Archive for June, 2007
In New Zealand, the government looks set to ban party pills — the tame imitations of ‘hard’ drugs such as ecstasy and speed that have about the same effect as five cups of coffee and give you a hurting hangover the next day. Because they’re controlled and regulated, they also provide a safe and legal alternative to the illegal and potentially harmful drugs available for just a little bit more money on the black market. But few people think in those terms.
In New Zealand, there have been some cases of young people spending a night in hospital with palpitations because of overdosing on these pills and mixing them with alcohol. Of course, those are idiot things to do. But how many young people have ended up in hospital because of overdosing on alcohol?
Can’t tell you that, but can tell you this, courtesy of No Right Turn:
- New Zealanders killed by alcohol: more than one thousand a year [PDF]
- New Zealanders killed by tobacco: 5,000 a year
- New Zealanders killed by BZP: none
If I were into clubbing, speaking really fast, and ‘getting fucked up’, I know what I’d do if party pills were taken off the market: I’d turn to speed or ecstasy, which are pretty much the same price, almost as available, and a lot better. Because speed and ecstasy are illegal, and therefore controlled by pushers who have an interest in making them more addictive and little interest in making them safe, I’d be taking more of a risk — but when it comes to getting fucked up, well, I wouldn’t really care.
Prohibition doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the 1930s US with alcohol — when murder rates shot to a high — it doesn’t work with marijuana (unless you assess efficacy according to the number of otherwise innocent people who have criminal records for using it), and for party pills, it’s just going to push users to look for their highs elsewhere.
Evidence of a drive-by holiday in the former Straits Settlements.
Georgetown in Penang, an island in Malaysia’s northwest, is a pretty contrast between colonial buildings and the markings and makings of a modern and developing state.
By boat, it’s two-and-a-half hours and approximately two bags of vomit to the duty-free zone of Langkawi, an island resort of plush hotels, agreeable beaches, and a cable car in the hills that you can only get to if you’re prepared to fork out for car rental. Consequently, this beach is about all I can tell you about in Langkawi.
I could fill a book with food photos from Malaysia (mind you, it’d be a very quick read). This dish is representative of the multifarious, and cheap, culinary delights on offer in this gastronomically sophisticated country.
Yep, they’re tall (second tallest building in the world, in fact) and, sure, they’re a testament to Malaysia’s advancement, but the Petronas Towers are also a potent advertising symbol for the state oil company — a message reinforced by an over-the-top exhibition and self-aggrandising promo video forcibly shown to tourists prior to ascent to the ‘skybridge’.
Old port town Melaka is at once charming and tawdry — a contradiction aptly summed up in this photo of a crumbling Christian monument juxtaposed with a tacky tourist trishaw (emblazoned with the colours and logos of a local telco).
The sharp-eyed among you will notice this isn’t Malaysia but in fact Bintan Island, Indonesia. I managed to pay this secluded getaway a quick visit from Singapore before embarking on my holiday proper. Most Singaporeans know Bintan Island as home to an expensive resort, but over on the other side you can find a different aspect closer to local culture and local prices. A bungalow here cost about HK$150 (US$19) a night.
Q: What’s the point of boring conferences in which you learn nothing?
A: The lunch buffet, and not much else. (Thank God for potato salad.)
Just now I struggled to stay awake through an hour of a monotone man proving to a room full of supposedly digitally-savvy marketers and agency types that, yes, it is possible to advertise on the interweb, and, gee, it’s a good idea to advertise cosmetics brands on fashion sites. Seriously, they flew him in from Australia to say that.
Earlier I sat through a presentation about games and advertising from an agency head who had given the exact same presentation seven months ago at a different conference. But he sure looks dapper in a suit.
The MC, a hyperactive and entertaining New Yorker, tried desperately to get a rise from the crowd — but he forgot he’s in Asia. Business isn’t a laughing matter. The people here are accustomed to a didactic and rote-learning-based education system and very hierarchical work places in which they must work 16 hours straight before even contemplating the prospect of going home for a quick sleep before starting the grind again. Jokes are a no no. And asking people in the crowd to raise their hands if they do this or that? Forgedda bout it. Best just to give it to them straight, forget irony exists, and collect your cheque at the end of it.
Other ‘presentations’ included sales pitches from Microsoft, Second Life (a very smug one at that), and Habbo Hotel. The first presentation might actually have been interesting, but I couldn’t read the slides because the lights were too bright and the aircon froze my brain.
Not that I’m complaining. I’ve got a sweet hotel, a per-diem allowance, and the potato salad was abundant. Life is good.
A headless body was washed up at one of the beaches here on Langkawi Island, Malaysia, a couple of days ago. Our hostelier told us it was in the news. That’s all we heard about it. I didn’t read the paper yesterday. Strangely enough, I read in the paper a few days before that a fisherman in nearby Thailand had brought in a severed head with his catch. I wonder if the two are related. (Sorry, no links because I’m on a dodgy computer and trying to save time.)
What has been all over the papers is a sensational murder case, in which a top political analyst and friend to the Deputy Prime Minister (though that’s never mentioned in the papers here) stands accused of being involved in the murder of his alleged one-time lover, a Mongolian beauty who had allegedly been demanding money from the analyst, Abdul Razak Baginda. The woman’s body was found blown to smithereens in a jungle courtesy of weapons that could only have been used by the government’s special forces. Two men from that unit are also on trial. Asia Sentinel has the full background.
Moving into lighter territory, if you needed any more proof that Australians are the biggest wankers in the world (note: joke), here it is.
The story: Australian man takes amphetamines and embarks on ‘masturbation marathon’. His 28-year-old female friend, in whose house this event takes place, gets pissed off when the man smacks his monkey in the bathroom while she’s trying to bathe her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. He refuses to stop. She grabs a knife and stabs him in the shoulder, twice. He pulls on his shorts, rushes outside to wait for police, and resumes the marathon in the confines of the garage.
Gotta admire that Australian spirit.
I’m in Langkawi, an island in the northwest of Malaysia, after a hectic weekend that saw me stop by Bintan Island, Indonesia, for a beautiful beach-side bungalow excursion, and after passing through quaint-but-not-much-going-on Georgetown, Penang. There I met a young English guy, a fellow backpacker, who had only recently experienced a night with a sultan’s nephew, in his palace. He had met the royal chap at a museum, and soon became looked upon wtih favour.
The palace, apparently, has its own personal race track and a golf course, among other trappings. My new buddy visited it at three in the morning, when the fat, cross-eyed, birthmarked, and especially amorous sultan-relative invited him to stay the night in his room, suggestively patting the bed on which he was sitting. My friend guy politely declined and bolted.
Yesterday, my first day in Malaysia, was spent walking, bussing, flying, eating, and drinking. No one told us two chaps there’d be nothing doing in Penang on a Monday night. Attempts to find anything even close to joviality in big empty bars that sold extortionately over-priced beers (damn Malaysia’s heavy taxes) proved fruitless — but it did mean an early night, which was good because we had to wake up early this morning to catch the world’s worst ferry to Langkawi.
I don’t remember experiencing a rockier boat ride — all two-and-a-half hours of it — or losing the contents of my stomach in such spectacular, and loud, fashion. I wasn’t alone, though. A number of others throughout the two levels of the boat were losing control of their insides, and for large parts of the trip there were multiples moanings, wretchings, and barkings at plastic bags. It was a veritable chorus of chunk-blowing, and I was proud to be a part of it.
But here we are, on dry land, in what could be one of the most beautiful island resorts in Asia. And it’s raining.
Can’t wait for a curry tonight.
It’s a turning point for my time in Hong Kong. Two very good friends are leaving the country. One, by week’s end, will be in Thailand. He’s been a great help, a great inspiration, and great company for the year or so that I’ve been here so far. J, you know who you are, and I’ll be visiting you — so make sure you get a place with a spare bedroom. And I expect you to have done comprehensive research on the best available Thai curries. Thanks for the journalism tips, thanks for the hook-ups, thanks for the time in Shenzhen, and thanks for all the stories. I won’t be forgetting them anytime soon.
My other friend — and I say that as if I only have two over here, which I guess is more or less accurate — will be returning to London, England, by the month’s end. I’ve known Ned for practically a year, and she’s been a great support, a great laugh, and a refreshing breath of authenticity in a city that sometimes lack exactly that quality. Ned, you’re going to kick arse wherever you are, and the best that I can hope for is that you’ll come see me on your holidays. Keep me on your email list, or I shall deal to you a grievance.
Best of luck to both of you. I know I haven’t seen the backs of you for good.
One of the stories I’m most proud of will never get a large readership. Probably fewer than 100 people have ever read it. I was at journalism school in Canada at the start of last year when I wrote it. I had been doing some freelance work on the side for a cancer support group, writing their newsletter, when I first encountered Gaye Stanley. I was asked to write a short piece about her to run alongside a poem she wrote about fighting cancer. I talked to Gaye, a florist, on the phone, did the piece and thought that was the end of it. But soon after, we were asked in class to write a profile for an assignment. I immediately thought of Gaye, because of her remarkable story and her determination to live.
I’m proud of the resulting story because I think captured well her spirit and her difficulties. Also, in terms of writing, it’s my A-material. I got good feedback from my teachers and the few others who had read the story. More importantly, though, Gaye liked it, and from my conversations with her since, it actually seemed to have a meaningful impact on her life. She hoped it would help other cancer sufferers.
Gaye had survived two debilitating cancers and the horrors of the accompanying treatment, despite being told by doctors at the time of diagnosis she may have less than a year to live. But at the time of that story, there was another lingering doubt, a return of a dark cloud. They’d found spots on her liver. It was some weeks after the story was published that Gaye wrote to me to confirm that, yes, it was cancer. She’d have to pick herself up and face the horror again. The outlook was bleak.
Today I opened my email to find Gaye had written. Somehow she has done it again. She has managed to defeat the “vicious bandit,” as she called it. Her doctors are not really sure where the spots on her liver went, she said. She thinks it’s something to do with alternative medicine, which she had been taking in tandem with her conventional treatments. Whatever it was, she’s now cancer-free, and I couldn’t be happier for her. I’m lucky to have met her.
In tribute to Gaye, I’ve decided to re-publish her story here.
‘I am not dying’
Gaye Stanley has prepared herself as carefully as a bouquet. Her leopard-skin jacket is folded on the booth seat beside her. Her hair — grown back now — is a shoulder-length cushion of brunette with blond streaks. Her fingernails, gently tapping the white ceramic coffee mug, are painted pink and decorated with stickers of tiny dragonflies. Her face, with eyes never far from tears but resolutely holding them back, belies her 56 years — never mind her blood clot, her chemotherapy, her six operations, her two cancers.
It is a face of determination. Gaye Stanley refuses to die.
In April 2004, Stanley was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. By the next month, it had attached to her liver. Her doctors at the London Health Sciences Centre told her to spend the summer with her three kids — Shannon, 35, Michelle, 33, and Scott, 28 — because it might be her last.
She was shaken, of course. Her first reaction was to go to bed — for a week. But then she decided she wasn’t going to let it beat her.
“I had to gather all this strength and get up and say, Okay. I. Am. Not. Dying.”
With the support of friends, family, her doctors, and God, Stanley has made it to see another March — another birthday month. It also happened to be colorectal cancer awareness month.
Though it’s preventable and treatable if detected early, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in this country. More than 8,000 Canadians died from it last year.
“People are so shy about their bowels,” says Stanley. “We’re dying of embarrassment.”
The cancer’s major mark, rectal bleeding, is painful and not pretty, but to ignore it is to invite more pain than most can imagine. In two years, Stanley has endured six operations, the removal of half her liver and six months of excruciating chemotherapy.
She remembers lying on her couch, unable to turn on either side because of the pain from the operations, staring up at the ceiling and feeling that everything inside her was dead. She wore wigs to cover her chemo-induced baldness, and she no longer recognized herself in the mirror.
One day, near the end of her course of chemotherapy, her arm turned purple. The catheter used to administer the medicine intravenously had fallen out. She called her nurse, who told her to go to the hospital. There she was told she had a blood clot in her neck.
So, on top of the chemo, on top of the CAT scans, on top of the dyes put into her body to highlight the outline of the cancer in X-rays, she was put on blood thinners — a form of rat poison.
“It leaves you lifeless.”
But she believes it has all happened for a reason. “I feel like God has chosen me because I am strong and I can get through this.”
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about it, but I want to save other people. I don’t want anyone to go through this.”
Stanley, a florist, has had a strong compassionate streak from an early age. Her father, Willard, a jeweller, was killed in a car accident when she was just three years old. She helped her mother, Lila, raise her two younger sisters, Joy and Cheer, in Dutton, Ont.
Gaye, Joy and Cheer — Willard chose the names because he wanted his girls to be happy. His death was Stanley’s introduction to mortality — something she has been constantly reminded of ever since.
When she was 17, the four kids she used to nanny during her summer holidays burned to death in a house fire. Her stepfather succumbed to brain cancer, lung cancer and Crohn’s disease. Cancer also claimed her 12-year-old cousin; a car crash took her brother-in-law. And in 2000, her 47-year-old younger sister Cheer, whom the family called Sherry, died in another car accident.
Her twice-widowed mother Lila, 78, has arthritis and Parkinson’s disease.
Not long after Cheer died, at a time when Stanley’s conversations with God had taken a sour turn, Lila had one more shock to announce. She introduced Stanley to a half-sister, Susan, now 48 and living in Rockton, Ont. It was a “lovely surprise,” says Stanley. She had lost one sister and gained another.
She thinks all the grief may have taken its toll on her body; that perhaps it has something to do with her cancer — after all, she has lived a relatively healthy life, only smoking lightly for a short time and not drinking much. It might also explain her devotion to her children and her three grandchildren. They’re the reason she refuses to give in.
“Just looking at them gives me the strength to go on.”
Shannon Stanley, Gaye’s first-born, has a special bond with her mother. She confesses to once being a rotten teenager but says the two now confide in each other. When she had her own daughter, she had an epiphany and wrote a letter to her mother in calligraphy, explaining how much she cared about her. The letter was written 11 years ago. It is still pinned to Gaye’s headboard.
Despite her own enormous difficulties — she lives alone and struggles to pay the bills because she’s still too sick to return to work — Gaye is always willing to lend a sympathetic ear to her daughter’s problems.
“She’s a wonderful person. I admire everything about her. I only hope that I can continue to grow to be the same wonderful kind of person she is,” Shannon says.
Marion Binks, who’s been a friend to Stanley since they were at school together in Dutton 50 years ago, shares similar sentiments. “She is an amazingly strong person. What she has endured in the past two years is unbelievable.”
Binks, 57, made meals for her friend for a year while she recovered. When she was cooking dinner at home, she would always put aside some for Stanley. Every couple of weeks she would take a laundry basket full of the frozen meals in plastic containers to her friend.
It’s that sort of support that has helped the friendly florist through these tough times. She was never alone during a chemotherapy session — a friend sat alongside her each time — and friends would often bring her groceries or pick her up to take her shopping. She looked after her inner self through healing sessions at the Wellspring cancer support group, and she’s enormously grateful to the “cancer drivers” — volunteers who drove her between home and hospital and around town.
As a gesture of thanks, she presented them with a toy car decorated with daffodils and a small picture of herself waving from the driver’s seat. “You’re simply the best,” she wrote. “Thanks for the ride!”
She now gets about in her own sporty yellow “mid-life crisis car,” which keeps breaking down. Later, she’ll take it to the car hospital to have its insides looked at.
She had her own insides looked after at London’s University Hospital and credits her doctors there — Patrick Colquhoun, Douglas Quan, Ian Kerr, and social worker Veda Goodwin — with saving her life.
But it might not yet be time for the final thank-you speeches. Her doctors have found another spot on what remains of her liver and think it is probably cancer. Stanley will have to face yet another struggle.
In the meantime, she has returned to a hobby she last practised as a 19-year-old just about to marry the husband she eventually divorced in 1987. For the first time in more than 35 years, she’s writing poetry. Her writing needs a little “polishing up” but she knows the feeling is there, and it helps her better know herself.
In one of her works, she describes her attempts to face the disease by listing the emotions she called upon when Cancer Came Knocking — the name of the poem. First she sent Fear and Anxiety to answer the door, but they cowered in sight of the monster. Pride failed too. In the end, only Strength would stand up to the mighty bully:
“I must ask you to leave,” said Strength, and the bully seemed to shrivel and die.
Anxiety and Fear also left as Compassion was now at the door.
Kindness and Love stood with Compassion and they waved goodbye to Anxiety and Fear forever.
A couple of posts ago, I pointed to two technologies that were closing the gap between the digital news experience and the paper news experience. Today I read of another technology that is blurring the distinction between the physical and the digital and adding new meaning to the term ‘multimedia’.
Researchers at a Swedish University have made paper that talks.
As you can see from this demo video, people can touch this special paper to activate audio played by printed speakers. The context in which is demonstrated in the video shows its potential for advertising — it could bring new interactivity to billboards, for instance — but there are significant possibilities for media, too. Imagine, for instance, reading a review about a new album in your favourite magazine and being able to listen to sample tracks by pressing some printed ‘buttons’ at the bottom of the page.
(Okay, stop imagining it now, dork.)
How does it work? I’ll leave that complicated description up to the BBC:
The key to the billboard’s capabilities is a layer of digital paper that is embedded with electronics.
This is printed with conductive inks, which, when applied with pressure, relay information to a micro-computer that contains recorded audio files. Sound then streams out from printed speakers, which are formed from more layers of conductive inks that sit over an empty cavity to form a diaphragm.
This functional layer is sandwiched between a thick sheet of extra-strong cardboard and another sheet of paper that is printed with the billboard’s design.
At this stage the technology is prohibitively expensive, but the research, funded in part by the EU, is ongoing. Maybe there’s hope for newspapers yet…
Hat tip: Advertising Lab
The ever-thoughtful Jeremy Wagstaff, blogger and Wall Street Journal tech columnist, has joined a discussion about the future of the interview with a partial defence of ‘live’ interviews over email interviews. This was in response to discussion arising from a Newsweek story about a Wired reporter who was offered interviews on an email-only basis (which the reporter declined). Jeff Jarvis, a Guardian columnist, blogger, media consultant, and director of the interactive journalism programme at the City University of New York, has also weighed in, saying he prefers email interviews and proffers that they can only help improve journalism.
I find this alarming.
For an interviewee, it’s easy to make an argument in favour of email interviews. Here’s what Jarvis offers:
I’d say that reporters who insist on doing interviews on the phone without benefit of thought, time, and transcript are robbing us all of priceless knowledge, accuracy, and context.
Meanwhile, he argues, email interviews offer a kind of informational utopia:
subjects can give more accurate, complete, and cogent answers to questions. Answers never need be misquoted and they need never be taken out of context; we can link to quotes in their fullness and in context. And for whose [sic] who want to read more, it will be there.
In some cases, that’s true, and it’s okay. But what’s more important is what’s lost.
Wagstaff starts getting to this by pointing out an interview is an interaction between two or more people and not just a series of questions. Much of communication is non-verbal, and gestures, pauses, diagrams and even throat-clearings have a large part to play in interviews, just as they do in everyday conversation. As Wagstaff explains, interviews are also a chance to capture the tone or character of a subject. If all the world’s stories were formed around email interviews, we’d have nothing interesting to read except colourless ‘he said/she said’ accounts that seldom transcend a set of talking points.
But it’s more than just that.
Award-winning media blogger and NYU journalism associate professor Jay Rosen says “interviews have been an exercise in unequal power between the writer and the submissive subject,” according to Newsweek. That may be true, but it’s justified. Interviews are usually conducted because the subject is already in a position of power. The power could be overt, where, say, the subject is in government, or it could be subtle, where a subject is a holder of information from which a readership could benefit. In these cases, journalists represent their readerships — it is their responsibility to gather the best information in the best possible way, even if it makes the ‘submissive subject’ uncomfortable.
Interviewees already do everything possible to restore the ‘power balance’. In the case of politicians or prominent businessmen, this will often mean having PR people prep them, if they choose to accept an interview in the first place. Such prep can involve coaching on how to answer certain questions and how to spin responses so they reflect well on their party/government/organisation, and even a briefing file on the journalist conducting the interview. If a journalist can cut through all that crap to get that ‘gotcha’ moment, then full credit to him. Here’s a reality check, though: that hardly ever happens. Media training is so effective that most interviews are boring and predictable.
Still, there are exceptions. Every so often there’ll be a case where the interviewer stumps the media-trained interviewee, or gleans a revealing comment in a moment of candour. One example that springs to mind is a radio interview former National party and Opposition leader Don Brash did just before New Zealand’s 2005 elections in which he apparently inadvertently admitted knowledge of a smear campaign by the Exclusive Brethren against the ruling Labour party and the Greens. On the other hand, an interviewee can make a wry or witty aside that reflects well on him (this happened to me recently when a Pontiac marketer said his sales up-tick was a “pretty rare thing for a GM brand”).
This will never happen in an email interview, where interviewees will always tread the safe path and never say something that’s outside their very specific agenda. And if a subject wants to dodge a question? No problem — they can just type in a partial answer, avoid it entirely, or pretend it’s a different question altogether and answer accordingly. In short, email interviews facilitate even more spin in an already-over-spun media environment.
Jarvis and other proponents of email interviews are often concerned they’ll be misquoted, or have comments — quoted partially or in full — taken out of context. Fair enough — those errors happen all the time, they can affect careers, personal lives, and businesses, and those journalists who transgress shouldn’t get off lightly. Often, though, it’s a case of the interviewee just not liking how they look or sound when the quotes or details are put into a story. (After all, our views of ourselves infrequently correlate with others’ opinions.)
Still, there are easy solutions to that. You could start by recording the interview — which is increasingly easier to do, given the prevalence of recording devices on cellphones and MP3 players. But that’s not always convenient, especially if an interview is done spontaneously on-the-spot, or if it’s a quickie by phone, in which case it would be annoyingly cumbersome to set up recording equipment for just a couple of soundbites.
My preferred solution is to check quotes (and only quotes) with the interviewee, just as facts are checked by any good media organisation. China media blogger Jeremy Goldkorn from Danwei asked this of me after a brief interview earlier in the year. All he wanted to know was that I had quoted him correctly, so he asked that I email him the quotes I was considering using in the story. I’m a pretty accurate note-taker but I know I’m not infallible — checking quotes by email to make sure I got the correct meaning is a pretty quick and easy way to set both my and the interviewee’s minds at rest. And in that situation, I still have the power to say no if the interviewee wrongly tries to change what he said.