Friday, January 25, 2019

It's true then - the past is a foreign country

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, January 24.)

I was enjoying a New Year drink with an old friend and discussing some of the things that have changed in our lifetime. Soon I found myself mentally making a list.

It’s a totally random, off-the-cuff list, compiled in an idle mood on a lazy day. It doesn’t purport to make a profound statement about the state of society. It’s just a reminder that, in the words of the author L P Hartley, the past is a foreign country where they do things differently.

For what it’s worth, here it is:

I remember paying mortgage interest rates of more than 20 percent.

I remember when a milkman delivered milk to a box at your gate, in glass bottles that you washed and returned for re-use.

I remember when the government went to inordinate lengths to prevent the pirate station Radio Hauraki from challenging the state broadcasting monopoly.

I remember when towns had stock routes so that mobs of sheep and herds of cattle could avoid the main street.

I remember when secondary schoolboys wore caps.

I remember standing (or not standing, depending on how rebellious I felt) for God Save the Queen at the movies, which we used to call the pictures or the flicks.

I remember railcars.

I remember when schoolkids were issued with Post Office Savings Bank books to encourage thrift.

I remember when most cars had three-speed transmissions operated by a gear lever mounted on the steering column.

I remember when every town had a dosing strip where dogs were tested for hydatids.

I remember the fathers of my school contemporaries dying in their 40s from heart attacks.

I remember when the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation banned harmless protest songs.

I remember Peter Pan and Frosty Jack ice cream.

I remember when TV transmission started at 5pm and finished at 10.

I remember when there were only four women MPs.

I remember when the film censor decreed that the movie version of James Joyce’s Ulysses had to be shown at separate screenings for men and women.

I remember McWilliam’s Marque Vue and Montana Cold Duck.

I remember when the most popular meeting-place in Wellington was under the James Smith clock at the corner of Cuba and Manners Sts.

I remember when city council chief executives were called town clerks.

I remember Cona coffee.

I remember when the police drove black Humber Super Snipes.

I remember when Catholic and Protestant schoolkids exchanged religious taunts on their way to and from school.

I remember when people got their pay handed to them in cash, in little manila envelopes.

I remember when a try in rugby was worth three points.

I remember when a diagnosis of cancer was regarded as a virtual death sentence.

I remember when new cars didn’t come equipped with heaters or radios.

I remember bodgies, widgies, milk-bar cowboys and beatniks.

I remember when young men in country towns belonged to Jaycees.

I remember morning assemblies at my state secondary school where we sang English hymns and songs like There is a Tavern in the Town.

I remember when no Pakeha New Zealanders - and not many Maori either - had heard of Parihaka.

I remember when New Zealand Truth was the only paper that covered sex cases and was kept out of sight in respectable homes.

I remember when beer was sold in flagons.

I remember when union membership was compulsory.

I remember when The Flintstones was shown in prime time and everyone watched it because TV was a novelty and there was only one channel.

I remember when the first McDonald’s outlet opened and people thought it was weird that their burgers contained a slice of gherkin.

I remember when New Zealand shut down at weekends and there was no television or radio advertising on Sundays.

I remember when “mixed flatting” was frowned upon as improper.

I remember when travelling by air was an occasion for which people dressed in their best clothes.

I remember Suzy’s Coffee Lounge, the Casablanca, Roy’s hamburger joint, the Majestic Cabaret, the Bistro Bar and the Downtown Club.

I remember traffic cops.

I remember a time before bureaucrats decided it was unsafe for New Zealand kids to do early-morning paper rounds.

I remember when people fiercely resented being required to wear seat belts.

I remember when “coming out” was something respectable young ladies did at debutante balls.

I remember when there were TV reporters over the age of 40.

I remember when everyone in New Zealand recognised the names of the president of the Federation of Labour and the chairman of the Meat Board.

I remember when everyone smoked at work, then went to the pub and smoked some more.

Is society better now, or worse? To be honest, I can’t decide. It’s just different.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Pardon me for not getting excited about this thing called 5G

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, January 23.)

I see the technology industry is readying itself for something called 5G – geek-speak for the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications.

I can’t wait. I’m jumping out of my skin with excitement.

I jest, of course. I’m an IT agnostic who has learned not to trust technology. If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it’s that supposed innovations and improvements come loaded with fishhooks and frustrations.

We’re told 5G will provide “high data rate, reduced latency, energy saving, cost reduction, higher system capacity and massive device connectivity”.

Translated, I suspect that means there will be incremental gains in terms of speed and capacity that most everyday users probably won’t even notice. Just like the people who invested in ultrafast broadband and later wondered why they bothered.

Oh, and there will be teething problems. There always are. So expect a lot of hype when 5G is launched, but expect to be disappointed too, because the history of the IT industry is littered with false promises.

It’s an industry that depends heavily on credulous consumers who are always ready to be sucked in by the illusion of a technological nirvana. Just witness the queues that form outside Apple retail outlets whenever a new iPhone is launched.

Improvements on the previous models are often minimal or largely cosmetic. But there’s a good reason why Apple became the world’s first trillion-dollar company:  it took the notion of planned obsolescence, which was originally associated with the car industry, and refined it to the max.

Planned obsolescence means that even as a new product is launched, the makers already have a better version on the blocks. Apple’s marketing department knows there are millions of suckers out there who are willing to believe the latest Apple device represents a quantum leap over the previous one and that life would be unbearable without it.

The flip side of the Apple story is that there are legions of users who tear their hair out with Apple products and vow never to use them again. But where can they go – to Microsoft? It’s probably the one company with more frustrated users than Apple.

That computer users are effectively at the mercy of these two grotesquely profitable companies is almost enough to shake your faith in capitalism. It’s a case of market failure on a massive scale.

Most punters would be happy just to have technology that works – something that’s consistent, user-friendly and doesn’t let them down. But IT users have been conditioned to accept a failure rate that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry.

Even when a company delivers something you actually like, be prepared to have it taken away from you or changed into something different.

I won’t bore readers again with my story of how, when I wasn’t looking,  Microsoft uninstalled the only version of Windows that I ever liked and gave me a new one that I didn’t want and didn’t ask for.

Suffice to say that it was like waking up one morning to find that the car I’d been driving for years, and which performed to my satisfaction, had been snatched away and replaced with an updated model that bore little resemblance to the previous one and drove like a pig.

More recently, a similar thing happened with Skype. For years I was a contented Skype user, enjoying face-to-face conversations with people in the most unlikely places. Then something happened.

Skype suddenly looked and felt different. The settings were unfamiliar. I couldn’t make it work. Christmas passed without the usual video conversations with family overseas.

I heard the same complaint from other users, including Generation X-ers whom I regard as totally tech-savvy. So it wasn’t just me.

The finger of blame was pointed (surprise!) at Microsoft, which owns Skype and which (I’m quoting from Wikipedia) “redesigned its Skype clients in a way that transitioned Skype from peer-to-peer service to a centralised Azure service and adjusted the user interfaces of apps to make text-based messaging more prominent than voice calling”.

I think what that means is that Microsoft took a product that worked to people’s satisfaction and stuffed it up. As it does.

The bigger issue here is that society has become totally beholden to information technology, with all its failings. Like it or not, we’re all passengers on a train that’s hurtling at increasing speed toward an unknown destination. And meanwhile the so-called digital divide, which separates those who are at ease in this new world from those who can’t keep up, grows ever wider.

I can think of no other technological revolution that has so completely penetrated people’s lives or influenced human behaviour, and I’m less confident than ever that this is a good thing. If that makes me a Luddite, so be it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Is this debate about drugs, or capitalism?

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, January 10.)

Oh, dear. Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, after years of agitating for relaxation of the drug laws, is fretting that liberalisation might open the way to corporate domination of the cannabis trade.

Hmmm. Perhaps he should heed the old saying about being careful what you wish for.

Bell has long advocated a permissive approach to so-called recreational drugs. His argument is that drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than criminalised. So you’d expect him to be thrilled that the government has promised a binding referendum on decriminalisation of cannabis.

A crucial first step has already been taken with the passing of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, which essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness.  

You can take it as read that the activists’ ultimate goal is decriminalisation of the drug altogether, and perhaps other drugs too. That’s how advocates of “progressive” social change advance their agenda: incrementally.

It’s a strategy that relies on a gradual softening-up process. No single step along the way, taken in isolation, is radical enough to alarm the public. Change is often justified on grounds of common sense or compassion, as the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for terminally ill people certainly can be.

But each victory serves as a platform for the next. Once change has bedded in and the public has accepted it as the new normal, the activists advance to the next stage. The full agenda is never laid out, because that might frighten the horses.

In this instance, presumably to reassure us that Labour and the Greens aren’t totally soft on drugs, the passage of the medicinal cannabis bill was closely followed by an announcement that the government will crack down on dealers of the synthetic cannabis that has been causing mayhem.

But there should be no doubt that what we’re observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which the National Party gave as its reason for not supporting the medicinal cannabis bill.

Now, back to Bell’s misgivings about where the cannabis referendum might lead. 

It’s not decriminalisation that worries him. Why would it, when for years he’s been using his taxpayer-subsidised job to lobby for exactly that outcome?

No, what upsets him is the thought of the drugs trade being contaminated by the profit motive. A liberal drugs regime is all very well, just as long as the trade doesn’t fall into the hands of wicked corporate capitalists.  

Bell’s vision, obviously, is of something much purer and more noble, although it’s not entirely clear what model he has in mind. A People’s Collective, perhaps.

It will surprise no one that Professor Doug Sellman, the director of the National Addiction Centre, has expressed similar misgivings. Sellman likes the idea of legalising cannabis but doesn’t want companies making money from it.

I suspect Sellman and Bell are at least partly motivated by hostility toward capitalism. They certainly share a dislike - which in Sellman's case could be classified as obsessive - of the capitalist liquor industry.

Given that cannabis and alcohol are both potentially dangerous mind-altering drugs, why do both men display a more forgiving attitude to the former than to the latter? In my opinion the reason is at least partly ideological. It’s the capitalist business model, as much as anything, that they object to.

But (news flash!) New Zealand is a capitalist economy, and it generally works pretty well. It’s not perfect, but no one has come up with a better alternative.

If Bell wants the cannabis trade made legal, what difference does it make whether the drug is marketed by DopeCorp Inc, operating from a Queen Street high-rise, or by a dreadlocked stoner from Golden Bay?

It could be argued that a public company, subject to corporate and consumer law and with directors who are accountable for what they grow and sell, might be a safer purveyor of cannabis than a backyard dealer.

To put it another way: if a safe, regulated cannabis market is the way to go, and corporates are best-placed to deliver that outcome, what’s the objection? It can only be ideological.

The much bigger issue, of course, is whether we should decriminalise cannabis use in the first place. There are strong arguments running both ways.

The parallels with alcohol are obvious. Both can cause great harm to a minority of users, although activists like to play down the adverse consequences of drugs other than alcohol.  We don’t hear much, for example, about the devastating effects cannabis can have on the young or the mentally unstable.

But if we're going to have an honest national debate about cannabis, the important thing, surely, is that it should focus on social wellbeing rather than being distorted by covert ideological agendas.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The bias you have when you don't know you have it

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, January 9.)

At the end of each year, dictionaries like to highlight significant new words or phrases that have entered the English language over the previous 12 months.

The Collins English Dictionary declared “single-use” its word of the year for 2018, a year when disposable plastic supermarket bags became a symbol of wasteful consumerism and environmental harm.

Observant readers will note that “single-use” is actually two words, but then so was “fake news”, which was Collins’ word of the year for 2017.

The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017 was “youthquake”, which was defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”.

Oxford’s lexicographers chose it because of the role young voters played in that year’s British general election, which nearly delivered an upset victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn’s brand of cloth-cap socialism struck a chord with the impressionable young, who are not old enough to know that socialism always turns out badly.

Oxford’s choice for the year just ended was “toxic”, a word that cropped up in a variety of contexts. We had toxic relationships, toxic cultures, toxic waste, toxic chemicals and “toxic masculinity” – a feminist label for appalling male behaviour as perpetrated by the likes of Harvey Weinstein.

It can be seen from the above examples that the word of the year typically reveals something about the mood of the times. Others included “Brexit” (Collins, 2016) and “post-truth” (Oxford, same year).

Which leads me, in a roundabout way, to my own word of the year – except that, like Collins, I’ve cheated and gone for a phrase that consists of two words.

My phrase of the year is “unconscious bias”. This is something you’re guilty of if you’re white and middle-class, and more so if you’re male, able-bodied and heterosexual.

If you tick those boxes, you are automatically considered to hold an unconscious bias against people who are none of those things – in other words women, people of colour, people who identify as gay, lesbian or trans-gender, and those with disabilities.

At least this is what we’re told by people who promote the concept of unconscious bias. And we just have to accept that they must be right, because the essence of unconscious bias is that you don’t know you have it.

Most New Zealanders may think of themselves as fair-minded, tolerant and full of goodwill toward their fellow human beings, but those who accuse them of unconscious bias know better. They know that beneath our smug complacency, most of us seethe with malice and are determined to maintain our status in society by crushing those less privileged.

The genius of the phrase “unconscious bias” is that people who are accused of harbouring it can’t deny it, because by definition they’re unaware of it. They are expected to stare shame-facedly at the floor and admit they’re guilty even though they never realised it.

In fact the act of denying guilt may serve to confirm it. At a seminar on hate speech last year, I heard one speaker assert that “the heartbeat of racism is denial”. In other words, if you deny you’re racist, you probably are. In this topsy-turvy, Kafka-esque world, you’re condemned either way.

While logic dictates that there probably is such a thing as unconscious bias, I believe its grip on society is grossly overstated, the aim being to heap guilt and shame on white middle-class people so that they meekly comply with activists’ demands for special treatment of supposedly oppressed minority groups.

Of course, unconscious bias wasn’t the only new term we had to get our heads around in 2018. Another was the adjective “woke”, which derives from “awake” and came into common usage as a result of America’s Black Lives Matter movement. If you’re “woke”, you’re alert to racism and social justice issues.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the political insult du jour is to call someone a gammon.  An English term for ham, gammon is used to refer to pale-skinned men on the conservative side of politics who supposedly resemble pigs.

“Gammon” is closely related to the phrase “stale, pale and male”, which was also frequently heard in 2018.  All other stereotypes based on sex, age and skin colour are strictly forbidden, but older white men are the one demographic group that it’s okay – in fact almost mandatory – to disparage.

But at least this ideological contradiction throws up the occasional humorous irony, as exemplified by the impeccably “woke” Auckland columnist who wrote a furious rant about pale, stale males only months after turning 60 himself.

Either it was an unconscious expression of self-loathing, or he somehow imagines he’s been sprinkled with fairy dust which renders him magically exempt from the label.