Hard News by Russell Brown


The Casino

It seemed ages since I'd had a plain old night out, and I was overdue to visit my friends' new apartment in the CBD, across the road from Sky City. So that seemed like a Saturday night plan. The quadrant was teeming around 8.30, as I turned off Nelson Street to look for a park where I'd be able to leave the car till the next day.

People were going places. Grey-haired couples heading for Billy Connolly's show in the Sky City theatre, girls in handkerchief dresses, downing miniatures and taking the long way to the Viaduct, and the various social and economic groups for whom organised gambling is a night out.

The Sky City brand is something of a presence in my friends' apartment. The complex's big, round neon logo is in their eyeline, although it is possible to sit so as to not see it. But their balcony, with its unnervingly low railing, is a tremendous place to people watch. Their last place was at the corner of K Road and Queen Street, so it's higher and quieter than that.

It turned out that although they'd lived with this presence for nearly a month, they hadn't actually visited Sky City's core business; the casino. Neither, as it happened, had I. Ever. I'd been to events at the hotel's other facilities, and looked down at the casino from the mezzanine at various times of day or night. It sometimes reminded me of an abattoir.

So naturally, that's where we elected to go. The one among us who works in the mental health sector couldn't quite get herself past the contradictions, so she stayed and we three males went across the road.

Sky City is bright and bustling on a Saturday night. People get around with the intensity that denotes a big night out. Even on their haunches against a wall, making a mobile phone call, they're a bit wide-eyed.

Casino gambling is incomprehensible to me. All of it. Blackjack, for example, has nothing I like. The blank-faced croupier, the obligation to do arithmetic: how are these the stuff of nights out? Most people around the tables just looked vaguely horrified.

Which would not be to say we didn't have a good time. I lacked the insight or desire to actually follow any particular contest, but the hubbub, the sense of motion, were appealing. The Stella Artois off the tap tasted very good, and the bar service was excellent.

We chatted to some older ladies from the 'burbs who enthused about the Billy Connolly show, and eventually we took a stroll down to the budget end of the gaming floor, where rows of miserable punters perched on stools, feeding money into pokies. I know that "pokie" derives from "poker machine", but it also describes the activity. People poke at pokies. Another word that comes to mind is "disconsolate".

It is not true that there are no clocks on the floor of a casino. On a dimly lit pelmet In the centre of the room, there is a clock in the Sky City casino. It is not true, either, that the casino won't let you empty your bladder, in case the spell breaks. There are toilets handy. There were 10 sit-down cubicles and only two vacant around midnight. I didn't know what to make of that.

It is necessary, I think, to be either oblivious or a bit amoral to enjoy the casino. There is such obvious human suffering in progress. Getting into the buzz entails recognising that some people are going to be hurt by what they're doing.

I kept coming back to this: Sky City are drug dealers. The product isn't so much games as the buzz itself. It's the dopamine, baby. In this respect, it's akin to another form of late-night entertainment: the strip and lapdance bar. I found The Mermaid, the time I went, far more genial than I had expected to. Although I feel bound to note that people smiled a lot more at The Mermaid, tanked as they were on the brain chemicals associated with sexual arousal, rather than those for risk and reward.

And in this sense, what strikes me is not how strange the every-square-inch gambling is, but how normalised it is. This place seems to me not so far off the opium dens that used to cluster just up the road from the casino. Indeed, in a club somewhere else in town, just the other side of the old opium dens, young Aucklanders were doubtless manipulating their brain chemistry in another, less legal, fashion. They, of course, had to bring their own.


The Devil himself could not have conjured a less flattering headline for copyright owners: the governing party that is making France the poster child for punitive copyright laws dumps on the moral rights of a popular recording act -- and then contrives to make it worse.

French leader Nicolas Sarkozy's party, the UMP, has been playing MGMT's 'Kids' at its rallies -- and using it in official videos and ads, which is where the legal dispute arises. "It seems that those who led the charge against internet users are not the most respectful of copyright," the band's lawyer observed.

The UMP swiftly promised compensation for using the tune without permission. But the following day, the party's PR company explained that the unpermitted use of the song had merely been a mistake, and therefore it would offer only symbolic compensation of one euro, in addition to the 53-euro rights fee it had already paid to cover the use of the song at events.

"Insulting", said the band's lawyer. Indeed. It looks like UMP had been looking to get itself a campaign song on the cheap -- and I wonder if MGMT might not have been better advised to let them do so for a little longer, just to make that clear.

Intellectual Property watch has a very useful update on the debate around France's impending 92A-style law.

And Lawrence Lessig looks at a successful bid by the US Author's Guild to break the functionality of the Kindle -- in this case, to disable its basic text-to-speech feature -- in the hope of grabbing an extra dollar or two. It's pretty dumb.

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