Hard News by Russell Brown

0

E-cigarettes and the path of least harm

The government's announcement that e-cigarettes and the vaping liquid to go with them will be legalised and regulated is welcome. But it doesn't change as much as it might at first appear. And some of the changes it does make may not be the right ones.

A "nicotine e-cigarette", which is the phrase Minister Nicky Wagner has used, is exactly the same thing as a non-nicotine e-cigarette – and those have never been illegal. And even nicotine e-liquid has been on display and for sale in places like Karangahape Road for years. One of Shosha's Vapor World "concept stores" opened recently in the local laundromat here in Point Chevalier. No one has been prosecuted.

The decision not to apply an excise tax is welcome. Vaping isn't entirely harmless, but the evidence that is it vastly less harmful than smoking tobacco is now compelling. Harm-reduction principles dictate that it is a poor idea to penalise a much less harmful option.

But I'm less convinced by the decision to allow the sale of e-cigs and consumables from any retail premises. There's actually a humdrum reason for them to be available only from specialist premises and that's that keeping a vape in good order is a bit of a hobby. This is not perfect technology: batteries fail, coils get dirty and vapes leak. 

If your intention is to get people to switch from smoking, then it's important that the alternative actually works for them. Any current vape seller will tell you that customers returning to complain that their gear isn't working is quite a burden. A dairy owner's not going to be interested in offering the necessary advice.

A study published in the British Medical Journal last year found that e-cig use was reducing smoking prevelance in Britain. New data this month showed British smoking rates lower than ever – but also found that there are three times as many former e-cig users as current. Some of those will be people who've given up nicotine altogether, but responses suggest that most people try vaping as an alternative to smoking. You want it to stick for them.

There's also the issue that a vape used wrongly (eg, when near-empty, so the glycerol burns rather than vaporises) is more harmful than one used properly.

But there are other reasons. I get that there's more chance of a smoker switching if the alternative is widely availabe and visible, but it's still selling – and displaying – drugs in dairies. In Britain last year, four in 10 retailers were found to be selling e-cigarette products  to under 18 year-olds. (And yes, it is true that many young people are more interested in vapour than in nicotine and some prefer zero-nicotine liquids. They just like doing tricks with vapour.)

Yet the decision to allow display of e-cigarette products, rather than hide them like cigarettes is a sensible and practical one. You only need to step into a Shosha store to get an idea of the range of devices and consumables already on display. There's a reason for that. You can't buy a device without seeing and ideally touching it. And the differentiation of consumables – perhaps half a dozen brands, each with as many as 30 flavours and six concentrations (from zero to 24mg nicotine) – would make a display ban difficult.

But, as Professor Marewa Glover notes in the Science Media Centre's expert opinion roundup, the blanket decision to ban vaping wherever smoking is banned isn't entirely logical: it "sends a mixed message that vaping must be similarly dangerous which it is not." Wellington and Christchurch council housing tenancies are smokefree; so we'd be selling e-cigs in dairies to encourage smokers to quit – but not allowing those tenants the very real incentive of being able to use indoors?

One dimension of the debate that isn't getting a lot of air at the moment is that vaporising is potentially about more than cigarette replacement. If inhaling vapour is less harmful than inhaling burning tobacco smoke, then the same applies to cannabis smoke. The respective devices already sit next to each other on the shelves of vape stores.

It seems likely that for medical use at least, weed vaping will eventually be permitted in New Zealand. And perhaps sooner than you think: the Ministry of Health is looking at products from the Dutch-Canadian company Bedrocan, which offers both concentrated and whole-flower products, along with recommended vaporisers.

And there's more. Dr Paul Quigley at Wellington Hospital last year told me his team was seeing some meth and opiate users vaporising their drugs after dissolving them in e-liquid. It was, he thought, a reasonable form of harm reduction, esecially for the opiate users.

That could be where we get to in the long term: vaping as means of delivery for other drugs. And that would take us to the core question of all this: leaving all else aside, which path leads to the least harm?

13

YouTube and the programmatic problem

It hasn't been a good week for YouTube. It's not the content: that continues to be added at a rate of hundreds of hours of video every minute – and a billion hours of YouTube video are watched every day. It's not the audience, which now stands around 1.3 billion, or about a third of internet users. It's the advertisers.

In the US, AT&T, Verizon, Starbucks, Pepsi, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson and others have pulled their ad campaigns from YouTube. Across the Tasman, Bunnings, Foxtel and Caltex have done the same. Hundreds of other companies are heading for the door. This global advertiser exodus has been building since The Times published a story last month showing the way big brands have had their ads placed against videos promoting Isis, or from neo-Nazi groups:

Alex Mostrous, the Times investive reporter who leading the story, has been covering the fallout via his Twitter account – and lordy there's a lot of fallout to cover. And not only from big companies. The British government pulled all its YouTube advertising after this Times story showed its advertising budgets were being spent on ads accompanying videos by "rape apologists, anti-Semites and hate preachers".

But it's worse than simply being next to bad people. Google runs a revenue-sharing scheme with its video "creators" – they get a slice of the spend. So the British government had been paying terrorist sympathisers for their  videos. And YouTube itself does the transactions.

In the wake of the Times story, rival UK newspaper The Guardian pulled its  advertising not just from YouTube, but from the ad networks operated by YouTube's owner, Google – after discovering they were appearing with videos from European neo-Nazi groups. But the Guardian will continue to use Google's DoubleClick network and associated Adx advertising exchange to populate its own pages with ads, because it doesn't have much choice.

This isn't a problem limited to YouTube, or even to Google. It's a problem with the paradigm that dominates internet revenue: programmatic advertising. Programmatic is a ceaseless series of auctions conducted between computers, with two goals. Firstly, to match ads with the "right" viewers. And secondly, to do so at the cheapest possible price.

On the surface this is an advertiser's dream. Conventional publishers find it hard to match Google and Facebook (and their manifold associated ad networks) for both demographic sizzle and price. They have little choice but to, like The Guardian, get with the programmatic and let the competitors destroying their businesses place their ads too.

But programmatic advertising is run by machines without taste or judgement. It's vulnerable to manipulation and struggles with traffic exchange systems that are sometimes little more than scams. The fake news phenomenon is strongly tied to this kind of manipulation – it has effectively turned the internet's own revenue model on itself.

A couple of weeks ago I let a company I have some dealings with know that its ads were appearing on the notorious fake news site USASupreme. My friend there said "bloody marketers" and thanked me, but there's no guarantee it won't happen again on another website. I checked USASupreme this morning and it showed me ads from Jetstar and Jucy Rentals:

USASupreme has spawned any number of bogus stories and conspiracy theories, but it isn't actually a Nazi site or a terrorist hotbed (although it could be a Russian disinfo asset), so perhaps those two companies are happy emough to be there. Others won't be.

YouTube, ironically, was supposed to be better than that. It has its extraordinarily sophisticated Content ID system that identifies the owners of copyright material (music in particular) and allows them to share in its advertising bounty (about two billion has been paid out since Content ID launched). It has systems which annoint high-quality advertiser-friendly publishers, who attract a premium.

But those systems clearly don't always work. And screwing them down harder has already had consequences for publishers whose material (say, a video dealing with sexual abuse) might be edgy but is not exploitative, hateful or illegal. It's a hard road back if YouTube "demonetises" your content.

Google says it will increase the human moderation of participating sites, but that faces the same problem that drove the creation of the programmatic system: the sheer size of the internet, the sheer quantity of content looking for revenue and the sheer number of individual publishers. It's beyond the capacity of humans.

Two local internet news ventures, The Spinoff and Newsroom, have turned their backs on conventional display advertising and instead embraced sponsorships from a limited number of companies. The closer relationship implied by sponsorship can be a problem for editors and journalists – but it's arguably a lesser problem than those that come with the low-value world of programmatic.

UPDATE: This Bloomberg video has some useful commentary and numbers to set this all in context:

–––

I'm interested in New Zealand companies' advertising turning up in the wrong places. If you spy something interesting out there, please feel free to screenshot it and upload it in the discussion here. Just use the "choose fil" button next to the comment box (you'll need to have typed something in the box for the upload to work).

9

The lessons of Prohibition

If Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's rich, nuanced 2011 documentary Prohibition does anything, it is to show how complex both the causes and effects of America's "Great Experiment" really were.

The coalition that achieved the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, embodied many different agendas.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union correctly perceived that alcohol abuse by men had devastating social consequences, particularly for women and children – but campaigned over decades for abstinence and eventual prohibition of alcohol as part of a platform of broader social reform. The Anti-Saloon Alliance, by contrast, was a brutally effective political pressure group that cared little about broader social issues and was absolutist in its stance.

In the South, Prohibition was a Jim Crow cause; in the North, it was often blatantly anti-immigrant (German and Italian immigrants arrived with cultures in which alcohol played a strong traditional role and always resisted Prohibition). Although Prohibition was enacted under a Republican presidency, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and reformers all fell either side of the line in the years before and during Prohibition.

And although we're used to think of the Experiment as a monstrous failure,  its effects weren't all bad. Many Americans did in fact stop drinking and the overall death rate from alcoholism dropped nearly 80% (it subsequently rose again during Prohibition, but never quite to pre-1920 levels). It immediately got rid of the saloons, men-only boozing spaces that had become a destructive social anchronism by the 20th century. And with that order broken down, the speakeasies became places where women could participate. The New Yorker launched in 1925, in the midst of Prohibition, and in that year began running the columns of Lois Long, who chronicled the city's illicit nightlife (under the pseudonym "Lipstick") with a boldness and sexual openness that was revoutionary.

Long's prose, as quoted in the third and final episode of the five-hour documentary, is delicious and the joy of Prohibition is really its writing: both in the epigrammatic quotes from Long, HL Mencken and their contemparies and in the elegant, perfectly balanced scripts of long-time Burns collaborator Geoffrey Ward. The words, married with a trove of period photography and film, are more vivid than any full-colour reconstructed whizz-bang.

But, of course, Prohibition was a failure. It created almost instantly a network of organised, violent crime that never went away. Whole police forces and legislatures were paid off. Hard liquor supplanted beer again. Child drinking rose. Many thousands died from booze bulked out with wood alcohol. Loopholes abounded. And a generation of Americans learned to hold the law in contempt and become "a nation of hypocrites".

There are obvious parallels with modern drug prohibition – too many to mention – but they are never explicitly drawn. The documentary leaves them for viewers to draw.

Yet there is a modern resonance that the film-makers could not have anticipated in 2011. It's the part of the Prohibition struggle that pitted the rural America against the thriving cities, conservatism against liberalism and modernity. Then, as now, immigrants and people of colour were cast as the enemies of order and safety.

That's the dynamic that got us Trump – and, in Prohibition's case, it did pass.  But it took nearly 14 years and a great deal of suffering to correct. Urban America will be hoping it doesn't have to wait so long this time.

In a way, the worst news is implied by the closing credits. Three of the funders – the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS itself – would be eradicated by the budget proferred by the Trump White House. The many archives and museums which provided material would very likely suffer too.

A danger of the present political barbarism may yet be that it prevents Americans from learning from their own history.

Prohibition is currently available for viewing of Netflix NZ. It's really good and you may wish to check it out.

19

Friday Music: Sound and Light

I didn't go to Adele's first show in Auckland last night and, short of the freebie fairy paying a late visit , I won't be going to the others either. I don't mind Adele, but I don't have $300-a-ticket worth of affection for her work.

But I was fascinated when pictures started coming through before the show at Mt Smart Stadium. First by the in-the-round staging – I have an idea that's been done before at Mt Smart, but I've never seen it done so well.

(Pic from the One News Twitter feed)

In the hours before showtime, the screens around the stage looped the same cryptic teaser that announced her southern tour:

There is, of course, art in those eyes too, and the internet is only too willing to tell you how to achieve "Hello Eyes" on your own face.

This is what you get at the top level of concert production: not only the artist's performance, but a presentation of that performance that has its own creative substance.

In that light, the best concert production I've ever seen remains Willie Wilson's extraordinary creation for U2's Vertigo tour. I'm not exactly a U2 fan, but I was genuinely moved at times by that show, as I wrote shortly after in 2006:

The key feature of the stage was a towering “beaded curtain” strung with spherical LEDs (MiSpheres, they’re called, and they were developed specifically for this tour) which can be programmed simply as decoration, or as individual pixels in a giant low-res video display. I have never seen anything like it.

When the UN Declaration of Human Rights scrolled across the curtain, I thought of An Inconvenient Truth and its dazzling Keynote slide show, and wondered whether, with this command of new communications technology, we’re seeing a new form of liberal speech. What would once have been deadly dull – a rock band reciting a manifesto, some guy giving a science speech – can now be vivid and captivating and large.

At other times, the arena had more the feel of a cathedral, with a titanic wall of stained glass at one end. Or, to put it another way, this was some of the grandeur and spirit for which people visited cathedrals before there was electricity. Either way, it seemed the kind of show only Catholics could stage.

There were startling and moving moments. As ‘One Tree Hill’ hit its stride, a beautiful pattern of koru motifs flowed across the curtain. The crowd went wild. Sounds cheesy? It wasn’t; it was a compelling way to accompany a song for a Maori New Zealander (I knew the late Greg Carroll – he was the kind of keen, capable, full-of-life guy everyone wants to do well). The local references strewn through the show – including the threading of lines from ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ into ‘Beautiful Day’ – were clearly a work of some care. It was a bit more than Hello Auckland!.

More often these days, a big show will feature very large, extremely vivid video screens – an innovation for which U2 can also take some credit (the first time I saw screens like that was at U2's 2003 Zoo TV concert at Western Springs, which I found pretty dull musically). When an artist can do more than just Really Big Television, it makes a difference. (I gather Adele's team shoots video of every city she plays to localise 'Hometown Glory', which shows an admirable attention to detail.)

In general, of course, productions will not be quite so huge, nor need they be. But creative integrity still matters. The staging for Nick Cave's show at Vector Arena in January – illustrated with projections onto a textured backcloth – was relatively simple, but it was in perfect sympathy with the music, through all its moods. It didn't make the music better (it was already great) but it made the experience of hearing the music better.

PS: if I'm reading Russell Baillie's tweet right, they solved the problem of getting Adele to her stage by sticking her in a road case and wheeling her there. She's a trooper.

–––

My night out this week was Wednesday, beginning with the official launch of Songbroker, Jan Hellriegel's innovative new publishing and licensing platform. Jan wrote about what she's done and why for us earlier this week. Yes, Songbroker currently sponsors this post, but I genuinely think this is an excellent innvotation in a part of the music business that largely hasn't followed the rest of the biz in becoming more bespoke and flexible. And I have a lot of time for Jan herself.

If you're thinking of using music in a screen production or even as part of an event, go and have a look at Songbroker and see if there's a New Zealand artist who has what you need.

From there it was up to K Road for the opposite of a launch – a closing down party. Tito Tafa's Rebel Soul Music has been the jewel in an otherwise dull arcade since it opened in 2015, but it hasn't proved sustainable and he's had to make the choice to close rather than renew his lease.

If it was a sad evening, it was also a great party, full of Tito's interesting friends, and I was a little slow to start my engines the next day.

Best of luck, man – you're a good dude.

–––

Ahead of tomorrow's Music 101 Alex Behan has posted a really useful report on how the music charts actually work these days. Which leads to the question: what are they for now?

–––

Whoop!

J.P.S.E. are getting together for a one-off show at Avondale's Hollywood Theatre to pay tribute to their former bandmate, the late Jim Laing. And they have a pretty serious lineup of guests helping out: Buzz Moller, Matthew Heine, Robert Key and Shayne P. Carter.

I gather the idea for the public show came after the remainingmembers got together and played at Jim's funeral. The show is on Saturday April 22 and you'd best buy your tickets here without delay.

–––

There's now a video for Fazerdaze's infectious 'Lucky Girl':

–––

Tunes!

New Sola Rosa – and it's nice and slinky. The three-track single (including an instrumental an a capella) is just three bucks on Bandcamp. (Gah. Sorry, the Bandcamp player won't embed right now ...)

And here's a damn good jam – Jimmy Edgar has posted this bouncy bit of techno as a freebie on Bandcamp ahead of concerts in the UK:

Tom Scott has busted out an unreleased (Home Brew?) demo from the vaults. It's about smoking weed ...

And lastly, via the Ghetto Funk crew, a remix of 'Mama Said Knock You Out' in the traditional noisy-assed bass-heavy ghetto funk style. Boom! (Click through for a free download) –––

The Friday Music Post is sponsored by:

Songbroker

Representing New Zealand music

17

A tale of two festivals

'The ugly side of Polyfest' blared TVNZ's headline about two fights near PolyFest in South Auckland last weekend. It was a horrible headline which appeared to imply that violence was somehow part and parcel of this annual cultural festival, now its 42nd year. It really isn't.

And, indeed, after a flurry of social media criticism, TVNZ completely rewrote both its headline and story as: 'It's incredibly disappointing' - police condemn teens for brawling near Polyfest as thousands watch fight vids. But the original version is still cached as: Graphic: The ugly side of Polyfest emerges as video captures teenage girl dragging another by her hair then punching her.

You'll note the new headline says "near", not "at" Polyfest. This is presumably a response to a statement from Counties Manukau Police which declared:

Over 90,000 people attended Polyfest in Manukau over the four-day festival and police were very impressed with the behaviour of those who attended.

Only two arrests were made during the event and these were not related to the event itself. No arrests were made in relation to the behaviour at the festival.

The statement said neither of the fights captured in Facebook videos actually happened at the festival. One was nearby and the other was outside Manukau's Westfield mall.  Both were on Saturday afternoon and it seems far from clear that the second was associated with Polyfest at all.

TVNZ did another thing: it removed the videos it had ripped from Facebook from the story. And really, while the framing might have been a result of racist assumptions, those videos were the only reason the story got space. The spectacle was the story. 

While TVNZ has copped plenty of flak, it should be noted that a number of other news organisations ran those videos too: Newshub, Stuff, the New Zealand Herald, Newshub again and the Daily Mail Online. Radio New Zealand and Māori Television managed to report the story – and the responses – with single stills from one video. Their stories lost nothing but spectacle. Maybe wringing your hands about violent videos getting thousands of views and then giving those videos a bigger platform isn't really a very consistent approach.

Ironically, on the same day, there was another troubled event in a different suburb where the property values are loftier – the one where I live. George in the Park was a partnership between Auckland Council's Music in Parks and MediaWorks' George FM. It featured Kings, Sola Rosa and Nice 'n' Urlich and, according to the council, 13,000 people converged on Point Chevalier's Coyle Park.

I actually doubt that figure (my guess was well under 10,000), but the streets north of Meola were certainly jammed in a way I've never seen them before, even for the Big Gay Out. I rode down there on my bike around 3pm and I could see it was parked up all over. The other thing I saw as I got closer was kids sitting around drinking. Why would you preload before going to a park?

The organisers had repeatedly appealed to people not to bring glass, but said the event was BYO if they wanted a drink. Unfortunately, a lot of people seemed to hear that as an instruction to turn up with boxes, slabs and bins of beer, cider and RTDs.

I was actually unnerved by the amount of booze I saw being lugged past me. And I've been to enough gigs to feel that that much alcohol in a very crowded park was not going to end well. I enjoyed Sola Rosa, but I felt a bit uneasy with it and didn't stay long.

Within an hour or two, all hell was breaking loose. Ambulances arrived to attend comatose punters. A guy tried to pee off the clifftop behind the stage, lost his balance and fell onto the rocks below. Another guy was found face down on the nearby tidal flats and had to be dragged to safety by members of the public (he was deposited on a grass verge where he remained apparently unconscious). A group of KCs turned up. Police cars converged. People staggered out and peed (and even shat) on nearby properties. There was a big brawl at the other end of Point Chevalier road, spilling across the intersection with Great North. It was a hell of a mess.

The council has since published a brief statement hailing the attendance but saying:

It was disappointing to see poor behaviour from a small number of attendees which didn’t reflect the intent of Music in Parks.

We regularly review how events are run to ensure they provide a fun and safe experience for Aucklanders.

My understanding is the council is unlikely to partner again with George FM. For whatever reason, the day went very differently than a Music in Parks event is meant to (although while the front of the park was heaving, the back field was pretty sweet, with stalls and even a man making bubbles for entranced children). And it does seem clear that they were surprised by the size of the crowd, which is why there weren't enough portaloos.

It's possible, I guess, that the mess may also result in a ban on BYO. Which would be a shame, because it's lovely being able to have a beer in the sun and listen to good music. In truth, the problem isn't the rules, it's the fact that people need need to bring a weekend's worth of booze to a four-hour event. It's us.

It's also worth noting that Polyfest was prominently advertised as drug and alcohol free.

But the striking thing is that in contrast to the events near Polyfest on the same day, none of this made the news. In part that's explained by the availability of shocking video that could be associated with Polyfest. But you have to wonder if that wasn't the only reason.