Hard News by Russell Brown


Back when I worked in the arms industry ...

Well, I wasn't so much in the weapons side of the business as the selling-the-Phantom-of-the-Opera-soundtrack-to-tourists trade - and I can muster no moral justification for that - but the fact was that the HMV Store in Piccadilly Circus was owned by Thorn EMI, which was also the maker of popular battlefield radar systems. When I had a performance assessment, my boss asked me what I thought of the company, I felt bound to point out that the weapons thing troubled me a little.

It actually turned out to be somewhat worse than most people knew at the time. The company was selling its radar systems to the Saddam regime in Iraq. And those sales were being secretly facilitated, at the expense of British taxpayers, by Margaret Thatcher's government.

The two parts of the company de-merged in 1996 - so you can listen to Kylie Minoque with a clear conscience - but I offer this story as a note of caution in response to the news, in a report from the Green Party and an extensive story by Matt Nippert in The Listener, that the New Zealand Superannuation Fund is investing in some ventures that seem morally repugnant or fly in the face of government policy.

Some of the investments offer a clear-cut case. We shouldn't be investing in tobacco companies: even $28,745,112 out of $11.2 billion is too much, and it appears the Prime Minister thinks so too.

But the $10 million we have in Halliburton is a different matter. We largely know the Halliburton name through its bountiful supply contracts in Iraq, especially via its subsidiary KBR, but the basis of its business lies in construction and providing technical services to the oil industry. Its business practices have been questionable, but that is more a matter for the US taxpayers who were overcharged on contracts than it is for us.

The picture is similar for most of the "defence" firms listed in the Listener story. Computer Sciences Corporation, for example, provides IT services to the public and private sector in 88 countries, but a minority of its business is bound up in defence contracts, including a gig for the Missile Defence Agency. Do we consider General Electric (in which we have $33 million) a healthcare company and network TV owner - or an environmental vandal and demonstrably corrupt weapons supplier?

As the story notes, New Zealand's own Rakon (nearly $10 million) "makes GPS [global positioning systems] that end up in telephones and bombs." Our nest-egg is also vested with three uranium mining companies, to a total of $20 million: we don't like nuclear weapons, but there's a case for regarding nuclear energy as a means of moderating climate change.

In the end, I suspect it will prove impossible to run a viable investment portfolio without running into some moral complication - such is the sprawl of corporate capitalism - but this is a useful controversy if it obliges us to more clearly define some ground rules.

Meanwhile, No Right Turn has some commentary (Craig Ranapia makes the good point in the comments that our government disapproves of tobacco companies, but is still happy to bank the tax revenue they provide) and notes that the Super Fund has joined the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Anyway, I'm feeling more than a bit exhausted after two weeks that encompassed Foo Camp and two Karajoz Great Blends. By the time I'd visited the dentist yesterday, I was good for no more than a few hours on the couch watching purloined documentaries.

The Auckland KGB wasn't a bad night, if not quite a raging success by our standards. As Rob McKinnon pointed out, I think we were all a bit overawed by the magnificent venue, and we felt a bit disconnected from the audience on stage.

Wellington, on the other hand, was an absolute blast. There was a real buzz, perhaps because last Thursday was the hottest day I have ever experienced in Wellington, and the city folk were going mad all day - stripping off their clothes and leaping off the wharf. The Great Blend punters had drunk all the beer by half time (resourcefully, they moved on to the wine).

The lady bloggers of Wellington were out in force. Jo from Hubris, the queen of them, swam in the harbour both before and some time after the event, and accompanied me and various other ratbags to Mighty Mighty in Cuba St (where I ran into David Cohen and Lloyd Jones). Martha enjoyed herself, distributed fliers for the Craft 2.0 show she's organising with Ellipse (a Vox user!), and scoffed all the chilli mussels when she got home. Sarah offered an interesting metaphor for my mind. Mauricio from Geekzone took pictures, as did Matthew Sew Hoy.

It was also nice to see DPF there, and to meet Danyl, and Dave Crampton from Big News, who was younger than I expected.

Memorable moments: Matt Heath from Back of the Y offering strategic advice to Simon Pleasants, and an encounter in the tablecloth-sized courtyard at Mighty Mighty: some bumptious twentysomething jerk came out to relitigate some perceived slight for the benefit of his mates. His target was a geeky-looking guy in glasses. In response to the verbal provocation, the geeky-looking guy stood up.

"You're tall …" gasped the jerk.

"Yes," said the geek.

And he was: Che Tibby-tall, and not exactly light with it. He simply stood there, looming, while, over several hilarious minutes, the jerk crunched into reverse, with his mates watching, and decided that he'd never wanted any trouble in the first place. It was one of the nicest examples of someone being put on their place that I've ever seen.

Scoop has Wellington Great Blend coverage, including audio from the "digital democracy" panel.

Foo stuff continues to emerge. Matt Gibbons mashed up a bunch of video (35MB QuickTime) that captures the Foo Camp flavour nicely, and Don Christie of Catalyst IT blogged his highlights. His presentation on open infrastructure as the path to prosperity is also online. Synthetic Thoughts also has a detailed post.

PS: The teaser trailer for Back of the Y's debut feature film, The Devil Dared Me To, is in OurTube on the Public Address System page.

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