The Dim-Post

January 23, 2014


Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 7:01 am

Via the Herald:

Prime Minister John Key is today expected to unveil a plan that will allow the boards of some poorly performing schools to hire high performing principals with big pay incentives.

Dubbed “change principals”, the policy is bedded in the belief that the leadership in school can have a big impact on the quality of teaching and the quality of achievement.

It’s all part of National’s dream to model our schools – among the best performing in the developed world, or at least they were until National started ‘fixing them’ and we shot down the PISA rankings – on our business sector, among the worst performing in the developed world.

National’s true-believers will love this. Incentives! Leadership! Our schools will be awesome just like our city councils are now that they’re managed by lavishly paid CEOs!

Will ‘ordinary voters’ like it? My first thought is that we’ll be paying a bunch of well-dressed clowns with silver hair and nice teeth half a million dollars a year to run around their schools telling their teachers to ‘use synergy’ and ‘do more with less’ before giving them massive payouts when they bankrupt their schools and get sacked. People care about their kid’s schools – sometimes too much, and it’s an anxiety politicians exploit – but most people have the lived experienced that the highly remunerated CEO model is horribly flawed.

January 22, 2014

Winston Peters is not that unpopular

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 9:32 am

Via the Herald:

Outlining which parties National could work with, Mr Key said he would prefer to continue working with Act, the Maori Party and United Future after this year’s election but could add Colin Craig’s Conservative Party.

However, he would not rule out NZ First.

From the 2011 NZES, a ranking of how unlikable New Zealand’s political leaders are:


This will have jumped around a little bit since then. John Banks will be even more unpopular than Don Brash, and whoever takes over ACT will start off at at-least Brash like levels of public opprobrium. Peter Dunne will now be very unpopular (funny the way Dunne ‘negotiated’ his Revenue Minister portfolio as part of a post-election deal but now gets doled out Conservation, Associate Health and Internal Affairs as part of a standard government reshuffle, just like any other National MP. Another sign that the United Future ‘Party’ is just another of National’s Potemkin parties.)

I assume Colin Craig is at Brash/Harawira heights of loathing or higher.

Peters was only slightly more unpopular in 2008 (41%). If you’re going to rule in Colin Craig, Peter Dunne and ACT then you might as well suck it up and rule in Winston Peters as well. It’s not going to cost you anything and it might mean you get to be Prime Minister for another three years.

If this is bad news for anyone I’d say its bad news for Colin Craig. Older crankier, racister soft-National voters can vote for New Zealand First safe in the knowledge that they’re not explicitly voting for a Labour-led government.

January 18, 2014

To tediously bore

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 7:37 am

Via Andrea Vance at Fairfax:

Here’s a heads-up to staff in Chris Finlayson’s office – he is passionate that they should not sloppily split infinitives, or use Oxford commas.

Ten pages of guidelines have emerged, setting out the language the culture minister expects officials to use in correspondence and briefing papers.

It is accompanied by speech-writing instructions, with a list of more than 20 banned expressions.

Some people care about grammar and syntax because they love language and care about clarity of expression. Others are pedantic bores who derive some sad but creepy pleasure out of running around lecturing everyone on how they’re allowed to write and speak. Getting upset about split infinitives is a flashing warning sign that you’re in the second group. Here’s David Foster-Wallace on language and grammar nerds or, as he terms them, SNOOTS, and the split infinitive.

This is probably the place for your SNOOT reviewer openly to concede that a certain number of traditional prescriptive rules really are stupid and that people who insist on them (like the legendary assistant to PM. Margaret Thatcher who refused to read any memo with a split infinitive in it, or the jr.-high teacher I had who automatically graded you down if you started a sentence with Hopefully) are that very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT, the SNOOT Who Is Wrong. The injunction against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the weird fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language. Latin infinitives consist of one word and are impossible to as it were split, and the earliest English Prescriptivists — so enthralled with Latin that their English usage guides were actually written in Latin — decided that English infinitives shouldn’t be split either.

Also telling: Thatcher fan-boy Finlayson has added the word ‘community’ to his list of banned terms.

January 17, 2014

More small party stuff

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 3:09 pm

DPF argues that John Key should rule Winston Peters out as a coalition partner after the election.

The logic of the rule-out is this: some of Peter’s voters are soft-National voters while some are soft-Labour voters. If National rules him out then the soft-National voters will desert him and vote National while the soft-Labour voters stay with him, but he drops below the 5% threshold so their votes are wasted.

Which seemed to work in 2008 but failed in 2011. I think National would be foolish to try it again. DPF’s case is that without Peters National would probably only spend one term in opposition while going into a third term with Peters will probably lead to a subsequent nine years in opposition.

Well I think any political strategist who tries to think like that is crazy. The goal is to get into government and stay there while you implement your policies. What if National rules out Peters, goes into opposition and David Cunliffe turns out to be a really popular, effective leader? What if there’s three years of sustained economic growth? What if the National Party disintegrates into civil war as soon as Key steps down?

On top of everything else, any coalition deal with Peters will probably involve a knighthood and posting to St James at the end of the term, and I think he’d work pretty hard to keep the government on track and make that a reality.


John Boscawen has put his hand up to be the ACT leader. Well, fair enough. He’s put plenty of time and money into the party. I would like to know if he was approached by National and asked to stand. He is, after all, a known quantity. Someone they’ve worked with in the past. Someone who will make a ‘good coalition partner’, ie someone who will keep their mouth shut and do as they’re told and not take any votes off National.

Pretty sweet job, ACT leader. National gives you an electorate and a Cabinet position paying about $260,000 a year, along with a limo and a leaders’ budget, all paid for by the taxpayer based on the total fallacy that you’re the ‘leader’ of a ‘political party’.


Lots of ink spilled about Kim Dotcom’s Internet party, including lots of speculation about who will vote for it. Young National voters! Young South Auckland voters! The 800,000 non-voters!

I haven’t seen any actual data but my assumption is that if Kim Dotcom attracts any votes at all it will be from the Green Party. If he has any impact on the election it will probably be here: pulling votes from the Greens and then wasting them because he doesn’t reach 5%, and thus ensuring a third term for National. But based on the last few days I’m more confident than his impact will be negligible. Politics is hard! It is, to quote Weber ‘The strong and slow boring of hard boards’. I might be wrong and Dotcom might release some Android app that effortlessly harvests votes from young South Aucklanders that care about data caps and digital privacy but I just can’t see it.

January 14, 2014


Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 9:16 am

Bryce Edwards writes that this year is going to be the ‘year of the microparty‘:

However, it’s possible that the 2014 election year will be the year of the ‘micro party’.

While ‘minor parties’ might be classified as those parties normally receiving 5% to 15% support, ‘micro parties’ can be defined as those regularly inhabiting the space below the 5% MMP threshold. In this category we are seeing an array of new parties emerging, fighting for relevance alongside existing micro parties, and possibly having a considerable impact on the campaign and the final result.

Two of the parties cited are Kim Dotcom’s party and the Civilian Party. Technically the Conservative Party is also a micro-party, since it’s way, way south of where it needs to be to get into Parliament without an electorate seat.

This will definitely be the year of the media paying lots of attention to micro-parties as people like Colin Craig go to absurd lengths to get coverage. But reading some of the political science about microparties and protest voting makes me doubt how much influence they’ll have on the outcome.

The international research indicates that people cast protest votes when they’re confident that their most-favored candidate is going to win; they cast a vote for a fringe or joke party to send that candidate a signal hoping to influence future policies.

Does that model work in New Zealand’s MMP environment? I don’t know. In 2008 – an election which the John Key-led National Party was widely tipped to win and did by a comfortable margin – the ‘Bill and Ben Party’ founded by two comedians contested the election and received 13,016 (0.56%) of votes. I’d expect most of their support to have come from younger voters in left-leaning urban regions with high numbers of students. And they did do well in Palmerston North. But their most successful electorates were Invercargill, Rangitata, New Plymouth and Rangitikei, all of which have huge National majorities. So maybe the ‘signal to favored party’ model holds true to New Zealand elections?

If it does then 2014, in which the outcome is (currently) highly uncertain could be a really bad year to be a Microparty. If you like John Key, have a few quibbles about him but still want him in government you’re not going to ‘send a message’ by voting for The Civilian. And it helps explain why Colin Craig’s extraordinary media coverage hasn’t seen him gain in the polls.

The impact of the Kim Dotcom party is a bit harder to nail down. My gut feeling is that people aren’t going to give votes to a foreign national with a past history of criminal convictions who is facing extradition to stand trial in the US. But Dotcom’s formidable intellect and vast fortune make him highly unpredictable. I think he might take votes off the Green Party? Maybe? And maybe younger male National voters who think reducing World of Warcraft server latency is an important policy? But my best guess is that he’ll get less than 0.5%.

January 12, 2014

Notes on ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Filed under: movies — danylmc @ 2:03 pm
  • Briefly, Martin Scorsese’s new movie is about a stockbroker named Jordan Belfort who ran a ‘pump and dump’ scheme during the 90s market boom.
  • It is very funny
  • It is far too long (>3 hours; you could lose at least an hour and lose nothing. The gay butler scenes, say)
  • Leonardo diCaprio is phenomenal
  • The story of a man who gains the world but loses his soul and then loses everything else and is condemned to a life of banality seems to mean a lot to Martin Scorsese, because he’s made at least eight different movies based on this premise.
  • Two of those movies (Goodfellas, Raging Bull) are two of the best films ever made. Although the subject is the same they’re very different movies. But this is basically a comic version of Goodfellas set on Wall Street.
  • So Scorsese is attracted to these amoral outsiders and likes to make films about them. Fine. But for a major American director working in 2013 to make a movie about Wall Street and base it on Jordan Belfort seems, well, lame. The scale of Belfort’s crimes is tiny in Wall Street terms. He was eventually found guilty of securities violations totaling about $200 million dollars. Compare that to two Wall Street scandals of 2013: The LIBOR rate-fixing scandal estimated to cost investors roughly $186 billion dollars and the HSBC drug money laundering scandal involving transfers of around $670 billion.
  • As the movie makes clear, Belfort and his associates aren’t really Wall Street guys. They don’t have MBAs or Phds from elite universities. They have no political power and no legal protection. When Belfort gets caught he goes to prison. No one from HSBC or J P Morgan is ever going to prison despite committing crimes on a far larger scale than Belfort’s because they work for companies that – by and large – control the political, judicial and regulatory environments they operate in. They’re above the law.
  • Which, if you ask me, is a more interesting subject for a filmmaker.
  • Unlike Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street ignores the victims of the lead character’s crimes. His investors are just suckers on the end of the phone. And I guess that’s true to the subject: guys like Belfort don’t spend any time thinking about their victims. Besides, it wouldn’t be that funny to watch scenes about thousands of people having to sell their home, and their business, and having nervous breakdowns and committing suicide because Belfort took all their money and spent it on drugs and hookers. But it does perpetuate the notion that white-collar crimes are victimless crimes.
  • The result is a movie about Wall Street that doesn’t deal with any of the epoch-defining problems of Wall Street and an amoral destructive anti-hero who seems to operate in a victim-less environment. I liked it, but it’s awful irreverent. It’s no Goodfellas. It’s not even Casino. 

January 10, 2014

New Zealand politics and the English language

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 11:29 am

Stuart Nash writes:

One of the biggest challenges for Labour this year is to get its language right.  A good start would be to quickly change the way in which the media talks about the scenarios re the next government.

We always hear about the Labour-Green coalition v the National government.  I cannot remember if this was coined by the National party and adopted by the media or vice versa, but however it came about, it’s damaging to Labour’s brand.  Labour has to start talking about ‘the next Labour-led government’ and get right away from talk of a Labour-Green coalition.

Maybe I’m biased because I voted Green last time and my wife works for them now, but I think ‘Labour-Green coalition’ is a framing win for the left. And the reason for that is pretty simple: National are miles ahead of Labour in the polls, and it’s gonna seem pretty weird to a lot of people if there’s an election and Labour gets to be the government even though they ‘lose’ by a huge margin which, on current settings, is what will happen.

Doesn’t talking about ‘the Labour-Green coalition’ and how they’re ahead of National in the polls (or, currently, ‘neck and neck’ in the polls get around that legitimacy problem? I guess it would make Labour feel better about themselves if they talk about the ‘Labour-led’ government, but I can’t see the Greens buying into that framing, and from my perspective it kinda highlights the fact that Labour are ten to fifteen points behind the actual, current government.

January 9, 2014

Notes on the new Hobbit movie

Filed under: movies — danylmc @ 7:46 pm

I saw it today at the Embassy in 3D with the high frame rate. I didn’t really like it. Some comments:

  • I have yet to see a 3D movie other than Avatar and Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams that justifies the irritation of sitting through a movie wearing 3D glasses over my normal glasses. I think that’s it for me and 3D.
  • The high frame-rate kept reminding me that I was watching a bunch of actors dressed in costumes with bits of plasticine stuck to their faces clambering over piles of latex and moulded plastic. I don’t think this technology is a winner, at least for the kind of movies Peter Jackson makes.
  • There’s a scene about half-way through in which Gandalf is just about to enter Dol Gulder. Radagast asks him: ‘What if it’s a trap?’ Gandalf turns to camera and his eyes gleam, and he rumbles, ‘Of course it’s a trap.’ Gandalf then enters Dol Gulder, which turns out to be a trap and he gets trapped. What exactly was Gandalf’s plan there? 
  • There’s quite a lot of this in the movie: characters behave in ways that are dramatic but totally non-nonsensical. Why did Thorin turn down the Wood-Elf king’s deal? That was a pretty sweet deal! I get that he doesn’t like the king, but is that worth spending a hundred years in his dungeons and forsaking all his dreams for?
  • This sort of thing really annoys me. Writers spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to resolve the tension between (a) being true to their characters and (b) telling an interesting, dramatic story, and the way contemporary Hollywood gets around this tension is to tell stories about characters who act in ways that make no sense. (Prometheus is the canonical example of this. Nothing that happens in that movie makes any sense at all.)
  • I don’t mind the lack of fidelity to the original book or the love triangle between Orlando Bloom, Kate from Lost and one of the Dwarves. The book is still the book. Jackson hasn’t ‘ruined it’. Besides, I don’t think I’ve read the Hobbit for about twenty-five years. But the introduced elements are awfully banal – like someone trying to imitate Game of Thrones. which is absurd when you consider the source-material and resources Jackson has available to him. It’s both funny and sad that these movies have come full circle to the point where they’re imitating people who are imitating Tolkein. 
  • Whenever the movie meandered back to an original scene from the book – like the dialog between Bilbo and Smaug – I felt a thrill of excitement.
  • I liked the set-design for Laketown.
  • Smaug poses a huge – probably unsolvable – dramatic problem to the film-makers. He is supposed to be destruction and evil and death incarnate and yet he can’t capture, injure or kill any of the dozen-or-so small, very slow protagonists because that would break with canon. So Smaug is more like a stormtrooper from Star Wars, shooting at the characters to get them to run around to different sets and improvise different plans, but posing no real risk. 
  • I would like to see a short story/film on the Giant Eagles of Middle-Earth and their odd policy of rescuing adventurers from certain death but refusing to transport them anywhere useful, even though their failure to do so repeatedly endangers the whole world.

January 7, 2014

Chart of the day, also political rorschach test of the day

Filed under: economics — danylmc @ 9:31 am

From a new paper by the Productivity Commission on why New Zealand industries lag behind Australia, published – you might even say ‘dumped’ – on the Thursday before Christmas. Sent in by a reader (let me emphasise that I was not reading Productivity Commission reports over the summer break).

gdpausThe paper finds:

. . . the majority of the gap is due to productivity differences in the same industry across the two countries. Across most industries, Australian firms have invested more in capital while New Zealand firms do not use capital and labour as effectively as in Australia.
The chart shows what happened historically. I think. There was terrible allocation of capital under Muldoon – the famous ‘think big’ programs. And then Roger Douglas became Finance Minister and his reforms just annihilated our productivity, a disaster we haven’t really acknowledged let alone recover from. But I’m always interested in alternate explanations . . .

January 1, 2014

Notes on ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 1:31 pm

I’ve been meaning to read these books for at least fifteen years and I finally got around to it over the last couple months. Some observations:

Briefly: The books tell (sort-of) the story of a group of friends, rivals and lovers in pre-war Alexandria: back when the city was a cosmopolitan, permissive, polyglot swirl of religion and culture and race. Each book deepens the story and casts the character’s motivations in a new light. The overall plot is clever and complex, and is often closer to a political thriller than the ‘exploration of relativity and the notions of continuum and subject–object relation,’ that Durrell describes in his introduction to the second book (Balthazar). 

They have a reputation for being difficult: The first book (Justine) is rather hard to read. They get easier, except for a long, boring section on the British Foreign Service in book three and an extensive incredibly pretentious dull excerpt from someone’s notebook in book four: a section I was tempted to skip, and I suspect most readers do, but which contains a crucial plot twist.

The prose is amazing: GoodReads has a selection of quotes. But the highlights are the descriptive set-pieces: long sequences describing say, a duck-hunt on a lake, a masked ball, a horse-ride through the desert or a bombing raid on the Alexandria harbour. The only thing I’ve read that compares to them is War and Peace with its battle scenes, the wolf-hunt, Natasha’s dance, etc.

Durrell is a misogynist, which is problematic because his books are supposed to be an extended meditation on the subject of love but are filled with lines like: ‘There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.’ The finest compliment Durrell can pay to any of his female characters is to compare them to a man. ‘She had a mind like a man,’ or ‘She had a man’s sense of humor.’ I doubt this attitude led to many happy relationships, and (for me) casts his role as an authority on romance, love and sex into some doubt. His female characters tend to die or be horribly mutilated.

C P Cavafy is referenced often in the books as ‘The Poet of the City’, and quoted extensively. Durrell’s books played a large role in introducing him to a western audience. His most famous work is Waiting for the BarbariansI also like Ithaca and think about it often.

Some critics claim that these books represent the ‘influence of quantum mechanics on creative writing’. When I read that a few months ago I thought, ‘Wow!’ And that theory is what made me finally read these books. But aside from some vague musings about ‘the observer and the observed’ in book four (Clea) I really don’t see any any influence of quantum theory at all. According to Wikipedia this interpretation of the novels was argued in a paper entitled Quantum Fiction: Relativity and Postmodernism in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I can’t find this online anywhere. But the title itself is a bit weird. Quantum theory and relativity are different theories. And they’re incompatible with each other. Like, famously so. Maybe all the quantum theory in he books went over my head, but I don’t think there is any. Also, these books were published in the late 1950’s and I wonder how accessible quantum theory was to non-physicists back then? 

Relativity: Durrell certainly thought he was writing about relativity, or rather special relativity. The book contains passages like:

“We live lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time – not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.”

Well, okay. But our positions in space-time aren’t very different from each other in relativistic terms. We’re not light-years away from each other or accelerating at near light speed. Also, apparently the first three books represent the three spatial dimensions and the third represents time. I can sort-of see this. Sort of. But it doesn’t mean anything to me. Sometimes writers give their books a visible structure, like The Luminaries with its astrology or Ulysses with its correspondences to The Odyssey; most of the time the structure is ‘invisible’ and is just there to inspire the author. The work itself stands apart from it. Maybe that’s the case here?

I went to Alexandria in early 1999. It was winter and there had recently been a spate of terrorist attacks in tourists in upper Egypt so the only other tourist in my hotel was a gay American Doctor working for the WHO in Sudan who had read Durrell and Cavafy and convinced himself that Alexandria was still a wild, swinging town. He was bitterly disappointed to find that Alexandria under the Mubarak dictatorship was a very quiet, totally Arabic city; that all the decadent Greeks and Jews and European expatriates that form the backdrop to Durrell’s novels had been gone for half a century and that his only companion during his long-awaited sex holiday was a sunburned heterosexual New Zealand backpacker. He loaned me a book of Cavafy’s poetry and we spent a few days travelling around the city together: I now realise that many of the places we visited were important locales in The Alexandria Quartet (Mareotis, the bar at the Cecil Hotel).

So the city I visited was very different to the one in these books. Egypt isn’t a very safe place nowadays, and if I ever go back to Alexandria it’ll be a very different place yet again.

Final Analysis: Horribly flawed but still an astonishing masterpiece. Probably as flawed as a masterpiece can get and still remain one.

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