Matt Nippert - witness (but not Jehovah's), Auckland

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Not a restful day

Reading recent history, and by recent I mean 19th century, the boom and bust cycle is truly staggering. By all measures, New Zealand is presently in a boom, with unemployment rates the lowest in 20 years, and a crime rate at a similar historically low level. Does anyone remember the early 90s, when things weren't so good? (Not me, I was busy learning to smoke over by the stopbanks bordering Hutt Valley High School.)

This state of affairs is no more obvious than in the media. Advertising dollars, truly a luxury expense boosted out of proportion during a boom, have been sufficient to see massive investments in the industry. There have been industry-wide redesigns, and the launch of Lucid, Fuse and AucklandMax. Then, of course, there's the impending launch of the Sunday Herald. (If it weren't for the Sunday Star-Times' aneurysm-inducing "magazine" supplement, it should simply be called Sunday. But more on this later....)

At the Eastern Translations art exhibition at Kuja Lounge last night, where Asian-New Zealand artwork was displayed in front of Tiger beer and Japanese hiphop, I heard from several sources yet another new magazine is to be launched: Merge - an Asian version of pop-Maori bible Mana. Sketchy details so far, but I'll keep you posted.

Before the wake gets underway for the much-maligned Fuse, I'd like to take this opportunity offer balance and talk of the positive (Note, I'm not talking plural.) Simon Pound, probably the most interesting read in the whole rag, will be reduced to bleating from bloggerland like so many quality voices.

With the loss of his lead hand in a spectacular barroom accident he was hoping to survice on writing. With a pittance a week, sandwitched between content aimed at an even lower than usual newspaper denominator, he wasn't a happy man. Consider yourself outed.

But back to the Sunday (Herald). Industrial dispute has reached fever pitch, with APN insisting that the new publication is not at all a part of old granny (hence the parentheses). Herald (proper) staff have decided to strike and not work on the new publication which is mainly composed of poachings from the SST and Herald (proper) defections.

Where will you hear news of this? Not in the Herald (proper), for sure. This presents real problems, such as who will report industrial action? While Fairfax might feel glee at the employment ructions of their rival, they don't want to encourage their own staff to adopt similar tactics. Guess it's left to cafe chatter, gripes at the London Bar, posts on Scoop ... and blogging.

D-Day approaches, with the new newspaper launching this weekend. Apparently columnists at the new paper have been emailed, letting them know what sort of shitfight they're getting themselves into. Expect counter-suit to follow the suit the union is laying over Employment Relations Act breaches. While columnists Damian Christie and Deborah Coddington are certain to go head-to-head, will old-skool unionist Matt McCarten show up to the APN party? Either way, it will speak volumes.

Until, of course, the next depression where new publications find themselves going under regardless of quality as corporate expenses focus on necessities instead of luxuries. The cull is going to be cruel, but until then, I'm loving my Roaring Twenties.

Lyndon Hood - BA(phil), Lower Hutt

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

When Will These Rhetorical Questions Cease?

Yesterday, as I understand it, the Dom Post concluded a series of articles under the banner “Are We in a Moral Wasteland?” From a cursory reading of the ones I saw, they answered the question with a resounding “things are different now”. And didn’t explain exactly what was meant by the implied accusation or quote anyone who was making it.

This disjunction* made it difficult to concentrate on whatever it was the actual articles were about; hence my superficial commentary.

So: are we in a moral wasteland? Are we less ethical creatures than in the past? Are the moral positions of our youth less finely judged or more generally wrong? Are people being lead astray by social factors or a crusading government? Do we use too many overblown sensationalist headlines for a mainstream newspaper?

In the name of inconsistency I won’t offer an answer, but I will provide some discussion material.

The idea of morality is the idea of an objective standard that says some things shouldn’t be done and, probably, that some things should. Intellectually, I don’t actually see how such a standard can exist, but that doesn’t mean that myself or society could go on if we acted on that assumption.

What that standard says about particulars is the stuff of moral debate.

We can, hopefully, have an ethical argument without accusing our opponents of being evil or amoral. Honestly, my grip on moral truth is as tenuous as my neighbour’s.

To claim that we are less moral these days, as a bunch of individuals, does sound a bit like the regular complaints about student’s spelling and the collapse of social institutions that have had people thinking that the end is nigh since the early Roman empire.

How would we test this? The big problem isn’t people whose moral opinions are wrong, but people who lack practise in the basic moral faculties, like empathy, and don’t have any moral opinions to speak of. Such people are strongly represented in the prison population.

Hearing sound bites of people on offender rehabilitation programmes, one can assume that they’re repeating jargon about facing up to what they’ve done and understanding an taking responsibility. Even if that were all, understanding these ideas well enough to talk coherently about them is progress.

The fact that basic morality can be taught is part of the reason offender rehabilitation programmes work as well as they do. And they do: next time a politician say they don’t work ask if he/she/it is also going to lobby against the less effective use of aspirin to prevent heart attacks.

What doesn’t work, in preventing reoffending, is punishment. Psychology knows that it’s a lousy way to train people, and this is especially true when the punishment is being locked up in a brutalising environment with a lot of psychos. Not that arguing morality from pragmatism is always a good idea, but it often works well, especially if you take long-term consequences into account.

Anyway, if we were overspending our moral capital we might see it in the crime statistics, checking back a few year to allow for when the perpetrator was raised rather than when they broke the law. As the 2001 Crime in New Zealand report has it:

The recorded offence rate rose steadily from 55 per 1,000 population in 1970 to an all-time peak of 132 per 1,000 population in 1992. This rise may be due to a real change in the volume of crime in New Zealand, to changes in recording practises, or to a combination of the two. The offence rate remained fairly steady between 1992 and 1996, before decreasing to 111 per 1,000 population in 2000. However, it remained higher than it was at any stage prior to 1984.
Make of that what you will. Much as I’d like to blame Rogernomics (note that ‘administrative crime’ has skyrocketed), correlation isn’t causation. I had a lecturer once who read out an anti-sufferagette pamphlet on how society would collapse, and I couldn’t help observing that most of the things it described have happened since. Actually, I think it’s more the pressures of modern society than a lack of moral leadership.

As for the nature of the human ethical sense:

While grabbing research material off the Holocaust shelves of the Lower Hutt public library I picked up Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, also recognised by its subtitle A Report on the Banality of Evil. I've since found the time to read it.

Although basically a report of Eichmann's trial, it is also a deep and thoughtful case study. Which made it one of the touchstones of debate over at least one of the big questions raised by the Holocaust: how could people do this?

The other names to drop in this context are the Milgram Obedience to Authority experiment and the Stanford prison experiment. Between them they suggest that the human moral compass basically orientates to what everyone else is doing, or what everyone else expects, right now.

The most shining examples of resistance to the final solution were entire countries, and definitely not on the allied side. Denmark, Bulgaria and Italy simply didn't take much action against the Jews. One or two others drew the line when they realised what was happening to the deportees. Where the Nazis didn't have the support of the population they had to abandon their efforts.

It's notable that in Denmark and Bulgaria the local German officials also worked to thwart the deportation of the Jews. They had, as it were, adapted to the moral climate.

*For those of you who enjoy using the word ‘disconnect’ as a noun: ‘disjunction’, perhaps? I mean, far be it from me to stomp on the development of the language. It’s not as if this use is as destructive as saying ‘refute’ when you mean ‘deny’. It just rubs me the wrong way. And I know how much you all want to rub me the right way.

Matt Nippert - imaginary axeman, Auckland

Friday, September 24, 2004

Three floors down in the bunker

How does fashion take hold? I'm not talking about constructed product placement or media-junket content fillers, but real spontaneous crazes that come and go in a flash. You know, skirts atop jeans, or trucker caps askew. Next season, if see you trackpants with the right leg rolled up to the knee, blame Scribe.

He wore the getup receiving one of numerous awards last week at the Tuis. It was one of the later ones, after he'd probably run out of spare outfits. I'd never have really stumbled onto this sartorial insight if I'd stayed in line, and behind the velvet rope while at the Aotea Center. But, as I'm sure Gareth from The Office would say, who dares wins.

The media room, three-levels below ground, had the feel of a bunker. 10 minutes before awards were announced, on stage and on television, the winners were announced to the eager scrum. A few present txted friends in the audience. I wished I had been running a book, almost as much I wished we were allowed to smoke indoors. Walking the stairs, to reach fresh air, to pollute your lungs, grated almost as much as the Fanta-derived cocktails being served at Belini, that architectural shipwreck, beforehand.

Caught up with Sen Thong, editor and founder of NZ hip hop bible Back2Basics. The first time we'd met, the circumstances had been similarly glam, but slightly more sober and equally vacuous: the 2003 Knowledge Wave Conference. He had a zine, and I was about to start my job at Salient. Now we're both moved on, but we're still committal smokers.

Regularly walking the stairs meant I almost missed asking the winner of best gospel/christian album Muse what they thought of Brian Tamaki. Or Ned Flanders. Or that episode of South Park where Cartman forms a christian rock band, winning the race to produce a No.1 single by changing 'bitch' to 'jesus' in RnB covers. Their answers were vague, predictable and uninformed. Nice boys though.

Shayne Carter was stoked, and deservedly. Considering the reputation of RIANZ, and the Tuis generally as leaning towards pulp pop, it's understandable he should be pleasantly suprised. Steve Braunias is obviously a fan, on Page 94 this week he takes a glowing gonzo tour down south with Dimmer. (Talking of Biggles, does anyone know the status of his IP? There's bound to be an old Trust, grimly wringing whatever they can from the estate of W. E. Johns).

But back to Scribe, smoking, and asymmetrical leg tans. Avoiding the stairs, Thong showed me where you would never be harried by the health-conscious clip-board bearers. "This room'll be sweet," says Sen, "I know these guys".

Every 15 minutes the guys with the names printed in bold on the door would return, Scribe and P-Money sorting out a new outfit to wear for the camera. The regularity of visits, and being less aware of proceedings as I should have been, led me to wonder how many awards he'd won. The small cabinet in the Aoetea Center makeup rooms wasn't really sufficient, trophies bulging and threatening to skittle the unwary foot when Sen checked the count.

Staunching himself before the mirror, Scribe made that fateful decision, reaching down and rolling up. It was like a fashion-conscious high-school girl going to seven formals in one night, a need not to be seen wearing what you'd worn before. It looked different, for sure. And, he got away with it on the night. For the imitators that may come, they won't have national adulation to dim the critical eye.

After a fistful of Port Royal, we left The Man to His Night. But not before this scrum question: "When you travel to the 'states, will you be West- or East- side?" His answer:"I'm East Coast.." followed a pause as blue and red bandanas sized each other up. Then the kicker, "Of the South Island!" Respect. You've made the music your own.

Talking of respect, caught up with a brace of Naked Samoans: Shrimp and Mario. Their show bro'Town is getting props all over the 'hood, even one from that dude who won heaps of awards. It'd be good to see it the show figure in the ratings and then start appearing in the great National Conversation. A successful animation hub would give cartoonists a career path other than, as Kerry Prendergast said of Wellington's artistic community recently, "part of the employees in our cafés and restaurants". So support scribblers and watch bro'Town. It comes recommended.

And if animation goes well, cartoonists like Tim Molloy might have hope of avoiding service-work. Last Friday Molloy won best cartoonist at the ASPAs. Last year, reading "The Ground! It Rushes Upwards", made me hope he goes far, and it is good to see kudos being bestowed.

Of course Molloy won his prize at a more edgy and less produced award ceremony than the celeb-stricken Tuis. There's already been a spoof, and a good one too, of the ASPAs from Dog Biting Men. As I know from experience, spin doctors are often dizzy and unbalanced, and just wish to say I'm happy raising my goblet of rock - brakedancing is for trackpant wearers.

(MediaCow has news that Fuse editor Paola Ghirelli is going. She seemed lovely the only time I've met her, but I agree with the Cow in celebrating the fact the six-issue trial period has proved Fuse is stillborn. In fact, considering how rare wholehearted agreement with Mr. Young is, it's almost worth a wake. Greg Dixon should be invited.)

But, reliving the past, belately covering the ASPAs: Pssst! Alan, fresh from appearing in cutting-edge reality-TV sensation The Swan, proved apt jeerleader for his merry crew from Craccum.

Bar manager Johnny Walker would have been left feeling Blue, after professional junket hitman "Damn" Ian Christie scoped out the mark and led a merry tour of single maltland. Christie is due to start a column at the new Sunday Herald, opposite no less, his old nemesis Deborah Coddington. An inspired editorial decision, although off the opinion pages things aren't sounding so promising on Sunday.

Speaking from the Vatican, the pontiff (another Hot Fashion Tip: big conical hats with gold trim are so in!) recently gave stern warnings not to do much work on Sundays. Nevertheless "Ghandi" Collins and his merry union were still happy to revel with the students on that messy Friday at the ASPAs.

A fine effort by Patrick's crewd son, convenor, arch-plotter and noted smut peddler. Getting the ceremony underway, Mary Lambie to the podium, and Hamish McKenzie sober enough to speak must have taken some doing. Bravo.

Random Addendum: Black humour

One potential the internet has for journalism is the building of a vast public database, achieved by posting transcripts of interviews online. Often when writing a lot of choice cuts get lost on the editors floor, and vanish from collective memory. Although since scooping is a contact sport this game is all theory. With feature writing however, where sometimes the best stories are about nothing, releasing a writers cut becomes possible. Here's some fillet Stasi:
A phone call to the Stasi: "Hello. This is Comrade Maier. My parrot has escaped from its cage. Should you catch it please note I do not share its political opinions."

Three prisoners meet in a GDR prison cell.
Prisoner No. 1: "Where are you guys here?"
Prisoner No. 2: "I was always five minutes early to work so they charged me with espionage."
Prisoner No. 2: "And why are you here?"
Prisoner No. 1: "I was always five minutes late for work, so they charged me with sabotage."
Prisoner No. 1 to third prisoner: "I was always on time. That's how they found out I had a West German watch."

Question: Why is it that Stasi toilet paper is always double-layered, despite the strict regulations regarding waste avoidance?
Answer: Because they have to send a copy of all crap to Moscow.

Two men talking in the street:
"What do you make of the political situation?"
"Well ... I think-"
"That'll do, come with me please."

- GDR Premiere Erich Honecker visits a Kindergartewn in Karl-Marx-Stadt. The children have been properly drilled for this important visit.
- "Little boy, who is your father?" Erich asks little Hans.
- Hans replies, "You are, Uncle Erich."
- Erich is please with this response and asks again, "Now tell me, who is your mother then?"
- "The GDR is, Uncle Erich."
- Erich is pleased again and asks another question. "And what do you want to be when you grow up, little one?"
- "An orphan, Uncle Erich!" answers little Hans.

BIG CREDIT: to the fine services of Frances Griffiths, Monica Rogers and Ruth Strauss from the German language department at Victoria University. We got cut, and lost your translations. (I'll buy y'all a beer when I'm next down in Wellington.)

Closing thought: Do repressive societies generate better black humour? It makes you think. If nukes in the Carribean and McCarthy in the senate gave us Dr Strangelove, maybe satirist should wind up the doomstay clock, or our people tonight. As a hawker in a crowded market, what sort of Sellers is Holmes?

Lyndon Hood - stone-caster, Lower Hutt


While there’s a lull in proceedings I’d just like to remind everybody not to trust David Irving on anything, least of all what his opinions are or what happened in Canada.

That's David Irving the alleged historian, by the way, not David Irving the man from Hubbards Foods.

And while there’s a lull in proceedings I’d like to mention that Dr Don Brash helped set up the Freedom Foundation, a group of New Zealand business types supporting Amnesty International (its other patron is the deputy chairman of Transpower). Recently in question time this same Don Brash was taunting the Government for not immediately taking up his offer to help remove prisoners’ entitlement to compensation for human rights abuses.

Which juxtaposition reminds me of another little-known fact. According to my Superior Person’s Second Book of Words (a thoughful Chrismas gift from a family member), ‘brash’ is a euphemism for the process of vomiting.

Stephen Franks’ solution, on the other hand, is to take away everybody’s entitlement to be compensation for human rights abuses. Further proof that ACT will rarely let their campionship of the rights of the individual get in the way of their conservative social policy.

I suppose in Brash’s case it would have helped if the way he asks his questions was less inherently annoying. I’m never quite sure whether he’s merely being pedantically accurate in he phrasing and pronunciation or if he’s also blatantly sneering at the Government benches as well. Of course it doesn’t help that I generally take issue with the content, too.

If he showed up to Parliament more often it might be enough to stop me listening to National Radio in the evenings.

The clauses lumber into place like puntillious hippopotami, each punctuation mark observed by a pause. It’s as if he wants everybody to interject.

I haven’t had a chance to try this out, but the listening might be less annoying if one thinks of it as perfomance poetry:

to the prime minister:
is she satisfied with the performance
of her acting minister of justice
who yesterday
rejected a national party offer
to facilitate urgent legislation
removing the entitlement of prisoners
to compensation from the department of corrections,
in light of news reports that
new compensation claims
have now been lodged;
if so,


Tom Goulter - "Director" - Christchurch

Art, Life, and Heisenberg
Being a Heading whose apparent Depth I can not ever possibly Live Up To

(Do you apologise for your absenteeism from a blogging community in that blog? I suspect you don't. It does tie in with the theme of the post, so I guess we'll leave it halfway).
For the past month I have not been very good at noticing what's going on in the world, let alone forming perspectives thereon. (Self-deprecating punchline here). This is because for the last month, I have been directing a show that nobody much saw. And putting far too much time into it.
I'd guaranteed myself a fast-track to the good life where it's directing George Henare and rolling with David McPhail and popping Cristal in the Benz with Emmeline Hawthorne on my D, by casting the son of the woman who runs the Court Theatre in my play. (He was amazing in rehearsals, by the way).
And this amazing performance would've been one that the director of the Court would have to see, because it was her son in my play, and before you could blink, it would've been hello Emmeline - possibly even Avril Thresh! - and accolades and plaudits all round. Plaudits, people.
But it was not to be: my Court Theatre connection got offered lighting duties on a show at the Court, and I had to recast with immensely talented unknowns. Curse that Tony Mccaffrey; he's like my amazingly knowledgeable, utterly eccentric doppelganger.
Anyway, busy as I was on this show, I was impressed by just how oblivious to major world events I became. The Republican Baby-Eating Jamboree, which I had been looking forward to following for some considerable time, totally passed me by. I still have no fucking idea - don't laugh - who Ahmed Zaoui is. I managed to find time to suss out that this David Irving character, rather than being one of the friendly, good-hearted if misguided-to-the-point-of-being-accidentally-evil-and-not-noticing, Caucasian-apologist denier types, was in fact a virulently anti-Semitic little dickwad (he is, right? I've at least got that one right?), but that's about as much headway as I managed to make.
My ignorance was well and truly brought home when I was showing someone one of the video sequences I'd been preparing for my play (Oohh, it was multimedia! Like Clara Parsons but with explosions in it! Bet you wish you'd seen it now, huh? Huh??). In what I like to laughingly call an homage to the opening of Se7en (but which I acknowledge is probably closer to a pastiche of the opening of Dawn Of The Dead 2004), short clips of Abstract Disturbing Shit flash across the screen while moody music happens. One of the latter of these clips was a zoomed-in shot of a televised explosion, from which (in a fortunate accident by which Marcel Duchamp would be tickled pink) I had accidentally forgotten to remove the date from my camcorder while I was filming it; so there was a grainy, blurry shot of a firey explosion with figures running around it, stamped with yesterday's date on it.
"Is that from that thing in Russia?", my friend asked me. "No", I retorted, making clear what a ludicrous assumption that was, "It's zoomed-in footage from The Living Daylights". (Which is a triumph of action cinema). This highlighting of my friend's foolish assumption covered nicely for the fact that, with my preoccupations and business and suchlike, I had very little idea just what "that thing in Russia" actually was.
As "that thing in Russia" became more of a Thing, I found myself almost consciously insulating myself from it: because this was, journalistic distance be damned, about the most horrific thing to happen in major news coverage since September 11, and being as I was directing a play about art and terrorism and dead children, I didn't particularly want to be influenced by real-world terrorism killing real-world children.
(Aside: on September 11, 2001, I was in rehearsal for a short play about authoritarianism and abuse of power and airplanes. We were all somewhat shook up by the day's events, but we all turned up to rehearsal anyway, and the way 9/11 had that kind of terrible unreality about it, the performances given in that rehearsal were some of the most haunting in the life of the play. But let's not turn this into a "where were you?" roundtable now).
Anyway, the play went up, and nobody saw it, which in some ways is lucky, because every day I'd drive to rehearsal and pass the billboards for this campaign, which had actually drawn, can you fucking believe it, complaints on the grounds that it was making fun of kids, and in Beslan kids were dying and being threatened and terrorised and all manner of real-world actual atrocities were happening involving children and terrorism, which was highly disturbing, before the world's media got a hold of it and put it in slomo and set it to Barber's Adagio For Strings and found comparatively clean pictures and captioned them "slaughter of the innocents".
So, really, maybe it's lucky nobody saw my play, because it sure did have a lot of references to terrorists killing children.
And yes, this is a conscious avoidance of the larger issue, because Memo To Worldwide Media In The Aftermath Of Beslan: if you can't say it in a way that communicates the real actual non-televised (apologies to Max) tragedy of the whole affair, stick to the facts and shut up.
So that's what I, in my naive idealism with the benefit of hindsight, am doing.

Michael Appleton - on holiday, Wellington

Thursday, September 16, 2004

1. Islamic journalistic bias
I gave a guest lecture on "Muslims in the media" to an honours class in media studies at Victoria University last Friday, and was surprised by how enthusiastic, well-informed, and savvy the students were. Among the material we discussed was a letter to the editor to The Times a few months back, which read in part:
During the terrorist activities in Northern Ireland I recall it was the practice of The Times to make a distinction between law-abiding Unionists and violent paramilitaries by using inverted commas to describe the latter as "loyalist" terrorists. Could you not now perform a similar service for the peaceful, law-abiding British Muslims, who must be weary of reminding us that they do not support al-Qaeda’s murderous practices, by referring to al-Qaeda as "Islamic" fundamentalists? Al-Qaeda has as much to do with mainstream Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with mainstream Christianity.
For my recently completed masters thesis, I did a survey of several hundred Muslim students and interviewed about thirty. While the attitudes I gleaned about the media didn't make the thesis for reasons of space and pedagogy, they were fascinating. The issue of what to call people like Osama bin Laden and organisations like al Qaeda was one that had the students most animated. The issue is concisely put: Is it okay for journalists to write of Muslim or Islamic rebels, terrorists, insurgents, etc, simply because that's how the latter identify themselves? It probably comes down to what you think the adjectives "Muslim" and "Islamic" mean. If you think they merely designate things derived from people who believe Allah is the one, true God, then using the adjectives Muslim or Islamic is just as mundane as calling, say, Osama bin Laden a Muslim. But if you think that using the adjectives "Muslim" or "Islamic" implies that the things of which you speak are in some sense consistent with Islamic juridical principles - developed over centuries of scholarship - then their use for bin Laden and his ilk becomes problematic. That is, if the vast majority of Muslim scholars (and Muslims generally) believe bin Laden's actions, ideology, and politico-strategic thrust to be deeply unIslamic (and thus unMuslim), then is it fair for journalists to call him an Islamic terrorist (rather than an "Islamic" terrorist)?

Some journalists might wish to say, "Sure, the issue of whether bin Laden's actions and ideological framework are truly Islamic is an interesting one, but that is a complex, political dialogue going on amongst Muslims at present, and is one in which we - as independent analysts - cannot possibly be expected to take sides. Therefore, we are not willing to make the political intervention of labelling him an "Islamic" terrorist, because there are clearly a very many Muslims who believe he is truly an Islamic terrorist, without the inverted commas."

The problem with this argument is that, by failing to make the political intervention I believe they should make - by failing to add the inverted commas - newspapers (and other publishers, be they academic, web-based, or whatever) are by default making the opposite political intervention. That is, they are bestowing religious legitimacy on what are, in truth, fringe, blasphemous groups, de facto claiming that they are worthy of being recognised as Islamic. This is a case where to do nothing, to not take sides, is to make a definite choice with far reaching political consequences. By not using inverted commas, writers (and their editors) predispose their readers to having very negative views of Islam and Muslims - by using the expressions "Muslim terrorist" and "Islamic terrorist" (or similar ones) ad nauseum, and thus constantly reinforcing a link between Islam and violence.

2. Home
The problem with living in one place for all but ten months of your first twenty-one years is that, no matter where you go, on whatever continent, you inexorably end up comparing it to 'home'. Conditioned to find Wellington comfortable, familiar, pleasurable, your experience of the unknown is constantly an exercise in asking, 'How is this and how is this not like what I know?' So, Gothenburg, Sweden felt like home because it's a city built on water, with rolling hills that make walking across the city a somewhat tiring experience. Cambridge, England felt like home because it is of a similar size and feel to Wellington - not too big but not too small; there are things to do, but not an overwhelming preponderance of frenzied activity that comes with too many people (i.e. more than half a million); the same pointy-headed ponderous aesthetic. Vinezac, France - a tiny village under whose jurisdiction my French family live - couldn't feel further from Wellington in the summer: its parched, brown landscapes; its searing heat that makes staying inside or in the water obligatory; its thin, windy, paved paths.

So, why does this matter? Well, firstly, because when you come home, it might not feel like 'home' anymore, and then you've completely lost your bearings. Indeed, nostalgia means pining for a particular place at a particular time - so, returning to that place sometime later, you might no longer find the same one you remember. And, secondly, because going overseas is ideally a discovery of the unknown - not a packaging of the unknown in terms of what you already know. One probably cannot get to the essence of a place if all one is asking is, 'How is this like or not like what I already know?' That question is a superficial one, and while understandably the first you ask, should only be a starting point.

A few years ago, I did an honours paper entitled 'risk in international relations', which was really a misnomer, as it was actually a tour d'horizon of political and social theorists - including Foucault, Fromm, and Benedict Anderson - and their writings on various forms of social control. Anyway, one student in my class did an excellent research paper on Lonely Planet guides, and how they are an attempt to take the 'risk' out of going overseas. People travel, discover new places, because they like the thrill of the unknown - yet, before they go, they go to great lengths to make sure that they are not too surprised or shocked by that unknown. Lonely Planet guides offer information about the unknown in an easily digestable, taxonomically recognisable format, telling you where to go and where not to go so that you can be sure you will not have any unhappy experiences along the way.

3. Away
Cricket's second most prestigious tournament gets underway for real tonight, when New Zealand plays Australia. Australian captain Ricki Ponting is tired of those who perpetuate the "myth" that New Zealand is especially good at rattling the Aussies, citing the fact that his side has beaten the Black Caps on the last six occasions the two sides have met. The British press is breathing a sigh of relief that it'll finally get to report on a cricketing contest worthy of the name. And the Hindustan Times is underwhelmed by the tournament so far. The Black Caps' chances tonight? Well, Australia wins about three in four ODIs overall, which leaves one in four games in which their opposition will triumph. And, considering New Zealand presents the single biggest threat to Australian dominance in ODI cricket (bar, perhaps, Sri Lanka) at the moment, I'd put our chances at closer to one in three. The TAB has the Black Caps as rank outsiders - anyone willing to risk a grand of the New Zealanders stands to get $3,100 back in the case of an upset. A lengthier discussion of the Champion Trophy and related cricketing issues can be found at LeftField , a relatively new home for my (and other people's) blatherings about sport.

Lyndon Hood - arborophile, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Dear Sir,

I've written my first letter to the editor.

Well, technically it was an email, and by 'letter to the editor' I mean one intended for publication - I have corresponded with the editor in question in the past. Not that I'm trying to make excuses.

I've mentally composed any number previously, including a good few pointed missives for Morning Report or Nine to Noon, but what finally had me writing down and sending was a news article in Critic about trees.

A couple of them died in one of the more paved parts of campus. This reinforced my worry (dating back to when I was actually in Dunedin) that sealing trees' roots away from the air with paving or burying them under more than a foot of clay (in the course of raising the lawn) will not be good for them.

Because it was Critic, I also included the inference (rather unhelpful as it turned out) that this constituted a deliberate tree-killing programme.

The publication of my letter (scroll down to "Tree murdering") made a rather disappointing follow-up to my thoughtful monograph on holocaust denial the previous week. It's not that I retract the letter's general point (I did call a walnut tree a chestnut, but I never claimed to be an expert). It's just kind of embarrassing to see something I wrote printed in a space mostly associated with various flavours of militant campaigner, flake, and unfunny attention seeker.

I was pleased when I found that blogging had put me in touch with my inner opinionated person, but if I'd understood the risks I might never have started.

I had the honour of being replied to by the University's Property Services Director. His previous appearances of the Critic letters page had been mostly to argue against people who thought the proposal to build a new bridge across the Leith was a waste of money. When the new Vice-Chancellor came in the bridge project was immediately scrapped. So I feel somewhat vindicated by the way he didn't agree with me.

He made a convincing case that the University doesn't hate trees. He also said the ones I'm most alarmed for are expected to be fine. Though it's still not clear to me why. It think that feeling welling up from my bowels is the urge to counter-reply. Barry, old pro that he is, has already deflected this impulse by including the name and phone number of the University Grounds Officer. He knows that there's nothing that a letter-to-the-editor writer fears more than direct interaction with a live human being.

And fortunately, I've been published in more prestigious (though possibly less read) parts of the magazine before, so I don't feel the need to consolidate any new-found fame by writing more letters.

Might be a short feature article in it though.

And of course, all of this paving (and plenty of building) has been at the expense of grassed area. Don't even get me started on that.

Matt Nippert - sodden hack, Auckland

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

If you stand outside and it rains...

...You get wet. Common sense dictates that you dress for the weather. In the case of journalism, and blogging too, if you put your work out in the public domain, expect criticism. It helps to develop a thick skin, even better, a sense of humour. Thrice in the last month I've had feedback - and it's all negative. Have I struck out?

Before speculating what the recent run of poor weather is doing to peoples sensitivities, it's worth noting this NBR story - and no, I'm not exposing business cheerleading gone mad. The Maxim Wizard letter writing tool appears to have been used inappropriately (imagine that!). Rather than using the Wizard merely to spam editors (about which I've already written), false sender details were entered - those of Peter Dunne, NBR reporter Jock Anderson and John Kerry.

The Police were called, Maxim denied any involvement, and IP numbers are being analysed. What is significant is that the arguments used seem to be similar to others from the Wizard that editors have to sift through when selecting letters to print. The NBR reports:

The forged email purporting to come from Peter Dunne was more sinister, accusing Act leader Rodney Hide of promoting a homosexual agenda and of having an anti-family, fanatical liberal, anti-Maori, racist, and homosexual commentator as his "closest confidant and adviser."
John Kerry, apparently, supports the "enough is enough" campaign, and maintains "homosexuality is a deathstyle, not a lifestyle". (Memo to Bush: it will take more than a gay marriage amendment to the constitution to outflank the Democrats on family values.) Jock Anderson, apparently, insists he is the "greatest journalist in New Zealand". All bollocks, and thus the effort was easily caught. I wonder if anything more subtle (say, from one John Doe) has managed to slip past the editorial net....

I know there's an argument that guns don't kill people, people do. But making guns more widely available means more people will get killed by gunshot. Similarly, making it easier for people to breach editorial policy and assume others' identities means such behaviour will happen more often. Unless Maxim wants to increasingly be associated with publicity of this nature, despite attempts to distance themselves saying the Wizard is only "a community service", they should shut down the site. Moralising over, let's descend to the recent outbreak of bitching, followed by periods of mild condescension.

First up, we have word from on high:

Hi Matt,

I've read your
blog on the new Herald publication, Fuse, with interest. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion and to express it as you see fit. But as you embark on your journalism career, you might like to think about the need to report accurately, which as well as meaning getting things right, also means not leaving things out.

The Gravitas research you refer to listed five positive student perceptions of the Herald and three negative but you covered only the negative.

Here at "granny" we know we've got to do better to appeal to younger readers but sloppy journalism won't get us - or I suggest you - very far.

Yours faithfully,
Shenagh Gleeson
Chief of Staff
Editorial Department
New Zealand Herald

I had thought it was pretty standard journalistic practice to focus on what is newsworthy. Trying to put every piece of information you have available into a story puts the squeeze on space, not to mention the patience of readers. Blogs aren't quite under the same pressure as print, so, to placate Gleeson I'm going to list the six (not five) positive perceptions. But to spare you, gentle readers, I've put them at the bottom of the blog so you can avoid this marketing tripe if you wish.

The topic of student media is building to a crescendo at the moment, with the ASPA awards being held on Friday. Fuse, ostensibly, isn't in this market - but who are they trying to kid? It seems fairly obvious the supplement is aiming for the student advertising dollar, thus competing for the same limited pool of funds.

On the content front, I had intended to do a comparative analysis between the Herald's effort and Salient and Critic, but after three issues of Fuse I can't be bothered - there's simply no competition. As Russell Brown pointed out, Fuse has no campus base and no voice. I'm shocked, and this is no disrepect to the current editor, that the Herald didn't employ someone with student media experience (as an added plus, they'd probably also accept less pay for a better job).

They've also misread distribution - you just can't waltz onto campus and dump material. If that were the case, mass-marketeers would be flooding the place with pamphlets. Talking with AUSA President Kate Sutton, there is significant apprehension about letting Fuse in the door (Craccum survives solely on advertising revenue, thanks to the joy that is VSM). They've been allowed on for their first six issues and next year access will be reconsidered. "If I told a bunch of students to burn them," says Sutton, "they would." (I understand Lucid has been banned from Otago campus because it is also seen as a competitor - not something I think reflects particularly well on Critic.)

And secondly, it must have been a stellar month in the media if I'm already the highest profile purveyor of pap in New Zealand. The most recent issue of Metro, a magazine that reads almost as well as it looks, ran this on their inside back page.

Drivel Corner
"It's often said that life imitates art, but it's not only a one-way street. Dame Judi Dench, playing the humourless spymaster "M" in Goldeneye told a..."
Matt Nippert, New Zealand Listener, July 31 2004.
It's not the best sentence in the world (they're probably thinking of a slightly mixed metaphor), but it wasn't the worst jumble of words I've ever assembled either. Cutting the second sentence which gives meaning to the first (art imitates life sometimes, you see?) added to their case. (Is the recent Listener boost in circulation cause for concern over at ACP? On the same page it is suggested Russell Brown take over the editorial reins at the Listener.)

Any publicity is good publicity, the old battle between infamy and obscurity. I've been wanting to get my name in Metro for ages (not the society pages - the substantive ones), and hell, I have arrived.

Thirdly, and finally, I am an asshole. This email arrived in my inbox on Monday:
Your attempts at being a literary tough guy

Someone sent me
a link to one of your blogs. Here's an excerpt to refresh your memory:

(I'm guessing the only people amused by Media Dog were Anthony Ellison and Jonathan Marshall - and the Beavis and Butthead generation. Anus: Heh heh heh.)

If I really thought that the rectum was a valuable resource for humour, I'd find you and your writing amusing.

cordially yours
Anthony Ellison
Now at least this is funny, Rebecca Williams from Debate could certainly learn a thing or two. To a certain extent all art criticism requires an anal mindset, and my honest opinion of Media Dog was informed by discussions amongst my peer group. I love Ellison's cartoons (in fact he did a stunner for my previously linked Wizard story), and hope it keeps it up. I'd love for him to do a portrait of me, in the style of Assface from Preacher.

If I took all this seriously? I'd view myself as a sloppy, drivelling anus. Not the best self-image in the world, probably leading to stress-related complications like IBS. Since you can't blame the rain for being wet, I'm instead developing callouses.

To conclude, a sop to supposeded sloppiness. Positive perceptions of the Herald (editorial comment by moi in italics):

  • Recognition of the "iconic" status of the newspaper and position as a "kiwi" institution. (So too is Tomato Sauce. According to Watties)
  • Acknowledgement that it is the country's largest paper. (Who'd refuse to acknowledge a fact?)
  • Delivers daily news and information that is "safe" and traditional. (I thought the whole point of being young was to take risks and damn traditions?)
  • Tool for accessing classifieds and other information. (Trade and Exchange anyone?)
  • Up-to-date and offering a worldly connection and a wide variety of content something for everyone [sic]. (With 100+ editorial staff, there's maybe one on your level - if not "the" level.)
  • Easily accessible when required and good value for money. (Just like Winston's slogans, ubiquitous and cheap.)

PS: I like the Herald, I read it every day. What I don't like should be obvious.

PPS: If you drew a Ven Diagram for alcoholics, students and journalists would be pretty big circles. Anyone wanting to see the hideous results when these groups overlap should check out Shakespeare's this Friday, post-ASPA's.

PPPS: And if anyone's wondering where the usually stellar contributions from Michael Appleton have gone, here's something that should tide you over - a lovely guest editorial at his old haunt.

Max Johns - Briefly relocated transient marketer, Hamilton/Auckland/Huntly

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

New ways for a new millenium!

Two new ways to get what you want when you want it, brought to you exclusively by FightingTalk:

1. How to get everybody to listen to you: Promoting the budget
I'm a marketer. I have a degree in marketing and I work in marketing. If the Labour Government wants a few pointers on saving almost all of the $21 million it wants to spend on promoting the budget, it should get in touch with me. Or, indeed, anyone who knows the following two truths of promotion:

1. The best form of marketing is direct marketing. For example, sending letters to your existing customers. Then you only spend money communicating with people you want to, rather than blindly hoping the right people see your TV ads. If you know the names and addresses of the right people, use them.
2. The easiest thing to promote will have an obvious, immediate positive effect on people. Giving people money, for example, is not a particularly difficult 'sell'.
$21 million is a whole lot of money, even in advertising. For perspective, FMCG Magazine is produced for onsellers of "fast moving consumer goods", which pretty much means "groceries". Producers of groceries place ads in FMCG boasting about how great their latest promotions are, including how much they cost. The figures in the magazine were big and impressive, until the Government trumped them all several times over. Cadbury's 'Wouldn't it be nice?' campaign, the Friskies Whiskas cat food relaunch, and New Zealand's Vanilla Coke launch – and, in fact, every other marketing campaign of this sort - each cost less than $10 million. Most cost less than $5 million (Cadbury’s come in somewhere around the $2-4 million mark). In fact, a $2 million campaign is a massive deal in New Zealand. And, remember, these campaigns have to be hugely noticeable because of a little something known as competition. Not that the Government would have had competition in mind when it gave itself such a huge advertising budget. Right?

$21 million for a single campaign is essentially unheard of in NZ, is patently ridiculous, and is more like the whole annual promotional budget of The Warehouse. It's $5 per New Zealander! And unlike the Government, Cadbury's and co. don’t know the names and addresses of every person they want to advertise to, so they’re going for blanket coverage. If Friskie’s had the opportunity to send a pamphlet to every NZ cat owner, and reason to expect that every single one of them would appreciate receiving it and modify their consumption behaviour as a direct result of reading it, I’m sure this would be the option they would have taken before they threw millions at TV and print ads, instore promo material, and giveaways. Maybe someone should let someone in the Beehive know that postage isn't expensive, and that 2,000,000 brouchures, even double-sided glossy ones, won't cost $10 each.

On top of that, none of those above major campaigns had the sort of media launch coverage given to something like, say, the Government’s budget.

2. How to be a terrorist and get noticed
The Beslan massacre has managed to get to me more than other news stories mis-labeled as "tragic" (yes, that's the old classics student in me coming out to play). There's something about the involvement of so many children, for sure. But the fact that the gunmen didn’t really try that hard to get any particular result out of the hostage situation other than hundreds of deaths is possibly even worse.

Remember before September 2001, when hijacked planes always landed and were met by negotiators? When the whole purpose of hostages was that they were bargaining chips, and gave the dissidents a rare upper hand so long as they played their cards right? Remember how, on the first three 9/11 planes, no-one thought to fight back because the automatic assumption was that the whole point of being a hijacked passenger was to shut up, hope that you weren't one of the token killings "to prove we're serious", and wait for your eventual release? Boy, has that theory ever gone out the window and down the inflatable slides. In Russia it was evident that the captured people weren’t really that important to the terrorists. No food or water, and no access to first aid, equals no value placed on keeping people alive. And this equals a brand new way of trying to get what you want.

Where were the clearly iterated demands, some which actually had a chance of happening? Where was the showpiece speech to the cameras? The insistance that someone with the ability to make things happen be brought immediately to speak with the head nut? Turns out that these sorts of things never really worked. They were good at getting small gains - released prisoners, a soundbite on the news, that sort of thing - but never really caused much lasting change. No-one remembers the dates of successful hijacking negotitations, or how many people didn't die. Now is the time to stop playing tiddlywinks and set your sights where they should be. Adding just a percentage point or two to your fear rating is worth thousands of released prisoners and hours of primetime coverage. This is a battle for hearts and minds, stupid: If you want to get noticed in today's increasingly crowded terrorism market, you've got to hit 'em where it hurts - in the population count.

Market research reveals that in just three years, Al-Qaeda has gone from being one of many obscure players in the lucrative American fear market to the undisputed leader. 98% of American survey respondents aged 13+ recall the Al-Qaeda brand instantly when asked to name terrorist organisations. A further 1.9% recall with promting, or at least recognise the name when they hear it. Neither well-established family favoutites like Coca-Cola, or even longstanding megabrands like God himself, enjoy figures like that. And Al-Qaeda didn't get that sort of incredible penetration by using outdated, death-free, discussion-oriented methods. With their smart recognition of this fact and adoption of the 'kill now, speak later' methods learnt in 2001, the Chechnyans are well on their way to replicating these sorts of results.

Remember when it was the good guys who had the option of refusing to negotiate? We thought we were so tough when we did that.

Lyndon Hood - jurisprudence fetishist, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

This week's Critic has my Holocaust denial article.

At first I though Clinton was going to generously die so they could capitalise on his funeral before the election.

Scientists are funny.



The generic activist claim that "you can judge as society by how it treats its insert-social-category-heres" was originally about prisoners.

As I recall, when Judge Young found that prisoners had been kept in conditions that violated their human rights (specifically, kept in a special, nasty solitary confinement for months on end), it was generally recognised that this was a bad thing.

There are are of course plenty of people who are disappointed when they discover that prisoners' human rights aren't routinely violated, but I'll assume we're in agreement that when someone's sentenced to jail time, the punishment is no more than that enforced deprivation of liberty. Prisons in themselves are horrible enough as a punishment, and more than brutalising enough to get in the way of rehabilitation.

Anyway, the reaction was different when it became know that these people were to receive compensation. At up to $55 000, about $2500 a month, which isn't that exorbitant considering the violation in question was going on continuously, and is peanuts compared to what the lawyers cost.

On the radio, Phil Goff was genuinely outraged. In fact, it's the most emotion I've ever observed in a politician. He argued that the people responsible for the breach should be punished (he didn't respond to the prisoners' lawyer's claims that they had been no disciplinary action and that the methods decried in the judgment were still being used) but that there prisoners shouldn't receive compensation. And I can see it sucks that these people are to be compensated (at up to $55 000) while their victims, or the families which survive their victims, have received nothing.

The painful truth is that criminal acts are treated as offenses against public order and are prosecuted by the Crown, not the victims. And the response is to punish the perpetrator, ultimately by the combined expedient of depriving them of their freedom and isolating them from society (though this does have the unfortunate effect of locking them all up with each other).

You may get an inkling here as to why victims are so rarely satisfied by the court process.

On the other hand, when the state violates somebody's human rights, this is typically dealt with through a civil process, with the victim taking a complaint. If real harm was done to them they can expect restitution, inevitably in the form of money.

For a population whose juries (as I've noted before) can't seem to grasp the legal definition of murder, this distinction may be annoyingly fine (if so, we could always balance things by locking up the people responsible for the "Behaviour Management Regime"). But wait, there's still more.

There's no significant legal (or, for administrative purposes, moral) connection between the crimes these people committed and this compensation. As punishment for their crimes, they serve prison time. End of story. Except that, in the course of prison discipline, they were treated in a way which, according to the court, breached both the Penal Institutions Act and the Bill of Rights - treated in a way which New Zealand law says no human being should be treated.

What the objections to compensation boil down to is that, having committed a serious crime, people don't deserve to be compensated for abuses of their human rights. Or don't deserve the human rights, and 'having done their time' be damned. Which tallies nicely with the mood against convicted criminals doing things like studying or boxing or living somewhere. Also with the political race to see who can be tougest on crime. But, in much the same way that freedom of speech is patently unfree if you can't offend people, human rights are only human rights if they apply to everybody.

I'll add that this approach has also given New Zealand the second highest rate of imprisonment in the western world, despite having one of the lowest crime rates. It doesn't help with that thing called 'rehabilitation' either.

Goff's proposed solution, to make a law passing a bunch of any compensation which prisoners receive to their victims, is a blatant instance of legislating over single cases. Which is known to be a stupid way to make law. In this case it's also a deliberate undermining of the Bill of Rights.

He also intends to appeal.

I had cause to call the IRD that morning, but I didn't have the courage to ask if they'd already had people demanding to know why the pay taxes if the money's going to criminals. Personally, I object to the appeal so I guess we're even.

I can't see the crown substantially improving its position here. They should buy me one of the new iMacs, which would be a more beneficial use of the taxpayers' money (even allowing that I've just bought a new eMac) and about two hundred times cheaper.

The issue in law is between the State and the abused prisoners, with, admittedly, humanity on the sidelines. If Phil Goff has a problem with the fact that it ended in compensation (and an even more expensive lawyerfest), he and Paul Swain should see to it that we treat our prisoners properly.

After Goff, there was an interview with the man who was supposed to be running the Stanfordprison experiment but turned into a psycho prison warden. You may have seen this experiment fictionalised in the film Das Experiment. He talked particularly about Abu Ghraib, and lamented that nobody anywhere had implimented what was needed to prevent abuse of prisoners. Not just rules, but real independent monitoring.

Lyndon Hood - racial theorist, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Based on my experience of the Hikoi and its media coverage, I'm guessing that Destiny's march in support of tautology was less Nazi-esque, and its counter-protest less virulently abusive, than I hear.

That said, and I know it's a lot to ask, I wish we could have had happy opposition to moral conservatism.

It did after all, allow the Dominion Post to ask "Are Liberals Fascists?" in big letters on the front page of their Saturday magazine section (not a very helpful question, a theoretically possibility on the political compass). The accompanying picture shows a shaven-headed, tatooed - if I may be permitted to guess - dyke shouting at a row of wary faces (mostly brown) in black shirts. I presume the photo was chosen because it looks vaguely like she's doing a Nazi salute with the wrong arm (she's actually pointing).

Under the headline was a lot of useful discussion on the idea of hate speech legislation. Which was preceeded by a discussion of the counter-protest to the Destiny march which I found annoyingly smug.

I can't help suspecting that David McLoughlin has never been bullied - certainly he's got no grasp of subtext. I would submit that just because one side was angry and abusive doesn't mean they were doing all the intimidating. He doesn't even pretend to understand what the gay community found so alarming in Destiny's platform (I can't be bothered explaining, David, but this may help a little). "In contrast" to the accusations of hate-ridden fascism from the left corner, one of the Destiny banners he quotes is "We prefer God's laws". I don't know about you, but that strikes fear into my heart.

We do need to recognise that this was a meeting of two groups who, deep down, don't respect the other's right to exist. And this is not a good thing. But the way Mr McLouglin allocated the intolerance made me want to commit a hate crime against him.

At least he didn't rub in the fact that liberals are in the unaccustomed position of being implacably opposed to a large-scale Maori movement.

This may be symptomatic of a wider problem.

My impression is that, as a group, Maori are more morally conservative than Pakeha. And you only need to look at the Broadcasting Standards Authority's TV-good-taste-and-decency research to find that Pacific Islanders and significantly more conservative than the population overall.

It's been noted, particularly in response to Don Brash, that in order to support our aging baby boomers we urgently need to bring the expanding Maori and Pacific Islands populations on board, both in terms of skills and education so they can contribute to the economy, and in terms of political and social processes.

Put it all together and we might be facing a plateau - I don't wish to entertain thoughts of a reversal - in the moral liberalisation of New Zealand.

And a future containing hordes of progressive types writing to newspapers venting their frustration about "them damn Māori".