Archive for March 2019


In the wake of terrorism in your own country

20.03.2019


Above: Flowers at the Islamic Centre in Kilbirnie, Wellington on Monday.

On 9-11, I wrote an editorial in Lucire immediately. It was clear to me what I needed to write, and the editorial got quite a few readers at the time.
   Today is March 20, five days after a terrorist attack on our country, and it’s only now I’ve had some idea of how to put my thoughts into a longer-form fashion, rather than a lot of Tweets, some of which have had a lot of support.
   I guess it’s different when the attack happens to your own people in your own country.
   One of the earliest points I made, when the death toll hit 49, was that this was “our 9-11”, at least when you consider the per capita loss of life. When it hit 50, it actually exceeded the number of lives lost per capita in 9-11. This helps put the matter into some context.
   While the terrorist is a foreign national, who was most likely radicalized by foreign ideas, it has generated a great deal of soul-searching among New Zealanders. Even the right-wing talking heads have suddenly changed their tune, although, if a friend and colleague’s experience as a waiter in New York City in September 2001 is anything to go by, they will return to their regularly scheduled programming in two weeks’ time. Certain media bosses, especially among foreign-owned companies, would have it no other way, since they are not here to benefit New Zealanders, only their foreign shareholders and their own pockets. Stoking division is their business and I do not believe leopards change their spots.
   Therefore, the majority of right-thinking New Zealanders are not complicit, but a minority of us harbour bigoted thoughts, and enough of that minority infect the comments’ sections of mainstream media websites and social networks to make it seem as though they are more numerous in number. The outpouring of support for our Muslim community highlights that the good far outnumber the rotten eggs in our society. And I think more of us are now prepared to call out racism and bigotry knowing that, in fact, public opinion is behind us.
   So many Kiwis, myself included, say that hatred toward Muslims is not in our national character. But it is sufficiently in our national character when Muslim groups have pleaded with government agencies to step up, to be met with endless bureaucratic roadblocks; and many political parties have stains on their records in appealing to Islamophobia, something which indeed was foreign to this nation for all of my childhood.
   I grew up with a Muslim boy and we remain friends to this day, but I never thought of him by his creed. If I was forced to “label” him I would have called him a Pakistani New Zealander. I am willing to bet many Kiwis were in the same boat: we probably knew Muslims but never thought once about their religion.
   It takes certain people to make changes in mainstream thinking. I thought I might be labelled a ‘Chinese New Zealander’ till Winston Peters, now our deputy PM, droned on about ‘Asians’ out of some fear about the weakness of New Zealand culture; and we might have only become aware of Islam to any degree after 9-11. But these are, in fact, foreign ideas, adopted here by those who lack imagination or a willingness to do some hard work. They have been imported here through the sharing of culture. While I support the exchange of ideas, in some misguided utopian belief that dialogue is good for us all, I certainly did not anticipate, during the first heady days of the web, that we would have so much of the bad come with the good. I believed in some level of natural selection, that educated people would refrain and filter, and present their country’s or community’s best face. But as each medium boganfied (yes, I am making up words), the infection came. Newspapers changed thanks to Rupert Murdoch cheapening them, eventually morphing into publications that sensationalized division, especially against Muslims after 9-11. Television went downhill as well largely thanks to the same bloke and his lieutenant, Roger Ailes. The web was fine till each medium became infected with negativity, but Google, Facebook and Twitter were all too happy for it to continue because it increased engagement on their properties. Each fuelled it more with algorithms that showed only supporting views, deepening each user’s belief in the rightness of their ideas, to the exclusion of everyone else’s.
   Most Americans I know believe in civility. I’ve spoken often enough in their country to know this. They don’t believe their freedom of speech is absolute, and personally draw the line at hate speech, but their big websites act as though this is absolute, and allow the negative to fester. It seems it is for profit: we see Twitter remove Will Connolly’s (‘Egg Boy’) account but not racist Australian politician Sen. Fraser Anning. It is tempting to believe that Twitter is following the dollars here without regard to their stated policy. We have, after all, seen all Big Tech players lie constantly, and, for the most part, they get away with it. We let them, because we keep using them. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t need to say anything about Christchurch, because we’ll keep using his websites (Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp) and he’ll keep finding ways of monetizing us, dehumanizing us. He won’t show up to the UK when summoned, and Facebook will continue to lie about removing videos and offensive content when we know many reports go unheeded.
   Umair Haque wrote in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks: ‘Facebook and Twitter and YouTube etcetera really just bring the American ideal to life that there should be extreme, absolute freedom of speech, with zero consequences whatsoever, even for expressing hate and violence of the most vile and repellent kinds.’
   As people become dehumanized through words and campaigns, it makes it easier for people to commit violence against them. They no longer see them as deserving of respect or protection. In the foulest version, they no longer see them as having a right to life.
   Now, I don’t believe that this absolute approach can be branded American. And I do believe Big Tech has very different values to Americans. Their newsmedia have, too. When regular people are censored, when big money talks more loudly than their laws, then there is something very wrong with their companies—and this is the common enemy of both Republicans and Democrats, not each other. And this wrongness is being exported here, too. I’ve said it for years: we are a sovereign nation, and we have no need to copy their failed idea of a health system or even their vernacular (on this note: retailers, please cease using Black Friday to describe your end-of-year sales, especially this year). We do not need to import the political playbooks, whether you are a political party, a blogger, or a local newspaper. There are Kiwis who actually talked about their ‘First Amendment rights’ because they may have watched too much US television and are unaware we have our own Bill of Rights Act. Even the raid on Kim Dotcom’s home seemed to be down to some warped idea of apeing their cop shows, about impressing the FBI more than following our own laws on surveillance and our own beliefs on decency.
   I honestly don’t see the attraction of turning us into some vassal state or a mutant clone of other nations, yet foreign-owned media continue to peddle this nonsense by undermining the Kiwi character and everyday Kiwi unity.
   Did the terrorist see any of this? I have no idea. I equally have no idea if the people he came into contact with here cemented his hate. However, I think he would have come across sufficient international influences here to validate his imagined fears of non-whites and women. By all means, we should call out bad behaviour, but when we do, we shouldn’t restrict it to individual cases we see in our daily lives. There are entire institutions that are doing this, strings pulled from faraway lands, and to them we must also say: enough is enough. The way you do business isn’t in line with who we are. We need to be aware of who the non-Kiwi players are, often masquerading under locally grown brand names (such as ‘Newstalk ZB’—a quick peek of shareholders suggest the majority are as Kiwi as Ned Kelly), and, if need be, vote with our time and money to support those who really understand us. Be alert to who’s really trying to influence us.

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Posted in culture, globalization, internet, media, New Zealand, politics, USA | No Comments »


Autocade turns 11 as the web turns 30

12.03.2019


The latest model to appear on Autocade today: the Mazda CX-30.

It’s March, which means Autocade has had another birthday. Eleven years ago, I started a car encyclopædia using Mediawiki software, and it’s since grown to 3,600 model entries. The story has been told elsewhere on this blog. What I hadn’t realized till today was that Autocade’s birthday and the World Wide Web’s take place within days of each other.
   The inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, still believes that it can be used as a force for good, which is what many of us hoped for when we began surfing in the 1990s. I still remember using Netscape 1·2 (actually, I even remember using 1·1 on computers that hadn’t updated to the newer browser) and thinking that here was a global communications’ network that could bring us all together.
   Autocade, and, of course, Lucire, were both set up to do good, and be a useful information resource to the public. Neither sought to divide in the way Facebook has; Google, which had so much promise in the late 1990s, has become a bias-confirmation machine that also pits ideologies against each other.
   The web, which turns 30 this week, still has the capacity to do great things, and I can only hope that those of us still prepared to serve the many rather than the few in a positive way begin getting recognized for our efforts again.
   For so many years I have championed transparency and integrity. People tell us that these are qualities they want. Yet people also tell surveys that Google is their second-favourite brand in the world, despite its endless betrayals of our trust, only apologizing after each privacy gaffe is exposed by the fourth estate.
   Like Sir Tim, I hope we make it our business to seek out those who unite rather than divide, and give them some of our attention. At the very least I hope we do this out of our own self-preservation, understanding that we have more to gain by allowing information to flow and people to connect. When we shut ourselves off to opposing viewpoints, we are poorer for it. As I wrote before, American conservatives and liberals have common enemies in Big Tech censorship and big corporations practising tax avoidance, yet social networks highlight the squabbles between one right-wing philosophy and another right-wing philosophy. We New Zealanders cannot be smug with our largest two parties both eager to plunge forward into TPPA, and our present government having us bicker over capital gains’ tax while leaving the big multinationals, who profit off New Zealanders greatly, paying little or no tax.
   A more understanding dialogue, which the web actually affords us, is the first step in identifying what we have in common, and once you strip away the arguments that mainstream media and others drive, our differences are far fewer than we think.
   Social media should be social rather than antisocial, and it’s almost Orwellian that they have this Newspeak name, doing the opposite to what their appellation suggests. The cat is out of the bag as far as Big Tech is concerned, but there are opportunities for smaller players to be places where people can chat. Shame it’s not Gab, which has taken a US-conservative bent at the expense of everything else, though they at least should be applauded for taking a stance against censorship. And my fear is that we will take what we have already learned on social media—to divide and to pile on those who disagree—into any new service. As I mentioned, Mastodon is presently fine, for the most part, because educated people are chatting among themselves. The less educated we are, the more likely we will take firm sides and shut our minds off to alternatives.
   The answer is education: to make sure that we use this wonderful invention that Sir Tim has given us for free for some collective good. Perhaps this should form part of our children’s education in the 2010s and 2020s. That global dialogue can only be a good thing because we learn and grow together. And that there are pitfalls behind the biggest brands kids are already exposed to—we know Google has school suites but they really need to know how the big G operates, as it actively finds ways to undermine their privacy.
   The better armed our kids are, the more quickly they’ll see through the fog. The young people I know aren’t even on Facebook other than its Messenger service. It brings me hope; but ideally I’d like to see them make a conscious effort to choose their own services. Practise what we preach about favouring brands with authenticity, even if so many of us fail to seek them out ourselves.

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After driving automatic and manual trucks, the manual still wins for me

05.03.2019

I rented a couple of trucks over the last few days, and I’m surprised that automatics have taken such a hold in this country.
   I’ve written about my preference for manuals elsewhere, and for a regular car, I would consider one with a sequential gearbox. We’re in an era now where the advantages of a modern automatic can outweigh those of a manual, notably in fuel economy. Generally, however, having the control of a manual—and not having an atrophied left leg while driving—is my preference, and it’s absolutely fine even in gridlock if you know how to control the gears properly. I grew up with the idea, rightly or wrongly, that a good driver knows how to operate a manual and desires the control that it affords.
   Polling my friends, it appears that half have the same preference as me and many note, ‘But I own an automatic because I couldn’t find a manual.’ It’s true: we’ve become a slush-box nation just as the United States has, going from a country where maybe 10 per cent were autos to one where 90 per cent are. A big part of that shift happened this century. The notion that automatics have been market-driven (as I was told at Brendan Foot) is, as far as I can ascertain, bollocks.
   In 2015–16, I went to some extremes to buy the car I wanted, namely one with a manual transmission, by sourcing one from where the majority of drivers still prefer to shift gears themselves: the UK. I understand that the UK, as New Zealand once did, insists that you do your driver’s licence test in a manual if you want to be able to drive both; should you do it in an auto, you’re restricted to just autos until you ‘upgrade’ to a manual licence. Indeed, the latter position invites ridicule in the UK—Daniel Craig got his share of it after a fake-news piece alleged he didn’t know how to drive a manual.
   This UK licensing position still makes sense to me, but it appears we license people to drive manuals even though they have never seen a clutch in their lives.
   One of the young men helping me out with shifting stuff in the truck, who is on a learner’s, and owns an automatic, said to me that he couldn’t comprehend a manual, and that confirms that we may have it wrong with our licensing system by slavishly following the US.
   And after the weekend’s experience, I’m even more wedded to manual transmissions.
   The first truck from Vancy Rentals was a two-tonne Toyota Dyna with a slush box. For the most part it wasn’t too difficult to drive, except for one corner when I had to turn off the Hutt Road (speed limit 80 km/h) to head up Ngauranga Gorge, while carrying a load. I didn’t consider that I was going too quickly but the truck’s gearing did not change down with the speed reduction, and I had to rely solely on heavy braking to slow the vehicle. I wrestled with the steering wheel to keep it in my lane but came close to crossing the line.
   You can put this down to inexperience and you would be partially right. With hindsight, I could have turned off the overdrive, or changed to D-4, but in my opinion autos have a tendency to make you lazy. It’s the equivalent of a point-and-shoot Instamatic camera: acceptable but not what a professional might demand for full control.
   The second was a larger 2·5 tonner from Hino, but with a five-speed manual transmission. That corner was taken cleanly (with an even heavier and higher load) by shifting down, and it was simple heading down Ngauranga later by changing into a lower gear—exactly what the sign at the top of the Gorge suggests you do. It kept the truck to a maximum of 80 km/h, the legal limit down that stretch. (I also accomplished this with D-4 on the Toyota.) It was at this point that my young helper remarked that he couldn’t understand the manual, so I pointed out that it was the gearing that was keeping us safely within the speed limit, not the brake—by having that additional security I wouldn’t be reliant solely on the truck’s braking system.
   That same thinking applies to my driving in a motor car, and I wonder why one wouldn’t want the extra assurance of having chosen the gear yourself, limiting your speed when needed, and not be dependent on the decision of a gearbox engineer in Japan (or elsewhere) who mightn’t understand Kiwi roads.

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