Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009: Bumper midweek edition

A humble request: Before we really get started today, I would like to send out a heartfelt plea to journalists and headline-writers everywhere: please, please, stop using references to Slumdog Millionaire in any article that happens to mention India or Indians, however tangentially. Accordingly, the following phrases and their cognates are henceforth banned from all publications under my control:
  • slumdog millionaires
  • fun-slog millionaires
  • run-clog millionaires
  • slumdog billionaires
  • hotdog-bun millionaires

Three strikes and you're in Goff corner: A few weeks ago I unveiled the phenomenon of 'Goff corner' - so named because the original article so identified featured none other than the embattled Leader of the Opposition - a then-mysterious journalistic device consisting of the following elements:
  • An article on a topic of some significance, eg an important political issue
  • An emphasis that may not suit the 'party line' of the newspaper
  • A page somewhere in the middle of the section
  • A position in the bottom corner of the page, surrounded by a large ad (usually for a car company) on one side and with an article, possibly of marginal importance, above.
I would hereby like to identify an article in yesterday's paper as fulfilling the criteria - "Key rejects $30b estimate for three-strikes sentencing":
  • Topic of significance? A massive alleged cost blowout on a proposed government policy? Check.
  • Not 'party line'? Being nasty to John Key. Check.
  • Middling page? A6. Check.
  • Bottom corner? Check. Hemmed in by large car ad? Check.
I hereby confirm the spotting of a 'Goff corner' piece on February 24, 2009. The article itself is pretty poor: according to a policy thinktank, the 'three strikes' legislation (where a third 'serious offence' results in a mandatory 25 year sentence) proposed by Act will cost an extra $30 billion over 25 years. John Key says it is an overestimate. Now, maybe he's right, and it won't be that much - how much will it be, and how much is too much? $25bn? $20bn? $10bn? Frankly, they all seem like rather obscene amounts to me. People often seem to think that you can't weigh up things like law and order spending in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, but any money spent on imprisoning people for longer means money that can't go to health, education, tax cuts or hip-hop tours. John Key and the Herald nicely sidestep this issue with their don't ask, don't tell policy: the Herald don't ask how much it will cost, and John key doesn't tell them.

Reporting fail: Yesterday, a friend sent me this article to read, about a study in the US on differing responses to art in the brains of men and women. The BBC article is headlined "Art appreciation 'a gender issue'", and it goes on to say that they found men and women - to simplify the findings a bit - use different parts of the brain when they look at artworks. The authors of the study apparently explained this in terms of the (I thought) well-known theory that differences in the way men's and women's brains work can be explained by evolutionary pressures - men were out hunting for game, women were gathering nuts and berries, and reading That's Life.

So imagine my surprise when I read on the front page of today's herald about a study that has discovered that differences in the way men's and women's brains work can be explained by evolutionary pressures. The authors apparently came up with this theory after studying men's and women's brains while the brainholders were looking at art. What a coincidence, I thought, to read about this study the day after reading about almost the exact reverse experiment! [Sarcasm off.] Ok, I haven't read the study itself, but I am tempted to side with the BBC. I have only one idea why the Herald article (headlined "Yes, dear, scientists know why we're lost again" - punchy! - in the paper edition, but "Why women can't read maps" online) interpreted the study this way, other than that they wanted to justify the use of this 'hilarious' cartoon:

John Key gives offence: It's a tough job being prime minister. If you start sucking up to big business, small business starts complaining; if you start sucking up to anyone else, big business threatens to leave the country. Simon Collins, social issues reporter, notes today that there have been complaints about the demographic makeup of Friday's much-awaited Jobs Summit. Out of 194 attendees, 118 are from the business sector! That's too many, say community groups. Out of those 118, 62 are from 'big business'. That's too many, say small-business groups. I suppose I can see these people's points, although I'm not sure I would have expected anything else given the circumstances. But the complaints go on. "The list includes 165 men and just 30 women," says Collins; seeing there are 194 attendees, presumably one person is both. Only two people are of Pacific Island descent, and "Fletcher Building chief executive Jonathan Ling will be the sole flagbearer for the Asian community", because presumably we only care about jobs for people of our race - oh well, at least 'the Asians' got a chief executive of one of New Zealand's major corporations! The Pacific Islanders got the boss of the company that makes taps!

Honestly, all that potentially says is that certain groups are underrepresented in top economic positions. But this is a summit designed to stem growth in unemployment - do we really care who talks about it as long as it gets done? Honestly, people will complain about anything, these days...

Say cheese: Yes, it's not exactly news to point out that newspapers use a lot of stupid photos - say, a picture of a girl eating cheese - so that they look less like a bunch of scary words and more like a comforting television. But it's one thing putting, say, a stock photo of a frog next to an article about frogs. It's completely another to massively buy into government propaganda via a photograph, and today's article on the government promising extra funds to support the Plunketline parenting advice helpline does just that. I have no problem with Plunketline, and think it is probably an excellent decision. But that doesn't mean that the Herald has to run a large photo (unfortunately only in the print edition) of Health Minister Tony Ryall (yes, him again) holding and attempting to entertain a baby (who, incidentally, bears a worrying resemblance to Chucky from the Child's Play movies) with a toy mobile phone. Baby-kissing is the oldest of political cliches, and we get more than enough of it in party propaganda come election time without the Herald ramming it down our throats now.

Young people these days, what what: Newsflash: Old woman thinks kids are spending too much time on that computing thingamyjig these days. That old woman is Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford. And that computing thingamyjig is your computer where you are addicted to Facebook, Twitter and mindless blogs (and possibly pornography, though she doesn't specifically mention that). These phenomena are 'infantilising" the adult minds of the 21st century... "devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance"... "the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences"...

Oh, sorry Lady! My infantilised mind couldn't keep up. Anyway, funnily enough, people always say these sorts of things about new technologies. You may have heard of the Greek philosopher Socrates, best known for appearing in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. He never wrote down a word of his philosophy, as he thought the written word was inaccurate and unhelpful and would, among other things, destroy the human memory. He also had to go and fight wars all the time and was able to laze around thinking all day because slaves did all his work. So maybe Twitter and Facebook will ruin society. But maybe, just maybe, they will usher in a glorious new era where humanity conquers the stars. It's a toss-up.

Shortage of skilled workers!: In an odd 17-line 'article', the Herald declares that "concerns are growing about finding staff with the right skills to serve spectators" at the 2011 Rugby World cup. After all, they don't want just any hospitality staff - they want people "with a consistently high standard of service skill and the right attitude". What a tremendous opportunity for young people to pick up such key stadium hospitality skills as:
  • not serving a hot dog to someone who just ordered hot chips
  • not spitting in the food
  • literacy skills enabling them to easily and rapidly distinguish between a bottle of Coke and a bottle of Coke Zero
  • washing their hands after using the toilet
  • not swearing at customers
What a whoppertunity for these lucky devils. The best part is how they will all be able to keep their jobs and use their new-found skills after the event ends.

'Cheap vices' stay popular: According to popular wisdom, so called 'cheap vices', such as alcohol, takeaways and streetwalking prostitutes, tend to stay popular in times of recession, when we naturally cut back our spending on fancy, fruit-infused alcohol, restaurant meals and high-class hookers. According to retail writer Maria Slade, figures just out confirm this is happening in New Zealand right now. The headline screams "'Cheap vices' stay popular in hard times", and the articles begins by stating that "Alcohol and fast food sales holding up as consumers spend more time at home." The graph accompanying the article in fact shows that liquor sales have dipped by about $4-5m (that's just reading from a small graph - the number isn't quoted in the article, surprise surprise) while takeaway sales have stayed about the same. Looking further along the graph, sales of (or, presumably, in - thanks Herald Graphic) supermarkets and grocery stores are up $45m, despite the drop in booze sales. Some of this increase can no doubt be blamed on rising food prices, but to me it makes the headline and article's emphasis on booze 'n' burgers a bit suspect.

Let me emphasise - alcohol sales were down. Sales of recreational goods were up by about $15m. So it seems to me that a better headline would have been "'Cheap virtues' stay popular in hard times". But then no one wants to read about virtue.

Massaging the statistics: Isn't public transport great? Yes, we all love it when other people use public transport, so I was delighted to see the headline "Buses lead the way as commuters leave cars at home". At last, I thought, a radical increase in use of buses and trains that will encourage more development! We've hit the tipping point, people! But then I had a look at the actual table of statistics next to the article and was less than excited. Total passenger trips on public transport increased by 8%, a reasonable chunk of which presumably corresponded with population growth in the rapidly growing Auckland region. Still, even if it was, per capita, a 5% growth, that would be pretty good, right? Well, remember what else happened in this period:
  • petrol prices hit record highs
  • the multi-million dollar Northern Express busway was expanded
  • a massive recession unrivalled in living memory hit the world
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received 13 Oscar nominations, in clear violation of God's law
My point is that if you can't expect a rise in public transport use when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive, when can you expect it? I hate to constantly appear a pessimist, but I can't share the Herald's excitement. Then again, now that I think about it, there is a different interpretation: maybe all the rich people stopped driving and caught the bus, but all the poor people had to stop bussing and start walking instead. That's a much brighter possibility.

Still to come today!:

A condescending farewell!




  1. Where 'like' button? Me can't talk full sentence cos facebook can haz easy click button? kthxbye

  2. I'm afraid Slate bettered the Herald with the headline on the Facebook-slam article: 'Oxford Scientist: Facebook Turns Kids Into Degenerates'. Presumably they're the ones lapping up the booze and hookers (or not, as your incisive commentary points out). To be fair, the article did point out that pretty much every generation of Oxford types foretells imminent doom gushing from the technologies of the next.

  3. This blog is hilarious.