a right-wing wanker. Which, let's face it, is hardly an original sentiment.

Well, we know something about each other now, don't we, cuzzie.

Naturally, since our set-to I've stored up any amount of esprit d'escalier** to direct against Aaron but the time has passed. And with this news, I'm glad I didn't do anything really low, like making fun of his name (I mean: 'Aaron').

It's terrible when families fall out so from now on I promise from now on I won't say anything offensive about the man unless I think it's true.

* Another was his inability to understand irony.

** Staircase wit. Not to be confused with comédie de toilette.

Work in Progress: If anyone read my previous post, I've just decided that it would be more pointed and fractionally more amusing to read 'intimidation' rather than 'violence' for 'liberty' in Bush's inauguration speech. Hopefully by now I will have updated it.

Or, for real satire, I recently came across Jonathan Swift's piece against abolishing Christianity. It's full title: An argument to prove that the abolishing of Christianity in England may, as things now stand, be attended with some inconveniences, and perhaps not produce those many good effects proposed thereby. If you get confused, Aaron, just ask Simon or David to explain it to you.

Tom Goulter - Flathunter - Wellington

Sunday, January 23, 2005

I'm Afraid Of Massive Seismic Deathwaves

At primary school, my teachers had two goals, and I'm not sure which was the more urgent one: the molding of me into a prosperous, healthy contributing member of society, or the scaring the living shit out of me by all means necessary. I think it was at least 50/50.
Mostly they'd scare the living shit out of me by telling me about The Earthquake. Sometimes they'd sit me down on a mat and tell stories about the widespread terror that Wellington, and uniquely Wellington, faced in the VERY IMMEDIATELY INEVITABLE FUTURE at the hands of cruel relentless Nature and her fickle ways; but sometimes, for a special treat, they'd take me to special centres, like the Civil Defense headquarters, where trained Living Shit-Scarers would show a filmstrip that was the exact precise reason The Simpsons and so forth have made the Heavy-Handed Parody Filmstrip such an hilarious comedic device.
This filmstrip, and the accompanying stern Civil Defenders, would explain the tripartite attack Nature had planned for us. Well, tripartitite if you don't count her fiendish initial deathblow and her unrelenting barrage of post-devastation afterattacks.
See, here's how an earthquake (which, let's remember, is IMMINENT) will hit Wellington and uniquely Wellington:

Pre-Credits Gambit: The Earthquake

A low loud rumbling (possibly similar to the opening bars of Massive Attack's Angel) will build for some time. This is all the warning we will have, AND IT WILL BE CRUEL AND PRECIOUS LITTLE.
And then the shaking will start.
Buildings and rooms will be split in twain; your best friend, or the girl you get on really well with in a sweet-innocent-primary-school-kissing-with-mouths-closed sort of way, may well fall down a bottomless crevasse screaming never to be seen again. You'd be best to get under your desk, but don't be a damn idiot little shit into thinking this will do any good. It'll improve your chances, but you'll still probably be brained by a flying television or decapitated by a fishbowl or fall into the aforementioned chasm.
Or, of course, be ripped to shreds by the razor-sharp shards of bulletlike flying glass.

First Act: The Razor-Sharp Shards Of Bulletlike Flying Glass

Wellington, as we're aware, is a city with many towering glass towers stretching as high as the eye can see. (As long as the eye can't see past the top of the Majestic Centre, and don't even start that built-on-higher-ground bullshit with me). We have erected a sprawling monument to the ability of people to make big buildings and put glass all over them. WELL WE WILL PAY FOR THIS HUBRIS WITH OUR LIVES AND ALSO WITH THE INTEGRITY OF OUR DEAD AND HUBRISTIC CORPSES. You see, when the earthquake hits, every pane of glass is going to bend, splinter, crack, and EXPLODE WITH THE FEROCITY OF GUNFIRE!
This will turn every building in the city into a towering battery of flying-razorsharp-glass-guns. People will be ripped to shreds where they stand, sit, or cower. Inside or outside, it matters not. It'll be like a really bloody panel in 2000 AD is the way I imagine it. Which will be followed nicely by the roaming clouds of fiery death.

Second Act: The Roaming Clouds Of Fiery Death

Windy. That's what Wellington is. Windy, and having many streets lined with tall buildings (which, as we've just learned, are really just batteries of flying-glass-deathguns waiting to happen). Also, we foolishly believe that having built a city on a faultline and lined it with high buildings, that we can further harness nature's chaotic energies for our own means, and we have gas mains all over the show. O Lord, what fools these mortals be!, that we can take something whose defining characteristic is that it likes to set itself on fire and be very hot and explosive, and channel it so as to only be afire at our behest! Well, the chickens will come home to roost when the earthquake hits, AND THEY'LL BE ON FIRE.
The gas mains - and probably natural gas reservoirs in the earth just for good measure - will all be violently split open, spraying gas about the place, distributed far and wide by the cold uncaring wind. Which would be bad, but when you factor in the flying snakes of electric searing horror, we're really fucked.
Everywhere you look, there will be flying snakes of electric searing horror, as the bus lines who once benevolently allowed our transportation and the telephone lines who benevolently shifted our porn and the power lines who benevolently gave us cancer come detached from their moorings and whip in the air crazed and mad and charged with violent whippy electrocutionary fervour. And when the flying snakes of electric searing horror whip their way into a roaming cloud of natural gas, the whole city will look like - I'm sorry, this is the only comparison can think of - level 2-2 of Ghouls And Ghosts. (Note the Flying Clouds Of Fiery Terror, the Falling And Rising Columns Of Flaming Screaming Immolation, and overhead, the Sky Afire As In An Apocalyptic Vision Of Doom. Also, if you squint and use your imagination, that could almost be a Waving Tentacle Of Electric Fury being encountered in panels 8-9).
It's not addressed exactly whether, once the Roaming Clouds Of Fiery Death roll around, whether the Unendying Random Aftershock Terror will really matter; because it's more important, in these education sessions, to address exactly how you will personally be fucked up seven ways from Sunday by whatever effect we're discussing.

Third Act: Unendying Random Aftershock Terror

Aftershocks, according to the experts asked for the purposes of my education, can be as big as - if not worse than - the actual quake itself. They can also go on for days, weeks or months.
This has the confusing effect of making one wonder what exactly makes the actual Earthquake the big heavy-hitter, if it's followed by earthquakes greater than it. It's okay, though, because it instils in the young child a feeling not unlike that when you wake up in the night and upchuck copiously out of nowhere, and you're filled with this dread knowledge that whatever yucky-ass shit just happened, you have no way of predicting whether it's over, but given how horrible you feel, the worst is in all probability yet to come. Only when it's vomiting, it's just vomiting, but if it's a hypothetical earthquake with all the above effects, telling a kid that aftershocks "can go on for weeks or months and be worse than the actual quake itself" is like pushing him over then kicking him in the nuts.

Final Depressing Credits Sequence: Survival Horror

Wellington, having had all the above happen to it, will then, we're assured, be Fucked for a very long time. Because in addition to our foolish putting a city on a faultine and our Icarean drive to line the streets of a hill-flanked area with huge man-made wind-tunnels and the ludicrous cackling insanity of our lining the underground with explosive gas and the overhead with thousands of volts of raw coarsing electricity such as are commanded only by the Gods and select divine horse-creature-thingies, we have gone and put our city between the sea and a whole lot of steep pathways to Nowhere At All.
The only ways in or out of Wellington are through hilly passes on elevated motorways which - you better BELIEVE! - are going to crumble like so much sandstone in the face of a grand earthquake. And, you will recall from the above, we're going to have no telephones, because all the phone lines are going to have turned into - that's right! - waving tentacles of electric fury. So if we've survived the earthquake and the razorsharp death and the flying immolation and the snaking whips of electrocution, if by some freak quirk we're still standing, we will then be all alone at the tail end of the North Island and there'll be no getting in or out. And probably, given the tone of my education, this is when the Government will turn us into slaves for their salt-mines.

At the end of all this, we'd go home and lie awake in our beds thinking just how inevitable was violent death. Luckily the memories of children are short and frivolous, filled with gumdrops and penny-whistles, so it wouldn't be too long before our nightmares of electric flame in a shaking hell alone all alone were replaced by wondering what was going to happen on tomorrow's Thundercats.
That's when they'd sit us down and tell us what would happen if Wellington got a Nuclear Bomb dropped on it.

Lyndon Hood - word processor, Lower Hutt

Friday, January 21, 2005

Apologies if somebody's already done this one

I just used a quick search-and-replace as a start to translating Bush's inauguration speech into modern English. I've edited out the bits that were merely hypocritical rather than terrifying.

There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human War.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of Intimidation in our land increasingly depends on the success of Intimidation in other lands.

The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of War in all the world.


War, by its nature, must be chosen and defended by citizens and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.

And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own.

America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own War and make their own way.

The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations.

The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it.

America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable and we will use it confidently in War's cause.

My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people from further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America's resolve and have found it firm.

We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and War, which is eternally right.


In the long run, there is no justice without War, and there can be no human rights without human Intimidation.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of Intimidation, though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of War ever seen, is an odd time for doubt.

Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals.


The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did, "Those who deny War to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it."


Today, I also speak anew to my fellow citizens.

From all of you, I have asked patience in the hard task of securing America, which you have granted in good measure.

Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon.

Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their War.

And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it.

By our efforts we have lit a fire as well; a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power. It burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of War will reach the darkest corners of our world.


America, in this young century, proclaims Intimidation throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof.

Renewed in our strength, tested but not weary, we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of War.

May God bless you, and may he watch over the United States of America.

Hamish McKenzie - in need of a shower, Merida

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Notes on Mexico

I've been here two weeks, on the fast track round southern Mexico, and I feel as though I've seen so much. Here's a synopsis of the things that have impressed me the most.


I don't know what you've heard or tasted, but I came to Mexico expecting sumptuous delights: tacos, quesidillas, burritos, chillies. Well, they have all those things over here in abundance. Too much abundance. Usually accompanied by an abundance of oil, an abundance of sauces, and an abundance of bread with sugar on it. Apart from a good serving of fresh vegetables, what I miss the most is a nice loaf of multigrain bread. I wouldn't even mind if it was Pam's. Mind you, I can't complain too much -- the prawns and fresh fried fish that I ate on a sunny beach on the Pacific Coast sure beat any falafel patties I've tasted recently.


The roads in Mexico are a lot more fun than New Zealand. Here they drive with vigour -- especially the bus drivers. Mexico City in particular is a ball. Sometimes you find yourself on a major avenue with four or five cars across, but no discernable lanes. Traffic lights are used only when considered convenient, and I can't be sure I've yet seen someone use an indicator. Our hosts in Mexico City insisted there is a speed limit -- they just couldn't tell us what it was. Licences are easily acquired: you just fork out some pesos and you've got it for life. No need for any pesky tests. Of course, common courtesy on the roads still applies -- for instance, if one car wants to cut in front of another one must simply toot the horn. The philosophy of driving in Mexico City? "You just close your eyes and say 'eeeeejh!'".


The best thing about shopping Mexico is that you don't have to move. Just sit on a park bench for more than a minute and you'll have several vendors by your side trying to ply you with useful items such as painted feathers, those friendship bracelets you made as a kid, dried banana, purses, or "genuine" Aztec artifacts. If you want the really good stuff, however, you may have to take a stroll round the block. On the edges of the town centre you can invariably find t-shirts, pens, batteries, tacos, ice creams, and a whole lot of other food that will give you the shits. My one purchase so far has been a rather dashing pair of sunglasses. I got a real bargain: two brands for $5. The rims are Oakely, and the lens are Dickies. Beat that.

Toiletry matters

Bus stations and restaurants usually have toilets, but you often have to pay for them. Luckily this guarantees quality -- sometimes they'll even flush. I can't remember the last time I saw a toilet with an actual seat on it, but seats are overrated. Men in Mexico seem to have much better shot. You know that's true because everytime you go to use a public sanitorio you can see the yellowy evidence from the previous visitor lurking in the bowl. If you need to dispatch of a number greater than one (but fewer than three) you have to dispose of your papers in an accompanying bin. From what I've been told, that's a much preferable scenario to what can happen if the paper-stuffed bogs flood.

The sights

Much of what I've seen already is similar to New Zealand, but dirtier and on a grander scale. The forest-lined bays on Oaxaca's Pacific Coast reminded me of the Abel Tasman, but without so much green. The impressive Sumidero Canyon, which stretches up to a kilometre high, is much like Skippers Canyon but huger and perhaps not quite as dramatic. The beautiful waterfalls at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha were kind of like those on the Milford track, but with smooth rounded rocks instead of jagged moss-covered ones.

The great Aztec and Mayan ruins, however, are unparalleled. So far I've only seen two sites: Monte Alban in Oaxaca, and Palenque in Chiapas. Each is imbued with a magnificent sense of history, each remaining stone a testament to what were once very strong and intelligent civilisations. The ruins at Palenque were astonishing; an oasis springing from the jungle, with beautiful and complex pyramid structures. In the background you could constantly hear the jungle's Howler Monkeys, which sound like Chewbacca on speed.

The towns, too, are pretty, especially San Cristobal de las Casas. Narrow cobbled streets and colonial buildings built around well-kept town squares with trees and birds, juxtaposed with rectangular blocks of buildings that look like overblown garages or garden sheds, selling anything from clothes to kitchen fridges. You don't have to walk far to find piles of rubbish, beggars, or cheap eateries.


At turns delightful and frustrating. Many will think nothing of pushing in front of gringo in a queue, and some afford us travellers with unbecoming glares. Many though -- so many -- have been unneccesarily friendly. Everyone is willing to help you with directions, even if they don't know them themselves. In that case they just point you somewhere and make something up. You get lost a few times, but at least you get to talk to nice smiley locals.

They have a fondness for drinking much like New Zealanders. Except over here it's tequila and mezcal, which can come very cheap or very good. The best stuff will set you back about $40. The worst? About $1. Corona here is like Speight's or Lion Red is to us. Run of the mill. At a cafe you wouldn't pay more than $1.50 for it, and you get a bottle for 50 cents in the supermarket. It's surprising how when Mexicans are drunk they sound just like Kiwis, even though they're speaking Spanish.

And two nice guys on the street have even offered me weed. Apparently it's very good and very cheap. Apparently.

Lyndon Hood - conduit, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

When they start cracking down on people who complain about the censors, it's time to make some noise.

There is a number commonly cited with regard to Internet censorship offenses in New Zealand. You may see it surfacing in debate on proposed expansions to the Censorship Act or restrictions on ISPs. This from Steve O'Brien of Internal Affairs' Censorship Compliance unit:

Since its inception in July 1996, the Department's Censorship Compliance Unit has investigated more than 500 cases of New Zealanders distributing and trading objectionable material, most of which is child pornography.

One hundred and nine individuals have been convicted in the Courts for offences relating to the trade and/or possession of objectionable material via the Internet, with another 20 cases pending.

A natural inference is that all of those 500 cases relate to actual detected offenses, presumably done by real offenders.

Thing is, it's not clear what that number represents. It certainly four or five times higher than the number of convictions. It's not even the number of prosecutions.

It seems to be the number of investigations which proceed beyond some particular point. And it includes an unclear number of people from whom there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute. Who are, in other words, either not legally guilty or just plain not guilty.

Even the police don't release statistics based on the numbers of people that they think committed crimes.

But this number seems to have been accepted by the Government Administration select committee (and by the media) as having some significance.

With me so far? Right.

Here's the other thing.

When Computerworld staffer Steve Bell wrote an article about this, with his estimates for how inflated the 'investigations' number is, it was supressed.

He writes about the affair in this piece (skip the overladen editorial prose and scroll down to 'Censorship in New Zealand') on an international site called Twentieth Century Inquisition:

I published a story on these figures in Computerworld, 1st November.

Though it reached print, it was pulled from the paper’s website after being up only a day, on the insistence of [Internal Affairs] ... I offered an amended version which retracted the rather nit-picking and questionable “errors”, while insisting on the accuracy of the main argument, but for DIA nothing but deletion of the complete story would do. They have not provided any reason for doubting the figures that lie at the centre of the article, but clearly it suited them to have these suppressed.

I guess that this is an amended version of the article. Dated November 3, it's still on the Computerworld site but impossible to find using the internal search engine. Google also has a cached version.

I realise I'm not in posession of every fact, but it looks to me like the Computerworld editor types caved under pressure. Let's all just take a moment to hope they're ashamed of themselves.

Anyway, Steve Bell has more to say. As an offended party he adds everything he can think of that's wrong with the web monitoring system (and takes action here). Worth a look.

And the central points stand. Firstly that the figure under discussion does not represent a number of people 'caught'. Bell calculates that up to two-thirds of them were cases of insufficient evidence (either of guilt or of any offense). He may not have factored in unsuccessful prosecutions - if so the ratio may be more like a half or one third. But that still reduces it by about 200.

They might, for example, be counting the 111 investigations of peer-to-peer traders, which resulted in 2 convictions (here, again).

Secondly, much as I would love the blame Phil Goff for this, it seems to be Internal Affairs' fault. At the very least they're letting people get the wrong idea. Bell has several instances of the Department either failing to clarify the issue or doing things likely to perpetuate it.

I myself note the Department announcing via one Russell Brown that it 'catches' an 'offender' every three to five days. Or a report on web censorship offenders that in 2004 was updated to contain social, demographic and behavioral information of 185 offenders. Which is more than they've actually had convictions.

The only explanations I can think of are that either they want people, including Ministers, to get the impression that the unit is finding more actual criminals than it actually is, or they're acting on the belief that everyone they investigate is guilty. I favour the latter explaination.

And then, when they get sprung on this, they try to get the article not simply corrected, but removed. I'm aware that this is what everyone tries to do when they get sprung and it's not their fault they got away with it. They only complained. It's not like they sent round a goon squad. But this is government we're talking about. The censors.

If we can't question the actions of the censors, we're in trouble. Child porn is a sensitive issue, and it should be. But no censorship should go unscrutinised. Particularly since the law in question is currently being strengthened, its agents should be open to scrutiny.

Matt Nippert - dearly departed, Auckland

Monday, January 17, 2005


At the end of 2003, I resolved not to be late. To eat better, drink less, love more and sneer only rarely. There was talk of cutting my hair.

And, as with all such silly pledges, I broke them all. As I wrote in the New Year issue of the Listener on how to quit smoking; I've given up giving up. There are quitters, there are failures, and then there are failed quitters.

I'm still late. This is my New Year blog. This time last year I was enjoying the hospitality of WINZ (who told me early on "we take away your freedom, and make your decisions for you"), dreading a move north away from Fidels, dub and a comfortingly small university environment that had been my work and life - often both.

The move happened in fits and starts, a flat was found above a Filth Files special, and I discovered the joys of student radio. I also discovered classrooms aren't necessarily the best place to push yourself. I struggled to define myself, professionally and personally. Am I hippy or bogan? Sell out or activist? Gonzo or Berstein? Do I report arts, politics, or just the art of politics? Will the real Matt Nippert please stand up?

I wrote about Beslan and Bush, bro'Town and oil. I tried understanding global warming and breathed heavily with mathematicians. I drank red wine with eccentrics and spent a weekend with vegans. I visited maximum security prisons and talked Iraq with pornstars. I even tried escaping student media - despite how much I owe it.

I achieved a small manner of fame, a job I'd probably do for free, faced slings, arrows, and have enough fortune to buy an iPod and scotch. I loved, lost, and, in a small way, loved losing - it's better to have lost a good book than never to have opened it.

I've met new people, found new bars, and smiled in odd places - walking through Western Springs park and meeting random eelers, or celebrating birthdays in front of the tele. I found a lovely local dumpling restaurant, and discovered The Checks. I made new friends, and got to know old friends better. I read good books and, on the whole, 2004 was mostly upbeat.

So, in a year I've moved from the dole queue to owning a regular byline, I also started blogging. It's a criminal delight, venting like this, with nary an editor in sight to keep me on topic or off falsehood. There's competition, and now it seems rarer not to publish on the 'net.

As Wired wrote this month, it's a difficult hobby to keep up with when your words are also demanded by others. As rewarding as this is, there's no reward like bread on the table or beer in the fridge. (Although if any breweries and distilleries want a blog to sponsor, I'm happy to name-drop.)

I'll be becoming an even more sporadic contributor to this site from now on, movement at work giving me an outlet for some material I'd usually have used here. There's also an election gearing up, politics being something I studied for far too long, and it's bound to generate it's own, crazy momentum.

I'll keep reading you, as you read me. Especially Public Address, of whom we were a shameless clone (in design more than content), and the verve of DogBitingMen. NoRightTurn's been consistent like the newspaper delivery, and David Farrar's one that I read with admiration and interest (even if his candidate is someone I've got some dirt on - the comparison with Al Bundy is very close to the bone).

I resolve to stop blogging, but I think I know how this'll end.

I'll remain as a guest, sporadic at best. I doubt the Listener is quite ready for my rewritten Modest Proposal to End Benefit Dependency. Although I was never good at origami, even in reverse, there's a whole year of strange happening, waiting to unfold.

Oh, do keep - or get - in touch.

Peace out my hombres, and I'll see y'all in the funny pages.

Lyndon Hood - law abider, Lower Hutt

Monday, January 10, 2005

You can start the Internet again, I'm home

I thought that rather than compiling my own top 20 best-of-2004-lists list, I'd take the illusory opportunity of a new year to tie up some loose ends. But first, in the holiday spirit, I want to revisit and old friend.

Here at Fighting Talk, we just love talking about prisoners. Matt has even been keeping Listener readers up to date with the latest in cell decor. I conclude that the authorities use paint left over from doing the exteriors of state schools in the '80s.

But enough with the obscure in-jokes.

United Future's proposed justice policy went public, appropriately enough, during the silly season. It sucks, for pretty much exactly the reasons outlined by No Right Turn (in a post titled "Draconian and Barbaric"). Crime isn't out of control, and cruelty to criminals will make no difference. Oh, and rehabilitation works very well, if we could only run more than a handful of programmes nationwide.

Leave aside civil liberties. These are questions of fact.

And David Farrar, while giving the policy as a whole about 5 more points out of 10 than I would, explains the hazards of cumulative sentencing:

Always sounds appealing but I remember the case in Iran where a postal worker who stole mail got sentenced to a month in jail for every letter not delivered. This meant a 15,456 year sentence.

When it comes to murders, we almost have this as double murders get longer non parole conditions. I wouldn't object to rapists getting cumulative sentences but trying to abolish all concurrent sentences will mean those who commit numerous petty crimes will serve longer in jail than those who do serious ciolent crimes.

And has anyone seen Marc Alexander's website? I'm referring to the feedback section, just after he dismisses warnings that chemical castration wouldn't work (overall, my impression is that when Mr Alexander asserts that he 'has credible evidence' this should be read as 'doesn't have credible evidence'. Just ask Russell). This is in answer to someone wondering who will pay for all the extra prisoners:
Also if we allow a tendering process for efficient prison management; make inmates work for their own upkeep; and so on, all these things will actually be economic.
"Make inmates work for their own upkeep"? I didn't notice forced labour mentioned as a policy plank in the press reports. Charming.

And while as far as I know Auckland Central Remand Prison is doing well, there are some absolute horror stories from private prisons in the US where cost becomes the overriding factor.

Meanwhile, the Government is under way with its prisoner compensation legislation (submissions close February 4), acting with the rather surreal official assurance that it will not breach the Bill of Rights. As you may know, the gist is that, in particularly heinous cases of institutional abuse, prisoners can apply to not be compensated.

The punchline to all this, and a little window into the alternate moral universe of Phil Goff, came in a feature in Saturday's Dom Post - David McLoughlin was once again wearing his opinions on his sleeve (since I agree with him this time it's not so irritating). As any compensation won by the prisoner would be set aside for the prisoner's victims...

The only way an inmate could actually get any compensation awarded would be if a victim declined to apply for it. But Mr Goff says that Victim Support or the Sensible Sentencing Trust would then be able to apply, with the victims consent.
I make no apologies for seeing no moral reason that the Sensible Sentencing Trust should be directly compensated for a crime against some random person. Even if a could accept the rest of the system, if the victim doesn't want the money, but does want somebody else to have it, they should apply for it, then give it away. The same argument applies to Victim Support, but at least they do something.

Does this mean victims lucky enough to have their assailants abused in prison are going to be hit on by lobby groups?

And since when did the SS Trust become a branch of Government?

Marc Alexander (he of the slave labour) is United Future's law and order spokesman and a founding member of the Trust. Not that this is illegal or anything, but it is a bit like having David Lane from the Society for the Preservation of Community Standards as their arts and culture spokesman. Though, now I think about it, that's not so far-fetched.

Leaving aside the way this is more legislation cobbled up against a particular crisis (Was there a public uproar? I only heard politicians. But then, I listen to National Radio), we're clearly in a bidding war based partly on the wrongheaded idea that diminishing prisoners' rights somehow enhances those of their victims.

And if you combine the compensation legislation, which removes the incentive for prisoners to complain about abuse, with the abolition of parole (the words "failed experiment" can also be found on Marc Alexander's site), which removes the incentive for prisoners to behave well, that sounds like riots to me.

I'm tempted to describe the Greens and the Progressives as the voice of sanity. There's a novel thought.

Incidentally, a note on life meaning life: When someone is sentenced to life they get a minimum release date. Once they've been in prison that long, they are assessed by the parole board, who may well decide to keep them in longer. The parole board will often have a lot more information on the offender's risk to society than the sentencing judge had. If the are let out of jail, they are on parole for the rest of their life. If they violate any of their conditions they can be sent back to keep serving their life sentence. There are people in New Zealand jails who will not be let out.

Personally, I suspect that the best way to actually support victims' rights is to move away from retributive justice to something more restorative. Where possible, redemptive. But that might involve being nice, even helpful, to prisoners. And it would require some kind of moral leadership and a recognition that respect for other people starts in our prisons, rather than ending there.

I don't see that happening any time soon.

Hamish McKenzie - transient, Oaxaca, Mexico

Here in Mexico we are in the depths of winter. The mercury, its core chilled by the frosty skies, struggles to the mid 20s, and the locals laugh at me wearing my shorts and slapping on sunscreen.

It has only been a week, but we have already seen so much. Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca. Each one is a different bed of culture. Mexico City itself has 21 million people, many of whom can barely afford to live amongst rubble and debris in half-fallen-down shacks on the city edges. But we only got to see that part from the bus. From a tourist's perspective in the city, when you only get to see the sugar-coated DF (as they call it here, for ´Distrita Federal´), it is a magnificent place. The opulent Spanish colonial architecture; the stunning architecture of the modern buildings; the colourful and bustling zocalo (town square); the impressive Museum of Anthropology - it's all great.

The thing that really impressed me about DF is the importance placed on public arts. Throughout the megapolis there are elaborate government-funded fountains, statues, monuments, and parks. The zoo - which is by no means a token gesture - is free to the public. It almost makes up for having to pay for water.

Then there are the oddities: thousands of street stalls selling tacos (in order to conserve order in our stomachs, we were told not to eat from them), magazines, batteries, notepads, sunglasses, trinkets -- anything that can be acquired cheaply, maintained easily, and offered to tourists for meagre prices. My only purchase so far has been a notepad -- 3 pesos (4 cents NZ). Guards armed with bullet-proof vests and big machine guns keep watch at banks and exclusive shops. Buses lurch in the streets and cars veer violently in front of one another at will. I can't be sure I saw anyone use an indicator.

Most things are cheap in Mexico. DF's subway costs 3 pesos; a four course-meal $35 pesos (NZ$4.50); bottle of very good tequila 200 pesos (NZ$28) - I don't know what a Big Mac costs because I refuse to set foot in McD's.

In a city of 21 million, you have to be either well-paid or wily to survive. And so you meet characters like Leoncio, our tour guide for the Templo Mayor and the Presidential Palacio Nacional. Leoncio spoke English and wanted to learn new words from us, like "catalyst", "wasted", and "Senora Helen Clark". He once learned from some Australians the perfect way to seduce a sheila. All one has to utter, apparently, is "can I get my end in". He had no idea what it meant. He accompanied us for three hours, giving us history, narratives, rote-learned facts (the Palace is the second biggest in the Western Hemisphere; Moctezuma had a harem of mutants), and detailed analysis of the glorious Diego Rivera murals in the Palace.

The Templo Mayor is the ruins of an ancient Aztec temple which the Mexicans found in the 1970s while they were excavating in the city centre. It was the most important archaeological find of the 20th century. The Spanish conquerers, in a bid to wipe Aztecs from memory, destroyed as much as they could of the sprawling pyramids (which reached 200 feet high) and then simply built over top of them. Even now, half of the Templo Mayor remains covered by towering colonial buildings, themselves too precious to pull down for the Templo's sake. Costs a cool $4 to walk through and see the Aztec carvings of snakes heads, the old drainage systems, and the intricate pyramid structures.

The Palacio is the home of the Mexican government. We were lucky to see it because visitors can only have a squint when the President is not in the house. The Rivera murals, which tell the story of Mexico's fascinating history, took five years to paint. They are truly splendid visions. I'm sure they'll stay with me for the rest of my life.

But that's enough for now. One can only write so much on a hostel computer. And this is costing me 80 cents per hour.