Friday, February 26, 2010

Around the New Zealand blogs

Cactus Kate thinks that Phil Heatley should harden the f*** up, while the Dim-Post celebrates his fall.

Distractions has fond memories of the music shops in old Manners Street.

Home Paddock is in favour of irrigation because “the Mackenzie hills will still be brown and we’ll have a better view of them if the flats aren’t blowing away in a dust storm”.

Kiwiblog reveals Gerry Brownlee’s cunning plan to invade Australia and turn the entire country, except for New South Wales, into New Zealand mines.

Laughy Kate is crackers.

Mac Doctor is back, and disapproves of Gareth Morgan comparing aardvarks and spark plugs in his (otherwise excellent, he reports) book Health Cheque.

Poneke rips into the Sensing Murder “psychic” charalatans.

The Fundy Post has chocolate issues, but these are trivial compared to Today is My Birthday’s fruit and vegetable problem.

And I’m off to Auckland tomorrow for a 21st birthday party.

This clip from about 40 years ago is for Today is My Birthday: Frank Zappa and the Mothers (including two Turtles on vocals and Anysley Dunbar on drums) with “Call Any Vegetable”. As the man says, they keep you regular and they’re real good for ya.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Happy birthday, George Harrison

Home Paddock reminds us that George Harrison would be 67 today if he were still with us. The Concert for George DVD is a fine memorial: he is too often thought of as the dreamy hippie one of the Beatles who as a solo artist would later bang on about Hare Krishna and “My Sweet Lord”. But some of his songs were mean-spirited and very far from peace and love, man – think of “Taxman” and “Piggies” – and he was the hard-headed businessman who bankrolled the Monty Python films. So, a more complicated, more interesting character than the image.

Here he is with “Got My Mind Set On You” from 1987 (a #1 hit in the US and #2 in the UK). He didn’t write it, but it’s a fun performance.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

For control freaks

The ThinkGeek advertisement says it all:
Couples therapists will tell you that many relationships break down as a result of poor communication. She assumes he can read her mind and anticipate her every need. He assumes she's doing fine as long as she’s still... well, still there. Meanwhile, on the inside, she’s boiling mad about his bad habits and he’s bummed that he hasn't gotten any action in weeks. Recipe for disaster? You betcha.

ThinkGeek to the rescue! Why spend hundreds of dollars to sit on a couch and spill all your secrets to a complete stranger when you could solve your problem with these two remote controls? (How does that make you feel?) With these remotes, it's just a matter of pointing it at your significant other, pressing a button, and hoping for the best. Get him to take you shopping, stop farting, and most importantly, propose! Get her to hurry up in the bathroom, cook you a great meal, and strip on command.
This exciting new product promises to change many couples’ lives. At least, it would do if it worked. This bullet point at the end is a bit of a giveaway:
No batteries required – powered by wishful thinking.
Well, we can dream. Click on the image for a closer look.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Paul Henry’s strange obsession

The Fundy Post is not impressed with Paul Henry’s regularly expressed homophobia, and gives some spectacularly stupid examples here. He concludes:
I wonder if that bloke in the Corolla is parking outside the wrong house.
And I wonder if Henry has ever been sailing in the Nile.

Kevin Rudd in Rose Bay

The Daily Telegraph, the Sydney one, reports:
Police are baffled how they did it but the Prime Minister definitely has a problem in Rose Bay – with a large illuminated traffic sign sending the message: “Kevin Rudd sucks”.

The sign, which dramatically appeared overnight on New South Head Road, has proven a traffic stopper.

Locals have been stopping their cars to take photographs – and the sign caused such a distraction that the police were called in at 3am today.
Monitor: Tim Blair

Monday, February 22, 2010

Scooping David Farrar

Kiwiblog on the Venn diagram of social media explained:
15 February 2010.
Quote Unquote on the Venn diagram of social media explained:
16 July 2009.

Yes, seven months earlier.

Kiwiblog on Charlie Brooker on how to make a TV news clip:
19 February 2010.
Quote Unquote on Charlie Brooker on how to make a TV news clip:
30 January 2010.

Yes, three weeks earlier.

Remember, you saw it here first.

New Zealand is the best case scenario

That isn’t a phrase one hears often, but it’s what economist Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution says about our GST.

Really. See for yourself.

Madama Butterfly

Home Paddock reminded us last week that on 17 February 1904, Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly had its first performance under Arturo Toscanini at La Scala in Milan. The opera is now a firm favourite world-wide, but the debut wasn’t a success.

One reason is that it was under-rehearsed because Puccini was so late finishing it. Another reason was that Rosina Storchio, the soprano in the title role (that's her above as Cio-Cio San), was having an affair with the conductor. At one point her kimono blew open and a wit in the audience called out “She’s pregnant!”

Another called out: “And the child is Toscanini’s!”

It must have been hard for performers and audience to concentrate after that.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Despair, Inc., which brought us BitterSweets for Valentine’s Day, also does a nice line in Demotivators, which are posters satirising the motivation industry – all that Seven Habits of Highly Effective People stuff. Here is the sales pitch:
Motivation. Psychology tells us that motivation – true, lasting motivation – can only come from within. Common sense tells us it can't be manufactured or productized. So how is it that a multi-billion dollar industry thrives through the sale of motivational commodities and services? Because, in our world of instant gratification, people desperately want to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems. And when desperation has disposable income, market opportunities abound.

At Despair, Inc., we believe motivational products create unrealistic expectations, raising hopes only to dash them. That's why we created our soul-crushingly depressing Demotivators® designs, so you can skip the delusions that motivational products induce and head straight for the disappointments that follow!
And they are depressingly demotivational, with more than a whiff of Lemony Snicket about them. For example:
DREAMS: Dreams are like rainbows. Only idiots chase them.

ECONOMICS: The science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today.

FEAR: Until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore, you will not know the terror of being forever lost at sea.

GOVERNMENT: If you think the problems we create are bad, just wait until you see our solutions.

INDIVIDUALITY: Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else.

LOSING: If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.

PRESSURE: It can turn a lump of coal into a flawless diamond, or an average person into a perfect basketcase.

PROCRASTINATION: Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.
The best have a brilliant match of image and text: for example, “Limitations: Until you spread your wings, you'll have no idea how far you can walk” which is illustrated with a photo of a penguin And these:

See the full set here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A rural joke

Monitor: Richard Fraser


Exciting news from Tumeke – the New Zealand blog rankings for December are out, and Quote Unquote has cracked the Top 50!

Not by much, or by anything at all – it’s #50, but still. Result!

I told my wife the exciting news.

“Whoo hoo,” she said. “The 50th most read blog in New Zealand. That’s up there with New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk comedy duo.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Penny Wise on the Robin Hood tax

A guest post from economist Penny Wise.

Oh dear, Finlay MacDonald on economics and finance is even funnier than Chris Trotter. He should pause for a wee think before he types:
. . . since so much of the world’s total corporate profits now derive from unproductive speculative trades and other money-go-rounds. . .
Er, no, that cannot possibly be right. The major players in the financial markets – trading in foreign exchange, bonds and shares – are all trading one against the other, so if one wins on the so-called “speculative” trade, then the other loses. Therefore they cannot possibly all be making massive profits from such trades. Some are from time to time, of course. But therefore at those times some others will have a very bad year. So maybe they are in fact providing a useful service to others, in particular providing great liquidity in markets – i.e. when you want to sell, somebody is ready to buy.

On the idea of a Robin Hood tax, a tax on financial transactions such as the massive amount of trading on the world’s foreign exchange markets, Finlay writes:
One benefit of this – aside from curbing the sort of market panics that trigger major crises and ruin ordinary people’ lives – would be the diversion of investment back towards the productive sectors.
Well, in fact it is more likely to increase panics, because it would reduce liquidity. If there are fewer people willing to take the risk of buying when you urgently need to sell, you get bigger price fluctuations, not smaller.

As for the Robin Hood part of this idea, Tim Worstall reminded us that you may tax companies, but ultimately that tax is paid by consumers of their services.

Finally, Finlay on big bonuses:
. . . how else to explain a banking sector that could revive its morally obscene bonus culture within months of being bailed out with billions upon billions of public dollars?
I fear Finlay has no idea what he is advocating. These large investment banks have a remuneration system which makes most of the employees quasi-shareholders. Typically you will see base remuneration held down (still very high by most standards), but being topped up by a bonus pool that is about 50% of profits, before bonuses are paid. So to suggest that it is obscene to pay out these bonuses is simply to insist on even more “obscene” profits for the shareholders of these companies. You have to make the profit first, before you can pay the bonus.

It is amusing to find Finlay arguing in favour of the rich-prick capitalists and against the workers.

Lost and found in translation

In the Dec/Jan issue of the Literary Review, David Profumo enthuses about The Untranslatables by linguist C.J. Moore (the US edition is called In Other Words). As the blurb says, it is “a lexicon of fascinatingly precise phrases, for which there are no direct English translations”. German, for example, has Drachenfutter which “encompasses actions aimed to diffuse a wife’s fury at the appearance of her drunken husband”.

NPR lists some examples from the book:
African: ilunga
This word from the Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo has topped a list drawn up with the help of one thousand translators as the most untranslatable word in the world. It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.

French: esprit de l’escalier
A witty remark that occurs to you too late, literally on the way down the stairs. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines esprit de l’escalier as, “An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room.”

Japanese: yoko meshi
As an untranslatable, this one ranks high on my list of favorites. I could not improve on the background given by commentator Boye Lafayette de Mente about this beautiful word, yoko meshi. Taken literally, meshi means ‘boiled rice’ and yoko means ‘horizontal,’ so combined you get ‘a meal eaten sideways.’This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally. How do English-speakers describe the headache of communicating in an alien tongue? I don’t think we can, at least not with as much ease.
You do wonder why there is no English equivalent for the Italian attaccabottone, meaning a buttonholing bore. But I think there is no mystery that only German has a word for Schadenfreude.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Modern art as rubbish

The Guardian reports that:
Artist Michael Landy, who once destroyed all his possessions in an act of creative destruction, has transformed the South London Gallery into a giant dustbin for art. Describing the work, simply called Art Bin, as ‘about failure’, Landy is inviting members of the public to bring their own artistic failures along to the gallery from 29 January, where their worthlessness will be assessed.

Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Tracey Emin and Mark Titchner have already contributed, offering sculptures, paintings and prints.
More here and here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Robin Hood tax

Finlay Macdonald writes in the Sunday Star-Times:
One should always be wary of seemingly simple solutions to seemingly intractable problems
– especially solutions endorsed by Bono.
Yet the idea of a “Robin Hood tax” on global financial transactions, despite appearing almost too good to be true and, yes, backed by U2’s blathering messiah of world peace himself, really is hard to fault.
Hmmm. Not so fast.

This is the Tobin tax, proposed by James Tobin in 1972, and is a tax on all exchanges from one currency into another. Many people think it is a great idea. But some people do fault it. Some of them are even economists. Here is Charles Goodhart, LSE Professor Emeritus of Banking and Finance:
Why radical and consumer groups go on backing the Tobin tax idea ]. . .] has always surprised me. But beyond that the Tobin tax is a bad idea, since it would greatly increase both the costs and volatility of foreign exchange dealing and throw a huge spanner into the workings of the global financial economic system.
. . . much of the world’s total corporate profits now derive from unproductive speculative trades and other money-go-rounds . . .
The proponents of the Tobin tax mistake the fact that commercial end-use of foreign exchange (fx) dealing is not more than about 10%, at most, of the total of fx transactions into a belief that the other 90% is a form of ‘socially useless’ speculative froth, which could, and should, decline without real loss. This latter viewpoint is just wrong.
He then gives a very clear account, well worth reading in full, of why this is so.

And as Tim Worstall says:
Transaction taxes are almost always paid, in the end, by consumers – not, as their advocates suppose, by the professionals in the markets.

Robin Hood is supposed to have made a career out of liberating taxes unjustly levied by the Sheriff of Nottingham and returning them to the poor they had been extorted from. To invoke his memory for a plan to tax the public more heavily in order to give politicians more to spray around the world is a little odd.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A bitter-sweet Valentine’s Day

Ah yes, the romance of it, the celebration, the delight in our happiness. But for some, the sad and lonely, every 14 February brings the bitter reminder that they are losers in love. No roses or chocolates for them.

Which is a market opportunity seized by the admirably entrepreneurial Despair, Inc. This is their sales pitch:
For most, there is no crueler day of the calendar year than that of Valentine’s Day. While a tiny fraction of the population can look forward to a holiday of wine and roses, poetry and song, the vast majority of us can anticipate a day of nausea and grimacing, trauma and grief. A day in which minutes seem like hours, and hours like days, as we reflect sorrowfully on yesteryear’s romantic indignities, today’s loneliness, and the unknowable but certain heartbreak that will be visited upon us repeatedly in the years to come.

When cruelty and holidays collide, the weak-willed find solace in self-pity and comfort foods. And now, Despair Inc. is pleased to announce that we’ve combined BOTH into a radical new offering.

Like the ubiquitous candy conversation hearts, Bittersweets® are made of flavored, chalky-tasting sugar and sport a message on their face. But unlike other candy hearts, ours are stamped with bitter musings and mockeries perfectly suited to the dejected spirits of those who will spend the holiday alone, or wishing they were.
They offer three selections (click on the image above to enlarge): “Dysfunctional”, “Dumped” and “Dejected”.


“Dysfunctional” sayings include AWFUL INLAWS, I WANT HALF,

“Dumped” sayings include: I GOT SOBER, HE FIT U FAT, USED U 4 FUN, BACK 2 KENNEL, HE HAS A JOB and, worryingly, U HAVE A BLOG.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nominative determinism #3

You know, the theory that one’s name decides what job one does, covered here first and then later here.

In today’s Waikato Times “Leisure” section, the gardening writer is Gus Flower.

British is best #2: Burger King on TV

The English make really, really good television ads, don’t they. It’s hardly Ulysses or the St Matthew Passion, but then they’ve already been done. This is the latest TV ad from Burger King:

The print ads say:
The new BK 3-Cheese Angus is one King tasty burger. So King tasty that even just looking at it can make you King hungry. If after checking out this King ad you want to head down to your nearest King restaurant, we’ll be there. And feel free to bring your King mates too.
Monitor: Tim Worstall

Around the New Zealand blogs

Chris Bell at NZBC asks why Charlie Brooker hates Alain de Botton so much, and offers a very plausible explanation. De Botton doesn’t exactly deny it, you’ll notice.

Mary McCallum at O Audacious Book confesses that she needs to read more Emily Dickinson.

Vanda Symon at Overkill praises Dunedin writer Paddy Richardson’s brilliant new crime novel Hunting Blind: “This is a fabulous book, superbly well written.. .” True. And it was a pleasure to edit, too.

Matt Nolan at The Visible Hand in Economics invokes Keynes to defend John Key over the possible raising of GST.

Ally at Today is My Birthday never had this conversation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cactus Kate snark of the year

Of the year so far, that is. Here she is on Carmel Fisher:
Fisher according to her website has only around $600 million of assets under management and with some 30,000 clients this puts her well and truly in the small fry category on an international level. The average of just $20,000 per client. Again, nothing wrong with this, its just not staggering as of yet, who wishes to have clients with $20,000 of savings? It is very retail.
“It is very retail.” God, how humiliating.

Bobby Charles i.m.

Mick Hartley reports the death of Bobby Charles, the great Louisiana songwriter. “See You Later Alligator” – that was his. He was 14 when he wrote it. He also wrote “Small Town Talk” with Rick Danko (covered by Geoff Muldaur/Paul Butterfield), “But I Do (Clarence “Frogman” Henry”), “Walking to New Orleans” (Fats Domino), “He’s Got All the Whisky” (John Martyn), “The Jealous Kind” (Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Etta James) and many, many more. You know his songs even if you don’t know his name. The Guardian obit is here, and his Proper Records profile is here.

Nick Bollinger remembers him in the current issue of the Listener (not online yet: should be by the end of the month). It’s a great piece, as always when Nick is given space, and there is the revelation that when he rang Charles out of the blue in 1995, Charles invited him to come and visit – and to stay. I thought I was pretty cool because I’d met Amos Garrett and bought him a drink or two, but this is a whole other league.

Like most musicians who love Charles’s wonderful 1972 album Bobby Charles (also released later as Small Town Talk), Nick seems surprised that it isn’t more famous: it has 10 great songs, loads of great players including Garrett, Dr John, David Sanborn and most of the Band – what more could you want? Listening to it again, I think I know. Several songs have the same structure, classic though that may be, and most of it sounds as though it was recorded live in the studio, on the wing: I like records like that but most people don’t. The songs with Garrett on guitar, though, are crisp and clearly rehearsed up the wazoo. I’ve no idea whether that is due to Garrett – he clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly – or if it was just different sessions with different levels of booze’n’herbs. You know what musicians are like.

The 1995 album Wish You Were Here Right Now may be easier to find and is more polished: it features Willie Nelson’s band as well as cameos from Nelson, Neil Young and Fats Domino. But anything he did is worth hearing.

Mick Hartley laments that he couldn’t find any good performances from Charles (never a performer, so no great surprise) on YouTube. But here’s one with the Band in an outtake from The Last Waltz, performing his song “Down South in New Orleans”. Everyone in that concert got shoved aside on-stage by Robbie Robertson and on-camera by Martin Scorsese, and it’s sad to see the guy not knowing where to stand or whom to share a microphone with. But at least we get to see him. He must be in a good place now.

UPDATE: Mark Steyn on Bobby Charles. The best piece yet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

God as author

I can’t find this online so we’ll have to take Jim Ring’s word for it in the summer issue of the New Zealand Skeptic. He quotes from Nicholas Guyatt’s book Have a Nice Doomsday: why millions of Americans are looking forward to the end of the world, in which Tim LaHaye, the bigot responsible for the 60-million-selling Left Behind series of 16 apocalyptic “novels”, says this:
The best way to reach the minds of people is the printed page. God chose the printed page to communicate with mankind. So how can you improve on that?
Jeff Sharlett reviews the book for the New Statesman here. It sounds great:
It’s an important project – as Guyatt points out, around 50 million US citizens believe Jesus will return with fireworks during their lifetime [. . . ]

At the same time, apocalypse preachers tend to undermine any attempt to see them as prophets, sage or sinister. What are we to make, for example, of Tim LaHaye, who, at the age of 80, wears his hair as dark and shiny as shoe polish and who boasts to Guyatt about the golfing amenities of the fabulous Palm Springs home that his Left Behind books bought? Even LaHaye’s bigotries are laughable – Guyatt spends several pages discussing another LaHaye book, The Unhappy Gays. This is only tangentially related to the apocalypse – LaHaye, like many fundamentalists, sees gay pride parades as harbingers of the end - but Guyatt knows that the image of LaHaye “undercover” in a “loud, brown, floral shirt and what appears to be a white PVC safari jacket, complete with silver pocket clasps and enormous triangular collars . . . cruising the haunts of San Diego’s gay community” is the kind of comic material that requires no justification.
The best book I have read on why the idea of apocalypse has such deep appeal to Christians (and to post-Christian society in general) is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium. It is one of the best books I have read full stop.

Happy birthday, Leontyne Price

The great American soprano Leontyne Price was born on 10 February 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi. In 1952, soon after she graduated from Juilliard, Ira Gershwin selected her to sing the role of Bess in a revival of Porgy and Bess that became a hit in New York and toured Europe to great acclaim.

Her 1961 debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, as Leonora in Il Trovatore, made her a star to rank with Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas; in Europe she performed often with Herbert von Karajan, and made some classic recordings with him. She is regarded as the Verdi soprano of our time.

Here she is in 1963 singing “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida:

And here she is in 1981 singing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. It’s from late in her career, and in pretty soupy sound, but at least you can see her. There is a better sound-only clip here from her outstanding 1963 recording of excerpts from the opera, with her then husband William Warfield as Porgy. This “Summertime” is pretty much definitive.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nicky Hager: Middle East expert

Scoop reports that:
At a meeting held in Wellington on Monday 1 February, New Zealanders expressed concern at the repression of free speech in Iran.

The meeting, called by PEN NZ and the Mohsen Hachtroubi Foundation of Paris, discussed the imprisonment, torture, rape and execution of writers and others who have exercised their right to free speech.

PEN representative Nelson Wattie stressed that these violent and repressive acts affect human beings everywhere, and that New Zealand people must show solidarity by raising their voices to join the worldwide protest against the mistreatment of people who have committed no crime. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iran and New Zealand are signatories, guarantees freedom of expression to all people.

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager outlined the history of these abuses, which have been going on for thirty years, and pointed out that the United States and its allies, including New Zealand, share responsibility for their support of the regime that commits the abuses.
These abuses have been going on for 30 years, you say? Since the 1979 revolution, then, when the US-backed Shah left and Ayatollah Khomeini came in to set up his charming theocracy.

So there were no abuses of human rights and free speech under the Shah, only since 1979 under the ayatollahs. And this is America’s fault, because America supports the current regime. And it’s our fault too, because we have so much influence in Teheran

This may come as news to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Barack Obama and John Key. It certainly comes as news to me.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hone Harawira’s bottom

The headline was: “Harawira lays out his bottom lines for Foreshore”.

The Waitangi Day story begins:
Maori Party MP Hone Harawira laid out his bottom lines on the foreshore and seabed at Waitangi today, challenging the Government to hand full title to Maori while ensuring full access to all New Zealanders.
Phew. I can’t have been the only reader to assume from the headline that this was another whakapohane, aka the Dun Mihaka Manoeuvre.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

John Key’s hidden agenda

Karl du Fresne has a piece in last week’s (30 January) Australian edition of the Spectator summarising the state of the nation after one year of the new government. There’s nothing in it that residents won’t know already but I’d recommend it to anyone overseas who is in the least bit interested in New Zealand. He begins:
In the last weeks of New Zealand’s 2008 general election campaign, a tired and desperate Labour government, sensing impending annihilation, tried to throw a scare into the voters by painting National party leader John Key as a far-right zealot in disguise. It didn’t wash. Voters found it too much of a stretch to reconcile Key’s sunny affability with Labour’s dark allusions to Trojan Horses and secret agendas, and National was duly elected in a rout that left Helen Clark’s centre-left party demoralised and floundering — a state from which it shows little sign of recovering.

Amid the ashes of defeat, Labour’s only consoling hope was that its doom-laden predictions would be proved right. But if Key has a secret plan to starve the unemployed and bayonet the elderly — which is only a slight exaggeration of the claims made by some of his more hysterical opponents in 2008 — then it remains as well-hidden now as it was then.
I had forgotten about Key’s secret, hidden, evil agenda but yes, this was widely believed at the time. But as Karl reminds us, it hasn’t happened yet. He then goes on to outline why, because of this, some National diehards have been disappointed. The whole article is a great read, and far from uncritical, but I was struck by this comment on the deal with the Maori Party:
It was typical of Key’s inclusive style — but it also showed political cunning and a degree of ruthlessness, since it drove what may be a final, fatal wedge between Maori voters and the Labour party that for decades had complacently counted on their support.
What surprised me was that Karl seemed surprised that John Key might be cunning and ruthless.

Around the New Zealand blogs

BK Drinkwater is moving house.

Laughy Kate is taking a shower.

Phil Parker has been visiting Dunedin.

Dim-Post talks to some primary school teachers rather than listen to Robbie Williams.

Karl du Fresne sums up the terrible story of the Princess Ashika.

The Fundy Post has discovered a new word, “exasterbate”.

Poneke would like us to be a bit more – well, a bit more Australian.

Chris Bell at NZBC has scored some free perfume.

And tonight Distractions is coming for dinner.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A grammar lesson in Parliament

No, not Trevor Mallard giving the subjunctive a bit of biff. This is from Parliament in London, where they discuss weighty matters such as Iraq and the Chilcott inquiry, Afghanistan, climate change, MPs’ expenses, the BAE enquiry and grammar.

Yes, grammar. From the 19 January edition of Hansard:
Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): [. . . ] There is no country keener on referendums than Switzerland.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Referenda.

Mr MacShane: Referendums. It is a gerund.

Mr Fabricant: It is a gerundive.

Mr MacShane: It is a gerund. Keep your hair on. [. . . ]

Michael Fabricant: [later in the debate, after checking in the dictionary] The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr.MacShane) may have inadvertently misled the House earlier, and I am sure that he would wish to retract that. As the word “referendum” means “things to be referred”, according to the “Oxford English Dictionary”, it is indeed a gerundive and therefore the plural should be “referenda”. “Referendums” is acceptable in modern usage, though wrong.

Hon. Members: Withdraw!
The Independent comments:
The “keep your hair on” bit was a little cruel, because Mr Fabricant is famous for having a topping of blond hair which a lot of people think is not real. [. . .]
But, should you need to ask, [. . . ] a gerund has no plural form in Latin, therefore if “referendum” were a gerund, you could not say “referenda”, but since it is in fact a gerundive, “referenda” is correct. Correct, if a little pretentious. But I expect you already knew that.
Well, doh.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The lost Man Booker Prize

Booksellers NZ reports – OK, publishes the press release – that:
In 1971, just two years after it began, the Booker Prize ceased to be awarded retrospectively and became a prize for the best novel in the year of publication. At the same time, the award moved from April to November, creating a whole year's gap when fiction published in1970 fell through the net. These books were simply never considered for the prize – until now.

Forty years on, a panel of three judges - all of whom were born in or around 1970 - has been appointed to select a shortlist of six novels from those books. They are journalist and critic, Rachel Cooke, newsreader, Katie Derham and novelist, Tobias Hill.

They will select a shortlist from 22 books which would have been eligible and are still in print and generally available today.

The Hand Reared Boy, Brian Aldiss
A Little Of What You Fancy?, H.E. Bates,
The Birds On The Trees, Nina Bawden
A Place In England, Melvyn Bragg
Down All The Days, Christy Brown
Bomber, Len Deighton
Troubles, J.G.Farrell
The Circle, Elaine Feinstein
The Bay Of Noon, Shirley Hazzard
A Clubbable Woman, Reginald Hill
I'm The King Of The Castle, Susan Hill
A Domestic Animal, Francis King
The Fire Dwellers, Margaret Laurence
Out Of The Shelter, David Lodge
A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Iris Murdoch
Fireflies, Shiva Naipaul
Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian
Head To Toe, Joe Orton
Fire From Heaven, Mary Renault
A Guilty Thing Surprised, Ruth Rendell
The Driver's Seat, Muriel Spark
The Vivisector, Patrick White

The shortlist will be announced in March but the international reading public will decide the winner by voting via the Man Booker Prize website. The overall winner will be announced in May.
I suppose Farrell is a contender; the Len Deighton and Reginald Hill are good but too popular; Susan Hill could have an outside chance; the Iris Murdoch, David Lodge and Shiva Naipaul are not their best; I have no clue about the Patrick White.

I’d have to re-read these two to choose between them but my vote would go to either the Shirley Hazzard or the Muriel Spark.

Hazzard (who is still with us) has written four novels and one collection of short stories – all five books are great. She lived for a while as a girl in Wellington but the experience does not appear to have harmed her.

I’d like to say that Spark towered head and shoulders above her contemporaries, but I believe she was in fact vertically challenged. Still, she is my all-time favourite Jewish Catholic Scottish novelist.

The Lost Man Booker Prize is the brainchild of Peter Straus, who used to be the publisher at Picador. He is also, I can attest, a top bloke. Well, he bought me champagne once.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

AC/DC in Auckland

It’s about 10.30pm and our friends Lizzie and John in Grange Road, Mount Eden, report that they can hear the AC/DC concert loud and clear. It is at Western Springs stadium, six kilometres away. They are so not complaining.

And I saw the band in Melbourne 20 or so years ago so I am not jealous. Not me. No way.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mahe Drysdale, Sarah Ulmer and me

We have so much in common. He is a champion rower, she is a champion cyclist and, like them, I too have my photo in today’s issue of our local paper, the Cambridge Edition.

Because we are just four pages apart, less than a millimetre separates us. How cool is that?

The zero rupee

The Economist reports on a brilliant Indian idea to fight corruption that seems actually to work. (The article, in the 28 January edition, isn’t online until next week but you can read it here. Honestly, those Indians have no respect for intellectual property.) The idea is that when asked for a bribe, you hand over a zero-rupee note which looks just like normal currency but says “Eliminate corruption at all levels. Zero rupees. I promise to neither accept nor give bribe.”

Apparently this so shames the bribe-seekers that they stop:
One official in Tamil Nadu was so stunned to receive the note that he handed back all the bribes he had solicited for providing electricity to a village. Another stood up, offered tea to the old lady from whom he was trying to extort money and approved a loan so her granddaughter could go to college.
The concept was invented by an expatriate physics professor who was irritated on returning home by incessant demands for bribes:
He gave the notes to the importuning officials as a polite way of saying no. Vijay Anand, president of an NGO called 5th Pillar, thought it might work on a larger scale. He had 25,000 zero-rupee notes printed and publicised to mobilise opposition to corruption. They caught on: his charity has distributed 1m since 2007.
There is more about 5th Pillar’s work here, and here at its associated site Zero Currency are images of a similar anti-corruption note for each country in the world, along with its corruption perception ranking. For example:

New Zealand is #1 – that is, the most incorrupt country – while Australia is #9 for 2008, which is at least an improvement on #14 in 2007. (There is a more up-to-date list for 2009 at Transparency International, in which New Zealand is still #1 and Australia is now equal #8.)

I wonder if this idea would work in a country with a less structured and/or less religious society, one where there is less sense of shame. That is, I can see it being very successful in Japan or Samoa, but less so in . . . well, some other places.

Monday, February 1, 2010


From a new series of photos from Afghanistan at the Boston Globe’s excellent The Big Picture. The caption reads:
A British soldier stands in front of an Afghan vehicle, known as a “jingle truck”, as he provides security outside Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Jan. 2, 2010. The soldier is assigned to B Flight, 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment, which is serving with NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez/U.S. Air Force)
I showed this to my truckie mate Dean, just as a suggestion for a possible redesign for 2010. I can’t repeat his exact words, but essentially he’s going to stick with the more conservative look.

I think he meant this was just a bit gay.

More trucking flamboyance here.

Monitor: Mick Hartley