The Old Swimming Hole (Sphere)

General, Reckons

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Cossey’s Creek (January 11, 2013).

Some of you will recognise this as the old swimming hole, but last time I was there (when this photo was taken) it’d been occupied by so many eels that I almost went into orbit I jumped back out so quickly.

Don’t worry, it’s just a penetrating chest wound.

General, Reckons

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr25FxKHXUE[/youtube]

Lately I’ve watched a few episodes of a new TV series called Arrow – an adaptation of the Green Arrow comics that is very careful to avoid making any mention of comics.

It’s better than you might expect, but that isn’t really saying much.

There’s something about this scene that struck me as odd. The chap who was “just knocked out” doesn’t appear to be wearing any body armour, so far from just being knocked out, he has a life threatening injury in the form of a broken-off arrow head embedded deeply into his chest.

In any case, the unlikeable hero doesn’t have any qualms about his lie, and finishes off the night having a milkshake with his mum. No harm done, right?

Readable Herald

General, Reckons

I made something for you.

The New Zealand Herald got a snazzy new redesign in their printed edition as well as their website (though some say it’s a shameless rip-off of the Guardian website), I think it all looks pretty good aside from one thing. The website the text is a bit small, and a bit cramped, so it’s not very nice to read. Not everyone feels this way, some people love it, but I don’t like it, and judging by twitter I’m certainly not alone.

I’m not clear on how the typography made it through testing without this being noticed, but apparently someone from the Herald has seen the response, and has promised that they’ll do something to solve it. But who knows when that will be?

I use the Herald site almost every day, and right now I find it hard to read.

So, I’ve solved the problem myself.

I did that by creating an extension for the Google Chrome web browser that tweaks the type in Herald articles, it increases the font size, and makes the line height a little taller. Quite subtle changes, but to me they make a big difference.

It’s called Readable Herald and it’s available right now, free of charge.

David Cunliffe: “Learning the lessons of history”

General, Reckons

David Cunliffe gave a speech at the Kensington Swan insolvency function in Auckland on 11 June, it’s a long read, but a good one.

It’s symptomatic of the Labour Party’s profound internal problems that Cunliffe isn’t already leader, I’d actually vote for them again if there was a prospect of his becoming prime minister. He seems like an incredibly sharp guy, optimistic that things can be put back on track, and with some actual ideas on how to do that – something we haven’t been seeing in any credible form from the jokers in the National Party.

Tēnā Koutou

Thank you for inviting me into the lion’s den.

As this is a group of insolvency and receivership lawyers and accountants, it’s a fair guess that your businesses will be booming right now.

If I was speaking to a group of exporters and manufacturers, it’s a fair bet the opposite would be true.

And if this was a group of blue collar workers from my electorate in west Auckland, you can bet your boots the mood would be grim.

So many Kiwis are really struggling to make ends meet. After the 2008 crash they were just getting along. A year later this had turned to anger, a year later to despair. This year, many of them are heading for the departure gate: 50,000 a year in the last year alone. A quarter of New Zealanders no longer live here.

So for their sake, and everyone’s sake, let’s begin this conversation by being frank and up-front.

We all know that much of the business community generally favours National.

Unfortunately, New Zealand is still a democracy, so Labour gets voted back in from time to time. That’s “tiresome”! I know, but that’s the way it is.

So, what “evil plans” does Labour have in store for the business community this time? The answer might be welcome news for all but the insolvency team

Anyone who seriously believes that the economy can somehow heal itself by being left alone, hasn’t read a newspaper for the last 12 months.

Looking at world markets over the last few months, I would have to agree that we are “back at the precipice – with a frayed rope” (Brian Fallow, NZ Herald).

Greece may still reject its bailout package; Spanish banks are still in deep trouble; and Italy is too big to bail, or to let fail.

The Beehive spin doctors are all too ready to blame anyone but themselves for New Zealand’s repeated undershooting of growth forecasts. None of it washes.

The Canterbury earthquake rebuild should by now be a source of positive growth – but it is well behind schedule and the government is squarely to blame.

Commodity prices can’t be the problem. They have only just come off record highs, reminding us that putting all our cows in one basket is way too risky.

The results under the Key Government make depressing reading.

No one these days seriously believes that a totally unregulated economy will work. Just as important, no one seriously believes that a totally regulated economy will work. It’s a question of getting the balance right.

Do I want to return to the days when you needed a letter from your doctor before you could buy margarine? Absolutely not. Do I want to return to the days when people had a sense of security and trusted their leaders? Absolutely.

LESSONS FROM THE LAST GREAT DEPRESSION

It is said that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (George Santayana); or in plain language… “History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.”

One of the things that gets me up in the morning is the sentiment expressed in the media and in the current government that “nothing can be done so we may as well take it.”

That we may as well accept appalling emigration levels, high unemployment and record high youth unemployment, an accelerating increase in poverty, and debt that leads to regular international credit downgrades.

We should expect more from each other than that.

There is absolutely no inevitability about economic decline.

We do face utterly fundamental choices about our economic future. Effective change will occur when tens of thousands of us behave differently in our firms and unions, boardrooms and Ministries, classrooms and farm sheds.

Of course it is easier to say what we should not do, than what we should do. So in these remarks I want to draw some lessons for what we should do differently:

1. Regulate Financial Markets

The Great Depression, for those who haven’t studied history, was caused by a lack of government regulation. Then, just like now, the vast majority of businessmen strongly resisted any attempt at government regulation.

Then, after the banks sent themselves bankrupt through unregulated speculation with their clients’ funds, the bankers tried to pretend that it wasn’t their fault.

The 1929 stock market crash triggered an economic tsunami that all but flattened America. Just like now, it was the ordinary people that bore the brunt of the crash and the depression that followed it.

And, as if the crash itself wasn’t bad enough, the government still refused to intervene, so the situation got worse. Bank after bank collapsed, along with the millions of families who had entrusted those bankers with their life savings.

By 1933, 11,000 of the United States’ 25,000 banks had failed. That’s nearly half.

People had no money, so they couldn’t buy manufactured goods. Because people stopped buying manufactured goods, factories closed down. Because factories closed down, workers got fired. Because workers got fired, they couldn’t buy manufactured goods.

And so it went on, and on, and on, until, by 1933, nearly 13 million Americans were unemployed. That was a quarter of the total workforce.

And what was the government’s response: <u>nothing</u>. Why? Because the government was intensely opposed to any kind of regulation of big business – the same view as many of the people in this room.

The then US Secretary of the Treasury was Andrew W. Mellon, who was, by curious coincidence, one of the wealthiest men in America.

Mellon strongly opposed government regulation of the banking sector. However, he strongly pushed for austerity measures to balance the budget. Does this sound familiar?

Mellon advised President Herbert Hoover to:

“liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.”

Alas, no. What happened in America was exactly the same as is currently happening in Europe. The austerity measures, which were supposed to turn the economy around, instead sent it into a nosedive.

You know, one of the wonderful things about democracy, is that voters sometimes show a good deal more sanity than the politicians or the vested interests.

In America’s case, the voters threw out Herbert Hoover and voted in Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt heavily intervened in the economy, regulated the banks and the stockbrokers, and set America on the path of its longest period of economic growth in history.

I mention all this, because we are currently looking over the economic precipice once more. The world’s three largest economic zones: America, the European Union and Japan/China are already in decline.

And, amazingly, the economic purists in the West are still advocating exactly the same policies as the ones that caused the Great Depression. Really? Have we learned nothing from history?

Who carried the can when the whole house of cards came tumbling down? Certainly not the bankers that set up the house of cards in the first place. As usual, it’s the ordinary people, who pay taxes and naively expect politicians to look after their interests, who are paying the price.

Despite all the promises that the European economic austerity measures would turn this tragic situation around, the opposite is occurring.

When you start firing all your workers and closing down your government departments, those people have no money to spend. Because the workers have no money to spend, the local businesses suffer. So they start firing staff. So the economy goes into deep recession, with no easy way out.

The Labour team believes this is lunacy. If New Zealand goes into a recessionary spiral, what we are close to, we will have to be expansive too.

An increasing number of journalists and politicians are saying what ordinary people already know: that many of the economic policies of the last 30 years have ended in disaster.

You hear the National government taking about the need to sell assets because we have so little money in this country. Do you know why we have so little money in this country? It’s because a large percentage of our economic assets are overseas-owned.

For example, when the Australian-owned banks make billions in profits here, that money isn’t returned to New Zealanders. The money goes straight back overseas.

That financial drain is one of the main reasons we are not paying our way in the world – our external deficit is getting bigger and bigger.

2. Keep and build our assets

And, as if that were not bad enough, the government now wants to sell our major state assets, which is simply going to mean higher power prices for ordinary New Zealanders and still more profits disappearing overseas.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this is nuts. The economic consultants BERL, concluded that the asset sales programme would leave the public accounts looking worse, not better.

BERL’s chief economist, Dr Ganesh Nana, concluded the effect of asset sales on the wider economy would be even worse because the dividends lost to the state would quite likely go to foreign shareholders, adding to the country’s external deficit and national debt.

So why is National proceeding? Is it partly because of its promises to big business? It is partly because many National Party politicians may have links to the very people who will profit from these asset sales? Or partly because the National Party is simply blind?

No matter how many independent analysts report that the asset sales will be an economic disaster that will further increase our national debt, John Key simply looks the other way.

For how much longer, I’m not so sure. I think it’s increasingly obvious that the National government will be dog tucker at the next election. National is hoping that by then, the assets will have been sold and there’ll be nothing we can do about it.

Be that as it may, don’t get me started on the risks of selling off a major stake in our energy system at a time when the world is entering unparalleled energy scarcity and skyrocketing fossil fuel prices – that is the subject of another speech!

3. Get people back to work

If the last Great Depression provides some chilling lessons of what went wrong, it also provides hope for what can be done better.

Much of New Zealand’s response to the Depression in the 1930s and early 40’s is still working for us:

• Around 50% of the state houses still around now were built in the 1930s and 1940s

• Around 40% of all schools still in use were built in this era

• Almost all the North Island dams, and the same of the pylons and substations

• Thousands of rural bridges

• Most of Auckland’s water supply dams and systems

• The core of the Crown Research Agencies, in the form of the DSIR

• Around half of New Zealand’s still-existing hospitals,

• The great North Island pine forests, and

• Most of our government departments now existing were formed, all in that era

Eighty years ago we saw an economic development plan rolled out that turned us all from Depression to development. Like the United States New Deal, the Savage government’s plan altered the course of the country.

For at least 30 years after the end of World War II until the oil shocks of the 1970s, the Government response to the Great Depression still dominated political and commercial life.

In the 1960s, business and the public sector continued this partnership with the great Kinleith Mill near Taupo, and New Zealand Steel at Glenbrook.

Private capital was making money at the same time as the public sector achieved its policy goals.

By the 1980s, the whole system was in need of reform. However, in place of reform, we got a system that closed down productive industries, encouraged energy wastage, created massive unemployment and, above all handed most of the wealth and power to a small elite who the so-called ‘free’ market.

It was this unregulated market that lead to the twin meltdowns; first the 1987 stock market crash, then the 2008 meltdown. Since 2008, the scale of our decline has been substantial.

Throughout the world, pro-business governments have imposed austerity measures and throughout the world, these austerity measures have been an unmitigated disaster.

We need to think with that degree of boldness and clarity, while carefully managing our financial resources, to truly turn back the degree of risk and decline that we now face.

4. Rewrite the invisible plan

By contrast, National is nothing if not predictable in its policies and in its results. From 1990 to 1999, and from 2008 to 2012, the same economic leadership and same result:

• Almost no economic growth

• Public sector cost-cutting that drove recession ever-deeper

• A state that is weaker year after year, and

• A country where wealth transferred from the many to the few, to the point where law firms find it harder and harder to get clients, except in the Receivership Team.

Business is bad. And it was bad the last time National was in, and it’s no coincidence.

Let’s project the same policies after another three years. Here’s how it runs. Treasury again over-predicts GDP growth and hence tax-base income. Private debt remains high and focused on rental housing. The population stagnates and starts to decline even in Auckland.

Respectfully, a buoyant insolvency and mortgagee sector is not the economic sign we want. On the track we are on, it’s what we will get.

When the credit ratings agencies downgraded New Zealand last year, they told us that our biggest problem was not public debt, which is relatively small by world standards, but total private debt and our inability to pay our way in the world.

A new direction is needed.

Let’s not fool ourselves that just doing a little more or a little less of what we have been doing before will save us

LESSONS FROM SMALL SMART COUNTRIES

Small smart countries around the world are grappling with the same issues – how to sustainably grow jobs and incomes in an open, export-oriented economy amid a turbulent world market.

As part of my Economic Development portfolio work, I have commissioned a study of six such countries: Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Taiwan, Ireland and Israel.

The most obvious conclusion of this study so far is that none of them leave their future to chance. The weakest, Ireland, was the one that lowered taxes, opened up to unrestrained foreign investment, and trusted the invisible hand of the market to bring future prosperity.

But whether they have governments of the centre-left or centre-right, all these countries have set a clear vision for where they want to get to, what they want to be, and how they will get there. All set policy targets and timetables and measure their progress.

Take Denmark. It wants to be among the top 10 richest, most innovative countries in the world. It wants to be top 10 for quality labour supply and top three for renewable energy.

They have a 10 year plan to achieve that.

They manage their interest rates, control their housing market, and peg their exchange rate to the Euro.

They manage productivity growth by setting hard targets for education, research and innovation performance, for example:

They invest 3% of their national income in research and development: 2% from the private sector and 1% from the public. That is still dwarfed by neighbour Finland with nearly 4%. New Zealand’s total is less than 1%.

Their innovation strategy is led by the Danish Economic Council, a broad-based top level group including key government agencies, business and labour representatives, and labour experts.

They are careful with their money, and they understand the value of investment.

They invest in research and development, they invest in their infrastructure, they invest in their forests and their environment, but most of all they invest in their people.

To the Danes, investing in education, innovation and infrastructure, is not a liability but an asset. Because without all three, their economy cannot survive.

Is it working? You be the judge – they have fewer natural resources than us, higher population density, and a rubbish climate.

But their income per person is US$40,169 compared to our US$29,882.

Even more importantly, their exports per person are around NZ$ 26,000, compared to our NZ$9,000.

They gain about the same amount from agriculture as us, but many times more from niche manufacturing, environmental services and high technology.

Let’s acknowledge that Denmark is a member of the largest economic union on the planet and has the captive market that comes with that.

Labour under the leadership of both Phil Goff and Helen Clark had a proud record of responsibly improving our trade access. Labour also pushed for environment and labour standards in trade agreements, something we will need to continue to advocate in future.

INVESTMENT, INNOVATION, AND EDUCATION

We need to learn from small smart economies like Denmark. We cannot just leave it to chance, or to the market forces that have got us into this mess.

So Labour went into the last election campaigning for new and better ways to grow our economy.

At the core of our economy-wide measures were big changes to boost capital for business investment, technology and skills. These are the fundamental drivers of productivity.

Our Leader, David Shearer, and Finance Spokesperson, David Parker, have both recently reaffirmed the importance of these changes.

While John Key was hard at work lining his own pockets, David Shearer was getting his hands dirty, feeding and sheltering the people in some of the most depressing and dangerous places on earth. He managed billions of dollars of tax-payers funds with consummate skill, fought corruption and faced down warlords.

Which party leader do you think is better suited to lead us through this time of crisis?

So what will Labour do that shows we have learned the lessons of history?

Number one, we will have to stop the sort of speculation that got us into this mess in the first place.

We have to get investment flowing where it can do the most good – into productive businesses and exports, rather than unproductive financial or property speculation. Like both Treasury and the Reserve Bank, Labour supports a capital gains tax.

Now, nobody in this room, myself included, likes paying tax. And nobody in this room, myself included, likes seeing their hard-earned tax revenue wasted.

I think we all agree that the tax system has to be simple, transparent and achievable.

For example France and Germany are now looking at simplified forms of indirect taxation, such as a financial transactions levy.

It would be so small that most bank users would never even notice it, would be simple to collect, and would raise enough revenue to fund lowering other taxes while fully funding infrastructure development without incurring further public debt. I am delighted that our revenue Spokesperson, David Clark, is keeping a weather eye on these developments.

Another tragic result of the so-called free market is that, the country is now saddled with the multibillion dollar liability of supporting the casualties of this economic religion – the long term unemployed, the single parent families, the pensioners who can no longer afford to warm their houses.

Any economic policy that does not put the unemployed back to work, rebuild the productive sector and help us to pay our way in the world is doomed to failure, and very expensive failure at that.

The current government said they wanted New Zealand to catch up to Australia.

Well it’s working: every week, thousands of Kiwis leave the country in search of a better life across the Tasman.

Why? Because they get paid so much more in Australia. Why are wages higher in Australia? Because the Australian government sees it’s working people as an asset, not a liability.

What’s the National Government’s solution to this – to lower wages still further while doing nothing to improve productivity. Genius.

Clearly no-one told Steven Joyce that Germany, one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, has both high wages and high productivity.

National has again walked away from common sense. One of the key ingredients to Australia’s success has been its compulsory, employment based savings scheme.

Because New Zealand’s workers don’t earn enough to save, the country’s vital savings pool is alarmingly small.

So our second major policy is to lift sustainable local savings and investment is a universal Kiwisaver scheme. This would hike our savings rate four times faster than National’s pallid plan and give every working Kiwi a huge nest egg for their retirement.

To make matters worse, National’s approach to superannuation resembles a man on an iceberg in the sun. He thinks he is on solid ground, but he has built his future on some tragically false assumptions.

The third big policy change from Labour is getting our innovation engine revving. At the moment it is hardly even idling. Total research and development investment in NZ is less than 1% . In Denmark it is 3%. In Finland they are targeting 4% .

Our innovators deserve a break – there are huge public benefits from a vibrant innovation system, and our proposed R and D tax credits reflect that.

By supporting research and development in our business community, we invest in the pillars of economic growth, innovation, education and innovation.

As Economic Development spokesperson, I will be pushing for much higher levels of investment in research and development in both the public and private sector and for a serious overhaul of our innovation ecosystem.

Remember that infrastructure is not just bricks and mortar. Our future depends on having a world class information backbone.

It is a crying shame that it took the current government nearly three years to even begin rolling out its so-called ultra-fast broadband plan. If three years delay is ultra-fast, I’d hate to see ultra-slow.

Fourth, we never forget that our best resource is our people. Education and skills must be a top priority and it must be for all – not just those who can afford them. These three pillars of skills are education skills, physical skills and life skills.

It disgusts me that the National cabinet was prepared to maintain subsidies for their own private schools while firing teachers in everyone else’s schools.

How would Labour fund further investment in education? The answer is simple: stop investing in failure. It is social and economic insanity to be paying people the dole while there are forests to be planted and infrastructure to be built.

Labour will get school leavers off the dole by ensuring a seamless transition into work. We will fund thousands of new apprenticeships by redirecting dole money to job creation with real skills. We will ensure that every young New Zealander under 20 is either earning or learning.

In the twenty first century no-one should expect to be in one job for their whole working life. That’s why learning must be life-long. Denmark invests bullions each year into adult and community education, in New Zealand we invest pocket money.

LESSONS FROM THE GRASS ROOTS

Our economy, under National, is like an oil tanker with the captain asleep at the wheel.

Robert Wade, a New Zealand professor at The London School of Economics, summed up how governments should work with their economies. I’ve paraphrased his views:

When the economy is working well, leave it alone.

When the economy has problems or failures that can be fixed, fix them.

And when an economic policy fails altogether, do something else.

Sounds like common sense to me.

A key lesson of the Great Depression is that unregulated financial markets invariably suffer catastrophic failure. The recent Global Financial Crisis is a classic example.

From New Zealand’s economic development perspective, we can turn around the failed policies of the past.

So that means working with individual industries, regions, businesses and communities to help make good things happen.

You have a build a wall one brick at a time.

You have to build a business one customer at a time.

We have to build our economy one region and one industry at a time.

And we must rebuild our community one family at a time.

So we could have all the fine ideas in the world about economic growth, but if it does not put one unemployed worker into a job, or put one more high value product into an export market, then it will not turn our economic boat around.

Renewing our commitment to industry sectors, regions and communities, will be a key part of Labour’s economic development agenda…

I know it’s trendy to talk about recycling. But we’ve overlooked something here. What about “recycling” human beings? There isn’t a person in this room that isn’t deeply concerned at the numbers of young people, especially young Māori and Pasifika who are not only unemployed, but in some cases, currently considered by some to be “unemployable”.

We also have vast tracts of public and private land that is currently badly under-utilised.

Can we please, please, learn some lessons from history. Where did New Zealand’s great commercial forests come from? Where did America’s great commercial forests come from? They were both planted in the Great Depression by the unemployed.

The American Civilian Conservation Corps is a textbook case of turning the economy around by turning people’s lives around.

Throughout America, these groups planted trees, built roads and improved both their lives and the lives of their descendants.

Labour embraced the Conservation Corp idea in our last manifesto. For Labour, the Conservation Corp has always been about skills and training, with the community benefitting. I’ll bet someone will claim that National’s already proposed this. Nonsense. What National wants is to punish the poor and prepare them for a life of dead-end jobs as lowly servants of the rich and powerful.

Instead of merely paying the dole to fit young people, Labour’s Conservation Corps plan includes education and training that will take them on to sustainable employment. I’d like to see them earning a living wage in return for a fair day’s work.

They could learn structure, discipline and life skills. They could then be sent out to do the work that’s currently not being done, from planting trees to disaster relief. Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if we had had 5000 fit young people available for disaster relief after the Christchurch quake.

New Zealanders loved the Student Volunteer Army and the Farmy Army that helped clean up Christchurch. However, the famers and the students soon had to go back to work. Imagine the difference a full time group would have made?

It’s not just the country that would have benefited, either. Hard work is a great healer for unemployed lives. With training, this same army could now be rebuilding the houses that the Christchurch people so desperately need.

But for now, New Zealand needs more forests. If we could replant some of our unproductive land into forests, we could create one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks. We could create thousands of jobs planting trees, and thousands more processing the timber in a few years.

These new forests could be placed in trust for the benefit of future generations, and New Zealand could be on its way towards becoming carbon neutral.

However, there’s a deeper problem with our current forestry sector: most of the timber simply gets shipped overseas for processing. This robs New Zealanders of jobs and export revenue.

Because many of our best forests are overseas owned, by companies that have absolutely no interest in New Zealand jobs.

Labour is keen to see higher levels of value added in our primary sector, and as Economic Development Spokesperson I am going to be pushing to get New Zealand logs processed in New Zealand mills.

CONCLUSION

While politicians squabble about balancing the government’s books, our ship is in dangerous waters.

The Labour Party is not your enemy.

Your enemy is inefficiency, corruption, and the wastage of both public and private wealth.

Your enemy is a cosy corruption that helps a few friends of the government get very rich at the expense of the community, including most of the business community.

The three pillars of our survival are investment, innovation and education.

An educated population that earns decent wages will work in your factories and offices, will buy your products, and invest in your shares.

Even as we speak, the global crisis deepens. We cannot solve the crisis of the present by repeating the failures of the past.

New Zealand rose to the challenge of the Great Depression and emerged as a prosperous and functional democracy that was the envy of the world.

There are no winning sides on a sinking ship. While we squabble on the deck, our situation grows graver every day.

Our ship cannot sail itself. We can’t wait for the crisis to overwhelm us before we respond.

A global economic tsunami could sink us. We have to work as a team; rather, we have to work as a crew, remembering that we’re all in this together. We all prosper together or we all sink together.

Thank you.

//via Tumeke, taken from Labour.org.nz

The Transit of Venus

General, Reckons

Every 105.5 or 121.5 years (it alternates) our inhospitable neighbouring planet Venus transits between the Earth and the Sun, lately it’s done it twice in fairly quick succession, 8 years apart – there have been transits that weren’t paired, most recently in November 1396 – and then takes another 121.5 or 105.5 years off. Today was the second in a pair of transits (the first of this pair was in 2004), and is the last time a transit will be visible from Earth until December 2117, when everyone alive today is very likely to be dead.

Transits of Venus have a fairly significant place in the early history of New Zealand because the observation of a transit was the reason Cook was sent on his voyage of discovery to the Pacific (though he was actually in Tahiti for the transit, in 1769).

The story behind Cook’s travel to the Pacific to take observations is great, he was part of a multi-national project suggested nearly a century earlier by Edmond Halley – for whom Halley’s Comet is named – to take simultaneous observations from as many different vantages as possible, which were then used to calculate the distance from Earth to the Sun. Not an easy thing to coordinate in the 18th century.

And it’s also somewhat significant this time because we’re one of the few countries that has an unobstructed view for the full duration of the transit, all day long from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

Unless there’s cloud cover.

We were told to expect storms, but this morning, right when the transit was starting just after 10AM, the sky was clear and the winter sun was blazing, so I quickly banged together a shadow box out of a cut open soft drink can (to provide material for the pinhole aperture), a shoe box, and a piece of paper.

The metal gets a pin hole puncture, and is then taped over a hole you cut in one end of the box, you then tape the paper to the other end, and cut a hole in the side or end of the shoe box to view through, aim the pinhole end over your shoulder at the sun, and you should see an image of the sun on the paper inside the box.

Frankly it worked embarrassingly poorly.

The image was very soft, and I couldn’t see the shadow of Venus at all. I think my aperture was too large (even though I used quite a small pinhole), which meant the focal length was shorter than it could have been, so distance from pinhole to paper was critical for focus.

On the bright side, there are thousands of professional “sun looker atters” (I think humans call them astronomers) all around the world who are very happy to share their results with us, so instead of gazing forlornly at the cloudy overcast sky, we can fire up our weboscopes and immediately see the very best shots available anywhere on Earth.

First amongst them has to be the NASA EDGE team at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Certainly a much better picture than you’ll get with a shoebox, and actually costs slightly less ‘cos you don’t even need to buy any shoes.

Here are a couple of my favourite stills, I think this first one is shot using a 211 Ã… filter, which shows the corona very nicely. Technical details aside, it looks really great.

I think this one is taken using a continuum 4500 Ã… filter, which is essentially white light, and clearly shows the photosphere of the sun – hence being able to see the small dark sunspots, as well as the large silhouette of Venus.

This amazing shot is from the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly at NASA’s Solar Dynamic’s Observatory.

And here’s another one, quite similar to the white light shot above, but the sunspots aren’t visible, and I have no idea (at all) what filter is used:

And last by by no means least, here’s a short video clip of the full transit compressed down to just half a minute, this uses a 171 Å filter. This video is from the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly at NASA’s SDO.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX6BbP1wAIs[/youtube]

v48Hours 2012

General, Reckons

Another year down, another short film in the can.

Today I’ll talk a little about my history with 48hours, and my experience competing this time around. After my short has been screened I might also write about my production design, decisions, specific problems, and so on – but for today I’m going to stay away from anything that might be a spoiler.

If you’re not familiar with the V48HOURS event, it brings somewhere between 700 & 800 teams of enthusiastic amateur and professional filmmakers together on a Friday evening, who are locked away in a room in each of the main centres, given a randomly selected genre, as well as a required character, line of dialog, prop, and special technical element, then sent away at 7pm to make a film. You can’t write or shoot anything in advance, no one is allowed to be paid for their work on the film, and it has to be delivered before 7pm on Sunday evening. Deliver at 7:00:01 and you’re out of the competition.

In my opinion, the competition shouldn’t be the point of participation. With so many talented people working their hearts out the prospects of standing out at all, let alone placing is very small. So you should do it for fun, or because you want to challenge yourself, or you just shouldn’t do it at all.

I used to compete with a bunch of old friends in a team called Fractured Radius. They’d been going for a few years before I joined them, and they’d done quite well a couple of times but I told them that if they ever wanted to win, I’d help out. I like to think it’s no coincidence that the first time I helped write, we won the Auckland competition. But it probably is a coincidence.

That’s me and the girl at the starting line, on Friday night, along with dear friend James Brown, who this year finally joined me in breaking away from the Fractured Radius mothership and started his own team.

In 2010, because I wanted to direct, and because I generally had creative & process differences with the team, I left Fractured Radius, this was a hard decision, both because Fractured Radius is a great team full of my friends, and because it’s incredibly well resourced, but sometimes you really do just have to build your own thing.

So I formed my own team Ladies, oh ladies, and got a different group of friends together to have some fun and make a movie.

It didn’t go very well.

The film we made was called Action Manu.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/11035444[/vimeo]

I’d love to make a lot of excuses, but the reality is I couldn’t work with the genre (biopic), and wrote a meandering story with an incredibly weak ending. My direction was also very weak, partly because I was new at it, but also partly because I was working with such dear friends, so instead of telling people what to do, I just let things happen. Still, that genre.

Not knowing what you’re going to make is part of the challenge, but along with that comes the risk that you’ll get something you’re completely unsuited to.

Anyway, my self-criticisms would take a hundred posts to detail, so let’s just say I had a great time working with my friends, and it was a huge learning experience.

Last year, 2011, I got a completely different group together, and we made a film I’m extremely proud of, a very challenging, and very polarising film called Kill Therapist.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/24344425[/vimeo]

I’m not going to drop spoilers on my own film here, but please be aware that my assigned genre last year was revenge, and I made sure to give my protagonist a reason to want revenge. People who are very young or of a nervous disposition shouldn’t watch.

Some people really loved it, but many people didn’t like it at all.

Everyone who dislikes it has their own reasons. Fair call. I’m a harsh critic myself. If you didn’t like it, tell me about it, I’ll listen. But I’m absolutely certain that some of the people disliked it because they misunderstood something. And that is they actually think I was trying to make a comedy.

If I’m being funny, you’re laughing.

Fact.

But I’ve heard that criticism from a bunch of people now, so I’m certain that misperception hurt the film. I actually find it inexplicable. I wonder if it’s simply because there’s an expectation set up by the nature of the 48hours comp, most of the films in the comp are funny, that was the expectation, so that was the reality.

I’ve actually been told that I should be ashamed of taking the subject so lightly. I didn’t think I had, but once a film is out there, other people get to load their own interpretations onto it.

That’s part of the bargain of producing creative work.

Regardless of the criticism, like I said, I’m extremely proud of that work. I think I performed well as an actor. The whole team did a perfect job. I had more fun than I’ve ever had in 48hours.

But once again the ending wasn’t quite right – not as bad as Action Manu, but it still didn’t build right, and it didn’t really pop.

The problem there is really threefold, firstly there was no time to put it into the storyboarded sequence, it was never intended to be linear, secondly I didn’t follow the time tested structure for this type of film (with that type of revenge film there’s usually an act that follows the recovery & training/preparation for vengeance), and lastly I had to cut some scenes from the end – there was a sequence we shot that was going to play interspersed with the credits – that would have really capped the film off, but it required a lot of special effects, so it just had to go.

So that’s Kill Therapist. Work I’m very proud of which garnered a very mixed response. Where do you go from there?

Where I decided to go, this year, was go it completely alone. To ramp the difficulty up to another level. To see if I could actually find my breaking point. You see, as difficult as the challenge of v48hours is, it’s never beaten me, so I’d gotten cocky. I thought that the only risk I was taking was to make work that I didn’t like, I didn’t think that I’d ever actually fail.

So, I opted to go solo, but in the end I was joined by Selena, and we really made a great team.

My normal process is much the same as many others’, brainstorm & write on Friday, storyboard & get props on Saturday morning, shoot for as long as it takes, then edit on Sunday.

I don’t think there’s an alternative that will produce a good film. I know some people start shooting on Friday night, but I need to take some time to write and get everything in order.

This time around I’m certain that I had the best writing experience I’ve ever had doing 48hours, after a little disappointment with my genre (Urban Legend), I realised that it was actually the broadest genre available this year, that I could essentially make whatever I liked. So I did. It was great fun.

And I was still so cocksure, that I really took my time on Saturday, I went out to a cafe for breakfast with Selena, drew my storyboards (storyboards are an important part of my process, I don’t know how anyone can make a film without them), and didn’t actually start shooting until Saturday evening.

I think we shot for 6 or 7 hours. Which isn’t so bad really, though we did get interrupted a couple of times by a helicopter hovering around nearby which was incredibly frustrating.

Then I made a long cut, with all my favourite one or two takes of each shot, in storyboard order, before heading to bed about 7am and got about 3 hours of sleep.

But the edit was the worst.

I’d shot 46 green screen shots, so in addition to the usual editing all of them had to be keyed and composited. Even with the invaluable help of Selena prioritising my production order (working through the storyboard to find all the shots that required the same work, etc), it was clear by mid-afternoon that it was going to be tight, and then in short order it was obvious that it wasn’t going to work at all.

I’d set myself an overwhelming task, and was being whelmed in all kinds of bad ways.

At 3:20pm, while waiting for a yet another green screen shot to render I sent a simple yet mournful text to Dylan, team lead of Fractured Radius.

Pretty sure I’m not going to make it.

By 5:00pm I was miserable, and nearly broken. I knew that my funny, silly, sweet short wasn’t going to be anywhere near completed, but I was desperate to make it work. So I persisted.

I asked Selena to see what we could cut that would maintain some semblance of coherence, to have any continuity, and she figured out a possible way forward. It would require cutting perhaps 60% of the story.

But there was something else that needed doing as well, along with the other required elements, every film has to have a team introduction included. It’s one of the very few things that you’re actually allowed to prepare in advance, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t made one.

According to the timestamp on the file, I loaded the footage from the camera and audio recorder at 6:10, and had the intro green screened, audio synced, and text added on the end and rendered just 3 minutes later.

It was now about 6:15pm and it was time to try to put Selena’s rescue plan into action. I cut out a lot of scenes. Deleting work that had taken me hours to complete earlier in the day. I cut some scenes shorter to exclude sequences that I knew would no longer make any sense, and I moved some things around a little bit.

I wanted to make sure it worked, but there was no time to watch it through. There wasn’t really time to do anything. I put the required credits on the end, dropped my intro into the timeline, and hit render.

It was 6:47pm and as I watched the final render bar filling up I sent Dylan another text.

49%. Cut most of the funny stuff. Wish me luck.

It was obviously impossible to get it to the Aotea Centre by 7pm, but Selena went and got the car out and said she’d be waiting by the front gate.

The render finished at 6:48. I copied my film to a USB stick, then bolted for the door, ran down the stairs rather than risking waiting for the lift, and hit the gate at a run. Selena was right outside, I jumped in the car “go, go, go!” it was like I was running for my life.

She hauled ass.

I’d been thinking about this route for hours, knowing that no matter how well things went it would be incredibly tight. I hadn’t ever counted on the worst case scenario, but now I was living it.

There are 10 sets of lights between my home and the finish line. Ask me how I know. I was watching the clock in the car tick up. 6:54 we’re at a red. 6:56 we’re at another red.

By 6:58, after the fastest and most nervewracking drive into town I’ve ever experienced we were at the intersection into the Civic carpark, another red light. But I’d already decided what I’d do if we came to this point. So I jumped out of the car without hesitating and ran for it. Straight down the ramp, past all the “NO PEDESTRIAN” signs, straight past the entry gate, and through the carpark.

I knew I only had seconds to make it, so I was running as fast as I could. It was that speed where you know that if you go even the slightest bit faster you won’t be able to keep up with yourself and will take a header. I pushed on.

Rounding the final corner out of the carpark. I could hear the huge crowd inside screaming and shouting. But I couldn’t hear the countdown any more, so I knew the doors were closed already before I could even see them. But I was wrong, the doors weren’t closed, and then suddenly I was in the lane running between jubilant screaming throngs, giving high fives all the way up.

Sometimes you want the clock in your car to be accurate, and sometimes it’s a good idea for it to be a little bit fast.

If we’d caught even one more red light, I wouldn’t have made it. If there’d been even the slightest hitch at any point during the render and copy process, I wouldn’t have made it.

48hours completely broke me, but I still made it.

The only thing is, I didn’t have any time to watch it right through.

It was never a “sensible” short, but now I don’t know if it makes any sense at all. From the storyboard it should, we cut carefully, but there was so little time, there are so many possible mistakes. The things that only take me a moment to fix if I know about them. The things I’d only know about if I’d actually watched the film. Even if there aren’t any glaring mistakes, that doesn’t mean it’s still fun – and it’s meant to be fun. It doesn’t provide any guarantee that my carefully written story will flow at all.

Apart from during the opening sequence which I completed early in the day, it doesn’t have any of the planned music that I’d so carefully selected on Saturday morning, or most of the sound effects I indicated on the board. It has none of the voiceovers or additional special stuff I’d planned.

But I don’t care.

I made it with my best friend.
It made me miserable.
It made her cry.
But it’s in.

And this Friday night I’m going to watch it on the big screen with a big crowd of strangers, and some friends, and that’s the first time I’ll get to watch my short. And I really want it to be good, I really want them to like it.

But that matters so much less to me than that we made it, we made it in both senses, and that can never be undone.

 


I’m allowed to have 18 “crew” at my heat, but I had a team of only two, so I’d love it if you’d come along and support all the filmmakers and watch a bunch of shorts with me. Many will be bad, but some will be brilliant. And you know, you could do worse than voting for my short for audience favourite. That would be really nice.

The screening is at 7pm on Friday the 25th in the Academy Cinema on Lorne Street in Auckland City, right under the central library. Entry is free, and I’ve never seen the cinema fill up during a heat, but it’s not really meant to be for the general public, so if anyone asks, tell them you’re with me.

Brilliant Lego Adverts

General, Reckons

Some characters are so iconic that even representing them as the simple bands of colour, they’re instantly recognisable. I have such powerful, fond memories from my childhood of Lucky Luke & the Dalton Gang; Asterix, Dogmatix & Obelix; Ber & Ernie; and so on, that I recognised all of these instantly. Amazing things, brains.

It’s interesting to note how completely contrary these designs are to the modern approach to Lego, where they appear to design specific pieces for single uses – which is nothing like the approach they used to take, where the creativity was in making something from universal blocks, not in merely being able to follow a blueprint.

Compare these characters to bionicles, for instance.

//via Creative Criminals

National’s plan to gut councils.

General, Reckons

It seems the current National government have decided that city & district councils do too many things for their communities, and they want them to stop.

From article “Govt puts the squeeze on councils” by Kate Chapman and Kay Blundell in The Dominion Post:

Local Government Minister Nick Smith today released his “Better Local Government” plan which he said would provide clarity around the role of councils and improve efficiency.

A major focus of the plan is introducing new fiscal responsibilities for councils.

“The rapid rise in council expenditure and borrowing over the past decade has seen some councils reach unsustainable levels of debt,” said Mr Smith.

He said the reforms would help keep rates affordable following an average rise of 7 per cent a year since 2002.

Last week, Wellington City Council said rates could rise by 4.4 per cent.

The aim was to limit expenditure growth to no faster than inflation and population growth. Except in extraordinary events such as disaster recovery expenditure.

The government’s justification for this change is that council expenditure is out of control, however the Department of Internal Affairs says something different, from a (now suspiciously deleted) page in the Our Policy Advice Areas section of their website on Rates Increases, they specifically say:

Why are rates increasing?

Rates have risen an average of nine percent this year. This includes commercial and residential properties.

Infrastructure provision has been the main reason for rates increases in the past few years and for projected increases over the next 10 years.

That’s right, the Department of Internal Affairs says that rates have been rising because councils have been investing in infrastructure projects. Not because councils have been running music festivals or swimming pools or programmes to reduce the impact of child poverty in their communities. Infrastructure.

The reason for this rise in council spending on infrastructure? From the DIA site again:

Past under-investment in infrastructure and maintenance.

There are other reasons listed, they include increased external costs for fuel, rising population, and lower tolerance of pollution.

The government try to tell us that the increased spending is because councils are out of control and wasting money in areas they have no business being in, and that they’re proposing these changes to force councils to get back to core business.

This is a lie.

The Department of Internal Affairs policy advice tells us that the spending increase is because we’ve had years of under investment in infrastructure. They’re spending so much now, because they’re trying to put that right.

The National government will try to tell spin it, they’ll say that the problem is that councils are wasting money supporting festivals, public swimming pools, running social programmes, and on providing local art and culture.

How do I know they’ll do this? Because they’ve already started.

This morning National Party mouthpiece* David Farrar posted (“An example of why local government reform is needed“) on his popular site Kiwiblog about Horowhenua District Council engaging in a joint venture with Focal Point Cinema to re-open Levin’s only movie theatre. A movie theatre which had been closed by its owner, leaving the town with no operating cinema at all.

Farrar is pretending to be care about this cinema partnership because the towns of Shannon & Tokomaru, which are under Horowhenua District Council control, have received “Precautionary Boil Water” notices. David’s suggestion is that if it wasn’t for the Council’s cinema partnership, those towns would have water treatment plants turning out deliciously sweet and crystal clear water.

Now, the cinema was re-opened in 2010, and the ‘Boil Water Notice’ was issued in 2011. So why it’s coming up now is a bit boggling until you come to the obvious conclusion is that it’s politically expedient, the government is receiving push-back on their planned changes to the law, so they’re trying to seed controversy. The fact that they had to delve so far down into the bottom of the barrel to find anything that even appears to support the Government’s claims of council profligacy should be revealing.

It doesn’t matter to David that according to the Horowhenua District Council’s own boil water notice the problem isn’t that they have no water treatment, but that the area was running on reserve supplies because the water treatment plants supplying those areas had been overloaded by flooding.

It doesn’t matter that Horowhenua District Council has a 3 million dollar water treatment plant for Shannon funded and in the design process, with deployment planned for 2013. Or that Horowhenua District Council has an even larger water treatment plant & reservoir planned for nearby Levin, budgeted at around 10 million dollars.

It doesn’t matter that they very clearly aren’t distracted from their infrastructure obligations in the slightest by the cinema project.

It doesn’t matter to National that the water infrastructure projects have a combined cost of something around 26x more than the trifling little cinema partnership.

And it also doesn’t apparently matter that the cinema project is what would popularly be called a Public Private Partnership, which you’d think would be eagerly supported by a right-winger.

They don’t care about the details, because they know that most people won’t look them up.

Most people will read the headlines and they’ll think “I pay rates and I don’t want them to be wasted, so let’s get these council lunatics under control”.

Well guess what, my dear rate-paying friend, those rates you pay aren’t being wasted. On the contrary, in the majority of cases, your rates are being put to exactly the sort of use you’d hope. You’re being lied to by your government. But don’t feel bad if you believe them, they’re very convincing because they’ve got so very much practice.

Now, of course there are bad projects out there. Councils can be dysfunctional. They’re full of people, after all. But those misuses of funding appear to be a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Breaking the entire system in order to get rid of those edge cases makes no sense.

Note that nowhere in their spin does the National government ever say that once they restrict our councils’ funding will they pick up any of the slack.

No, once the central government stops the district & city councils from providing services, they’ll just hope that private business picks it up.

Spoilers: they won’t.

Levin wouldn’t have gotten their cinema re-opened without their council stepping up. They previously had a cinema run by a private business. It closed it down.

Which business will pick up the pieces if Porirua City Council is forced to end their child poverty programmes?

No one will.

But then we come to the second prong to the central government’s attack on the councils.

Because National’s not only squeezing councils’ funding, they’re also changing other parts of the Local Government Act 2002, which is the rule book on how councils operate.

Where the Act currently makes references to “social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities”, these will now be changed to “providing good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost to households and business”.

Spot the glaring differences.

So even if councils are somehow able to find the money to continue work on their current social or cultural programmes to benefit the community, they’ll no longer be allowed to.

We elect our councils democratically. If they have programmes that we don’t like, we can vote for someone else.

In Auckland we’ve seen regular swings from one side of the political spectrum to the other, no single ideology is ever in complete control permanently.

The point of democracy is that sometimes you get your way, and sometimes you have to suck it up while the other guy has his, but what the current National government are doing is changing the rules so that councils are forced to behave the way National wants, even when the local voters haven’t voted for National.

We need to send them a message that this isn’t the way it works.

National failed to get their way with the Auckland Supercity, losing control of the mayoralty and the council, but they still want to be able to tell us what to do.

If the National Party wants to control what councils do, then they should do what everyone else has to do: win council elections. Then, and only then, should they get to decide the focus of any city or district council.

Convince the local community of your programmes, win an election, implement your proposals.

Otherwise, leave community issues to the local community.

 


* David Farrar has repeatedly protested that he’s not on the National Party’s payroll, I believe him. However that doesn’t mean he isn’t gladly doing their bidding.