Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Yet another report in the newspaper this morning about a missing military decoration.   It was on display for some time in a museum that no longer exists. 

We've had thefts from the National Museum, cunningly done over a period of time, and only coming to light in the last year or so.   That was theft on a grand scale.  This newest incident seems to be just carelessness on the part of those who should have been looking after the medal, a Victoria Cross which was awarded to Sergeant Donald Forrester Brown in World War I. 

The whereabouts of medals and other military paraphenalia, such as military rings, no doubt, is supposed to be recorded on the National Museum's Cenotaph data base.   But there's no record of it. 

Which means it could be anywhere: in private hands, accruing value as the years pass - recent auction sales of such medals have reached anything between $227,500 and $1.4 million.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Stepping up

I popped into Scribes secondhand bookshop the other day since I happened to having lunch with someone at a cafe just down the road, and was looking at the poetry books, just out of curiosity.   I was tempted to get a Marge Piercy book of poems, but wasn't sure whether I'd be paying for lunch: it was a choice of one or the other.  (As it happened the other person paid for lunch, but I didn't get back to the shop.)

I don't know that I've come across much of Piercy's writing, but it looked fairly accessible while being definitely good solid poetry.   I'll have to track her down elsewhere sometime.   I can't even remember the name of the book to note here.  

What I do remember is that I was checking out some of the books on the upper shelves and in order to do so had to stand on one of those little metal stools that are somewhat akin to a Dalek.  And about as stable.  I didn't want to hang onto the shelves in case they collapsed on top of me, but I wasn't sure that the Dalek was going to give me much support either.  A set of library step stools would have given me a greater sense of security, but I don't think there were any nearby. 

This would have to be my only criticism of Scribes, which is otherwise one of my favourite shops.  However, it's out of the way of my usual routes, so I don't often get there - regrettably. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

There's enterprise for you!

Matilda Helm, a seven year old self-confessed chatterboxfrom Southbridge Primary School in Canterbury, saw World Vision's East Africa Appeal on television last month and decided to help.  In a delightfully down-to-earth comment she notes: "I saw kids just like me eating yuck food and dying and thought it was really unfair."

On the 2nd of November she undertook a rather unusual task: a sponsored vow of silence.  Her aim was to raise funds for the children suffering from the famine - the first famine of the 21st century, as it happens.

She was permitted to stay quiet in class by her school principal after explaining in a letter that she was "... sending money to World Vision for East Africa because people there are dying right now".

By taping her mouth shut and writing questions and answers on a piece of paper, Matilda managed to get through the school day without breaking her vow.  Some achievement for a seven-year-old!

She says it was hard to stay quiet. "I have lots of friends and they all tried to make me talk!" but she still managed to raise $400.   $400 will feed a family of six in the famine area for around about four months.

Source: World Vision NZ

Thursday, November 24, 2011


There's a great poem by Barbara Hamby called Ode to American English, in which she does a scatter-shot approach to the marvellous way in which English is expressed in the States.   It's very hard to quote from it because it has no stopping point, but here's a sample:

I miss the mongrel plentitude of American English, its fall-guy,
       rat-terrier, dog-pound neologisms, the bomb of it all,
the rushing River Jordan backwoods mutability of it, the low-rider,
       boom-box cruise of it, from New Joisey to Ha-wah-ya
with its sly dog, malasada-scarfing beach blanket lingo
       to the ubiquitous Valley Girl's like-like stuttering...

You can see the whole poem on Hamby's site.

This post is about blankets, specifically personalized baby blankets like those on the left, but let's also celebrate whatever we can find out of my digital cuttings that relates to the subject. One of the writers I catch up with occasionally is Kim Fabricius, a somewhat anarchistic Christian pastor with a wicked sense of humour (and I mean 'wicked' in its current sense of outstanding, but also in the sense of very cheeky). He wrote a Good Friday sermon in 2008 which was posted on the Faith and Theology site this year.   (Fabricius doesn't seem to have a site of his own; most of his material that I've come across has appeared on F&T)

Fabricius is as hard as Hamby to quote briefly, so here's a decent chunk near the beginning of the sermon (in which our theme 'blanket' briefly appears):

This sermon doesn’t have three points, it’s got three words: Lose your faith! (I warned you I would be sacrilegious.) Yes, lose your faith. Lose your faith in God. For as the French mystic Simone Weil insisted, there is a kind of atheism that is purifying, cleansing us of idols. Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell – with his Son.

Phew!  Imagine hearing that piece of fire coming at you from a pulpit...!

Here's another radical person: Tamie Fields Harkin, an Episcopalian minister from Alaska.   She presented a list of things to do if your really wanted to attract young people to your church - and they don't include any of the usual bumpf that's regarded as youth ministry.   Her 19th point is:
19.  Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7.  Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

Sounds like she was anticipating the Occupy movement, and the way in which some churches are suggesting they open their doors to those who'd be sleeping in tents on very cold nights.  

Okay, I know this post is very loose in terms of how it's using it thematic material, but just go with the flow and enjoy the contrasts.  

Here's an extract from an email one of the Presbyterian ministers wrote shortly after the devastating February earthquake in Christchurch, NZ: 

I walked home from what remained of Knox [his church] yesterday afternoon surrounded by scenes of devastation far worse than on 4 September.  Whilst visiting a parishioner I spoke with one of his neighbours, whose husband was at that time unaccounted for in the Pyne Gould Guinness building in town. I walked for a while with a barefoot young woman whose workplace in the city had collapsed, and who told me of seeing a woman giving birth on the footpath. Later I passed others heading on foot with blankets and little else for Hagley Park, and wondered how they fared when the rain began to fall a couple of hours after that. Dinner was sausages cooked on the outdoor barbeque;  I've drained the leaking hot water cylinder upstairs into several large water containers so can probably manage with that, whatever food there is in the fridge and a bucket toilet for several days. 

There's a sense of just getting on with things, of having to; but the quiet desperation is apparent.  How do you start to deal with the enormity of the problem.  Christchurch is still dealing with it, and has another major earthquake since this date.  

Finally, an example of those church bulletin bloopers that appear in emails every so often:

This evening at 7 PM there will be a hymn singing in the park across from the Church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chocolate Cuttings

Before the Internet came on the scene, I used to collect all sorts of cuttings from newspapers and magazines for use as idea starters for articles.  I still collect these, but of course now they're collected digitally, (even when I first come across them in print), and I use Evernote for this a great deal.  The advantage of digital collection compared to the old print approach is that the items can be searched.

For instance, I was trying to find some items related to chocolate, because I intended writing something about the gifts that available only at Shari's, where berries are covered in wonderful concoctions of white and dark chocolate (with one swizzled on the other) and almonds - see the example on the right.

One of the items that came up in my search under chocolate was this daft statement from a Facebook friend of mine (he used to live here in Dunedin with his family, and go to our church): French is just English spoken with a mouth full of chocolate.   It's the sort of statement he's prone to at times, but this particular one stuck out as saying something surreal and poetic.

Another item was about the artist, Viz Muniz, who hails from Sao Paulo, in Brazil.  In the home page statement about him we're told that he has used dirt, diamonds, sugar, string, chocolate syrup and garbage to create bold, witty and often deceiving images drawn from the pages of photojournalism and art history.  A slightly different approach to using chocolate, one might think.   You can see his work on his website, but the reason I originally kept the information was that he was involved in the making of a documentary called Waste Land, which was filmed on the world's largest rubbish dump where an eclectic band of “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials - live.  Muniz collaborated with these inspiring people as they recreated photographic images of themselves out of garbage. The documentary reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives. 

A further item was a series of quotes on the addiction to acquiring money.  John Cleese was quoted as saying: If I like chocolate it won't surprise you that I have a few chocolates in my fridge, but if you find out I've got sixteen warehouses full of chocolate, you'd think I was insane. Unfortunately I have no idea where this quote came from.  

Finally there is an interesting blog post by Richard Beck, a sometimes provocative blogger I read all the time for a while, but haven't caught up with lately (mostly because he doesn't use Twitter!).  In this post he discusses the Chocolate Jesus, an anatomically accurate depiction of Jesus hanging as though from the cross, but made entirely out of chocolate.  It's a work by Cosimo Cavallaro.  When originally exhibited, it upset a number of people, but Beck asks the question: why chocolate?   His answers are worth checking out.  Cavallaro is a Canadian-born artist, not a little given to provocation himself.  You can see the Chocolate Jesus on his website (the link is under his name above) along with a number of his other works.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Football, anyone?

There's a site that offers all sorts of football invitations, in the States.  I can't quite imagine why you'd need to invite people to football.  There seems to be more than enough people go to the games as it is without inviting more.  

But plainly the owners of this site don't think that way, and you can see all sorts of examples of invitations you could give out to friends, relatives, and the uninitiated - the unconverted, you might say.   (The idea has a sort of evangelical quality about it.)

Admittedly, the invitations don't have to be to an actual game, but to a party, or a barbeque with a football theme, or even to watch the football in the comfort of your home, surrounded by mates and beer.

American football is a neverending mystery to anyone outside the States; it seems as though there must be some logic to it, and some plan (the movies always give us that impression without actually telling us what they're doing) but at the end of the day, watching this game is like watching a couple of herds of elephants running at each other after bowing their tusks to the ground.  And the injury rate is pretty much as high as it would be if elephants were playing.

Still rugby isn't different in terms of obscurities (more obscure than ever with all the changes that have been made) and the injury rate is just as high amongst the professionals - and they don't wear any of the protection that the Yanks cover themselves with.   Are we tougher?  Nah, probably just think we are.

Greens and the elderly

The political party debate last night on Channel 3 brought more Tweets to my Twitter page than any other subject has ever done.  Even my son-in-law made some comments.  It was all very invigorating, and it hasn't stopped.  I don't think anyone made any more sense of anything as a result (not assisted by Paul Henry getting in on the act) but at least everyone was involved.

Tonight it seems the Greens are taking over Twitter, pushing their policy on child health/poverty in NZ.  I think their concern for child health/poverty is admirable, but it's interesting that the only person with any concern - as far as I'm aware - for older people is Winston Peters.   On the other parties' radar, the older and elderly don't even appear.

I've replied to the Greens tweets about child poverty with a couple of questions about whether they're concerned for older people.  No tweets in response, at this stage.

Update on this: 
Someone at the Greens has sent me a tweet: We sure are. Sue Kedgley did a report about it last year.  

I've now downloaded the report and will have a look at it after Downton Abbey has finished....

Cutting tools

As soon as you step outside your knowledge zone in terms of language use, you find that English has whole groups of words that mean nothing to least in the context they're found in.

For instance, in the area of cutting tools, there are a whole range of words that aren't in the least bit familiar.  They look like English, but they don't sit in my brain as meaning anything to me.   And these words are just group words - within these groups are even more words that are unfamiliar.

Broaches, indexable, chucking reamers, end mills, face mills are some examples.  As I said, they're all obviously English words, because we can read them without trying to decipher the sounds, but that's as far as it goes - for me.   (Of course, the same things applies to someone who's never done anything musical: faced with words that are commonplace to musicians, they'll struggle to make sense of them.)

Under Broaches, we have keyway broach bushings.  Under the next two headings we have words that are just extensions of the headings, but under 'end mills' [see photo on left for some examples] we have a whole pantheon of interesting tool titles: ball end mills, corner radius end mills, square end mills, to name just a few.  Again the words are familiar, but in conjunction with each other don't mean anything - to me.

Under a heading for 'hand tools' we discover some more intriguing titles: arbor presses (this is an American site I'm looking at), gasket punches, spotters and punches, and more.   I'm sure they'd make wonderful words for a surreal sort of fact I may give it a try.   I attempted my first Villanelle the other day - that's a poetic form, and you find, if you check out poetic form names, that they're even more obscure than those for cutting tools, and include words that nobody uses in everyday language.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Apples with apples

Okay, I have no professional training in stats.  I have had an interest in them over the years, and have done some reading, and worked with stats for three years before I retired.   All still in a fairly non-academic way.

But it really irritates me when news reports use stats to make a case without comparing apples with apples.

Let me be clear.  I suspect there is a considerable disparity between the rich and the poor in New Zealand, perhaps (and I use that word advisedly) more than in the past.  But I don't have actual figures to prove this.  And nor, it seems to me, does Lane Nichols in his article on nz entitled Revealing the gap between NZ's rich and poor.  He throws a number of 'stats' around, but do they make the case he's claiming?  I'm not sure.

Firstly, anytime you quote the OECD stats, you need to remember that there are two issues with these: firstly, they're often out of date (Mr Nichols doesn't tell us what figures he's discussing here, it needs to be noted) because the OECD can be comparing stats from 2009 for one country with stats from 2002 for another country.  This was something that concerned me greatly when I did stats work over the last three years.

Secondly, the OECD stats from one country will be based on the way that particular country collects them - which isn't necessarily the way another country collects them.   One of the issues we looked at constantly in my last job was suicide.  The suicide stats are always some years behind, because they rely on coroners confirming that a person has actually committed suicide.   That's in New Zealand, and is probably the same in similar countries.  In other countries suicides aren't necessarily recorded in the same way at all - in some countries suicides can bypass the stats easily. 

This isn't to say that the OECD stats are inflated on one hand and deflated on another.   It just means that we have to be careful that we're comparing apples with apples, and unfortunately we're usually not.

Mr Nichols writes about a report from the NZ Stats: The report's 2004 data – the latest available – reveals the richest 10 per cent collectively possess $128 billion in wealth, with median individual wealth of $255,000. In contrast, the poorest 10 per cent collectively possess $17.2b, with median individual wealth of $3200. While the richest 1 per cent held 16.4 per cent of the country's net wealth, the poorest 50 per cent owned just 5.2 per cent. 

Let's look at this a little.   Firstly, the report is seven years old.   We've had a recession since then, and considerable chaos in the world markets.    That's not to invalidate the report, it just needs to be borne in mine.

Secondly it would be interesting to know what the phrase 'median individual wealth' means, especially in relation to the poorest 10 per cent.   What wealth do these poor possess, exactly?   And since this is a median figure that presumably means some of them will possess/own nothing, while some will be comparitely well-off.   Meanwhile, what about the 80 percent (I'm not sure why 'per cent' is the form for Stuff, but I normally write percent as one word) in the middle?    What's their 'median individual wealth'?   We have no idea from this article, because it's making a case relating only to two groups, pitting extremes against each other.  Furthermore it doesn't seem to quite tally up with the 99 percent slogan put out by the Occupy movement.

I'm not going to pick this article apart word by word.   One final comment about another statement: But the gap between rich and poor still ranked ninth worst in the developed world in 2008. Again we're not given any stats/information to back this up, and I'm a bit confused as to what 'ninth worst' actually means.  In relation to what, or to whom? 

Reports that use stats in this way are similar to those 'scientific breakthrough' articles that we often see.  They throw around a bit of information, but not enough.  'Cure for cancer' is touted - until we read the fine print.  The trouble is the fine print seldom appears in the news reports, as it doesn't in these stats reports.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pinhoe Egg

At 515 pages, The Pinhoe Egg is a long book, certainly by comparison with anything else I've read in Diana Wynne Jones' canon.   I work that out to around 118,000 words, which is getting into J K Rowling territory. 

This is another in the Chrestomanci series, and although it was written quite late, in 2006, it picks up pretty much from the much first book in the series, Charmed Life, which was written way back in 1977. 

I don't know whether it's because I've read quite a bit of Jones this year, or whether it's just that some of her books appeal more than others (I couldn't get past the first in the Dalemark series, for instance), but this one didn't grab me much at all.  It seemed all over the place, and there was a point at which I began to think that she'd just had it published without much revision.  The writing lacks her usual sharpness, and as the book goes on, becomes downright sloppy.   Pronouns often fail to connect to the character they're related to, and some characters, such as Joe and Marianne's father, are called one thing in some places and something else in others.  He also goes from being pleasant to ugly: beginning as a man for whom peace is the be all and end all to being presented as consistently aggressive and rather stupid.

Jones' book often have a kind of viciousness lurking under the surface (Black Maria is a prime example, or the way in which the father is so summarily killed in the first Dalemark book and then left behind, as it were, by his widow), but in this book the viciousness is surprisingly nasty.  It's not just the ongoing dispute between the Pinhoes and the Farleighs, but the fact of what they're prepared to do to each other (smallpox is just one curse they send).  Furthermore there's the locking away of all the half-seen creatures for centuries by those who should know better, and the cruel treatment of Gammer by his own sons.  In spite of Jones' explanations, these things seem to show village people with considerable suppressed hatred for each other.   I suppose it could be that their dark secrets result in them being more vicious, but it's not that clear - to me, anyway.

Chrestomanci and his tribe, of course, are all sun and light, reason and righteousness.  They're almost saintly in their ability to be right about everything, and while that's okay - we certainly need some sun and light in this book - they also become a little unbelievable at times.  Still they stand in the same vein as several of her major wizard characters: slightly unworldly, too good to be true, but able to fix everything.

I've read in some reviews that the baby griffin is regarded by readers as a delightful creature; sorry, I think he belongs in the same place as the detestable Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.   Not only is he badly realised - we can never figure out exactly how big he's supposed to be: one minute able to be carried, the next whipping around on his own and causing chaos, the next like a goes on.   And considering that he's what comes out of the egg, he doesn't actually play any particularly important role in the book's plot.

And that's another issue: Jones' plots are often very neat and well-constructed.  This one seems all over the place.  It doesn't help that there's no main character: we swing from Joe and Marianne early in the book to Cat (who was in the first book) and back again, never quite settling in anyone place for long. 

Ah well, you can't win 'em all...!


I remember reading quite some time back about a woman who decided not to buy or borrow any more new books until she'd read all the ones (the hundreds and hundreds of ones) she had in her house.  That was her project for the coming year.   I don't know how she got on, but I suspect she found it difficult to resist the temptation of new books.

I've gone through a funny patch in regard to reading: I've been reading a lot of kids' books this year, especially since I retired, but I've also found it quite difficult to get on and read a number of the books I've borrowed from the library, especially the fiction titles.  I've found it even harder to read some of the non-fiction ones I've picked up.   Must be a phase.

However, what I have done more of lately, is re-read books.  As I wrote in my last post, I've just finished reading a Dale Ralph Davis book for the third time.   But this month I've re-read three other books: William O'Malley's More Daily Prayers for Busy People (I'd re-read his Daily Prayers for Busy People earlier in the year - both of these must be up to their third or fourth readings in each case); Grahame Greene's Our Man in Havana which was a delight, full of wit and satire; and Steve Turner's Imagine, which is about art and Christianity. 

You'll note that only one of those is a fiction title, in spite of what I said in the paragraph before that.  I also re-read Philip Yancey's Prayer earlier in the year, and in September, Monday the Rabbi Took Off, and, Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red, both by Harry Kemelman.

Non-fiction books often need a couple of readings to get to grips with what the author is saying, or just to mull over again the points they're making.  In fact, continual re-readings over a period of years probably wouldn't do any harm.  And it's like catching up with an old friend over coffee and discovering what's been happening in the meantime. 

Fiction titles - if you leave them for a few years (and in the case of the three novels mentioned here, it's been quite a lot of years) - often appear completely new: you've forgotten how the story goes, though you have a vague familiarity with some of the incidents, and you find new things that you don't remember at all.  Plus you come at the story with a different life perspective.   Age has a few advantages...!

I find the same thing with watching a movie again: it's surprising how much you've forgotten or missed the first time around, and even though you think you know what's going to happen, there are always surprises.   One viewing is often insufficient for most movies (it's too much, of course, for a few!).  I noticed with the New Zealand movie, The Insatiable Moon, that I enjoyed it a great deal more the second time around, for instance.  You're no longer curious about where the story is going, and you can focus on other aspects of the movie.

Dale Ralph Davis

I've just finished reading Dale Ralph Davis' book, The Wisdom and the Folly - an exposition of the Book of First Kings, for what must be the third time, I think (and it only came out in 2002).   I've got all of his set of commentaries on the history books in the Bible: they run through from Joshua to 2nd Chronicles. 

What I like about his commentaries is that there a wonderful mix of real exposition and application, solid background, good storytelling that relates to the original texts, and humour.   Yes, humour - something most commentaries lack.  

Davis is no lightweight - as one of the reviewers quoted on the back cover notes: The range of scholarship is extraordinary (is there any learned book or paper on First Kings that this writer has not winkled out?).  And that's the thing.  Davis can stand in the ring and box with the best of them.  He never disagrees with another writer completely; in one footnote he will castigate the writer for ignoring the text itself and reconstructing it (he has a particular concern about those commentators who claim to be able to read which 'later Deuteronimist' added which verse or line, or rearragned the text), in another he will note that the same writer has made a valuable contribution to our understanding.   He will note that 'many writers' believe that such and such a biblical town was located here or there; Davis will have a good reason for saying that they're wrong...

You can have confidence in Davis, I believe.  He's certainly done his homework.   But beyond this he's concerned to bring out the reason why the Biblical writer has written what he's written; why he's left out details that might be of interest; why he focuses on one action in the life of a king and not another.  And overall Davis does this very well. 

Furthermore, Davis has a wonderful fund of relevant stories: he retells incidents from the American Civil War and from both the World Wars, stories relating to baseball and other sports, and anecdotes from the lives of great preachers and saints.  What's the relevance?   The war stories reflect the foolish behaviour of the kings and their warfare in First Kings, and reinforce the message; the sports stories reflect the management, intution, and craftiness of coaches and players and connect that to the way the kings and prophets and others behave in the Scriptural text; the anecdotes remind us that God doesn't change and his saints both need to remember this, and be reminded of it.

I'd love to quote something of Davis' humour, but it's difficult to pick out a line without providing the context in which the (punch)line works.  His wit and self-effacing humour pervade the books. 

If you've found other commentaries tedious, or obscure, or heavygoing, try out Davis. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Medical help - or not

A few weeks back we were listening to one of the young missionaries from our church who's home on leave from Papua New Guinea.

If ever you felt you had a reason to criticise the medical help we get in New Zealand, try living in a place like PNG.  Some of the stories this doctor had to tell were scary to say the least, and the medical problems are compounded by cultural ones.   The witch doctors may not be so thick on the ground - at least where this person works - but they're still in existence and can have a profound influence on the life of a person; can bring about the death of that person, in fact. 

But beyond that are the distances involved in a place like PNG, and the lack of doctors or nurses - or equipment.  Here we have the Rescue Helicopter flying overhead several times a day.   There they might have one plane available, and the injured person still has to get to a medical centre (which isn't anything like you or I might imagine). 

It's very much a hand-to-mouth existence, medically-speaking, for these staff, some of whom have been trained in hospitals where everything required is on tap.  In PNG they have to work out ways to deal with medical issues without the equipment or medication that would help.  It calls for considerable initiative, and tactics of the number 8 wire kind, such as reading up on how to deal with snake bites (of which there are many kinds) while travelling in the plane to save someone's life, and then hoping that you understood the approach to take.

I've just been to the doctor's this morning - a mere bus ride away (I would have walked, in fact, if I'd felt a bit less queasy).   Waiting time: ten minutes at the outside (and I got the appointment for 10.30 just by ringing up at 8.30).   It's not always that easy, but it's certainly infinitely more satisfactory than what Papua New Guineans put up with.   Furthermore, I came home with medication which will probably sort the problem out, and it only required a hop, step and a jump along the road to get to the chemist's.   My lab tests will be done in a day - compared even to the UK where you could wait up to two weeks.

There may be a lot of things to grizzle about in NZ, but the medical service, overall, isn't one of them.

Photo courtesy of PACOM

Monday, November 14, 2011

Brash and Spong?

From Toby Manhire's blog on things political in the NZ Listener: 
Asked about his religious convictions, Brash said he is a fan of Bishop John Spong. Who he? Why, a liberal, progressive American Christian. And what sort of things does he promulgate? Here he is, from his personal site, on capitalism:
A socially-sensitive, community-oriented capitalism that refuses to allow too much wealth to accumulate in the hands of the super rich and too little opportunity provided to break the bondage of the chronically poor is, I believe, the best economic system for stability. At this moment in America, the gap between the rich and the poor is dangerously wide.
Have we got the right guy, Don, because – never mind.

Hmm.....well Don, if Spong's your cup of tea, good luck to you.  You can have him.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The ODT Big Night In

The Otago Daily Times' Big Night In concert took place last night in the Forsyth Barr Stadium here in Dunedin.   It must have cost the ODT an arm and a leg - several legs, in fact - and they certainly didn't stint on the costs.  In fact they're talking of having one every year.

It had a great cast of NZ national and local singers: big names, and up-and-coming names.   And a huge crowd turned out, with many seats filled, and the playing area in the centre packed with families.   Kids had a ball: they were free to come and go in safety, and danced and ran and jumped and did all sorts of other normal kid things.

We had seats in the West stand, directly opposite the stage, which meant that any performers on the stage looked like ants, some in white suits (the ensemble of singers) and some in black suits (the male singers) and some in various coloured clothes (the female singers and dancers).   I can't believe how far away the stage seemed to be.  Pity those up in the very top of either the West stand or the South stand.  They would have felt miles away from anything. 

Fortunately there was a large screen above the stage area which showed things in relative close-up.   We got a reasonable idea of what was going on on stage from this.

However, we had a much worse idea of what was being sung - or even spoken.   For some reason the amplication in the stadium just didn't cut it.  It was loud certainly, but it was blurred, somehow.   Unless you knew the song being sung, it was hard to figure out any words, and regrettably, all the marvellous orchestrations (we knew they were marvellous because we could see that aspect on the screen) went by the board because there was so little detail coming across in the sound system.   It was a bit like being partially deaf: everything kind of rolled into one blodge.   I know there were lots of high notes, because obviously all the singers felt this was the only they'd really get across to the audience in a place of this size, but other notes just dribbled away. 

It didn't help, of course, that people in the audience treated the whole concert side of things as an occasion to talk happily to their neighbours, or to point out people they knew, or a host of other things.  The buzz from the audience was continual, and none of the performers got complete quiet from the crowd.   I guess this isn't surprising in this kind of a setting, and perhaps the performers didn't expect anything else, but for me they eventually became a kind of wallpaper to the whole affair. 

Two young singers came on early in the programme: Sequoia Cunningham and Kawiti Watford.   I've heard the latter in the Town Hall and he filled the place easily.   Here he sang Figaro's aria from The Marriage of Figaro.   It sounded as though he knew what he was doing, but there was little clarity because of the sound system.  Terence Dennis, who was obviously playing his heart out on the piano - because we could see his fingers zipping around the keys - could only be heard when Watford wasn't singing.

Sequoia Cunningham sounded great, but her accompanist on the piano was almost inaudible too.  However, she has a big future ahead of her - that I could tell from her singing of Schubert's Ave Maria.

There were all sorts of other artists: a friend of mine on trombone in the orchestra (and some other familiar Dunedin faces there too); a bunch of dancers who did a lot of rolling around on the floor, but seldom got completely in to the picture on the screen; an ensemble of singers (with another friend of mine in it); bagpipers, Highland dancers, the Glee group (with the daughter of friends in it), the children's choir (with two kids I know in it) the Mayor and the Publishers of the ODT and Malcolm Farry, who worked hard to get the Stadium off the ground.  Lots of talent.  What a pity it just all seemed so far away and blurry....

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rhyme or not to rhyme

The following paragraph (pg 163) comes from Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled, a marvellous book looking at the technical aspects of poetry, which Fry infiltrates and invigorates with his daft and witty sense of humour.   At this point he's just spent quite some time discussing rhyme, and by dint of using the terrible disastrous William McGonagall poem on the disaster on the Tay Bridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins' Wreck of the Deutschland (Hopkins is obviously a poet he admires a good deal), Hardy's 'The Convergence of the Twain' (on the sinking of the Titanic) and Tennyson's superb (if all too familiar) 'Charge of the Light Brigade' has shown how difficult it is to use good rhyme in a poem intended to commemorate a disaster.  

It may strike you as trivial or even unsettling to discuss rhyming options in such detail.   I know exactly how you feel and we should address this: we must be honest about the undoubted embarrassment attendant upon the whole business of rhyming.  Whatever we may feel about rhymed poetry [Fry enjoys it when it's done well]  it is somehow shaming to talk about our search for rhyming words.  It is so banal, so mechanistic, so vulgar to catch oneself chanting 'ace, race, chase, space, face, case, grace, base, brace, dace, lace...' when surely a proper poet should be thinking high pure thoughts, nailing objective correlatives, pondering metaphysical insights, observing delicate nuances in nature and the human heart, sifting gold from grit in the swift-running waters of language and soliciting the Muse on the upper slopes of Parnassus.  Well, yes.  But a rhyme is a rhyme and won't come unless searched for.  Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Milton and Yeats, Auden and Chaucer have all been there before us, screwing up their faces as they recite words that only share that sound, that chime, that rhyme.  To search for a rhyme is no more demeaning than to search for a harmony at the piano by flattening this note or that and no more vulgar than mixing paints on a palette before applying them to the canvas.  It is one of the things we do.

This paragraph resonates with me, of course, because much of my time in the last year has been spent finding that elusive note or chord for the musical I've been writing - Grimhilda! - and trying to find rhymes that make sense, fit and don't take the verse off in a direction that has nothing to do with the plot.


Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Downton Abbey

Much and all as I enjoy Downton Abbey - we're about half way through the second series here - I have to say that last night's episode just about took the cake for draining the last bit of sentimentality from the situations.   Mr Bates and Anna were reunited - in a manner of speaking - and had a little love scene out in the half-dark of one of the many yards at Downton, but much more over the top was the ongoing on/off relationship of Lady Mary and her cousin Matthew Crawley. 

Mary, who's wonderfully played by Michelle Dockery (I love the way she brings out the sardonic in her lines, in that deep mezzo voice) is constantly torn between deciding to marry Matthew or marry some other bloke (we know this other bloke is no good, but Mary, who also knows this, hasn't yet been able to get past that problem).   At first she was having to marry Matthew in order to keep Downton in the family.  Then when she fell in love with him, he'd fallen out of love with her - or given up on her out of frustration; I can't remember now.  Anyway, he's not only gone and got himself a fiancee (who's so wispy that she looks as though she'll float away before the series finishes) he's also over in France fighting the Bosch (along with William, the rather doughty young footman who's proposed to Daisy, the rather dopey young kitchenmaid - she's accepted, but not really - it's fearfully complicated).

So of course Matthew and William go missing in France.  Mary, who's practically the last to hear this piece of news, nearly faints at the prospect of him possibly being dead, but trouper that she is, she goes ahead and sings (with the sister she's invariably at odds with accompanying her, which gives her the chance to offer yet another sardonic remark) to the soldiers who are recuperating in the Abbey and causing their own havoc.

Right in the middle of the song, of course, who should turn up but Matthew and William.   And Matthew manages to join in the song (with a rather dubious voice - was he dubbed?), and Mary is beside herself, but not for nothing has she been trained in the art of stoicism, and she manages somehow to contain herself.  Just.

Meanwhile, the increasingly nasty Thomas (we felt marginally sorry for him early in the second series, but it didn't last long) and O'Brien - who caused her own bit of havoc in the last episode of the first series, but seems to have had a bit of a change of heart - are conniving in their usual fashion, and dropping hints of nastiness to come.   But the curious thing is that O'Brien doesn't seem quite to know her own mind any more.  Having Thomas repeatedly saying: You've changed your tune doesn't help.  It just points up the degree to which O'Brien seems to be heading for good one minute and heading for disaster the next.   And boy, can she put a damper on things.  If there's any chance of offering the put-down, she'll take it.   Why is she such an enjoyable character, you have to wonder?   Keeps us on our toes, I suppose.

I think Downton Abbey is tosh, some to the time, but the assembled cast is so capable, and so artful, that we skip over the tosh and just enjoy the way they delineate these characters.   All thirty or forty of them...

Sign and prophecy and Occupy

Protest is a form of prophecy, even when the protesters may have no religious or spiritual leanings.  It's a speaking to the society about some aspect of the community that is offensive.    

In the light of the Occupy protestings/prophecyings around the globe, and particularly in regard to the local one in Dunedin which for some reason has survived the trespass order set by the Mayor and Council (because the police, for some reason, have not enforced it) I found the following paragraph of interest.  

A sit-in or march is not instrumental but it is significant.  Even when no immediate change in the social order can be measured, even when persons and organizations have not yet been moved to take a different position, the efficacy of the deed is first of all its efficacy as sign.  Since we are not the lord of history there will be times when the only thing we can do is to speak and the only word we can speak is the word clothed in a deed, a word which can command attention from no one and which can coerce no one.  But even in this situation the word must be spoken in the deed in confidence that it is the Lord of history and His Holy Spirit, not our eloquence or artistic creativity, which will make of our sign a message.

John Howard Yoder
The Original Revolution

Monday, November 07, 2011

Some rambling thoughts about incomes

In a tweet sent out yesterday, Steven Croft, self-described as the Bishop of Sheffield and a writer, said the following:

Every person is of equal value before God. So there is something wrong in a world where a boss is paid 300x more than some employees.

Now to me there's a bit of a concern here as to what Bishop Croft is saying.   Certainly we are all equal before God when it comes to being created humans, responsible for what we do with our lives and all equally responsible for our sins.  But I don't think God regards our situation in life to be necessarily equal. Some of us are given power, some are not. Some are given fame, some are not. Some are given obscurity, some skills, some gifts, some a seeming lack of gifts. God may have set out things that each and every human being should have had the ability to make an enormous difference in the world, but it doesn't appear to have been the case in the actual world we live in. That may be a result of the Fall (not the Autumn, US readers, but the theological Fall), and if it is, it's something we have to live with. (Things may be altogether different in that regard in the New World to come.)

That's the first point about this tweet. The second is 'there is something wrong in a world' etc. Steven, we know there is something wrong, but it hardly just consists of somebody being paid an enormous amount of money compared to other people. There are innumerable inequalities in this area: in the last century film stars have invariably been paid extraordinary amounts by comparison with the extras in the same movies. This is because their talent is highly regarded. We may think they're overpaid, but I haven't yet seen anyone setting up tents and protesting about the money film stars receive.*  

In other areas of the arts, we find top musicians highly paid for the talents and for the gifts they offer to the public.   The man who moves the piano on the night of the concert is important, but he doesn't get paid an equivalent amount, and wouldn't expect to.

Some top painters, sculptors and others are well paid. Those who supply their materials are not. I think Steven Croft seems to be promoting a kind of evening out of income with an issue that's only partly related to it.

And then there are footballers, rugby players who get extraordinary amounts of money, often, it seems, for a small amount of actual work. But are we to decide that the linesmen, the referees should also be paid in the same way?  Unlikely. 

I don't disagree that we're all appalled at the arrogance of bankers and those in the high-flying money-transacting fields. But it began because somebody felt it was right to pay these people for their expertise. It's got well and truly out of hand, and I don't disagree that from my perspective they're exceedingly overpaid. (But then I think many film stars are exceedingly overpaid, too.)

But even that isn't the issue. The issue is that having begun by rewarding good work in the financial field it has become a race to see who can be paid most. In the interim, those being paid these fantastic amounts have done what many people who come into a great deal of money do: expect more money, and thumb their noses at those who have no means to expect more money - those who are paid '300x' times less than the one at the top. And in thumbing their noses they also begin to do illegal things, wrongful things, sinful things - and not just under the cover, but out in the open where everyone can see. This is their arrogance, and this is as much what people hate about them as the fact that they get a great deal more money than the average worker.

This hate has turned to protest. But the protest is more about the kind of 'Old Boys' Network' that seems to encourage the greed and arrogance, and helps out those who have got themselves into financial straits with other people's money, never their own, rather than about the fact that some people get far more money for what they do than others. 

One of the difficulties at the other end of the scale is that if you have no talents, no experience, no skills, you have nothing in particular to offer to an employer except your body and what it might do for that employer. Consequently your employer is entitled to pay the 'minimum wage' because he or she is not getting any great value for money when they employ such people. For me, this is perhaps a bigger issue than trying to rationalise why talented people get large amounts of money. How can the employing world help those who start off with nothing in the way of employable skills gain them? We used to have a strong apprentice system; before that there were guilds that took on young people and trained them. (Now, too often, we train the young people separately from the employment situation and then expect them to find a niche for themselves in the world.) But apprenticeships are few and far between; many employers can't fund them and the Government, in this country at least, seems to think the apprenticeship system isn't worth putting money into. 

I could go on and on. Essentially what I'm trying to say is that Bishop Croft is being too simplistic (perhaps Twitter encourages that). Even the protesters out in their tents are being simplistic (they're focusing mostly on one aspect of the problem). I suspect finding ways of lifting those at the bottom of the employment pile up and out of their catch 22 situation is more important than getting angry at those at the top. Their day of reckoning will come - and has been seen to, more than once.

Photo by Images of Money from

*Since I wrote this there has been the occasional female actor complaining that male actors in the same film get far more than she does. How valid the case is, is another story. 

Interesting use of horse liniment

Here's an interesting paragraph from Dale Ralph Davis' book, The Wisdom and the Folly (pgs 142/3).   He's talking about disguising apostasy as something genuine, and brings in this anecdotal material to back up his comments...

Whether apostasy stinks depends on how it's pitched.  In the 1930s, a horse liniment named Absorbine was plummeting in sales.  An advertising man named Obie Winters had the liniment lab-tested, and they found that it would work on ringworm of the foot.   With a stroke of genius, however, Winters conjuered a whole new name for such ringworm - athlete's foot.  There is such a difference in the way the malady is marketed.  Who would want to admit having ringworm even if there was a cure?   But "athlete's foot?"  One would almost be disappointed if one didn't suffer from it periodically!  It carries such positive associations. 

Davis is a great writer, scholarly, but without laying on the footnotes too heavily (though there are footnotes and in them he often takes other scholars to task)He's now the Pastor at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS, and at the end of the introduction on the opening page of their website, he writes: Now I must warn you. This church is full of sinners. Everyone who comes here is one. You'll need to remember that if you associate with us – or you may be unnecessarily disappointed.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Mrs Chrissy Johnson

I find it hard to believe that a post I wrote back in 2007,  partly on the city of Boise in Idaho (where the young lady one of my sons is due to marry in January comes from, as it happens, though I didn't know that at the time); partly on a blogger called Raed who vanished off the Net for a few days and caused a global query, Where is Raed?; and partly on a previously unknown young lady called Chrissy Popadics, is still being picked up when people put the search term 'chrissy popadics' into Google.   Even today, my post comes up fourth on the Google search results. 

Now something I hadn't realised at the time is that the marriage of Chrissy Popadics and the football star, Ian Johnson is inter-racial and that apparently caused some strife, with a number of threatening letters being received by Johnson after he proposed to Popadics on television at the end of a game.   Johnson is only partly black as it turns out, although if it's anything like New Zealand, if you're partly black, you may as well be fully black.  Maori in New Zealand, however much actual Maori blood they have, are still Maori.   It's one of those oddities of life. 

The news on Chrissy Popadics, these days, seems pretty minimal, which might explain why that one post of mine keeps getting high into the search results.  Google has only just changed the way search results appear: the most recent get precedence; the oldest go down the list.   Which means that Mrs Johnson has possibly had her great moment of fame, and is living happily in obscurity once again.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Azaleas and Blossom

Two photos of shrubs from our garden, and two of trees out in full blossom a couple of streets away.  The first two were taken yesterday, when it was quite overcast.   The other two this morning, after rain.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Bit of a walk

One of the advantages of living on the hill in Dunedin, is that it gives you ample opportunity to go for reasonably strenuous walks with the dog.

Today, we headed up the gentle slope of Mitchell Ave, into Elgin Rd, along to Mornington Rd until we reached Netherby St.   Netherby heads steeply downhill for a little, then there are steps down to the Balaclava School - probably around 150 of them.   I didn't count them today, but will another time. 

Down past the school into Barr St, briefly, across the road and up Shirley Place, which has a steepish path and then some 30-40 steps.  Along the street to Kenmure Rd and then a quick dog-leg into Bryant St (had to put in that bit about the dog-leg to keep the dog happy).  Along Bryant St, which is an up and down meanderer, and then up the steep path leading to Kenmure Rd - except that you also have to climb 220 steps (I did count these today) before you reach it.

Down English Ave, across Elgin Rd again; down into Crosby St and up the 25 or so steps at Lesney St.  Back into Maryhill Tce and home.  

All up, forty-five minutes.   That should deal to some of the muffins we've been eating that were left over from my grandson's birthday party....