Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Me memes

It’s good to have friends, isn’t it? And as a blogger, it’s good to have blogging friends who provide content to blog about. Recently, Roger Green tagged me in one of his posts “but”, he added, “only if he wants to so he can make par.” Roger is the only person I know who cares as much as I do about whether I make my annual goal for the number of blog posts (he may quite possibly care a bit more about it than me…). So, here’s his meme:

Available/Single? Neither. I’ve made that clear by now, I think.

Best Friend? Well, Nigel obviously. Aside from him, probably someone I’ve known since fourth grade, when we were nine or ten.

Cake or Pie? Depends. Cake for birthdays, and maybe just because. Pies are nice, too, and nothing beats a good NZ meat pie for lunch. Steak and cheese or (beef) mince and cheese, if you please.

Drink of Choice? Well, by volume, coffee, hands down. But I also choose wine (less than I used to) and the odd fizzy drink (soft drink).

Essential Item You Use Everyday? Like Roger, my electric toothbrush—or maybe my iPad. I could get an old fashioned toothbrush if I had to choose…

Favourite Colour? Well! It’s been blue my entire life, but it has a political meaning here (the leading party on the Right uses blue). So, I pick red, the colour of the party I support, the Labour Party. But in the USA, they’re the exact opposite. So, while blue is still my favourite, I’ll choose red in some NZ contexts instead.

Gummy Bears or Worms? I don’t care. In high school I sold gummi bears, but I’ve had gummi worms since, and they have some charm.

Hometown? I’ll pick Chicago, where I lived before moving to New Zealand, a city I have a strong attachment to.

Indulgence? Dunno. Probably the iPad game “Simpsons: Tapped Out”. I play it every day.
January or February? January because of my annual increasing number.

Kids and Their Names? No human kids, but the furbabies’ most-used nicknames are just minor corruptions of the actual names, Jakey, for example, or Bells-a-bells, Sunny-bunny, Lee-lee.

Life is Incomplete Without? My husband—duh! Other than that, probably writing stuff. I just can’t stop.

Marriage Date? Which one? Actual marriage was October 31, Civil Union (the big ceremony) was January 24, and we mark our anniversary together as November 2. I may have talked about those dates a time or two, but I’m not sure.

Number of Siblings? Two, both older.

Oranges or Apples? Either. I will eat either or drink their juice.

Phobias/Fears? Roger said, “Trump in 2020”, which is true for me, but I get the actual “fight or flight” response from two things: Spiders and snakes. Well, not the last one in New Zealand, but I would if I saw one.

Quote You Like? Changes frequently, but today I was reminded of one from Oscar Wilde (from “The Importance of Being Earnest”): “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Reason to Smile? Silliness. Life is too serious, too much.

Season? Summer.

Tag Three or Four People? Nope. People can self tag, if they so wish, and let me know they did it by sharing a link in the comments.

Unknown Fact About Me? I was once brought home by the cops. I was about five, I think.

Vegetable You Don’t Like? Can’t think of any, but I haven’t had every one. Among fruits, though, I utterly despise passionfruit.

Worst Habit? If I knew that, I’d stop it…

X-Rays You’ve Had? Chest twice (once for immigration, the other for my stent) and arm after a work accident (nothing broken).

Your Favourite Food? Pizza, ideally American-style cheesey-gooey pizza. Otherwise, Margherita pizza.

Zodiac Sign? Aquarius. I’m still waiting for my age to dawn, but I don’t really know what the moon’s “Seventh House” is, or why it needs so many, so maybe I missed it…

Okay, so that was Roger’s meme. I ran across another a day or two later from one of “The Robs”, friends from the Pride 48 podcasting community, and Nigel and I have met both of them in real life. This blog is public, so I won’t say which Rob I stole this from, but he’s welcome to claim credit.

The Name Game meme:

It may be harder than you think. Every answer has to start with the last letter of the previous answer.

Last name.........Schenck
Animal............... Kiwi
Girls Name.......... Ingrid
Boys Name.......... Damian
Color.................. Navy
Feeling............... Yucky
Name of a movie... Year of Living Dangerously
Something you wear.... Yarmulke
Food................... Eggs
Bathroom Item.... Shampoo
Place.................. Oamaru
Reason for being late.... Unwell

Copy, paste, and erase my answers then add yours. Have fun! Or, not.

Stressful politics

Boy oh boy oh boy oh boy, do I ever agree with this headline from Pew Research: “More Now Say It’s ‘Stressful’ to Discuss Politics With People They Disagree With”. There’s simply nothing else I do in my entire life that has the same capacity to drive up my blood pressure (probably literally) than doing that. Which is why I’ve chosen to disengage more often than not—it’s simply not worth it.

The chart from the Pew article linked to above shows that Liberals who identify with/lean the Democrats are by far the most likely to find it stressful to discuss politics with someone with whom they disagree, while only a minority of moderates and liberals among those who identify with/lean Republican feel the same way, though conservatives find it only somewhat more stressful. This is interesting in itself.

Stress, however, is a personal thing, really, that one has some control over. Pew found a much bigger concern:

A majority of Americans (63%) say that when they talk about politics with people they disagree with, they usually find they have “less in common” politically than they thought previously. Fewer than a third of Americans (31%) say they find they have more in common with people they disagree with politically.

Looking again at the chart above, it’s clear that only Moderate/Liberal Republicans find talking about politics with people they disagree with is “Interesting and Informative”, and everyone else doesn’t.

The complete report, available at the link, has more information on all of that.

Two things jumped out at me when I read the report. First, if people find they don’t have as much common ground with people they disagree with politically as they thought they would, and if they find talking about politics with such people is stressful, then what hope is there for finding a way out of the USA’s toxic politics?

The second question is one the report doesn’t even try to answer: Why? Partisanship in the USA has become visceral and tribal, and that may be part of the answer: People are so much inside their own bubbles that maybe they’re unwilling to to listen to anyone else, which would be stressful. That’s suggested by the fact that most people don’t find talking to those with different positions “Interesting and Informative”.

The portrait painted by the report suggests that USA’s political problems are far from being resolved. If we better understood how the USA got into this mess in the first place, maybe we’d be better able to find a way out. Fortunately, there are some critical examinations of that very topic that are being published. Maybe they’ll help.

But one thing I know for certain is that no one wants to be called “stupid” by someone who disagrees with them, or told to “do your research” or “educate yourself”. Those have all happened to me, and folks from both the Left and the Right have lobbed those—and worse—at me. Clearly it was impossible for us to find any middle ground. I bet plenty of others have experienced similar things.

My response to all that, my plan for avoiding this stress on social media is that I simply don’t engage. If I see some Facebook post or Tweet that I can see won’t go well—and by now I’m pretty good at spotting them a mile away—I just move on. If I make a mistake and engage, I leave the moment it starts turning toxic. So far, that works pretty well.

But my strategy only works on social media. If I encounter in real life someone who’s basically a political opponent, there’s no much I can do to avoid the stress. There, the only think I can think of is to care less, because I can’t change them and they can’t change me, so the only other alternative for me is to simply shrug and walk away, metaphorically, at least.

Someday maybe we can go back to the days when people could disagree without being disagreeable. I just can’t see it happening any time soon.

Finally, when I went to the second page on the online version, I got what’s known as a “404 error”, when a webpage can’t be found. I thought this simple, understated error message was too perfect, and funny in a geeky sort of way. After a serious topic like this one, a bit of humour is especially good.

Pew strikes the right tone with their "404" message.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Still bagging change

Back in August, I wrote a few times about New Zealand’s move away from single use plastic bags. It’s been a story that hasn’t been a straight line—is anything?—and progress is being made. We’ve probably all learned a lot along the way.

On August 23, I wrote about Countdown supermarkets switching from reusable bags to paper bags for deliveries. It didn’t happen quite as quickly as they implied it would. Last week, I received an email from them saying, “Over the coming weeks, online orders at your store will be packed into paper bags”. Back in August, I’d received an email from them declaring, “Shopping online? Your online order will now be packed into paper bags.” I have no idea what the delay was.

On the other hand, progress has been made. As their email last week put it:
With your help, we’ve stopped using single-use plastic carrier bags at checkouts and in our online shopping service, which means that 350 million of these plastic bags will no longer find their way to landfill, or worse, to our waterways and oceans.
An email from them in September said:
With your help, Countdown Pukekohe South alone has prevented on average 6,000 of these bags from entering New Zealand's waste stream – every single day.
Apparently, their copywriters struggle to phrase things in new ways so they—ahem—recycle phrasing. But another part of the September email caught my attention:
We're continuing to reduce and remove plastic from other parts of our store. Already this year, we've removed 70 tonnes of plastic from our produce section. And we'll be giving single-use plastic straws the flick from all our stores by 1 October 2018.
That last part certainly came true—they only sell paper straws now (though maybe they’ll eventually sell the reusable stainless steel straw sets that come with little cleaning brushes, like Storage Box is now selling).

They were talking about the single-use plastic bags that customers use to pack their produce, something my usual store was still using at that point, though apparently some stores had switched to paper. But that September email underscored a problem I’d already found.

I’d bought reusable mesh bags for produce and took them to Countdown when I did my grocery shopping. I needed some onions, so I put them in the bag, and then looked at the unit price: The price of the loose onions was actually higher than the unit price of a pre-packed bag. What this means is that it was costing me more money to avoid the plastic bag of the pre-packed onions.

Having said that, there were some advantages: I could choose onions so they were all the appropriate size for anything we might make, rather than the—literal—mixed bag of the pre-pack. And, once I got them home, I put them into an onion storage bag I’d also bought: It’s breathable, but it also blocks out light to discourage the onions going bad. It works really well. And, I had no plastic bag to get rid of. Still, I think that if I’m going to go to the trouble of packing my own onions, I ought to save a little over the pre-packed options.

Last week, I visited a grocery store I hadn’t been to before, New World in Papakura, and was very surprised: They weren’t pushing reusable bags. I brought my bags into the store, as I now always do, and I was pretty much the only shopper doing that. As I understand it, the Foodstuffs’ New World and Four Square stores will be single-use plastic bag free on January 1. Countdown already is, and I’d have thought that the New World, at least, would be, too, by now. The Australian-owned company that owns Countdown, Progressive, has a chain of smaller stores called Fresh Choice (which I gather is similar to Foodstuffs’ Four Square) that are advertising they're phasing out single-use plastic bags.

Today I stopped in our local Four Square, and they had a bunch of options for bags available—still single use plastic, but also some for purchase, from cheap heavy-duty plastic ones to large paper bags that looked similar to what I grew up with. The paper bags are what caught my attention.

The end of August, I talked about other bag problems, and part of what I needed was a solution for dealing with the cat box. I found that Countdown carried small paper bags they called “lunch bags”, but they were very small, the type used in any Kiwi dairy for packing pies, sausage rolls, and other yummy things—but single serving only. They were suitable for a small clean, but two days’ worth would overwhelm it.

I said in that late August post that most paper bags were expensive because I’d have to order them from a specialty supplier. Well, a few days ago I felt inspired: If anyone in New Zealand carried American-style flat bottom lunch bags, I had a hunch who would, and I was right. It turns out I can get the bags from Martha’s Backyard, the American products store I’ve mentioned frequently. They sell a 50-pack bag for $3.50 (today, about US$2.36). Those large bags I saw today at Four Square, sold for around 20 cents each (today about 13 US cents), would be perfect for major clean outs.

There are bags designed for dog poop, and I have some somewhere I can use up. But compostable versions are very expensive, so paper is a much cheaper alternative. This search is getting somewhere, though.

Which still leaves the problem of the kitchen bin. I said in that late August post that the home compostable bags I bought for our kitchen rubbish bin were too small and the sides could slide down. I found out that this meant the sides could easily stick to the plastic bin, and, being short, they left nothing to grab onto to pull the bags out. Worst, the last one I used ripped open when I tried to pull it out, and the rubbish went all over the floor (fortunately, since we compost, the rubbish wasn’t yucky).

When I was at New World, I found they sold the 60-litre “Extra Large” version of the compostable bin liner bags (apparently, there are even large ones…). The extra large ones are slightly wider—650mm rather than 600mm—but the important part is that they’re significantly deeper: 950mm rather than 710mm. This is large enough, but there are only five bags in a pack, rather than 15 in a pack of the smaller ones, which also means that the larger bags are $1.12 each (76 US cents) while the smaller ones are only 46 cents each (31 US cents). Theoretically, these should last up to two weeks per bag, since we don’t generate that much rubbish, but the price per bag is significantly higher. These larger ones have handles, like plastic ones often do, which so far seems to make them easier to remove.

So, this story that hasn’t been a straight line, but progress is being made all around. That’s the important point. I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag, though.

The products/companies listed and their names are all registered trademarks, and are used here for purposes of description and clarity. No company or entity provided any support or payment for this blog post, and all products used were purchased by me at normal retail prices. So, the opinions I expressed are my own genuinely held opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the manufacturers, any retailer, or any known human being, alive or dead, real or corporate. Just so we’re clear.

A week of firsts

Last week was a week of firsts for me. All of them were ordinary and relatively unimportant, but for some reason I noticed all of them and the coincidence of them happening in the week.

First, and most importantly, I voted in the US Midterm elections using a system I’d never used before. Unlike previous elections, I printed out the PDFs e-mailed to me, including the ballot, and marked them and posted those back. In all previous elections I’ve used the official stuff posted to me.

Last Week I also went to a new grocery store, the New World in Papakura (the entrance is in the photo above). The truth is, I didn’t even know it existed until last week. I had to go to Papakura, anyway, so I was planning on going to the Countdown there, rather than the one a few minutes farther away in the much busier Takanini—a store I got to from time to time because it’s right next to the pet store/vets where I get Bella’s special food.

Nigel said there was a new New World in Papakura, so I decided to try it. It turns out, it’s a really nice one, better than the only other one I knew about, in Waiuku, which I’ve been to twice (and the second trip made me think I’d judged it too harshly the first time I went there). In fact, it’s good enough that I’ll add it to the list of stores I’ll choose.

Last week was also the first time this season the temperature hit 20 degrees (68F), and it went on to hit 23 (just under 74F). We’re definitely warming up now, which makes sense, since we’re in late Spring, and only a couple weeks from the start of Summer. To me, this is a very good thing, however, I may change my opinion if the summer is really as hot and dry as the weather mavens have predicted.

At the end of the week I was meant to accompany Nigel to the birthday party for the child of one of his work colleagues, who is from India. I’ve never been to an Indian celebration—I’ve been to Māori ones, of course, and Samoan, but not Indian. Sadly, I was behind in my work and couldn’t go, so that first will have to wait for another time.

None of that is out of the ordinary, and mostly it’s stuff that's important to me alone, not necessarily anyone else. But sometimes it’s good to just stop for a minute and note ordinary things that happened for the first time. We all need a break sometimes.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Armistice Day 100

The Great War, The War to End All Wars, The First World War: It ended one hundred years ago today (Europe time). The guns fell silent at “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918”, but all wars didn’t end, and the nationalism unleashed a century ago led to another world war within a generation. Was it worth the price?

I was born a little bit more than 40 years after the end of the war, so it was as much, and as little, a part of my life as a child as the Vietnam War will be for today’s toddlers. There’s one important difference, though: When I was a child, people weren’t conflicted about World War One, and they are about Vietnam.

So, as a kid, I remember watching the American TV sitcom “My Three Sons”, and one of the characters, Uncle Charley, was a World War One veteran who often mentioned “W, W, One” and “doughboys”. The actor who played him, William Demarest, really was a World War One veteran. As a kid, I was vaguely aware of older people in the community who were WW1 veterans.

By that time, veterans of World War 2 and the Korean War were in or approaching middle age, and they were the fathers (mostly) of my friends and classmates, the men who were part of the church council at my dad’s church, so they were common. Vietnam was just picking up speed, and the soldiers were young men “whose average age was nineteen”.

I mention all that for s simple reason: War didn’t end in 1918. It has stalked us like a nameless, shapeless monster, taking people from us too soon. It is undefeatable, invincible, and—one would think—impossible to keep away. We will keep having hundredth anniversaries of war, quite possibly forever.

What will be different is that as more recent wars pass farther into the past, they’ll seem more real than World War One does with its grainy black and white images, film with incorrect frame rates, and lack of sound. More recent wars are better documented, including moving images, often filmed in colour, and with sound. We may not have figured out how to end war, but we’re getting really good at documenting it.

The First World War unleashed the dark force of nationalism, which some 20 years later would lead to a second war fighting those same forces, but with the kings replaced with dictators. Nationalism became a force because there was nothing to stop it when it began. The USA, still an emerging global power, was gripped by isolationism, a force that continued to hold, even after World War One, until the country itself was attacked by nationalists in 1941.

Now, the world is again plagued by spreading nationalism, a dark force taking root in countries throughout the world, from Russia (again), to Turkey, countries throughout Europe, Brazil, and, of course, the United States. It’s hard to see how this cannot end in war yet again, unless the forces of democracy can band together and stop it. Can they? On November 11, 1918 some leaders thought they could stop nationalism and future wars. They were wrong. Will we do better?

World War One was ultimately pointless. It began as a spat between spoiled and privileged royal families that ended up burning down the world they knew, and unleashing forces that would take another war and millions of lives to beat back. Maybe World War Two would have happened in some form anyway, had the first one not happened, maybe it wouldn’t have. But either way, it’s impossible to justify the massive loss of life and the suffering caused by the First World War.

On April 2, 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson asked the US Congress to declare war on Germany. It was needed, he said, so that the world would “be made safe for democracy.”It was an absurd thing to say—the belligerents were imperial monarchies, after all—but he was on to something. He also said that “civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” and he was right. But it would take another world war to safeguard civilisation for—a few decades, so far.

Democracy is far from perfect. It takes too long, is too torturous and fractious, but it is the best hope for stopping the dark forces of nationalism and making war less likely. But if we are to defeat nationalism and to truly make the world safe for democracy, we must all take personal responsibility for resisting the darkness. It means voting, political activity, and even simply refusing to allow people to get away with racism and other bigotry and the dismissing of facts and truth. We must be the light standing against the darkness.

Can we win? I have no idea. But I’m damn sure not going to go quietly. I intend to rage against the dying of the light. If we don’t all do that, then the dead we remember from World War One, ended exactly one century ago, will have all died in vain.

They did their work, they paid their price, they their made sacrifice. We owe it to them to truly make the world safe for democracy.


Anzac Day 2015 – the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing, and the start of New Zealand’s World War One centenary commemorations.

Anzac Day 100 – the 100th Anniversary of the Anzac Day commemorations.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

More evidence elections matter

Getting younger people in positions of power, along with more women and people of colour, is absolutely vital to fixing the USA’s broken politics. This is NOT about political party, it’s about democracy itself and making sure that government represents the people, not the elites.

Friday, November 09, 2018

What the other side fears most

The US Midterm elections were far better for Democrats than Republicans can admit for political reasons, though they are—and should be—deeply worried. The results show a bright future for the USA’s only truly diverse party, the Democrats, and a dimming one for the country’s only conservative party, the Republicans, precisely because it’s so unrepresentative. The election was built on everything Republicans fear the most.

The video above from ThinkProgress highlights some of the Congressional Districts that had been held by Republicans for decades—until Democrats flipped them. It’s one of the headline stories of the night, but it’s why so many seats flipped that shows where the USA is headed.

Democrats did astoundingly well in districts in suburban areas outside of cities. Those areas have long voted pretty predictably Republican for Congress—until this year. There have been demographic shifts all over the country, and as it becomes browner and more female, a party that’s mostly backed by older white men has become less relevant. But in suburban areas, voters were driven away by the Republican Party.

Many of those districts voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but also for their Republican US Representatives. This year, they flipped those districts. We still need to wait for the dust to settle, but there are some reasons for that are already clear. For example, Democrats campaigned on healthcare, especially protecting people with pre-existing conditions. Republicans in Congress kept voting to take away those protections, and then lied about it in the campaign. Voters weren’t gullible.

Republicans, meanwhile, tried to make the campaign about their new wedge issue, immigration. Exit polls showed that in most of the country, voters simply weren’t concerned about that, looking at other issues instead. Some commentators have said “immigration is the new abortion”, referring to the long-time hot-button social issue Republicans have exploited for political and electoral gain. There’s a lot of truth in that, but their campaign on immigration has more than a little racist tinge to it, something that appeals to Republicans’ base of angry white men, but not to mainstream voters, including white suburban voters, as the results showed.

Democrats picked up seven governorships, including ousting the vile and rabidly anti-union theocrat Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Democrats also defeated the Republicans’ poster boy for voter suppression, the equally vile Kris Kobach, in Kansas. They also elected the nation’s first openly-gay governor, Colorado’s Jared Polis, and by all reports his being gay wasn’t an issue there, but, rather, the progressive Democratic issues he ran on: Universal health care, stricter gun laws, the expansion of public education, and an opposition to fracking. Public education—and Republicans’ hostility to it—was a factor in Democrats’ wins in Wisconsin and Kansas, too.

In state legislatures, Democrats flipped the state senates in Maine (where they already had the lower house and the Governor-elect is a Democrat), Connecticut (where they already had the lower house), and Colorado (where they already had the lower house as well as having the Governor-elect). In Minnesota, they flipped the House, though the Senate is still Republican, making it the only state in the USA with a divided legislature, a situation that last happened in 1914. In New Hampshire, they also took control of both houses. In New York, Democrats took control of the state Senate, which, combined with control of the House they already had, will likely force Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to deliver on the progressive agenda he’s long promised.

So, according the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats now control 37 chambers (up 6) and 18 legislatures (up 4), and they have the trifecta—both houses of the state legislature and governor—in 14 states (up seven), and 13 states are divided (this all may change somewhat as races are finalised). This will be important in ending Republican gerrymandering after the 2020 US Census.

The number one reason that Democrats didn’t do better than they did is Republican gerrymandering: Republicans drew the maps to rig elections to try to ensure they would retain control of the US House and state legislatures. In order to beat Republicans, Democrats needed to vastly outperform Republicans, and, in fact, they did: At the moment, and subject to change once all elections are final, Democratic candidates for the US House had a popular vote margin of 9.2 percentage points over Republicans, which is a huge amount. However, because of Republican gerrymandering, they didn’t do as well as they would have if the elections had been free and fair. In 2010, Republicans had a popular vote margin of 7.2 percentage points over Democrats, and they picked up 63 House seats. So, in 2018, Democrats did FAR better than Republicans did eight years earlier, but will pick up HALF as many seats, give or take, as Republicans did. This is why the so-called “down ballot” races for state legislatures matter so very much, and why voter turnout is critical: Controlling redistricting.

Republican politicians and their leader have focused on the US Senate, which figures since they picked up seats (a net gain of two at the moment, having flipped three to the Democrats flipping one). That’s bad news for the country, but absolutely no surprise at all. Democrats were defending 26 seats—the most in decades—and 10 of those were in states that voted for the Republican nominee in 2016. The Republicans, meanwhile, only had to defend nine seats, most of which were completely safe. The surprise here isn’t that Democrats didn’t do better, it’s that they didn’t do far worse.

So, here’s what can we learn from all this. First, the electoral system is rigged to elect Republicans. Second, support for parties in legislative races, including Congress, is shifting, and that favours Democrats. Third, the performance of Democrats overall paints a hopeful, inclusive future, as compared to the dark, fearful, and often bigoted picture painted by the Republican Party and its politicians.

The only way to get around the rigged electoral system is to massively increase Democratic turnout, and that will be MUCH easier to do in 2020, a presidential election year. Democrats also need to get more state legislature houses and governorships to ensure Republicans don’t control the redistricting after the 2020 Census. This is a temporary measure until we can get redistricting away from the control of politicians, and under the control of independent non-partisan commissions.

The current realignment of the parties is driven, in part, by the stark and rigid partisanship in the USA generally. Urban people favour Democrats, rural people favour Republicans, more now than ever. By alienating suburban voters, the Republicans have driven more votes to the Democratic side. Republicans may be able to fix that by moving away from the far right, but there’s no evidence they will, can, or even want to do that, neither at the top of their ticket in 2020 or in any other race. So, the switch of suburban voters from R to D is likely to grow and will stay at least and until either the Republican Party moderates (highly improbable), or until a new mainstream conservative party emerges (possible, though so difficult as to be unlikely; even if one emerges, those votes will still be lost to the Republican Party, and that would still help Democratic candidates).

Democrats offer a much more inclusive and future-focused party than the Republicans do. Consider the US House races alone. As Robert Borosage put it in The Nation:
The new Democratic House is expected to feature over 100 women. A new wave of progressive legislators—younger, more female, more diverse, more progressive—will energize the Democratic caucus. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Abby Finkenauer (IA-1) are the youngest women ever elected to Congress. Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) and Jahana Hayes (CT-5) will be the first African American congresswomen from their states. Veronica Escobar (16th District) and Sylvia Garcia (29th District) will be the first Latina women in the Congress from Texas. Ilhan Omar (MN-5) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13) will be the first Muslim women in the Congress, and Deb Haaland (NM-1) and Sharice Davids (KS-3) the first Native American women in the Congress.
Add to that the LGBT+ people elected to offices for the first time, and all the progressive state ballot measures that were approved, and the future for the USA is surprisingly bright—once the current dark times have passed.

The harsh, cold reality is that the USA is still in a very dark and dangerous place right now, with a president determined to promote hatred, bigotry and divisiveness for personal political gain, and he leads a party that lets him get away with extremist and racist language without any protest or even mild criticism. His hardcore supporters may only be about a third of the population, give or take, but they can do a lot of damage to the country. If they intimidate or frighten enough people into silence or inaction, they can become far more powerful than their minority numbers would otherwise permit.

But the forces allied in darkness ARE a minority—never forget that! Republicans created this mess, first by fanning the teabaggers in 2010, then by failing to control their presidential nomination process to ensure they had a qualified and mentally/emotionally stable candidate. But Democrats, that diverse group, which is often fractious because of that diversity, can fix it. Democrats show a way forward, one that embraces diversity, rather than cowering in fear of it. Democrats are working for a future that moves the country forward, rather than trying to push it backward into darker, less tolerant times. And Democrats want government to work for ALL the people—and the planet itself—and not just the extremely privileged few at the very top.

Over the next two years, there will probably be many Constitutional crises caused by the current occupant of the White House. He, and his party, will try to divide and distract and disrupt, and Democrats must not let them. Democrats must avoid rising to the bait, and instead remain focused on trying to move the country forward. If they do that, Democrats will be able drive away the darkness and actually start moving the country forward, but it’s something they have to earn the right to do.

In the meantime, ordinary people need to get busy. There’s a lot of organising to do, and that is what Republicans fear most of all.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

First 2018 Christmas ad

The ad above is for Australian-owned NZ supermarket chain Countdown. It started airing on New Zealand TV a few days ago, making it the first real Christmas commercial I’ve seen this year. It’s a nice place to start.

The Christmas commercials I like are the ones that don’t make selling the specific point of that ad (apart from the 1960s/70s ad for Norelco’s triple head shaver…). Instead, I like to see them sell feelings that the products or Christmas (or both) inspire. This ad does that by having ordinary people rushing to get ready in the “final countdown” to Christmas. The song used also reinforces the store name, which is always good, but I like that it goes against tradition by not using a Christmas song. I think it makes it seem more real and relevant.

I actually saw this much earlier because the store emailed a private YouTube link to their customers (I am one of them). It was, as far as I can remember, the first time that I saw an ad before it was generally released. Naturally, I like that.

While the Countdown ad was the first real Christmas ad I saw, it wasn’t the only Christmas-related ad I saw this week. The ad below is promoting “Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park” an annual charity concert in Auckland and Christchurch. I really like this ad, too:

The “Christmas in the Park” ad will be short-lived, but other companies will advertise throughout the season. Two retailers—discount retailer The Warehouse and department store Farmers—have started advertising, however, they’re only technically related to Christmas. The ad for The Warehouse is their normal style ad with the voiceover using the word “Christmas” twice, and also included in a title card. The ads just sell whatever is on special at the moment, not things that are necessarily, or even probably, Christmas gifts. The ads aren’t in any real way relevant to Christmas.

The same is true for the Farmers ads. They use the same initial shot in all the ads, but the contents of the ads, like those for The Warehouse, just sell whatever is on special at the moment, not things that are necessarily, or even probably, Christmas gifts. They at least look a little more Christmasy.

Still, because they don’t really have anything to do with Christmas, I won’t be sharing them—I’ll wait to see if they eventually have real Christmas ads. I have my principles!

So, those are the first two real Christmas ads I’ve seen this year. There will be more to follow, of course, but most of them will probably be from overseas.

But today, I kinda needed this as a break from politics. Even I get sick of it from time to time.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

2018 US elections quick take

The dust hasn’t settled on the 2018 US Midterm elections, and there will be much to analyse in the weeks ahead, especially when a few very close races are finalised as absentee and other special ballots are counted. Even so, I have a few observations right now.

First, I’m generally pleased with the results. Obviously, I wish the Democrats had done better than they did, but the party re-took the US House, which was the main battle. Taking the Senate was always a huge ask because of the Senate map, which favoured Republicans: Democrats had to defend far more seats, and many of them were in Red or Deep Red states. With Republican gerrymandering and their voter suppression efforts, doing better was not really possible.

Democrats are sending more women, people of colour, and younger people to Congress, including the first two Muslim women, two Native American women, and the youngest-ever woman. One third of the Democratic caucus in the House will be women. Democrats encouraged millions of new voters, including, millennials, who have historically not voted in great numbers. All of that is great news for American democracy and for renewal of the Democratic Party.

We also picked up a lot of governorships, and expanded our seats in state legislatures. This will be important for the redistricting battles after the next US Census.

After watching TV coverage, I don’t think people should draw simplistic conclusions about how Democrats can win elections. I heard TV pundits speculating that the reason that Democrats didn’t pick up more House seats is that their candidates were “too progressive” and didn’t appeal to voters. That may be true in some places, as time will tell us, but not everywhere. Moreover, if all it took for a Democrat to be elected was to be conservative, then Republicans wouldn’t have defeated the Democrats in North Dakota and Missouri. Instead, it suggests that it’s not enough to be a conservative, one has to be conservative enough—and not a Democrat, perhaps. This line of reasoning also ignores and excuses Republicans’ gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts.

Instead, I’d argue that all the Democrats who won elections actually ran races appropriate for their electorates, running on the issues their constituents cared about and sharing the same values as those constituents. In other words, they ran to win, as all successful politicians have always done. I don’t think it matters if the candidate is Left or Right as long as they’re correct for the place they’re running. Like always.

The initial results seem to suggest that the current occupant of the White House has lost white suburban voters who always used to vote Republican. They may be conservative on some things, but they are NOT fans of the current occupant, and they voted against Republican candidates for the US House.

At the same time, there’s an opportunity here for the current occupant to do things differently. He ran on fixing the USA’s crumbling infrastructure, and Democrats will work with him on that—in fact, non-extremist Republicans in the House would be glad to do so, too, and support their party’s leader while also doing things popular with voters. The Senate has never been as extremist as the House has been, and may be more bipartisan, too.

On the other hand, the current occupant is so self-centred and narcissistic that he may be incapable of that. If that’s the case, then there will be two more years like the two we’ve been through, with one important difference: The US House will be able to exercise its constitutional role to provide checks and balances and oversight. There will be investigations of the current regime, and the various cabinet secretaries will be held to account for their deeds—or lack of action, as the case may be. This is really good news for democracy.

For the first time in two years, I feel like I can breathe again. I suspect it will be a short-lived feeling, because I seriously doubt that the current occupant will suddenly start acting like a responsible adult.

So, the battle now moves on to 2020. But let’s leave that for another day. Right now, tonight, I’d rather just be happy about the victories we achieved.

The USA’s problem in one chart

The chart above from Statista shows the voter turnout in the most recent national elections held in various countries. The USA’s election turnout is always pathetic, and it is the very reason US politics are so awful: If more people voted, things would change.

Voter turnout numbers are the percentage of the eligible voting age population that turns out to vote in an election. In 2016, the USA’s 55.7% turnout, as shown in the chart, was low, though not unusual for a presidential election year: 54.9% in 2012, 58.2% in 2008—49% in 1996. Turnout is FAR worse in Midterm election years, the elections when the presidency is not on the ballot. In 2014, it was a disgusting 36.4%, which was down from the also shocking 40.9% in the 2010 Midterms. 2014 was the lowest Midterm turnout since 1942—in the midst of World War 2.

ALL elections always have consequences. The low turnout in 2014, for example, gave the US Senate to Republicans. The low turnout in 2016 gave the keys to the White House to the current occupant. Non-voters, then, are the ones who really determine elections.

There are two ways non-voters could change things. First, they could select a better class of party candidates by voting in primaries. The primaries determine who will be the candidate of that party for any office, and in the Republican Party, the most extremist supporters ALWAYS vote, and the moderates often—or usually—don’t vote, and so, candidates are increasingly extremist. If sensible mainstream people voted in the Republican primaries, they could ensure that sensible mainstream Republicans would be candidates (in part because politicians wouldn’t feel obligated to pander to the most extremist base of their party).

In some areas, Democrats sometimes have a similar problem with their primaries, but it’s not as pronounced or as widespread. I have no idea why that is.

The second way non-voters could change things is the most profound of all: They could vote in general elections and change absolutely everything. In some races, the percentage of non-voters is so high that that if they wrote-in a candidate, they candidate would win. THAT is power.

What’s interesting to me about the chart, too, is the relativity. It shows that New Zealand had a 75.7% turnout. In 2002, NZ voter turnout dropped below 80%, and despite briefly nudging back up above it in 2005, it’s been below 80% ever since. This has led to much wailing and rending of garments in New Zealand as the country frets about its “low” voter turnout. Everything would begin to change in the USA if it had a 75%+ voter turnout, which puts the problem in context.

The situation is even more pronounced in Australia, which, unlike New Zealand, has compulsory (mandatory) voting. In their most recent elections, 2016, Australia was wringing its imaginary national hands over the “lowest voter turnout since compulsory voting began in 1925”. What was their “shocking” and “low” turnout? Ninety-one percent! A mere 9% didn’t vote. Such a burden they carry!

Of course, high turnout alone isn’t enough. In Australia, the high turnout returned a terrible rightwing government to power, so even a high turnout doesn’t guarantee GOOD government. But it does guarantee one with widespread support, which is very important for a healthy democracy.

The health of democracy is the important point here. Countries with high voter turnout have governments with much greater actual support from actual people than do government elected by a low turnout. Consider: In 2014, around one in five eligible voters gave the US Senate to the Republicans—80% of voters did NOT. Last year, the current occupant of the White House was elected with the support only about a quarter of eligible voters—75% of Americans did NOT vote for him. Whether you love or hate the current occupant or the Republican party is NOT the point here: It’s not just pathetic, it’s downright dangerous that a relative handful of people determine who runs government.

Getting non-voters in the USA to vote is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING necessary for restoring sane, rational politics to the USA. Can it be done? The jury’s out. The fate of the USA’s democracy waits for the answer.

There is one thing we know for sure: If more people voted, things would change.