Friday, January 25, 2008

Wine O'Clock

471pic1 Don't worry, the regular Friday avo Beer O'Clock posts will be reappearing once the holiday season is over and your regular correspondents return. 

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to getting up to Ascension Vineyard in Matakana tonight to enjoy the music of Graham Brazier and Dave McCartney, and the fine products of a very good vineyard.

It should be an awful experience...

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The demise of the Head Bureaucrat

Paul Walker quotes two observations on the resignation of uber-Bureaucrat Mark Prebble.  My own, for what it's worth, would be "One down.  Three-hundred thousand to go." And: "It's never a bad day when another bureaucrat clears his desk."  Paul's are more thoughtful. 

The first, to paraphrase, is "Health reasons. Yeah, right."  Neither you, nor I, nor his employers believe he's resigning for his health, not unless being the chosen scapegoat for the politicised public service has become life-threatening as well as career-threatening.

Prebble's resignation seems an appropriate time to examine something else: why bureaucrats get paid so damn much to do so little.  Apparently they're paid up to twenty percent on average more than people doing real jobs. Writes John Gibson in the National Business Review, (reporting on research into why public servants in New Zealand get paid 20 per cent more than similar workers in the private sector): 

   My research shows that this pay gap is not due to obvious differences in job conditions, such as stress, whether jobs require physical labour, how interesting the work is or the scope for improving ones skills.
   But the source of this pay gap has become apparent in recent months. It's the "bite your lip and be the fall guy" premium.
As Paul Walker suggests, twenty percent obviously wasn't enough to keep Prebble.  Like everyone else, I now look forward now to reading what stories he can tell in his memoirs.

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Flame warriors

We've all met them.  There's no more complete set of flame warriors in the local blogosphere than those who can often be found sparring in the thickets of Kiwiblog's comments, but the same games are played on nearly every forum on the internet.

Profundus Maximus Cartoonist Mike Reed has spotted, listed and drawn up all the usual suspects one finds in the usual internet-based rows -- a complete "roster of the online belligerents" he calls Flame Warriors, ranging from the  Artful Dodger and the Netiquette Nazi, to Furious Typist  and Lonely Guy.  (Pictured right is Profundus Maximus, who "eagerly holds forth on all subjects, but his thin knowledge will not support a sustained assault and therefore his attacks quickly peter out.")

You see them all in every internet discussion, and you can see them in full colour at his site: Flame Warriors[Hat tip Richard Goode.]

Which one are you?  Which one am I?

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Student loans won't cost very much. Yeah, right.

When  the student loan election bribe was uncorked last election, it was predicted by everyone from bankers to political opponents to Cactus Kate that it was going to cost a lot -- up to $1billion said Westpac's Brendan O'Donovan, three times what Labour's electioneers were saying -- and "would ... cause an explosion in student debt."

No, no, no said finger-wagging Labour spin doctors and Green cheerleaders at the time, carefully keeping their their eyes on the polls, their fingers crossed and their calculations to themselves.  "Extremist and scaremongering" said a cynically vote-mongering Mallard about O'Donovan's now proven predictions.

Three years later, guess who was right?  "Research released today by TNS Conversa revealed average student debt had risen by 54 per cent since 2004" -- and let's face it, there can't be one person with a working brain who's truly surprised -- and NZUSA president Paul Falloon (who apparently wasn't awake three years ago) blames banks for "seizing the chance to entice students as customers."

Apparently Mr Falloon is in need of that working brain.  It isn't banks who are "seizing the chance" to entice students as customers -- it was the Clark Government's election bribe which sought to entice short-sighted students as voters (and don't forget that Labour-Lite now endorse the bribe).

Labour liars weren't wrong when they said their no-interest loan bribe wouldn't cause an explosion in student debt: they just didn't care two hoots that it would.  What interested them far more, and interests them still, is getting their bums back on the Treasury benches -- and short-sighted students were ideally placed to lap up their bribe and repay it later in the country's polling booths. 

The attention span of student presidents may be shorter than the average spin cycle; there's no need for anyone else's to be.

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'Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer' - Rembrandt

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Counterfeit capital

Here's a curly one for you: What's the difference between capital expansion and credit expansion?  It's important.  The answer could well affect your future for some years to come.
Give up?  Here's George Reisman with the answer, in his latest column:
Capital in the form of credit is normally and, certainly, properly, extended out of previously accumulated savings. In sharpest contrast, credit expansion is the creation of new and additional money out of thin air, which money is then lent to business firms and individuals as though it were a supply of new and additional saved up capital funds.  Its existence serves to reduce interest rates and to enable loans to be made and debts to be incurred which otherwise would not have been made or incurred. Always and everywhere, to the extent that private banks participate in the process of credit expansion, they do so with the sanction and generally with the active encouragement of the government.
See the difference?  One's real, and one's illusory.  New capital is the product of genuine productive activity, and is limited by the extent to which the fruits of production can be saved and reinvested; credit expansion on the other hand is a political tool that gains whatever value it has by diluting existing money.  As Don Boudreaux points out:
Government cannot create genuine spending power; the most it can do is to transfer it from Smith to Jones. If the Treasury sends a stimulus check to Jones, the money comes from taxes, from borrowing, or is newly created.
Stimulus like this is a way governments' bankers fake prosperity.  It's a way of 'putting a penny in the fusebox,' allowing economic activity to artificially expand and to keep expanding, yet just as putting a penny in your fusebox now only makes the eventual explosion of your whole circuit board more likely, so too does the cheap 'socialised financing' of fake credit risk a more serious meltdown of the world's economies.
You see, just as reality can't be faked indefinitely, neither can that phoney credit expansion continue indefinitely. As Warren Buffett is supposed to have said, "It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked."   Those loans that were made and debts that were incurred which otherwise would not have been made or incurred are what intelligent economists recognise as malinvestment (a misallocation of resources often following a period of artificially excessive credit). They are chickens searching for somewhere to come home and roost once colder economic winds start blowing.  The headlines you've been reading in recent days and weeks is the sound of their feathers flying overhead as their financial perches collapse.
Now with that in mind, can you deduce the result of the 'economic stimulus' packages touted by statists of different persuasions to offer a 'soft landing' for all those desperately roosting chickens.  The common factor with all these packages is yet further expansion of created credit, consuming even more real capital.  Like drug pushers doling out another fix, the world's central bankers dole out more and more and more printed money in a bid to stave off the inevitable.  If you or I were to print money it would be called "counterfeit", but when the banks print money it's called "stabilizing the economy." 
The problem is it doesn't.  That counterfeit capital consumes real capital.  Only governments' central banks can create credit out of thin air, and as Reisman points out, it's the expansion of easy credit that creates the boom-bust cycles that conventional wisdom blames on free markets, and sets everyone up for the 'easy fix' of more easy credit once the 'easy credit boom' starts turning to a real and genuine bust -- and, once the bust finally and definitely hits, it consumes the real and genuine capital produced over preceding years and by the sweat of previous generations like a firestorm going through a forest.
It's no accident that of the two leading periods of credit expansion in history, the first, in the 1920s, led to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when it took more than a decade to build up sufficient real capital to dig the way out of the hole the central bankers had gotten the world into. 
And the second leading period of credit expansion?  That was the 1990s.  Sit tight now as the central bankers keep tinkering through the 2000s.
* * * * *
NB: George Reisman offers a course of study based on his book Capitalism that every intelligent adult needs to understand the many fallacies of conventional economics which a colleague of mine intends to offer here in Auckland, starting in late February/early March.  It is a comprehensive, in-depth defence of the capitalist economic system, that he proposes to run once a week over the course of the coming year.  Think of it as essential economic self-defence.
Details of the course contents can be found at Professor Reisman's site.  For more information and the proposed schedule of the Auckland study group, please ring Julian on (09) 623 8111.  Be aware that places are strictly limited.
If you have or plan to have any kind of intellectual career, not only as a professional economist, but as a writer or journalist, as a teacher of philosophy, history, literature, psychology, mathematics, or any of the natural sciences, at whatever level; if you are interested in politics, whether as a potential candidate for office or simply as a voter who wants a serious understanding of the issues; if you are a businessman who wants to know how to defend himself and his company from scurrilous attacks; if you are anyone who wants to know what he is talking about when it comes to matters of politics and economics, this program is a necessity for you.

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'Friend' - Hone Tuwhare

Friend,
Do you remember that wild stretch of land
with the lone tree guarding the point from the sharp-tongued sea?

The boat we built out of branches wrenched from the tree, is dead wood now.
The air that was thick with the whir of toetoe spears succumbs at last to the grey gull’s wheel.

Oyster-studded roots of the mangrove yield
no finer feast of silver-bellied eels, and sea-snails steaming in a rusty can.

Friend, allow me to mend the broken ends
of shared days:
but I wanted to say
that the tree we climbed
that gave food and drink
to youthful dreams, is no more.
Pursed to the lips her fine-edged
leaves made whistle—now stamp
no silken tracery on the cracked
clay floor.

Friend,
in this grim time
of dark unrest I press your hand
if only for reassurance that all
our jewelled fantasies were real
and wore splendid garb.
Perhaps the tree
will strike fresh roots again:
give soothing shade to a hurt
and troubled world.

title

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Spin is still in

Spin is already as endemic this year as it has been in year's past.  Despite campaigning for everybody else’s political affiliations and home addresses to be outed for one year in three and passing legislation under urgency to take "anonymous money" out of politics, the Labour Party has at the same time been funding, hosting and all but paying the staff's salaries for the blog that calls itself 'The Standard.'  Story here.  According to the law the pseudonymous co-bloggers themselves promoted at that blog, The Sub-Standard (as it will be known when the histories are written) should be wearing a parliamentary crest to show we've paid for it, a list of the names and home addresses of the contributors, and the following disclaimer (courtesy of the blogger known as 'Insolent Prick'):

“The Standard is proudly supported by the Labour Party, which subsidises the hosting of this blog. Some Standard authors are active Labour Party members. Some Standard authors are also paid employees of the EPMU. Some Standard authors are employed by Parliamentary Services and work in the Beehive.”

Or was the Electoral Finance Act only supposed to muzzle the Clark Government's opponents, rather than its few remaining supporters?

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Ronald Reagan's war

If you've never heard of the 'Reagan Doctrine' and have no idea how its application helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, then a new film 'Charlie Wilson's War' starring Tom Hanks might just encourage you to read your history a bit closer.

The chief architect of the Reagan Doctrine was Dr. Jack Wheeler -- adventurer, freedom fighter and Aristotelian scholar -- who notes in this fascinating interview [pdf] that the Doctrine "was launched in the early 1980s, at a time it seemed almost inconceivable that the Soviet Union would ever collapse, much less quickly, within 8 short years.  But our analysis showed that the structure of the Soviet Empire, including the Soviet Union itself, was brittle... which is why the result of the stress placed upon it by the Reagan Doctrine was that the Soviet Union shattered virtually overnight."

Charlie Wilson was Wheeler's friend, a principled anti-communist and the guy who ran the crucial Afghanistan section of the operation.  Of the film Wheeler says "it is both true and not true, magnificent and ludicrous at the same time," and concludes,

caveats aside, I am so glad this movie was made.  It is so much better than the book, which is hopelessly permeated with hyper-liberal prejudice.  It is wonderful that the world knows about this extraordinary man, knows what a hero Charlie Wilson is.
   The movie overplays his flamboyance as much as the décolletage of his staff...
   The moral lesson of the movie should be a very sobering one for the Democrat Party.  Charlie Wilson was proudly and unashamedly a Pro-American, Anti-Communist Democrat.  His heroism should be a deep embarrassment to the party of Pelosi Galore and Lost Harry Reid, the party who apologizes for America's existence and has neither the spine nor will to defend her.
   The Democrat Party - indeed, America - needs more Charlie Wilsons.  I will always have the greatest respect for what he did for our country, and I will always treasure his friendship.

Read Wheeler's full review here at his ToThePoint News.

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Politics is broken...

Putin candidate Alina Kabayeva ...and apparently the cure could be more totty.  Fleshbot figures that if recruiting candidates like Alina Kabayeva (right) whose chief qualifications for candidacy are that they are sexy and female worked for Vladimir Putin, then surely it can work for "Libertarian or Green parties" they say.  "If Libertarian or Green parties had thought of this tactic," they say, "we wouldn't be in the state we're in now." 

Suitable libertarian candidates for this year's elections might like to contact me for an interview.

[Thanks to GP for the link.  Moderately NSFW.]

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More steroids please

Not content with all the earlier financial bailouts and rescue packages from the world's politicians for the world's troubled financial centres (and all those now being offered), the 2008 stock market slide has seen the US Federal Reserve push the panic button overnight, serving up rocket fuel to add to the earlier diet of rocket fuel on which it had placed the US economy.  Steve Horwitz points out what should be obvious to any intelligent financial commentator:

...excessive supplies of credit enabled mortgage lenders to give out high loan-to-value mortgages right and left, leading to delinquencies and foreclosures, supposedly leading to a weakening economy and a falling stock market, which the Fed is now attempting to "cure" by cutting rates by 75 basis points, which will inject even more funds into the economy.
Am I missing something here?  The "hair of the dog" is not a good hangover cure.

And (to add to the metaphors) prescribing more steroids as a cure for excessive earlier doses is a sure sign of a quack doctor.  That goes for financial quacks just as much as it does for medical ones.

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'The Road to Wisdom' - Piet Hein

The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain
And simple to express:
Err
and err
and err again,
but less
and less
and less.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Merger news

Those of you who got your money out of the falling market early might like to run your eye over some upcoming corporate merger plans so you can get in on the ground floor and make good money in 2008.

  1. Hale Business Systems, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Fuller Brush, and W.R. Grace Co. Will merge and become:
         Hale, Mary, Fuller, Grace.
  2. PolyGram Records, Warner Bros., and Zest Crackers join forces and become:
         Poly, Warner Cracker.
  3. 3M will merge with Goodyear and become:
         MMMGood.
  4. Zippo Manufacturing, Audi Motors, Dofasco, and Dakota Mining will merge and become:
         ZipAudiDoDa .
  5. FedEx is expected to join its competitor, UPS, and become:
         FedUP.
  6. Fairchild Electronics and Honeywell Computers will become:
         Fairwell Honeychild.
  7. Grey Poupon and Docker Pants are expected to move into children's wear and become:
         PouponPants.
  8. Knotts Berry Farm and the National Organization of Women will become:
         Knott NOW!
  9. And finally .... 9. Victoria's Secret and Smith & Wesson will merge under the new name:
         Titty Titty Bang Bang

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Submissions for next 'Free Radical'

It's nearly time to start pulling together contributions for the next Free Radical magazine.  If you have something you're already working on, or something you'd like to be working on -- something that simply has to be in the next magazine -- then let me know now, and start working towards the Feb 6 deadline.

You can email me at organon at ihug.co.nz.

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Housing affordability: It's regulation, stupid

Since the news of New Zealand's leading position in the field of housing unaffordability is finally being digested, but unfortunately still with so many indigestible misconceptions, I thought I'd repost this concise summary of the reasons for rising housing costs produced by Pieter Burghout of the Master Builders Federation. He naturally overlooks the expected cost increases due to the senseless certification of builders and designers, but since planners, regulators and Alan Bollard have yet to focus on the real causes of that unaffordability, it's important that we do. I've retained my original introduction to the piece.

Demographia's worldwide survey of housing affordability demonstrates clearly enough that since all housing markets studied have similar tax and credit regimes but distinctly different policies on land regulation, the crucial factor in housing affordability is land regulation, not new taxes.

The problem in those markets experiencing serious unaffordability (those in which average house costs around six to seven times the average income) is overregulation of land use. Conversely those cities enjoying more affordable houses (those in which average house costs around three times the average income) is minimal regulations on land use. It costs more than twice an average household's income to buy a house in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch for example, around which "planners" have imposed artifical "urban walls," than it does in Houston, which is unzoned.

An editorial in the NZ Master Bulders' magazine Building Today highlights the problem perfectly with points keenly summarised in the graphs below (click on them to enlarge): over the last five years material costs have increased by twenty-five percent and labour costs by fifty percent (much of that due to the green-plated new building regs). Over that same time consent fees have increased by fifty percent, land costs have doubled, and levies and compulsory contributions levied by council have increased by ten times!

In dollar terms, the biggest increase is in the inflation of land costs due to regulation. In percentage terms the biggest increase is in infrastructure levies and fees. If that doesn't leave you incensed, then you're probably part of the problem. And if you think either are susceptible to interest rate increases then you must be Alan Bollard.

Because of its brevity it's worth reading Master Builders' CEO Pieter Burghout's piece in full (or nearly enough), so here it is:

Housing affordability -- it can be fixed!
...0ne of the recent, big public issues has centred around housing affordability, with nearly everyone jumping on the bandwagon and suggesting how it can be fixed.
...For certain, Kiwis have aspired, and probably always will aspire, to own their own home — their own “quarter acre section of paradise”. And that’s entirely how it should be.
...Unfortunately, the lift in house prices over the past five or so years has put the average home out of the reach of the average Kiwi family, which is not good. […]
...The construction industry, and New Zealand as a whole, benefits from having an affordable housing sector, and we believe there are a number of measures that can be taken to improve housing affordability.
...The main points we made in our submission to the [Select Committee Inquiry on Housing Affordability] are noted below. Our research, within New Zealand and offshore, validates that the key drivers of the housing affordability issue have been, in order of priority:
  • rises in land cost,
  • rises in local authority infrastructure levies and fees,
  • increasing compliance costs, and
  • increased labour and material costs.
...This analysis is shown in the graphs at right.
...And as the prices of new homes have risen, so have the prices of existing homes — because that’s how the market worksl
...If these are the cost drivers behind house price increases, then what are the things that need to be done to fix them and make houses more affordable again?
...First, the biggest factor affecting land cost is supply, and central and local government need to consider what measures can and should be taken to free up land availability, particularly in the main centres.
...Second, the biggest percentage increase in cost has been burgeoning increases in local authority infrastructure levies and fees. These should be better assessed and monitored to ensure they are fair and reasonable — rather than the “laissez faire” approach that applies currently. [It’s worth noting here that the Libertarianz submission on Sandra Lee’s expansion of local government powers pointed out at the time that good objective law allows individuals the right to do anything except that which is specifically prohibited while restraining governments to acting only on that which is specifically permitted, and that Lee’s Local Government Act reverses this important principle. The explosive consequences for the cost of local government that we’ve seen since the Act’s passing are entirely due to that reversal.]
...The construction industry can and should pay for those extra infrastructure costs that it imposes, but it’s not fair that new home owners pay inflated infrastructure levies to subsidise existing home owners who otherwise have lower rates to pay
...And third, the next largest significant increase has been in the area of compliance costs. Some of these costs are reasonable as the industry lifts overall quality levels since the leaky building saga, but some are unreasonable, and steps should be taken to reduce them, particularly:
  • consent process delays (consent, inspections and code compliance certificates),
  • consenting uncertainty and variability, and
  • producer statement uncertainty and variability.
...There have been increases in labour and material costs but, in our view, both of these are subject to strong competitive pressures across the industry and across the economy as a whole. We are generally comfortable with where these costs sit in perspective against the other cost drivers noted above.
...The final point we made in our submission to the Inquiry is that similar housing affordability issues apply in other countries, and New Zealand should take heed from the remedial measures being proposed in those countries to adopt what is applicable here.
...In nearly all the cases we researched, the three factors we have highlighted — land prices, infrastructure levies and compliance costs — are at the top of the list of things to fix. And so it should be in New Zealand, too.
...The problem won’t be fixed overnight, but it can be tackled, and we strongly encourage the Government to do so.
* * * * *
Burghout makes the point abundantly clear, don't you think? A commenter here at Not PC prescribed the solution just a few months ago:
Here's the solution: get rid of fiat money, get rid of zoning, don't fight so-called sprawl and let people free to develop according to demand, and let development "end the divide between rural and urban areas" by having the council-imposed 'Urban Wall' removed.
Good luck getting either this Government or the planners responsible for the problem interested enough to care.

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Plot, character and great drama, all in less than an hour-and-a-half (updated)

Half-a-dozen of us here last night watched two films and a TV programme.  That might sound like a busy evening, but it wasn't.  It only took an hour-and-a-half.

It only took an hour-and-a-half because the two films didn't take long to watch.  Despite stars, spectacle and really big budgets both 'The Good German' and 'Black Dahlia' were execrable.  They failed the fifteen minute test, offering no good reason we should watch them any further.  If you haven't already seen them, my advice is 'don't bother.'

240px-Spooks002Not so the TV show, conveniently packaged on DVD.  With no stars and a merely moderate budget, but with a script so tight it rivalled a fish's sphincter, in its one non-commercial hour the BBC's 'Spooks' showed how good drama is done, and just how good it is when done well.

As too many directors forget, It's the Story Stupid.  'The Good German' and the 'Black Dahlia' had George Clooney and Cate Blanchett and Scarlett Johansen and a host of other so called stars who couldn't act their way out of a paper bag even if they'd been given any lines worth delivering to help them out.

 poster These two "modern noirs" are supposedly homages to the great film noirs of the forties and fifties, films like 'In a Lonely Place,' 'Double Indemnity,' 'The Third Man' or 'The Blue Dahlia' (the only similarity to 'The Black Dahlia is that they are both films), but unlike these classics today's tributes have no stories worth following, no characters worth caring about, and no actors able to impart the gravity that actors like Bogart and Stanwyck and Welles delivered so easily and (still) so memorably, and often with a touch of easy humour.  Neither 'Good German' nor 'Black Dahlia' could even manage the humour, yet these are films that deserve to be roundly laughed at.

As with so many of today's films, the films' directors seem to have forgotten the basic elements of their craft, and their actors all-too obviously never had them. Watching 'Spooks' however was damn fine entertainment, and also a simple reminder of how important those basic elements are.

200px-ThirdManUSPoster Nearly two-and-a-half thousand years ago Aristotle identified the six basic parts of any drama.  In decreasing order of importance they are Plot, Characters, Theme, Dialogue, Rhythm (or Melody), and Spectacle*.  In that order.  Without a plot to follow and characters to care about, neither spectacle nor melody can save a drama.  Two millennia and a century of film technology hasn't changed that, no matter how much CGI you might be able to afford. 

It's the first two of Aristotle's elements that truly characterise good drama -- that is, Plot and Character.  With all the technology now available to film-makers however, it's now the last two in his list that dominate contemporary films, with 'Spectacle' generally and mind-numbingly considered the most important, and a sumptuous score used to bolster the empty bravado.  “Superior poets rely on the inner structure of the play rather than spectacle,"observed Aristotle, however “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.”  It's no accident that "stage machinists" and soundtrack simpletons are highly valued in Hollywood while the "poets" are striking for better pay and recognition of their talents, and no wonder most of what's produced there is so teeth-achingly dull.  With nothing to integrate the explosions, the car chases and the lingering 'artistic' shots of most of today's films whether art-house or shit-house, there's nothing to do but either nod off or turn off.  Last night we turned off, and turned on 'Spooks' instead.

By crikey, this show is good.  With none of the megabudget resources available to most of today's film-makers, the show's creators rely instead on Aristotle's first two elements, and like the classic noir films they do them superbly: the Characters are  sympathetic, well drawn and given enough light and depth to emerge from the thematic shadows -- they are agents in both the fully volitional and the MI5 sense; and their Plots are sharp and well-integrated and relentless -- you mustn't blink for fear of missing a crucial plot point. 

260px-Inalonelyplace With 'Spooks,' the plot is always king, and this holds true for every episode of every season -- a remarkable achievement.

What makes a good plot wasn't news to noir's lions and isn't news to the makers of 'Spooks,' although it's clearly news that's now been lost in  L.A.: in three words, it's Dramatic Conflict, and Integration.  Without a decent dramatic conflict, there is no plot.  Without tight integration of all elements, you can't bring the drama into focus.  And once you have a well-written and well-integrated dramatic conflict, you don't need to spend a fortune on Spectacle.

You'd think budget-conscious producers would value that simple formula.  The rarity of shows as sharp as 'Spooks' and the flatulence of so many films shows it's something so many have still to learn.  Until they do, I'll keep ignoring most of what they produce.
                                                                          _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* Here, for your future viewing pleasure, are Aristotle's six elements along with explanatory quotes from his Poetics whence they come:

  1. Plot (muthos): “the combination of the incidents, or things done in the story.”
  2. Character (êthé): “what makes us ascribe certain qualities to the agents.”
  3. Thought/Theme (dianoia): "all they say when proving a particular point or, it may be, enunciating a general truth...”
  4. Dialogue/Diction (lexis):  "the externalisation of the internal order of the fable..."
    “What indeed would be the good of the speaker if things appeared in the required light even apart from anything he says?”
  5. Melody (mélopoia)
  6. Spectacle (opsis)

About these last two Aristotle says but little, regarding them "as having more to do with how the tragedy is performed, as opposed to its actual content."

UPDATE:  I loved novelist Ed Cline's review of the Will Smith blockbuster 'I Am Legend.'  With characteristic economy -- and a useful integration with my own post -- the review is titled "I am Plotless," and begins:

For a change of pace, offered here is a movie review. Warning: there are no plot-spoilers in this review; there is no plot to spoil... I suspected this movie would be talked about ... given the critical imprimatur. However, it is a B movie inflated by modern film technology (chiefly CGI, or computer generated imagery) with the intention of making it a blockbuster. But, fundamentally, it isn't any better than Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The details or concretes one chooses to show or include in a story must have a purpose, that is, they must be integrated into the plot, they must have a demonstrable place or a role in the logical sequence of events. If they are included, but not explained, or are there just for "special effects" to impress or mislead a reader or viewer, or are included simply at the whim of a writer or director, then they violate Louis Sullivan's rule that form must follow function, or Ayn Rand's rule of essentialization. A plot itself, by Rand's definition, is "a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax."

I am Legend is a cinematic jigsaw puzzle most of whose pieces do not connect. There is a "climax," but no logic to it. Among its many other faults, it is an epistemological abomination, and the horrible thing about it is that I don't believe the film's makers consciously intended that. Its illogic reflects the state of their epistemology. And since their epistemology (and metaphysics) is a subjectivist shambles, to them logic and causal-connections are elective elements not absolutely requisite to solving the problem of the moment.

Let us examine the film story of I am Legend, based on Richard Matheson's 1954 science fiction novel of the same title...

Click here to read all of Cline's masterful review, especially if you want to find why Plot and Character trump special effects and loud explosions -- and why Aristotle still matters.  ;^)

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He is Dead

                                                           new_zealand_flag_at_half_mast

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead...
                                                          - from WH Auden, Funeral Blues

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Five best places to hangout if you're a Frank Lloyd Wright fan

                                         

The good folk at the Ottawa Citizen have selected their "five best places to hangout if you're a Frank Lloyd Wright fan."  (I guess it's the sort of thing you do in Ottawa in midwinter when the snow's coming up past your navel.)

The list includes the Darwin Martin house, the Price Tower (left), the Guggenheim Museum and Taliesin West -- all by Wright, most of which I've featured here before and two of which I've visited -- along with the Falling Rock Hotel in Pennsylvania, a "chic new hotel...wonderfully close to the most acclaimed of Wright's works, Fallingwater, and his lesser known Kentuck Knob." 

One assumes this to be a subtle advertorial on behalf of the "chic new hotel" (I'm suspicious like that), but since it allows me to link again to posts on some of my favourite Wright buildings, how much harm can it do.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Pests

Mrs Smith makes a sighting in the wild of a rapidly growing pest, the genus Urban Brat.  "I wish I could say that this semi-feral species of the urban child is rare," she says, "but indeed, their population seems to be increasing. Thus, any school-leavers wondering which field to study at university, might be strongly advised to pursue psychiatry. I think this may be a booming industry in the next decade."  You've been warned.

Greenmongering pits poor against planet

                                 tata_nano_0110

Pictured above is the world's cheapest car: the Tata Nano.  The entry level model retails at just US$2500.  Its makers hope to sell over a million Nanos a year, and at that price and in one of the world's most populated markets, you wouldn't bet against them.  The market for which the Nano is intended and in which it will be built is India.  Ratan Tata, the entrepreneur responsible, told Time magazine he expects it to revolutionise life for poorer families:

Tata hopes the Nano will help millions of poor people around the world — the "Bottom of the Pyramid" in developing world marketing-speak —switch from two wheels to four.

It's impossible to overstate the boon for the word's poor of such a car.  As Brendan O'Neill says at Sp!ked Online, instead of "having to rely on overcrowded, unpredictable public transport or sweating everywhere by pushbike," "millions of people in the developed and very quickly developing world [can instead enjoy] the freedom, flexibility and – yes – status offered by a car."

This could transform India. If the railways, a byproduct of British colonialism, served India well in the twentieth century, then the rise of a new car culture could change the face and feel of India in the twenty-first. Millions more people will have steady, relatively well-paid jobs on car production lines; miles and miles of new roads and motorways will be constructed to accommodate the new motorised middle classes; and the average Joe Patel will enjoy greater speed and liberty in his everyday life courtesy of the affordable car. The People’s Car: one short drive for a man, one giant leap for mankind!

It's all good, you would think:  A win-win situation for everyone from Mr Tata to the dirt poor of India's dusty streets.  Not so.  The same kind of people who have between them made the developed world's houses more and more unaffordable bemoan this boon as "planet threatening" -- as far as the world's poor are concerned they say (just as Marie Antoinette might have said), "Let them all walk." 

   What [impoverished buyers] foolishly and selfishly think of as a wonderful opportunity to get their mitts on the steering wheel of a super-cheap four-wheeler is actually the latest instance of human destructiveness against the planet [notes O'Neill].
   ...
as one British newspaper points out, while the launch of The People’s Car has been greeted with ‘zeal’ by India’s middle classes and aspirant working classes, it has been greeted with ‘worry’ from the environmentalist lobby, which is disgusted by the ‘unbridled enthusiasm’ of ordinary Indians for the super-cheap car, and which predicts ‘a plague of ever-cheaper cars and ever-swelling clouds of climate-changing fumes.’ The People’s Car will apparently have ‘drastic consequences for pollution.' Those dirty Indians.
   Environmentalists’ discomfort with The People’s Car throws into stark relief one of their core convictions: that the developing world must not achieve the same standard of living or level of wealth as we in the West enjoy, because if it does the Earth will perish.

Once again, global greenmongering puts at risk global prosperity, this time for those who need it most.  And once again we see their global crusade pitting their planetary aspirations ahead of real people and their own push for prosperity.  "As a used-car salesman in New Delhi said when The People’s Car was launched: ‘It’s the same dream anywhere in the world. You want a good home, a good car and a beautiful wife'." But that's not a dream the "eco-miserabilists" want these uppity brown people to have.  As O'Neill concludes,

However much green activists use the word ‘rich’ and ‘middle class’ as terms of abuse, there’s no disguising the fact that these Westernised, white-led campaign groups are lecturing brown people for getting ideas above their station – or above their station wagon, in the case of The People’s Car.

In his book All the Trouble in the World, PJ O'Rourke pointed out the covert racism of all the hand-wringing about the "population explosion" back when the population was supposed to be exploding, and we were all supposed to be worrying.  That myth was largely exploded by Julian Simon in his book The Ultimate Resource, a reviewer of which  makes the same point as O'Rourke and O'Neill:

Pervading the anti-growth movement is the miasma of racism, as evinced by this extract from The Population Bomb quoted in The Ultimate Resource: "I came to understand the population explosion emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi...The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping, people visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people." You can almost hear it: "my dear, the natives, they were everywhere. Beastly, smelly people, little better than rats". The fact that these "human pollutants" have just as much right to existence as any one of us seems to escape the population doomsayers.

The doomsayers haven't disappeared, neither has their (still) unacknowledged dirty secret -- and nor have they yet accepted that reviewer's ultimate point.

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Safety clothing essential

A man on the job is a man in need of some serious workwear.  This spicey, satirical commercial [moderately NSFW] got Britain's Daily Mail readers all hot and bothered when, 'twas reported, pupils at a private school discovered their English teacher Sarah Green was featured in the "'shocking soft-porn" ad for hard-wearing workwear.  Fortunately, exposure such as this from the Mail has meant inattentive pupils and blog readers like yourself who hadn't yet seen the clip won't miss out.

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Welcome to the land of milk and honey ... and the world's most unaffordable housing

Several years on from New Zealand's housing affordability problems becoming all but obvious, they've now gone past being serious and becoming tragic.  Auckland and Wellington might rank just eighteenth equal in a survey of the world's most liveable cities, but measured against our incomes New Zealand cities now top the polls as the most unaffordable places in the developed world in which to buy a home.  Where it takes less that ten years work for household on the median income to buy a median-priced house in Ireland, the US and Canada, it takes the NZ's middle-income household nearly twenty years! [Herald story here.  Worldwide housing affordability study here at the Demographia site.]

Little wonder. As income levels elsewhere have been soaring, wages in this pathetic authoritarian backwater have failed to keep pace (see graph at right, and story here).  Meanwhile -- as demand for housing continues to soar -- when regulators aren't making it well-nigh impossible for builders and developers to build and develop on the land they own, planners are making it well-nigh impossible to buy land on which anyone is even allowed to contemplate building and developing. [See many, many previous posts here on Building, Housing, Sprawl, Urban Design and the RMA.]

Both rural and urban land is in huge demand for development; but the supply of land has been effectively nationalised.  Our cities have been ring-fenced by eco-zealots eager to calcify rural New Zealand into a bucolic museum, while within our cities (which represent just 1.4% of the country's land) restrictions on land supply and the development of that land is severely restricted, and the choice of housing types severely limited.  (Greater London area is about the same size as Greater Auckland, for example, yet while London houses over ten million people in a mixture of terrace housing, walk-up apartments and tower blocks, Auckland is home to just over one million -- and as Auckland's planners argue against the sprawl their policies induce, they severely restrict the density within the city that their restrictive ring-fencing demands.)

The result of these restrictions on building and on land supply is that New Zealand needs around 35,000 houses a year to keep up with demand, while home builders are restricted to producing just 24,000 houses every year -- and thanks to the explosion of building regulations and the increasing emigration of skilled builders, each of those houses costs much more to produce than it ever has, on land that is more expensive than it's ever been.

It's instructive that the most expensive houses in New Zealand relative to income are now no longer those in Auckland.  Tauranga -- whose 'planners' have enthusiastically embraced the anti-development 'sustainable' philosophy of so called 'Smart Growth' -- now has the country's most unaffordable houses.  No coincidence when you consider that the world's most unaffordable cities are overwhelmingly those who have most enthusiastically embraced 'Smart Growth.'

The real culprit here isn't the council officers or planners or regulators who make the plans that restrict the supply of land and the ability of bui9lders to develop it for would-be home-owners; the real culprits are the Resource Management Act that gives planners and regulators the power over other people's property, and a culture that assumes that local governments need planners and regulators to plan and control.

All this, and the bastards responsible still airily deny they're the problem, while proposing measures that will only make things worse

This lack of clearsightedness is perhaps because the situation seems irredeemable -- which it is, unless the red-tinted glasses of the planners and their acolytes are removed.  A similar problem is easy to see in the traffic jams that snarl up our cities, which as Andrew Galambos says are "a collision between free enterprise and socialism. Free enterprise produces automobiles faster than socialism can build roads and road capacity."

That same collision of capitalism and socialism in our daily traffic jams is ever present too in NZ's severely unaffordable housing markets: a bubble inflated by the freewheeling demands of prosperity and credit and new immigration colliding with a simultaneous suffocation of supply by the socialism of the state. At a time when greater supply is desperately needed to mop up exploding demand, 'planners' -- those throwbacks to the failed central planning regimes of socialist states -- are throttling the supply lines we do have.

It's time that unemployment was urgently increased, among the fraternity of planners who have condemned New Zealand's home-owners to half a lifetime of paying off their houses.

UPDATE:  As reader Wayne points out, with the usual suspects busy patching up their server stories, there's an unusually good thread on this topic at Kiwiblog.

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Liars at large

This election year, individuals have been severely restricted in the amounts they can spend opposing government policies -- meanwhile, the Clark Government has spent record amounts of your money fitting out government departments with spin doctors to trumpet its own lies.  [Story here.]While individuals are confined to spending $120,000 over the whole year in a national campaign (or just $10,000 in a local campaign), government departments now boast a whopping 448 spin doctors -- 210 more than just five years ago, and nearly ten times the number of the mid-eighties -- who cost us the sum of $47 million, not including the cost of campaigns these lying arseholes dream up. 

This is where your tax dollars go to, while the sound of protest is muzzled.

Remember last year when a huge taxpayer-funded advertising splurge trumpeted the government's  Kiwisaver, Student Loans and Welfare for Working Families election bribes? You and I paid for that.  Remember all the lies and spin fed to you by the Clark Government-- lies and spin about smacking your children, about the Electoral Finance Bill, about their pledge card ... You and I paid for all that too, and they plan for you to keep right on paying, election after election, while being muzzled in how much we can pay to protest.

The explosion of spin under the Clark regime and of the liars who are paid to do it mirrors a similar explosion in lying and spin in Tony Blair's New Labour.  The pledge card wasn't the only thing NZ Labour borrowed from UK New Labour.  They've also borrowed their mendacity.  As Peter Oborne notes in writing of the rise and rise of political lying in Britain, the reliance on spin and the volume of its is a new phenomenon in politics.

All governments have contained liars, and most politicians deceive each other as well as the public from time to time.  But in recent years [under New Labour] mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British [political] system.

The institutionalisation of spin is almost complete, here as it is in Britain.

Records Ruth Laugesen in yesterday's Sunday Star Times, the number of spin doctors is at a record high.  "Government agencies have hired more new communications staff in five years than all the journalists working at Television New Zealand, Radio New Zealand, the Sunday Star-Times and the Dominion Post newspapers put together."  As Gerry Brownlee points out, this leaves them ideally placed to use the machinery of government as its personal campaign for re-election.

In the last election the Clark Government thought they could use taxpayer's money intended to run the Prime Minister's office in order to run for the Prime Minister's Office.  This was what paid for their pledge card.  This election they clearly intend to use every "communications" resource  in every government department they can lay their hands on to run for re-election.  This is the reason the Madeleine Setchell/Clair Curran employment saga was so important (the only reason): it's important to the Clark Government that the have loyal "communications staff" are in place in every department.  With the numbers Laugesen quotes, it's clear that the capture of the public service is all but complete.

  • "The Ministry of Social Development topped the list with 54 communications staff and contractors, making it bigger than Radio New Zealand's entire workforce of journalists."
  • "The biggest spender on communication contractors and staff was the Ministry of Education, with 70% of the $6.6m it spent going on contractors."
  • "There are 10 times as many government "communications staff" as there were 25 years ago, despite a smaller public service."

Not included in this number is the cost of bloggers such as the hacks at the Sub-Standard, who spin this news by arguing that it's not that there are too many spin doctors but too few journalists -- echoing a line used by Helen Clark at a journalism conference last December, and doing it on Labour's ticket.  (As Paul M. points out in the comments at Kiwiblog, the Sub-Standard is hosted on the Labour Party's server, but without the parliamentary crest that's supposed to appear on taxpayer-funded pieces of puffery such as this is, leaving a few questions for the Sub-Standard boys and girls to answer, including who exactly pays their wages, and for what purpose.)

Watch out people.  There are liars out there, and you're paying for them.

The Rise of Political Lying
by Peter Oborne

Read more about this book...

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

An atheist in a foxhole

It's said that there are no atheists in a foxhole.  When it comes time to stare death in the face, one's thoughts are supposed to turn to the hereafter, and to God. This is all nonsense, says blogger Annie Fox.  With cancer placing her in that metaphorical foxhole for much of last year, she says there are most definitely atheists in foxholes - "and I’m one of them."

   Although I did not want to die so young, I was not afraid of dying. But my lack of fear is not why I’m an atheist--even if I was terrified at the prospect of dying, I’d still be atheist. I'm an atheist because that is the only rational possibility.
   I actually think I could turn the foxhole scenario around and say that on a sunny day at the beach all believers are atheists. The only reason I can fathom that they cling to their belief, is fear: fear of dying, or fear that life does not have that certain meaning, or fear that without religious structure life would be too chaotic, or fear that their family and friends would shun them should they not follow like sheep.
   What kind of horrible mental gymnastics must this take - to dispel all the facts around you and cling to the impossible, just because you are afraid - sounds like a quick path to mental illness.

The premise of religionists that religion provides "hope" in times of trouble is an illusion built upon sophistry and lies.  To found one's hope upon a fiction--in denial of the obvious facts around you--is the worst kind of fraud.  At such times, relentless focus upon the facts is what saves you, not shroud-waving and false hope.  As she concludes, one of the jobs of hospital security guards should be "to throw out religious vultures that prey on the scared and venerable in times of stress." 

Read the whole post at Annie Fox's.

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