Sunday, December 23, 2007

Moving away from commercialism at Christmas - and into ethical gift-giving

Oxfam Unwrapped: the card goes to your friend.
Sandra and Sean were the first to give me a Christmas present from Oxfam Unwrapped, a few years ago. They gave me 10 chickens, on a card that said something like:

10 chickens have been given on your behalf to a family in the developing world that really needs them. Happy Christmas!

It made me cry. It was the perfect present. I have enough stuff. I don't need anything. And for a greeny liberal hippie like myself, giving a gift to someone who doesn't have much, and whose life can be improved by that gift, is absolutely the best thing ever.

Oxfam Unwrapped: and the gift goes to those that need it most.
I think Oxfam Unwrapped is a genius idea. I see other charities like Tear Fund have picked up on it now, and that's great. Oxfam's always been one of my favourite NGOs, because it's not affiliated with any religious group or faith, and because it helps people in need all over the world, regardless of who they are, their ethnicity, religious beliefs or whatever.

Oxfam International works in the developing world in very sensible ways - providing useful, practical solutions on a small scale, working alongside and in harmony with local people, and listening to their specific needs before thinking about solutions. Oxfam doesn't "throw money at the needy" - they work to empower people, and to give them the help they need to help themselves. They also advocate and lobby Governments and international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank on behalf of the world's poor.

Hence the Oxfam Unwrapped website is full of practical gifs - like a goat or a baby buffalo, 3 ducks or 25 trees, safe water for 25 people, school books for the whole class or Fairtrade Certification for a whole plantation.

I've been buying Oxfam Unwrapped gifts for my nearest and dearest for a couple of years now.

Oxfam Unwrapped goat. Last year I bought a goat for my older niece and nephew, and a goat care kit for my younger niece. My sister told me it was one of the best presents they received - because I'd told them the story of how I'd taken care of a goat when I lived at the Ahu Ahu commune on the Wanganui River, and it had been one of their favourite WebWeaver stories.

My goat-gift encouraged them to use their imagination, and make up more stories, and talk about me and my goat - and my sister said it was such a relief not to get yet another "thing" for the kids to play with, get bored with, and discard.

Another cool thing about Oxfam is that they do an event called Oxfam Trailwalker to raise money. Four people, one goal: 100km in 36 hours to help overcome poverty and injustice. Teams enter, raise funds to do the walk, and the money raised goes to Oxfam. A team from Shift Auckland is entering, and if you buy stuff from Oxfam Unwrapped via their team page then they get more funds added to their total. Kewl!

Shift's been getting ethical with their gift-giving this year too. We support the Worldwide Fund for Nature New Zealand (WWF-NZ), and this year we built them a new website and CMS for a tiny fraction of what it would normally cost.

We decided that this Christmas we would give each of our clients a Hector's dolphin - or rather, we would send them a Hector's dolphin adoption kit from WWF-NZ. We sent them out on Thursday, and soon the emails started coming in from clients - they loved the idea - and are all now busy thinking up a name for "their" dolphin.

Brian, Rene and Dom put together a Flash animation for the Shift homepage which continues the Hector's dolphin Chrismas theme - I think it's absolutely wonderful. Check it out!

Shift's Christmas hompage.

Happy Christmas, Eid al-adha, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, and Winter/Summer solstice to you. I hope I've given you some ideas on how to move away from the commercialism of Christmas, and into ethical gift-giving. You know it makes sense!

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Woah! That was a BIG one!

GeoNet Seismicity Map of the earthquake. Crikey!

This evening's earthquake was definitely the biggest one I've felt in my 14 years of living in EnZed.

I was at work by myself, finishing off some work on a website, when I felt a massive JOLT, and then a rolling, shaking sensation that must have gone on for at least a minute before tailing off. It was weird - I couldn't tell whether it had finally stopped and it was only me shaking, or if it was still going on - I felt all disorientated like you do when you get off a boat and the ground feels like it's still moving.

Sounds like it was pretty serious in Gisborne - masses of damage to stuff in people's homes, a few roofs caved in, power out for a while, holes in the road... scary stuff.

They reckon it was 6.8 on the Richter scale, with the epicentre out at sea about 50km south-east of Gisborne, and was only about 40km deep (that's pretty shallow as earthquakes go). You can fill in a report at the GeoNet website if you felt it.

The world media's onto it already - here are a few of the reports:

I love how CNN gets all over-dramatic. It wasn't that huge, guys! It sounds as though (thankfully) no-one died or was seriously injured - mostly just a whole lot of stuff falling off shelves and some very shaken-up people on the East coast. And no tsunami! Yaay!

We're still waiting for The Big One. Touch wood it never happens...

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Think before you hit "send"

Oh, Margaret McHugh... I wonder whether your bad temper has finally destroyed your catering business...

I guess pretty much everyone everywhere must have seen Margaret's extremely tetchy email conversation with Hayley from Ray White Real Estate in Auckland. It went viral pretty much instantly - and was across the other side of the world by the end of the first day. By the end of day 2 it was in the papers and on the telly... Now everyone knows about Margaret's appalling customer service - and all because of the price of a chocolate-dipped strawberry...

Here's the full set of emails if you're the only person in NZ who hasn't received them yet...

But there's more! Seems that wasn't the only time Margaret's lost her cool in an email... this time with a hint of racism - and I've also read a couple of comments on the Herald's Blonde at the Bar blog: Clear Communication that indicate she's been known to lose her rag on the phone too.

It's interesting - I'm guessing she's pretty busy at this time of year (or at least, she was), and a couple of her comments make me think she harbours a major amount of resentment towards people she believes aren't working as hard as she is. Here's part of one email to Hayley:

Not having the fortitude to call by telephone tells me your incrusted in your sit down loads of spare time job.

And here's part of her diatribe against Lai Tong from Trust Investments Management Limited:
Please don’t use Gourmet Food Store again we are not used to part timers who have to much time on their hands, have no understanding, good manners and common sense in dealing with a complaint there and then.

(My italics, Margaret's horrible spelling, punctuation and grammar).

She also obviously hates using email, and seems to wish customers would communicate by phone:
I personally don't have the time or inclination to sit on the computer all day playing email ping pong. Please confirm your order by 9am this morning some 7 hrs before the function begins TELEPHONE XXXXXXX

If you wish to discuss this further I am on the numbers below please don’t send an email it is so time consuming and impersonal. which case it's a bit stoopid for her to have a website and to put her email address on it, isn't it?

It seems as though she really doesn't understand that when you're booking catering (or anything else for that matter) for the boss, you have to have everything in writing to ensure that both parties know what's happening and when, and so that you have something to refer to if things go pear-shaped.

And finally she seems to fall back on the "I'm telling on you" trick of the schoolyard when things get really out of hand:
I will hopefully be calling your boss before Christmas re our not listing our property with Ray Whites I am sure they will be interested and could give you more to do.

Does your boss know you are wasting their time emailing petty nonsense.


Poor old Margaret! But really, there's not much sympathy heading in her direction, as pretty much everyone seems to agree that she's brought this on herself - and that it's ALWAYS a good idea to take a deep breath, count to 10 (or 100) and think about the consequences of your actions before you go ahead and hit the "send" button.

But my favourite comment on the whole silly affair comes from Ryan at Spare Room, who said:
1997 called - They want their website back.

Heh. Heh heh heh.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Practising the traditional grip

Wellington Batucada at the Cuba Street Carnival. A few months ago I did something I've been meaning to do for ages - I applied to join Wellington's samba percussion group, Batucada.

I first saw Batucada performing at the Petone Fair a few years ago. Giles and I had been wandering along the street catching a performance here and a performance there, when we came across a stage filled to bursting with about 50 percussionists who were playing with such joy, and such syncopated rhythms, we just had to stop. And then we just had to dance. We absolutely couldn't keep still to the sound of Brazilian samba! It was fantastic!

I plucked up the courage to ask one of the performers whether they were accepting new members, and how one could join, but then I never got around to doing anything about it. Every so often I'd see them performing in a carnival, or a festival, or a parade, and each time I'd think "Oh I would LOVE to be in that band!" And then I wouldn't do anything about it. Again.

A few months ago they were leading a march/parade which passed by our balcony at Shift, and I decided "Right! I'm finally gonna do something about joining." So I emailed them, and they replied with info about their upcoming beginner's class...

We've been doing the class for 4 weeks now - tomorrow is our last class. We learn for a couple of hours each Sunday, before the bateria members themselves come in for rehearsal. I've been sticking around for the real rehearsal, too, because I'm loving it so much. You'll find me standing near the back, off to one side, keeping time with my drumsticks playing in mid-air, wishing I could grab a caixa and play with the band for real.

I got my wish last week, because there were a few people missing at rehearsal - they'd had a full-on weekend playing at the Wellington Phoenix football league game on Friday, and then again at the Phoenix game against LA Galaxy (with David Beckham) on Saturday. I was sitting on the stage with a couple of the other beginners, and one of the directors pointed to us and mouthed "come and join in!" So we did. WOOHOO!

God it was fun. The group was learning a new piece, so the director was moving around all the different instruments, showing the players their new rhythms, while everyone else continued playing the basic beat. When I was in Many Hands, years ago, we did a great deal of improvisation (especially at Drum Circle), as well as developing and performing specific pieces. I got pretty good at picking up a new rhythm very quickly - generally after hearing the pattern only once or maybe twice - and it was great to see I've not lost that skill.

It's so loud - being in an enclosed space with about 50 other percussionists - that everyone wears earplugs to protect their ears. Hence much mouthing of instructions, and lip-reading. And hand signals. That's how the director tells the band when a change is coming up, and what the change is going to be. He whistles madly on his whistle, too, both to get everyone's attention, and also sometimes to demonstrate the "bridge" between rhythms, before we play it.

I loved the challenge of learning the new patterns at speed and then playing them alongside the "proper" members of Batucada. I was concentrating SO hard... trying to work out how the bridge worked (which of course everyone in the band already knew), while playing it, was especially fun. I only found myself doing an accidental "solo" once, which I thought was pretty good going. Tee hee!

Caixa. The instrument I'm drawn to is called the caixa (pronounced "kysha"), and it's the samba equivalent of the snare drum in marching bands. Batucada has two types of caixa on show - the not-so-authentic type, which is worn in front of your tummy and attached to your body by a waist strap; and the more-authentic type, which is worn more to the side with the head at an angle, and is attached to you by means of a diagonal strap over the opposite shoulder and across your chest.

The caixa is played using a pair of drumsticks, and its rolling, accented rhythms underpin the sound of the whole band. I guess you could say that the huge bass drums - the surdo - keep the time, and the caixa keep the groove. I like being an "underpinner' - that's where I felt most comfortable in my conga-playing days with Many Hands. I liked to be the "rock", holding it all together while the boys went off on their rhythmical adventures, and providing a strong place and a consistent rhythm to which they could return.

I find it interesting that I'm drawn to a stick drum, rather than the more familiar hand drum and conga equivalent, the timba. I think it's partly because learning to play with sticks is MUCH more of a challenge than just learning new rhythms on an instrument I already know how to play - and I'm all about the challenge. Plus I just love the sound of the caixa, and I love where it "sits" within the overall samba sound.

At last week's rehearsal, when the director was directing the caixa crew and watching how we were going with the new patterns, he noticed my completely out-of-control left hand. He made some comment like "twist your wrist!", to which I mouthed back "I know! It's hopeless!"

I've been having some major trouble getting my left hand to do what it's supposed to. With the caixa, you have to play using what drummers the world over know as the "traditional grip". And it's hard to do!

Batacuda in full swing. Kit drummers are able to choose between the "matched" grip - where you hold each stick with your hand over the stick, palm facing down - and the "traditional grip", where you do the downwards-facing grip with your right hand (or left if you're left-handed), and you flip the stick over in your other hand, so that your palm is facing upwards, fingers curled around the stick. The movement for the traditional grip is all sideways wrist-twisting, whereas for the matched grip it's more up-and-down-wrist twisting. It's not a particularly natural movement, especially when your other hand is doing something completely different.

You find jazz drummers especially using the traditional grip. And caixa players, and anyone else who plays a drum at an angle. This is because (try it out if you like!), using a matched grip on a drum which is slung at an angle at your side is NOT comfortable. Your elbow sticks up in the air and feels very awkward, and wouldn't be sustainable during a long march. This is why the original snare drummers in marching bands (who were generally marching at the head of a platoon setting off to war) developed the traditional grip. And how it got its name. Marching off to war with a jolly old band at the front being somewhat traditional...

So... watching me try to drum using the traditional grip has been somewhat like watching a hideously uncoordinated person trying to do - well, anything that required co-ordination, really. Not pretty. I knew I was hitting the skin at the right moment with my left stick, but you wouldn't really know it to look at me. As the rhythms got faster, you would see the small amount of wrist-twist I had managed to achieve getting less and less pronounced until eventually my arm would just be banging up and down with no twist in sight, like a five-year-old with her first drum (or upturned cooking pot and obligatory wooden spoon). Bleagh! Not cool.

I decided to get a new pair of sticks (Nancy, my caixa mentor, said the old ones I was using were too heavy), pull out my old practise pad (which I have hardly ever used) and - gasp! - practise. w00t! Breakthrough! The realisation that if one wants to get good at something, one has to practise. Haha!

I'd found my thumb getting very numb by the end of rehearsal last week, and I figured I must be holding the stick wrong and pressing on a nerve or something. I spent a while googling "traditional grip", and soon realised that YouTube was where I needed to be. Reading instructions on how to hold the drumstick properly, and how to move it in the right way, was not getting me anywhere.

I found this GREAT little lesson on YouTube by a guy called Derrick Pope, which was just brilliant, and helped me so much.

I sat on the sofa with the laptop in front of me, and the practise pad in front of that, and I watched and watched, and tried and tried, and learned and learned. What a great teacher!

It's all about muscle memory, really. Once you've got the proper grip sorted out, and you've started to to get the hang of the wrist-twist, you've just got to keep doing it over and over again. I started taking the sticks to work and practising in my lunch hour, or when I was reading something online, or trying to figure something out (as opposed to actually using the keyboard). I got my sticks out on the bus and started practising the wrist-twist there, too. I decided not to worry that my fellow passengers would think I was a bit of a nutter. "Hey!" I thought to myself in a self-justification kind of a way, "I'm learning how to be a samba player - I need to practise - even if I am on the bus!" Heh.

I'm getting much better, even after only a few days. I had a breakthrough moment on the bus the other day, when I realised that I'd reached a point where the thought of the beat had been translated simultaneously into the flick of the wrist and the sound of the beat. Aha! Brilliant!

I'm really looking forward to our beginner's session tomorrow. We'll see whether I can carry my improved technique onto the real drums, with the real rhythms. I know it's going to take a while to get proficient at this, but I really really want to get good at it. I want to be good enough to be in the band!

And to get there I know I have to keep on practising the traditional grip. I'll let you know how it goes!

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