Monday, July 28, 2014

Sick days

I have a bad winter cold that started the middle of last week. A lot of people have had it, or similar, and I’m not complaining. If anything, I’m fascinated by how it affects me.

I got the cold from Nigel, who had his for about a week starting the week before mine did. I know married couples are supposed to share their lives, but I could have done with a little less sharing in this case.

Colds hit me much harder than they used to. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s different viruses—there are at least a hundred different viruses that cause the common cold, so it’s entirely possible I’m encountering ones I never did while growing up and have no defence against them. Or, maybe these viruses are just stronger. Or, maybe it’s just age, after all.

In any case, the first thing that hits is fatigue. That started the middle of last week, and I tried to relax in case I was just over-tired. The next day, Thursday, I was too tired to do much of anything and I even napped, something I almost never do on a weekday.

On Friday, I tried mightily to get a few chores done, but it was very hard going. Again, I spent most of the day resting.

We were supposed to take the dogs and go to Hamilton to celebrate Nigel’s Mum’s birthday, but by Saturday morning it was clear to me I was too sick to go. The family (including me) joked about how I must be sick if I didn’t go to a family party, and that’s actually true: I really enjoy them, and the only things that would make me miss one is if I’m away, if I have something I can’t get out of (like work…), or if I’m too sick.

So, Nigel went by himself and the dogs stayed with me (a small consolation prize). I spent the day watching TV in my comfy chair. Later that night, I went to bed and watched TV for awhile.

I spent all day Sunday in bed, mostly playing games on my iPad because it’s all I could concentrate on. Lack of concentration/focus is what annoys me the most about these colds.

I didn’t blog over the past couple days because I simply couldn’t focus enough. The post I published on Friday I’d sketched out when I was more—what’s the word?—lucid, maybe. That was lucky. But I have another I could have finished reasonably easily, except I also lacked any energy, which is the other thing that most annoys me about these colds.

Of course the physical symptoms make me feel miserable, but if I could at least concentrate enough to read, or maybe write a blog post or whatever, it wouldn’t be as bad. As it is, all I can do is rest—I can’t even talk properly.

I talked about all this as being annoying because that’s all it is. I’m keenly aware that in a few days it’ll be as if I never had a cold, and I’ll forget all about this until the next cold settles in. It’s merely annoying because it’ll go away.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are fighting chronic or serious diseases (some of whom I know in real life), and some of those people won’t win their fight. Compared to them, it’s as if there’s nothing wrong me. That’s why I won’t complain—what, really, do I have to complain about?

And yet, I do feel miserable, and this cold keeps me from being able to read or write much, or even talk. It’s annoying, and that makes me grumpy. So I rest, take my paracetamol (called acetaminophen in the USA) and wait for the cold to pass, because I know it will.

All things considered, I’m lucky.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Schumer’s wrong – but close

US Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) set off a mini-firestorm early this week when he suggested a “Top-Two” primary system. I read many of those responses. Still, he was close.

A “Top-Two” primary is one in which Republican and Democratic candidates run in the same primary with the top two contenders facing a run-off in November. Schumer has some peculiar ideas about the merits of such a wacky system, especially that it will magically reduce “polarisation”. He’s wrong.

A growing body of evidence shows that voters who vote in partisan primaries are not more extreme than party voters generally. Self-described independents, who tend to me more centrist overall, are able to vote in partisan primaries in most states, contrary to what Schumer thinks; the issue is more about why they may not want to.

Schumer, who is strongly aligned to corporate interests (so much so that he’s often called “the Senator for Wall Street”), is proposing a system that actually helps corporate-aligned candidates by helping to shut out populist candidates. This makes the “Top-Two” system less democratic by narrowing choice as well as making it much harder for candidates who are aligned with ordinary people, not big corporations, to get elected.

Schumer asserts that his system “would prevent a hard-right or hard-left candidate from gaining office with the support of just a sliver of the voters of the vastly diminished primary electorate; to finish in the top two, candidates from either party would have to reach out to the broad middle.” That’s nonsense: His system doesn’t and can’t dictate an ideological litmus test to ensure that there would be ANY candidates from “the broad middle”. And, anyway, what’s so inherently virtuous about being in the middle? I’d prefer a principled left or right politician (who will comprise when needed—a critical caveat) to a wishy-washy “centrist” who sticks a finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. But, if the choice is between such a “centrist” and an intransigent ideologue (always the case with the hard right), then I suppose I could live with the candidate of the bland middle.

If Schumer is serious about reform, then he should back real, substantive electoral change: He should back the Alternative Vote (also known as “Instant Run-off Voting”, and it was called “Preferential Voting” when it was considered as a possible replacement for MMP in New Zealand back in 2011).

The Alternative Vote ensures that whoever is elected has majority support (which Schumer mistakenly thinks is a benefit of his “Top-Two” system). It also eliminates wasted votes and the spoiler effect, both of which are present in Schumer's wacky system. Alternative Vote also helps reduce extremism among candidates, which Schumer says is one of his goals. Seems to me, Alternative Vote meets Schumer’s criteria perfectly, without diminishing democracy (the exact opposite, if anything).

When I talked about Alternative Vote back during New Zealand’s 2011 Election Referendum campaign, I said:
“If the US were to switch to [Alternative Vote], it’s probable that over time small party candidates could be elected, and it’s also likely that even candidates of the two main parties would be more representative and would pander less to their party base (this is especially true for Republicans).”
I also said that since the US can never switch to a more democratic proportional system, then the Alternative Vote is a good alternative. It makes the final result fairer, ensures the winner has majority support and is inherently more democratic than the system in use in most places or the “Top-Two” scam that Schumer supports.

So, like I said: If Chuck Schumer is serious about backing reform, he should back the Alternative Vote.

The video below explains Alternative Vote in more detail.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Commonwealth Games

The 20th Commonwealth Games opened in Glasgow today, with what I thought was a pretty awesome opening ceremony. It’s a pity my American friends and family are unlikely to know about the Games, because they are what the Olympics should be.

The Commonwealth Games were “known as the British Empire Games from 1930–1950, the British Empire and Commonwealth Games from 1954–1966, and British Commonwealth Games from 1970–1974,” when the current name was adopted. The Games are held every four years, and were skipped only twice, both times for World War 2 (1942 and 1946)

Fifty-four nations are members of The Commonwealth, but 71 teams participate. That’s because dependencies of countries (like the Isle of Man, Jersey, etc.) participate under their own flags, as do the four Home Nations of the United Kingdom. Because the Commonwealth Games are less nationalistic than the Olympics, and because the Commonwealth is often referred to as a family, the Games are sometimes called “The Friendly Games”.

New Zealand is one of only six Commonwealth nations to have participated in all Commonwealth games. The other five are: Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, and Wales. New Zealand also hosted the games three times: 1950 and 1990 in Auckland, and 1974 in Christchurch. This means that New Zealand is tied for third place with Scotland among countries that hosted the games multiple times. First is Australia with five and Canada is second with four.

Auckland and Edinburgh are the only two cities that have hosted the Games twice. The 1950 Games in Auckland were the first after the interruption of World War 2.

The Games are unique in that in addition to sporting events found in the Olympic Summer Games, there are also games typically played in Commonwealth countries, such as bowls (also known as lawn bowls) and netball. Rugby Sevens is also an event; while rugby is played in many non-Commonwealth nations (like France, for example), it’s a particular passion among Commonwealth Countries. Curiously, there’s no version of cricket played at the Games.

Another unique aspect of the Games is that athletes with disabilities are included in their national teams, and their events are held alongside events for athletes without disabilities. So, the medal count includes all athletes. The Olympics, of course, host separate games for athletes with disabilities.

Add it all up, and the Commonwealth Games’ uniquely collegial atmosphere, its inclusiveness, and its inclusion of sports that don’t get much international attention, and these Games are unique and valuable. In fact, I prefer them to the Olympics. I just wish more Americans knew about them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Incremental change

Yesterday, President Obama signed an Executive Order (video above) forbidding federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. The rightwing meltdown was as predictable as it was boring, and also just plain stupid. It’s still a big deal, though.

Existing executive orders already prevented the US Federal Government from discriminating against gay employees, but President Obama extended that to include gender identity. Also, those same protections are now extended to contractors to the US Federal Government. This affects some 28 million workers, which is huge.

Writing on the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart gives the history of anti-discrimination executive orders, and adds:
“Obama’s executive order will apply to the 24,000 companies designated as federal contractors whose 28 million workers make up a fifth of the country’s workforce. One reason we haven’t heard any squawking from the business community is because most federal contractors are already protecting their LGBT employees. Among the data points in a “confidential memo” written by the Williams Institute and the Center for American Progress in 2012 for then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was this key statistic: 92 percent of employees of federal contractors in the Fortune 1000 are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy.” [link in original]
What’s significant in all this is that much of the executive order has been in force for over a decade and a half, and also that the vast majority of federal contractors already have these anti-discrimination provisions, so there’s no burden whatsoever.

So: What’s the radical right on about? The short answer is “nothing”, of course, but the longer answer is that a tiny, tiny minority of federal contractors might be forbidden to discriminate against LGBT employees. Um, too bad.

Two things. First, it seems beyond bizarre to me that the radical right would seriously try and argue that their supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs” boils down to the right to discriminate against LGBT employees. I don’t think their Jesus died for that, though they clearly disagree.

The second thing is this: LGBT Americans pay taxes just like everyone else does. Why should one cent of LGBT tax money go to aide and abet their own oppression? Why should LGBT taxpayers have to pay to be discriminated against? Just because some religious radical claims his supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs” entitles him to take federal tax money, yet discriminate against taxpayers, that doesn’t make it true or reasonable.

This executive order is an important step on the road to full equality. Some day we’ll look back at these days and wonder how we ever could have considered pandering to bigots. President Obama stood up for what is right, and he should be applauded for that (never mind how long it took to get there…).

One thing in particular struck me about the president’s remarks. He said:
“Many of us are only here because others fought to secure rights and opportunities for us. We’ve got a responsibility to do the same for future generations. We’ve got an obligation to make sure that the country we love remains a place that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from, or how you started out, or what your last name is, or who you love, no matter what, you can make it in this country.”
It’s been a torturous road to equality in the USA, and the country has a long way to go, but things like this executive order help push things along just a little bit further. Even though this change is only incremental, it’s significant—even with so much left to do.

Let’s celebrate what’s good. Tomorrow we can fight for what remains to be done.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Helping the regions

The images with this post are campaign graphics created by the New Zealand Labour Party to promote Labour's policies for regional New Zealand. I think they’re quite good, and help to summarise Labour’s positive policies.

The graphic up top is the one I shared on Facebook. I especially like that one because it highlights the importance of ensuring that there’s a future for young New Zealanders so that they don’t have to move overseas to find jobs to provide for their families. It’s also important for the regions to help create opportunities there so that there’s more work choices for all New Zealanders.

The image below is a perfectly sensible policy: Why shouldn’t government support New Zealand businesses? It helps all New Zealanders when they do.

And finally, the image at the bottom of this post is about Labour’s plans to invest in rural New Zealand. This is all about making things better for people living in the regions so that people can get good jobs so they and their families can have decent homes in strong, vibrant communities. It’s a positive programme for ordinary Kiwis.

The National Party’s plan for the regions? They want to have people complain about red tape on social media (seriously!) and that somehow might one day become some sort of action. Or something. That’s really their plan for helping the regions!

Like most people, I’d much rather back a party that has a positive plan for moving the country forward, a party that recognises that people matter most, and what helps them helps the entire country. That’s why I back Labour.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Weekend Diversion: Matt Fishel

Until yesterday, I’d never heard of Matt Fishel. I’m glad I did, because he’s the sort of independently-minded artist I admire, the kind who stay true to their artistic vision.

Matt is a gay artist who refused to make compromises to be “commercial”. According to Huffington Post, where I first hear about Matt, he was told he “had to stop writing songs about men” because “apparently being gay wasn't ‘radio-friendly.’"

Matt’s response, the video at the bottom of this post, is "Radio-Friendly Pop Song", a thoroughly catchy pop song like any that one might hear on, you know, the radio. I really like its positive “don’t take no bullshit” message.

The video at the top of this post is his newest single, a remake of CeCe Peniston’s “Finally”. I like all the positive imagery in the video as well as his version of the song. I placed it first because it's his newest single. Of course.

I like pop music. I like openly gay pop artists. I especially like openly gay pop artists who don’t compromise by changing pronouns. And yet I also tend to think how much difference such things would have made to me when I was a teenager. I hope having such artists with integrity it makes a difference to teens now.

But it’s pop music, after all, and it’s meant to be fun. Sometimes, that really is enough, but the fact that there are so many openly gay artists performing their songs honestly is really, really good to see. Finally.

An odd thing

Yesterday, there was a pro-Palestinian protest march in Auckland, which isn’t unusual—there have been several over recent years. But this time I received an official warning, something I thought was over the top.

This year’s protest march went to the US Consulate (in previous years they marched from the Consulate), and was attended by 500-1500 people—depending on who you believe; I wasn’t there, so I have no idea.

The US consulate warned me not to attend the march—seriously. Actually, they warned me twice, in two emails five hours apart. “Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence,” they told me. “You should avoid areas of demonstrations and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstration.”

I’ll be direct: My first reaction was, “are you frigging serious?!” This is New Zealand: Not only don’t protests in this country typically turn violent, but I’ve never—ever—felt threatened or intimidated on the streets as an American-born New Zealander. Actually, the truth is that the only times I’ve felt anti-American aggression from New Zealanders has been on social media (Twitter and Facebook), never in real life.

So, I thought the emailed warning to US citizens in New Zealand was over-the-top. I also thought the email itself was vaguely intimidating, perhaps of US citizens who might want to joint the march, when it said: “New Zealand Police are aware of the protest and are monitoring it.”

I suppose I should be grateful that the US Government is trying to keep US citizens safe by warning them of potential trouble. I should be grateful, maybe, but it’s hard for me when I find them to be, shall we say, rather culturally tone-deaf. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything like that about the US diplomatic mission in New Zealand. Maybe there really is a first time for everything.

New Zealand is a peaceful country, and one in which group violence is very rare—so much so, that I felt the US Consulate was warning me about another country entirely. If I’d been in the CBD yesterday, the only reason I would’ve avoided the area is because the streets were blocked, not because of concerns about my personal safety. As it happens, I had things scheduled here on the other side of the bridge, and so, wasn’t there. But the Consulate and its tone-deaf warning didn’t keep me away, not even almost. I know New Zealanders better than they do, it seems, and considering they’re supposed to be experts, that’s an odd thing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

My first political Public Meeting

Last night, I went to the first political Public Meeting I’ve ever been to. There’s no particular reason why I never attended one before, but I went to this one because it was for Richard Hills, the Labour candidate in our electorate.

When I moved to New Zealand, I saw that politicians—elected and campaigning—held something called a “public meeting”, and it confused me. Where I was from, officials conducted “public meetings” to inform people about some immediate issue or crisis, like a drought or something of public concern. In New Zealand, they were opportunities for people to hear about the issues of the day and to ask questions of candidates and officeholders.

The main reason I never attended such an event was that they’re usually held on weeknight evenings, and I don’t like doing things like that in the evenings (or on weekends), which are family time for me. This time, I was helping a bit with the event, and, anyway, I wanted to add numbers for Richard’s event.

Except in unusual circumstances, such events have relatively low turnout—maybe a couple dozen or so—because they’re held in specific local areas and are attended mainly by the people in those areas. Even so, we had a better than average turnout, though that’s only part of it: The flyers distributed in the area helped to get Richard’s name and the Labour Party presence out in the surrounding area, which is Labour-aligned but also historically has had low voter turnout. So, the flyers helped to create awareness and enthusiasm for Richard and Labour that the actual public meeting built on.

Several other Labour electorate candidates attended, including current Labour List MP, and Te Tai Torkerau candidate, Kelvin Davis, Hermann Retzlaff, Labour candidate for the newly-created Upper Harbour electorate, Greg Milner-White, Labour candidate for East Coast Bays electorate. Shanan Halbert, a Labour List candidate, was also there. They all said a few words, too.

The photo at top is from the Richard Hills for Northcote Facebook page (I forget who actually took it). Yes, I’m in the photo, but my face is obscured by someone’s hand. The photo was taken some time after the meeting ended, and cups of tea and coffee had been had, along with some wonderful baking. I took the photo below awhile before the meeting began.

All in all, it was a good night. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the people attending, and a strong commitment to turn out the vote for Labour and #ForABetterNZ. It warmed an otherwise cold night!