Hard News by Russell Brown

5

Drug policy: women lead the way

There's a game you can play at conferences in any sector: count the women scheduled to speak and contemplate how far the event is from a true share of voices. The New Zealand Drug Foundation's two-day Parliamentary Drug Law Symposium in Wellington next week is a little different. All 14 of the speakers accorded biographies on the symposium website are women.

There's a reason for that, one I've commented on before. And it's that drug policy is a sector where women work at the coalface and where women drive change. Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing the late Helen Kelly, who changed the conversation about cannabis in New Zealand. Last week, I talked to Tricia Walsh, who turned around a harrowing life story and now addresses the harm wreaked by meth among East Coast whanau, in a way that only someone who's been there could do.

The symposium lineup features a number of other remarkable New Zealand women, including Julia Whaipooti, the chair of JustSpeak, and Professor Khylee Quince of the AUT School of Law. There will also be a presentation by Wendy Allison, who has done more than anyone to bring harm reduction at events to the threshold of acceptability. (I have a very interesting story on Wendy's work drug-checking at festivals in the issue of Matters of Substance that's out next week.)

They'll be joined by the likes of Ann Fordham, the executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, the umbrella group for drug policy NGOs, and Alison Holcomb, who has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union on criminal justice reform initiatives and directed the cannabis legalisation campaign in Washington state.

I'll be there too. I considered touting a story to another media organisation but decided it made more sense to cover the symposium here on Public Address. I'll cover proceedings in general and also look to do several substantial interviews. Hey, maybe even some video vox-pops.

I've paid to attend and I've even bought a new laptop to travel with, so if you're interest in this subject and you're in a position to help, you'd be very welcome to toss me a little coin via our Press Patron page (you can make a one-off or ongoing donation by clicking that red button). I'd be ever so grateful.

You can also still register for the symposium yourself – but be aware that registration closes on Friday.

24

Blockchain, what is it?

by Alex Sims

Many people will have heard Blockchain or “distributed ledger technology” and some may have dismissed it as hype – especially when you hear claims that Blockchain is possibly the most important IT invention of our age. But no matter what your view, there is no doubt that Blockchain is a distruptive technology. For those with little or no knowledge about the Blockchain, what is it, how does it work and what can it be used for?

Bitcoin created the first blockchain, and thus Blockchain technology. Since Bitcoin’s release in 2009 there are now hundreds of blockchains. Some are copies of Blockchain’s blockchain, others are entirely new, such as the Ethereum blockchain.

The premise of Blockchain is deceptively simple. A blockchain is a record of transactions/information — in other words a ledger or a database — that are combined into blocks cryptographically linked to form a chain (hence the name blockchain). The brilliance of blockchain is due to three factors.

First, a blockchain is held by hundreds if not thousands of “nodes” around the world. Thus Blockchain is decentralised. When the blockchain is updated by the addition of a new block, each “copy” of the blockchain is updated automatically. The timing of the blocks depends on the blockchain. For Bitcoin a new block is added around every 10 minutes, Ethereum’s around 14 seconds.

Second, no centralised party adds blocks, rather the blockchain itself does it. If B wants to send C half a bitcoin, the blockchain is checked to see that B has the necessary bitcoin. If B does not have sufficent bitcoin the transaction will not go ahead. The valid transactions are gathered and miners compete to solve a very difficult mathmatical problem. Once that problem is solved a block is created and added to the blockchain.

To incentivise miners — a lot of computer power and electricity is required to create each block — when miners solve a block they are given bitcoins (the block reward) and any transaction fees.  Miners are vital as they provide the blockhain’s infrastructure. (Not all blockchains require Bitcoin’s “proof-of-work” and less energy hungry methods, such as “proof-of-stake” can be used.)

Third, the information on the blockchain is immutable. Even if nodes are hacked, their blocks will not match the majority of the network and will be ignored. There simply is not enough computing power for a hacker to compromise Bitcoin’s blockchain. Nothing is completely risk free; however, it is technically possible for nodes to combine to control over 50% of the network (a 51% attack). Money is safer on the Bitcoin blockchain than it is sitting on a bank’s computer system or when it is sent from one bank to another.  

Terminology is important. There are public, permissioned and private blockchains. “Blockchain” is technically a public, decentralised blockchain, the software is open source and anyone can run a node. Bitcoin and Ethereum are examples of public blockchains. Permissioned and private are not technically blockchains, rather they are distributed ledgers, but they are often referred to as blockchains.

Permissioned blockchains are where only certain entities have access.  Private blockchains are controlled by one entity. Permissioned and private blockchains are not as secure as there are fewer nodes, making them more vulnerable to attack and with permissioned ones it could take only a few parties to combine to control the blockchain. In many ways there are parallels with the early internet with walled gardens, it was not until the walls were torn down that that the power of the Internet came to the fore.  

Although the creation of cryptocurrency is amazing in itself, the excitement about Blockchain is its wider potential beyond fintech. Work is underway on a bewildering array of things, including: eliminating the need for auditors; paying taxes automatically in real time; automatic payouts for insurance claims; putting land records and thus titles on the blockchain; creating digital identies, no need to go through an identification process every time you open up a bank account; allowing people to control their health information; allowing secure uncorruptible electronic voting; disrupting the distrupters such as Uber and Airbnb; and ensuring music creators are paid royalities in real time, not months or years later; the list is seemingly endless. Essentially, if you have a process that requires an intermediary it is ripe for disruption.

Even our conception of how our businesses are organised is being turned on its head with the potential use of DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations), a company can be run on the blockchain.

Many of Blockchain's uses enlist smart contracts which are self executing programmes that run on a blockchain. In the case of life insurance a smart contract could automatically pay on the issuance of the insured person’s death certificate.

Smart contracts combined with IoT are a futher potent source of disruption. For example, a one-off insurance policy could be issued and be paid in real time if a car driver decides to take dangerous route B rather than the safer route C.

The current state of technology and knowledge of Blockchain is similar to the Internet in the early 1990s. Crucially another promise of Blockchain is to finally make the Internet secure. We can’t predict what will happen, only that it is going to be an exciting and scary ride.

Alex Sims is an Associate professor in the Department of Commerical Law, University of Auckland. She is currently leading a project funded by the Law Foundation into the legal regulation of cryptocurrencies in New Zealand and Australia.

6

How journalism looks now

There is more than one thing to be taken from the BBC Panorama programme London Tower Fire: Britain's Shame. The first is, of course, its damning indictment of the authorities whose catastrophic failure of care allowed so many people to die in a burning tomb in the sky. The agony on the faces of people waiting for news of their loved ones and the letters from the all-party Parliamentary Fire Safety Group begging the goverment to act on a fire safety review are powerful in different ways.

But the programme is also compelling as a study in changing journalistic practice. Panorama has been screening for 64 years. And although it had racked up some notable hits over the decades, its non-commercial hour had begun to seem ponderous by the mid-2000s, and it was bounced around the schedule in search of an audience. In 2007, it was returned to prime-time as a shorter, sharper half hour.

The episode that screened last week in Britain was a model of modern current affairs television. Most notably, it was pieced together in only five days. The sheer proximity of the tragedy means that reporter Richard Bilton is frequently in the midst of grief, and sometimes seized by that grief himself. At the same time, the programme was establishing a paper trail in the corridors of power. All in five days.

Inevitably, there is a good deal of citizen video used in the report. The news is where the journalists are and sometimes the journalists are just ordinary people with phones in their pockets. The step-changes in this trend have generally been tragic. The first mobile phone video ever broadcast by CNN conveyed a different horror in London – the 2005 Tube bombings.

Perhaps what's changed now – or at least what's notable about the Panorama report – is that mobile videos are not presented as spectacle in themselves, but in service of the story. Remarkably, the most stunning of these comes from the cab of a fire engine, as firefighters catch sight of the burning tower for the first time and respond with shock and disbelief.

There are a lot of moving parts here, not only in capturing the events of the fire but in explaining what happened before and after. And it's the "after" that actually lights up the context of what happened. In the report, it's evident that the response of both central government and the local council was inadequate and disengaged. Evident that these simply weren't people that either tier of government was used to caring about. And when it came to it, they didn't know how to care.

There is commentary on a similar kind of top-down disengagement in Philip Matthews' extremely strong editorial for Saturday's Press on the Obudsman's scathing findings on the "the flawed and destructive consultation process" around Christchurch school closures in the wake of the city's earthquakes:

The closures were against the wishes of communities that were already shocked and traumatised by natural disaster. Information was flawed, incomplete and often poorly communicated. Decisions were made before demographic changes were known. The special character of local schools was ignored ...

To read the full, 232-page report is to get an unnerving sense of a bureaucratic experiment performed on utterly unprepared communities. The Ombudsman describes an "invisible" process that ran in parallel to the one the public saw, a process that used the disaster as an opportunity to rationalise the Christchurch school network.

Even with the best of intentions, it's the natural tendency of power to run things to suit itself. And it should be a natural function of journalism to resist that and expose it.

We have also, of course, seen a very different exercise in new-old-journalism this past week in the reporting of Melanie Reid and others on the Todd Barclay affair and its seething backdrop. Newsroom, a new media venture run by old media veterans, doesn't get it right every day. Some days it struggles to get into the zeitgeist or grab attention, and it could do with a good liveblogger. Reid's own recent story on the controversy around the film Vaxxed – turning a thoroughly debunked vaccine theory into a he-said-she-said – was like a flashback to the bad old days of prime-time current affairs. Her boss Mark Jennings didn't exactly help when he ventured on the issue in a panel discussion on fake news broadcast yesterday afternoon (from about 42:00 – he needs to look up "exponential" in a dictionary).

But in the staging of stories from a major investigation, the past week has been a masterclass. Holding back a part of the story to wait on a denial isn't a new technique, but one difference this time is that Newsroom itself doesn't have the audience to justice to its story. So it has not only given parts of its written work to Stuff, which has a platform and wants content, but has to some extent staged its revelations for the convenience of TV news.

And yet, at the heart of it is the very traditional long game of investigative journalism – and in this case, going to find a political story that was not at the seat of goverment, but in Gore. News is, as ever, where the journalists are. Reid, too, was on RNZ yesterday, speaking to Wallace Chapman on the difference between commentary and reporting, the perils of the high-turnover news cycle and the joys of working away from the corporate bullshit. It's really worth listening to.

15

Friday Music: Digging ASMR

A week ago today on Lorde Listening Day, the singer and producer Chelsea Jade (who has a good new tune out, see below) tweeted that she was "getting ASMR shivers cascading down my skull from ella's voice all through this record". Another follower responded "Hey! I have ASMR too, it's pretty amazing how she triggers it for me as well!"

Well, me too. Last night I was standing in the kitchen, listening to Melodrama ('The Louvre', I think it was, and then the transition to 'Loveless' from 'Hard Feelings') and feeling my scalp fizz all over. It was pleasurable and, it seems, repeatable.

At this point you may be wondering what I'm on about (or possibly, what I'm on). Well, Autonomous sensory meridian response is defined by Wikipedia as ...

... an experience characterised by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. It has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia.[1][2] ASMR signifies the subjective experience of "low-grade euphoria" characterised by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin". It is most commonly triggered by specific acoustic, visual and digital media stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attentional control.[3][4]

It's not a new thing. Indeed, millions of YouTube views have been racked up by videos intended to trigger ASMR responses, many of them featuring women whispering slightly creepily. On the other hand, there's a 15-minute video of noodle packets being crumpled, which does it for me:

There's been discussion and at least one research paper as to the relationship between ASMR and music chills. For me, they're separate but related experiences, with a spine-tingling response to music more often likely to be related to something that's happening in a piece of music – typically a climax or melodic shift – and ASMR as likely to happen out of any musical context (there is not, after all, anything being communicated in the crackling of a noodle packet). In 'The Louvre', I guess both things are happening: a crackly, draw-you-in whisper and sweeping musical shifts. In the 'Loveless' intro, the sample of Paul Simon taking about his favourite tape certainly has some ASMR-like crackling.

Naturally, people have sought to retrofit it back into music too, notably in the deadmau5 strack which samples a well-known wake-up whisper.

I know not everyone experiences this pleasant synaesthetic response to sound, but I'm quite glad I do.

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Amid all the noise around Melodrama (yes, not least here), it's as well to recall there is some other new music being made by New Zealanders. I sat in the lounge, by the fire, last night listening to Ladi6's new Royal Blue 3000 EP on headphones and it was a dreamy experience: most notably the title track, for which Parks and Brandon Haru have wound a sumptuous synth backing around Ladi's voice.

Plaudits include a Songs We Love on NPR, which suggests that Ladi is "building a reputation by taking everything that was (and remains) great about '90s soul music and updates it, sprinkling cosmic effects and big synths throughout."

You can grab the EP on your streaming service, or, if you want to own the high-quality files, buy it for only $7 on Bandcamp.

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Beautiful music of a different stripe can be found on Blair Parkes' new album, saturations. I really like the wistful, wavy organ sounds on the first track, 'So Very Useful':

But there's also the garage pop (I have been in the actual garage where it's made) of 'Dont Worry Baby'.

And 'Run Electro', the kind of unabashed kraut-pop Blair hasn't made since the L.E.D.s albums.

I enjoy the way Blair plays with the tonal quality of his music, and what he crafts from such simple components. You can't (presently) hear this on Spotify, but you can buy the album for $10 on Bandcamp.

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Also fresh: the video for 'My Smile Is Extinct', a pure slice of indie-pop from Kane Strang's album Two Hearts and No Brain, which is out next week.

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And rounding up ...

WFMU's Brian Turner presented a three-hour Flying Nun special this week. It includes chats with Roger Shepherd, Hamish Kilgour and Francisca Griffin and some interesting live recordings you might not have heard.

Lewis Tennant's Verbal Highs podcast, a series of extended chats with persons of interest, alights on the marvellous Murray Cammick this week.

Dunedin noise outfit LSD Fundraiser made international headlines when their new cassette album was mistaken for a bomb and the NZDF's ordnance disposal unit was flown in by helicopter to destroy it. No, I am not making this up.

Spotify is bringing back payola – but if you're a premium user you'll be able to opt out.

At The Spinoff, Gareth Shute considers the history of songs for and about the All Blacks then present his own offering. It's quite silly.

If you're up for a late one in Auckland tonight, K Road is the place for you. At Whammy, Tom Scott has put together a lineup headlined by the excellent British-Ghanaian poet and musician Kojey Radical. And a few doors own at Neck of the Woods, The Boog is on again, with Frank Booker and others presenting a feast of funk, disco and vintage hip hop.

And finally: it's Glastonbury weekend! Fire up the VPN and watch the BBC coverage or keep an eye on YouTube.

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Tunes!

Here's that new Chelsea Jade track. It's winning, head-nodding pop with a bassline.

I ran into P Money at a Base FM gathering a few weeks ago and he said he'd been paying the bills as a club DJ and spending his days working on some new music with Jess B. It sounds like this – "this" being some great old-school hip hop. I'm digging it a lot.

I also like this: Lego Edits tightens Fela's classic 'Sorrow, Tears and Blood' into a funky banger. Click through to buy it on Bandcamp or pre-order the 12".

An excerpt from a very fresh new Loop Recordings release, MACAM7800, which is described as "One continuous doof by Dynamo Dave, recorded on at Kog Studio on 21 June 2017," with Chris Chetland at the controls. Click through to buy the full three-hour jam.

And finally, because there is still not enough disco in this world, a Dimitri edit to freely download:

And a new edit of Barry White's timelessly sweaty 'It's Ecstasy When You Lie Down Next To Me'. Click the "Buy" button for a free download.

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The Friday Music Post is sponsored by:

Songbroker

Representing New Zealand music

187

Barclay and arrogance

It's not especially unusual for someone to to compare the governing political party to a criminal gang – that's every day somewhere on Twitter, right? – but when the person making the comparison is a respected legal commentator and he's quoting the Crimes Act, that's noteworthy.

The commentator is Andrew Geddis and he was responding today to Melanie Reid's extraordinary investigatve story for Newsroom, which reveals that:

The clandestine taping of an employee by Government MP Todd Barclay has resulted in a secret payment from former Prime Minister John Key’s leader’s budget to make the issue go away. 

Current Prime Minister Bill English knew about the payment and the bugging — and National Party board members and the Parliamentary Service also knew about the secret recordings.

Barclay’s former electorate agent Glenys Dickson was paid the hush money after learning of the dictaphone left running in the Gore office and then engaging an employment lawyer.

Police who investigated whether illegal recording had occurred closed the case without being able to speak to Barclay and without seeking search warrants to obtain the dictaphone or transcripts from the office or his home.

But the part of the story that immediately stood out for me – and clearly, for Geddis too – is this:

Within weeks of laying her police complaint, Dickson says she spoke to a National Party board member.

“I was told if I didn’t withdraw the police complaint I could potentially take down the National Party, and there was an [implication] that if National didn’t have Barclay in Parliament they were one short to pass legislation.” 

Dickson said she was also told that it would be difficult for her and her family if she had to appear in a high-profile court case.

“The board member explained to me if I withdrew my complaint I would be considered a hostile witness and the police would have not had a case.”

Geddis considers this news in light of the part of the Crimes Act covering the imprisonable offence of conspiring to defeat justice and concludes his post on Pundit thus:

And then let's imagine this scenario: a gang member makes an complaint to the police that another gang member has stolen some of her property. One of the gang's leaders then comes to the complainant's home and tells her that her complaint makes the gang look bad, that it's causing friction between the membership and that if the accused gets convicted and jailed it will hurt the gang in its future battles with rival gangs ... so she might want to withdraw the complaint as it would be difficult for her and her family if she doesn't.

What do we think the police should do if they are made aware that such a conversation has taken place? And why does it change things if instead of a gang leader, we instead have a claim that a member of a political party board is involved?

A story about an MP who behaved as a nasty bully towards his staff has clearly become something bigger and broader in the effort to politically manage it.

It also now equally clearly takes in Bill English, Prime Minister and Barclay's predecessor as MP for Clutha-Southland, whose character is cast in serious doubt. In short: in order to make a political problem go away, he seems to have been happy to throw under the bus the staff who had loyally worked for him for 17 years.

In recent hours, the Prime Minister has invited us to believe that while he might have known that Barclay had secretly recorded his staff, he just can't remember who might have told him.

And yet he knew enough to approve the use of money from the Parliamentary leaders' fund to pay former senior Electorate agent Glenys Dickson what he described in texts obtained by Reid as a "large" settlement "to avoid potential legal action". As Graeme Edgeler explains in Sam Sachdeva's accompanying story for Newsroom, it's not illegal or even inappropriate for the fund to be used to settle an employment dispute, given that it can be used to hire staff. But for the public to make a judgement on such a use of its money, the public needs to know about it, and ... we didn't.

Gallery correspondents have been swiftly on the case, with Audrey Young declaring that "now about the Prime Minister, trust and credibility" and Patrick Gower writing that the user of the leaders budget "for taxpayer hush money is an absolute breach of privilege."

But this story does also demonstrate the limitations of relying on Gallery staff for political reporting. It was the Otago Daily Times reporter Eileen Goodwin (working in cooperation with the Herald's David Fisher) who broke the story of Barclay's refusal to cooperate with police more than a year ago, and Goodwin who revealed that the "employment matter" involved a clandestine recording.

Barclay survived a selection challenge last November and everyone pretty much moved on to whatever the next day's political story was. But Melanie Reid didn't, and she worked at it and won the confidence of both Glenys Dickson and former electorate chairman Stuart Davie (who had hitherto refused comment after resigning in April 2016) – and she got a very important story.

We deserve to hear more about why Barclay was able to make a police investigation go away by simply refusing to talk to the police (after he had assured the public the police would have his full cooperation).

But I think that underlying this story is something that sometimes gets a government into trouble but quite often doesn't: arrogance. It was there in Nicky Wagner's idle tweet about the tedium of having to do her well-paid job serving the interests of New Zealanders with disability. And it appears to be there in spades in the way that ordinary people doing their jobs were brushed aside to defend the reputation of the governing party and its would-be wunderkind.