Tuesday, February 02, 2016

And then there were two

Today, even before the results in Iowa were finalised, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Only the timing was a surprise.

O’Malley never managed to get much attention, and as media and voter attention focused only on the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, O’Malley’s situation never stood a chance of getting any better. Ideologically, he was probably somewhere between the two remaining candidates, somewhat to the right of Sanders, and somewhat to the left of Clinton, but he wasn’t different enough from either to provide a third option.

I was one of those who wondered why O’Malley entered the race, but he and former candidates Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were, in theory, no better known than each other. In fact, I’d argue that when this campaign began, Aside from (some) Democrats and (most) left-leaning voters outside the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders was probably no better known than O’Malley was, but the way Sanders quickly emerged as THE alternative to Clinton meant that none of the others, including O’Malley, would get a look.

O’Malley seems to have run an honourable campaign, judging from the precious little I saw about it in the mainstream media. However, the only time I saw him in action, in the “Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum” (and it had to be a forum in format, and not a debate, because the Democratic Party wouldn’t let the candidates debate), O’Malley seemed rather wooden; maybe it was a bad day. Even so, he was better than any of the Republicans. Of course.

So, the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is now a two-person race. Because it’s still a very lively race, it’s unlikely that O’Malley’s departure will affect how the mainstream newsmedia covers the race, or much attention they give it, because most of them treated it as if it already was a two-person race, and that’s part of the reason that O’Malley’s campaign never went anywhere.

As of today, there's still 9 months, 7 days until the US presidential election.

Monday, February 01, 2016


Today was Auckland Anniversary Day. While it’s normally the last Friday in January, sometimes it’s moved, as it was this year. I don’t know, but am happy to speculate, that it was observed today so people could have a long break, since Waitangi Day is this coming weekend.

Whatever the case, three-day holiday weekends, nice as they are, are always a little disruptive—even more so when there are two in a row, as we have this year. I freely admit that at one point today I wasn’t sure what day of the week it was. Tough life, I know.

This coincided with some other disruptions—nothing big or dramatic, just some things that made blogging very difficult, among other things. Nothing important, in other words.

The first disruption was that we had some electrical work done last week, and that involved shutting off the power for much of Friday afternoon. This was while I was at the appointment with the hygienist that I mentioned in my previous post (and this post is about why I couldn't blog about it at the time—a neat blogging circle, right there).

The bigger issue wasn’t so much the fact I couldn't use my computer, it was that the house was really hot: With the power off, the air conditioning was off, and the place heated up pretty quickly. When I got home, Nigel (who had the day off) had all the doors and windows open, but it didn’t help. On the other hand, the electrician was just finishing up.

The other barrier was that we were trying a new Internet connection that uses 4G cell service. The thing just stopped working later Friday evening, when I often do a blog post. It did it again about the same time last night, and again this afternoon. Sadly, it has to go back because reliability matters. We tried it because it's dramatically faster than what we have now (when it worked), something that matters because we won’t get “ultra-fast broadband” for at least another year (this is a very sore point…).

So, add all that up, and I couldn’t do the Tooth Tales post Friday (and then I forgot). Hardly important, but it was annoying.

The technological disruptions, when added to the three-day holiday weekend, meant it as an unusual time the past few days—good, but unusual. Tomorrow, the new school year starts in Auckland, and I’m back at work. All of which disrupts my summer, to be honest.

We still had a good weekend, though: That’s the main thing.

Small tooth tale

Last Friday, I had an appointment with the hygienist at the periodontist’s office. For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t blog about it at the time, and then I forgot about it. It’s only a small update, but it’s important to keep the story intact.

The appointment went well: The hygienist didn’t have any major problems, and that’s despite an uneven home routine due to illness and the disruption of the holidays. She also mentioned that just because they have to do extensive work with picks and drill-like things, that’s not a reflection on the patient: Within 24 hours, she said, bacteria starts to harden on teeth if it’s not removed, and the reality is that the only way to keep it away is to see a hygienist. I mentioned to her that including seeing the dentist every six months, I’d be quite happy to see some dental health professional every three months to keep all this under control. I haven’t endured all this to go backwards!

I was the last appointment of the day, it turned out (a Friday in summer—I don’t blame them!). I made an appointment for a check-up with the periodontist for May, and I was on my way.

While I was at that appointment, the orthodontist rang to schedule an appointment (I had my ringer switched off, so I got the message once I got back to my car). I rang back once I got home, but they’d already closed.

Meanwhile, I re-scheduled this week’s dentist appointment that was this week to next week: I forgot that I return to work this week, and wouldn't be able to get away (particularly because this is a short week with the holiday today).

And, that’s it: No dramas at all this time, and things continue to go well. I have so many other things to work on, things that don’t involved teeth, but at least this is going well.

The image above is a reproduction from the 20th US edition of Gray's Anatomy, and is in the public domain. It is available from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Got a MOVE on

With another US federal election approaching, it’s again time for US citizens living overseas to get ready to vote, and that means special procedures. Those procedures are easier than they used to be, but there’s still room for improvement. But, at least the USA allows its overseas citizens to vote—not all countries do.

US citizens living overseas temporarily will probably cast an ordinary absentee ballot, but those overseas permanently have a special programme to help: The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) is an implementation of a 1986 law, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. Special problems were identified with US military personnel serving overseas, specifically, the difficulty in getting voting materials to them and back on time. In 2009, President Obama signed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which was designed to help with this.

My native Illinois has fully implemented the provisions, and call their application “MOVE-FPCA” (“FPCA” stands for “Federal Post Card Application”). In past years, I had to fill out a form, post (or fax) it back to Chicago, and I’d get my ballot materials in the mail. Chicago started using a semi-electronic PDF version of the application (meaning, not all parts would work on a computer, and they’d have to be filled in by hand). I could also email the scanned form back to them.

The next improvement is that they email temporary ballot materials, posting out the printed version as soon as it’s final. This was a big improvement because it meant an overseas voter with email could get a ballot with plenty of extra time to get it back in time. If the voter submitted both versions, they counted only the last version sent in. This is still true. I received my email versions on Friday.

This year, some states—including Illinois—have an online MOVE-FPCA that voters can fill out and file—but they still have to print the form, sign and date it, then post or email (or fax) it back to the election jurisdiction where the voter was last registered to vote  (Chicago in my case). Because it’s only partly online, this version is not really any better than the old interactive PDF version, except, maybe, the form itself is complete (nothing to fill in—just sign, date and post).

Another innovation this year is that Illinois is offering an online semi-voting portal: Voters can mark their ballots online, but they still have to print them out and post them back (faxing and emailing are not permitted, since that would violate the secrecy of the ballot). I haven’t decided if I’ll try that or not: Like the “online” application, it seems like it’s only half done.

Still, the intention is good: To make it easy for US citizens living overseas to vote. Not all countries permit that.

For example, Ireland doesn’t permit emigrants to vote in elections (with a few exceptions). This was particularly evident in their marriage equality referendum: There was a big campaign to get young Irish people to come home to vote.

Other countries place limits on the right to vote. Canadian citizens who have lived overseas for more than five consecutive years cannot vote [SOURCE]. For the United Kingdom, anyone living outside the UK for 15 years or more cannot vote [SOURCE]. In New Zealand, citizens have to have visited the country within the the three years before an election. Permanent residents—who may vote after living in New Zealand for at least 12 months—must visit New Zealand within 12 months of an election.

So, by comparison, the USA—which has no time limit, nor any requirement to visit—treats its citizens very well.

However, there are plenty of people who think that citizens living outside their country should not be able to vote at all. In my opinion, it’s a kind of a chauvinist attitude. If someone is a citizen of a country, then they ought to have a say in who leads it—it’s the birthright of all citizens, and for Americans, it’s guaranteed by the US Constitution.

US citizens living overseas indefinitely/permanently are eligible to vote for US President/Vice President, as well as US Senator and US Representative (including in party primary elections, if any) for the place they were last registered to vote. State and local elections aren’t included, and I don’t have a problem with that: People who live in a town or state have to deal with the consequences of elections, and someone overseas does not. However, US citizens overseas ARE affected by what the federal government does.

It’s also important to note that US citizens living overseas are required to file income tax returns, though if they live in a country that has a tax treaty with the USA, a large amount of their income—even all of it—is excluded form US taxes. The USA is the only developed country that requires its citizens to pay tax on money earned overseas. “No taxation without representation”, of course, so if some people truly feel that US citizens living overseas shouldn’t be able to vote, then obviously they also feel that we shouldn’t have to file income tax returns or pay any US taxes—otherwise it’d be a betrayal of the very principals on which the USA was founded.

I doubt that any attempt to disenfranchise US citizens living overseas indefinitely/permanently is constitutional. However, I can imagine that some conservatives in Congress might want to try, and the conservatives on the US Supreme Court may agree with them. But, then, I’ve thought that was a possibility for nearly as long as I’ve lived overseas, and it hasn’t happened yet.

For me, this is just about rights as a US citizen, but also about my duties and obligations. As I often say, I’ve had many relatives who served in the US military, and some who were casualties, protecting the rights that so many take for granted. I have a duty and an obligation to them, and to the Constitution, to vote in federal elections, and I’ll continue to do so until they take that right away from me.

Now, the question of HOW I’ll vote is another matter entirely, and a subject for another day. But I will vote—always.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Is John Key’s government corrupt?

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is leading a government wracked by scandals, corruption, and crony capitalism. That government has damaged New Zealand’s reputation around the world, resulting most recently in another slide in New Zealand’s international ranking for corruption.

For eight years, from when Labour was in power in 2006 through National taking power in 2008 and on to 2013, New Zealand was ranked the least corrupt nation in the world by Transparency International in its annual Corruption Perception Index. I blogged about NZ achieving least-corrupt ranking back in 2006, and again in 2010. That all ended last year.

In 2014, New Zealand slipped to second place, which is still pretty good (and that’s why I included it in my recent video, 5 Awesome Things About New Zealand). This year, New Zealand dropped again: We’re now down to fourth place.

Why is New Zealand’s corruption ranking falling? Opposition Leader Andrew Little put the blame firmly on National: “It is an indictment on the Government,” he said. “National has been dogged by scandal after scandal involving dodgy deals and inappropriate conduct. The Oravida controversy, involving [former Justice Minister Judith] Collins, Chinese border officials and a company her husband is a director of, along with the dirty politics scandal involving John Key’s office, show how little regard the Government has for a reputation of fair dealing and transparency.”

Andrew Little also notes that the report “is unlikely to have captured all of the fall-out from the Saudi sheep scandal where the National Government paid off a disaffected Saudi businessman, so we should expect another drop next year.” He’s not the only one to see the connection between the scandals National has created for itself and the drop in New Zealand’s corruption ranking. Political commentator Bryce Edwards observed:
It could be that many of the National Government's various controversies are finally coming to home to roost, impacting on New Zealand's global reputation. Although these controversies have varied in their seriousness and credibility, many of them have played a role in eroding the perceived integrity of the administration and the wider public sector.
In addition to the Oravida and Dirty Politics scandals that Andrew Little mentioned, Edwards also pointed out that National MP Maurice Williamson was forced to resign as a minister, which came about because he apparently tried to get special treatment for a National Party donor. Edwards also mentioned the revelation of the National Party’s "Cabinet Clubs" that gave the party’s big donors special access to government ministers and senior politicians.

Edwards also mentions the most corrupt action of John Key’s government, their sweetheart deal with the SkyCity casino to get them to build an international convention centre in Auckland in exchange for dramatic increases in gaming tables and slot machines, and law changes to guarantee SkyCity’s profits. It was a rotten and corrupt deal, and I criticised it back in 2013. But that wasn’t all that John Key did: In addition to the crony capitalism of the deal itself, Key also retaliated against critics of the deal, a tactic he’s used several times to get rid of dissent and criticism and to try to frighten other would-be opponents and critics into silence.

Edwards points out that all these scandals don’t necessarily mean that corruption is actually increasing in New Zealand, we just may be more aware of it. He argues that, “many of the allegations thrown around remain unproven or contentious”, and asserts that “the publication of Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics, despite all of the vitally important issues it raised about democracy in New Zealand, did not necessarily prove that corruption is now running wild.” Except, he’s flat out wrong: it actually did.

John Key and Judith Collins used the National Party’s attack blogger to destroy individuals and to attack the Labour Party with what were false and misleading assertions, all while keeping John Key’s hands clean and the air of plausible deniability intact. That’s pretty damn corrupt. Also, police conducted an unlawful raid on Nicky Hager’s home, which Key’s government and the police both adamantly deny was politically-motivated. But, then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Naturally, John Key’s government is trying to spin its way out of trouble—yet again. Their official press release is titled, “NZ among top nations in fighting corruption” as if the NZ’s drop in ranking didn’t even happen. Current Justice Minister Amy Adams is quoted as saying, “While the slight slip in rankings to fourth place is disappointing…” before going on to claim that John Key’s Government “has strengthened our anti-corruption measures and enhanced transparency since the underlying surveys for this index were undertaken, which we would expect will have a positive impact next year.” Not bloody likely, and she knows it.

Adams, who has been accused of benefitting from crony Capitalism in the South Island, took a page from John Key’s playbook and attacked the report itself, telling ONE News (at 1:15) that the methodology “is not terribly clear” and that “it’s had a lot of criticism”, all things that John Key would be likely to say. Her spin was actually delivered exactly as John Key’s would do it, too, from which words she placed verbal emphasis on, to the condescending smirk on her face as she spoke, and even the little head bobbing she did as she stuck the knife in the report.

Still, despite all the evidence of corruption in John Key’s government, maybe Edwards is right and it’s not actually worse. The problem is that with the slow death of the newsmedia in New Zealand, and this government’s habit of retaliating against critics, we may not be able to prove it. Still, if New Zealand's corruption ranking continues to drop, we’ll know why: John Key’s government is corrupt.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Ordinary examples

Most of us live ordinary lives most of the time. We also all have interesting or exciting things that happen, but that’s not necessarily very often. Sometimes, very ordinary things can help tell a bigger story.

At 8:30 this morning I was going around opening up the curtains and getting ready to start my day, and I noticed there was condensation on the outside of our windows. At the time, the humidity was 92% and the temperature was 21.8 (71.24F) outside, but only about 19 (66.2F) inside. With the high humidity, that was enough to create the condensation.

A storm system is moving in (and it’s already rained some), but it originates in the subtropics, so it’s carrying humid air. So, while the highs are expected to drop a degree, the humidity will remain high, and that will make it feel hotter than it actually is—and uncomfortable for people without air conditioning, especially at night. We also may see more condensation on the windows in the morning.

This is really the latest chapter in the weather story I first talked about on Sunday. The slightly lower temperatures are unlikely to make people feel any better. Still, it could be worse.

When I first arrived in New Zealand, hardly anyone had air conditioning. Sure malls, big office buildings, etc., were air conditioned, but most homes weren’t, and neither were ordinary shops or cafes. Times have changed.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve put air conditioning into all the houses we’ve lived in, the latest being ducted central air conditioning (which is still rare). But these days a lot of homes have air conditioning, even if only in the lounge or maybe bedrooms. It’s common now for even small shops and cafes to have air conditioning, because a lot of people—me included—will avoid a place in the summer if it’s not air conditioned.

The point of my post last Sunday was, as I said at the time, that “some people think that Auckland is always cool, or don’t believe it can actually get hot; our experience tends to disprove that.” Most of the summers I’ve had in New Zealand since 1995 have had hot stretches, sometimes long and uncomfortable, sometimes shorter and drier. But at least some hot weather is quite common in an Auckland summer.

When I share ordinary things, like a photo of our kitchen window with condensation outside, I do so for two reasons. First, it’s to share what it’s like living in Auckland and New Zealand—I use my own life and experiences as an example, an illustration of what I’m talking about. Similarly, the other reason is to provide some real-world examples of what life here is like, and I’m actually irrelevant to that.

Most of us live ordinary lives most of the time. Sometimes I share some of my ordinary things to provide examples of what I’m talking about—the larger themes, I suppose they’d be called.

Sometimes, very ordinary things can help tell a bigger story. Even fogged up windows can do that.

At 10am, it was 23.9 (75F), but humidity had fallen to a mere 85%, so it only “felt like” 31 (87.8F). It was still a very comfortable 19.8 (67.64F) inside.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fix, Fasten

New Zealand does a great job of creating commercials and campaigns designed to get New Zealanders to think about natural disasters. Their latest series is among the best yet.

The ads in this post are from EQC (the Earthquake Commission), which is responsible not just for earthquakes and preparedness, but also other natural disasters like tsunami, volcanic eruption, landslides, and hydrothermal events. The preparedness part is what these ads promote.

Specifically, they try to motivate people to fix and fasten anything that could come loose in an earthquake, things like tall furniture, hot water cylinders, chimneys, and even house foundations (to keep houses from sliding off their foundations in an earthquake), and it does so by promoting “Fix. Fasten. Don’t Forget.” a special section of EQC’s website with everything people need to know to, well, fix and fasten things.

The ad up top, “Cylinder”, is my favourite of the bunch. In 30 seconds it depicts a variety of people taking a small actions to keep people safe, ending with a man securing a hot water cylinder. “One small action can make a difference,” the onscreen text tells us as the man works.

They’re absolutely right, of course, but what makes these ads so effective is that they use everyday imagery—things completely unrelated to natural disaster—to drive home the point that small actions can prevent injury. The fact the ads have no dialogue helps to make the visuals stand out even more, I think. These are really good ads.

The ad below is the 15-second version of “Bookshelf”. It begins with one of the most powerful images in the series—a woman throwing out her arm to keep a man from being hit by a truck—and ends with a woman securing a bookshelf.

Together, these ads are quite different from the preparedness ads we usually see, which is part of what makes them so effective. They may just manage to cut through all the “noise” of advertising to make their point.

Still, I haven’t yet followed their advice, even though I’m quite aware of both risk and preparedness. We have some tall bookshelves that could topple in a severe jolt, and I’ve often thought about the importance of securing them. I’m sure I will get to it, though I’m obviously gambling that I’ll get to it before there’s a big jolt. I imagine most other people are doing the same.

And yet, if these ads at least get people thinking about what they need to do, that’s a major hurdle they’ve overcome. There’s no way to force people to do what’s best for themselves, after all.

Be that as it may, I fully intend to fix and fasten, and I won’t forget. Hopefully I’ll get to it before I need it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Hotter than

It was hot today. And I don’t mean “Auckland hot”, I mean hot hot. The photo with this post is a screen grab of the readout from our weather station at 2:09pm. However, that wasn’t the peak temperature. Memo to self: Tell American folks not to visit in January.

For my American friends, 35.2 degrees is about 95.4F (and the “feels like 42” is 107.6F). Bad as that was, the highest temperature at our house was at 3:34pm: 36.9 (98.4F). Last night, it was barely below 15 (59F) all night, which is pretty warm for a night-time temperature.

This isn’t unusual for this time of year: January is often hot. For example, as mentioned in my previous post, it was incredibly hot on this day six years ago. January is the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of July in the Northern Hemisphere—full on summer, in other words.

I’m absolutely NOT complaining; I can hang out washing and have it dry in no time, for example—that's a great thing. But our air conditioning does struggle to keep up, and when it gets this hot it takes the house (the building) a fair while to cool down so that the air conditioning can relax a bit. Yeah, yeah, I know: First world problems.

I mention all of this only for one reason: So you can know what Auckland is like in January. Some people think that Auckland is always cool, or don’t believe it can actually get hot; our experience tends to disprove that. Even so, the official summer temperatures are almost always lower than what people actually experience, and that means that visitors have to be prepared for hotter summers than the official guidebooks suggest is “normal”.

In any event, I like hot weather for a (short) while—as long as I can retreat into air conditioning. This weather—like the winter weather that will follow—won’t last forever. But it’s fun to talk about it in the meantime.

Have I mentioned that it was hot today?

The photo above also has data on the inside conditions (at the bottom, with the white background). 24.2 inside temperature is equivalent to about 75.6F, though that temperature got hotter later, too.

A sixth Anniversary

Six years ago today, on Saturday, January 24, 2009, Nigel and I had our Civil Union ceremony and a party afterward. At the time, it was the only way for us to have our relationship officially recognised. We were later married, but the civil union was our big ceremony.

We didn’t rush to get a civil union when they became legal, as I’ve mentioned before, and for me, part of the reason is that it seemed like a kind of consolation prize: We weren’t allowed to marry, but we could have this other, separate thing, that wasn’t marriage but that was almost exactly the same—apart from the fact that we weren’t allowed to marry, even though opposite-sex couples were allowed to have a civil union.

This is how I put it in 2014, at the first anniversary of our civil union after we were married:
For me, personally, [a civil union] was always inferior to marriage—something the government allowed same-gender couples to have while also restricting the choice for either marriage or civil unions to opposite-gender couples only. I felt like an unwelcome guest at a party, one who’s accommodated, but not really part of things. I was an outsider. Still.
I felt like our noses were being rubbed in how second-class we were, as can be inferred from what I said elsewhere in that post. However, that doesn’t mean the civil union wasn’t important, because it absolutely was important. Most obviously, at the time it was the only way to have our family status legally recognised. But it was also an opportunity for family and friends to gather with us to celebrate that legal union, the first opportunity to do so in the 13 years we’d been together (if I was dubious about civil unions, I saw absolutely no point whatsoever in “commitment ceremonies” that had no legal purpose whatsoever; others clearly felt differently, and that’s their right, just as it’s mine to consider them pointless for me).

The fact that the freedom to marry did arrive, and we were married, means that remembering the civil union anniversary might have faded away. I don’t think it should, and I intend to continue to remember it. As I said last year,
…Personal anniversaries are important to people precisely because they’re personal. Others may join in celebrating, or not, but that doesn’t change anything for the couple. So, our civil union anniversary will be important to us for what it meant, and so will our marriage anniversary, and partly because it completed what began that horribly hot January Saturday back in 2009.
We’re now just another marriage couple, one that’s been together over 20 years now—it’s just that unlike most opposite-sex couples, our engagement lasted some 13 years—or 17, depending on how you look at it. In any event, we got there, and were still here, and all that is well worth celebrating.

So, happy anniversary to us! And, this now concludes the 2015-16 “Season of Anniversaries”. Carry on.

Posts from previous years

2009: Perfect Day – where it began
2010: One and Fifteen
2011: Second Anniversary, squared
2012: Three years ago today
2013: Fourth Anniversary
2014: An anniversary
2015: Anniversaries

2Political Podcast 115 is available

Episode 115 of the 2Political Podcast, our last of 2015, is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast, or leave comments on the episode. The five most recent episodes are also listed with links in the right sidebar of this blog.