Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Why Billy Joel Is So Bad

A week or so ago I spotted an amusing and insightful article by Jay Rosen on why Billy Joel is so bad. This is not kneejerk rock-snobbism; the writer is a sympathiser and a former fan. As he points out, Joel doesn't lack for ability -- he's a strong singer, excellent pianist, and a talented songwriter in the Bacharach mould.

His downfall is a desperate need to be taken seriously. Rosen writes:

"The truth is that Joel was born at the wrong time. Were he a decade older, he might have wound up in the Brill Building crafting perfect little pop songs and gone down in history with Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and company. But Joel came of age in the post-Beatles era, when songwriters grew self-conscious about rock's aesthetic and social significance, and felt compelled to make statements "

Some of the results have been dire. I still remember watching on TV a concert Joel gave in Moscow around about 1988 or 1989, when Western rock stars were still a novelty behind the Iron Curtain. One of the songs he played was "Allentown", an attempt at a Springsteen-style, New Jersey working class ballad. Joel introduced it by saying: "this song is about......the workers!" (you know, because it was the Soviet Union and all) .

The crowd cheered wildly, mostly because they didn't understand a word and were cheering wildly at everything. I was only fifteen or so at the time - but not too young to cringe with embarassment.

"Piano Man", the song Rosen describes as Joel's attempt to be a "Dylan-style poet-troubadour", also has its clunky moments. It's a catchy melody, but the lyrics are made of concrete. As the song crescendos, Joel puffs out hs chest and hollers:

Now the piano it sounds like a carnival (an ok line)
and the microphone smells like a beer (now that is just an unpleasant image)
and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jaw (again, an unintentionally comic image)
and say "man, what are you doing here"

He then goes off into some la-de-das, to remind us that it's, you know, a folk song. The real problem is that it's not clear what the point is. Is the song about how tough it is to earn your living as a house musician? Not really. A story about one or more of the characters in the bar? The hopes and dreams of the singer? No, none of the above. The only candidate for a theme comes in the line:

They're sharing a drink they call loneliness - but it's better than drinking alone.

Which just makes it sound like the theme song from Cheers.

But the real nadir has to be "We Didn't Start the Fire", in my book a candidate for the worst song ever written. The verses have Joel reeling off a list of twentieth-century events, icons and individuals. Quite apart from blatantly stealing the idea ("a list of persons and things, sung rapidly") from REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It", this has no apparent point.

Maybe we find enlightenment in the chorus?

We didn't start the fire; it was always burning, since the world's been turning

This still leaves us a bit confused. Who are "we"? And what is "the fire"? Perhaps we could paraphrase it thus: "History has always seen instances of conflict, oustanding individuals and groundbreaking events". In other words, shit happens.

What makes this so unutterably bad? I think it's something to do with the telegraphed, hamfisted attempt to be deep and meaningful, while actually being completely fatuous. One of the verses reaches its pre-chorus climax with Joel spiritedly declaiming: "Belgians in the Congo!". I rest my case.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Coffee Cultures

I'm officially famous! Over the last few days, Russell Brown has been collating comments from resident and expat NZ coffee-drinkers. After an initial post where he observed that you don't seem to be able to get a NZ-standard espresso in London (or most places), he was flooded with feedback saying yes, wasn't it terrible, no one (apart from the Italians) knows how to make espresso properly.

Several people pointed out that this was a case of typical now-we-are-so-sophisticated NZ "zealotry" and a "reverse cultural cringe". I agree to an extent that the boasting about our coffee has elements of that "our rugby team is bigger than your rugby team" attitude which you increasingly see from NZers, and is indicative of deep insecurity and ingrained provincialism (i.e. it'd be laughable if it weren't so embarassing).

However, it is based on a large kernel of truth. That was the one thing I really missed about NZ while in South America. Every now and again I'd have a fleeting, nostalgic vision of Aro St cafe with a good English breakfast and a super-strong flat white.

By the time I read the posts Russell Brown had already printed two rounds of comments. I figured I'd missed out, but would send him my tuppence worth anyway. And lo, then he said that he'd got even more comments, they were "improving in quality", and he'd print a third round.

So today he's done a final summation of people's views on coffee. I'm in there, about the third person quoted.

If you don't feel like following the link, here's what I wrote:

"I agree that across most of Europe and N.America the coffee is not up to the standard set in NZ, particularly in the main NZ centres. I've also spent quite a bit of time in S.America and, despite being a major coffee-exporting zone, things aren't much good there either.

In Peru and Chile you only find espresso in a few places in the bigger cities, and it's often sans crema. In even moderately expensive restaurants, "coffee" means a cup of hot water served with a tube-like packet of nescafe. Or it's a strong liquid concentrate in a little jug, which you pour into the water.

Colombia is better--brewed coffee there is called "tinto" and is de rigeur with most meals. As in (fellow coffee-producing nation) Guatemala, it's also quite fresh tasting. Most small bars have espresso.

Again, though, you just want to order the basic espresso--no one really knows how to make coffee with milk.

Only in Italy or places with direct Italian influence do you find the full range of espresso styles. In Italy itself, while coffee is the fuel of life, there's somewhat less preciousness about it than there is in NZ.

Cappucinos are normally made with lukewarm milk because people don't piss about drinking them--they go into a stand-up breakfast bar and toss one down on the way to work. Also, they understand even better than NZers not to add too much water to an espresso--in your standard short black there's usually not much more than a tablespoon of liquid.

There's one coffee experience, however, you won't find in Italy or NZ. This is "cafe cubano", which I discovered in Sth Florida a few years ago.

Cuban-stye coffee is made by expressing a quadruple-shot coffee directly into a cup containing several spoonfuls of raw sugar. It's served in a "colada", a (usually polystyrene) cup about the size of a small takeaway coffee cup, and you also get several thimble-sized little cups. You then drink it in "shots', sharing with two or three people.

They call cafe cubano "liquid cocaine", and if you try it you will see why. Next time you're in Miami, find a little neigbourhood Cuban place, order yourself a colada, and prepare to have your socks knocked directly off.

WRT to Starbucks [there'd been quite a bit of comment about Starbucks amongst the previous posts]: When In Peru, I lived in Arequipa, and on a trip to Lima my Arequipan girlfriend insisted on going to Starbucks, as she was nostalgic for when she spent time in the US. Not only was the milky coffee I ordered the most execrable, burnt, soapy thing I have ever tasted, but it cost more than it would have in NZ (in Peru, most consumables are two or even three times cheaper). My girlfriend didn't care--for her simply being in Starbucks was fulfilling her aspirations. "


Monday, December 05, 2005

No sugar thanks, and hold the "sir"

Dear supermarket checkout attendants, cafe workers, and shop assistants. Please stop calling me "sir". You have no reason to do this, and it's irritating the hell out of me. In no other context would you conceivably consider addressing me in this way. You are maybe five or six years younger than me; in the worst cases ten to twelve.

Come on, I'm clearly youngish, informal, mostly pretty scruffy looking. Do you really think that's how I want to be talked to?

So maybe it says you're supposed to do this in your training manual. Or your manager told you to do it. As part of your commitment to service, always address the customer as "sir"; this conveys the appropriate degree of respect.

It doesn't. At best, it makes me feel old. At worst, it comes across as patronising and condescending. Especially when you, the carefully-groomed, attractive woman in your early twenties, keep using it, in between chatting to your fellow "baristas" while you make my coffee. "Sugar with that, sir?". "So, yeah, dunno, I was thinking of going to the Matterhorn". "Will that be all, sir?".

Because, if once is too much, four or five times makes me want to slap you. And I'm particularly addressing this to you, smarmy supermarket junior manager type with the slightly different tie from your fellow employees, and your I'm-showing-the-trainee-checkout-worker-how-to-serve-customers manner. You think you're impressing your poor protege with your knowledge of the customer service handbook by firing off five or six "sirs" as you zap my groceries? This customer just thinks you're a wanker.

People, your handbook was written in the United States, where there are different standards of formality. And even there, "sir" is far from de rigeur in most settings. The place I've spent the most time in is Miami; there, in mid-range department stores, the woman calls you "baby" (and only if you're really white--anybody vaguely Hispanic looking is "mi amor"). As a customer and a person, I prefer that.

You want to know how to provide "good customer service"? Very simple - be polite and efficient. Don't piss about. And I have to say, you in the supermarket are mostly doing a brilliant job in this respect. Yes, you're mostly first-generation immigrants, and you mostly refrain from the "sir" bullshit; it's the homegrown, facetious, wannabe manager boys who pull that out.

While, we're on the topic, cut the small talk. Do you really want to know how my day is? You care if they're keeping me busy? Didn't think so. And, let's just say you were unaccountably fascinated by what I might have been doing this morning, do you think the next person in line is going to wait around while I describe it to you? So let's just lose the pretence and move swiftly on, ok?

To you in the clothes store, I must make a special appeal. Yes, you do have to be approachable. But don't overdo it. Remember, I'm male--I'm confused and intimidated by being in a clothes store. I need to browse the racks from a safe distance, like my ancestors on the savannah making sure there weren't any sabre-toothed tigers lurking before they went after the mammoth.

You can flag your availability, but be discreet. Something like: "You're ok there, right? Just let me know if you need any help" is fine. It'll still freak me out a little, but as long as I can get away with a "sure" in reply, I won't actually need to run out of the shop.

You don't care if my weekend's been busy either--so don't ask. And yes, you guessed right. I'm a guy, and I did see the game. I could even discuss in depth whether the third sin-binning was justified, or why the lineouts went awry in the second half. But that's not why we're here, so why bother?

You really want to be helpful and sociable? Tell me something about the item I'm looking at. Is it down from $89.99 to $69.99? Manufactured somewhere other than China? Made with fully unionised labor? Its material particularly warm in winter/cool in summer? The cut flattering to the shorter man? All of these things are important to me; they're useful information, what I'm looking for when I'm poking around trying to find the labels.

So, if you tell me these things, that will be of assistance; I'll know whether to go chasing after the mammoth. You might even have a sale on your hands. Just don't pretend to be my friend. And whatever you do, don't call me "sir".

OK, so right about know you're all thinking that I'm some oversensitive middle-class twat. You're doing your best, service jobs are low paid and menial, how are you supposed to know what different people prefer? Well, I believe I have done my time, and do have some insight. Three years working in a gas station, where I had to suffer gits in their BMWs pulling up and telling me to "fill 'er up, mate" ("I'm studying philosophy!", I wanted to say).

I've worked in cafes, bars, youth hostels, all kinds of service jobs. And, you think you don't get no respect as a checkout worker--try working in the carnival industry in the USA and Canada. There, not only does the populace despise you as a dirty carnie, they feel justitifed, in fact honour-bound, in trying to cheat and steal from you.

Consequently, I have a lot of sympathy for the service worker. I much prefer the system in restaurants or bars in the US, and even anal old Canada, where a tip is expected for the person who serves you. This allows you to give a portion of your money directly to that person--and the harder and better they work, the more they get.

I just have no time for the needless--and phony--self debasement that is promoted in the pages of the corporate training manuals. This does nothing for the customer, and is only truly embraced by the smart-assed types on the way up the management ladder. I would be happy to see a tip or commission component in all service jobs, so the employee is able to not only be rewarded for working harder, but also learn what customers really respond to (mostly, being treated as a human being).

So, please, act normal. Use your common sense and stop believing the guff they tell you. And, unless you're really trying to piss me off, stop calling me "sir".

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Monday, November 28, 2005

I Wouldn't Normally Do this But..

feel compelled to comment on recent pieces by two of New Zealand's "talkback radio in print" newspaper columnists, Rosemary McLeod and Joe Bennett.

Ok, so Bennett is not as bad as all that. It's just that you wonder why his rather banal whimsical musings should get published in a regular column, rather than anybody else's.

On this occasion, however, he makes some pertinent observations about how gardening acts as an outlet for the sublimated desire for order, power and the ruthless destruction of the Other.

Even those who have no experience or competence at the nurturing aspect of creating a garden have found themselves caught up in the manichean struggle which is weeding. Bennett's description of becoming intoxicated with slashing, cutting, tearing and uprooting exactly matches that of Simon Doherty, Mark Johnstone and I when we had to clear up the back garden before moving out of our flat in Church Square, Christchurch.

Amidst the mowing, cutting and digging, we got carried away, inspired by our discovery of what appeared to be a "lost" little brick patio behind the vegetable patch. Determined to bring civilization to the jungle, we ended up doing far more than was really necessary. As Simon Doherty said sheepishly "It was kind of like drivign back the heathen hordes".

McLeod is rather harder to find common ground with. Normally I would dig a "bitter and twisted" attitude, as it's one I tend to drag around too (friends have told me I'm well balanced--a chip on both shoulders). But if you're going to do b&t, it needs to be served with a side of humour, or at least a dash of self-deprecation--i.e. "look, I may be bitter and twisted, but...". Also, if you're going to do ad hominem, it's fair game to attack someone's pomposity, but not their weakness. Mcleod mostly ignores these rules--she simply serves b&t on the rocks.

Her most recent column also pronounces on matters of flora, in this case the planned regeneration of New Zealand native plants. Could this be rampant political correctness? You bet, says Rosemary. It's a conspiracy of "zealots":

"In Wellington they've taken over, like some rampant weed, dooming us to a future of khaki.

"We're supposed to be in ideological raptures about it, because it's the "natural" colour of New Zealand bush, and it goes with the organised tundra that currently passes for landscape gardening. Chuck a few rocks about, sprinkle with gravel, poke in a spot of some foliage resembling overgrown underarm hair, and wait for the passing dogs to bless it. Exquisite.

"The Tinakori Hills have always been one of my favourite vistas in this town, wonderfully ink-green and solid-seeming; beautiful on cold and misty mornings, when they're like a backdrop to some Grimms fairy-tale. But they're covered in pine, and pine is a foreign, and therefore bad, thing.

"Yes, the huge trees there have reached the end of their natural life, many of them, and there's an excuse to chainsaw. But the pines are being replaced with natives, khaki and sludgy green, and that dark visual drama is going for ever.

"Something like it will happen on Mount Victoria, too, before long. The giant eucalypts must already offend the taste fascists, and the very hills here have to be political. "

I guess the "foliage resembling overgrown underarm hair" is an implication that the zealots are probably also radical feminists?

In any case, apart from her rather subtle distinction between "ink-green" (good) and "khaki, sludgy green" (bad), McLeod has neglected to consult with reality. Here is what is actually happening on Tinakori Hill (which in misty or rainy weather has always made me feel like I'm in Twin Peaks).

Many of the pines were not only reaching the end of their natural life but were severely damaged by the series of extreme storms which have hit Wellington over the last couple of years, most recently in spring 2004. Some of the pines were felled by the storms, while others were unstable.

These have now been cut down, sawn up, and were lifted out by helicopter a couple of months ago. The trees that will go in their place will be southern rata. This is a cousin of the pohutukawa and, like that tree, produces beautiful red flowers in summer. Anyone who has seen them at this time of the year in one of the places where they grow wild, such as the Otira gorge area of the West Coast, will know that they produce spectacular splashes of vibrant colour spread across the hillside. Unlike the pohutukawa, which is introduced from futher north, they also grow naturally in Wellington.

If by any chance I am living here when the rata reach maturity, the prospect of them flowering in summer will be something I will look forward to, and its occurrence will brighten up my life. A reaction I am certain is entirely unpolitical.

McLeod goes on to mention the lupins in Central Otago,which she says are also under threat from the plant fascists. I'm also rather a fan of lupins--quite apart from their natural attributes, they were a cult favourite of Matt Kean, Paul Rickerby and I because of their link with Monty Python's Dennis Moore sketch ("your lupins or your life!"); driving down to Central during summer holidays we stopped the car and took photos of ourselves with the lupins.

I don't know anything about the situation she mentions, so can't really comment. But given her total misrepresentation of the Tinakori Hill case, I suspect that the lupins, along with the other ubiquitous and loveable introduced flora of the South Island drylands such as thyme and wild briar, probably aren't in danger of eradication.

In linking the preservation of indigenous flora with attitudes to immigration, Mcleod again misses the point. Protecting something unique doesn't imply a value judgement that it is superior, rather the reality that it doesn't exist anywhere else and if you don't preserve it, it will be lost forever.

Worked up into a lather by her straw man fascist greenies, she writes:
"...this country has a vast hinterland of bush, while we behave as if we've destroyed everything and must panic. Does no-one ever drive out there? Is that the problem? Don't we know what this country is really like?"

Her flippancy here suggests that perhaps she doesn't understand quite how comprehensively this country has been trashed--which is something I've only start to become aware of recently. Actually, people who aren't well-to-do enough to get well into the back country probably won't have much of an idea "what the country is really like". And even those who do won't see the bits that are gone forever. Apparently the Horowhenua used to be covered in lowland warm termperate forest. Today, not a jot remains in its natural setting.

The southern half of the North Island copped it particularly severly. In the race to slash and burn to make room for the all-important cloven-hooved animals, not a lot was spared. Wander into the hills around Wellington--mostly steep, unproductive land--and what you find is generally windswept grass, scrub and gorse. Taking the back roads between New Plymouth and Taumarunui, you pass through a huge, desolate area with nothing but grey shrubs, land in the first, ugly stages of regeneration. Here the volcanic soil was too acidic for pasture--but that realization was too late to save the forest.

Well before you get into value judgements about indigenous vs. introduced plants, we're due for rebuilding some of what was destroyed. In their "driving back the healthen hordes" approach to gardening, our forerunners did rather too good a job.

Stacking Your Shelves

Highly recommended - a browse through the comments on this Guardian "culture vulture" blog, which brightened up my Friday afternoon, about the different approaches to ordering your books - do you do it by chronology, subject, size, colour, or some other system?

One the one had were the Nick Hornby types who had some intricate and carefully maintained ordering system. On the other were those who thought that "books are for reading" and that arranging them in a special way is either anal or pretentious. The split of comments was about two-thirds / one third between the two groups.

The best comments made me cry with laughter. An example of the compulsive orderer:

"Initially, by broad subject area: academic books (which tend to be in my office); literature; politics; current events; music; film; biography; and so on.

Now, within those categories they are alphabetically by author and chronologically within that for academic books and literature; and by subject matter for the other categories, though alphabetically by author within that category, and if there is more than one book by an author on a given topic, chronologically of course.

I should also mention that I simply cannot bear for a book to have broken spine -- it makes reading them a careful matter.

Writing this down I realise that I may need help."

And here is the best response from the anti types:

"I organise my books according to how easily I can use them to bludgeon and brain damage people who honestly give a shit about how their books are organised. Too large and the books are too heavy to lift, and the pretentious twats get away. Too light, and insufficient damage is inflicted, and the vacuous morons barely feel it through their dense three-inch thick philistine skulls. The optimum size is a 300 page hardback and for this reason I keep these books nearest to hand. I only wish more writers would consider writing books of this size and shape. Otherwise the nob-ends who think that fiction has ANYTHING to do with how it sits on a shelf will win, and we, the mindlessly violent minority, will lose."

This, however, took the cake:

"I don't shelve books. I eat them. I'm a big book eater. I've been eating books since I was about four. I know it was four because my parents knew about it before I started school and had to warn them. They wrote a letter. In fact they wrote two - I ate the first one. Correspondence is to me what a packet of crisps is to you. I don't like the internet, because you can't eat it. A lot of you people seem to be complaining about a surplus of books. I can help. Seriously I can. Just let me live in your attic or something. Send them up six at a time. I can get through six in an evening. I wouldn't need anything else, just plenty of water and some good toothpicks. You probably don't believe me, but truth is stranger than fiction. Dickens said that. I think a lot of people say it. Dickens doesn't taste so great. Tolstoy said Dickens was a garrulous writer, which means fatty as far as I'm concerned. I wonder if Tolstoy ever ate Dickens? Dickens could have done with eating Tolstoy for sure. I'd better go, I have something on the stove."

Aside from the sore ribs, all this left me with a warm, fuzzy sensation which I think is called fellow feeling. It's nice to know there are this many people out there who are vaguely unhinged in ways you can understand and emapthize with.

For the record, I've long had this fantasy of having a comprehensive library of books, CDs, magazines, backed-up computer files and reference material, all arranged in a rational and integrated manner. But my life so far has been too transient to ever support this, and so I've tended to take the "read and pass on" approach. I own hardly any of the books which I've most enjoyed or which have been most important to me - almost all of these I have either borrowed, got out of the library, or picked up travelling and then passed on.

It's almost like these two tendencies reflect two sides to my personality - on the one hand the introverted, fraidy cat, Cancerian hoarder; on the other, the more reckless, happy-go-lucky, "life is for living" type. I suspect that this second tendency is the weaker, and that at some subconscious level there's a resistance to having a well-stocked, orderly bookshelf, because when this happens, it means the introverted Cancerian has won.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Holy Guitar Solo!

For a rock n' roll afficionado, nothing beats a good guitar solo. Not just the noodling and squealing that is de riguer in the middle of 90 percent of rock songs, but an instrumental break which grabs a song by the scruff of the neck and takes it somewhere new and beautiful. More than the most impassioned vocals, a great guitar solo expresses for the listener who he wants to be and how he wants to feel.

And I say "he" advisedly. Girls, you want to know how a man thinks about sex? Don't watch how he eats; watch how he plays air guitar.

Here, for my money, are the ten best guitar breaks of all time.

10. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) "Sultans of Swing"

An upbeat song about a jazz band playing in rough Newcastle bars. At song's end Knopfler takes off into a piece of virtuosity which totally gives the lie to the image of the song's "guitar George" who knows all the chords but "doesn't want to make it cry or sing". Knopfler builds it up into a series of rapid-fire hammer-ons as if to say: "take that, punks". He earns himself a beer.

9. Prince - "I Never Could Take the Place of Your Man"

An unusually modest Prince confesses that, while he "may be qualified for a one-night stand". he's no good for the long haul (though that could just be a smart way to get off the hook). To underline the point he then grabs his pink guitar, which is shaped rather more like a rare orchid than a classic axe, and absolutely nails a lead-out with clever call-and-response parts working towards a spiralling climax and some long, pleading string bends to fade.

8. Slash (Guns n' Roses) "November Rain"

The comes close to being the best power ballad of all time, employing all the cliches of scale and bombast with just enough G 'n R gruffness to cut through the cheese. Slash lifts the song into lofty flight with a long guitar break full of precise string bends and thoughtful, melodic passages. The solo gets reprised after the last chorus, until it all breaks down and the band decides that actually they're going to be Wagner.

7. Roger McGuinn "Eight Miles High"

Not my favourite Byrds song, and I'm not even that enamoured with the guitar breaks, but the sheer "what the hell was that" factor gets "Eight Miles High" in here. There seems to be influences from the mid-60s obsession with Indian sitar music, while McGuinn has explained that he was trying to play like Miles Davis. Trumpet riffs on a 12-string Rickenbacker? Well, the 1960s do seem to have been a more free-spirited time.

McQuinn sounds like he's playing all kinds of notes at random, but is actually fully in control. This was well ahead of its time; the way the song gets more and more chaotic and eventually collapses in on itself presages the Violent Femmes and many other acts who tried to do this.

6. Neil Young "Like A Hurricane"

Hugely influential on 80s American alternative heroes like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Junior, Neil Young is often credited with pioneering the use of noise and feedback as expressive elements. The raw--or, as his album titles would suggest, "rusty" sound is certainly original. But for me the key attraction is the casual spontanaeity of his playing. Not cultured, jazz-like spontaneity, but a slacker looseness - as if him and his guitar just turned up in the middle of the song and he's going "yeah, might play this note, yeah, might play this one. It'll turn out alright". And it does.

5. Jimi Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower"

"Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady" have great riffs, but for me this song has the best solos. It's one of Hendrix's more restrained moments, and to my mind, one of his best. There's colourful, rather than indulgent, use of the wah-wah pedal. And while in some of his other stuff he heads off on a wild tangent with a vague promise to meet the rhythm section sixteen bars hence, here the breaks stay short and to the point.

Like the Byrds with "Mr Tambourine Man", Hendrix totally reinevented the Dylan original. You build up a picture of a desert at sunset, smouldering gypsies, and minarets on the horizon. When Hendrix sings "two riders were approaching", you are on that watchtower, watching the horse's hooves kick up the sand. OK, so maybe I have an overactive imagination.

4. Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson (Big Country) "Where the Rose is Sown"

The first time I heard this song and it exploded into the chorus, every hair on my neck stood on end. Big Country's twin-lead "bagpipe" guitar was pioneered on "In a Big Country" and "Fields of Fire", but for my money it is here that it is used to the most stirring effect.

This is an anti-war song, but the music deliberately provides a soundtrack to the empty jingoism which it is critiquing. The soaring melodies of Adamson and Watson evoke the mythical lone Scots piper leading brave men into glorious battle. Fortunately, the lyrics are strong enough to help you interpret the visceral thrill the music gives you as tragic pathos.

3. Carlos Santana (Santana) "Samba Pa' Ti"

This is actually a whole instrumental song. Nick Hornby reckons that it's the song he planned to lose his virginity to. Things don't necessarily work out how you plan, of course, but I kind of know what he means--this is a smouldering, lyrical piece of guitar playing.

When I worked in a game on the carnival midway in Miami, a lot of beautiful women would walk past. But one time there was this girl who stopped near our game who looked like she'd lost her friends. She was the absolute image of angelic Latin beauty and, looking around herself with concern, caught in a temporary moment of complete unselfconsciousness. I said to Rick, the guy I was working with, "Ah, the young Fermina Daza" (the main female character in Love in the Time of Cholera), and he knew exactly what I meant.

The best thing I can think of to say about "Samba Pa' Ti" is that whenever I hear it I think of that girl on the midway, and whenever I see a girl like her, I think of this song.

2. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) "Stairway to Heaven"

Absolute cliche of course. But whatever you think of the meandering, psuedo-mystic beginning to this song, pretty much everyone remains in awe of the massive, piledriving conclusion of thumping drums, guitar and a possessed-sounding Robert Plant. Jimmy Page's solo starts as Plant reminds us that "the stairway lies on the whispering wind". Slipping between major and minor scales, it twists and turns, evoking dark winding hedgegrows, lit candles, and ladies shining white light.

Page knows the value of repetition to build tension, before he bursts off into another fluid run. The solo builds to a wailing crescendo before plunging into that thunderous ending. Led Zeppelin were the band who made pretty much everyone who came after them seem a little like Spinal Tap, and only they could really get away with a song like this. You have to admit, it fully rocks.

1. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) "Tunnel of Love"

Close for No. 1, very close. But in the end Knopfler gets top spot as well as No. 10, and not just because I said in my top 10 songs blog that "Tunnel of Love" had "the best guitar lead-out in the history of rock 'n roll". This is a work of art, where your regular guitar break is a can of paint thrown at the wall. It's fluid, precise playing, relying not a jot on overdriven sustain. Every note counts, and the rest of the band understand this as well as Knopfler.

There's sexiness here. But also romance and poetry, the tumbling-butterflies feeling of fleeting passion. Something you can't recapture--but won't ever lose.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Global Waffling

The wilful doublethink about responses to global warming continues unabated. This Reuters article reports on the meeting of environment ministers in Montreal from November 28 to December 9 to discuss post-2012 plans for tackling climate change.

The article points out that the same old issues will persist--how to get the US and Australia to commit to emissions targets, and how to bring big developing economies like India and China on board.

As an example of the opposition to the whole damn circus, there's a quote from a rabidly anti-Kyoto think tank:

"... "To reduce carbon emissions you have to reduce consumption, and that can only be done by raising prices," Margo Thorning, head of the International Council for Capital Formation, said in an interview in London.

"It is wrong to put a country on an economic starvation diet. A good outcome in Montreal would be a decision to end Kyoto," she said, echoing the White House line that the answer lay in areas like new technology, clean coal, nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration...."

To its credit, Reuters does point out that the ICCF is "the European arm of the car and oil industry-funded American Council for Capital Formation". But it misses the blatant contradiction in the their statements. The point of "new technology, clean coal, nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration" is that they help reduce carbon emissions. So it is just not true to say that "to reduce carbon emissions you have to reduce consumption".

The real disagreement is not about technological vs. Luddite, "starvation diet" approaches, but between those who are prepared to accept targets and those who are not. So, here's a devils advocate position: It may be that the most promising technologies won't cut in for a few years, and Kyoto targets will be missed, but within a few more years we will see reductions far beyond those envisaged by Kyoto, leading to real, measurable checks on global warming .

In which case the dialogue ought to be about the kind of targets that are set, and how progress is measured, rather than whether to throw out targets completely.

However, Tony Blair is now talking about voluntary targets as being the only way to get the US and others in the room. If so, so be it, but this seems rather like throwing up the hands and saying "Ok lads, everyone do their best".

Whatever happens, it is probable is that as economies transition to using different technologies and releasing less carbon, there will be some losers, including some with a significant stake in the current system. The quicker this happens, the more stands to be lost (and gained, by those entrepreneurs who are ahead of the game) . So you do not have to look far for the vested interests with an incentive to slow the whole process down by spreading disinformation. You just have to be aware that that's what is going on.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books and Inspiration

If you're looking for an internet portal that helps you tap into the zeitgeist (at least with an American, broadly liberal flavour), Slate is a good place to start. There's scholarly argument, polemic and media commentary. You get both contributions to, and analysis of, the current debates.

Yesterday they began a feature series on "How to Save the American University", getting a range of prominent academics to put forward their views on what students should be learning and how they should learn it. The articles are definitely worth a read if you're at all interested in these questions.

I like Steven Pinker's idea that science teaching should be organized by "content rather than discipline: the physical universe, rather than physics or astronomy or chemistry; living things, rather than biology; the human mind, rather than psychology or neuroscience".

It's only belatedly that I've become interested in scientific topics, as I've come to see their interconnectedness and relationship to things that are meaningful to me. Maths and science were never going to be my strong points, but I think I could have got more engaged at a younger age if they had been made part of a narrative the way Pinker suggests.

As it was, when there was no answer to *why* a parallel circuit behaved differently from a series circuit, or what the implications of radioactive decay were, I just glazed over and tried not to breath too much of the lab's ammonia fumes.

Elsewhere, I agree with K. Anthony Appiah's suggestion it wouldn't be a bad idea for humanities majors to learn some stats, and am intrigued by Alison Gopnik's proposal of a revolution in learning practice.

However, the best thing in this series so far is a piece on "My First Literary Crush", with a raft of noteworthies describing the book which most changed their life in college. Frighteningly worthy, most of them.

Reading this made me wonder what book most inspired me in my university years, and after some thought I'm afraid to say--walking cliche that it makes me--I couldn't go past On the Road. As with about a million other wannabe bohemian college kids, it made me jump out of my seat, punch my fist into my hand and shout "yes!".

I guess that explains why the people featured here followed a sensible, structured, pathway into their current careers as writers, editors and journalists, while I raced off to work in carnivals in Canada and wind up penniless in Guatemala, convinced I just had to Know Time, then write it all down on one 36-foot long piece of paper.

Searching for something less cliched, the book which first made me appreciate journalistic non-fiction as a literary form was Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson family murders, investigation and trial. Not by any means a great work, I suppose, but I was gripped by the way that individual facts pieced together to form the narrative, and how the deadpan retelling of the events and characters' back stories created a picture of late-1960s California, paradoxically more vivid for the authorial restraint.

It seems that at university I mostly read the compulsory stuff, drank beer and goofed off. I would do better on the "books that influenced my life" thread if I were allowed to include the times before and after formal study. And perhaps in another post I will.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Music That Comes From an Island

Diana Wichtel is easily one of New Zealand's better journalists. Yes I know I bagged her in relation to the fawning interview with Mike Hosking in the Listener's Woman's Weekly special two weeks ago. But that seems to have an aberration. Her TV column in the Listener is usually smart and punchy. This week she has a nice gag about Judy Bailey saying "And coming up after the break, I'm sacked!".

It's her interview with Bic Runga in this week's Listener, though, which really impressed me. This is the kind of gently probing treatment of an interviewee which you expect to find in the Guardian (NB, in my view that's a compliment). She brings her own perspective, without being overbearing, and throws in a few witticisms. She lets Bic Runga speak, but doesn't merely parrot what she says. Sympathetic without being sycophantic (a balance not struck with Hosking). This is actually the kind of thing I'd like to learn to do.

Actually, the real reason I'm mentioning this comes at the end of the article where Bic Runga is asked if she feels she's "still making New Zealand music" and says yes:

"I was playing a gig in LA. A friend who's a musician came and said 'Oh, your music really sounds like it's from an island' ", says Runga happily. She's American and that's what she thought".

Excuse me taking the liberty of quoting myself here, because I did get a little shiver down my spine when I read that. In my post a while back on my No. 4 song, Crowded House's "Distant Sun", I wrote:

"One night in New Plymouth a couple of years ago during a road trip I saw Wellington band Hobnail Boots at the local pub. In the same set they played "Distant Sun", Dave Dobbyn's "Whaling" and Bic Runga's "Sway", all embellished with their trademark harmonies and Jo Moir's gently persuasive violin. Hearing all these songs together played by the same band made me realise there was something shared by their yearning melodies which made me feel a particularly strong connection with them.

The next morning as I walked along the New Plymouth waterfront and looked out at the Pacific Ocean, I wondered if I hadn't stumbled across an emerging cultural identity...something to do with living in what poet Allen Curnow called "a small room with large windows"...If the New Zealand psyche has inevitably been shaped by the claustrophobia of being stuck in the small room of a frontier society, it is also affected by staring out through the large windows of the sky and sea..."

So, you see, I'm not just making it up. Other people out there are on the same wave length.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Dreams Are Made of These

According to this web site, the most common dreams fall under the following headings:


I'm quite chuffed to know that, in this respect at least, I'm in tune with the world soul. I have all six on a regular basis. "Teeth" is close to being the most common, a no-brainer since I've actually had issues with my teeth in reality. "Naked" comes along pretty infrequently these days, and "Chase" is also less common than when I was younger.

"Flying" is very occasional, and one that you have to enjoy while it lasts (you sometimes spot that it might be a dream while you're having it, which unfortunately tends to hasten the waking up process). "Falling" is probably the rarest of the top six for me.

"Exam" is the one that most seems to have taken over my unconscious. In my variation on the theme, I suddenly realise I've been enrolled all year in some university courses but haven't attended any lectures and haven't done any course work. The exam is tomorrow and I know nothing about the subject. It's also well past the date when I might have pulled out of the course without academic penalty. Another variation is that the exams have already occurred and I've missed them completely.

I've had this dream so often that every now and again I have a waking moment where it occurs to me that I actually haven't got an academic record filled up with Ds and Es from courses where I didn't do the work, and this comes as a pleasant surprise.

A lot of the "interpretation"on this web site and other dream literature just seems to be made up at random. But what is fascinating is that much of what seems to be an intensely private experience is actually shared--right down to the fine detail. It's both reassuring and puzzling, for example, to find that I'm far from the only one to have had exactly this dream.

Clearly, at some level there are such things as archetypes--unconscious symbols shared between individuals and even across cultures. I'd love to know what evolutionary psychologists make of archetypal dreams. Evolutionary psychology develops theories about the origins of behaviour or mental traits as adaptations to the selection pressures operating during our biological evolution. For example, instinctive human fear of snakes is explained by the fact that snakes were dangerous to our hominid ancestors, and it was adaptive to steer clear of them.

Archetypal dreams seem to present something of a challenge to the causative, literal-minded evolutionary psych mode of explanation. Sure, evolutionary psychology can provide theories to explain why we all share the same fears and desires. But how does it account for what appears to be a common metaphorical language which translates those fears and desires into near-identical narratives?

Maybe all the "symbolic" interpretations are guff, and dreams are all literal. Dreaming about your teeth falling out represents a fear of losing your teeth; those early humans who were subconsciously reminded to take care of their teeth lived longer and had more offspring. Perhaps, but it's starting to look a little far-fetched. It also doesn't explain how modern concepts like exams and phones get locked into *exactly* the same narratives.

In any case, I'm off to bed--and I must be about due for a "Flying" dream.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

It's the Quality, Stupid

It's become received wisdom that the problems at TVNZ--from the ratings dip in its news & current affairs to the ructions over salaries--are an inevitable outcome of the insupportable balancing act required by its "dual remit", to act as a public service broadcaster while still succeeding commerically and returning a dividend.

Every commentator and his dog is suggesting that TVNZ be split up, with TV2 retaining a commercial focus while TV1 is freed from the demands of the market to act as a pure public broadcaster a la the BBC. The neoliberal, "government has no business running a TV station" types are gunning for TV2 to become commercial-only (and eventually be sold), while the likes of Chris Trotter are more enthused about the prospect of a "nation-building" public service-oriented TV1.

This may well be a very good move, and the dual remit may indeed be unsustainable. But I don't believe that it is the real reason for TVNZ's slump in the news & current affairs ratings. In this area, the purely commercial TV3 has won viewers simply though providing a better product.

There's a persistent, and I would have thought outdated, view that the market only demands lowest common denominator trash, while quality and local content will always make a loss. That may be so if you think consumers are all morons, and "nation-building" has to mean documentaries about tuataras. But TV3's CanWest stablemate C4 has done a fantastic amount to expose and promote NZ music, developed local presenting talent, and met the needs of a range of niche markets, all while paying its way through the innovative use of text voting.

Over on TV3, take a look at the way the channel presents its delayed free-to-air rugby coverage. With so many people having Sky, this could easily be a lame duck. But presenters Oscar Kightley and Nathan Rawere provide a preview and highlights package which is funny, irreverent and popular. Would stuffy TV1 have thought of getting a gay Polynesian comedian to front the rugby, celebrating and at the same time gently deflating some of the the pomposity of our mythic national sport? I can't imagine a much more nation-building exercise than that.

The news section offers simple, straight-ahead presentation, thankfully free from the eyebrow-twitching frippery of TV1, plus some striking weather graphics.

TVNZ's real problem is an entrenched sense of entitlement and a lack of imagination, innovation and capacity for renewal. It shares the tendency of ex-state monopolies to combine corporate excess with stifling hierarchies and the inertia of bureaucracy. Unlike a real private company, it's never had to fight for and win its market share.

It's also guilty of believing its own myths. Befuddled by endless womens' magazine covers, its management actually seems to have believed that Paul Holmes was a genius and Judy Bailey was the (rather creepy-sounding) "mother of the nation". Meanwhile, those of us who loathed Holmes' insulting style from the beginning, and didn't want any bloody autocue-reader for a mother, have been gradually joined by more and more people who've weaned themselves off their inherited tendency to go straight to the TVNZ channels.

But some, including the likes of Trotter still don't understand that this is what has happened. In his Independent article, Trotter opines:

"The inerrant democracy of the ratings system also requires TVNZ to assemble a galaxy of TV "stars." The Susan Wood, Kate Hawkesby, Paul Henry, Kay Gregory, Wendy Petrie and Simon Dallow "brands" contribute to building viewer loyalty and play a key role in keeping the most lucrative audiences away from TVNZ's competitors.

For politicians and TVNZ board members to complain about the quantum of these presenters' salaries betrays a woeful ignorance not only of their function but also of their huge commercial value."

Wrong. This was the rationale repeatedly wheeled out to explain why the annoying "personalities" foisted on the country were being paid three times the Prime Minister's salary. But surely, the lie to that was given by the experience of Holmes, who took his "magnetic personality" to Prime, where he won all of 1% of the audience.

As many of us had sworn through gritted teeth all along, it wasn't the personality which brought the audience and the advertisers, it was the timeslot. The TVNZ audience was inherited; for previous generations it was the only thing on, and, given reception issues, for some people still is.

The criticisms of "star" salaries by the public and politicians were less tall poppy-bashing resentment that anyone should get paid that amount, than disbelief that they were really justified on commercial grounds. And in fact, TVNZ hasn't been "keeping the most lucrative audiences away from [its] competitors", but haemorraghing them at an increasing rate.

A real example of a presenter winning an audience is John Campbell on TV3. Though this is the second time I've made complimentary mention of him on this blog, don't mistake me for his No1 cheerleader. Like Holmes, Campbell has his tics and foibles which annoy or attract according to taste. But his outstanding quality is that he generally treats his topics with intelligence, and both his viewers and interviewees with respect.

John Campbell did win permanent admiration from this viewer a few weeks ago when, in a piece on teenage drinking, he took the unprecedented step of actually asking some teenagers what they thought. The devilish cleverness--to hit upon the fact that people who aren't included by the first-person plural pronoun in phrases like "our kids" and "our properties", also watch TV.

I understand that with the funding available for public service objectives over the last several years, TVNZ has been able to commission and broadcast a number of locally-made dramas and documentaries, some of which are suposed to be quite strong. It's hard to say, since the majority have been buried away in odd, inaccessible timeslots.

If TVNZ had been daring enough to put even one or two of these new local programmes in prime time, they might have some genuine grounds for pointing to the stresses of a dual remit and conflicting objectives. As it stands, the real problem is that they are doing both jobs badly.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Quit Work to Write Your Blog

Or perhaps not. Nicholas Duquette has calculated how popular you would need to be to make a living purely out of selling advertising on your blog. It makes kind of chastening reading. On the other hand, it does help you get your focus back on more realistic goals, like starting a magazine, researching a book-length, investigative story, or writing a groundbreaking novel.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

PC Or Not PC?

The National Party's nomination of Wayne Mapp as its "spokesperson on the Eradication of Political Correctness" has been well and truly lampooned and picked apart thoughout the New Zealand blogosphere and mainstream media. But I still feel the need to say my tuppence worth (or should that be my $0.02 NZD worth).

Some of the hilarity has been directed at Don Brash's stumbling inability in a radio interview to specify any of the the "politically correct" practices that would be eradicated--he fell back on saying "look, I last read (Wayne Mapp's) speech four months ago". Others have pointed out that if "political correctness" is supposed to stand for some kind of totalitarian suppression of dissenting viewpoints, the idea of "eradicating" it sounds even more scarily totalitarian.

Still others have jumped on the the comedic hypocrisy of Brash saying that one of the reasons Mapp is qualified for the job is that he is "married to a Maori person" (not even "has a Maori wife").

"Political correctness" has come to stand for any number of perceived evils, and is now a banner under which to bash pretty much any vaguely progressive cause. Mapp himself admits this tendency, noting that "even global warming has been described as politically correct".

But his attempt to actually define political correctness has also drawn justified criticism from all corners of the political spectrum. Speaking on democracy and liberalism, Mapp says that
"democracy is not just about choice, it is also about majorities. The ideas and values of the majority are able to prevail over other choices". According to Mapp, political correctness is when "a person, an institution or a government..cease[s] to represent the interests of the majority".

Hello? According to my limited understanding, democracy means government by and for the people, not "the majority of the people". What Mapp describes is best called by another name--"mob rule". The protection and empowerment of minorities is absolutely fundamental to democracy; surely, that's part of what the tortuous process to try and put together an Iraqi constitution is about?

And who is "the" majority anyway? Given that most people are in some sense members of both majorities and minorities, the expression is almost meaningless. Unless, that is, there really is some hidden agenda to drive us back to a monolithic, 1950s-esque world where the blokes are back in charge and the sheilas and Maoris do what they're told.

But it's a little too easy to mock the Chaplinesque, self-contradictory efforts by National politicians to get their message across. It's clear that they feel they are picking up on a genuine popular groundswell. And, rather than just deflating the rhetoric, maybe it's worth trying to reconstruct what they might be getting at, to see whether it's worthy of serious consideration.

So, is there a consistent thing called political correctness, and has it "gone too far"? To answer that, we need to peer back into history a bit. The thread which links the many disparate minority rights movements (feminism, ethnic identity movements, gay rights, etc) which have sprung up since World War II, is that they developed in response to the limitations of enlightenment liberalism.

The latter promoted the originally revolutionary idea that all people should be equal under the law. But nominal equality under "one law for all" failed to deliver real equality, since in the cultural arena certain "dominant" perspectives defined what was self-evident, good, normal and natural. These values determined the customs and practices of society and drove its institutions of law, politics, education, science and medicine.

The post-war period saw the first systematic challenges to the cultural order, as women and ethnic minorities demanded equal status on their own terms, the right to define their own identities, and positive steps to end discrimination. Meanwhile, from the 1960s on, postmodernism in sociology and literary theory provided the tools to critique the dominant societal values and assumptions and their inherent cultural, ethnic, gender and sexual biases.

Anybody who thinks that this was tiresome extremism from the beginning might consider that, just to cite a couple of examples, as recently as the 1970s homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder under the DSM classification system, while in Britain a married woman who worked had to pay secondary tax and Inland Revenue would only correspond with her husband. We know that the civil rights movement in the US only succeeded in ending segregation in the 1960s, but to cite that great postmodernist critic, Bruce Hornsby of Bruce Hornsby and the Range:

...the law don't change another's mind / when all he sees at the hiring time
Is a line on the colour bar

As struggles were fought out in the key cultural spheres of education, employment, health and reproductive issues, language was a vital battlefield. Those who supported or sympathised with these movements learned to recognise the ways in which language could reinforce unspoken assumptions and marginalise or degrade other groups. If there is one characteristic which is at the core of what is now considered "political correctness", it is this tendency to use inclusive or neutral language.

The phrase may have originally been coined by supporters of progressive movements; if so, it was a silly move. With its implication of enforced conformity, opponents were already using the expression in a pejorative way by the early 1980s.

But even some of those deeply involved in these struggles think that they became one-dimensional and limited. In her anti-coporate tract No Logo, Naomi Klein describes the obsession with what she calls "identity politics" of herself and fellow student activists during the 80s and 90s. This distracted attention, she says, from critiquing the wider power structures of late capitalism.

It also proved too easy for corporations to co-apt; demands for diversity and "a voice" for marginalised groups were met simply by carving out new market niches and making them the beneficiaries of edgy new advertising campaigns.

I also recall this time well. While understanding and sympathizing with the various movements, I was made uneasy by what seemed to be the practical fetishisation of being "marginalised", and by the systematic disempowerment of the individual, which postmodernism had deliberately deconstructed and cast aside.

There were frequent debates with Simon Doherty. I said I felt cut adrift; as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, I seemed to be reduced to a vehicle for oppressive discourses and couldn't identify a context for acting ethically. He said I should get over it and support the causes.

I said I thought the various minority rights movements should be seen as fleshing out more fully the universal human rights established by the Enlightenment. He said that the concept of universal human rights had delivered very little until oppressed groups started sticking up for themselves; there had been more advances in the last 50 years than in the previous 200.

The debates have rolled on, and led to some unpredicted outcomes. As Norman Levitt points out in an amusing article on the current state of American academia, the elevation of "diversity" above every other value has backfired somewhat on progressives-- hardline conservatives who share with cultural theory radicals a loathing of John Sutart Mill and Charles Darwin now also demand "representation". Postmodernism's attacks on objectivity have given inintended succour to the reinvention of creationism under the Intelligent Design label--witness President Bush's view that "both sides of the debate should be taught".

We're now also left with a good deal of confusion. Desperate not to be considered sexist or racist, people tiptoe around issues of gender, colour, ethnicity or sexuality until these identities gain disproportionate importance and become an elephant in the room.

While originally the idea was to be open to other cultural perspectives, now "culture" is seen as something static and inherited, and becomes a millstone weighing down individuals. I hear of cases in the health sector where people, who happen to be Maori, find themselves assumed to be "representing Maori", effectively being lumped with an extra job, one that they don't necessarily feel they're at all qualified for.

Elsewhere, an increasingly common comment from individual gay men is that they don't want to be "represented" by any movement, and resent being lumped in with demonstrative types parading along in feathers. The personal might be political, but there is a strong contrary belief that the personal should be allowed to remain personal.

So, does this all add up to some blight on society, which needs to be "eradicated". Hardly. There perhaps needs to be a trend back towards treating people as people (I would have been scoffed at for saying that at Canterbury University in 1992), and a preparedness to argue about the principles behind actions, rather than assuming someone who has reservations about them is a reactionary.

But there are still serious debates to be had about inequality, discrimination, and marginalisation. Those who view particular causes as frivolous, or in fact believe that certain groups *should* be marginalised or not accorded certain rights, should be prepared to defend their views on a case-by-case basis.

Trying to shut down progressive movements by attacking "political correctness" across the board is far more oppressive than the perceived conformity imposed (more like gently suggested) by the movements themselves. The lashing out at PC-ness by the likes of Alan Duff just seems like a desire to head back to a different kind of conformity.

For me the great achievement of Michael King's History of New Zealand was to produce a relatively short, readable book which presents the country's history as quirkier, more happy-go-lucky, and considerably less monolithic and boring than the prevalent cultural myths would have it. And while covering the span of the nation's history, he managed to throw in a few choice incidents and anecdotes which are more illuminating than great screeds of dates and events.

My favourite is his recounting of an incident that occurred on a Wellington tram in the 1950s. Standing in the aisle, a young Hungarian New Zealander was carrying on a conversation with his father, in Hungarian. Suddenly, a man leapt up from one of the seats, punched him to the ground, and shouted "speak English, damn you!".

This is a great story because it exemplifies the strong distrust of difference which has long lurked darkly beneath New Zealand's celebrated egalitarianism. Whether Wayne Mapp is aware of it or not, this remains a strong element in the popular groundswell feels he is picking up on.

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Monday, October 31, 2005

It's All Over, Isn't It

As if there weren't enough to get depressed about. The Listener, NZ's only remotely half-hearted gesture at an occasionally serious magazine, continues its inexorable drive to morph into the Women's Weekly.

This week's feature story is a six-page infomercial titled "House of Gain: Best ways to renovate without breaking the bank". Delivered by--you guessed it--that doyen of incisive and analytic journalism, Joanne Black.

Some things we learn include:
-Gold window treatments give the impression of a sunny day
-Warm creams or soft, muted peach and coral walls are the most flattering to skin tones

So now you won't need to hire a colour consultant.

Plus, some good advice (thanks to "Claire Drake, managing director, Limited Editions"):
1. Be honest with yourself about how you like to live, and who you need to consider. Just you or a family plus several animals? Formal or informal? Uncluttered or busy?

The week's other top story is a fawning, three-page interview with Mike Hosking by Diana Wichtel. An excerpt:

"However Hosking votes, an image rethink of this magnitude, as lovingly captured in women's mag spreads, does have you wondering about the real Mike Hosking. 'Probably the reality is that everybody's complex', he muses ".

Within the next few months, The Listener will run a cover story featuring at least one of Brad, Jen, or Angelina. You heard it here first.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Green Folly or: Bash Kyoto

The Kyoto accord continues to be routinely bashed by all and sundry in the New Zealand mainstream media. It's described as a "billion-dollar bungle", presented as idealistic environmentalism and "big government" regulation, and opposed stoutly by grandstanding politicians. The Australian papers deride their flaky New Zealand cousins for signing up, and their articles are sheepishly reprinted here, with nary a dissenting voice.

The latest piece of scoffing comes from (who else) Roger Kerr. In a Business Roundtable press release on "Why the Greens Charm Offensive Failed", Kerr dismisses the Green Party's recent attempt to engage business leaders in constructive discussion. Among the policies he gives a once-over lightly critique is "another iconic Green policy, the Kyoto Protocol".

The Greens, says Kerr "seem unwilling to accept that Kyoto is not going to happen - one country after another looks set to ignore its commitments - and that the US approach to global warming, based on research and technology, is likely to carry the day".

Kerr goes on to accuse the Greens of not wanting to engage with "well-documented criticisms of doom-mongering, such as the work of Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg". If the Greens want improved dialogue with business, he recommends they put "more emphasis on market-based solutions to environmental problems instead of central planning and regulation".

So, was Kyoto drawn up by a bunch of Luddite, economically naiive, tree-hugging greenies? Actually no--it was negotiated by teams of international scientists and economists, and is exactly the kind of technology-favouring, "market-based solution" that Kerr claims to favour. Moreover, the compromises struck in its development are exactly the kinds that Lomborg argues for in his writings.

The Kyoto accord established a goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, to help hold global warming to the less drastic end of possible scenarios. But rather than set heavy handed, one-size-fits-all regulations, a market-based system was devised, which allowed the trading of emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions are acknowledged to produce a long-term cost for everybody. So the system was designed to make that cost be factored into economic decisions. This favours technology development, because if you can come up with smarter, cleaner technology to help reduce emissions, you won't have to pay the cost of the excess emissions.

If, however it won't be economic for you to hit the emissions targets just yet, you can buy credits off somebody else--essentially paying them to be more efficient or cleaner on your behalf.

However, most developing countries don't have the flexibility to make these kind of trade offs. As Lomborg points out, for most of them, worrying about global warming is less of a priority than food, clean water, sanitation, proper housing and medicine for their citizens. With much lower per capita emissions than rich countries, they simply need to be able to develop their economies and improve their overall standard of living. To quote National Party environment spokesperson Nick Smith: "if you want to be clean, first you've got to be rich".

So it was agreed that developing countries would be exempt from the Kyoto targets for the "first commitment period" up to 2012. Like most international agreements, the accord was imperfect, pragmatic and provisional. But in 1998 most everyone found it acceptable, including the USA and Australia.

Later, of course, Bush and Howard backed out. Despite the fact that as big, rich economies, the US and Australia are among the best-placed countries to make the necessary changes--such as fast-forwarding new technologies--they decided they couldn't possibly handle the short-term adjustment costs or, God forbid, lose competitive advantage to developing countries.

Recently it was annouced that the US, Australia, India, China, Japan and South Korea had signed a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through technology development and sharing. This is what lies behind Kerr's reference to "the US approach to global warming, based on research and technology". For those who were consistently fed the idea that Kyoto=whacky green Ludditism, this looked like good old George and John goin' it alone and trumping 'em again. Research and technology beats woolly, anti-growth environmentalism.

Except that Kyoto already promotes and incentivises research and technology. And the US-driven pact does not make any commitments or set any targets. Critics say it is mostly an attempt to protect export markets and help the coal industry (pact signatories include the four biggest coal-producing nations). It looks rather like an attempt to gesture at doing something about what is now a univerally acknowledged problem, without playing by the same rules as everybody else.

This is in fact a far from universal attitude in the countries in question. A number of American states, counties and cities have set themselves emissions targets, and groups of businesses have even been lobbying the federal government to set clear regulations (no, really!). They figure there will be regulations at some stage (maybe when we get a Democractic administration), and they would like some certainty.

With respect to future outcomes, Kerr may well be right--if the US and Australia don't formally sign up, Kyoto may not fly. There are also some principled arguments about flaws in the emissions trading system, or the particular Kyoto-related measures the NZ government has tried to implement here--the doomed "fart tax" on animal methane, and the current carbon tax.
But it's utterly misleading and disingenuous to present Kyoto as idealistic green-ism, in opposition to technology and market-based approaches. And it's lamentable that the media lazily allowes this to become the received wisdom, so the likes of Peters and Dunne can can gain votes by their grandstanding.

Kerr could express qualified enthusiasm for the kind of law-governed market system of which Adam Smith would have approved, and suggest ways to make it work better. Instead, he and his ilk simply choose to bash and obsfucate. So, rather than being engaged in a genuine debate about our alternatives, the public is pushed back into the good old Kiwi attitude of "she'll be right". Which effectively translates as: "let somebody else deal with the problem; we'll freeload".

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Big Government Reprised

Well, there was quite a lot of constructive debate following my post about "big government". Apart from the comments on the post itself, I've had some interesting discussions with various work colleagues and acquaintances, and an excellent chat with some guys who I think were National Party strategists down at the pub the other Friday night.

Amidst all the debate, the original point got a little muddied--and perhaps I didn't articulate it particularly clearly in the first place. My contention was that talk of "big government" is propaganda jargon imported from US (along with other irritating tropes like "flip-flopping"), and tends to be deployed in a hypocritical way.

In the US, conservatives who decry labor or environmental regulation or generous social spending as "big government" are often the very same people who back big defense spending, trying to extradite a cannabis advocate from Canada, setting up an FBI obscenity unit to seek convictions for adult pornography, or imprisoning millions of people for nonviolent drug crimes.

In my view, the latter actions are bigger and uglier examples of government intervention. Yet somehow they don't tend to get acknowledged as "government".

It turned out that everyone to whom I put this agreed with me. "Oh yes, it's hypocritical--the government should back out of people's personal lives as well" said my work colleague. "Actually, I think all drugs should be legalised" said one of the National Party supporters at the pub.

Which is fine, except my other point was that these kind of cross-the-board libertarian principles only seem to survive in universities, pubs and other theoretical settings. As I argued in my original post, there's a mysterious process by which those who have to actually make policy see their social liberalism and internationalism rapidly eroded (see ACT's "zero tolerance" crime policy and their promise to double defense spending, for example).

But my interlocutors remained convinced that in New Zealand there really was a distinct creature called Big Government and that its indulgent master was the Labour-led left. It seemed to keep coming back to Working for Families. People got hot under the collar about "putting middle-class New Zealanders on welfare". They railed against the high effective marginal tax rates created by WFF, which are a "disincentive to working harder and earning more".

I have a certain amount of sympathy for this point of view, but don't think it's as clear cut as people make out. True, the base WFF package involves all kinds of forms that have to be filled out and chunks of personal information fired off to Work & Income and the tax department. I have to admit, it's welfare, and somewhat byzantine welfare at that.

And, as my sister and her family have discovered, when it ends up involving ongoing negotiation with petty officials who don't seem to pick up their phone messages or communicate with each other, it can create more grief and hassle than it's worth.

But while there's some technical and semantic arguments1, the big extension to WFF proposed by Labour can plausibly be presented as a simple tax break. In fact, with a little rejigging and rebranding, the whole WFF package could be sold as "lower-to-middle income tax relief". Credit where it's due--Peter Dunne and United Future have done some thinking about how this might be achieved.

The real difference in the NZ election was that the neoliberal(ish) National party wanted to spread out its tax breaks across the population, while the more social democratic Labour approach was to direct all relief at lower to middle-income families.

Given that it's now de rigeur to commodify everything, you could argue that this is a "targeted incentive to encourage investment in offspring". What economic activity definitely needs to be encouraged in New Zealand, and subsidised if necessary? Given the aging population, declining birth rate, slumping net migration, and the need to have somebody to do work and pay taxes in the future, creating kids is a sine qua non.

And while people are known to breed while poor, there's good grounds for thinking that extra money available for education, a healthy diet, and a warm house might help produce higher-quality adults in the future--a good outcome for society as a whole.

Yes, as WFF abates, it does produce high effective marginal tax rates--but they are something you will get with any kind of targeting. It's worth mentioning that the community services card, a targeting tool introduced by a neoliberally-minded previous administration, didn't abate at all.

When you reached the threshold it simply cut off, meaning that people on very low incomes who had expenses subsidised by the card (such as health care) could be faced with marginal tax rates of over 100% when their income increased slightly. Much of the byzantine bits in WFF are actually intended to avoid this sort of thing happening as people move into work from being on a benefit.

And let's be realistic--is there really a linear relationship between working harder and earning more? It would be nice if this were true, but for many people wages depend on factors beyond their control, such as what their employer can afford, or is willing, to pay.

I'm not arguing that WFF is a panacea. The jury is out on which system of tax breaks would produce greater happiness and productivity. And beyond that, there's a philosophical debate about how society assigns burdens and rewards.

But what I don't believe we have is "big goverment vs. "less government". As in the US, both sides want government to do about the same amount, but have different priorities. These phrases should be acknowledged as loaded, and should not be passed off by op-ed writers as objective characterizations of party policies.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Greens May Really Be Flesh-Eating Aliens

As incumbent Prime Minister Helen Clark looks likely to enter some kind of post-election coalition arrangement with the Green Party , concerns are rising that the Greens may really be a race of flesh-eating aliens with diabolical plans to take over the planet.

Centre-right politicians and business leaders are warning that, despite attempts by the Greens to present themselves as harmless and mainstream, they could actually be lizard-like creatures from the Horsehead Nebula with the ability to appear in human form, bent on turning the population into their personal protein source.

United Future leader Peter Dunne is insistent about the threat posed by the Green Party. "On the surface they might look like harmless, woolly environmentalists" he said. Dig a little deeper and you find they're throwback communists bent on destroying the economy. Dig deeper still and it turns out they're foul, scaly monsters from outer space who will carry off our children and enslave the human race".

Dunne has vowed to fight the Green scourge, even if it means forming a lone band of warriors dedicated to protecting the Earth from the invading hordes. He said that if necessary he would become a shadowy fugitive heading the resistance to the alien imperium.

"The Greens will not prevail. It's my bottom line", he said

Business Roundtable director Roger Kerr cautioned that if the Greens are allowed to get even one talon on the controls of government, nothing will stop them. "Today, an associate ministerial position outside Cabinet in environment or food safety, tomorrow the planet", he warned.

"If the Greens gain any power at all, it will be disastrous for my rival star system--I mean, for the New Zealand economy", said Kerr.

Suspicions have been growing about the possible extraterrestrial nature and carnivorous intentions of the Greens after a series of strange and sinister incidents have recently begun to come to light.

ACT leader Rodney Hide claims he entered the Beehive toilets one night when working late and stumbled across a frightening sight. "Keith Locke was standing in front of the mirror and appeared to be putting on a fake human face " said Hide. "I caught a glimpse of a long, forked tongue and an evil, reptilian visage. At the time I thought I was seeing things and dismissed it, but on several occasions since then I've found a strange, glowing ooze around the edges of the handbasins. "

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has also come forward to report his misgivings about the Greens. He says that he surprised Green co-leader Rod Donald in a lonely part of the parliamentary corridors, hitching up his suspender belts and stuffing away what looked like a tail. It was around the same time, says Peters, that several of Parliament's cats mysteriously went missing.

Despite his suspicions, Peters would not confirm whether he would oppose a coalition which involved the Greens, saying only that he would be "uncomfortable" working with an administration that included alien monsters.

Amidst the controversy, Helen Clark has refused to confirmwhether she intends to offer the Greens positions in Cabinet. However, there has been widespread speculation that she will strike a Faustian deal in which she and her party will preserve their own lives and collaborate as functionaries of a future alien administration.

Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons has rejected the allegations that she leads a party of bloodthirsty creatures from a distant part of the galaxy. "This is reprehensible scaremongering" she said. "These wild claims are simply intended to distract attention from the real issues and obscure other parties' own lack of ideas. The Greens simply want to promote policies which support peace, diversity, a sustainable economy, and a healthy environment. "

"Off the record--ahahahahahahahaha! Soon we shall devour your brains!"

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Monday, October 03, 2005

French Corruption, Envy Due to Cheese, Study Shows

[from January 2004--this one was inspired by endless scholarly "What's the matter with France" articles reprinted in Arts & Letters Daily]

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides the strongest evidence yet that the corrupt, venal nature of the French is caused by the prevalence of cheese in the spineless cretins’ diet, researchers say.

The comprehensive analysis of French dietary patterns is described by head MIT researcher Professor Jim Twain as demonstrating a "compelling" link between the backward, decaying French culture and the high quantities of cheese consumed by the devious little slimeballs.

"Funnily enough, The Simpsons hit the nail on the head when they called them cheese-eating surrender monkeys" says Professor Twain. "Those surrender monkeys really do eat a lot of cheese".

The MIT team believe their study will set a new benchmark in the long-running academic debate on the causes of the envy, ingratitude and poor personal hygiene characteristic of the veto-happy Gallic race.

The researchers are confident they have "buried" rival theories, most notably propounded by Princeton-based Professor Ernest Rickman, that French duplicity and lack of moral fibre is linked to consumption of foie gras, a delicacy made from goose liver. Dr Janet Stevens, who headed the MIT investigation into historical dietary patterns, says Rickman’s theory is "dubious, to say the least".

She argues that foie gras could not possibly have a causal connection with the craven and arrogant French nature, since it is a regional delicacy traditionally available only in aristocratic circles. Its restricted consumption up until recent times would not explain how an entire society ended up with an overinflated sense of self-importance and a really gay-sounding language, she claims.

"It’s not like the slimy frogs have suddenly become cowardly and two-faced in the last forty years" says Dr Stevens. "Where, for example, was foie gras when French forces were routed by badly outnumbered Panzer divisions in 1940? Where was foie gras when Baudelaire and his communist buddies were writing their godawful so-called poetry and poisoning themselves with absinthe in the 1890s?".

"Yet we have historical records showing that rations for frontline infantry during the disastrous Franco-Prussian war included a daily chunk of ripe brie. As far back as medieval times we find manuscript mentions of the revolting French peasants having access to rudimentary cheeses."

"In fact, archeological excavations around the Lascaux area have uncovered evidence which suggests that neolithic Gallic tribes may have consumed a cheese-like paste made from goat’s milk".

While disagreeing about the exact culinary agent responsible for the intellectually bankrupt and stagnant French culture, most academics are at least in agreement that there is a dietary explanation for the freedom-hating Gallic nature. Few give credence to the radical theories propounded by University of California at Los Angeles professor J. Elton Gould, who has proposed a socio-cultural rationale for endemic French spitefulness and avarice.

Gould argues that the petty grandstanding and double-dealing of the Saddam-loving turds is a product of seething resentment at their failed dreams of imperial glory, while their bureaucratic complacency owes much to the ongoing dominance of Catholicism, and the lack of a Puritan work ethic to instill self-discipline.

In light of his groundbreaking new study, Professor Twain hardly considers the arguments coming out of UCLA worth rebutting. "Those Californians - always coming up with wacko theories" he laughs. "No, seriously. It’s the cheese".


Thursday, September 29, 2005

From the Archives #1: Terrorists Demand their Own State

[I'm a little bit swamped at the moment, so thought I'd recycle a few pieces from the archives that I came across recently]

Citing inalienable rights to independent nationhood, a diverse range of international terrorist groups are joining together to demand their own self-governing homeland, in which they can live and carry out terrorist activities free from persecution.

In a videotaped interview with Al-Jazeera TV, fugitive Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden railed against the treatment received by terrorists throughout the world. “For years we have been persecuted, harassed, and misrepresented. They say we are only interested in violence and do not have political aims. But terrorism too is a way of life, and we also need a place to call our own. Do you think we are so different from you? If you prick us do we not bleed?”

In recent times terrorists have been subjected to deportation, imprisonment and confiscation of funds, while many states now outlaw belonging to or supporting a terrorist group, measures which bin Laden calls “a clear violation of human rights”.

This situation has led terrorist thinkers to converge in proposing a radical solution – the establishment of a diverse, tolerant state for violent fanatics. “Everywhere we are marginalised and vilified” imprisoned Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman has said, “when all we want is to be left alone in peace to commit acts of terror”.

Sources report that opinion is divided on the structure of the proposed terrorist state. Some groups support a centralised parliament under the Westminster model governing the nation of Terrorististan, while others favour a federal system to be known as the United Rogue States of Terrorismia.

It is understood that a draft constitution is under development and will enshrine key rights including the right to bear arms of mass destruction, freedom of extremist dogma, freedom of hate-filled polemic and the right to inflict cruel and unusual punishments.

In a somewhat surprising move, the constitution is said to be a secular one, with a formal separation of church and state. “Obviously, I’d like to see Wahhabi Islam as the state religion” said bin Laden. But ultimately I recognise that my own form of faith, and my desire to impose its rigid strictures on others or destroy the infidel scum, are deeply personal matters. Other people should have the freedom to take their own totalitarian approach to fundamentalist worship as they see fit”.

A spokesperson for the Real IRA confirmed that they had entered into discussions with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and supported the drive towards statehood. “To be sure, we don’t actually give a toss whether the four provinces of Ireland are united or not” he said. “We really just want to blow people up”.

These sentiments were echoed by Miami-exiled Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch, who called himself part of “the terrorist diaspora” Other members of the coalition are understood to include Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo, former North Harbour loose forward Troy Flavell, and supporters of Millwall FC.

It is not yet clear which geographical location is favoured for the terrorist nation. Bin Laden was cagey when asked if he felt that terrorists had a spiritual homeland, saying only that it should have ‘a good outlook’ and ‘plenty of sun’. However, one veteran al-Qaeda operative was more forthcoming. “Ideally, we’d like somewhere nice, with a coastline, a Mediterranean climate and some decent mineral deposits” he said. “What I’d like most is to be able to retire quietly somewhere, tend a few olive trees, and maybe manufacture a little ricin”.

No specific threats have been made to back up the list of terrorist demands, which include a seat at the UN for their provisional government-in-exile. However, if progress is not made many groups are saying they will not rule out widespread, large scale hunger strikes. Bin Laden promised that they would not rest until the dream of an independent terrorist state becomes a reality. “Terrorists of the world unite!” he cried. “You have nothing to lose but your caves!”.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Germany 2006: Another Chance for Football?

Next month sees the crucial second-to-last round of games in the qualifying stages for next year's World Cup in Germany. It's going to be an exciting time, with the fate of many countries being decided, while others will be left with sudden-death playoffs.

The South American qualifying group is a mini World Cup all of its own. Each of the ten nations must play each other home and away, meaning an epic 18 games in total (in contrast, the European teams only play 10 or 11 games). There are no weak teams, and with the different national rivalries, each match is a big occasion.

Unfortunately for my personal sympathies, Peru is already out. Much like the country itself, Peru's football team is less than the sum of its parts. They have talented players but are plagued by a collective lack of confidence, puzzling tactics, failure to convert opportunites, and a tendency to leak soft goals. They find themselves 9th on the table, above only Bolivia.

Predictably, Argentina and Brazil are already through on 31 and 3o points. I'm picking, and even hoping, that 2006 may be Argentina's year. Forget the rather negative, cynical teams of the 80s, enlivened only by the genius of Diego Maradona. The current Argentina team play an attractive, attacking game based on the elaborate interweaving of individual skills.

In games between the sides Brazil has traditionally been the neutrals' favourite, but when the two teams met in the final of the Copa America in Peru last year everyone agreed that Argentina was much the better team. Brazil, lacking a couple of their stars, sat back all game and did little. They managed to equalise in the very last minute of both the first and second halves through pieces of individual brilliance, and nabbed a 2-2 draw, going on to win on penalties.

Third and fourth have also become reasonably clear, with Ecuador and Paraguay on 26 and 25 points. Paraguay are now making a habit of qualifying for World Cups, and would like to think of themselves as South America's "third force". Ecuador are also looking to make it their second in a row, but I don't have a lot of time for them. They play all their home games at altitude in Quito and have won almost all their points there--soundly defeating both Brazil and Argentina. On the road they have done virtually nothing.

My remaining sympathies are with Colombia, who will likely scrap it out with Chile and Uruguay for the fifth position. Football tournaments seem to follow me around (I was in France in '98 and Peru for the Copa America last year), and it turned out that my visit to the coffee-growing region of Colombia coincided with the South American under-21 championships there. Colombia beat all comers with compelling performances of outrageous skill and joie de vivre that were a pleasure to watch. If the inconsistent senior team could reproduce even a fraction of this style, you would certainly want to see them in Germany.

The fifth-placed South American team will play off against Australia for a spot at the World Cup. I think it would fantastic to see Australia make it, but if Colombia nab that fifth spot, my loyalties will be conflicted.

However, in terms of my adopted "home" teams, my remaining hopes are largely resting with Guatemala in the North American zone. Never having previously qualified for a World Cup, Guatemala had a great first phase to get through to the final qualifying group. The two giants in that group--Mexico and the USA--are already through on 19 points, and Costa Rica now look safe in third on 13. Guatemala is hanging on to fourth on 8 points, one ahead of Trinidad and Tobago. The prize would be a playoff against the fifth Asian team. Whoever eventually contests that playoff, and whatever the result, it's bound to produce a fairy story, since the Asian opponent will be either Uzbekistan or Bahrain.

The top four Asian teams go through automatically, and there are no suprises there--Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have already qualified.

I don't know much at all about form in the African groups, but from the points tables it looks like South Africa might well miss out. It's also touch and go for Nigeria, while Ghana looks like it might finally make good on its reputation as a major African team by qualifying for Germany.

In Europe, the eight group winners plus two best second-placed teams go in automatically, while the other six second-placed teams play off for three final spots. Already-qualified teams are Germany (as hosts) and the Ukraine for the first time ever. My other perennial second favourite teams, Holland and Portugal, also look certain to go through, while Italy are pretty much there as well.

After looking like they would sleepwalk in, England somehow contrived to lose to Northern Ireland, and now need to win both their remaining home games against Poland and Austria to qualify automatically. Even if Poland is overtaken, it will qualify as one of the best second-placed teams. France has managed to convince Zinedine Zidane and other senior players to come back and now looks odds-on to take its group ahead of Switzerland. Spain is struggling in second behind Serbia and Montenegro and may be in for a playoff.

The Czech Republic is also looking good for a "best second-placed" spot behind Holland, while in the least inspiring group both Croatia and Sweden have a good chance. Significant teams likely to miss out altogether include Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, and one out of 2002 World Cup semi-finalist Turkey and Euro 2004 champion Greece. For those who believe in miracles, Scotland have made a late run--they are still fourth in Italy's group, but have a last couple of chances to pip Norway and Slovenia for a playoff spot.

Whoever makes it to Germany, I, and most other football fans, will be hoping for something special to give the international game back some of its spark and romance. The 2002 World Cup broke new cultural ground by being hosted in Korea and Japan, but the football was a little lacklustre, Brazil and Germany contesting the final virtually by default. It wasn't as dire as USA 1994, where Brazil took the title by beating Italy on penalties, but no player or team really set the world on fire.

After an exciting, goal-filled tournament in 2000, the European championships last year also failed to capture the imagination. Greece's performance in taking the title was heroic, but not exactly inspiring, based as it was on throwing everybody behind the ball but still managing to pinch one goal a game. Credit to them for doing it three matches in a row.

In the last couple of major tournaments, teams with a lot of players in the really big leagues (particularly those in England, Spain and Italy) have seemed tired, listless and unmotivated. With the big money now involved, club teams dominate schedules and loyalites, and the international scene has suffered.

Even at club level, all is not rosy. The Champions League was the inevitable result of the increasing popularity and professionalisation of football, and the money pouring in from cable TV. Big name teams like Manchester United, RealMadrid and AC Milan were able to assemble teams of stars, and agree to play each other more often than in the past.

This was always going to exacerbate the haves / have-nots divide, and mean the end of unknown teams like Nottingham Forest coming through to win the European Cup. But it was accepted as free-spirited capitalism, which gave people what they wanted to see. Harlem Globetrotters-style teams like Barcelona, with their attitude of "if you score four we'll score five", produced compelling sporting spectacles that were hard to argue with.

Now, however, capitalism is morphing into oligarchy. Nothing typifies this more than the rise of Chelsea. Under the ownership of Russian oil baron Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have given new definition to the concept of buying success. The approach has been simple--if someone's good, get them, and bugger the expense. When Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho steered Porto to the Champions League title he was brought to Chelsea and told to assemble the squad of his choosing. When Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard inspired his side to an improbable Champions League success last season, Chelsea immediately tried to buy him (though in this case, Gerrard decided to stay with Liverpool).

While other clubs have put together teams of internationals, Chelsea now has two such teams. Stars such as Dutch winger Arjen Robben or English midfielder Frank Lampard are supplemented with players of comparable quality in every single position--negating the need to muddle through injuries or get individuals to play a range of tactics. While they have not had Champions Leaue success yet, Chelsea last season won the English Premiership with a record points tally, and this season are ten points ahead after only seven games.

To the fustration at the numbing predictability of the premiership has been added fans' increasing disgust at the values emanating from the game. In the last couple of months the British media has looked wistfully at the drama, passion, skill and gentlemanly comportment of the Ashes cricket series. In constrast, footballers with their stratospheric salaries seem to only display petulance and greed, and practically to collude with the tabloid media (a la Martin Amis' hilarious scene in Yellow Dog) in generating stories of violence and misbehaviour.

So, everyone's hoping for a bit of drama, passion, and even some inspiration at Germany 2006 to kick some life back into the sport. I'm not holding my breath, but football has been written off before, only to renew itself, so who knows?

In the meantime, go Guatemala!

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