The Dim-Post

December 2, 2013

Notes on Revolutionary Road

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 7:03 pm

I just finished reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I thought it was great! But I also think this one star review on Amazon is pretty great:

I don’t want to read a boring book about a miserable, bored couple. Already living that life.

– Hope, a reader from San Diego, California.

Sorry to hear that, Hope.

The book cover and the introduction both promised me that Revolutionary Road was about the perils of conformity and the evils of suburban middle-class existence, and the introduction included quotes from the author to substantiate that thesis. But the book isn’t about those things at all! The main characters hate the suburbs and middle-class life, sure, but the main characters are miserable, vain, hopelessly confused people. What the book is really about – I think – is performance. How we play roles to impress people, and get them to like us, and those roles can end up trapping us; forcing us to become people we aren’t, and live lives we don’t even want. And it’s about vanity: so often we convince ourselves that we’re special; better than everyone else, so surely we must do something extraordinary with our lives! But what? The characters in Revolutionary Road don’t know. There’s a bitter comic thread running all the way through: people keep suggesting to the self-loathing, drifting main character that since he doesn’t know what to do with his life he should become a writer.

Bonus Richard Yates trivia: Larry David dated Yates’ daughter and went out to dinner with the great man who he described as utterly terrifying. He based an episode of Seinfeld on the experience.

There’s a film adaptation of Revolutionary Road that I have no desire to see: but I did like this description of Leonardo DiCaprio’s method acting chops:

DiCaprio prepared for the role by watching several documentaries about the 1950s and the origin of suburbs

Next up on the reading list: Justine by Lawrence Durrell.

Update: One other point about Revolutionary Road: it was obviously a huge, huge influence on Jonathan Franzen. Like, Franzen’s books are basically contemporary Richard Yates novels, only not as well written. I had a similar experience earlier this year when I read T H White’s The Once and Future King series and realised that a lot of what I liked from Lev Grossman’s Magician books and Harry Potter were flat-out copied out of White’s novels. There should be a neologism for that: when you read an older, less well-known text and discover that it’s been looted by a celebrated contemporary writer.

Mr Fix-it

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:39 am

Stuff summarises the end-of-year political rankings by right-wing newsletter Trans-Tasman. Bill English is their politician of the year:

He is restoring the Crown Accounts to surplus, getting the economy “set to fly” and he does more than his fair share of the heavy lifting on policy.

Most of the heavy lifting performed by English involves lifting up huge armfuls of taxpayer cash and giving it to the private sector. Still, I guess he is only partly responsible for the debacle of the asset sales policy, and the house-price bubble building up under his watch hasn’t blown up and crippled our economy, yet, but merely forced an intervention from the central bank locking first time buyers out of the market and reducing the number of new houses being built. So great job!

But what really jumped out at me was this:

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce: If it’s too hard for anyone else, give it to Joyce and he’ll fix it. 7.5/10

That’s certainly the way Joyce is sold to us, and its obviously set in the concrete-like conventional wisdom of the press gallery. But what, exactly, has Joyce ‘fixed’ over the last two years? The Sky City convention center? His dysfunctional new super-Ministry? Chorus and the UFB roll-out? The rapidly dying screen-sector? Shouldn’t this read, ‘Give it to Joyce and it’ll become a hugely damaging endless fiasco?’

December 1, 2013

Inside outside upside down

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 5:44 am

I got to experience the joy of being a political insider this week: for the first time I knew what the real story was behind a breaking political story – the great Green Party leadership challenge of 2013.

It kicked off on Wednesday: former Green Party candidate David Hay announced his intention to challenge Russel Norman for the Green co-leadership. It became a news story, presumably because it was all so weird and unexpected. Rachel Smalley declared that Hay ‘had the numbers’. Patrick Gower declared that Hay was trying to raise his profile and boost his list position, and that this was proof that the Greens were ‘greedy’, and also ‘crazy’. Chris Trotter decided that David Hay was a ‘philosopher king’ and that Hay was a stalking horse for a more serious unnamed challenger along with some other conclusions that I struggle to comprehend. Others talked about a grassroots revolution against the Parliamentary wing of the Green Party. Martyn Bradbury announced that change was needed because the Greens performed poorly in Auckland, only beating their nation-wide average in four Auckland electorates (a statistic that actually indicates the Greens performed strongly in Auckland.) 

The real story, I learned from an anonymous senior Green Party staffer when she came home from work in a bemused mood, was that Hay had been a problematic candidate in the last election so the Greens were about to block him from standing as a candidate in the next election. Hay was unhappy about this so he announced his leadership bid as a last-ditch attempt to prevent the decision: if they went ahead with blocking his candidacy just after he’d announced his leadership bid wouldn’t it look undemocratic?

(They blocked him yesterday; Hay announced that this was an act of ‘self-mutilation’ and called for both leaders to stand down, behavior which helps explain why he was dumped as a candidate in the first place.)

So that’s pretty straightforward but it wasn’t something you could really guess based on the available facts, so all of the analysis was wrong. Which makes me wonder: is almost everything I’ve written and read about politics a series of sensible guesses that were wrong because they were reasoned out based on incomplete information? Is this what 90% of political stories look like to government insiders?

November 27, 2013

Various points that I’m too lazy to blog about separately

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 3:05 pm
  1. Colin Craig: I think National’s position here is that they have to give him a seat. It’s going to be a tight election, the Conservative Party won 2.65% of the vote in 2011, there’s no reason that won’t go down, and it will probably go up. At least some of those votes will come from National. If Craig doesn’t win an electorate but fails to reach the 5% threshold then somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 right-wing votes don’t get counted.
  2. Russel Norman is facing a leadership challenge from a Green Party list candidate! Many people who go into politics have leadership aspirations, but the trick is to convince other people that you’d make an astute leader. And challenging an incumbent the term after he’s co-lead the party to an historic electoral victory when you’re in a position of near-total obscurity is not a great way to demonstrate your political acumen.
  3. It was the 50th Anniversary of the JFK assassination. Not sure if I’ve linked to it before, but my favorite short film about the assassination is Umbrella Man by Errol Morris. Favorite books: Libra and American Tabloid. Favorite feature movie is, naturally, Stone’s JFK. Many people struggle with the historiography; you need to look past that and just enjoy it as a masterpiece of paranoia. Consider the writing, performances and editing in this scene. My personal conspiracy theory? Kennedy was murdered by a small group of nutcases who were contracted to the CIA as part of their ongoing clandestine war against Cuba. The agency engaged in a cover-up after the assassination, for obvious reasons.
  4. Should we drill for oil? Putting global-warming aside for a minute: if we were like Norway, and had a safe, well-regulated industry in which the profits went to the people of New Zealand then yeah, totally we should drill for oil. Sadly we’re not like Norway. We’re New Zealand! Regulation will be negligible, catastrophes are likely, profits will all go overseas. Combine that with the fact that extracting and burning that oil will contribute to the alteration of the atmosphere of the planet we live on and there’s not a lot in it for people who aren’t in the energy industry.
  5. A theory I’d like to throw out there to explain National’s eagerness for partial-privatization and weird obsession with ‘Mum and Dad investors’. One of the goals of right-wing political parties for the last thirty years has been the idea of an ‘ownership society’. The theory is that you extend the ownership of capital to the middle-class and the experience of earning dividends and capital gains through shares, bonds etc turns them all into fervent free-market right-wing voters. There were other reasons for the sales – they got to give huge sums of taxpayer money away to the finance sector! –  but I suspect National is bitterly disappointed that it hasn’t changed the political landscape by moving us towards an ‘ownership society’.

November 18, 2013

Very good sentences

Filed under: books,religion — danylmc @ 3:37 pm

I’ve been reading Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, a history of Scientology:

Every church or mission maintains an office for the day Hubbard returns. A pen and a yellow legal pad await him at each of his desks. His personal bathrooms have toothbrushes and identical sets of Thom McAn sandals beside the shower. On Gold Base, his modest original house was razed and replaced with a $10 million mansion. A full-time staff attends the empty residence, regularly laundering the founder’s clothes and keeping the house ready for his white-glove inspection. His vehicles are still in the garage, gassed up, with the keys in the ignition. On his nightstand is a Louis L’Amour novel, with a bookmark placed midway through. The dining table is set for one.

Meanwhile, in Wellington, the VUW library has an impressive collection of Hubbard’s books, all hardback with high quality paper and glossy full-color prints. I assume they were donated by the Church of Scientology. Each book has many small cards tucked inside it in between the pages urging the reader to contact the Church directly. I’m guessing a member of the Church pops in from time to time to replace them.

Words and deeds

Filed under: finance,Politics — danylmc @ 9:02 am

Talking and thinking about the government’s asset sales – sorry: partial privitisation – policy this weekend, the following points seem valid:

  1. The partial privitisation policy is the Key government’s flagship policy for this term.
  2. It is a disaster.
  3. There isn’t much comment on this in the media

Maybe I’m wrong about point 2 or 3? But looking back at the pre-election promises, the intent was to raise up to $7 billion dollars. It looks like Key and English will end up spending hundreds of millions more on the sales process than they promised and end up with less than $5 billion, which is less than their lowest estimate. And yes, you can point to reasons it’s been a disaster. Solid Energy was supposed to be worth billions but is actually worthless, Meridian’s major customer is threatening to close down, and extorted the government out of $30 million dollars, the Greens and Labour have sabotaged the economy by failing to support the privitisation process and having energy policies of their own. But Key and English are supposed to be financial super-geniuses: couldn’t they have NOT, say, mis-managed Solid Energy into the ground, or anticipated the Rio Tinto problem? Like I said, this is their flagship policy, and the last two years have mostly consisted of National failing to anticipate really obvious problems – like the opposition opposing it – until they blow up in their face and cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

And maybe I’m just being a biased left-winger here, but I don’t really see much media commentary around the signature failure of the government’s signature policy. Seems that if a left-wing government’s biggest initiative fell over this horribly to the tune of billions of dollars it’d be a really big deal.

I think there’s some conventional wisdom involved: the general media impression of Key is that he has magic powers, at least in financial terms, while English is a ‘safe pair of hands’, also ‘dour’, ‘Scottish’ a ‘Southlander’, ‘frugal’ and so-on. The reality seems to be the exact opposite: they’ve hemorrhaged taxpayer money while botching their flagship policy. (If you add up the amount of money ‘dour, frugal’ Bill English has simply given away to the commercial sector in the last five years it’d probably be close to the two billion dollar mark.) But commentators would have to challenge their core assumptions about contemporary politics before the scale of the failure here became obvious.

November 14, 2013

I just CANNOT let this go by

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 10:08 am

I’m supposed to be working on my book today, but Massey Uni Political Scientist Claire Robinson has written something in the Herald about politics:

If recent history is anything to go by, the 2014 general election result has already been decided.

Despite the current centre-left Labour/Greens bloc looking competitive, history tells us National should have the 2014 election in the bag, again.

How is this possible when there is a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and the next election? The Labour Party has only just got a new leader and not a single cent of money has been spent on campaign material and advertisements by any political party. Surely voters will be waiting to see what tricks David Cunliffe can pull out of Labour’s hat before coming to a decision?

Well, it’s counter-intuitive, but election campaigns in New Zealand don’t actually make much difference to the outcome of elections for major parties (although they do for minor parties).

Data gathered from the New Zealand Election Study since 1999 shows that on average almost 54 per cent of voters will make their decision about which party to vote for before the election campaign.

Well that’s true. Lots of voters make their minds up before the election. When these voters are asked if they identify strongly with a particular party they’ll generally say they do. They’re mostly core voters. People who are farmers or members of Trade Unions, or who just have strong loyalty towards a particular party. But over 30% of people who voted during the 2011 election made their mind up during the campaign. 30%! 30 freaking %! The whole reason political parties spend huge amounts of money and energy campaigning during election campaigns is because a THIRD of the electorate makes up their mind during those campaigns. Campaigns are crucial! Campaigns make a HUGE difference! Campaigns!

And moving on . . .

David Cunliffe will need to convince National voters that his recent rekindling of Labour’s relationship with the union movement is also in their interests. It may have worked to shore up Cunliffe’s leadership ambitions, but persuading more conservative centre-right voters to swing to the left will not be such an easy ask . . . Conversely for Labour to grow they need to take votes off the Greens, which means that they can’t become too chummy either.
Here’s how the total voter turnout broke down in 2011:

2011votesAnd of that gigantic white block of non-voters, 30% voted for the Labour Party in 2008, and 45% have a favorable or very favorable view of the Labour Party. So if you’re a Labour strategist are you looking at core National voters who have already made their mind up to vote for the National Party? Claire Robinson thinks you are. And, hell, twelve months ago she was right, let’s give her that. But that’s not the only option. Nor is capturing Green voters. Enough people used to vote for Labour and didn’t vote last time to swing the election for them.

I don’t know who is going to win the election next year. It’s going to be decided at the margin and the margins are filled with uncertainty. How will Cunliffe perform during the actual campaign? Goff was dreadful and you can see that impact in the polls: Labour lost about 4% during the campaign period. And who predicted that the ‘teapot tapes’ thing would happen and that National would handle it so terribly, bleeding voters to New Zealand First and getting Winston Peters back into Parliament?

But I do know the election isn’t in the bag because the people who always vote for the same party have already made up their mind to vote for the same party.

November 12, 2013


Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 7:55 am

Today’s installment in Keith’s/The Herald’s MP property ownership investigation is interesting, but so far the really big revelation which we need answers on is yesterday’s finding that a majority of the National caucus and 6 MPs in the Labour caucus have these very unusual private investment funds that almost no one else in the entire country has, and that we have no idea what’s hidden inside them. Maybe it’s nothing and there are advantages to these funds that have nothing to do with transparency. But then again, maybe they all own shares or private companies that directly benefit from the decisions and votes they make as MPs and Ministers and they should all resign and be prosecuted for corruption! It’d be nice to know.

November 11, 2013

All within the rules

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:30 am

Keith Ng is inside our MP’s Land Information property records and killing their dudez. Short version: when the rules around MP disclosure were drawn up it was decided that politicians didn’t have to declare assets held by managed superannuation schemes because it was ‘too cumbersome’. Which is very reasonable. I have savings in the NZ University Super Scheme, which means I have investments in shares and property and stuff, but I don’t have any granular control over it, or any influence on what the scheme invests in. So when I become MP for Ohariu I won’t have to declare any of it.

But a bunch of MPs – 35 National, 5 Labour – have set up their own private super schemes so they can have detailed knowledge of what they own, full control over how it is invested, and not have to declare any of it to the public. The Herald’s story today is about property and documents an impressive feat in quadruple dipping:

  1. MPs get paid an accommodation allowance for a residence in Wellington
  2. Which they pay to themselves because their superannuation account owns the property that they’re renting
  3. Contributions they pay into the account pay off the mortgage on the property and for every dollar they pay in the taxpayer contributes $2.50
  4. None of this taxpayer funded windfall is taxed because we don’t have capital gains in New Zealand because it would destroy our economy.

Yeah, yeah. It’s ‘all within the rules’. It’s just that MPs are the only people in the country who get to draw up rules like these for themselves.

Irritating: National’s constant hectoring on belt-tightening and state-sector cutbacks when they’re exploiting loopholes like this to stuff their own pockets with taxpayer cash.

Interesting, possibly very interesting: How many MPs own undeclared shares inside these private super schemes?

November 10, 2013

Advertising boycotts and freedom of speech

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 4:41 pm

Karl du Fresne weighs in on the debate around Roastbusters and RadioLive’s Willie and JT show. Loads to take issue with here. He writes:

But the outrage over the Roast Busters has triggered a potentially valuable national conversation about how such attitudes could exist in a supposedly enlightened, civilised society, and everything should be on the table. If we genuinely want to understand what’s been going on in West Auckland, a few awkward questions need to be asked. One of those questions is whether the behaviour of the victims may have been a contributory factor, consciously or otherwise. Asking that question doesn’t excuse the contemptible behaviour of the perpetrators. Neither does it mean blaming the victim.

If we don’t ask those uncomfortable questions, an opportunity will have been lost. And the enemies of free speech and open debate will have triumphed again.

Do these advertising boycotts attack freedom of speech? I don’t think so. No one is saying that Willie and JT should go to prison for what they’ve said. That’s really what ‘free speech’ is. ‘Free speech’ doesn’t entitle anyone to their own radio show where they can say whatever they want and the advertisers who fund the show have to keep paying for it no matter how offensive it is and how strongly they disagree with it That’s, like, not a thing. If companies want to remove their advertising because they don’t think association with a show is advantageous to them, then that’s just good ‘ol capitalism working as designed.

But isn’t this ‘the left’ manipulating the system to police what everyone can say? Maybe, a little bit. But left-wing activists can only use this tactic when they can get marketing managers of commercial businesses to agree that a statement is deeply offensive. The barrier for that is pretty high. You have to offend pretty-much everyone in the country – except the cohort of irritable old men that dominate our punditocracy, who are only offended by gender quotas – to get something like this to work.


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