25 August 2009

You shall not (Gold) Pass?

In light of my earlier comments about the challenges posed by the niggling aspects of Wellington's Snapper public transport cards, it was interesting to note the reports at the weekend that Go Wellington is phasing out the use of printed Gold Pass tickets that provide a month's unlimited bus travel in zones 1 to 3, i.e. most of Wellington City.  I used Gold Passes when I lived in Karori and Newtown; they're convenient and offer good value if, like me, you journey into the city every weekday and in the weekend. 

The report noted that:

A Snapper spokesman said that the company would launch a monthly Snapper pass on bus routes in the Hutt Valley and Whitby through bus company Runcimans from August 31 and, if successful, would offer the scheme to Go Wellington.

This begs the question: how will the success or otherwise of the trial be determined?  Presumably the existing paper-based monthly Gold Passes offered to Wellington bus users must be successful, because they have been offered for years at relatively stable prices.  They provide a valuable incentive for city dwellers to make good use of Wellington's public transport networks.  So why does Snapper need to test the viability of an established product with strong consumer loyalty?

Perhaps there is concern that monthly pass users might be reluctant to adopt the Snapper card, given it requires a $10 up front purchase price and requires an irritating 25-cent transaction fee whenever value is added to the card at a retail outlet.  Or perhaps there are plans to increase the fees charged for the passes, to accommodate the profit margin of the Snapper company.  Either way, it would be a shame if support for a popular public transport institution is jeopardised.

In a comment on the Dominion Post article quoted above, Snapper boss Miki Szikszai said, ‘We are reviewing the entire tag-off experience with the operators. Runcimans will give us a good chance to do that’.  Given the relative lack of information available about the company's plans, Snapper and Go Wellington would be better to reveal their intentions about the shift of monthly passes to the Snapper system. 

Certainly, it would be a great pity if Gold Passes were replaced by a system that is less convenient, and if the shift to Snapper is bungled, that is a very real possibility.  If the monthly passes offered by Snapper are more expensive than the current Gold Passes, require the 25-cent transaction cost to be added to the monthly fee, and/or require passengers to engage in tedious and unnecessary tagging-off when exiting the bus, then the shift to Snapper will result in a product that is actually less user-friendly than the present paper-based arrangements, and that would surely be counter-productive in an environment in which the growth of an efficient, effective and well-patronised public transport system is paramount. 

24 August 2009

You are not welcome here

Sharlto Copley

Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is a stand-out first film from a young director, in that it displays ingenuity and innovation to tell a distinctive story that engages audiences and helps to sell plenty of movie tickets.  This is no mean feat in an age in which science fiction action films have become virtually ubiquitous, and the standards of quality narrative and acting that audiences expect of such films remains relatively low.  Often, audiences are happy to watch 80 minutes of explosions and high-tech combat without a glimpse of decent acting or thought-provoking plot lines.  District 9 is able to deliver both of these commodities, with the ideas of Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell building an interesting and morally complex worldview into the film's alien-inhabited Johannesburg setting, while the performance of newcomer Sharlto Copley in the lead role of Wikus van der Merwe brings surprising depth and believability to a role that could easily have descended into parody or mediocrity in lesser hands.

Copley now finds himself among a select few who have excelled in leading roles despite not being trained actors; a long-time friend of Blomkamp, District 9 is his first major acting role.  It is surprising, then, that his performance is strong enough to provide a convincing and believable core for a film belonging to a genre that often treats realistic performances as a luxury that can be dispensed with. 

His improvised scenes early in the film portray Wikus as a gormless functionary, one who is chosen for greater responsibility only because his calculating father-in-law shoulder-taps him for a role beyond his station.  Managing the mass eviction of aliens from the District 9 slums in order to move them to a new camp far away from Johannesburg, Wikus displays a jocular familiarity with the camera crews documenting the operation.  Copley has fun with the role, allowing Wikus to enjoy his rare taste of power and authority.  This portion of the film has led many observers to draw parallels with the institutionalised cruelty of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the seemingly callous indifference of Wikus to the piteous conditions of the alien slums and their almost complete lack of rights is carefully exposed.  A scene in which he banters with the camera whilst immolating a secret nest of eggs containing unauthorised alien babies is chillingly effective.   

Yet it quickly becomes clear that despite being an unthinking exponent of the evictions and the inherent discrimination that underpins them, Wikus is not without empathy for the ‘prawns’, the euphemism by which the insectoid aliens are referred to.  (It is unclear whether the humans consider this to be a derogatory term).  Outbreaks of violence against the aliens by the corporate military guards shock Wikus, and signal that perhaps this mere bureaucrat is not as soulless as he might at first seem.

As the plot (which I shall avoid revealing) advances, and Wikus is tested to the limits of his endurance and sanity, Copley’s performance ensures that his character, which could easily have been reduced to simplistic one-dimensional emoting amidst a swathe of gunfights and explosions, remains engaging and believable.  Indeed, it’s a testament to the qualities Copley brings to the role that his character becomes, in a strange way, likeable, and that his plight engenders a degree of sympathy.

In May, the South African website Tonight.co.za reported his surprise at finding himself in the lead role of a major film:

Copley, who produced the 2005 short Alive In Joburg, helped director Neill Blomkamp to produce a new short as a test for some of their ideas - and the rest is about to become film history.

"It was just a test, but then Neill and Peter Jackson decided to cast me in the lead part. To get Peter's backing right from the beginning… I couldn't have done a big Hollywood movie without that," said Copley.

The film’s producer, Peter Jackson, was particularly impressed with the performance of the almost unknown actor.  He told the LA Times in July:

[Blomkamp] shot some test film of his friend Sharlto Copley, who’s not a professional actor as such. He’s an old buddy of Neill’s ... they used to know each other when they were young and Neill wanted Sharlto to be the lead in the film. And he’s actually really, really great. You’ll see that for yourself when you see the film.

High praise from someone who knows how to choose a good actor.  Perhaps Copley was destined to play this role to perfection and may find his acting abilities stretched in other types of role.  But even if that does occur, he can point to his work in District 9 – and perhaps any sequels that emerge – as the strongest debut by an inexperienced actor in many years.   

17 August 2009

The school run and sedentary culture

It is traditional for we grown-ups to hark back to our school days with tales of the travails we endured in the long slog to the school gate, with fictitious barefoot trudges through snow-storms often proving popular as years of re-telling amplified the discomfort for dramatic effect. Getting to and from school was often a major source of exercise for students, particularly ones like me who cycled to school but assiduously avoided playing sports whenever possible.

In recent years it has become apparent that changing patterns of school attendance and the increasing prevalence of the parental ‘school run’ – driving your kids to school – have significantly reduced the percentage of children travelling to school under their own steam. Aside from the obvious implications this has for the physical fitness of young New Zealanders, it also represents an unfortunate impingement on a valuable youth tradition – the important nurturing of independence and self-reliance.

The Ministry of Transport has released a paper detailing some of the ways in which New Zealanders use various modes of transport. The June 2009 document, How New Zealanders Travel, shows just how dramatic the change in school transport has been over the past two decades. The table below illustrates the change for primary school age children (age 5-12); each column totals 100% of the survey sample but I have omitted some rows with small totals (‘walk and bus’, ‘passenger and bus’, ‘walk and passenger’ and ‘other’) to keep things simple.

Primary school children – travel from home to school






Walk (only)





Passenger (only)










Bus (only)





A similar picture is shown by the figures for secondary school students, although the onset of driving licences from age 15 onwards results in a wider variety of transport options. As there are fewer high schools dotted around our cities and towns, students are also more likely to travel to school by a combination of walking and buses. Again, some minor modes of transport have been omitted.

Secondary school age – travel from home to school































Bus & walk





What does this tell us about how young New Zealanders get to school, and what are the possible implications of changes in transport methods over the past 20 years? Let’s examine each of the transport modes in turn.

Walking – While the percentage of secondary students walking to school has remained relatively constant since 1989/90, there has been a sharp decline in the percentage of primary school children walking to school: from 42 percent in 1989/90 to only 25 percent in 2004-08.

Passenger – The decrease in walking to school amongst primary-age children has been matched with a sharp increase in the percentage of students being driven to school: from 31 percent in 1989/90 to a whopping 56 percent in 2004-08. Secondary school students are also substantially more likely to be driven to school, with the percentage increasing from 20 percent in 1989/90 to 35 percent in 2004-08.

Bicycle – There has been a dramatic decline in the percentage of primary and secondary students cycling to school, with the figures dropping from 12 to 4 percent for primary children and 19 to 5 percent for secondary students.

Bus – The percentage of students travelling to school by bus has also decreased, but by a smaller degree than walking or cycling. While there was a small decline for primary children (from 7 percent to 5 percent), the decline for secondary students was larger, going from 9 percent to 5 percent.

Why have things changed?

One key factor could be the loosening of controls over school zoning and the ability of parents to secure places in desirable schools for their children despite not living close by. Increasingly, children are attending schools further from their homes, which makes walking and cycling harder and makes it less likely that public transport alternatives will be available. As modern lifestyles become busier, some parents may well have found that driving their children to school makes better use of the scarce time available on weekday mornings, and permits them to spend more time with their children, even if it is within the confines of a car. Some parents may also worry that roads are busier and too dangerous for their children to walk or cycle to school (a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one). Lastly, a minority of parents may feel that it’s safer for their children to be driven to school, despite New Zealand streets being remarkably safe in international terms.

What are the implications?

For starters, the growing prevalence of the ‘school run’ has major implications for traffic congestion and vehicular pollution in our major cities. The morning peak time for school drop-offs is a particular concern as it coincides with the morning rush-hour; the afternoon period is less of a concern as it falls about 90 minutes before most people finish work. The most efficient way to get students to school is for them to walk or cycle to nearby schools, or for public transport to bring them to school if they live further afield.

It also means that young people, particularly primary school students, are learning unhealthy and sedentary habits at an early age. The parental ‘school run’ is removing a valuable opportunity for beneficial exercise, both in the form of walking and cycling. Good habits are best learned at a young age; if children don’t find other forms of exercise to replace that lost opportunity then the ongoing effect on their physical fitness is surely a cause for concern.

From a personal perspective, another concern is how can we expect children to gain an understanding of the benefits of sustainable modes of transportation if they aren’t exposed to them early on in life?

And lastly, we can return to the age-old horror stories we told of our gruelling journey to school in our own youth (snow, sleet, hurricanes, etc.) How can today’s children develop that same sense of independence and self-reliance if they are chauffeured to school in air-conditioned comfort?

Oh yeah, parents: don’t forget, fewer school runs would also have the beneficial by-product of saving parents from having to listen to their kids’ awful CDs on the car stereo. You know it makes sense!

15 August 2009

A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles

another snapper card
Originally uploaded by dubh
The character Autolycus, a common thief in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, boasts that he is named after the more famous son of Hermes and Chione, who once stole the helmet of the great Greek hero Odysseus. Shakespeare’s Autolycus claims that he is ‘a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’. And while the link to the Wellington public transport Snapper card is tenuous at best, I have never been one to neglect an opportunity to deploy a pretentious blog title with scant justification. I suppose it fits though, what with bus fares generally costing only a few dollars.

Getting to the point, albeit rather tortuously, I can reveal that yesterday I bought my first Snapper card to use on Wellington’s buses. Certainly, I’ve had an Oyster card in London for several years now, but Wellington’s move into the heady world of (relatively) integrated RFID-based public transport cards is a welcome step. Anything that makes public transport easier, more affordable and more popular is a good thing in my book.

I doubt I’ll use the Snapper in its much-touted alternative role as a petty cash substitute in coffee-shops and newsagents: its main role in my wallet will be for bus travel, to ensure I get the 20 percent fare discount Snapper users obtain. It’s great that a modern system has been introduced, and there’s certainly potential to do a lot more with the system to ensure a more comprehensive range of electronic payment options exist for public transport users in greater Wellington.

Despite this general enthusiasm, there are several issues with Snapper that detract from its overall positive impact. I have no doubt that getting the system up and running was a major challenge, so the fact that it works at all is a boon, even if it’s not perfect. The Snapper card is certainly well ahead of anything on offer in the chaotic Auckland public transport environment, where plans for integrated ticketing are running way behind schedule and act as a major impediment to the growth of public transport use in a city that could really benefit from it.

Here’s my list of quibbles, for what it’s worth. Many of these have been raised in online forums, so there’s probably nothing new here. But it would be interesting to hear if Snapper intends to resolve any of them in the near future.

1. Why is there a separate top-up fee, both for transactions over the counter and for online credit card top-ups? Surely the cost of maintaining the sales network could’ve been negotiated into the overall revenue structure so as not to inconvenience customers? It also means that if you use Snapper solely for $1 rides on the city section from the railway station to Courtenay Place, you’re actually paying more than the cash fare.

2. Why do you have to tag off when exiting the bus? Could the RFID technology not be programmed to simply tag the fare as completed once the Snapper card is more than 20 metres from the driver’s Snapper reader?

3. Why is the fee for not tagging off the full cash fare rather than the full 20 percent discounted fare? Using Snapper means you’re entitled to the 20 percent discount, surely?

4. Why can’t the handy Daytripper and Gold Pass tickets be purchased on Snapper?

5. Similarly, why doesn’t Snapper cap the off-peak travel expenses of users so their maximum expenditure is limited to the price of a Daytripper ticket? Surely the current approach discourages casual travellers from making multiple trips?

6. How long is it going to take to integrate Snapper into the train, ferry and cable car network? Okay, so Wellington trains have got a lot on their plate at the moment, what with the rail refurbishments and the new rolling stock soon to enter service. But being able to use Snapper on the trains would be really convenient, particularly if the price structures were aligned so the two services complemented each other. One would’ve thought that the Kelburn cable car would be an easy one to add to the Snapper network too, given its single-price tickets.

04 August 2009

Film festival round-up

Land of the Long White Cloud (NZ, 2009)

The irrepressible Florian Habicht, who made the parochial festival favourite doco Kaikohe Demolition a few years back, has returned to the North Island's Far North to record another vernacular tradition. Observing a long-established 5-day snapper fishing competition, Habicht and his crew try to tap into the laconic spirit of individualism exhibited by the hardy fishermen. This being the Far North, there are plenty of idiosyncratic characters vying for the grand prize of $50,000 for the largest snapper. But the film is more about people than it is about fish: Habicht delves into his subjects' personal philosophies and finds plenty of locals happy to open up in front of the camera. Habicht wasn't able to attend the Wellington screening due to illness, but in an email message read out by the film's editor, he confided that the most traumatic occurrence of the film project was when his young assistant camera operator revealed that she was so young that she'd never heard of Milli Vanilli!

OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (Lost in Rio) (France, 2009)

With the tongue-in-cheek caperings of the legendary agent OSS 117 turning Brazil upside down in search of a rogue Nazi loon, the spirit of 1968 - well, the reactionary, borderline racist, uniformly misogynist and frequently self-important spirit of 1968, anyway - rides again. The split-screen montages are particularly hilarious, and Jean Dujardin is perfect as the preening, swaggering 117, cutting a swathe through the bevy of bikini-clad lovelies, fending off the advances of long-haired hippies and constantly dogged by vengeful Chinamen who are legendarily terrible shots. It's like an Austin Powers movie, but actually funny.

Wendy and Lucy (US, 2008)

Simple yet surprisingly effective and affecting, Wendy and Lucy succeeds due to its honest, minimalist approach and the strong performance of Michelle Williams as Wendy. You can read it as a parable of the downturn, or just a fine story about a woman looking for her lost dog, whatever. There are no big lessons on offer, but the quiet dignity displayed in this tale of hard times in Oregon just goes to show that a little human kindness can go a long way.

Adventureland (US, 2009)

A memorable and enjoyable teen comedy drama set in an amusement park in 1987, Adventureland is a cut above the average teen filler, and boasts a quality cast of lead and supporting actors, with comedian Kristen Wiig impressing as a quixotic fairground manager. With Martin Starr's entertaining performance as a droll philosophy student forced to slum it as a ride attendant, it's as if Freaks & Geeks never left us, they just grew up a few years. And extra marks for playing Don't Dream It's Over during the fireworks scene, director Greg Mottola.

Van Diemen's Land (Australia, 2009)

A stylish and visceral glimpse into Tasmania's convict past, beautifully shot on a low budget and in challenging wilderness conditions, Van Diemen's Land is a proud addition to the ranks of Australian indie cinema. And don't forget, it's based on a true story - the grisly events depicted actually took place. A true festival find, topped off nicely with the presence at the Auckland screening of the director Jonathan Auf Der Heide and lead actor Oscar Redding, who were pleased with the turnout for their film and answered plenty of questions after the screening.

Moon (UK, 2009)

A loving homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also features a pot-plant named Ridley in a minor role, Moon punches above its weight as a classy if slightly mannered sci-fi drama with the odd comic touch. Sam Rockwell is excellent, as is the use of Chesney Hawkes' immensely cheesy '90s hit "I Am The One And Only", which is presumably its only use in the science fiction context. A solid directorial debut for David Bowie's son Duncan Jones (formerly Zowie Bowie).

In the Loop (UK, 2009)

Public servants will find much to snicker about here, as will fans of innovative swearing techniques. The lack of any sympathetic characters is also particularly rewarding in this wicked satire of the allegedly unprincipled machinations at the heart of British and American government processes. Quotable quotes are too numerous to mention, so all I can really say is that In The Loop just has to be seen and relished. Plus Chris Addison's character would surely win an award for the most fatuous excuse for infidelity ever.