Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The war against intelligence

The following was written for Street Life, the Princes Street Labour magazine, which is really jolly good.

When the Editor of this esteemed journal asked me to contribute an item about the recent arrests of alleged terrorists, I should have listened to my conscience, which was telling me "don't touch this; pretend you have lost the ability to type; tell him you are on holiday; do anything but accept this brief."

Unfortunately, I did not listen and the inevitable has happened: I have spent a week trying to write half a page. Agreeing to write on a story of this kind is like contracting writer's block by email. The trouble is, there is no story: all we know is that some people have been arrested on firearms charges. We won't know anything more until the arrested people are tried in court. A lot has been said in the media but most of that is speculation.

So, to fill the rest of this column, here are the facts in a little more detail: several people have been arrested, on firearms charges, in three locations: Auckland, Wellington and beyond the Black Stump. The Aucklanders were based at an anarchist den in Symonds Street; the Wellingtonians were hanging out at the headquarters of the Save Happy Valley campaign, a group previously known only for its concern for the welfare of ginormous snails. The last group, supposedly the centre of the operation, were in Tuhoe country; this is somewhere inland of the Bay of Plenty, in a part of the country which is very pretty but otherwise of no interest.

Here is the speculation, or at least some of it: these people were said to be plotting together to commit acts of terrorism, including the assassinations of Helen Clerk, John Key and George Bush (for the President of the United States to be killed by people from a country he probably could not locate on a map would be an ironic, if fitting, end to his career). At the centre of it is all, we are told, is Tame Iti, who has been training an army of his Tuhoe people deep in the bush. Some say that he intended to carry out a campaign of murders to drive outsiders from the region and make it his own; this would seem superfluous, since nobody ever goes there. Supporters claim he was doing nothing of the kind; he was merely training young men in defensive techniques so they could take jobs as bodyguards.

The question we should be asking is "can we take any of this seriously?" After all, the leader of this alleged conspiracy allegedly is Tame Iti, allegedly New Zealand's most ridiculous man. Mr Iti is known to us all for his calculated acts of bombast and self-regard. He blows his nose at the feet of Government Ministers; he rides horses bareback and bare-chested, perhaps trying to imitate the Burger King girls; he struts about in a kilt and a pill-box hat, again bare-chested, obviously unaware of passing of the 19th Century. He is no stranger to controversy but obviously a stranger to Jenny Craig. He fires a gun into the air as an act of defiance, just like all those blowhards in Palestine and points east. He demands, he struts, he proclaims, he makes Brian Tamaki look modest and self-effacing. And he fancies himself as an artist, having exhibited his paintings in a Parnell gallery. Trust me on this, I'm an Art Historian: these pompous, self-important gits always think they are artists.

And what of his army? As the old saying goes, I have seen the enemy and they are idiots. Apparently they bought weapons: on TradeMe. Now, don't get me wrong; TradeMe is an excellent market for the things you need at low, low prices. But is a very public market. After you have bought a few semi-automatic rifles with your trading account, people start to notice a pattern. It's much the same with the balaclavas; apparently they made a bulk order for balaclava helmets, the kind with just holes for mouth and eyes, the kind favoured for comfort and anonymity by international terrorists in the movies. It is this kind of purchasing decision that makes people suspicious.

No doubt we will hear a lot more when the case comes to trial. No doubt what we will hear will be as much farce as tragedy. Until then, members of the protesting class will while away the time by marching, holding vigils, making demands and being outraged. The rest of us will have to content ourselves with rumours and speculation.

Situations vacant

My spies in the house of Rat tell me that Bill Cooke, Faking Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Brigadoon and Vice-President of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (Inc) is going to Europe next year. Apparently he may wish to relinquish his position as Editor-in-Chief of the Open Society, the NZARH journal.

Following precedents set by the current incumbent, the next Editor-in-Chief should adopt a tone of fawning obsequiousness towards anyone who holds a real professorial position, while treating the Association's membership with condescension. The position is an opportunity for the Editor-in-Chief to represent his own prejudices as the opinions of all humanists and to sneer at those who do not share his views. Critics of the Editor's opinions should be subjected to abuse. The Editor-in-Chief is entitled to lie to the Association's Council and to use the journal for personal gain. A sense of humour is not required.

The position officially is unpaid although the current Editor-in-Chief has received, for the last ten years, what he calls a "stipend" of $500 per annum. This payment is supposed to cover the Editor-in-Chief's expenses, although no member of the NZARH Council has ever dared ask what these might be and all costs for producing the journal are borne from other parts of the NZARH budget. The stipend is paid tax-free. The NZARH avoids paying either GST or income tax on this payment and those it has made to some other members in return for services. For accounting purposes, these fees are called "special duty payments," to conceal them from the revenue men.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Silence kit

Is it just me, or is the television getting less capable of dealing with facts?

I only ask because I saw an item on the early evening news a few days ago about carbon sinks. Now this is an interesting topic, particularly as the British Antarctic Survey has just discovered record-breaking levels of carbon in the atmosphere, which is a Bad Thing. The news item, which was made by the BBC, acknowledged this discovery, before going on to explain how the forests and oceans absorb much of the carbon we produce; well, not so much explaining the process as stating that it happens. The rather earnest and somewhat condescending reporter then said that Scientists are concerned that the oceans may soon be saturated with carbon, which again would be a Bad Thing.

And that was it. The report drifted away, leaving all the important questions unanswered. What I would like to have been told is what happens when the oceans become saturated with carbon. Would they become thicker, more like treacle? Does carbon poison fish? Would it wash up on our beaches? These and other questions remained unasked and unsolved by the news item, I think because the producers had decided that the viewers had been told enough Science for one evening. Any more Science might confuse the viewers and make it difficult for them to take in the messages of the advertising.

Then there was the 60 Minutes report about young women and their binge drinking. Apparently, young women are drinking more than they once did. It was difficult to tell from the report whether this is a Bad Thing. On the one hand, excessive drinking can have some serious consequences, which the report did not have time to discuss; on the other hand, the drinking gave the producers an opportunity to show footage of lots of girls wearing next to nothing and behaving badly. I may be mistaken but I do not recall the report containing a single fact, but it had an awful lot of fluff.

Then there was the other 60 Minutes report from last week about the farmer who had discovered a miracle way to grow grass. Apparently, he found something that the Scientists never knew: grass has an electric current growing through it. What's more, he found you can reverse the current by spreading silica over the grass. This causes the grass to grow better than it ever did before.

Yes, really. The farmer markets a product based on his amazing discovery. This product was not described in detail, but presumably is a bag of silica (which is sort of another name for glass). The proof of this pudding is that lots of satisfied customers swear by it.

However, the Commerce Commission does not think the farmer has a miracle product. They think he is a crook. They took him to court, for deceiving the satisfied customers and for damaging the economy. The court agreed that the farmer is a crook and fined him a quarter of a million dollars.

Now, you might have thought that 60 Minutes would be interested in a story about a man who deceived his customers with a bogus product and a junk theory about electricity running through grass. How wrong you would be. You see, running such a story would involve Science, which is difficult. It is a much easier matter to run a story about an ordinary kiwi battler who made an amazing discovery which has led to him being silenced by faceless bureaucrats.

Here are the key arguments made by 60 Minutes: the Commerce Commission had only one scientific expert on this case (obviously, there are many other scientists who know that electric currents run through grass, but they were not called as witnesses); the scientific expert consulted colleagues who work for fertiliser companies (obviously, and this was stated quite explicitly, the scientific expert is in the pay of Big Business, which wants to stop the farmer marketing his miracle product); the man from the Commerce Commission refused to answer really stupid and nasty questions from the 60 Minutes reporter (obviously, a cover-up); the farmer's wife was really upset when the bailiffs came to take away the farmer's vehicles because he had refused to pay the fine (obviously, these are good people).

There is one other argument and this one is the clincher: one of the satisfied customers is an All Black legend. Readers from New Zealand, particularly those versed in the arts of rhetoric and logic, will realise the import of this fact. For the benefit of overseas readers I shall explain: an All Black trumps any argument. It does not matter that electric currents do not run through our grasslands and that pouring glass on the grass would probably be harmful to the environment; an All Black legend supports the farmer and that is enough. Truth is Black and Black truth.

So the farmer is not a crook; he is a kiwi battler. The commerce commission is a bully. Its scientific expert is corrupt. Electricity runs through grass. Changing the direction of the electricity by pouring glass on the grass makes the grass grow better.

And then there is the programme where psychics solve old murders; or rather, they don't solve them but they have some really strong feelings about them. Recently, there was one about a prostitute who had been murdered. The psychics received lots of messages from her, none of which were clear enough to reveal the identity of her murderer or the whereabouts of her body. One of the psychics was led by her to the Auckland Domain; she led the other psychic to the Jewish Cemetery. These are some distance apart. Although the psychics had strong feelings in different places, the programme concluded that they were both right. Of course they were; they had feelings.

It is, after all, feelings that count. Science is a loser's game: all those complicated facts and theories. Feelings are what television is about: sobbing farmers' wives, drunken totty, psychic investigators. Why think when you can feel?

Friday, October 12, 2007

In Blogland again

And we're back. Apologies for lengthy break in transmission, but your bloggist has been working on a PhD proposal. I vowed that I would do nothing else until I had finished it and now I have done so. It is about Architectural History; I might post it if the Art History Department at the University of Auckland accepts it.

So, what has been happening? Not a lot. Immediately after I posted a thing about the exciting new alliance of Brian Tamaki and Gordon Copeland, the latter departed. So much for the Christian party. That other Christian Gentleman, Taito Philip Field, is still innocent until proven guilty; he was telling us as much in Parliament only the other day. And we lost Le Rugby.

This is not a sporting blog, as you know. But I was taken with the near-identical headlines on the front pages of the Dom Post and the Herald. "DEJA VU," shouted the Dom Post, while the Herald, never given to brevity, had "DEJA VU AGAIN AND AGAIN." Of course, it was nothing of the kind; deja vu is the delusion that one has previously experienced an event; the inability of the All Blacks to win the World Cup is painfully real.

We are now in a period of national mourning and blaming the ref, although one All Black, like the Engergizer Bunny, keeps on going: Doug Howlett has converted a room at the Heathrow Hilton and tackled two cars. This will give Campbell Live something to talk about, now that its schedules are unexpectedly bare.

At least we will not have to endure those advertisements any longer. I think I am now fully aware that Air New Zealand and many other corporate sponsors are Proud (yes, Proud) to support the All Blacks, that Weet-Bix is the breakfast cereal of choice among Our Boys and that Mastercard does something or other for them. Now we can return to normal scheduling, where only about half the advertisements on television feature the Squad. I am not a sporting type, but I suggest the reason for the All Blacks' failure at the football may have something to do with the amount of time they spend on sets, under-acting.

That's enough sport. I shall now return to the emails and comments that have accumulated during my absence. I will report back soon.