“So how do you feel about your light bulbs being stolen?”

Arie Smith-Voorkamp was the face of Christchurch earthquake looting because of the media attention he received. He made it onto at least one of the <insert bad thing here> the [email protected]@#%^## Facebook groups. Shame on the looters! There is no excuse. Who are they to pick on the poor people of Christchurch?

The loot

The story gets interesting when you find out what he is alleged to have stolen. Two light bulbs from an untenanted and vacant building. Police describe the nature of the offending as serious and say that there is a strong public interest in the case. Arie was in jail for 11 days.

Asperger’sEarthquake Damaged Building

Arie has Asperger’s syndrome which fuels his obsession for all things electrical, including old light fittings. “Sometimes I get that excited about it sometimes I can’t sleep.” He had walked past the building many times, and became fixated on a switch in the shop. Once inside he found that the switch was too modern, but found two light bulbs that he thought he could clean up and display in his house. He says he was not thinking about theft, or the danger he was placing himself in.

Sunday programme

The Sunday programme ran a story about Arie last week, which seemed to excite the Police. Canterbury Central Police Area Commander Inspector Derek Erasmus suggested to the building owners they call TVNZ to try to stop the story going to air.

“On Friday the Sunday programme received an email from Inspector Erasmus advising us that we were under criminal investigation in relation to our story. So we’ll keep you updated on that.”

The victims

Building owners Andrew and Irene Matsis didn’t even know about the “theft” until Sunday contacted them for the story. This seems to contradict the Police calling the offending serious. Surely in serious offending the victims would actually be notified.

“Well since Sunday interviewed the Matsis’ a fortnight ago, senior Police have visited the couple twice. The first time Thursday and again Friday. On Thursday in a press release Inspector Derek Erasmus, said the Matsis’ were now happy for the case to proceed to court, where the matter should be resolved. Sunday spoke to Andrew Matsis just hours ago, he’s happy for the case to go to court but hopes Arie’s name will be cleared.”

On the programme, Andrew says if he knew about the alleged looting he would’ve been angry at Arie for putting himself in danger, not for pinching anything.

Andrew and Irene say they would not have pressed charges if they were contacted by the Police. The interview resulted in the hilarious question: “So… how do you feel about your lightbulbs being stolen?” to which Irene replied: “We do not care about our lightbulbs, he’s welcome to them. And you can tell the Police, I mean we have more important things [to deal with, our] house is falling down and we’re going to worry about light bulbs? No.”

I know stealing is stealing (though is it in this case if the building owners say he is welcome to the light bulbs, abeit after the fact?), but common sense dictates there is a better use of court time and money than to make an example out of someone who offended as a result of a documented disability, who has an unblemished criminal record, and who has already served jail time just because he took a couple of lighting fixtures.

Andrew Matsis: You said you never had any other history of doing anything like that before?
Arie Smith-Voorkamp: No.
AM: First time with the Police?
ASV: Yes.
AM: And they make a court case. What a waste of money.

What do you think? Is there no excuse for looting, no matter the situation?

Image credit: Me

Judging a Book By Its Cover

A book on the deaths of the Kahui Twins, written by Ian Wishart in conjunction with Macsyna King, is going to be released soon. A bookshop advisory on new titles was leaked to TVNZ and publicity around the book started earlier than intended, unfortunately directly coinciding with the inquest into the death of the twins.

A Facebook group is calling for the boycott of the book, and apparently the boycott of shops who choose to sell the book, and a couple of bookstores listened. From reading some of the comments on the page, it is clear that some commenters are misinformed. Paper Plus and The Warehouse have both said that their stores won’t be stocking the book. Whitcoulls is still considering whether it will or not. Paper Plus chief executive Rob Smith said: “The health and wellbeing of children is always front of our mind when we are faced with decisions which might impact the stores and the communities in which they operate”. It’s not clear to me how stocking a book not intended for children, and which doesn’t encourage child abuse would impact the health and wellbeing of children. There actually isn’t a clear reason why the book is harmful at all, nor is there a clear reason why it shouldn’t be stocked, apart from “we don’t like it/Macsyna”. Like Steven Price says, no one has actually read the book, how can they make an informed decision that they don’t like it?

Censorship causes blindnessMacsyna King cooperated with the police and was a prosecution witness, she hasn’t just decided to speak now. She isn’t profiting from the book either, Ian says: “Apart from sharing a Domino’s pizza during lunch, Macsyna has never received anything nor will she.” Ian will earn money for the book, but points out that researching and publishing a book takes time and money and that media organizations get paid for their reporting too (apologies if there’s a country block on the video): “When I worked for TVNZ, I earned a six figure salary to do investigations into cases like this one. I had the luxury of expenses being covered, helicopters at my beck and call, and lots of lovely advertising to pay for all this.”

Books like Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler (Amazon, Book Depository) are stocked not because the sellers agree with the content, or approve of the author, but because as a society we value all viewpoints, although don’t necessarily agree with them.

Booksellers New Zealand, which represents Paper Plus and many others, says such a move is rare, and dangerous.

“It would be an attack on democracy if we started banning books that some people didn’t like,” said Booksellers. “It’s a matter of personal choice and it’s something we cherish in our democracy”.

Perhaps ironically, criticism was directed towards family members who didn’t want to speak out at the time of the death of the twins. Now someone is speaking out and people don’t want to listen to her. It’s great that companies are taking feedback into consideration, but maybe this a case of the loud minority being listened to. Boycotting a book by deciding not to buy it yourself is fine, but those people shouldn’t make a decision on behalf of everyone else. Macsyna King wants to shed some light on how her lifestyle was molded, maybe we should be listening.

Do you think the book should be stocked? Will you read it?

Image credit: Tracey R

The Best or Worst Flowchart Ever

Depending on whether you want MMP to stay or go.
2011 Referendum Election Flowchart2011 Referendum Election Flowchart
(Click for larger versions)

Alongside the general election this year on November 26th, voters will also be voting on whether they support the MMP voting system or would prefer to change to another system. There will be two parts to the referendum (both are optional, so someone could vote for neither parts, both parts, just the first part or just the second part):

  • Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system?
    • I vote to keep the MMP voting system
    • I vote to change to another voting system
  • If New Zealand were to change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?
    • I would choose the First Past the Post system (FPP)
    • I would choose the Preferential Voting system (PV)
    • I would choose the Single Transferable Vote system (STV)
    • I would choose the Supplementary Member system (SM)

If at least half of the voters vote to keep MMP, there will still be an Electoral Commission review of it in 2012. If at least half of the voters vote to change the voting system, Parliament will decide if there’s another referendum in 2014 (Stuff has reported it as 2016, but it’s 2014 on the Elections 2011 website) to choose between the most popular alternative (according to the second part of this referendum) or MMP.

STV is probably the only other roughly proportional voting system, with the number of MPs elected reflecting the total share of the party’s votes across the country. However some people might feel their STV vote is useless because if they are in an electorate that predominantly supports, say, National, their vote for a, say, Green MP won’t “count” towards the Green party at all unless the Green MP wins that electorate. MMP is still the best system and results in a proportional and representative Parliament.

It’s arguable that few people actually know how our current or past election systems work(ed), even after having them in place for years. No information explaining the different systems was included in the flowchart’s mail out, except saying that more information will be, I assume mailed out (what about the [email protected]@), closer to election day and that information is also available on the Elections website. However, most people are inherently lazy and are unlikely to seek out additional information themselves. This will probably benefit the status quo.

Tweeting on election day

The Electoral Act prohibits “electioneering” on election day (midnight-7pm), meaning it’s illegal to distribute statements likely to influence voting decisions. The fine for electioneering on election day is up to $20,000. Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden says that social networks (Twitter, Facebook…) are covered by the ban and will be checked on election day for influencing material. He says “For a long time, the law has allowed for campaign-free election days, and my sense is that New Zealanders like it that way and so it’s not really in people’s interest to do things like tweet and breach the rules.”

This is stupid.

Amanda Palmer quite accurately compares Twitter to a bar. It can be great and you can find some really interesting people using it, or sometimes you can have inane conversations about nothing. The bar analogy also works for how tweets are shared. Tweets are only “sent” to users that “opt in” to receiving them, just like someone opts in to a conversation in a bar. Maybe they overhear part of a conversation, or are aware of it because their friends are involved, but they can choose to ignore it or join in themselves. This is just like Twitter: you could be aware of a conversation or tweet because of search, through someone you’re following on Twitter, or looking at profiles, but you’re able to ignore the tweet, unfollow or block the users involved if you don’t like it.

Social networks are clearly different to someone erecting an election sign in their front yard and tweeting to a relatively small number of users who have opted in to receiving your tweets shouldn’t be considered ‘seeking to influence the public’ even if it is about who you’re supporting in the election.

In Canada, Twitter users are unhappy about a law that bans the premature transmission of election results—mentioning election results in Montreal in the east before the booths have closed in Vancouver in the west, with a fine of up to $25,000. Users of social networks realized that this applied to them and for their May 2nd election protested against the rule by tweeting the results of the election using the hashtag #tweettheresults.

It would be awesome if something like that happened here (but I obviously wouldn’t condone it).

A New Normal

Christchurch Earthquake 22.02.11

A month ago, to the day, a new normal for all of us in Christchurch began. Tap water isn’t drinkable and now smells like bleach. The CBD is a wreck, something like one in three buildings will have to be demolished. The roads are covered with bumps, cracks and silt. And the game of guessing the magnitude of an aftershock has lost a lot of it’s charm. On the morning of the 22nd, school started later because of a teacher’s union meeting. Friends from school posted on Facebook that the school swimming sports weren’t going ahead that day because of the weather. It was looking like an average day.

At 12.51pm I don’t think anyone realized that the quake was going to be any different to the numerous other aftershocks we’ve had. But this one kept going. Everyone in the Chemistry lab we were in safely got under the tables. Maybe surprisingly, no chemicals were spilled or glass broken. After the shaking stopped, I grabbed my bag on the way out and we all went to the field.

About an hour later, still on the field, just after replying to someone on Twitter that they should hold off trying to get in touch with friends in Christchurch via phone because it sounded like everyone was fine, I read a tweet that the quake had claimed lives. We experienced a strong aftershock while at school near the end of last year. I think we all thought that this would be the same: that there would be no deaths, not 166+. That the city centre would be accessible in a few days if it was cordoned off at all, not in months. That boiling water wouldn’t be required at all, not for longer than a month. The 166+ people dead are our people. I completely agree with Moata that it’s unlikely that someone in Christchurch doesn’t at least know someone who knows someone who has had to attend a funeral over the past few days and weeks. No one thought we would have to adjust to a new normal.

“All of my friends and family have been accounted for, though the chances that an acquaintance or a friend of a friend has not been killed is fairly low. There are only a couple of degrees of separation in Christchurch.”

Technology

A few days post-quake, I saw an article about cyberbullying in schools relating to teachers searching phones. I’m not doubting the seriousness of the problem, but one of the commenters suggesting banning cellphones altogether in schools. Without most students having a cellphone, the task of getting everyone home from school with an adult (especially for younger students), with limited access to buildings (and their landlines) until they were checked by engineers would have been made even more difficult. Technology is something that should be embraced everywhere. The uses of it post-disaster illustrate that point perfectly. Garth Bray, a TVNZ reporter, talks about how helpful smartphones were after the Japan earthquake here.

Back at home, a few hours afterward, our place was relatively untouched. The power and water were out and silt made it’s way into the garage, but they were little problems compared to the big picture. With our cellphones, mobile data and battery powered radio, we still felt connected.

In the time it took me to get home, the IT community of New Zealand and beyond already had the EQ.org.nz map up in one form or another, running Ushahidi (I love the name, it is the Swahili word for “testimony or witness”). Over the next two weeks it complemented media coverage by mapping the locations of important resources for Christchurch residents, like available ATMs, petrol stations that were open and what the restrictions on petrol there were, where water, medical treatment and showers were available…. Within a day or two they managed to arrange the short code text service for EQ.org.nz with Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees, volunteers to man the messages coming in through the website, meetings, a partnership with the Student Volunteer Army and media coverage (the map was mentioned in newspapers, on the TV news, on Teletext(!), Fair Go and by the @CEQgovtnz Twitter account)… If I was in charge of an emergency, I’d want to be working with these guys. The media were great. Fairfax, and in particular Reuben Schwarz liaised with EQ.org.nz and Stuff.co.nz switched from using their own instance of Ushahidi to the EQ.org.nz instance. Google and TradeMe, among others, set up pages to help too.

By now, my sister had walked home from the CBD with colleagues and brought with her the war stories of what town was like. What the Cathedral looked like, the chaos and the people. That the huge window beside her that she climbed out of had luckily burst outward instead of bursting in towards her.

The paper blowing down the street in this video is chilling. The businessmen in suits trying to do what they can to help and office workers turning into rescue workers is heartwarming.

Over the coming days we started to get into the hang of the new normal, which involved filling up bottles of water at my granddad’s house and using his shower. A couple of times we received wrong number calls from people trying to find out if their loved ones were okay. They responded with something along the lines of “oh, I thought you were x and alive”.

The two times I ventured into the cordon with Project7 as a photographer, everyone was friendly, including the army personnel and the other media. The feeling in the cordon was eerie and somber, but still hopeful. Silt that had emerged from beneath the ground had effectively buried cars parked on the streets. Shop fronts were shattered and fluro writing was spray painted on to mark that a building had been checked for people. Cars were crushed by falling masonry. Buildings had collapsed. About a month before the quake I was at the top of the Cathedral’s tower, which collapsed in the quake and near the top floor of the Forsyth Barr building, where the exit stairwells collapsed. I had a slight feeling of guilt that media were allowed in the cordon, but business owners that needed to get essential equipment and documentation out from their buildings were not. I know businesses were starting to be let in shortly after my last trip in, but there is still anger within the business community. I think many probably regret not grabbing some things on their way out.

I have mixed feelings about the memorial service that was held. I didn’t attend, or really watch it, but I have read that many people found it touching. On the other hand I read that some families couldn’t bring themselves to attend because their grief was still too raw. Businesses would have felt the effect of either having to close for another day, or paying employees time and a half plus giving them a day in lieu. Students missed out on another day of school. It sounds like it helped people, which is great, but I think it could have been held at a better time later on.

If the quake did anything, it made everyone stronger. It confirmed what I think everyone knew, that in a natural disaster there are many people who are kind and selfless. Our New Zealand spirit shined. CTV’s building was one of the most badly hit but the message on their channel was “down but not out”. The press conferences introduced foreign media to terms like buggered and munted. Our mayor, Bob Parker, in one of the press conferences talked about one of the main sign language interpreters being given the name “hot Jeremy” by a Facebook fan page. Forgotten time capsules were discovered in town. And a boulder that smashed through someone’s house was sold via a hilarious auction on TradeMe.

You can have a look at my photos of the quake here, here and here.