Hard News by Russell Brown


Trump's Dummkopfs

While the world holds its breath over a prodigious narrowing of the polls in the US Presidential election campaign, it's hard not to wonder sometimes about who these people are. His prospective voters, I mean. Who can merrily ignore his constant lying, his dubious alliances, his ghastly temperament, his habitual misogyny and his manifest unfitness for elected office?

Who are the people who write comments like this under the latest installment of the Washington Post's meticulous examination of the long-running scam that is the Trump Foundation?

WP, there you go again (as one of our best presidents used to say". Dicing Donald Trump, attempting to get HC elected. Stop this controlled Russian style journalism, please. It is sickening that this nation no longer has free press.

And this?

I no longer believe what the press reports, the reports coming out of Obama's DC, or whoever or whatever investigated the Clinton Foundation. This has become a tragic country. The children and future generations are to be pitted.

Well, The Daily Show's Jordan Klepper went and met some. Have a look. I know that mocking these idiots doesn't really help and that I don't have a vote in this race. But it makes me feel a little better to mock them. And besides, we're due a US elections thread ...


Excited for Auckland!

As my social media attests, I was pretty excited when I got home from last night's Orcon IRL: Vote Auckland event. Not just because we'd defied the elements to put on another swingin' conscious party (emergency action to empty overloaded rain canopies turns out to be quite the icebreaker with audiences), but because I felt I'd caught a glimpse of Auckland's future and it was good.

In wrangling panels for this one, I'd been determined to do two things: reach beyond the central Auckland bubble, and recognise the key role of local boards in the city's democratic set-up.

That led me to Efeso Collins, who for me was the standout of the evening – he's such a strong figure in person. He was elected to the Ōtara-Papatoetoe local board three years ago and became its chair. This year, he's standing for council proper in the Manukau ward. 

I was also impressed by Paula Bold-Wilson, who manages the Waitakere Community Law Centre and is standing for the Henderson-Massey local board and Matthew Cross, a 29 year-old former Army officer who is standing in Howick, where Dick Quax and Sharon Stewart, two of the worst councillors of the current term, were elected unopposed last time.

But here's the thing: as The Spinoff's Auckland voting guide points out, Manukau is "sparkling with talent", more of it than can be elected. At Henderson-Massey, Paula is one of an unprecedented four Māori candidates seeking election to the board. And in Howick, Matthew is one of 10 candidates where last time there were two for two seats on council. (The Spinoff picks Matthew and the Green Party's Julie Zhu there.)

What I think we're seeing is that there is an abundance of strong, new leadership in the city's South and West – it just needs to get itself elected. (The same may be true of parts of the North Shore too – we rather carelessly left out the north last night.) Until such time as we get STV voting, that's left to electors in individual wards.

And in town, there's Chloe. Chloe Swarbrick continued her roll last night: keen to take every question, confident, articulate and informed when she did so. Bill Ralston basically endorsed her on the panel they shared last night and earlier in the day Phil Goff declared that were he not standing for the mayoralty himself, he'd vote for her. I asked her whether, should Goff win and offer her a job, she'd take it. She said she'd consider it.

The reality is that Goff will win – he has huge support in the South and West, where people trust him, and that's fair enough – but a vote for Chloe is a vote for what she represents. She's not perfect (I have some misgivings about the head-butting on Twitter that Charlotte Ryan asked her about) but would I want her involved in steering Auckland? Oh, hell yes.

All the above seem to embody a much better vision than did Morning Report's tedious, incoherent and Chloe-less mayoral debate. And than that offered by some of the time-servers taking up space on the current council.

To be fair, there is still a place for greying white men. Peter Haynes, who chairs my local board, is skilled at and invested in the kind of resource management work that local boards are charged with. Ralston wouldn't be terrible if he was elected and had to own decisions rather than idly mock them. And not all of the youngsters are ready – Chang Hung is full of beans but a little underdone yet on last night's performance. (To his credit, he emphasised his commitment to trying again in three years if he's not elected to the local board this time.)

But yes, there's something good there within Auckland's grasp. Ward voting means that any of us can only play a small part in reaching out to it, and some of us still don't have any great choices. But I think there's cause to be excited for Auckland.


Anyway, pending an edit, here's the raw video from last night's Orcon IRL (note that Cathy Casey was unable to attend as advertised, having been stricken with the flu, and Peter Haynes was her stand-in). You can either scrub forward to about 56:40 in the embedded video below or click this link to go straight to that point in the video on YouTube. Enjoy.


There in half the time: trying out a Mercury e-bike

Let history record that my first ride on an e-bike was home into a stinging westerly squall. And that I was duly soaked. 

I've been trying out electric bikes as part of a deal with Mercury, whose campaign has, I am hearing, changed the game for cycle retailers by offering a subsidy on e-bikes for Mercury customers

The thing about bike shops is that although they have to carry a lot of expensive stock, they don't actually sell all that many bikes – as few as one a month for small shops. Right now, there are stores selling an e-bike a day. And for some, it's all they're selling.

So Mercury and its agency deserve a lot of credit for a campaign that is actually creating positive change. More so given that the campaign complements an internal strategy to progressively replace Mercury's company fleet with electric vehicles.

Although I ride a bike regularly for local (and sometimes not-so-local) journeys, I didn't really know much about e-bikes. Two weeks ago, I actually thought they charged when you were coasting downhill – that they were, at least in part, gravity-fuelled. Some models (with direct-drive hub motors) in fact do do this, but in general you plug them in to your household power supply and charge the battery when you're not riding.

Anyway, I was keen to try this thing. My "commute" is from the kitchen to my home office but I try and replace car trips with cycle trips as often as I can. Yet there are times when I don't cycle because it's too windy, or because I don't want to turn up sweaty to a meeting, or simply because it's too far and I'm too tired or I don't have time to ride where I want to go.

After that fateful journey home from Freeman's Bay I've spent the past week riding another of the range covered by the Mercury promotion: the SmartMotion eCity. This is similar to the bike you might have seen your postie riding. Here's me riding the one I had.

This isn't a bike for ducking and diving – it's a comfortable, upright step-through style bicycle suitable for commuting or local journeys. And it really is quite beautifully designed. There are many cables on a bike like this, but here they're nicely integrated and tucked away.

There's a solid kickstand, a chain guard and mudguards. There's a built-in rear-wheel lock and on the battery there's a waterproof USB port for charging your phone (or, if your aim is to usher in the Hipster Apocalypse, vape battery) while you ride. The wattage is high enough to charge your device very quickly.

Oh yeah, the battery: it's rack-mounted (ie: on the rear carrier) rather than integrated into the frame. This makes it easily-accessible – you don't need to remove it to charge it – but it does make your centre of gravity a little higher than optimum. Personally, I didn't have any obvious problem with balance, even when homebound from quaxing with a full pannier. The bike, like all e-bikes, is heavy at 25kg, but I wasn't conscious of it feeling top-heavy.

Now, riding ... this did take a little adjustment, and I wonder if e-bikes will feel stranger at first to regular riders than to people just giving it a go. The eCity uses a cadence sensor to tell when it should be delivering electric assistance to your legs. What this means is that the assistance is triggered when you're turning the pedals. On the eCity you set the level of assistance – from 0 to 5 – via the little thumb-operated panel on the left of the handlebar. A flick on the same panel toggles the integrated front and rear lights on and off.

I found it congenial to ride around on a pedal-assist setting of 2 or 3. Depending on the conditions, it was easy to ride at a constant speed of 20-25km/h, which is what these bikes are really for. But for science reasons, I did a shopping trip via Motions Road, which is what we cyclists call "seriously fucking steep".

At maximum pedal assist and in the lowest of eight gears it still wasn't exactly easy. I also experienced one of the drawbacks of cadence sensors: because they monitor you cranking the pedals, things can go a little dead when you're on a very steep hill and you're not cranking the pedals as fast. But was it easier than slogging up Motions Road under your own steam? Absolutely. And on a more typical climb – say, Chinaman's Hill up from Western Springs – it's basically a breeze.

I toggled around the pedal assist levels for a day or two until I started trying the throttle, which is integrated with the left handlegrip. Hallelujah. I was a cycle courier on London many years ago and on my unpowered bike (a fairly stripped-down hybrid with Schwalbe Marathon street tyres) I'm used to accelerating by using my own leg power when I need to get in a gap, get clear of traffic, whatever. This doesn't work so well on a cadence-sensor e-bike. 

But the throttle? Oh, the throttle. This is how you do it. If you need a quick start away from the lights or to accelerate out of a corner, the throttle is how you do it, because you get the boost before you get the pedals turning. It's actually fun – so much fun that it's quite tempting to not pedal at all and toodle along on electric power (this will run your battery down quite a lot faster than pedal-assist, needless to say).

There is another kind of sensor: the torque sensor, which is a feature on more expensive models in the Mercury-subsidised range and apparently offers a more natural feel for experienced cyclists (in that the assist increases when you push harder). I'll write about one of those when I get one.

But for now, as I had been assured, the SmartMotion eCity is a solid, very nicely-designed bike. At $2549 with the subsidy for the bigger-battery version, these things aren't cheap. They cost more than a crappy second-hand car might  (although at around 10 cents per hundred kilometres they're vastly cheaper to run) but they do change things for people who want zero-emission transport and a little exercise without having to embark on the full pomp of unpowered cycling.

What I did find on a couple of journeys into town was that without really thinking about it I was getting to my destination much more quickly – in as little as half the time, in ordinary clothes. In a way, I think some of my obsessing about acceleration was beside the point. An e-bike isn't ever going to be as nimble as some unpowered bikes are. But making a journey in half the time (or going twice as far) for the same effort? Yes, that is very appealing.

This post appears as part of a commercial agreement with Mercury Energy, who viewed the copy before it was published.


Friday Music: Apple and the Analog Hole

Back when Apple Music launched I went into some detail about what was good about the new service, and what was very bad.

For all my frustrations, I became a paying customer when the three-month free trial of Apple Music expired, and I have been using it. So I was very interested to see what the first big refresh of Apple Music, both in Mac OS and in the new iOS 10 would bring. And the news is, it's substantially better.

But first, it wouldn't have been Apple without an iCloud fuckup. After a smooth install of  iTunes 12, a message appeared warning that iTunes was unable to connect to iCloud Music Library and to try again. Tried a couple more times: same result. So, unlike people on the internet who started panicking and trying stuff, I figured it was probably a load issue and that I'd try again in an hour or two. Which I did, and it was fixed.

What wasn't fixed was the principal matching screwup I've been able to identify from the initial iCloud Music Library calamity: all three volumes that I own of the M&M remixes by John Morales have the same track listing in iTunes. That may be a reflection of the sometimes-ropey metadata from Bleep.com, where I bought the tracks, and I can just delete what I have and re-import the original files (they're still somewhere in my Downloads folder), but I had kind-of hoped that iCloud would clean up its shit on its own. Oh well.

The good news is, the user interface design in both iTunes and the iOS 10 Music app is out-of-sight improved. The tiny wee fonts, buttons and contextual menus in the latter are all bigger. Much bigger. And the organisation makes more sense. No longer are "Library" and "Playlists" two different things. Playlists are, logically, a part of the Library.

This also makes it easier to identify and get to music stored locally on my phone if I'm in an offline listening situation.

You'll also notice that the confusing – and functionally identical – "New" and "For You" sections have been replaced by "For You" (which actually sees some decent algorithmic action going into a new music playlist based on my recent activity, although as Macworld points out, it's still not as good as Spotify's see-into-your-soul Discover Weekly) and "Browse", which is where you go to see what's new and search for stuff.

The paradigm is the same in the new iTunes too. And if I want to add a song or album in Apple Music to my Library, there's a fuck-off big blue button marked "ADD". If I want to add a track or album to a new playlist, the "New playlist" option is now at the top of the contextual menu, not right down at the bottom.

What would make it better? 1. Being able to instantly add an album as a new playlist to an existing playlist folder (say, one called "2016 Albums"). 2. A list of "recently updated playlists" right at the top, just under "New playlist", so I don't have to scroll down through every expanded playlist folder in my Library to add another track to a killer playlist I'm building. 3. Hey, why not give me the option of showing my Library's playlist sidebar while I'm in Apple Music and let me just drag tracks over into it, in time-honoured fashion? That's way better than holding down the mouse button and navigating through the pop-up menu.

But yeah, in general, it's a shame this wasn't the the Apple Music that Apple launched in the first place, because it's bolder, clearer, more logical and more enjoyable to use. There's a roundup of other changes here.

And there's one other thing that I might be the only person in the world to notice and appreciate. For some time, I've used one or more underscore characters to toggle a playlist or folder up and down the list for easier access. (I know, I know, it's a dirty, dirty thing to do, but I'm not a librarian.) But while iTunes sent underscore-prefixed playlists to the top of the list, the iOS Music app relegated them to the bottom. Now, the Music app sorts the same way as iTunes. Hallelujah.


There has, of course, been another music-related Apple controversy of late: the fact that the new iPhone 7 does away with the old headphone jack. Cue outrage across the whole flaming internet.

Well ... I can actually see both sides of this.

Apple actually published a spec for headphones using the Lightning connector back in 2014 and it's not the only manufacturer to be heading in this direction. The dropping of the headphone jack might be like Apple doing away with the floppy drive in the first iMac: a crazy move that changed the industry. And the audio jack is a century-old technology.

Apple has been talking up the fact that losing the jack makes it possible to make the phone thinner and easier to waterproof. I guess it probably doesn't want to play on the main actual benefit of only having a digital audio output: it puts an end to the shitty little Digital to Analog Convertor (DAC)  squeezed into its mobile devices. Any plugged-in headphone experience with an iOS project has hitherto been limited by the quality of a DAC designed for small size and low power, rather than quality. The most expensive headphones in the world faced the same limitation as a $10 pair of earbuds.

Now, the DAC and the amplifier will be in the headphones, so you'll eventually be able to buy third-party headhones or buds with a very high-quality DAC built in – assuming you want to pay for them. The all-digital path should make things like noise cancelling and spatial sound better too.

On the other hand ... Apple licences the use of the Lighting port, adding $US4 per device to manufacturing costs. So that's slightly more expensive headphones right there anyway. (Note that Lightning-compatible earbuds and a dongle to convert for legacy headphones ship with the phone.)

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation is among those to note another implication of Apple shifting everything to a port it controls: it removes the "analog hole", the traditional refuge from oppressve digital rights management (DRM). DRM can't limit access via an analog output. The EFF briefing on it is headed: Analog: The Last Defence Against DRM.

Apple’s motivations for abandoning the analog jack are opaque, but likely benign. Apple is obsessed with simple, clean design, and this move lets the company remove one more piece of clutter from the phone’s body. The decision may also have been a part of the move to a water-resistant iPhone. And certainly, many people choose a wireless listening experience.

But removing the port will change how a substantial portion of iPhone owners listen to audio content—namely, by simply plugging in a set of headphones. By switching from an analog signal to a digital one, Apple has potentially given itself more control than ever over what people can do with music or other audio content on an iPhone. We hope that Apple isn’t unwittingly opening the door to new pressures to take advantage of that power.

And it's all true. This does raise the spectre of content owners being able to control the use of their works in new ways:

In other words, if it’s impossible to connect a speaker or other audio device to an iPhone without Apple software governing it, then major media companies might pressure Apple to place limits on how Apple’s customers can use their content. Because U.S. law protects digital rights management (DRM) technologies, it may be illegal to circumvent any potential restrictions, even if you’re doing it for completely lawful purposes. There would certainly be a precedent: big content companies infamously pressured Apple to incorporate DRM in its iTunes service.

Well yeah, but the reason the iTunes Store caught on is that its DRM was vastly less irksome than that being foisted on consumers by Microsoft and others. Steve Jobs managed to get the music companies to agree to a more transparent, persmissive DRM model than they really wanted – and that's why digital music sales started to work. Before long, even the industry stopped caring about DRM on paid downloads and it went away. It didn't make sense.

Where there is DRM is on tracks from Apple Music, Spotify or any of the other subscription services. Even if you save Apple Music or Spotify tracks to your device, you can't can't just copy them and play them somewhere else. So potentially, there could be a bid by content owners to stipulate what devices could be used to consume their content – with the specific aim of preventing stream-ripping.

Further, any attempt to get around that restriction would breach the ban on interfering with a technical protection mechanism in copyright laws in America, here and elsewhere. And restrictions apply to uses for which there are explicit exceptions: either preventing fair use or making it subject to fanciful rules about getting a librarian to do it for you, as is the case in our Copyright Act. As Jonathan Mosen (who is blind) has pointed out on this site, copyright blocks are the enemy of accessibility when it comes to television, especially in the case of the "appalling in every respect" Sky Televison.

The closing of the "analog hole" does make this possible: but is it likely? Only a small part of my music listening on my iPhone is actually done video the audio jack these days. I AirPlay music either to Apple TVs connected to two different Onkyo receivers (which have, I am told, very good DACs in them) and to a Sony midi-system in the kitchen, which supports AirPlay. If I'm travelling, I have a groovy little Sony Bluetooth speaker for the hotel room.

There are also, of course, any number of wireless Bluetooth headphones available for mobile listening with the iPhone 7 and every other smartphone. Is Big Music really going to get in and control the Bluetooth spec? What leverage would it exert to do so? It's not like Sky TV, which owns and thus controls every device with which its service is received.

So ... yes, the closing of the analog hole does theoretically allow content owners to mess with the rights of music consumers. There is no doubt about that. But history says that content owners generally don't get what they want.


Speaking of streaming: it appears that Soundcloud Go has just (unless I've missed something) launched in New Zealand.

It promises no ads (there are no ads on NZ Soundcloud anyway) but the main offering for your $12.99 a month is probably offline listening of all tracks, via the mobile app. Good for keen Soundcloud users (there are lots of mixes and stuff I'd like to hear at better than 128k), but its hard to see how they can take on the comprehensive catalogues of Spotify and Apple Music.

Anyway there's a free 30-day trial. I'll have a go.


And with that:

The Laneway 2017 lineup has been announced. I don't ever really get the point of Tame Impala, but I've been checking out Bob Moses and Tourist and I'm pretty excited about them. Lots of indie electronica festival-fare, basically.

The Wireless interviews Street Chant's Emily Edrosa on breaing up the band. Their farewell tour hits Whammy Bar tonight and Tauranga and Wellington next Friday and Saturday.

Someone's digitising all seven issues of the long-gone bFM magazine The Book of BiFiM.

Henry Rollins on record-shopping at Real Groovy.

The Guardian celebrates this month's 40th anniversary of 'I'm Stranded' (although as Ed Kuepper has noted on Twitter, the 7" was actually pressed up in June 1976, it just took a while for anyone to notice).

Graeme Jefferies has a memoir coming out.

At Audioculture, Andrew Schmidt surveys New Zealand punk fanzines.

And here's Kenny 'Dope Gonzales' playing vinyl for the Boiler Room in New York (hat-tip Peter McLennan).


Tangerine Dream apparently inspired the people who composed the soundtrack music for Stranger Things. And now the Germans have repaid the compliment by recording the own versions of the themes they nspired. It's all on their Soundcloud and it's like this:


The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant


The Dr G giveaway

As you may be aware, I have the pleasure of hosting An Evening With Ben Goldacre at Auckland's Mercury Theatre on Saturday week. The boffo interview I did wth Dr G a little while ago was very enjoyable and I'm sure it'll be even more fun on the night.

Anyway, if you'd like to cram before the jam, the promoters have kindly offered a prize pack of Ben Goldacre's three books for me to give away:

To be in for the prize pack, you need only email me using the button at the bottom of this post with "Books" as the subject line. I'll draw a winner in a couple of days' time.

But there's one more thing: a number of people from the autism community have expressed interest in hearing Ben speak, not least because of his role in bringing the dreadful Andrew Wakefield to account.

I know not everyone in that community can easily afford what isn't a cheap ticket. So I talked to the promoters and they have kindly offered to make available 20 tickets at a reduced rate ($59 + booking fee, the same as the student discount).

The discount can be claimed by emailing me via the button at the bottom of this post with "Neurodiverse" as the subject line. I'll then send you a code to use when you buy your tickets.

Now, I thought about how  to do this and decided the best thing was to simply do it on trust. The discount is intended for ASD people themselves, but I'm happy to consider a request from supporters and family.

But mostly, neurotypicals, do not lie to me.