Neda Soltan: a song tribute by Siavash Shams

June 28, 2009

“A beam of light…Even in tragedy comes hope.”

 The 40 second video clip, showing the shocking death of 20 year old Neda Soltan in Iran just a week ago , after she was shot in the chest  by a volunteer militiamen, has been viewed by tens of thousands. 

The regime tried to suggest that she was shot from behind by a protestor. Some Iranian government newspapers even outrageously suggested she was shot at the instigation of a now expelled BBC correspondent in search of some graphic footage.  

A close second to the speed in which the tragic last seconds of Neda’s young life were flashed around the world was the indecent haste with which the authorities arranged her burial to pre-empt a funeral rally. The live obsequies may have been curtailed, but the virtual wake is a wake up call which keeps repeating itself via various YouTube iterations.

For a little less graphic and more heartfelt tribute to  Neda Agha Soltan, with insights into the private and public lives of some young tech savvy Iranians,  the link below musically weaves private and public images of Neda and her friends, telling the story of her life and her tragic death. It also lifts the veil on young, middle class urban Teheran.

Loaded onto YouTube yesterday, Neda Soltan: a song tribute by Siavash Shams has only been viewed 358 times so far.  It deserves a much bigger audience.

Insulting Our Intelligence

June 27, 2009

“I was assaulted by five Kiwis”  French Rugby International Mathieu Bastareaud.

In the spirit of the dogged pursuit by the New Zealand constabulary of the French state terrorists who clumsily sank the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 in Opération Satanique,  killing a photographer in the process,  five Wellington detectives spent five days last week exposing the “I was assaulted by five Kiwis” claim of French Rugby International Mathieu Bastareaud.

 Even Inspector Clouseau would have pounced like a panther and quickly realized that Bastareaud’s alleged “assault” was an inside cover up, if not an inside job. There were, after all, three rugby players, including the now disgraced Bastareaud,  and  two women who entered the hotel together early on Sunday morning. Numerical gender equality niceties, expressed in an equal ratio of males and females, has not always been top of the social agenda of rugby players in post-match warmdown mode. (And certainly not for Australian NRL players, who are in quite a different League). 

Perhaps there was a competitive  maul or a melee, with Bastareaud being sent to the blood bin by fellow players. Whatever the real story, in good French culinary tradition he is now being fricasseed in his own juices. French fries with that? 

If the French Rugby union take any action, say, like banning him for ten games, Bastareaud can take heart that, applying the Rainbow Warrior judicial penalty rebate scheme, he will only really be banned from two games-and given a Club Med holiday. 

The French water should be immediately removed from  the lying Bastareaud’s name.

[Diabolical Video:    In the absence of the purported cellphone video coverage footage of the alleged assault, here is some top secret footage of the French DGSE in training and in action in Sacre bleu!   This may not be satanic but it is certainly diabolical and viewer discretion and parental guidance are advised. ]

Tweeting as a revolutionary act

June 21, 2009

 Nevertheless, we can both agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world…”       Tweaked tweet from

35 years ago I met the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his wife,  Empress Farah. It was not an intimate occasion. We were lined up as (temporary) members of the City of Christchurch’s “civic list” on a civic pavement outside the city’s museum, to which generic institution history was soon to consign our visitor.

Each of us had a cursory shake of the imperial hand and a face-to-face view of the Shah’s hawk-like visage (no lowered eyes by egalitarian Kiwis to imperious eagles, just the usual diffidence). Five short years later-no cause and effect you understand-he and his regime had been toppled by revolution.

The crowds demonstrating in Teheran in 1978 and 1979 against the American-engineered regime of the Shah and his secret police were, for the most part, scrupulously non violent, just like the crowds demonstrating in Teheran in the last week. Despite that, hundreds and thousands were shot down in and became the martyrs whose blood sanctified and fuelled the revolution thirty years ago.

The death toll in the last week appears to be in single figures. The conservative Muslim regime does not want a rerun of three decades ago, particularly at a time when, despite the large scale expulsion of foreign journalists since the election, “citizen journalists”  have access to high definition video cellphones and all the electronic paraphernalia of broadband, satellite broadcasting and social networking to spread the word, and more graphically the graphics, at the speed of light.  Twitter and Facebook have been used extensively as tools by many young people to coordinate protests over the election’s outcome.

I had been searching for a serious rationale for my recent Twitter subscription to defend myself against the barbs of the anti-digerati. Just days after I joined last week here it was, on the micro blogger’s own homepage.    

  “Twitter is back and our network capacity is now significantly increased. The planned maintenance that we moved from last night to this afternoon was a success and it took half the time we expected.

When we worked with our network provider yesterday to reschedule this planned maintenance, we did so because events in Iran were tied directly to the growing significance of Twitter as an important communication and information network. Although presumed impossible if not extremely difficult, we decided together to move the date. It made sense for Twitter and for NTT America to keep services active during this highly visible global event.

It’s humbling to think that our two-year old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that state officials find their way toward highlighting our significance. However, it’s important to note that the State Department does not have access to our decision making process. Nevertheless, we can both agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world.”

Given Hillary Clinton’s comments that she did not wish to comment on the outcome of the Iranian election, while doing just that in the same breath, Twitter’s denial of being influenced by the State Department is interesting. President Obama is very new media savvy and one would expect the new administration to be on the virtual ball.

We can forgive the self-importance of Twitter’s statement (which took up somewhat more than the allocated 140 characters they allow their subscribers). The collective outpouring of Twitter is no mere dawn chorus. According to Wikipedia, in March 2009, Masters blog ranked Twitter as the fastest-growing site in the Member Communities category for February 2009. Twitter had a monthly growth of 1382%, Zimbio of 240%, followed by Facebook with an increase of 228%.

Despite the ornithological tweeness of its title, Twitter is a key part of the instant exchange of information, including most potently, and less banally, hyperlinks to richer content, including photos and videos, which balance state power with the power of networks of networks to engage and mobilise those formerly without power. This is what led to the recent acquittal of the woman accused of murdering the Chinese Communist Party apparatchik.

 For all that, I am not revolutionary enough to have my cellphone Twitter-enabled. The occasional tweet treat via my laptop, not 24×7 connectivity via my phone or PDA, is quite enough for me. 

Just half a gram occasionally is, of course, the epigrammatic emblem of all junkies. I can give it up at any time…

Do Seagulls Twitter?

June 20, 2009

On a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
For the poet’s eye…”        Be 
  Neil Diamond

I have just put my experimental toe in another part of the social networking ocean and joined Twitter. As you already know, is a free social messaging utility for staying connected in real-time. It enables its users to send and read each others’ updates, known as tweets, in response to one simple question: What are you doing?  

It was launched by founder Jack Dorsey, with only a small band, in 2006.  (Some of us recall yesteryear’s  Big Bands of Tommy and Jimmy like it was only yesterday).

I am not sure which name I prefer to describe my new electronic social status-twitterer, twit, or some other dirtier derivative appellation. (Of course “derivative” itself is now a dirty word).

 I was immensely flattered that within minutes of joining I had six new followers.  One does not have friends on Twitter, one has followers, or follows, or both at once to lock in new acolytes who invite reciprocity. No matter that some live in exotic locations and that two of my new followers had rather exotic user names.

 I expect a charity call from both of these sadly unprivileged ladies who are obviously so poor that they have very few clothes to wear. The only saving grace is that they do not live in Christchurch, New Zealand, where it is another extremely cold day and evidence that Global Cooling is, indeed, a reality, no matter what in-denial scientists and politicians may say to the contrary.

Speaking of politicians: if we ordinary mortals get such a better than aphrodisiac power surge from enrolling followers so quickly via Twitter, just imagine what past leaders, from Attila the Hun to Adolf Hitler, could have achieved if they were new media technology enabled.  Mind you, Adolf’s arm waving on the small screen would have been a bit disconcerting live on Skype and worse recycled endlessly on YouTube.  He would have definitely needed some of Brian Edwards’ media coaching before venturing any where near Nuremberg to rally the masses. (Nuremburg v1 before the war. Unfortunately, he missed Nuremberg v2 after it).

I  have also belonged to Facebook LinkedIn and Plaxo for some time, with somewhat circumscribed circles of friends, family and colleagues. I’ve only managed 10 on Facebook so far. Is this because of exclusivity or unpopularity? I tend to err on the side of the former, although I had been less than assiduous in my contact harvesting.  I’ve somewhat more on LinkedIn and more still on Plaxo-I figure they are more geared for grizzled professionals. (Let’s face it, while it is nice to catch up with old friends, I’m more interested in business networking and getting some messages out and even receiving the odd one just to show I’m a good sport).

 However, I do like the administration features on Facebook like Events etc. What I mainly like is that I can do-it-myself relatively easily. Whether the tools are effective is another thing, although the birthday prompter is a real domestic saviour.

 Self-effacing honesty has even obliged me to recently update my 9 year old photograph on at at least some of my social networking sites. This belated electronic honesty, my sources tell me, is not usually practised on the really social social networking sites, where apparently even a Phil Spector can appear less spectrally and more naturally if anachronistically hirsute, without the need for a wall of wigs.

But I digress quite uncharacteristically. The thing I have just discovered about Twitter and Facebook is that I can link the two and post a short message, inside Twitter’s  rather demanding, for me, 140 character limits per post, which points unsuspecting viewers and voyeurs to, say, this blog.

This has the enormous potential to increase my international readership to double figures. This is immensely encouraging. 99.9 per cent of bloggers know that blogging is really an onanistic if not autoerotic electronic experience -and a much safer one than than the non-online alternatives that have been very much in the news recently. The audited readership of most blogs is, for most if not all of the time, a circulation of one.

Life is an atmospheric or oceanic spiral, not a circle, hopefully a virtuously ascending spiral, not a viciously declining one. With the electronic needle and thread of social networks I can thread them altogether and cast my invisible electronic fishing line into hitherto uncharted seas and see what I can fish up and land before the seagulls get it.

But it gives me pause for thought to think that I have never heard seagulls twittering, though I must read Richard Bach’s book again to make sure I am not barking up the wrong tree.

Though the young and outwardly mobile demographic of Twitterers, whose parents were hardly born when it was recorded, may not agree, for the mellow and mature the lovely bit of Bach Jonathan Livingston Seagull -inspired Neil Diamond nostalgia  Be is much better than, say, the heavy metal of Sebastian Bach.

Nancy Wake-the path of most resistance

June 14, 2009

 “Freedom is the only thing worth living for.  While I was doing that work I used to think that it didn’t matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living.”  Nancy Wake

 Nancy Wake lives on as New Zealand’s unsung World War II hero.  After fighting with the French resistance she became one of the most highly decorated people of the war.  She received the British George Medal, the American Medal of Freedom and not one but two Croix de Guerre from the French as well as the Medaille de Resistance and later the Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur.

After Australian journalist and rugby player Peter Fitzsimons wrote her biography in 2001*, her adopted homeland belated recognized her. In 2004 Nancy Wake was, at long last, awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia.

 In 2006 Nancy received the New Zealand Returned Services Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold, as well as life membership for her work with the French resistance during the war. But at Government level she has not been given any recognition in her native land. It’s about time that was remedied while there is still time. 

Born in Roseneath, Wellington in 1912 Nancy has French Huguenot, English and  Maori ancestry. The family moved to Sydney when she was 20 months old. After  her father deserted the family Nancy, the youngest child, chafed at the restrictions of her religious mother.

The book which sparked young Nancy’s imagination was Anne of Green Gables, with its young,  forthright and unconventional central character and portentous opening lines: 

“The good stars met in your horoscope,

Made you of spirit and fire and dew.”

Nancy’s first awakening led her to run away from home at the age of 16 and became a country nurse under a false name, a lesson in subterfuge and coping with crises which stood her in good stead later in her deadly resistance missions in occupied France.

Her eyes were really opened when, as a young journalist, she was witness to an act of Nazi violence in Vienna. From that moment on she was determined to do all she could to free Europe of the Nazi plague.  She married a French businessman as the war broke out and lived a double life in Marseille as a member of high society and of the underground network, helping downed British airmen and others escape to Spain over the Pyrenees.

 Nicknamed the White Mouse by the Germans in the early part of her underground activities, she was anything but. In the words of her George Medal citation “Ensign Nancy Wake’s organising ability, endurance, courage and complete disregard for her own safety earned her the respect and admiration of all with whom she came in contact.”

Forced to flee to London via the mountain route, after months of training in the British Special Operations Executive, she returned to France by parachute in April 1944 in order to follow the path of most resistance.  Wake became a liaison between London and the local maquis group. She coordinated resistance activity prior to the Normandy Invasion and recruited more members. She also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ.

 On the one occasion, in order to replace the radio and codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, Nancy rode a bicycle for more than 130 miles through several German checkpoints without official papers.

During a Maquis raid in the closing stages of the European war, when the aim was to tie up as many German troops as possible and prevent them moving to the D-Day breakthrough, she killed a sentry, who had wounded her with a bayonet , with her bare hands, using a karate-like blow that had been ingrained in her by her SOE training and practiced thereafter, just in case.

Her strong personality, shrewdness and common sense- reinforced by her access by clandestine radio to military supplies delivered from England by parachute-gave her the unchallenged leadership of a large number of French patriots, a signal achievement in itself in a  male  military milieu.

 She was regarded as the bravest of the brave by her fellow resistance fighters. Colonel Paishing, the leader of the Spanish Maquis, delivered the piece de resistance for this resistance heroine: “She is the most feminine woman I know…. until the fighting starts! Then she is like 5 men!”

Nancy Wake is still alive, aged 96, in a London nursing home. She regards herself as still a New Zealander, though her last visit here was 85 years ago, and she has kept her New Zealand passport.

 She lived on the knife edge during her two quite different and extraordinary chapters of World War II. ** It may not be too late to put her on centre stage and give her the recognition that she so richly deserves in her native land.


*Peter Fitzsimons, Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, published by Harper Collins, 2001.


Chinese Materialism-a new dialect?

June 7, 2009

 “This is a society in which materialism reigns.  Young people go after enjoyment and so on.  You can understand why they don’t care as much about society’s advancement or democracy.”   Zhang Xianling    

 Zhang’s teenage son was shot during the 1989 protests. She is an “advocate for the dead”-one of the founders of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of Chinese activists pushing for a change in the government’s position over the suppression of the “counter revolutionary”  Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

 The group wants the right to mourn peacefully in public, no more persecution or imprisonment of participants or their families and a full public investigation.

 A lot has happened in China in the last 20 years, but there has been little change to the government’s Tiananmen intransigence, apart from a surprising one-off government payout of  70,000 yuan in 2006 to one of the victim’s families.

 In 1998, less than a decade after the Tiananmen tank tragedy, slumbering and lumbering state owned enterprises were reformed, with millions being laid off.

 In 2002 the Chinese Communist Party opened its membership to private entrepreneurs-the secular equivalent of opening the membership of the Roman Curia to card-carrying atheists. 

The 2003 Chinese manned space flight and the 2008 Olympics were twin markers of China’s centre front arrival on the global stage.

In the last two years China has got up to grab a bronze in the GNP marathon in the Economic Olympics, becoming the world’s third largest economy by pushing Germany into fourth place.

 Compared with 20 years ago, China’s youth at home and abroad are more pro-Chinese government and anti-West and also more confident and proud of China’s new place in the sun. Being banker to the United States is quite satisfying, too, if a little nerve racking right now.

Like Marx and Madonna, the young are openly adamant about living in a material world, even if they are clinging on by their fingernails to the economic rollercoaster in the current downturn.

 Protest precautions last week on China’s monolithic mainland were on high alert. The Internet was interdicted, the Web watched  and live memorial ceremonies banned.

 But  in the cosmopolitan microcosm of Hong Kong,  150,000 people took part in the annual candlelight vigil to mark this year’s 20th anniversary of the crushing of the protest movement in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.  They literally kept the flame of non-material aspirations burning as brightly as Blake’s Tiger.

 No revolution in the offing, even with the spectre of millions of unemployed graduates  let alone others, but the evolution of China is at another fascinating stage as it moves towards a new balance in the ever changing unity of opposites foreshadowed by the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. 

We need to attune our ears to the new dialect. It will be more subtle than a pop song, but very material.

Tiananmen Tankman 20 years on

June 6, 2009

 “… people all turned to making money, seeking their individual benefits and interests”.     Zhang Lifan    Historian, former political prisoner. 

You can keep your Batman, Spiderman and Superman: Tankman was a real if anonymous 20th-century hero in a white shirt and black trousers-no leotards, no gimmicks,  just plastic shopping bags and a lot of courage.

20 years ago the menacing column of 18 tanks started to pull out of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, after clearing it of protestors, to make their way down the near empty Avenue of Eternal Peace.   Out of nowhere materialised a slim male who stood in the direct line of the approaching tanks. As the lead tank got within a few feet he piroetted a risky zigzag, foreshadowing the tank’s evasive moves until it stopped.  He then jumped onto the tank and appeared to talk to the soldiers inside before resetting his  human barrier.  

 Then he was gone as mysteriously as he had arrived.  Executed, imprisoned or free? No  one seems to know for sure.  The graphic images of  the unequal standoff-the human spirit against the menace of war machines- have lived on everywhere except in China, where they are banned. 

 In 1998 Time Magazine featured the unknown Tankman on its cover as one of the 20th century’s 100 most influential people. 

Tight political control in the last 20 years, rising wealth, the self-confidence engendered by the 2008 Olympics and a wary distrust of Western democracies has lead to the emergence of an apolitical cadre of Chinese students, most of whom appear to know little of the Tiananmen tragedy and less of Tankman’s heroics the day after after the tanks rolled in and literally crushed the “counter revolutionary” movement for democracy.

 In the days leading up to the 20th anniversary the security forces have been circling the square like a non paper tiger patrolling its cage. This is not an occasion the authorities want marked.

You couldn’t access this YouTube item if you were in China-it’s behind a firewall in the Forbidden Digital City- but take a look (and a listen) at Peter M. Steven’s video compilation, with some posthumous musical help from John Lennon:

 [l1]Date 5 June

Paper Tigers

June 1, 2009

“All reactionaries are paper tigers.” Mao Tse-Tung

 More than 6 million university students are trying to enter the Chinese workforce this year. Given the fraught economy many will find difficulty finding jobs, which could explain why 46 university graduates have reacted by applying for jobs as public toilet attendants in the affluent eastern province of Jiangsu.

 At least one applicant was very philosophical about all those years of study down the gurgler “Better to be a toilet-master than unemployed at home”.  

 At first sight this seems to be a work ethic not always shared by some ex-students closer to home. But of course, the Chinese do not have access to unemployment benefits-or anything else which might be described as welfare payments, which seems rather ironic in a state ruled by the Communist Party. Starting at the bottom and pursuing affluence through effluence is a commendable proletarian activity for budding bureaucrats. They have more options these days and may just decide to become entrepeneurs instead.

Together with the new economic religion of foreign investment Confucianism has  been a experiencing something of a revival in China. Confucius emphasised the rectification of names. Fundamentally, for example, social disorder can stem from the failure to call things by their proper names.

One wonders what the toilet set will put on their cvs in years to come. The long list could include environmental engineer, waste disposal expert, sanitary specialist, civic sewage disposal engineer and emergency personal needs administration.

The more honest sons and daughters of the (night) soil might settle for toilet toiler or privy assistant. They’re unlikely to call themselves paper tigers-it would be too (counter) revolutionary.

Moving pictures

June 1, 2009

“It’s more than magnificent – it’s mediocre”.   Samuel Goldwyn

Most of us have enough trouble with three dimensions. New DVD technology has been developed by researchers at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne which lays data down in five dimensions and makes it possible to store more than 2,000 movies onto a single disc. This is about 10,000 times the standard DVD capacity and would even be enough to capture the entire series of Coronation Street since the beginning, plus all the adverts, with enough  storage space to spare for the Eastenders and all.

 My first experience with cinematography was as a small child in the late 1940s. We had somehow acquired a hand-cranked magic lantern and a tangle of short films.  For a penny a pop neighbourhod children could marvel at the celluloid wonders I projected in my bedroom onto the silver screen which doubled as one of my sheets. 

This thriving business came to a halt when I lent the projector to a student teacher at my school. His practice sojourn came to an end and he moved on with our movie projector.  When he next polished the lens,  I hope that a Sam Goldwyn-like genie materialised and brusquely brought home to him his cinematic sins.

Years later in the 1960s, when, despite this betrayal of trust, I myself had become a young high school teacher, I encountered the 16 mm film projector. This was a big step up from butcher’s paper and coloured pens, my first daring pedagogic departure from blackboard and chalk (apart from an occasional foray into static film strip projection).

 As well as  the dual instruction and solo training needed before you qualified for your 007 licence to operate the school’s single film projector, there were a daunting number of intermediary steps to be taken before a live screening to real pupils. You had to order the actual film months ahead from the National Film Library. You had to book the projector weeks ahead for your class. Then you had to get the projector to the right classroom with the right extension cords and thread the film the right way through a labyrinth of gates and sockets. Then you had to ensure that the sound system was indeed sound.

 When all was ready, you tested your class control by drawing the black curtains and turning the lights off.  (In co-educational classes you could well have been creating an unintended learning environment for hormonally challenged adolescents).

But when Adolf Hitler held the masses spellbound at Nuremberg or Russian troops emerged victorious from the snow at Stalingrad it was all worthwhile, broken film and hurried splices and all. History escaped from the stodgy embrace of the textbook and came to life.

 Now on Pathe or other online visual libraries you can preview and order film and video excerpts online for downloading and unlimited use inside a defined time period.

 In the meantime broadband limitations make it problematic to stream longer segments live. With the super new DVD, education resource providers will be able to pull together hours of film and video on one DVD and enable teachers, lecturers and students to bookmark and  go straight to the excerpt they want and play it on super economy sized plasma screens in high-definition, supposing  they are lucky enough to have such equipment.

 But , as Sam would have said, even on smaller screens this is more than magnificent!