Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Young People These Days

So, the other Sunday afternoon I go to see King Kong with my flatmates at the little Hoyts four-plex in Manners Mall. My flatmates have got their tickets, and I head up to the counter to pay for mine.

Behind me is what I take to be a family group: a guy in his 40s plus three kids, sub- to mid-teens. During the 20-30 seconds or so it takes me to order my ticket and pay for it on eftpos, they lose patience with waiting in line.

First, one of the girls leans herself up against the coke machine just to my left. Then the adult sticks his elbow on the counter about half a metre away from where I'm entering my pin number. Then another girl moves in just behind my right shoulder. I tell you, if any of them had been wearing sunglasses and a dark suit I would have been fingering my rosary beads and praying they made it quick.

I finish paying, turn around, and just stand there, because I'm completely hemmed in. The girl on my shoulder does this startled jump back, with a look of surprise on her face, as if to say what, you mean you can't just teleport yourself out of there? (ok, so maybe I already had a pissed off look on my face).

Unbelievable. So, this cinema doesn't have the velvet rails which show you how to line up. But have we lost the lowest common denominator courtesy of allowing someone their personal space while they carry out a transaction?

I've always thought that one of the main compensatory advantages our tight-assed Anglo-Saxon society has over the friendlier Latin cultures I've experienced is that politeness extends beyond speech to action; people know how to wait in line and take their turn. But this was the kind of behaviour that would be thought obnoxious even in Peru.

We'll deal with the movie itself later.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Google and Big Government

The London Review of Books has a great piece on the rise and rise of Google (along with the New Yorker, the LRB remains the pinnacle of erudite and wittily refined writing; one dreams of being able to write that well, and having the time to practice it).

The article neatly describes the Google approach as being driven by nerdy grad-student "wouldn't it be cool if we could do this" iconoclasm. But the author worries about the consequences of the company's policy of indefinitely storing information on user searches.

Given that Google's entire business model is based on individualising advertising to the preferences of its users, this practice is understandable. But the LRB piece questions whether, in the future when the screws go on to justify the company's rapidly expanding share price, there might be pressure to use that information in ways not entirely consistent with the "Don't Be Evil" motto.

In fact, this issue is already being put to the test, as Google fights a subpoena from the US Justice Department to provide information on a week's worth of search requests, issued as part of a government attempt to justify an anti-pornography law called the Child Online Protection Act.

Yahoo, MSN and AOL have already complied with the request after it was agreed that they could supply aggregated information which wouldn't identify particular individuals. Google, however, has so far resisted.

Other writers have pointed out that Google's attitude is partly a PR exercise to show that users can trust it, rather than purely a matter of principle (the company has also recently accepted Chinese government censorship restrictions in order to gain greater market share in that country) . However, I am in full agreement with their reasons cited for refusing the subpoena - that it is irrelevant, burdensome and overreaching.

It's reasonable to expect companies, including internet providers, to cooperate with criminal investigations. However, here there has been no crime committed, and the whole exercise seems more about extending the culture of surveillance.

The proposed law is intended to "protect" children by requiring users of certain internet sites to go through a registration process. It was originally stuck down by the Supreme Court under freedom of speech considerations.

This is a classic case of the double standard about big government. Conservative administrations and their supporters view, say, universal health and dental care for children as creeping socialism, and the Bush administration has sought to reverse or weaken environmental regulations which are meant to protect everybody.

Yet it's considered acceptable to embark on unwieldy efforts to monitor the legal behaviour of adults, and tell legitimate businesses how they must operate, with no evidence that this will in any way help or protect children or anyone else. As usual, Slate is good on the numerous reasons why such a law would be both excessive and ineffective.

PR-driven grandstanding or not, Google's attitude in this case is a worthy one. But for the future, look to some pressure on them to back off keeping so much identifying information on file. Part of not being evil is not permitting that you be used for evil purposes.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

The Screw Top Wine Bottle Effect

A wonderful thing, the law of unintended consequences. Who would have thought that the screw top wine bottle, increasingly favoured by Australian and New Zealand wine makers in particular for its practicality at protecting the vintage, would double as a social leveller and rich source of amusement?

The genius of the screw top is that it confounds two deeply-reinforced instincts:

1. If you have taken something from a bottle that has a top, you screw it back on. This is held to by all but the most slovenly, especially in company. After all, you don't want the sauce, olive oil, whisky, or whatever, to get spilt, or for the dust and mites to get in and start corrupting the contents. Screwing the top back on is an unconscious reaction that you don't even think about.

2. A wine bottle, once opened and left on the table, can be grabbed and poured from at any stage. The habits are ingrained in the choreography of civilized socialising: the casual pick up of the bottle, the lean across to serve someone else before yourself, the elegant pour, and the twist to avoid drips.

So it's all set up for the following scenario, which is now frequently played out in social gatherings. Whoever has last taken wine instinctively screws the top back on. Later, someone grabs the bottle and makes to pour. Perhaps still immersed in conversation, it's several seconds before they register that no wine is coming out - and several more before they understand why. Meanwhile, the others around the table, who can see that the top is screwed on, are gifted with a long moment of delicious dramatic irony.

It would look lame and predictable if you tried to make it a stage direction, but in real life it's pretty funny.

The best part about this faux pas is that nobody is immune. In fact, those of us who habitually do and say clumsy, gauche things are a bit more careful about things like pouring wine and unlikely to fall victim more than once. It's those used to being at social ease who are at greater risk of coming a cropper in public.

Do you have one of those workplaces where the great and good will occasionally socialise with the more plebian? You'll all be sitting around having a few wines after work, all apparently egalitarian, though everyone will know who'll be telling the funny stories and who will be laughing sycophantically.

In these situations it's the great and the good - most likely to be distracted by their own conversation, most likely to be casual and unselfconscious about pouring the wine - who are most likely to be snared by the screw top trap.

And even if you can see right away that it's going to happen, your very deference prevents you from making too strident a warning. I mean, what are you going to do? Leap up and shout "Don't do it! The top's on!" What, you take him or her for a fool?

No, the best you can do is maybe rise an eyebrow meaningfully at the bottle, perhaps mumble "aah, the top" when the wine pouring movement looks inevitable and the cap remains screwed on. But you think he or she is going to be taking much notice of your subtle gestures or murmured comments? You are only a relatively lowly member of a larger audience.

Sadly, he or she is destined to continue, with confident, deliberate movements, to attempt an impossible pour, and in doing so look like a bit of a clown. And the ensuing laughter will contain only the mildest schadenfreude -- it's the perfect scenario, where someone's bubble is punctured without physical or mental harm.

Rarely can an instrument of product quality control have become such a subtle tool of comic subversion.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Flora to the Fore

The indigenous vs. exotic vegetation debate issue refuses to die. In Auckland, there's been a major outcry over the city council's plans to replace 20 exotic trees with indigenous ones as part of the redevelopment of Queen St. Russell Brown covers it pretty well in three separate posts (he also links to my previous post on Rosemary McLeod's "eco-fascist" column).

Clearly, the issue seems to provoke a reaction out of all proportion to the trees themselves. Latest to pick up the torch is Dominion Post columnist Karl du Fresne in a piece titled "Eco-Nazis face a backlash" Du Fresne claims there's a conspiracy to eliminate exotic vegetation and replace it with natives, based on what he calls "an ideological fixation" that exotic plants don't belong.

Apparently, the protests in Auckland consistute "the stirrings of a backlash against the eco-Nazis", while in Wellington "there is mounting resistance to the eradication of Monterey pines on the Tinakorki Hills" (though it may be suggested that such "resistance" is a little tardy, given that the planned clearance of storm-damaged pines was completed by last June).

Du Fresne is convinced there are underhand agendas at work:

"I suspect the safety argument is a smokescreen. Concealed behind it is an ideological fixation that exotic trees don't belong in New Zealand and should be eliminated"

Well, if there were an evil cabal bent on wiping out introduced flora, perhaps as a prelude to invading Poland, you would expect to find some evidence of it in Wellington City Council's Town Belt vegetation management plan (for non-Wellingtonians, the Town Belt comprises all the wooded and green areas in the hills surrounding the city).

Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the vision presented by this document is boringly balanced and inclusive:

"The variety of vegetation types on the Town Belt offers a range of recreational and visual experiences which is valued by the people of Wellington. There are those who will argue for the creation of pure native forest cover, and those who prefer the open understorey of the coniferous forest. There is scope to accommodate a range of preferences. The landscape and microclimates are varied enough to carry variety in the vegetation cover and, as this is a public reserve, the desires of as many of the community as practicable should be accommodated."

Admittedly, this is still consistent with the existence of eco-fascists who think all exotic trees should be eradicated. But they perhaps seem a little less scary once you realise they're not actually in charge -- or if they are, they have heroically subjected their views to the constraints of democracy. At the risk of sounding politically correct, any such exotic tree-haters are entitled to their views. Just as Rosemary McLeod is entitled to broadcast her breezily ignorant dislike of "sludgy-green" native vegetation.

The plan does propose that "native vegetation [be] established on a much greater proportion of the Town Belt than at the present time", moving from 20 percent at present to eventually 60 percent. This will involve some development of existing native regeneration, replacement of most grass and scrub, and, yes, some replacement of exotic conifers, "notably on Tinakori Hill".

Does this mean Council stormtroopers will be dispatched to uproot innocent Monterey pines under the cover of night? Not exactly. This shift in proportions is considered "a realistic approach within the timeframe of this plan" -- 50-100 years.

Both McLeod and du Fresne mention Mt Victoria, an iconic area of mixed conifer and eucalyptus, and a setting for some of Lord of the Rings. McLeod is agitated about its future:

Something like [Tinakori Hill] 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"

In fact, the plan states that "the largest area to be retained in conifers and mixed conifer/eucalypt forest is on Mt Victoria". It further points out that the conifers "are unlikely to regenerate on their own. Where continued exotic forest is desired, replanting will be necessary". In other words, the exotic trees will not just be left alone; they will be actively maintained.

Those who like colour will also be pleased to note that the Council plans to mow some of the grassland areas less frequently, allowing for seasonal (and principally exotic) flower displays.

It's always possible that the City Council plan is all a lie, and is just providing cover for the eco-fascists. But in the absence of any evidence to support this it's probably prudent to take the document at face value.

Personally, though I am not a fascist, eco- or otherwise, I welcome the planned move to 60 percent native vegetation. Like others, I'm fond of Mt Victoria's current exotic cover (which also produces charming bush fires whenever Wellington goes two weeks without rain in summer) but overall find the pine-dominated hills around much of the city rather monotonous. And as I pointed out in my previous post, there are large areas of nothing but grass and scrub which could be hugely improved by regenerating some of the original vegetation.

Others, of course, will disagree, and some will want to retain every last iconic bush of gorse and broom against intruders such as flowering southern rata. Given the necessarily drawn out processes involved in vegetation management, they will have every opportunity to make their views known. Sadly, though, they will required to argue rationally, on a case-by-case basis. Which is a whole lot less fun than getting worked up, shouting about nazis, and pretending you're a freedom fighter.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Just Some Links

This week I've been fortunate enough to come across a couple of nuggets of brilliance (both thanks to the people on Public Address), and feel compelled to link to them.

Firstly, the Holy Tango, an anthology by Francis Heaney of what poets and playwrights would have written had they produced works that were anagrams of their names (in case you hadn't spotted it, "holy tango" is itself an an anagram of anthology).

It's all brilliant, but the ones I enjoyed most on first reading were Robert Burns "Robber Runts", a tale told in Scots brogue of pint-sized thieves; Oscar Wilde's "IRS Law Code", a brittle comedy of manners about a visit by the tax man; and Allen Ginsberg's "Bangles Linger" - "Howl" turned into a lament about cheesy 80s pop music. You don't even need to have read the artist in question - despite being totally ignorant of Greek drama, I loved Euripides "I Reuse Dip", which is based on a well-known Seinfeld episode. Rare genius.

An even rarer and funnier gem is this document from 1674, apparently printed in the January edition of Harpers, the Women's Petition Against Coffee. It's almost too good to be true, but definitely seems to be genuine. If you thought that Candace Bushnell invented chick sex-crit, think again. Also note that these women had a superior sense of humour and command of the language. Whew, that Restoration era must have been a fun time, if you could have lived with the plumbing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back on the Train

I don't know if anyone waded all the way through my extremely long, unwieldy reflections on the "political correctness" debate last year. Near the end of the post, I said that "the lashing out at PC-ness... seems like a desire to head back to a different kind of conformity" citing "the strong distrust of difference which has long lurked darkly beneath New Zealand's celebrated egalitarianism".

To illustrate my point, I quoted an incident described in Michael King's history of New Zealand:

"...[he recounts] 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!'. "

Amusing tale of an insularity long past, right? Now we really are an open-minded, tolerant, cosmopolitan bunch; citizens of the world, gobling up cultural influences like fusion cuisine. We're certainly better than ignorant midwestern Americans or those redneck Aussies. Right?

OK, so read this.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ask Not for Why the Bell Tolls

On Sunday mornings, before the clock has struck nine, the Anglican church a block and a half away from my flat begins its bellringing session. For up to an hour, intricate glissandos toll out in complex, repeated combinations, which I understand demonstrate the bellringers' ancient arts. If you're strolling along the street at that time, it probably gives the neighborhood a quaint, olde English flavour. For someone trying to sleep off a hangover, it's an absolute nightmare.

Listening to the morning pealing in one such state recently set me to thinking. Actually, at the time they were ringing, I wished fervently for a rocket-propelled grenade to fire at the church. It was later on, when my head was in a somewhat less painful state, that my mood turned to somewhat more structured indignation.

While noise is increasingly a political issue in our hypersensitive society, as people extend their fragile personal bubbles out further and further, a double standard persists. As I wrote way back in December 2003, light jazz music played outdoors at 9:00 pm in an inner-city suburb can bring a visit from noise control, even when all the neighbours have been politely informed of your plans. But the same neighbours starting a howling buzzsaw outside your bedroom window at 8:00 am on a Saturday is considered perfectly acceptable.

We've seen plenty of polemic being exchanged regarding noise in residential areas, the issue of Auckland's Western Springs speedway being just one notable example. But all the debate is about how much noise is made after a certain time. I have never yet heard of a successful complaint made about noise in the morning.

This is of course a conspiracy against late-to-bed, late risers. There are just no defensible grounds for applying different standards to noise at 9:00 pm versus 9:00 am.

It might be said that bellringing is not just noise; it's a skilled craft. But so is jazz music; in fact, though my knowledge of bellringing is limited, I suspect that trumpet and bass guitar may be instruments requiring subtler skills. And while people feel justified in calling the enforcers when bothered by the distant thud of a bass drum or the murmuring hubbub of a neighbourhood party, I can assure you that this is on a different level: these bells sound like there's somone ringing them right outside my room.

Sunday morning bellringing is a long community tradition, you might argue. Sure, but you want to know how old the custom is of staying up all night, drinking too much and being raucous? Org was staggering around outside his cave, trashed on berry wine, and loudly singing off key when we hadn't even discovered how to smelt metals.

Utilitarian considerations of enjoyment for a greater number of people won't fly either. These aren't even guaranteed to win anyway, as seen by the struggles of the Auckland speedway and the increasing restrictions placed on bars as middle-aged people move into inner-city apartments (they have to be fresh for their morning drive over to Martinborough, you see).

But in any case, this is not a question of the greater good. The bellringing has nothing to do with the morning church service. I wouldn't be bothered by one, two, ten rings of the bells to welcome the congregation. But this goes on for over an hour. It's just a few guys pulling on ropes for their own enjoyment -- and there's no reason why they couldn't do it at 2 in the afternoon.

And you can't claim that the neighbourhood is a welcoming and attentive audience. I'm pretty sure no one has ever been asked, but the opening hours of the corner coffee bar -- from 11am on weekends -- tells us what we need to know about the preferences of the local market. If people aren't even dragging themselves out for their caffeine fix until 11, you can be sure they're not strolling around the neighbourhood at 8:30 watching the sparrows flit and listening to the charming olde bells.

No, the only reason you can no longer have a party in an inhabited area, but still have to suffer your sleep being torn asunder shortly after sunrise, is a deeply ingrained, lingering puritanism. The unspoken assumption is that people ought to be up early in the morning; if they're not, they must be malingerers. Crashing hammers and bells at the crack of dawn are our culture's equivalent of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

I just thank the lord that, surrounded by apartments and townhouses, I no longer live in DIY-ville.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I'll Be Back

To regular and occasional readers of this blog: if you've noticed that there hasn't beeen a post for a while, don't worry: the reason is the pre-Christmas madness combined with post-Christmas lethargy, plus just a touch of summer holiday relaxation.

Several more posts will soon be forthcoming, plus replies to recent comments.

Feliz año nuevo.