28 November 2012

The Hobbit premiere: red carpet pictures

Photos from Courtenay Place this afternoon, in the lead-up to this evening's world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in what has now become a trilogy of Tolkien's classic fantasy novel. The capital was packed with visitors and locals and Courtenay Place was heaving. Traditional Wellington film premiere weather had also turned up, with clear skies, sprightly sunshine and a rising thermometer. I wasn't able to get a particularly good vantage point, but still managed to secure a few good shots, particularly of return visitor Elijah Wood and the legendary Barry Humphries, who flattered red carpet interviewer Carol Hirschfeld outrageously and unstintingly. Just like last time at the King Kong premiere I wasn't able to get a good shot of actor and now 2nd unit director Andy Serkis - he just moves too quickly!

Click to enlarge any of the photos below.

Neil Finn performing

Martin Freeman on the big screen

Andy Serkis

Courtenay Place panorama

On every lamppost

Hugo Weaving's beard (+ Hugo Weaving, somewhere in there)

Air NZ 777 fly-over

Sylvester McCoy

Hugo stopped by to say hello

Cate Blanchett

Ian Taylor

Barry Humphries!

Peter Jackson (top right)

Dean O'Gorman

Dean O'Gorman

Avatar & Titanic director / NZ resident James Cameron

Aidan Turner

Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman

Adam Brown

Elijah Wood

Elijah Wood

Three generations of hobbits

See also:
Photos: Eastern Promises premiere, London, 17 October 2007
Photos: King Kong premiere, Wellington, 14 December 2005

26 November 2012

Precisely how jazz music is made

In tonight's final Film Society movie for 2012, High Society from 1956, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong deliver 'Now You Has Jazz', a rousing Cole Porter number, as a statement of the charms of a uniquely American musical institution. It's the most animated moment in the film for the 53-year-old Crosby, and it's delightful to see him messing about with the gurning, ebullient Armstrong, who appears to be in a wonderfully daft mood.

It's slightly poignant, however, to note that this type of music was soon to be eclipsed by a rebellious, rambunctious younger sibling. High Society was released in July 1956, just over a year after the release of the film Blackboard Jungle, featuring the global smash hit 'Rock Around The Clock' by Bill Haley & His Comets. The days of jazz as the mainstay of American popular musical culture were numbered, and the mighty youthquake of rock & roll was ready to overpower everything. But for a moment, Crosby could still sing:

From the coast to the coast
Jazz is king
'Cause jazz is the thing
Folks dig most!

The film features Grace Kelly in her final role before jetting off to become Monaco's Princess Consort. She does a fine line in the mandatory trans-Atlantic accent that was required of many stars at the time, is charming both acting drunk and acting hung over, and is of course gifted with an astonishing natural beauty. Who could fail to fall in love with her? Well, her three (three!) suitors, Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and stick-in-the-mud fiancee John Lund certainly do. There's the standard rampantly comical and perhaps a little creepy age differences involved too, which were quite common in films of the time. Kelly was 26 during filming. Sinatra was 14 years older (at one point he is referred to as 'over 30', hmm!); Lund was about 18 years older; and Crosby a full 27 years older! That's an entire generation of difference. Mind you, in High Society Crosby also sings an (entirely innocent) love song to an 11-year-old girl. It was a different age.

See also:
Music - Iggy Pop & Deborah Harry - Well Did You Evah? (1990)

25 November 2012

Battle squirrels and combat frogs

The Gloaming
by Johnny Fraser-Allan
New Zealand Portrait Gallery
24 November - 6 December 2012
Free exhibition

A quick visit to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery on the Wellington waterfront this afternoon was rewarded with an excellent free exhibition of sculptures and concept art that Weta Workshop's Johnny Fraser-Allan has produced for his 'The Gloaming' project. The artworks are intricately detailed, carefully and precisely produced and thoroughly realistic in appearance. In viewing the exhibition I had assumed that it was a tie-in for an American or British series of children's books, or perhaps for a fantasy movie in the spirit of The Dark Crystal, but it seems not - the creatures exist only in Fraser-Allan's workshop and in his imagination. But surely the potential for a great story is obvious to all involved in the exhibition - just get a Hollywood exec in the same room as these beautiful, whimsical and engaging artworks and a huge movie deal should be inevitable. Someone make it happen!

Note: All artworks are copyright Richard Taylor. Images are reproduced here to encourage you to visit the exhibition. If there are any official objections to their presence here, please leave a comment.

Please also note the presence of a fearsome pinecone armour-clad Battle Squirrel, who deserves his own show. (Click photos to enlarge).

A bloody great dragon, having a dragon snooze

Badger badger badger!

Lysistrata's gambit

Lysistrata, the title character in Aristophanes' bawdy comic play first performed in Greece in 411 BC, brought together the women of ancient Greece in a conclave to bring to a halt the ruinous Peloponnesian Wars. Her method: organising the women of Greece to refuse to provide sexual favours to their menfolk - not even the renowned Lioness on the Cheese Grater position - until they relent and end the war. Here she explains her reasoning to an angry magistrate, who demands to know why the womenfolk have seized and barricaded themselves into the Acropolis with the all-important treasury, without which the war cannot proceed:

Lysistrata: In the last war we were too modest to object to anything you men did—and in any case you wouldn’t let us say a word. But don’t think we approved! We knew everything that was going on. Many times we’d hear at home about some major blunder of yours, and then when you came home we’d be burning inside, but we’d have to put on a smile and ask what it was you’d decided to inscribe on the pillar underneath the peace treaty. And what did my husband always say?—“Shut up and mind your own business!” And I did.

Stratyllis: I wouldn’t have done!

Magistrate: [ignoring her—to Lysistrata] He’d have given you one if you hadn’t!

Lysistrata: Exactly—so I kept quiet. But sure enough, next thing we knew, you’d take an even sillier decision. And if I so much as said, “Darling, why are you carrying on with this silly policy?” he would glare at me and say, “Back to your weaving, woman, or you’ll have a headache for a month. Go and attend to your work; let war be the care of the menfolk.”

Magistrate: Quite right, too, by Zeus.

Lysistrata: Right? That we should not be allowed to make the least little suggestion to you, no matter how much you mismanage the city’s affairs? And now, look, every time two people meet in the street, what do they say? “Isn’t there a man in the country?” and the answer comes, “Not one.” That’s why we women got together and decided we were going to save Greece. What was the point of waiting any longer, we asked ourselves. Well now, we’ll make a deal. You listen to us—and we’ll talk sense, not like you used to—listen to us and keep quiet, as we’ve had to do up to now, and we’ll clear up the mess you’ve made.

- Quoted from Lapham's Quarterly, 24 November 2012

22 November 2012

The great high road to his reason

Lincoln’s wit was indirect, friendly—Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes him as describing laughter as “the joyous, universal evergreen of life” in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, on which the movie [Steven Spielberg's Lincoln] is partly based. But it was also purposeful. [US Representative Thaddeus] Stevens was a man of unmitigated principle. Lincoln got some great things done. What Lincoln, played most convincingly by Daniel Day-Lewis, says to Stevens in the movie, in effect, is this: A compass will point you true north. But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?

That’s a key moment in the movie. It is also something that I wish more people would take to heart—people I talk with about politics, especially people I agree with. Today, as in 1865, people tend to be sure they are right, and maybe they are—Stevens was, courageously. What people don’t always want to take on board is that people who disagree with them may be just as resolutely sure they are right. That’s one reason the road to progress, or regression, in a democracy is seldom straight, entirely open or, strictly speaking, democratic. If Lincoln’s truth is marching on, it should inspire people to acknowledge that doing right is a tricky proposition. “I did not want to make a movie about a monument,” Spielberg told me. “I wanted the audience to get into the working process of the president.”

Lincoln came out against slavery in a speech in 1854, but in that same speech he declared that denouncing slaveholders wouldn’t convert them. He compared them to drunkards, writes Goodwin:

Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel” [Lincoln said], the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”

As it happened, the fight for and against slave-owning would take the lowest of roads: four years of insanely wasteful war, which killed (by the most recent reliable estimate) some 750,000 people, almost 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time, or the equivalent of 7.5 million people today. But winning the war wasn’t enough to end slavery. Lincoln, the movie, shows how Lincoln went about avoiding swamps and reaching people’s hearts, or anyway their interests, so all the bloodshed would not be in vain.

- Roy Blount Jr., 'Mr Lincoln Goes to Hollywood', Smithsonian Magazine, November 2012

Letting off steam

Well, not just steam actually - there was a fair bit of ash as well in yesterday's eruption at Tongariro. GeoNet keeps a close eye on this sort of thing, and has a camera poised to record anything lively. The time-lapse video of the eruption is as boisterous as you might expect:

Ash samples from the eruption are being analysed and volcanologist Nico Fournier thinks that this eruption might be the start of a series of such outbursts, with further eruptions likely this week and more likely in the coming months.

See also:
Photo Ruapehu eruption 1995
History - Tarawera eruption 1886
Music - Ash - Burn Baby Burn

21 November 2012

Rottnest Island wildlife

A menagerie of animal inhabitants of Rottnest Island, which lies 18km off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, taken on my visit last week (12-14 November 2012). The island was named "Rats' Nest" by Dutch explorers who mistook the local quokkas (small friendly marsupials) for vermin. It's also home to some rather larger species, as you'll see.

Quokka, Geordie Bay
Lizard, Porpoise Bay
At the Oliver Hill gun emplacement
Feeding time (mother at far right)

Mysterious three-footed gull, Geordie Bay
Black snake (approx. 1m), Pink Lake
Stingray under Geordie Bay pier

Humpback whale breaching in City of York Bay

Humpback whale breaching in City of York Bay

18 November 2012

Simulating real lives

Last week following a recommendation from PC Gamer I investigated the demo version of Real Lives, a human lifetime simulator designed as an educational tool. The demo version gives you three chances to play through a life, and the emphasis is on unsentimental realism. I particularly enjoyed the randomness of the simulation, not knowing in advance where it would be focusing, and even what country or sex would be focused on. Many of the aspects of the simulation have the ring of accuracy about them, based as they appear to be on statistics compiled by international agencies.

Of the three lives I played all three were males born in developing countries. To keep things interesting I attempted to migrate to more well-off nations in all three cases, and as you'll see this had a varying success rate. Here are the three obituaries for my sim lives, each of which took about half an hour to play through:

Yawo Bakara

Yawo Bakara of Barcelona died yesterday of diabetes aged 83. Mr Bakara was born in the isolated rural town of Lola, Guinea, in 1927 to Nkruma and Jumoke Bakara. After military service in the Guinean Army (1945-48) Mr Bakara worked and saved the money to enter Spain illegally in 1953, at which point he chose to live in Barcelona. An assembly worker by trade, later in life Mr Bakara invested wisely and opened a car repair business. He was a lover of art and books, and frequently volunteered in the community. He was never a religious person.

His wife Salima died 18 years ago of an asthma attack.  He is survived by his son Rashid and his daughters, Rashida and Kamilah.

Campat Konchadi

Born in 1922 in the city of Tenali in Andhra Pradesh in India to Dhaval (a manufacturing labourer) and Abhirka (a domestic servant), Campat was the fourth of four children. Schooled for a mere one year, Campat was a lover of art and showed promise as a talented artist. Stung by the death of his brother Dayanand aged 23 from a drug addiction, at the age of 21 Campat smuggled himself into New Zealand illegally on a military transport ship, and immediately found a job in Auckland as an artist. At age 30 he married Mohit Chethan, a secondary school teacher. They had four daughters: Tina, Paula, Angela and Kelly. Their eldest daughter Tina risked her parents' anger by having a romantic relationship with another girl, but Campat and Mohit decided not to throw her out of the house. Aged 50, Campat decided on a change, opening up his own courier delivery service. Three of his four daughters became teachers, while the fourth became a scientist. Unable to continue the courier work, Campat stopped driving aged 66. After a few years of odd jobs, he retired aged 73.

Campat died aged 88 of an infection.  He is survived by his wife, four daughters and five grandchildren.

Jiao Chao 

Born in 1987 in a village in Liaoning Province, not far from Fuxin, Chao was the third of four children of a Buddhist family, Wen Huan (a farmer) and Mei Kai (a seamstress).

Chao was kicked out of school for his political activities when he was 17, and began work as a farm worker.  Following four years of military service he returned to farm work. An indefatigable social and political activist, he was killed age 23 attempting to illegally enter Singapore.


The Real Lives software does not appear to have any direct links to historical events, so wars and particular natural disasters do not play a role in the random lives that are being generated. Despite that limiting factor, and its slightly old-fashioned appearance, Real Lives is an interesting idea and as simulations go it could be successful in the education market it is designed for. Certainly I could see it being a good way to broaden the horizons of students in developed countries who have little understanding of the challenges faced by those growing up in poorer countries. And certainly the sad fate of young Jiao Chao acts as a reminder of the sad fate of many boat people who perish as illegal migrants.

Personally, while I found playing Real Lives to be an interesting experience, I won't be stumping up to purchase the full version. Chiefly this is because at US$29 it feels significantly overpriced for what is meant to be an educational tool. And in addition, in two of the three lives I played I experienced significant bugs. While these didn't prevent me from enjoying the simulation, they did limit the game's realism and overall appeal. In my first outing as Yawo Bakara, at some point around the time his parents died Yawo mysteriously gained 30 million euros in cash with no explanation. Maybe Spanish lotteries are very generous! And in the case of the Konchadi family in Auckland, the interlude with daughter Tina's lesbian relationship turned out to be a bug rather than a pleasingly realistic feature of the simulation. All of Campat's daughters' partners turned out to have the exact same female name and the game referred to them as 'husbands' once they had married Campat's daughters. I thought it stretched the bounds of probability that not one but four identically-named suitors were out there courting the Konchadi daughters.     

06 November 2012

Avoiding the economic icebergs

Q&A session at the end; Russell Brown at the mic
The Voyage of a Lifetime
Downstage Theatre
4 November 2012

On a sunny and blustery Sunday afternoon last weekend I enjoyed attending a seminar organised by the Fabians bringing together a collection of speakers to discuss alternative economic policies, in the wake of a similar seminar held in Auckland earlier this year. It being the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the theme was 'charting a course for a better New Zealand', and the lectures were all sprinkled with nautical metaphors. For example, each speaker was assigned a crew role - Dr Rick Boven was the navigator, Rod Oram was the Wireless Operator, and student politicians Arena Williams and Rory McCourt were rated as First Mates.

Opened by comedian Michele A'Court and compered by Russell Brown, the seminar fitted in seven brief addresses of perhaps 20 minutes each. Photos and videos appear not to have been posted yet, but picking three highlights at random:

John Walley ('Ship's Doctor' and head of the Manufacturers and Employers Association) introduced me to a phrase I'd not heard before, the 'Dutch disease'. This refers to 'the impact of a particularly dominant sector crowding out other areas of the economy leading to problems if the dominant sector becomes less profitable or obsolete', and in the New Zealand context, Walley argues, this role is held by the dairying sector. I'm familiar with the problems faced by manufacturing exporters in New Zealand, but Walley argued that it was worst than I'd expected: the structural constraints of the New Zealand economy reward unproductive and a low-employment-generating farming model and penalise a potentially valuable and high-employment-generating manufacturing and innovation-based economy. Farms employ on average only a meagre 2.6 people, and due to the absence of a capital gains tax farmers structure their finances to produce operating losses or minimal profits to minimise tax exposure, instead relying on capital gains on retirement when they sell their farms for a huge tax-free amount. Walley argues that 'New Zealand’s macroeconomic policy framework has featherbedded high debt, low revenue, low wage activities and the effect is manifest in our economic performance'.

Prominent commentator Bernard Hickey ('the Engineer', and editor of Interest.co.nz) was probably the most technical of the presenters, and delved into detailed explanations of modern methods of quantitative easing (governments printing money to stave off or minimise the effects of a recession). He noted that despite such concepts being perceived as beyond the pale and outside economic orthodoxy, they are being practiced around the world in many of the major Western economies - with varying degrees of success. One noteworthy proposal, which will no doubt scandalise the dries, is quantitative easing for the people (QEP), here described by Anatole Kaletsky of Reuters back in August:

One such radical measure is too controversial for any policymaker to mention publicly, although some have discussed it in private: Instead of giving newly created money to bond traders, central banks could distribute it directly to the public. Technically such cash handouts could be described as tax rebates or citizens’ dividends, and they would contribute to government deficits in national accounting. But these accounting deficits would not increase national debt burdens, since they would be financed by issuing new money, at zero cost to government or to future generations, instead of selling interest-bearing government bonds. 
Giving away free money may sound too good to be true or wildly irresponsible, but it is exactly what the Fed and the BoE have been doing for bond traders and bankers since 2009. Directing QE to the general public would not only be much fairer but also more effective.

The key to the proposal is that existing bailout funds and quantitative easing has ended up being hoarded by the well-off and the flat-out rich, and so it has not primed the economy as governments had hoped. QEP target the 'real economy' by directly reducing household debt and encouraging spending. Kaletsky addresses some of the obvious objections in a later column, including its practicality and its potential impact on inflation. Personally I have no idea if it would work, but as Kaletsky points out, the current methods certainly aren't working.

Finally, millionaire entrepreneur Selwyn Pellett (e.g. Imarda) stressed the damage a high dollar is doing to the export sector, and decried the economic environment that discourages entrepreneurial growth, prevents vital economic diversification, and encourages young and talented New Zealanders and New Zealand companies to shift overseas permanently to find more receptive environments in which to operate. The exchange rate is of course not the only economic lever affecting business development in New Zealand, Pellett argued, but it is a key factor limiting business growth and the ability of New Zealand companies to compete internationally. Pellett said plenty more of interest too, but for a change I was listening rather than taking notes!   

Voyage of a Lifetime was an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon and definitely provided plentiful food for thought, particularly for someone like me who doesn't have a free and easy grasp of modern economics, but is interested in how national policy settings can influence the national economic agenda and our future wellbeing.

05 November 2012

Guy Fawkes 2012

Photos from the Wellington City fireworks display this evening in the harbour, which was excellent as usual - why would you bother with lacklustre backyard efforts? But it was also rather a challenging spectacle due to the southerly gale and the freezing cold rain pelting in. These photos, as with last year's below, were taken from Queen's Wharf. Not much shelter there, as you might imagine.

See also:
Photos: Guy Fawkes 2011
Photos: Petone August 2012

03 November 2012

The character and attachments of a Scotchman

'You do not know the genius of that man's country, sir,' answered Rashleigh; 'discretion, prudence, and foresight, are their leading qualities; these are only modified by a narrow-spirited, but yet ardent patriotism, which forms as it were the outmost of the concentric bulwarks with which a Scotchman fortifies himself against all the attacks of a generous philanthropical principle. Surmount this mound, you find an inner and still dearer barrier - the love of his province, his village, or, most probably, his clan; storm this second obstacle, you have a third - his attachment to his own family - his father, mother, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, and cousins, to the ninth generation. It is within these limits that a Scotchman's social affection expands itself, never reaching those which are outermost, till all means of discharging itself in the interior circles have been exhausted. It is within these circles that his heart throbs, each pulsation being fainter and fainter, till, beyond the widest boundary, it is almost unfelt. And what is worst of all, could you surmount all these concentric outworks, you have an inner citadel, deeper, higher, and more efficient than them all - a Scotchman's love for himself'.

- Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, 1817.