Hold the phones!

Bob's dinner
Facebook fad – taking photos of your food

Kiwis are the salt of the earth, that’s what people say. They might not know the derivation of the saying, but it feels good to pay the compliment when a Kiwi has done a good day’s work, done you a favour, or given you directions to Haast Pass.

The most recent example I have of their salty earthiness was in February, when I was about to leave Napier for Taupo, having failed to find my misplaced mobile phone. We looked everywhere. We rang my nephew and asked if perhaps I’d left it at his place the night before at his 50th birthday party. No appearance your worship.

So I was sitting in the hire car at a servo some 20 kms out of Napier reading the fine print of our travel insurance policy when my partner’s phone started buzzing. I answered it and here was this lovely laconic Kiwi lass informing me her partner had been out for a run that morning and found my phone lying on the grass (on the other side of the road outside my nephew’s house). She had looked up my log and called the last number I dialled. “Choice”, as they say over there. So we detoured back to this kind person’s place after first buying her a double movie pass gift voucher.

“Oh you didn’t have to do thet,” she protested. But I did, really. There are 1100 contacts in my phone and the fine print said I’d first have to file a police report (really!). The insurance claim was limited to $500 for any one item and then there was a $200 excess. So considering I’d just signed a two-year contract in December and the handset cost $895, I would have been well in the red.

We Asia-Pacific people have a full-on love affair with our mobile phones. The Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) annual report tabled in Parliament in December 2013 says there were 31.09 million mobile services in operation in Australia as of June 30, 2013 (we number just 23.74 million, so it appears some folk have more than one phone.) This was just 3% more than the year before, which suggests demand is peaking. ACMA says 11.9 million people have a smartphone, which means they can use the internet.

As a result, 7.5 million Australians used their mobile phones to get on the internet last year. (You’ll note we didn’t say “access” because this column is trying to avoid misusing the language.) That was a 33% increase over 12 months and a 510% increase since 2008.

Meanwhile She Who reads Newspapers has just bought a pre-paid touch phone to replace the useless one that lived with who knows what at the bottom of her handbag.

”I just want a phone that’s a (*******) phone,” she is wont to say. “I already have a camera.”

You will get the picture when you hear that this is a person who buys phone credit $10 at a time and borrows mine as often as possible (I have a plan and 1GB of data).

Australians are downloading massive amounts of data on their phones – 676 terabytes in just three months! (A terabyte is 1000GB). Your average JPEG photo is around 2MB so now I’m curious as to who is downloading what and why. ACMA says 7.86 million people used professional content services such as catch-up TV, video on demand and IPTV (internet TV) in the six months to May 2013.

We are also adapting quickly to VoIP (you know, cheap video telephone where you can chat to your son while he is trekking across Mongolia on a recumbent bicycle), with mobile VoIP users increasing by 73% to 1.06 million.

Kiwis are also avid users of mobile technology. They call them cell phones over there and despite intensive research, the mystery remains why Kiwis use the abbreviated form of cellular. Like Australia, there are also more mobile phones in that country than there are people, according to global market research firm TNS. A 2012 report found there were 5.02 million cell phones in New Zealand (the population is 4.43 million). Almost half of Kiwis in the 31 to 40 age group own a smart phone.

These statistics do help explain why the salty, earthy people who found my missing phone so quickly trolled through it to surmise (a) this is the phone of someone who uses it for work and (b) how to track me down. As my trusty sidekick Little Brother says: “Good thing you didn’t have a password on it, eh?”

We were in Sydney recently to catch up with our best man. We met at a restaurant in Pott’s Point and settled in for a chat. Three young blokes came in and sat at the table next to us. They all produced mobile phones which they laid face up on the table. We soon realised these chaps had four phones between them. Much speculation ensued about the purpose of the fourth phone. Perhaps it was a fourth person who couldn’t make it to dinner but they’d chat, man. Perhaps it was somebody’s work phone. Whatever. They said very little to each other through the meal, but their phones glowed and buzzed and occupied their individual attentions. Our friend observed that when the meals arrived, they all took photos of their plates. Apparently this is a fad with Facebook friends of a certain age.

So there you are, 900 words later I have explained why this column comes with a photo of last night’s chicken and almond dish. We ate at the table with the TV off and both phones on chargers, avidly engaging in eye contact and conversation. The way life ought to be.


May the fourth be with you

Dance up the sun 2
Mt Coot-tha photo by Nicole Murray

If I had a bucket list (and I don’t because the concept offends me), getting up at 4am on May 1 to watch the Morris men dance up the sun would have to be near the top. In Brisbane, this happens every year at the summit of Mt Coot-Tha, just as the sun begins to rise. For reasons manifold I am yet to make an appearance at this traditional event, which is celebrated by local Morris dancers and musicians and sundry followers. It is a little early (and dark) for television and newspaper reporters to get out of bed, so dancing up the sun rarely gets a mention in the press. The tradition has been preserved in music, however. Songwriter John Thompson (Cloudstreet) penned a song a few years ago which starts: “Dance up the sun on a fine May morning, dance up to sun to call in the spring…” and traces the English tradition that spawned this annual event. Morris dancing is so old it figures in Shakespeare’s writings and it was ancient then. The May Day legend has it that if Morris men (and women), do not dance up the sun, the sun will nevermore rise.

Workers around the world feel much the same way about May Day, which also commemorates those who struggled to win the right to fair pay and an eight-hour day. More on that later.

Those with even a passing interest in folk music and folk festivals will have seen and heard Morris dancers as they walk around festival sites with bells attached to their legs. Dancers either use garlands of flowers or hankies for the gentle dances, or they clash sticks and bump bellies, symbolising the battle between the seasons. Morris men usually wear hats with flowers, and “tatter coats” and many paint their faces, but there are as many variations in dress and dance style as there are Morris teams. The tradition flourishes in the UK but there are also about 150 Morris teams in the US and it lives on in colonial outposts like Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Morris dancers are the traditional butt of jokes among the folkies who prefer to sit around tables in pubs playing tunes. You know the ones – the A part and the B part repeated until whoever is running the tunes session changes to another tune of the same ilk. This is a curious irony as Morris dancers are accompanied by three or four musicians thumping out folk tunes using instruments like accordions, whistles, drums and hurdy-gurdys. The tunes are typically in 2/4, 6/8 or 4/4 time or a slow march tempo so the dancers have time to execute dramatic stick clashes, accompanied by visceral screaming and occasional bodily injuries.

Those who have no time for Morris men would remember this, from Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder: “Morris dancing is the most fatuous, tenth-rate entertainment ever devised by man. Forty effeminate blacksmiths waving bits of cloth they’ve just wiped their noses on. How it’s still going on in this day and age I’ll never know.”

Well to hell with Blackadder – some of my best friends are Morris dancers. A bunch of them came to my 60th birthday party and dragged me up for the Upton Stick Dance. I’m OK now.

That Australia’s Morris teams get up early on the first of May is a credit to them, as this is typically a misty mid-autumn day Down Under. What they are actually celebrating is an ancient Northern Hemisphere Spring festival – the darling buds of May and all that. May Day celebrations pre-date Christianity. The Romans celebrated the festival of Flora (the goddess of flower) and in Celtic countries this dates back to the Beltane festival.

These pagan traditions were stamped out when Europe was Christianised, but the maypole dance survives in many countries as a reminder of what Sigmund Freud interpreted as a phallic fertility ritual. Dancers assemble around a tall pole, each holding a colored ribbon as they dance in a circle. The multi-coloured ribbons form a rainbow around the pole and when the dancers turn and go back the other way, the ribbons unravel. Just don’t tell your kids about Freud – silly old man.

The first day of May is also very big with the international Labour movement. Unions have a proud history of international solidarity and the tradition of marching in the streets on May Day goes back to the 18th century battle to ensure workers’ rights to fair pay and an eight-hour day. Amid times of great social unrest and austerity, thousands of workers marched in European countries this year. The Guardian reported on street marches throughout the world, starting with Jakarta, where protesters supported women who were earning $1 an hour making Adidas shoes, until they were fired for speaking out. Workers in Moscow marched on Red Square for the first time since 1991. (The celebrations had been restricted to a Moscow highway for 23 years.)New York revived its Occupy Wall Street protests and in London the rally commemorated rail union leader Bob Crow and MP and campaigner Tony Benn, who both died in March.

In Australia, the May Day traditions of the Labour movement have become fragmented as most States moved the public holiday from the first Monday in May to October. In Queensland, the Conservative government last year moved the holiday to the first Monday in October, restoring the Queen’s Birthday holiday to June.(The previous Labor government had moved Queens Birthday from June to October, leaving the Labour Day holiday unchanged.) Despite this, marches are planned this weekend in Adelaide, Sydney, Fremantle, Brisbane and Newcastle.

May Day or the first Monday in May is a national public holiday in more than 80 countries, held to celebrate Labour Day and/or the pagan spring festival.

You may wonder why workers cherish May 1 as a day to support international labour rights. It commemorates the Haymarket Affair, as Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed amid gunfire and a bomb blast (thrown by an unknown person). This day has been a global symbol of the struggle for workers’ rights since it became International Workers’ Day in May 1889.

So dwell on that people, as you head off to work on Monday. You will still get your public holiday in October, but the symbolism embodying the struggle of the urban proletariat is lost, maybe forever.

What if we changed Anzac Day to the first Tuesday in November? Try selling that to returned servicemen and Melbourne Cup punters. Then we’d see some marching in the streets.