Monday, January 31, 2011

The Case for Powerful Cases

I check the NZ Herald site fairly regularly. Sure, it’s a complete mess: articles all over the place with the photos and ads presenting a dizzying visual assault to the eyes. But the actual written words are interesting, even if I don’t agree with everything.

One recent editorial line struck my eye a while ago, but I didn’t really go into it in much depth then. It showed the blue colours of the paper extend beyond the style sheet to the mind of the editor as well.

Now, an editorial is allowed to be opinionated – it’s the whole point I suppose. I was interested in the conclusion though: Key presents powerful case for asset sales, a case that the editor sees as courageous and well directed at “sacred cows”.

Considering asset sales has been the clarion cry of Act and the Business Round table for… well, years, if not ever, I don’t really see it as a lone, rebellious voice in the wilderness this back patting seems to be. And the “powerful” case itself mainly stacks up to New Zealand’s economy floundering like so many others around the world and new schools, highways, hospitals and broadband need to be built – all very tangible and “worthy”, to be sure. The editorial does not comment about the extra cost associated with new operating theatres and more classrooms (not that I disagree with the idea of course; just pointing this out) nor that one of those other floundering economies, Ireland, was the Right’s pin-up poster boy a few years ago for what nations New Zealand’s size could and should be doing.

That is not to say this is not be a “bold and sensible” course, as the editorial concludes. However much I personally may disagree with the idea, I do not have a background in economics and have a fairly low opinion of the morality of the market so I tend to approach the topic with a big sense of scepticism.

But I would think that a “powerful case” would actually provide some kind of evidence for the conclusion reached, and would cover some of the more glaring issues that arise. “A case” can be completely powerful if you happen to agree with it: some religious Christians see the Bible as completely true and that it should be interpreted literally because the Bible says so. Again, that is not to say that the conclusion is wrong, just that it is not actual “proof”, nor that the argument is powerful to anyone other than believers.

There were quite a few comments on this editorial, unsurprisingly, and the majority of the ones I saw did not share the editor’s opinion. I suppose it is a good editorial in that it does get people thinking about what is important to them and the merits of various proposals. It is just a shame the paper did not choose to do its own analysis and present all sides of the argument itself, as surely any good journalistic medium should do.

Thank heaven I get Stratos in a few months’ time…

Verdict: Newspapers in NZ continue to underwhelm with their superficial approach. New Zealand may be a country where only the Rugby (and, in particular, the exploits of SBW) gets discussed in any length length whatsoever, but it would be nice to know there was a bit of depth somewhere out there too. 2 Pulitzer prizes out of 10.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Case for Being Speechless

Let's not beat around the bush: The King's Speech is a wonderful movie.

It's not an action flick. In fact, it is all fairly low key, with a lot of talking heads and the odd historical newsreel thrown in. And this is definitely Colin Firth's film.

The amount of speech therapy Firth must have gone through to make him sound like he needed speech therapy is impressive. Firth can play the emotionally repressed Englishman with his eyes closed (isn't that what he does in most of his roles?), and such a talent makes him the perfect for the role of the stuttering Prince who became King just before the British Empire was plunged into the Second World War.

Of course, the supporting cast is no bunch of slouchers: Jeffrey Rush gets to be an Australian as the miracle speech therapist, and Helena Bonham Carter gets to shed the insane image from the Harry Potter film and becomes all dowdy and short in her role as Queen Elizabeth, who would later be known as the Queen Mother.

Around these three, the film revolves. Timothy Spall and Guy Pearce also show up (Pearce playing Firth's older brother, though he is about 10 years his junior - though I had to check that on IMDB to be sure), and there are a host of other Fine British Thespian Talent in other supporting roles, but, like a lot of the drab smoggy scenery, they all kind of fade into the background as the main characters dominate the screen.

There's not much point going into the story, as it is quite straight forward: man with speech impediment finds an unorthodox tutor who helps him through both his disability and through some traumatic personal experiences as well. But the way it is all done, with the palpable discomfort when Albert first speaks in public to the nods to the Firm and the changing times, is so engrossing that the almost 2 hour running time just flies by.

Verdict: The King's Speech was great film with which to start my 2011 Cinematic Season, and I am sure it will get a whole heap of BAFTAs and Oscars at the upcoming awards ceremonies. There is a bit of swearing in there, but it's otherwise a simple G-rated tale well told. 9 stutters out of 10.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Case for Adiverts

I spotted this poster in Wellington train station, and have subsequently seen it on Oriental Parade. And, on first inspection, it struck me.

Not in a physical way, but more in the subliminal message way. Or perhaps not so subliminal. Do you see what I saw? And no, there is no little picture of Waldo or Wally anywhere.

The thing that struck me about this was the jacket. Obviously, the cause is worthy and I am sure that donating would be wonderful. But that jacket. Why does it have to be a designer label?

Sure, adidas is not Christian LaCroix or something from one of the big designer houses. But what this advertisement said to me was that kids need their sports-sponsored jackets, and that is what this charity organisation will deliver them.

I suppose the real reason why a big adidas symbol is splashed all over this page is because the company, besides sponsoring well paid (perhaps mercenarily so) rugby players, also works with the underprivileged too. I assumed this display showed that addidas support the charity and merely ask that the children they help clothe be attired in apparel that shows from whom their wardrobe springs. The little people matter – in any way that helps sales, the cynic within me cynically smiles.

Of course, being the cynic that I am, the whole advertising-link annoys me almost as much as the thought of the charity spending donated money on “label first” clothing. Oxfam do a great line in “present” donations where contributors can pay for specific items, such as chickens, toilets, educational grants and the like, and I have occasionally contributed to some of these as “presents” for some friends as donations on their behalf. But I would never have any inclination be to buy an addidas jacket as one of those donations.

In the end, I found that the advertisement gave me all the wrong messages, foremost the one that, “We need money because we spend money on label clothing”. If adidas do indeed sponsor this charity, their message rings out, “We give these people money, but expect them to spend it on our label of jackets and other assorted sporting gear”.

Verdict: And so, all up, the advertisement served to convince me not to donate to that charity, and also to spread the word about how awful their advertising campaign appears to be. Like the more annoying and/or discordant advertisements out there, it definitely left an impression – just not the impression the advertisers probably intended. 1 powers of persuasion out of 5.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Case for some Vietnamese Oddities 01

Here are some of the less serious photos I took on a Christmas / New Year trip to Vietnam. I hope you find them as entertaining as I did when I took them.

1. Yup, that is Brittney Spears on that tombstone. Do the people of Hanoi know something that we don't - yet?

2. This was actual supermarket fare in the chilled goods section in Hue. My travelling companions taught me the best way to take this photo sneakily, as it did need to be taken.

3. Getting on board an aircraft in Da Nang, its nice to have pictographic representation of what we can't take on board. But surely, in a Communist country, one's sickle is sacred?

4. One of those posters the Flight of the Conchords mock, in Hue.

5. Well, c'mon. I know it's childish, but just look at the sign (in Ho Chi Minh City).

6. Okay, so this one is staged, but my Travelling Bubbles just looked so cute ready to fire on helpless tourists from a helicopter at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

7. No, don't let it snow, hotel in Ho Chi Minh City! I like the "warm" winter well enough, thank you.

8. The Vietnamese take great pride in depicting the means with which the local populace fought the American hordes, but I found this mural at the Cu Chi Tunnels exhibit just outside Ho Chi Minh City just perhaps a bit too... gleeful?

9. Perhaps its a cheese thing, but I love the use of the Laughing Cow at a night market food stand in Ho Chi Minh City to illustrate that Pho (basically the national dish of Vietnam and wonderful to boot) comes in Cow and Chicken varieties.

10. It took me several times to read the sign below, and I am still not convinced that it is meant to be written in English. How would one even say "nigth"?

11. I may have, in a fir of stupidity, deleted my image of the "Merry Christmas" Huey, positioned behind Santa and his sleigh in front of a Mall just outside Ho Chi Minh City's airport, but they obviously extended the display's life by changing its well-wishing purpose. I made it back just as they were taking down the "Happy New Year" Huey display - whew!

12. Okay, this is not really a "funny" picture, but rather the back of the head shot of a complete @r$ehole who, on the flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, found that there was no space in the overhead locker to put his own bag in, so removed my travelling companion's and chucked it on the seat next to him so he could put his own in, and then left that bag sitting next to him. Our howls of dismay were just greeted with a very "suck on that" smile. A nice man in the row behind him resolved the bag situation, but there were many evil glares directed this man's way. Send your own evil thoughts to him though the medium of the cybersphere, please.

Verdict: There are more "amusing" photos that I will add at a later date. Boy, how I love travelling! Some photos out of a few more.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Case for 2011

Positive signs for the New Year:

1. Stratos coming to Freeview Terrestrial

There is a big hole in my viewing schedule that came about when I lost access to Stratos Television, as it is not available on Freeview Terrestrial. The mix of news programmes from around the world, including the fascinating perspective of Al Jazeera International (the English version), was something I always appreciated, even when my preferred news source was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Losing both last year was a big blow.

However, the powers that be at Triangle/Stratos headquarters have decided to expand their service beyond its current satellitic confines and, come March, I will once more be able to bask in its multi-ethic magnificence. Oh, joy!

2. Noticing new things

I never really looked at the site before (as I normally get booted here after I got out of Hotmail), but this time I noticed the NZ Men option, with links to Babes Galleries, $ex and dating and NZ Men News. No option for NZ Women yet, though perhaps that is because women run the media industry so they don't need their own menu.

3. Wall to wall All Blacks

Okay, technically speaking, we got lots of this last year too. And, when I flew Air NZ earlier this year, I noticed that the "All Black All Men" kiss request has been removed from their still highly annoying safety video. But I had better view the whole "All Blacks All Advertising" thing positively, otherwise I will need to strangle people. Or else I will just have a blogb!tch.

4. It's an election year

Promises will be made, and will then, after the election, be broken. But at least we, the public, will be sucked up to for a few months before we get told to tighten our belts, stop complaining about the price of almost everything, and most definitely to stop being so damned lazy - unless you are a multimillionaire made rich on the back of thousands of small investors or government asset sales and then you can do pretty much anything you want as long as you leave your cars in the country.

On a more negative note, however, I did notice the following sign in Paraparaumu the other day:

Verdict: Not entirely sure why it is necessary to look forward to a New Year as it is just an arbitrary number used to tabulate man's perception of time, but it somehow feels like quite a nice thing to do. 2000 out of 2011.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Case for Cash Passports

Well, that heading is perhaps a bit misleading.

For those who have had the... experience of experiencing them, Travellex Cash Passports are the latest technology in international currency technology, in that they are pre-loaded cards that allow you to withdraw money from Automatic Teller Machines throughout the world, having "locked" money in US dollars or Euros or Australian currencies at the value at the time the money was converted. This is meant to be an easier and safer way than using traveller's cheques and bank cards. I got one (well, you get two cards with each account) a few years ago in US dollars for a trip abroad - and I have since learned to loathe it.

First off, the cash passport does have some positives: it does deliver what it says on the box. Step up to any ATM with a Visa symbol and, yes, taking money out is as easy as taking money from an ATM using a normal bankcard. It's possible to check balances online and to transfer money to the card from private accounts. And the balance on the accounts can be cashed out if it's not all spent.

Now (and for me) the annoying sides:

1) I could not cash out my $US as $US. The card boasts that there is only one transaction fee to put normal cash into the currency of one's choice, and I wanted the cash rather than leave the money on the card (which expires in 2 years) so I thought the best solution was to go to a Travellex store and ask to just have it paid out. But no.

2) Each card only holds one form of currency. The banks offer cards that do more than one, which would be really handy if travelling through different countries - otherwise, you have to have one card per country or incur fees on the card...

3) ...because, yes, there are fees to transfer money from one currency on the card to another. While US$ are great when travelling almost everywhere, not all countries allow people to draw down US$ from their money machines, meaning more fees when travelling around. And of course, the rate for transferring from US to another currency is open to fluctuation.

4) And then there are the potential fees for using the machines themselves, which add to the cost of using the card. I wasn't charged much to use ATMs abroad, but even US$1 can cause problems as...

5) ... any "fee" comes out of your account, which "unrounds" the amount in the account. And, as people who use cards know, you can't get $20 if you have $20 in your account but the fee to get at it costs $1. Not so helpful, as it practically guarantees you will have some leftover funds in the account.

6) My view of the card plummeted when I discovered that the cash passport has a penalty fee built in when the card is not used for a while. Even with only a 2 year life span, I was not impressed to discover a "not used" charge when I took some money out after about a year. What exactly is this fee covering, considering?

So, in summary, I doubt I will ever get a cash passport again. Getting cash (US$) is much easier, and, in their own paper-based way, travellers cheques are easier too (as least you can always cash out to their value and not get stuff with an amount that you can't access). And if I really need money, I can just get some directly from my bank account (yay for international Debit Cards) and save the intermediate transaction charges. The good things going for it (the security and redundancy, I suppose) really did not make up for the annoyances. But then, I am pretty demanding, I suppose.

Verdict: The Cash Passport seems more trouble than it is really worth, not assisted by annoying bureaucracy at Travellex which puts a lie to claim of this being the no hassle way of getting and keeping cash. I gave it a try - but not again. 3 dollars out of 10.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Case for Happy New Year 2011

As wonderful as the Nordic gods of music Abba may be, not even their mildly depressing New Year's song can be on perpetual repeat in my Hue hotel without the high probability of at least one person (namely me) turning into a homicidal maniac and going on a murderous rampage.

Luckily, there are enough unidentifiable meats in Vietnam that the evidence of any such assassinations can easily be concealed.

Here's hoping your own New Year's celebrations to welcome in 2011 were a lot less repetitious but just as wonderful.

Verdict: You would need to be a Super Trouper indeed to put up with one song repeated ad infinitum. But then, we all do have to be good soldiers around Christmas time. One Money out of 3.