July 25, 2007

The Coming Kiwi $ Crash: Jan 07 issue

THE ART OF YEN: and how New Zealand’s economy may disappear down a Japanese black hole

Financial commentators like Investigate’s own Peter Hensley have been warning for months we’ve been living on borrowed time. Now, as SELWYN PARKER discovers, a ten billion dollar chicken might be coming home to roost and it will hit homeowners and workers alike with eggs that are anything but golden

Mr. Watanabe is a well-paid, middle-ranking executive in a foodstuffs distribution business in Nagoya with a lot of disposable income. Like most of his compatriots and unlike most New Zealanders, he’s a saver who likes to invest some of his money in liquid assets such as bank deposits, Bank of Japan bonds and other conventional instruments. Trouble is, for the last four years, it’s hardly been worth Mr. Watanabe’s while to put his spare cash into his own country’s banks. Interest rates on deposit accounts are low and the Bank of Japan, alone among the big central banks, has paid practically nothing on its bonds. Its governors have their reasons, as we see later, but the Bank of Japan’s zero-rate policy left Mr. Watanabe and millions of other thrifty Japanese with a problem. Namely, how to get a decent return.

A big part of their solution, as NZ finance minister Michael Cullen knows only too well, was to buy New Zealand dollars in what we call uridashi – or ‘bargain basement’– bonds. It’s known as the yen carry trade. By borrowing yen at a paltry rate of around 0.30 per cent and buying kiwis paying around seven per cent, Mr. Watanabe and his fellow retail investors are clocking up a handsome 6.7 per cent return before transaction costs.

Until three years ago, nobody worried too much about uridashi kiwis. Indeed Mr. Cullen and the Reserve Bank welcomed these torrents of yen; all small countries need as much foreign investment as they can get. But as the uridashi flows grew bigger and faster, they prompted well-publicised panic visits to Tokyo to try and stem the torrent. But still it’s kept on coming, like the overflowing water in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. At November, about NZ$40bn was held in uridashis. It’s nearly all short-term money with a life of one to three years. Over NZ$10bn worth of uridashi bonds are due to be redeemed – effectively cashed in – during 2007.

THESE are uncharted waters. New Zealand has never been in this situation before, and nor has the rest of the world. Reading between the conscientiously objective lines of a central banker, Reserve Bank governor Dr. Alan Bollard and other senior staff are worried. Citing the “high level of ‘cyclical’ liquidity” in our foreign exchange markets, Dr. Bollard explains how delicately balanced is the situation. “Given the reliance on foreign capital [i.e. uridashi kiwis and the related but longer-term eurokiwis], any rapid change in global perceptions of New Zealand’s credit-worthiness would dramatically alter the cost of capital” he warned in November’s financial stability report.
That’s central bank-speak for “there’s a problem out there”.

In short, uridashi bonds are hot money and, when or if they turn, they will likely turn fast with dramatic consequences for New Zealand. As the Reserve Bank points out, just one consequence would be higher interest rates all around on everything from mortgages and credit cards to farm loans and hire purchase. Another would be a sharp fall in the equity markets.

Beyond New Zealand, some even forecast a melt-down as the yen carry trade runs out. “It’s going to be ugly” predicted David Bloom, a currency expert with HSBC bank not normally noted for his gloomy views, earlier this year. Political economist Lyndon LaRouche, who is known for a degree of pessimism, fears the worst, foreseeing “a hit with a magnitude far beyond any individual nation or currency”.

Even sober pundits like Morgan Stanley chief economist Steven Roach see bubbles resulting everywhere from the global, carry-trade borrowing that has blown out prices for assets – that’s, everything from kiwi dollars to commercial property in central London. In the City of London, where many billions of cheap yen have been converted into sterling and other currencies and re-invested in these assets, you can sense the growing nervousness. “Yen carry trades are a risky game”, warns currency market expert John Authers of the Financial Times.

Another small nation has already been through it. Iceland had run short-term rates even higher than New Zealand, up to 10.75 per cent, and been flooded with yen-based speculation on its krona. When credit-rating service Fitch down-graded Iceland’s sovereign debt in March, in part because of concerns about the carry-trade, the money promptly fled. As a result the stock market plunged 20 per cent in a day and the krona collapsed eight per cent in 48 hours.

There’s hardly a single respected authority in The City or in the central banks who doesn’t think the yen carry trade will unwind sometime next year. The question is when, and how violently. The big worry is that nobody knows the size of the yen carry trade and therefore the effects of a collapse are unpredictable. Measured in US dollars, it’s certainly billions and possibly trillions. Most authorities hope for an orderly phase-out but some fear the worst. “The entire global financial system is on the verge of disintegration, as a result of the imminent collapse of the yen carry trade”, predicted the Daily Telegraph, not normally a doom-saying newspaper, back in February.

But let’s get back to Mr. Watanabe and New Zealand.

IT ALL started soon after the millennium, almost imperceptibly. To fire up a chronically flat economy after nearly a decade of deflation, the Bank of Japan, the main culprit, started handing out what was effectively free money. The intention was benign but nobody expected the result. Quick to spot an opportunity in the currency markets, the relatively new breed of investors, the hedge funds or “hedgies” in the trade’s parlance, started borrowing yen at give-away rates and buying up higher-return assets elsewhere. In effect, the Bank of Japan became unofficial lender of first choice to the world.

The hedgies and other big borrowers weren’t however just buying toll-roads, commercial property, ports, airports, commodities such as gold and silver and other normal assets with this cheap money. They also began to purchase and hold as assets great swathes of higher-rate currencies. Foreign-exchange traders, the reef fish of the banking sector, have done this on a daily basis for years, but the actual holding of currencies as an asset class was an alarming new phenomenon for many central bankers.

At first the currency of choice was the greenback in the form of US treasuries – T-bills in the trade. But the “spread”, or margin, on T-bills was only a few basis points and, ever opportunistic, the hedgies looked elsewhere and started gobbling up bonds in high cash-rate countries such as Iceland, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. The carry trade had reared its head.

About the same time, uridashi investors like Mr. Watanabe entered the scene, often holding only a few thousand dollars individually but collectively adding up to billions.

THE kiwi soon acquired the doubtful accolade of one of the carry-trade currencies of choice, largely because of its high official rate. This is largely driven by New Zealand households’ insatiable appetite for debt but uridashi investors don’t really care about the factors that create high official rates. They are just looking for high-yielding assets in a world of low inflation. By late 2004, about NZ$4bn worth of uridashis had been issued. In general the Reserve Bank still welcomed the foreign investment. After all, Japanese investors had been here before with the samurai bonds of the mid-nineties. And it’s generally good for debt markets to be liquid.
But in 2005 it all started going through the roof. By the middle of the year, the value of uridashis was approaching NZ$8bn. By the end of 2005, it was NZ$10bn. Over August, October and November, more uridashi bonds were issued in kiwis than in any other currency, more even than the mighty greenback and the much more stable Aussie dollar. In October alone, an incredible NZ$2.5bn of uridashis were snapped up, the highest monthly amount on record. Clearly, something was going on; foreigners were hardly buying the kiwi dollar for its long-term prospects and underlying strengths.

It was about now that the Reserve Bank began to worry about the de-stabilizing effect of all this short-term money. By the end of 2005, nearly NZ$45bn of uridashis were outstanding. And half of that was in the hands of Japanese retail investors like Mr. Watanabe, a class of investor prone to sudden changes of mood.

As the Reserve Bank noted with typical understatement: “Given the small size of the New Zealand government securities markets relative to those of the major economies, flows of these magnitudes stand out”. The problem was that all this attention is driving up the kiwi to abnormal levels relative to other currencies.

ACROSS the Tasman, the Reserve Bank of Australia has been tracking a phenomenon that, technically speaking, isn’t meant to happen. As Guy Debelle, head of the RBA’s international department, remarked in November, the carry trade flies in the face of accepted theory. This says that any positive interest differential between two currencies is generally negated by the risk of the currencies moving against each other over the life of the investment. Remember, the carry trade is built around holding the currency, not flicking it on overnight. As Debelle said: “In contrast, those who undertake carry trades do not expect the exchange rate to wipe out the interest differential [and] sometimes they even expect the converse, namely that any exchange rate move will increase the value of the investment”.

The Aussie dollar has survived four years of exposure to the yen carry trade without suffering in general the degree of volatility that has characterized the kiwi. This is partly because uridashis represent a much smaller proportion of the Australian economy than they do in New Zealand. However between April and June of 2006, even Australia got a glimpse of what can happen. That occurred when the Aussie depreciated against the yen. Almost immediately, there was a sharp sell-off of uridashis by nervous Japanese investors.

WHAT makes the kiwi more vulnerable than its big brother across the Tasman is New Zealand’s massive current account deficit, standing at 9.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Even the Reserve Bank calls it “very substantial”. Some of the worst savers in the western world, New Zealand residents have spent – and, admittedly, in some cases invested -- more than they have saved in every single one of the last 33 years. Like any household that has overspent and faces a “funding gap” in finance talk, this hole has to be filled somehow and it’s foreign debt that has done it. By November, New Zealand’s net foreign liabilities stood at around 80 per cent of gdp, a truly alarming number by the standards of conventional economics. And the percentage continues to rise.

As the Reserve Bank and everybody else acknowledges, this puts New Zealand in a precarious position from what is known as “rollover risk”. What if all those uridashis are not refinanced at more or less current rates? An added danger is that a lot of our foreign debt is short-term. “Around half of all New Zealand’s debt liabilities have maturities of less than one year”, noted the Reserve Bank’s financial stability report in November. Right now, there’s an overhang of uridashis looming over the market, with about NZ$10.2bn of uridashis coming due over 2007.

It’s not all bad. About 40 per cent of all that foreign debt is held in New Zealand dollars, which protects the kiwi somewhat against the vagaries of international currency movements. Also, some of the debt has been raised by the overseas-based parent banks of our local institutions and they are skilled at managing down interest rates to competitive levels.

But the important point is we’re in the hands of foreigners. If in the coming months, they take a view that lending to New Zealand is a riskier proposition, we have to expect an abrupt, possibly crippling, rise in domestic interest rates as uridashi investors take fright.

BUT just what factors would conspire to scare Mr. Watanabe? The most important one by far is a change in the policy of the Bank of Japan that would make yen more expensive to borrow, threatening the interest-rate gap between the yen and the kiwi. And it’s already happening. The Bank of Japan has started tightening money, draining out of the system the liquidity that has sustained the carry trade. By some estimates the central bank has sucked up 20 per cent of domestic money supply since March 06 when it first signaled an end to the weak yen. The last thing a yen carry-trader wants is a stronger yen, but ominously the Japanese economy is growing again.
Interest rates are also rising, albeit slowly. In July, the Bank of Japan hiked base rates to 0.25 per cent, the first increase in six years. However as currency market expert John Authers points out, “only a brief pick-up in the yen can inflict nasty losses”.

But there’s a bigger and more menacing picture and it’s called leverage. The yen carry trade is based on it. Mr. Watanabe may be quite happy with his six per cent margin between the yen and the kiwi, but the hedgies aren’t. They “gear up” massive yen borrowings to multiply the interest-rate margin in the search for “alpha” – vastly superior – returns. Assume a hedge fund has US$100m in capital to invest and it borrows US$1bn, giving it a ten-fold increase in available funds. The financial scientists now buy their US$1bn worth of yen at, say, 0.35 per cent and buy kiwis at 7 per cent for a return before charges on swaps and other instruments of 6.65 per cent. Multiply that by ten and you get 66.5 per cent. That’s leverage.

But of course, leverage applies in reverse. When the worm turns, massive gains turn into massive losses. And that also could already be happening, as the relationship between the yen and the greenback shows. This link is a big factor in the carry trade, even for uridashis, simply because so much of it is based on the US dollar.

Since the beginning of 2006, the yen is up 1.9 per cent against the dollar, which erodes much of the carry-trade profit. That makes it hard for hedge fund managers to sleep, especially after the Amaranth hedge fund dropped US$5bn in October by betting wrong against natural gas futures prices.

Similarly, a drop of a percentage point or two in the value of the kiwi would make Mr. Watanabe nervous.

The picture will become clearer for New Zealand from early 2007 when the NZ$10.2bn worth of uridashis are due. That’s when we confront the rollover-risk that so concerns the Reserve Bank. Meantime there are tremors in this increasingly nervous market.

That creaking and grinding sound you hear could be the breaking up of the world’s financial ice floe, with important consequences for over-borrowed, big-spending New Zealanders.

FOOTNOTE: Selwyn Parker is a former senior writer for Metro magazine, now based in London. His last piece for Investigate was on John Hood, the Oxford Vice-Chancellor

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:51 AM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2007

Media intrusion into private lives: Jan 07 issue


How far should the media go into the lives of public figures?

A few days ago Investigate Online posted a restricted access story on its website making fresh and serious allegations about Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope. The story was published online because its content is R18 in nature, and by requiring a credit card purchase for a nominal one dollar fee children can be prevented from accessing it.
The decision to publish the story was not taken lightly, nor was it taken because of any prurient interest in the subject matter. Our journalistic colleagues in Washington, London or Sydney would make exactly the same call – on the grounds that a Minister’s private life becomes public when he makes it relevant.
The full reasons are contained in the online edition, but what follows is a summary of the international debate on media ethics, and how far it is appropriate to go when investigating public figures seeking public office. IAN WISHART REPORTS

In a story like the Benson-Pope case, perhaps the biggest question any news organization faces is an ethical one: is this sufficiently relevant to be in the public interest? Contrary to popular misconception, the news media knows far more about most public figures than it ever publishes, because it correctly deems that much of that information has no bearing on how the person does their job.
For example, the fact that a politician may be gay is irrelevant to whether they’re a good Minister of Transport or Minister of Finance. The fact that another politician is a strong Christian is irrelevant to their performance as Minister of Health. It is only where one’s private life intersects with their public one that issues of relevance and/or the voters’ right to know surface.

Take those two previous examples: that same gay politician chooses to champion a bill favouring gay adoption of children, but without disclosing his own sexual preferences. Voters should be able to see whether he has a personal, rather than professional, interest in the subject matter. By choosing to become involved in a political issue dear to his heart and which challenges the normative situation, the politician makes his private life relevant. Likewise, a strong Christian appointed as Minister of Censorship might make decisions that many agree with, but his beliefs are indeed relevant to how he performs in that particular portfolio and should be disclosed. On the flip side of that coin, the same applies to raging social liberals occupying powerful positions.

In the essay, “Can Public Figures Have Private Lives?”, Harvard University’s Frederick Schauer has contributed significantly to the debate.

“In most of the debates about the issue of disclosing facts about the lives of candidates or office holders that those candidates or office holders would wish to keep secret, the issue is framed around the question of the relevance of the fact at issue. “Typically, as with the debates about the extramarital sexual activities of President Clinton or about past drug use or other allegedly “minor” crimes that took place in the distant past, it is alleged that the facts ought not be disclosed because they are irrelevant to the performance of the job. Regardless of whether people want the information, the argument goes, information that is not relevant to job performance has no place in the public electoral discussion.

“Such claims of irrelevance mask a host of deeper and more difficult issues. Chief among these are contestable issues about what the job actually is, and equally contestable empirical issues about the relationship of some fact to that job.”

Illustrating that point, Schauer raises the example of US judge Douglas Ginsberg whose nomination to the US Supreme Court was spiked in 1987 after reporters, using unnamed sources, disclosed that Ginsberg had been a frequent user of marijuana in the past. Leaving aside the medical argument over whether marijuana would have dulled his wits sufficiently to make him a liability on the Supreme Court bench, Schauer concentrates more on the fact that as a person supposed to uphold the law in one of the supreme positions available under the US constitution, Ginsberg simply couldn’t measure up: “The fact of past disobedience to law was material to Ginsberg’s qualifications”.

Just as it was, of course, in the fall from grace of New Zealand’s Attorney-General David Parker, after he was caught by Investigate filing false returns to the Companies Office.

“My point here,” Schauer continues, “is that a claim of ‘irrelevance’ presupposes some standard of relevance...denials of relevance often mask narrow conceptions of the positions and its responsibilities, conceptions with which others might reasonably disagree.”

This is one of Professor Schauer’s central themes: that even if a majority of voters might believe something is “irrelevant” or out-of-bounds, a functioning democracy requires that the interests of a minority who might want to hear that information be protected.

“When such disagreement does exist, however, the issue becomes more difficult, because there is now the question of when it is appropriate to make widely available a piece of information that some voters might think relevant to their voting decision, under circumstances in which the information is indeed relevant to their voting decision based on criteria that they take to be relevant.”

Schauer draws on the Monica Lewinsky affair to illustrate the tensions at play:

“The claim that marital infidelity is irrelevant to the office of President of the United States presupposes that the role of President should not include the role of being an exemplar of marital fidelity. For many people it should not, but for many others it should, and debates about relevance to the job are commonly smokescreens for debates about just what it is that the job really entails.

“It is widely known that President Clinton cheats at golf. Although it is clear that playing golf is not part of the job description of President…many people believe that maintaining certain high standards of veracity are indeed part of that job description. And if that is the case, then the empirical question is presented whether evidence of cheating at golf is some evidence of (or relevant to) a likely failure to maintain high standards of veracity in public pronouncements.”

And if New Zealand readers are suddenly sensing a merging of Paintergate, Speedogate, Doonegate and Pledgegate, read on:

“It is possible that the answer is no,” continues Schauer, “and that there is neither a causal relationship or even a correlation between the existence of the trait of cheating at golf and the existence of the trait of being abnormally dishonest in one’s public and political dealings. But it is also possible that the answer is yes, and that a cheater at golf, holding everything else constant, is more likely to be dishonest in public statements. And if this latter alternative is in fact the case, then the argument that golf behaviour is ‘private’ or none of the public’s business becomes a somewhat more difficult one to maintain.”

Cheating, however, is a personality trait that many people can agree is relevant. What about the grey areas of sexuality? After all, we all have sex lives.

“No less real is the example of the disclosure, against the presumed wishes of the candidate, of the sexual orientation of a candidate for public office. Although many of us believe that sexual orientation is both immaterial and irrelevant to job performance in all or virtually all public sector and private sector settings, it is unfortunately (from my perspective) the case that not everyone agrees.

“For a not insignificant proportion of the population in most countries in the world, having a gay, lesbian or bisexual orientation is immoral, and having a heterosexual orientation is not only morally commanded, but is also a necessary qualification for holding public office.”

Schauer’s view is that like it or not, you can’t have a meaningful public debate on these issues in a general sense but only on a case by case basis – the circumstances of each politician being different. Voters may decide that sexual behaviour is irrelevant in one case but exceedingly relevant in another, because of the different personalities or responsibilities of the politicians in question.

“It may turn out that disclosure of traits that some deliberators believe to be morally immaterial or empirically irrelevant will nevertheless properly be part of the process by which [the public] decides collectively…what its moral criteria will be.”

And again, the Harvard professor returns to the checks and balances necessary in a democracy. Even if only ten percent of the electorate believe the private life information should be disclosed, he says, and the other 90% believe it shouldn’t be, publication is justified.

“Under these circumstances, it is tempting to conclude that the majority should prevail, and that disclosure should be deemed inappropriate. But given that we are discussing the topic of the information necessary for exercising [the vote]…there is something deeply problematic about majorities deciding that information relevant to the voting decisions of a minority ought in some formal or informal way be made unavailable to that minority.”

Although Schauer hears the argument often used in New Zealand politics – that raking over the coals of politicians’ private lives will discourage good people from standing for election – he disagrees with it.

“There are moral arguments on the other side as well,” he acknowledges. “Chief among those is the argument that control over the information about one’s life is itself a central part of what is sometimes referred to as personal autonomy, and that there is no good reason why a person should be required to relinquish that right simply to enter the public domain.

“Yet if personal autonomy is the basis for the countervailing right of non-disclosure, it may be hard to distinguish this right from all of the other autonomy rights that one must forgo to enter the public arena.

“One has the right to speak or to remain silent, to live where one pleases, sometimes to work where one pleases, and a host of other rights that are commonly and properly thought relinquishable by one’s voluntary decision to stand for public office or to operate in the public domain more generally.”

In other words, what makes a public figure’s right to privacy sacrosanct when they may give up a whole lot of other rights as part of standing for office?

Naturally, Professor Schauer is not alone in his assessments of the reduced right to privacy of public figures. In a major editorial two years ago this month, Britain’s Guardian newspaper tackled the issue in the wake of the David Blunkett affair.

“The awkward truth is that the way people live their private lives does tell us things that can help to make judgments about them as public people…this is not the same as saying that the world will only be put to rights if it is run by certified saints. This country was seen through two world wars by leaders who would certainly not qualify on that score; but whatever the human failings of a Lloyd George or a Churchill, they did not include an inability to get the job done.”

It’s a comment that echoes the earlier ones on relevance. Are the personal failings relevant to the particular job they have?

The San Francisco Chronicle’s test in regard to public figures is this: “Personal conduct may have a bearing on public roles and public responsibilities. The degree to which a public figure voluntarily conducts his or her life in public or the degree to which private conduct bears on the discharge of public responsibility should guide the publication of personal information.”

Journalist turned lawyer Hal Fuson, now the chief legal officer at America’s Copley Newspaper Group, told a panel discussion journalists should not pull back from disclosing facts about elected officials just because of their own worldviews.

“Worry about the facts, folks, and let the truth take care of itself. Truth is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. And facts depend on verifiability. Verifiability depends upon being able to get your hands on lots of information that people don’t want you to have, because they want to shape their stories to suit themselves, not to suit the interests of society, and certainly not to suit your desire to inform your communities.”

The American Press Institute has published an ethics “checklist” for journalists weighing up publishing private information on public figures. They include:

Does this matter affect the person’s ability to do his job?

Does this matter reflect on the person’s conduct in office?

Does this matter reflect on the person’s character?

Does the matter reveal hypocrisy?

“Character matters for public officials,” says the Press Institute. “They publish family pictures on campaign brochures and proudly reveal private matters that reflect positively on their character. Private matters that reflect negatively on their character matter to readers as well.”

The Institute concludes:

“Don’t look for easy answers. Many stories involve consideration of more than one of these questions. However you decide, you can’t ensure that you will please all your readers. If you write the story, some readers will say you are prying into matters that should be private. If you don’t, some readers will say you are covering up for people in power…Sometimes the proper decision is to publish the story along with an explanation of your reasons for publishing and your consideration of various factors. Most readers understand that these are not black and white decisions.

“You might decide that a long-ago consensual affair between adults is no one’s business, and some readers will decide that you’re covering up. Or you might decide that criminal conduct is newsworthy whenever it occurred and some readers will think you are dredging up mud about youthful mistakes because your editorial page opposes the candidate.”

Australian political reporter Peter Cole-Adams was quoted in one ethics discussion this way:

“Elected parliamentarians were, he said, the paradigm of the public figure: each chose to enter politics; was paid by the public; spent public money; lived by publicity; enjoyed perks; and had the right to defame anyone he chose from the sanctity of the parliamentary privilege…in this sense, the public, as the hirer and firer, has a right to know what its representatives are up to. ‘If they are not going to be honest…they should be careful’. The questions the press has to ask are: is it true? Is it interesting? Is it in the public interest to disclose? He noted Lord Northcote’s dictum: ‘News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.”

Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:50 AM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2007

The Case for ADHD: Jan 07 issue


Claire Morrow examines the Attention Deficit controversy

Q: How many kids with ADHD does it take to change a light-bulb?

A: Let’s ride our bikes!

Of course children like to ride bikes (a great mystery), and they are rarely called upon to change light-bulbs. But what happens to the kids in the joke when they are old enough to change light-bulbs? “OK...here I am...I’m at the shop...I’m going to buy light-bulbs and milk...great...I can do this.” By some miracle the adult with ADHD has their bank card with them and it’s not maxed out.

Gleefully arriving home - stopping briefly at the neighbour’s to pick up the spare keys so they can let themselves in (stepping carefully around the pile of junk in the hallway) - with bread, eggs and all the things to fix that crack in the wall and...no light-bulbs.

Everyone has those “senior moments” from time to time, and most of us can say “oh, that happens to me too”. But for some people it happens...a lot. Too much. Even if you haven’t been paying attention, you could hardly have failed to notice that there is a condition called Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. It is the most common psychiatric diagnosis in children (in adults, depression is the most common) and it receives the kind of media attention that your average cancer charity would kill for. Not normally positive media attention though. Not your Here-are-the-warning-signs-see-your-doctor-now-for-help- thanks-to the-miracle-of-science kind of publicity, as a general rule. More your bad-kids-or-bad-parents-you-be-the-judge kind of attention. Children do not have ADHD because their parents smack them, or don’t smack them, because dad’s not around, because they’re poor or because they eat too much sugar/wheat/dairy products.

True, the odd child who is badly behaved, impulsive and super-active may be misdiagnosed with ADHD when there are in fact “problems at home”. But a good, thorough assessment would rule that out. An ADHD diagnosis is usually made very, very carefully with the involvement of several specialists, teachers and parents. One cannot simply front up to the family doctor, complain about the child and get a pill to make it go away.

Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder is primarily a disorder of attention. It comes in 3 flavors - hyperactive, inattentive and mixed (one scoop of each). The primary symptoms revolve around the ability to focus, concentrate, remember, control impulses and do what needs to be done. Inattentive type (with the clumsy diagnostic label “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder - without significant hyperactivity”) results in a daydreamer who may not be diagosed until later because their inattentive style is hard for them, but doesn’t disrupt the class. Hyperactive type...well, we know hyperactive when we see it. A hyperactive child is not merely a colossal pain in the backside to take care of (babysitters-won’t-return syndrome) - they need extra time, love, humour, consistency and attention from someone who understands them. And to be protected from themselves - because impulse control is poor, they are not deliberately doing foolish things, they are just so focused on getting their ball that the “don’t go on roads” bit drops out of their mind. Which is very normal at 2 and 3 years old, not so normal in an 8 or 10 year old. And these kids have to grow up.

Although it used to be thought that children grew out of ADHD, increasing numbers of adults are now being diagnosed with the condition. You do not catch ADD at 30, of course, it is a pervasive, perhaps lifelong neurological condition. Adults with ADHD are either people who were diagnosed as children or who - later in life - hit upon some hope-fully friendly person who said “Could you have ADD?”

You might get through school because your parents are supportive, and you are yourself very bright, even though you constantly lose the things you need for your assignments. Maybe even with good marks. But when you enter the less structured, less supported, more competitive environment of work or university, things start to fall apart. Many adults with ADHD have been under the impression for most of their lives that they are lazy, stupid, space cadets. If one of their children is diagnosed with ADHD suddenly the light-bulb (which they have finally re-membered to buy) goes on - “They can’t have ADHD...I was exactly the same as a child...still am like that...and I don’t...unless...?” (ding!).

Some people object to ADHD on religious grounds - Scientologists for example do not believe in psychiatry at all. Others are worried about “labeling” children. Children are smarter than you think, in that case. Labeling a child as “A wonderful, artistic sensitive lit-tle person who happens to have ADHD, a neurobiological condition which sometimes causes her to have problems that we can work out together” is a whole lot better than the labels a child will apply to themselves if they don’t have a clear understanding of why they have trouble in class, forget things, and ‘drift off”. You don’t want a label; “stupid”, “space cadet”, “thoughtless”, “lazy”, “bad”. If not enough information is given about what’s happen-ing and why, these are the labels children with ADHD come up with by themselves (with a little help from their friends).

Correctly diagnosed ADHD is caused by insufficient dopamine in the brain. That is all. The synapses in the brain need dopamine. If you have enough dopamine, then taking amphetamine will make you have too much and you will become edgy, difficult and anx-ious. Too little and you have ADHD. Stimulant medications such as amphetamines (and drugs such as ritalin are no more closely related to ice or speed, than codeine is related to heroin) increases the amount of dopamine in the brain - focus improves. At any age, Attention Deficit Disorder is managed, not cured. It can be managed through cognitive behavior therapy (using a day planner, timers, alarm and so forth), and some people find special diets help a little (if they have food intolerance in addition to their ADHD). There are (aren’t there always?) a great number of unproven treatments, exercise has proven to be fairly helpful. Newer medications are not as well established, but there are long-acting and non-controlled medication treatments now available. Medication, particularly the stimulants, far and away outperforms any other treatment. Just as no one expects the severe diabetic to control their sugar level without insulin, children and adults with ADHD have some control and can exert some effect on their behavior, but medication does have a significant place in treatment.

If you think you may be an adult with ADHD or you would just like to know more about the condition, you can find information and a self assessment scale at: http://www.addresources.org . As always; exercise more, and see your doctor if chronic lateness, underachievement and disorganization persist. Oh yes, make a list. Lists help a great deal. Light-bulbs.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:28 AM | Comments (0)

When laptops go bang

When laptops go bang

Alex Goldfayn assesses the risks of inflight fires caused by laptop batteries

Distraught and scrambling off the United Airlines plane, the man ran out of the jet bridge past passengers waiting to get on board, clutching his laptop. Smoke poured from it. He ran to a relatively unoccupied area of the gate and threw the Lenovo computer on the ground. It ignited, shooting a 60cm flame upward.

"A few people yelled `terrorist,' and ran away," said Tom Mustaine, 30, who was sitting at an adjoining gate and witnessed the event at Los Angeles International Airport.

"The thing gave off a terrible, chemical smoke. It burned for about two minutes before they extinguished it. The whole gate area filled with noxious smoke. People were gagging."

This incident, which occurred in September, was the latest, most public, and perhaps the most dramatic in a string of laptop
battery fires.

It prompted Lenovo to recall more than 500,000 of its notebook batteries worldwide.

So far, more than 5 million notebook batteries in the United States - and nearly 10 million worldwide - have been recalled this year by manufacturers including Dell, Apple, Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba.

Every one of the recalled batteries has one thing in common.

"They were all Sony batteries," says Richard Stern, associate director at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (www.cpsc.gov), the government agency that oversees consumer product recalls.

The recent spate of battery recalls falls under Stern's jurisdiction. The problematic units appear to have come from the same rather large "batch."

"It's a quality-control issue," Stern explains. "Sony has reported that for a certain batch of their lithium-ion production, there were metal particles located in a certain part of the battery cell that, under certain circumstances, could penetrate the insulating material inside the cell and create an internal short circuit."

Last month in Japan, a laptop battery sparked in a Fujitsu employee's hands as he was retrieving the battery from a user's home as part of the company's recall.

In June, a Dell laptop ignited in a conference room.

The United Airlines passenger's laptop that went up in flames at LAX started giving off smoke when he was seated on the plane.

My burning question is, what would happen if a laptop ignites in flight?

"On the plane, it would have been catastrophic," says Mustaine, who witnessed the LAX laptop fire. "I think there would have been an enormous panic. The smoke filled a large part of the terminal. It definitely would have filled the plane. It's an extreme fire causing an extreme inability to breathe."

What if a laptop ignites in an overhead compartment? Or under the seat in front of you?

Or worse, in the baggage compartment of the plane?

United Airlines, apparently not eager to discuss this issue in detail, responded to my inquiry with this e-mail: "When it is safe to use electronic equipment in-flight, for example not during take-off and landing, our customers can use their laptops."

But several non-U.S. airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and Korean Air, have been checking laptop battery serial numbers before passengers board.

Virgin's cabin crews, for example, check all batteries on Apple, Dell and IBM-made laptops. If the battery is on the recall list, it must be placed in checked luggage.

Airlines in the United States, however, provide no such safety checks.

"Airlines aren't allowing Scope and Crest on board, but they're allowing these batteries through," says frequent flier David Millman, chief executive of Rescuecom, a computer repair and support firm. "So far, we've been lucky, but it's a real danger."

Adds Mustaine: "I've thought about this a lot since seeing that laptop on fire. The laptop's going to burn until it's done burning (through the battery fuel cells and plastics). You have to let it do its thing. If there's fire on a plane, it makes people panic."

In a 2003 report, Britain's Civil Aviation Authority found that a lithium-ion battery fire "will almost certainly cause severe harm to any passengers in the immediate vicinity. There is also a risk that the fire will spread to adjacent flammable material, e.g. clothing, newspapers, rugs, carpet."

It went on to cite a "risk of harm from smoke inhalation to passengers and crew members, particularly if the electronic device is inside a carrying bag."

The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for determining what can and cannot come on board U.S. flights, has not issued a ruling on the safety of passengers' laptop batteries.

But experts urge to keep the problem in perspective.

"There are well over 250 million laptops in use in the world," says Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at California-based Creative Strategies Inc. "And we've had less than 50 (battery fire) incidences recorded worldwide."

Adds the CPSC's Stern: "I assume risk every day. I can't control my environment unless I stay in my house."

Even Mustaine is going to keep flying - with his laptop.

"I think the airlines just need to be smart about it. This is obviously a bad batch of batteries. Just keep track of the known bad batteries and check for them before people get on board."

Here's hoping the airlines get the message.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:23 AM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2007

Herb Omelet: Jan 07 issue



Eli Jameson says its time to freshen up

One of my greater failings in life is my utter inability to deal with the world of plants. A green thumb I have not. Even the most supposedly indestructible houseplants get a severe case of depression and commit arboreal suicide as soon as they find themselves in my care. The happy-looking ficus that was living in the back yard of our house when we moved in two months ago now looks about as lush as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. And speaking of Christmas trees, last year we set up an artificial number in the lounge and it started shedding its plastic leaves as soon as it realised it was notionally in my care. The floor had more little needles scattered around it than the footpath outside the “safe” in-jecting room in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

No wonder the Green Party held a week’s worth of demonstrations outside my house when they found out I’d requested brochures on a Tasmanian holiday. They figured I’d take one step off the plane and all the old-growth forests on the Apple Isle would decide to finally give up their respective ghosts.

Which is why I cannot have something I have always wanted, both for reasons aesthetic (read: reasons of ego - “why, yes, I do grow these myself”) and financial: a proper herb garden. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve bought basil planters by the pallet-load, visions of pe-sto-filled summers dancing in my head. Two days after installation the leaves wind up with-ered and charred by the sun, even if they were placed in the shade. Instead, I have to go to the markets and buy my herbs, which is tedious, inconvenient and expensive. How my local supermarche can get away with charging $2 for an anemic bundle of parsley is beyond me; the margins on such a product have more in-built fat than Dom Deluise. Either that, or the parsley farmer lost a lawsuit and needs the extra money because his wages are being garnished. (Ba-da-BOOM!)

Hopefully you do not have this problem. But either way, fresh herbs are as indispensable to good cooking as proper sea salt (always Maldon, and no, they don’t pay me a cent to say that, though yes, I’d be happy to take any spare inventory care of this magazine’s Sydney bureau) and extra virgin olive oil. All those jars of dried herbs that everyone keeps in the back of their kitchen cupboards are, for the most part, the enemy of taste. Although recipes typically tell readers to use less dried herbs than fresh because the power is supposedly concentrated, it is not long before, once unsealed, they quickly become deadly stale and add about as much oomph to a dish as a scant teaspoon of sawdust. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: I find dried tarragon doesn’t hang around my house long enough to go off, and somehow retains more of its integrity than other herbs in the jar. And it means one can always knock up a bearnaise sauce on short notice, an event that happens with heart-stopping regularity around the Jameson chateau.

If you can possibly manage it, grow your own herbs to avoid the extortionate prices charged by the grocer. A handful of chopped basil (or something else if you like) makes something even as simple as a warmed-up bowl of tinned tomato soup into something else entirely, especially if you finish it with a drizzle of cream. And especially if you have the time and patience to do it in a mortar and pestle rather than in a blender or food processor a fresh, home-made pesto - basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt - can’t be beat.

Rosemary is not only delicious, but it functions as God’s own skewer come barbeque time (get those silly little bamboo skewers outta here); stripped of most of their leaves the branches can be threaded through meat or fish and will impart their own flavour as they cook.

Dill adds a summery zest to fresh mayonaisses, especially when served alongside a nice piece of cold poached salmon and is great in potato and tuna salads. Thyme along with rosemary is tremendous on lamb, and recalls the flavour of great lamb dishes served around the Mediterranean where the creatures feed on the stuff in the wild, the taste being thusly imparted to their meat. And don’t overlook some of the other herbs on offer - chervil and marjoram for example - which are both underrated in my book.

Even if for reasons of space or, in my case, bad ju-ju, you can’t grow herbs it’s worth hav-ing a few at all times handy in the fridge from the market. Keep them wrapped in moist pa-per towel to keep them fresh for longer.

RECIPE: Herb-y Open Omelet
You’ll need
2 eggs
1 vine-ripened tomato
50-100g good goat’s cheese
good handful of basil, or whatever other herbs you desire
salt, pepper, and a knob of butter

First, chiffonade your herbs - that means roll them up real tight and slice thinly - and mix with the goat’s cheese. Set aside. Chop tomato into a medium dice, and set aside. And in a small bowl, whisk together the eggs with a bit of salt, pepper and about a tablespoon of water.

Heat a medium non-stick saute pan over medium-high heat and add a knob of butter. When the butter is melted and has stopped sizzling add the tomato and cook down for a moment. Add the eggs and swirl around the pan, making sure the tomato is reasonably evenly distributed. As the eggs begin to set drop marble-sized balls of the goat’s cheese and herb mixture around the pan, and finish under a pre-heated grill to melt the cheese down a bit and finish the dish.

Carefully slide out onto the centre of a warmed plate.

Since this is more a morning dish, I’d recommend nothing stronger than a bright moscato in the glass.

Serves 1.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:33 AM | Comments (0)

Dioxin's Toxic Legacy: Jan 07 issue


UPI’s Christine Dell’amore profiles new research on Dioxin's reproductive dangers

New evidence on the effects of dioxin in the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange suggests the chemical interferes with the reproductive systems of men. The research, led by Dr. Amit Gupta, is one of the first studies to find that men exposed to a type of dioxin called TCDD experience smaller prostate glands and lower testosterone levels -- even at minimal exposure to dioxin.

“Now we now know dioxins have an effect on the prostate, and it's somehow affecting normal development,” says Gupta, a urologist at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

The study, published in the November issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, also offers new insight into whether lower doses of dioxin are dangerous to human health. Previous studies have observed dioxin's effects only in highly exposed populations; some research has found a link between these populations and development of cancer.
However, because the study was not a true experiment, it's not known whether it was really dioxin that led to the effects.

Gupta and colleagues followed participants of the Air Force Health Study for more than 20 years, beginning in 1987. The study had two groups: About 1,200 ranch hands, or veterans who sprayed Agent Orange in Asia between 1962 and 1971, and a comparison group of about 2,400 Air Force veterans not involved in herbicide spraying during the war, says co-author Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas. The two groups were matched on age, race and military occupation.

The researchers examined the men in 1982, 1985, 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2002, recording their prostate and reproductive health. In 1987 the research team measured the level of TCDD dioxin in their blood.

As expected, the levels of TCDD -- the most toxic form of dioxin -- were higher in the ranch hand group than the comparison group, although both groups in the study experienced changes in their reproductive function. These higher levels were associated with a lower risk of diagnosis of a prostate condition called BPH, in which the prostate grows in size. TCDD somehow inhibits the prostate from growing, although scientists are unsure of the mechanism of how it happens, Gupta said.

Of course, most men would want to avoid BPH, since a larger prostate can create several uncomfortable side effects, such as frequent urination.

Yet dioxin's ability to thwart prostate growth isn't exactly cause to celebrate, says Gupta -- rather, it's a worrisome indication that dioxins are altering the reproductive system's natural course.

A reduction in testosterone due to dioxin can also cause several health problems, such as loss of muscle strength, infertility, drop in sexual function and depression.

Since the comparison group had exposures consistent with the exposures of the general American population in 1987, even lesser amounts of dioxin present in the United States may impact Americans who never stepped foot in Vietnam.

“Most of the 30 types of dioxin produced in the United States come from industrial processes such as waste incineration, chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper and other chemical processes. It's also a component of pesticides and herbicides, which move up the food chain from contaminated crops, to poultry and beef, to humans. Once inside the body, the chemical settles into the fat. That's why, sadly, human babies get dioxin from their mother's dioxin-laden milkfat,” says Gupta.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency -- which is close to issuing a new scientific reassessment of the health risks of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds exposure -- has successfully cut down on much of the dioxin pollution since the 1970s. In fact, quantifiable industrial emissions of dioxin in the United States have fallen more than 90 percent from 1987 levels, according to the EPA.

Since Gupta and colleagues used a 1987 marker of TCDD in their research, the risk could have gone down for the U.S. population exposed to dioxin.

In addition, it may be difficult to compare one type of dioxin -- TCDD -- to the effects of other types of the chemical. “In the case of Vietnam, where people were exposed almost exclusively to TCDD through Agent Orange, it's reasonable to attribute any irregularities in the reproductive system to that chemical,” says Dr. John Constable, a former surgeon at Harvard Medical School and one of the first Americans to study the effects of herbicides in Vietnam in the 1960s.

“But if someone has a ragbag of chemicals in their bodies, as Americans likely do, it's harder to parse out which dioxins really caused the abnormalities.”

Indeed, the number of male reproductive tract disorders, such as testicular cancer, has risen sharply over past decades. “Some scientists have suggested dioxins might be partially responsible for the spike,” the authors wrote. But there could be other endocrine disruptors at play, substances that have already been shown to alter reproductive processes in rat models.

“Although more research could help in nailing down some of the causes of dioxin, the government has decided to discontinue the Air Force Health Study,” Schecter says.

The next 20 years will answer the question as to how much damage Agent Orange did to our Vietnam vets, says Schecter. “With the program now out of existence, that's really most unfortunate for the health of our vets, and for anyone exposed to dioxins -- which is anyone in the industrial world.”

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2007

Curacao: Jan 07 issue


Under the peel in Curacao: The sweet parts of an island that's not just beaches and banks

Toni Salama discovers an unspoilt Caribbean paradise

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao - The fruit of the laraha orange tastes so bad even the island's wild goats don't bother it. I really don't blame them. But the peel - ah, that's a different matter.

First, you use a wooden knife to cut the peel away and slice it into sections. It has to be wood; a metal knife would ruin things. You dry the peels in jute bags. Then, in a small copper still, you cook them until a clear liquid condenses. Color it, bottle it, seal it - everything's done by hand - and you've got the real thing, a liqueur that can only be made on Curacao, the original "Curacao of Curacao," so named to shame all pretenders.
Its old-fashioned bottles look better suited to sailors' grog: a long neck tapering up from a canteen-shaped bowl. They've gone around the world, these bottles have, each one an ambassador of this small Caribbean island, every sip an invitation: "Come and see us. Come and see us."
Curacao (kur-a-SOW) is an odd cobble of contrasts where bright Caribbean colors splash across stalwart Dutch row houses, and Venezuelan farmers hawk the fruit of their labors in a floating market next to a plaza where Afro-Caribe artists sell their wares. It's a place of stray goats and oil refineries, cactus forests and synagogues, secluded beaches and international banks. It's crawling with lizards, croaking with frogs, brimming with smiles, dripping with history and comes to a standstill during Saturday night traffic jams.
You wouldn't think so, but you can learn some lifelong lessons from a place like this. The distillery is as good a spot as any to start.
LESSON 1: If life hands you larahas, make a liqueur
The Spaniards arrived on Curacao in 1499, and their plans for the island soon included planting groves of oranges, sweet Valencias, in fact. But Curacao's desert climate and stubborn soil transformed the foreign fruit into a bitter mess. It took a Frenchman to unlock the potential of what had come to be called the laraha orange. Later, the Senor family, now Senor & Co., entered the picture with a closely guarded liqueur recipe and an 1896 copper still, both of which the company uses to this day.
The entire distillation process takes only five or six days and is carried out in a space no bigger than a two-stall garage, at the back of what once was the manor house Chobolobo. I happened to drop by on my own just as a shore excursion of Americans from the Princess Star arrived. We watched a laraha-cutting demonstration and were then given free reign to sample the 31-proof end product from little plastic cups. You can taste for yourself that there's no flavor variation among the shocking red, electric green, hypnotic gold or crystal clear permutations of this drink. Close your eyes, and they all taste just like the original, spicy orange with a satin finish, colored an irresistible Caribbean blue.
Even so, it's hard to spend more than half an hour here, no matter how many samples you try.
LESSON 2: Any day you don't have to eat an iguana is a good day
Manor houses, a.k.a. plantation houses or landhuizen in the island's official Dutch, are from another of Curacao's passing eras. Like the Spaniards' orange trees, they've survived, but not as originally intended. I counted 27 of them scattered around the island, though there are bound to be more. The easiest to find, as long as you're doing the driving, are between the capital city of Willemstad and Westpunt, the westernmost tip of the island.
I wish I could give you a highway number. But Curacao is only 40 miles long and 10 miles wide. The locals, population 135,000, don't need numbers; and foreigners can just follow the signs. The best I can tell you is that the two-lane pavement rides the island's spine.
The back story on Landhuis Daniel is that it was built by a shipwrecked Englishman in 1650 or so. Things didn't work out - the things being farming and ranching - so the place was abandoned to the cactus and the trade winds. Its current owner, a Dutch biologist-turned-innkeeper/chef, restored the place in 1997. He transformed the plantation house and slave quarters into a complex of yellow ochre facades, white trim and terra cotta roof tiles.
There's lodging in the main building or in the former slave quarters, swimming in the pool and dining on the terrace, all in a setting very much the-middle-of-nowhere.
Farther along the road to Westpunt, the former plantation house of Dokterstuin, restored in 1996, is now a restaurant that serves authentic Curacao cuisine. Like most of its kind, the plantation house was built on a hilltop to catch the breeze and keep an eye on its neighbors and on the plantation itself, meaning its slaves. After emancipation in 1863, the former slaves leased the farm plots - long since overgrown - from the government.
Most people you'll encounter on Curacao will speak English, but the open-air restaurant on a shaded back porch is an inconspicuous spot to eavesdrop as the servers talk among themselves in Papiamentu, a rhythmic "stew" of a language derived from the melding of several African and European tongues.
Dokterstuin's menu is truly Curacaoan: cabbage, squash, cucumbers, papaya, spinach and plantain, served alone or in concert, vegetarian style or with pork tail, or as a side to stewed goat meat. These stick-to-your-ribs dishes come accompanied by a sizable mound of funchi, a cornmeal staple. They were out of yuana stoba, stewed iguana, when I was there.
Keep following the road to Westpunt and you'll discover that the route works out to be a scenic loop that eventually reconnects to itself near Landhuis Daniel. You can head back to Willemstad from the intersection. But before that, you should spend some time in nature exploring the western end of the island.
LESSON 3: You don't have to climb every mountain ...
Driving on Curacao is an adventure. You can count on dodging a herd or two of stray goats, perhaps half a dozen iguanas and innumerable whiptail lizards of varying sizes. But at least you don't have to worry about hurricanes. Curacao is so far south and west, so close to South America (on a clear day you can see the mountains of Venezuela) that most tropical storms figure it's not worth the bother. Consequently, the weather here is the active traveler's best friend.
Rugged outdoorsmen can tackle Christoffel National Park. Several companies run jeep tours or you can drive it yourself and stop at any of eight trails for hikes and nature walks. Those who get an early start can make the estimated two- to three-hour climb to the island's highest point, 1,230-foot Mt. Christoffel, before the day gets too hot.
The park was once a group of several plantations, and ruins from those days remain. Along the hikes you also might see petroglyphs, mahogany trees, sabal palms and wild orchids - rare things all. There's even a place from which you can spy on the Curacao white-tailed deer (some 250 of them), believed to have been brought here from South America centuries ago by the Arawaks, the same pre-Western-contact Indian tribe that left the petroglyphs.
Travelers saving their best efforts for the beach will be satisfied with a couple of low-impact land treks: the Hato Caves, which have formed natural pools and waterfalls, and/or Shete Boka Park. A short walk at Shete Boka leads to a damp and slippery sea cave where runaway slaves once hid. There's also an area where you can feed the iguanas.
The bottom part of that scenic loop I mentioned includes the short drive between Westpunt and Soto. It runs through a landscape worthy of "The X Files," a bizarre forest of multi-branched cactus, whose gray-tinted limbs rise eerily above a deep green tangle of tropical-looking vegetation. This drive also puts you on the southern coast of the island, the entire length of which is set with small beaches, some of which have facilities and rent palapas, beach furniture, floats and snorkel gear.
All this stuff is west of Willemstad. That means there is also a part of Curacao that is east of Willemstad. But with the exception of the area round Jan Sofat, the eastern end of the island is best left to those who live there.
You're better off spending the rest of your time in Willemstad.
LESSON 4: If your building gives you a migraine, paint it blue
Willemstad is a city divided. The local population probably wouldn't make this comparison, but, like Paris, Willemstad has a Left and a Right Bank. They've just given them Dutch names: Otrobanda on the left, Punda on the right and the long channel of St. Annabaai between them.
It's Punda's St. Annabaai waterfront that you see on all the postcards: a chorus line of respectable Dutch row houses flaunting a fruit-cocktail of colors. The buildings got their paint jobs, so the story goes, after the sun glaring off the once-white surfaces gave his lordship the governor a headache. Turns out the old dude held stock in a paint company.
By day, there's shopping: duty-free and local crafts and tacky souvenirs and Venezuelan produce right at the boat. By night, when the buildings are outlined with lights, there's music, a world beat of styles that flow from the open-air bars and karaoke cafes.
The whole area is a historic treasure - officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site - compact and easily explored on foot. In no time, you'll find Mikve Israel-Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. Founded in 1732, its interior is flush with mahogany furnishings, appearing all the richer in the wonderful golden light that streams through renovated windows. The Jewish Historical & Cultural Museum is right next door in another historic building, where a mikvah, or ritual bath, was uncovered after years of disuse. Who knew that at one time half the white population here was Jewish? Some of the items displayed in the museum are even older than the synagogue itself: a Torah scroll that may have left Spain in 1492, a silver spice box from 1704. You can buy locally made mezuzas in the gift shop.
Compared to Mikve Israel, nearby Fort Church is a Johnny-come-lately, having been built only in 1769, though its Dutch Protestant congregation began meeting more than 100 years earlier. This, the oldest church on Curacao, is no slouch in the mahogany and silver-vessel departments, either, and has the further recommendation of being part of a real fort, Ft. Amsterdam.
This town has fortifications all over the place. Also in Punda, a structure called the Waterfront Arches, part of Water Fort, built in 1634 and replaced in 1827, now houses bars and eateries. Following St. Annabaai inland, you'll find Ft. Nassau, built in 1797 on a peninsula in Schottegat Bay. Except for the restaurant and bar, which afford grand views in all directions, this coral stone fort hasn't changed much in the intervening years. It even has its original toilets - square holes cut in an overhang. Don't worry. Nobody is expecting you to use them.
When you are ready to cross over to Otrobanda, you can drive across the modern Ring Road bridge, board a free passenger ferry or hoof it across the 700-foot-long Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, reputedly the largest floating pedestrian bridge in the world.
Otrobanda's 1828 Riffort, yet another fort, rises at the foot of the pontoon bridge. Far from intimidating people, Riffort now is home to shops, a radio station and a small French/Swiss restaurant, Bistro Le Clochard, with barrel vaulted ceilings, rustic chandeliers and a waiter who sheepishly apologized to me that the catch of the day was "only" red snapper steamed in a banana leaf.
LESSON 5: If you ever get locked in a museum at closing time, enjoy the sculpture garden till help arrives
It's hard to imagine any place upstaging a bunch of old forts. But you never imagined any place like Hotel Kura Hulanda. This is a restored neighborhood, in fact another of Curacao's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It's also a hotel, one that takes the form of a village where you can walk the original lanes and alleys, relax in open courtyards and stay in rooms or suites that would have been shops and homes a couple of hundred years ago. It's also a complex of some of the island's finest and most expensive restaurants. And it's home to the largest African history museum in the Caribbean.
I spent four nights at Kura Hulanda. The room was spacious and air-conditioned, the bed comfortable, the bath large, the television already tuned to "Law & Order." And I scarcely slept a wink because of the frogs. I never actually saw the frogs. They made their presence known by their infernal, diabolical, incessant croaking through the night.
You'd have thought the frogs were problem enough. But then I got locked in the African History Museum because I underestimated the time it would take to see all the exhibits. The woman there tried to tell me that I should come back in the morning, but I wouldn't hear of it. All she could do was shake her head as I paid the admission. How was I to know that this tiny island, and this neighborhood within a neighborhood, could fill 15 buildings and 16,000 square feet with artifacts and displays? It turned out to be one of the finest small museums I've ever visited.
Exhibits trace African history beginning with ancient artifacts from Mesopotamia and Egypt all the way through 19th century wood and bronze sculptures from a rainbow of West African nations. I especially remember a bust from Benin. Special displays follow the trans-Atlantic slave trade from captures in Africa to sales in the New World, and the museum doesn't gloss over Curacao's grim role as one of the Caribbean's largest, if not the largest, slave markets.
In fact, the museum sits on the site of a former slave yard, and one of its most wrenching exhibits is a reconstruction of two pillars where slaves newly arrived from Africa would have been sold, and where any who objected to their lot would have been whipped.
I think the place must have closed for the day while I was either going down inside the re-created hold of a Middle Passage slave ship or when I was fitting my wrists into rusty slave manacles in another display.
The irony of my situation grew even stronger as I peered through sturdy iron fencing asking passersby to send for help. As I waited, I was just glad that the admissions woman couldn't see me. She's probably still shaking her head.
High season rates generally prevail mid-December through mid-April.
GETTING AROUND: Curacao is well suited to exploring on your own, so rent a car. Road signs are in English, and Curacao drivers are extremely patient and courteous. But stray goat herds may take over the roads at any time, even in populated areas.
A four-day Alamo compact on Curacao cost me US$132 last November. You may pay more in high season. When you are ready for a rugged outing, you can join one of several four-wheel-drive tours that operate here. Most cost less than US$50/person.
CURRENCY: U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
STAYING THERE: Travelers who enjoy "collecting" hotels will find great variety here. Hotel Kura Hulanda (www.kurahulanda.com), in Willemstad's Otrobanda district, is a member of Leading Small Hotels of the World and offers unique lodging in the buildings of a restored historic district, from US$240 in high season (I got a standard room for nearly half that in low season). It's within walking distance of all the historic sites of Willemstad. There's a sister property, Lodge Kura Hulanda and Beach Club (same contact info), on the far western tip of the island at Westpunt. Set apart from the rest of Westpunt, it's a rather new, breezy resort with a small beach and rates from $225 in high season.
You can have your history and a picture-perfect secluded beach at Avila Beach Hotel (www .avilahotel.com), on the less pedestrian end of Willemstad. Rooms in the historic main building start at US$120 in high season (there's a catch: modern plumbing but no hot water). Completely modern rooms in other parts of the resort start at $260 in high season.
Landhuis Daniel Country Inn & Restaurant (daniellh@cura.net; www.landhuisdaniel.com) is one of the island's oldest plantation houses. Its eight rooms have private baths and start at $35 with fan and $45 with air conditioning. Add $6/person for breakfast or $25/person for half-board (breakfast and dinner).
Larger chain hotels include Hilton, Howard Johnson and Marriott. Other small - to midsize properties cater to scuba divers. And there are several B&Bs and vacation rentals.
Expect to pay 19 percent in lodging taxes at most places.
MORE INFORMATION: Curacao Tourism Corporation, www.curacao.com

Posted by Ian Wishart at 03:09 PM | Comments (0)

Book Reviews: Jan 07 issue

In association with The Nile

Great Kiwi Novels, and other stories

Michael Morrissey tracks Lloyd Jones’ latest and some historic kiwiana

MISTER PIP by Lloyd Jones, Penguin, $35

Lloyd Jones is probably our most sophisticated stylist and also delightfully unpredictable in the kind of novels he writes. What is the gifted fellow going to do next? Like so many successful recent New Zealand novels, this one is set “abroad' i.e. outside New Zealand waters. Probably this trend will continue, and the versatile Jones persist in pleasantly surprising us in subject matter, technique and setting.

Triumphantly written up in a recent Listener as Our First Million Dollar Novelist, I could not help subconsciously – though I knew the feeling was sure to be mistaken - expect some large complex blockbuster type of novel (say the New Zealand equivalent of Sacred Games by Vikram Chandler (see below)). Instead we are given a modest work of 220 pages in largish print. Up until recently, a lot of New Zealand fiction had a kind of moral pokiness, a gauche wooden style with lapses into political correctness - this is definitely not the case with Jones's minor masterpiece.

The novel's main character is Matilda, a young Bougainville girl who has the kind of teacher we would (or should) like to have - a gentle, cultured, morally upright man who invites them into his imaginative world by reading from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In what has become almost the new politically correct world of contemporary criticism (Edward Said for example), this act might be seen as an act of colonisation - here it becomes a sharing of an exotic distant world that excites the minds of the children, leaving Matilda awake at night wondering what marshes or leg irons might be like. Mr Watts, aka Mr Pip (main character of Great Expectations) charms us with his quiet low-key manner and equally Lloyd Jones charms us. Do teachers still read to their pupils I wonder or has electronic media taken over completely?

Mr Watts, the teacher, succeeds too well. Pip becomes of greater interest to Matilda than stories about her dead relatives and her mother is understandably indignant. An ideological battle of wills develops with Matilda's mother addressing her class mates about crabs and the weather, God and the devil. What Jones does with great skill during these scenes – reminiscent of Graham Greene - is interweaving the personal, the ideological and the political. It is the latter that slowly closes on the adult protagonists like a vicious vice.

With a further Greene-like twist of the ironic knife, Jones has the oppressive Redskins (government soldiers) threaten mayhem if the imaginary though now treated-as-real Mr Pip's whereabouts is not revealed. Proof of Mr Pip's fictionality relies on presenting a copy of Great Expectations but unfortunately Matilda's mother has stolen it. And Matilda feels duty bound to remain silent. No problems accepting this response but I had credibility problems with Matilda's mother keeping quiet about stealing the book when concealment meant the whole village was burnt down – though that may be my European perspective. The subsequent murder of Mr Watts is brutal and brief and all the more shocking because of its suddenness and brevity.

This is a deceptively straightforward novel in which irony piles on irony. The meditations on the colour white, for instance, or the view of the “real” Mrs Watts that her husband was a weak man when we have seen his stubborn strength. At the conclusion, I felt a little breathless with the dazzle of Jones's talent. The international success of his novel is well deserved.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR NEW ZEALANDERS by Richard Wolfe, Random House, $34.99

Let's say you were a woman in 1915 looking for a career in teaching. What would be the requirements? Actually they were quite strict. Marrying was forbidden and the teacher curfewed between the hours of 8pm and 6 am. She was not allowed to travel outside city limits without permission, not smoke nor dress in bright colours, nor dye her hair. And most importantly, she was not to loiter downtown in ice-cream stores, presumably seething dens of vice. If, by 1946, our modern Ms had been lucky enough to become a mother to twins and was endeavouring to breast feed, Modern Mothercraft: A Guide to Parents, provides a detailed schedule.

Instructions are what we all need and instructions in abundance are what this natty little pocket book provides. There may be some who will read this delightful book with a straight face but I think most of us will smile and may even laugh. Of course this humour is the by product of a shift in historical perspective. For all we know, the instructions of today – only a few are listed – may prove a matter of hilarity to future generations. Instructions can be found here on Hanging Pictures, Carless Days, Using an Electric Oven, The Prevention of Slugs, Clothing Required by Steerage Passengers, Starting the Engine, Playing the National Anthem and Filling a Hot Water Bag (Do not use boiling water!). In other words, for all of life's exigencies, small or large, some thoughtful soul or government committee has written a detailed set of instructions on how to do and how to cope. I was cheerfully reminded of the extraordinarily resourceful Junior Woodchuck's Guidebook – frequently consulted by Donald Duck's nephews in emergencies.

Under the “The Art of Rugby Football” dated 1902 there is a chapter entitled How to Bump, first practised by Mr. J.G Taiaroa, the famous Otago back. The text continues, “It would therefore seem, a Maori invention and knack.” Bumping? “Bumping is done by the timely transmission of the weight and momentum of the runner to a would-be tackler, and is generally only effectively done when the runner is going at top speed, when the momentum does the trick. It is done by throwing one's weight plus impetus into the tackler's shoulder, and brushing him by with the arm”. Whether the Bump is still legal fare in today's rugby is unknown to a non-footballer such as myself but I am sure Stadium-voters will know. Perhaps a future edition will include a chapter on “How to Choose a Football Stadium”? At the time of writing it seems the nation and the council desperately need Instructions.

Among many gems, my favorite (almost) is instructions on Using the Long Baton issued in 1976. Astonishingly, there are eighteen different uses of this handy instrument of law enforcement. These include the Front punch, Back punch, Flat Chop, Forward spin, Pool Cue Jab from long extended position, Wrist drag, Running Armlock, and the Yawara strike. It is reassuring to discover that the art of the bludgeon has been so scientifically detailed.

Instructions for New Zealanders is an ideal book for a gift or a bit of summer levity and I look forward to a revisit in 50 years time.

TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM by Paul Auster, Faber & Faber, $39.99

Either you're a Paul Auster fan or you're not. I am – most of the time. Writers tend to be melancholic beasties and most of Auster's central protagonists (often furtive writers) are melancholic or in the modern terms depressed, alienated, passive. Not for long.

Something puzzling awakens them from their depressed state.
This short novel starts off cheerily: “The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor.” Somehow – since this is a Paul Auster novel – you guess he isn't about to be brought a dish of strawberries and cream by a beautiful young woman dressed as a French maid. From the drearily sterile circumstance of his surroundings one might guess that Mr Blank (yes, that's his name) is a political prisoner of sorts but then it seemed the mental patient fitted the bill more accurately – there are references to treatment, nurses, pills that make his hands shake. That doesn't seem to quite fit either. A reality TV show gone wrong (there are cameras present)? A Dystopian political allegory? Perhaps. A Kafka-esque fable of alienation comes closer yet even that doesn't seem quite appropriate. Since the room is locked and Mr Blank so miserable, comparisons with Beckett could also be drawn. In the end, it seems Mr Blank is trapped in the pages by that sadist, the writer, nominally N.R Fanshawe yet who ultimately must be, Paul Auster.

Even by stern Austerian standards, this novel takes a deeper plunge into gloom than most and the reader may feel like abandoning Mr Blank to his monotonously awful fate but there is something compulsive about the book, the Austerian capacity to surprise, that sustains interest.

The apparent window pane clarity of the beginning slowly gives way to a tricky corridor of fictional mirrors. Auster uses the multi-level device of the spliced in narrative that appears to have little connection with the main story but eventually interweaves with it.

The enfolded narrative describes a land that is much like a nineteenth century American frontier circa 1830 with murderous Europeans and butchered Indians. It is, in fact, an unfinished novel that Mr Blank feels compelled to finish in his own way.

All of Mr Blank's visitors are characters from earlier Auster novels which is either the writer being lazy or richly extending his fictional universe. Or playing a metafictional game. If the sole purpose of the book is to tell us that writers are trapped in rooms writing that is scarcely an original thought. In the end, this was my least favourite Auster novel and I hope next time Mr Blank is Mr Somebody and gets out of that locked room.

RESTLESS by William Boyd, Bloomsbury, $35

William Boyd, one of the leading novelists of today, has just published his ninth novel. It's cracking espionage thriller, thoroughly authentic in period detail and atmosphere, recounted by two narratives – the first by Ruth Gilmartin is about how she discovers her mother Sally Gilmartin is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigre and spy, and the second, Eva's narration of her life as a secret agent. Ruth lives in Oxford and teaches English as a second language, while trying to write a history thesis, the time being1976.

For obvious reasons, the war document is the more gripping, yet the book as a whole is enthralling with Ruth having to put up with shady characters who boast of making porno films and being mixed up with the Baader-Meinhof Gang – though who knows if it is all true? As with all such double narratives, we wait for them to intersect which satisfyingly they do.

Eva is recruited at the funeral of her brother Kolia by the novel's suave bete noire, the polished and urbane Lucas Romer with an “upper class, patrician” accent - “swarthy, with dense eyebrows, uncurved, like two black horizontal dashes beneath his high forehead”. Her brother's death is given as a reason for her to join up for Kolia who also used to work for Mr Romer.

As war clouds gather over Europe, Eva is given her exhaustive training. In terms of detail, this struck me as more authentic and meticulous than anything previously encountered – though obviously I haven't read every spy novel in existence. She is taught how to remember number by association with colours, how to recall at least 80 of 100 objects on a table; she is taught Morse code, use of a compass, code breaking, forging, how to tail someone and detect if she is being followed. Her training is topped off with a spot of orienteering - being left out at night at a remote location and finding her way back. Interestingly enough, Mr Romer dismisses unarmed combat as being a waste of time and comments, “you have nails, you have teeth - your animal instincts will serve you better than any training”. So much for the James Bond style of espionage – though don't forget the Russians did try to kill someone with a poison-tipped umbrella (or latterly a tiny nuclear bomb in the arteries) which makes it mildly plausible when Eva dispatches a Mexican heavy by stabbing him through the eye with a pencil.

Eva winds up working at British Security Coordination in the Rockefeller Center in New York where they release phony propaganda stories to the media, and curiously enough they can never be sure if they are believed by the enemy or not. The aim is to spur the United States into joining the war. The presence of this large British spy agency in New York is well founded in fact. As we now know, the bombing of Pearl Harbour was far more effective than its efforts.

The double plot is complex with lots of richly realised secondary characters drawn in along the way. Excitement begins to mount when Ruth meets Romer and reaches full-blown thriller adrenalin when she and her Eva meet the ruthless Romer for the last time. Like Graham Greene, Boyd has managed and quite superbly, to inject full characterisation and psychological depth into an espionage thriller. Not even John Le Carre has done it better.

SACRED GAMES by Vikram Chandler, Faber & Faber, $39.99

This whopper of a novel – 900 pages – is only Chandler's second but with it he leaps to the forefront of Indian and world literature.

This is fiction writing and characterisation on an impressive nineteenth century scale so it's tempting to dub him the Indian Dostoyevsky. I make this comparison not only because the clash between gangster warlord Ganesh Gaitonde and Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police inspector, is somehow like an extension of murderer Raskolnikov versus Detective Porfiry in Crime and Punishment but also because of the depth of psychology explored plus the use of full-on dialogue and the book's large scope and size.

Though the novel begins with a dog tossed out of a fifth story window - and this may be in part to illustrate that policemen have to attend to crimes other than murders – the novel really gets a grip on its two main protagonists in the second chapter. Ganesh is holed up in his nuclear bomb-proof concrete box with Sartaj Singh trying to flush him out. It's a standoff resolved when Singh orders in a bulldozer with a driver who knows how to tackle the task. By the time the siege is successfully accomplished and the arrest of the decade about to be made, we - like Singh - are disappointed to find the Hindu warlord of Mumbai has committed suicide. Thus does the grand drama begin.

While at first it seems like anticlimactic beginning, it becomes clear it's part of Chandler's fictional strategy. As in a modern thriller we have the James Bond-like beginning and the remainder is a furious and colourful flashback on a massive scale. From this point onward, the novel moves from Ganesh's story to Sartaj and back. At first, Sartaj is the chief character but then Ganesh, as the more colourful guy, tends to overwhelm.

There are additional interludes called Inserts, which alas, I tended to skim over in my eagerness to keep track with the main story. These additions plus the size of the novel tend to give more detail than might be needed but the novel picks up the pace from time to time just enough to keep one reading onward.

The Dramatis Personae lists some 35 main characters but there are hosts more weaving in and out. The vicious world of Mumbai's underworld is the overriding subject matter. Mumbai, formerly Bombay is if course, famous not only for its criminal underworld but also Bollywood. And no surprise to find that they are interwoven with wonderful dramatic effect. Chandler, it is abundantly clear, loves Mumbai for its colourfulness as Dickens loved London or Doctorow loves New York. In many ways, Mumbai is the third great character in the novel. Even the glorious sunsets get a mention though symbolically the cause of their splendour is thought to be pollution.

As in so many great works of literature, the moral undertow of the narrative is the battle of good and evil, here explored in great depth. Whereas Sartaj is basically a good man, he is a policeman in a corrupt city. As the text almost mournfully informs us, the money he is paid would not even pay for the paper on which he writes his reports, so what choice does he have but to accept bribes and payoffs? When he was married, his rich wife had enabled him the “luxury” of not having to take them but at the time of the novel he has little choice. Indian police methods, the text makes clear, are not overly gentle.

Ganesh Gaitonde, by contrast, is a ruthless gangster though naturally he has a human side which the book skilfully invites to follow with fascination and sympathy. But in the end he is a bad guy and the murder of one of his few genuine friends - a woman whom he admires for standing up to him - because of a blow to his sexual pride shows him in his true dark colours. An extra strand in the elaborate plot is Ganesh's servile relationship to a slick-talking guru who turns out to be a sinister terrorist intent on making nuclear mayhem.

This is a bravura performance that shows off a huge talent. Two reservations – it seems a shame that Ganesh's shadowy rival Suleiman Isa is off stage at all times and the show down between Ganesh and his guru also indirectly reported. However, the book remains a masterpiece of colour and high drama and the text teems with vibrant portraits of Mumbai's exotic city life. This would make a fabulous movie though hopefully the director will not cast from Bollywood.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 02:26 PM | Comments (0)