Monday, 31 December 2012

2012: the year in review

2012 has come to a close, and we're still waiting for the doomsday predictions in the Mayan calendar. With all that aside, here's to 2013.

The Mega Conspiracy & Pacific Fibre

Kim Dotcom appears to have started turning the tables on the MAFIAA and its hangers-on. He's won the right to sue the authorities involved, And his latest venture, simply named Mega, is not too far off.

More interestingly still, he's thought out loud of resurrecting the Pacific Fibre proposal, which was abandoned by its original backers due to insufficient capital. One of my customers has theorised, with some justification, that Pacific Fibre was just an elaborate warning shot to Telecom's Southern Cross Cable. Given that NZ's internet traffic is largely global, a second undersea cable is probably a more pressing priority than a domestic fibre network. Dotcom's proposal to enact it in practice remains to be seem.

Journalism vs churnalism

The Leveson Inquiry reported back its findings on the Hackgate affair, and it's recommended a new independent regulatory agency. Needless to say, it's caused some polarisation. Hacked Off, the NGO representing those whose privacy has been invaded by the News of the World and other tabloid outlets, are in support. More interestingly still, support for Hacked Off came from the most unlikely quarter - Salman Rushdie. Reporters Without Borders favours a proceed with caution approach. Closer to home, the Law Commission has explored similar territory but for different reasons.

Critics of the Leveson Inquiry suspect it's a slippery slope to state control of the British media, and therefore, censorship. Such negative reactions have tended to come from those profiting handsomely from sensationalism, who argue they're just meeting public demand. Additionally, they tend to gloss over the incestuous relationship between politicians, law enforcement and tabloid reporters that characterised Hackgate. Kenan Malik has a far more nuanced argument against the Leveson Inquiry - that it attacks the symptom rather than the toxic culture underpinning publications like News of the World. Sir Joh's Queensland is a case in point of what could happen when media regulations are misused for outright censorship.

A free Fourth Estate is vital to holding public figures to account, but Hackgate has exposed the ethical bankruptcy of many media proprietors. In fact, Hackgate was exposed in the first place by Nick Davies of The Guardian, through good old-fashioned investigative journalism. A Press Council/BSA structure with much sharper teeth would be ideal, particularly where rulings tend to be buried on a sidebar in page 9. The closest match would probably be Denmark and Finland, which have been ranked at the top of Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index but still have official statute underpinning it. The rise of the blogosphere adds another dimension into the mix, but chances are it won't displace traditional media just yet.

Gun politics

The spree killing of primary school kids in Sandy Hook, Connecticut by a mentally unhinged young man re-ignited the gun politics debate in America - still raw from the Aurora shootings and the Trayvon Martin incident - with conflicting reports on whether the National Rifle Association was gaining or losing members. It was too much for even Rupert Murdoch. And the Sandy Hook shooter's mother - herself one of the victims - was a 'prepper' survivalist who died in the most ironic manner - her own cache of guns ended up being used against her. And preppers are the very people that NRA president Wayne La Pierre appeal to.

Things came to a head when CNN anchor and former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan went ballistic on Gun Owners of America president Larry Pratt. Morgan isn't renowned for his subtlety or good character, but he wasn't afraid to call a spade a fucking shovel on the Sandy Hook tragedy. Despite a petition to have him deported from the States, Morgan has refused to get cold feet. And if it's anything to go by, Pratt makes the NRA look like Mahatma Gandhi. He's hobnobbed with white supremacists and religious fundamentalists in the recent past, despite denials to the contrary.

Video games and movies have long been scapegoated by gun lobbyists for spree shootings. Yet other industrialised nations play the very same games and watch the very same movies that the Americans do, and still have much lower gun homicide rates - and general homicide rates for that matter. Michael Moore had a point in Bowling for Columbine when he observed that Columbine shooters Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold were ten-pin bowling enthusiasts, so should bowling be banned because it makes people go on spree shootings? The classic Hitler Ate Sugar fallacy never seems to go away.

It's also far easier to kill with an automatic rifle than with a knife. A deranged man in China attempted to stab a couple of dozen school kids earlier this year, yet there was not a single fatality.

So why are automatic firearms legally allowed to be purchased domestically in America, but not other industrialised nations? Certainly not for hunting - even a powerful enough 12-gauge can bring the angriest grizzly bear to heel. And not one of these rifles has known to be used in self-defence - pistols usually have that covered, and even then that's been the exception rather than the rule.
Outside of the battlefields of Afghanistan and Normandy, there's a school of thought that the real purpose of possessing assault rifles is survivalist paranoia. Specifically two reasons: overthrowing a "tyrannical government", which was a real threat when the 2nd Amendment was drafted in 1776, but comes across as conspiracy theory fantasy today; and race war, one of the primary fears of a chauvinist born-to-rule order facing the weakening of its monopoly on power.

2 + 2 = 5

The Novopay debacle continues to leave teachers in the lurch, and for good reason. Already, the Education Secretary Lesley Longstone has resigned, not long after she was parachuted into the role from Britain. Education Minister Hekia Parata effectively continues to deny responsibility, blaming everyone but herself.

In true Orwellian fashion, the ruling Government's promises to reverse the "brain-drain" in 2008 with tax cuts has been double-spoken into a "brain exchange". NZ has always had restless youth visiting and working overseas, and often returning and bringing back valuable know-how. But to imply that taxation alone drives talented NZers overseas is a cynical exercise in saying black is white, given we're at the lower end of the OECD taxation scale. Even if NZ reduced its taxation levels to that of, say, Monaco, NZers would still go overseas. For the simple fact that there are only 2 degrees of separation among us, and we've long been a couple of small islands in the middle of a large natural moat. We'll never be London or Los Angeles or Sydney, and nor should we delude ourselves that we can pray to the cargo cult and become them.

We can, however, carve our own niche in the wider world. The Internet has reduced our distance to the world and fostered innovation somewhat, but it's still at the whim of a cartellised communications sector. And the prevailing economic orthodoxy in NZ goes a long way to explaining NZ's relatively high living costs - it's not really pro-business, but pro-cartel. Those who conspire to keep it in place would do well to read Book I, Chapter X, Part II of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations:
"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary."

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