Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dance on the grave?

A report in the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel (via Joe.My.God) says that the city of Miami is planning an official celebration at the Orange Bowl sports stadium when Fidel Castro dies. Fortunately, not everyone thinks holding a death celebration is a good idea:

Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Miami-based Democracy Movement organization, worries about how a party to celebrate a man's death would be perceived by people outside the Cuban exile community.

Sanchez goes on to point out that the communist regime will still be in power. That would seem to make the celebrations not just somewhat ghoulish, but also premature.

The now increasingly elderly Cuban exiles who fled Castro’s takeover of
Cuba have always looked toward one day returning to the island nation to reclaim their property. Personally, I have to wonder about the enthusiasm for that among their American-born children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, particularly given the fact their lost property isn’t sitting there waiting for them.

In any case, while I can understand these people being privately glad when the dictator dies, it seems at best unseemly to celebrate it with a big city-sponsored party in a sports stadium.

Microsoft Vista first in New Zealand. Yawn!

Thanks to our time zone, New Zealand was the first country in the world to be able to buy Microsoft’s new operating system, Vista. To me, it’s a big yawn (despite the publicity stunt involving the very lovely Dan Carter).

When Windows 95 was released, also
first in New Zealand, the common refrain around the world was “Windows95 = Mac 87”. Fast forward, and Vista looks like Macintosh OS 10. Nothing much new, in other words.

I’m not upgrading to
Vista. If anything, I’m more likely to switch back to Mac, but that’s another story altogether.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Travel Advisory

Would you visit someone if they made you feel unwelcome? If everything they did made you wonder why you came for a visit, would you ever do it again?

Are foreign tourists starting to avoid coming to America on holiday—even going as far as avoiding simply stopping in America in transit to somewhere else? Some argue they are, due to America’s increasingly bad treatment of travellers, especially foreign ones, as part of its “war on terror”.

An article in the January 20, 2007 New Zealand Listener magazine describes one Kiwi’s experience as a traveller in modern America:
I left the US vowing never to return. I’m not alone. Tired of being fingerprinted and photographed on entry like a criminal; of abuses of security that include young children being separated from parents to be searched; of endless delays, missed flights, humiliating strip-searches and even incarceration because of some minor bureaucratic bungle, significant number of travellers are now avoiding the US as a destination or even for transit…
Are they? According New Zealand’s Ministry of Tourism, in November, 2006, the number of Kiwi departures heading to the US declined 10.9 percent over the same period in 20052. That may not sound like a big drop, but comparing that figure to the numbers from the Ministry and the Travel Agents Association of New Zealand (TAANZ), there was an increase in the years 2003/04 (up 19.9 percent) and in 2004/05 (up 12.7 percent)3. The recent decline, then, is more pronounced than it seems.

Americans, too, are complaining about security measures that have the effect of delaying and inconveniencing travellers. The US’ “watch list” is riddled with errors, as the Washington Post recently reported. Only now is the US government trying to implement an appeal system for people banned from flights in America because their name is on the “watch list”.4

Meanwhile, the US government is set to add new, seemingly odd personal information to its data-gathering system. A December, 2006 story in the Christchurch Press said…
Every airline traveller entering the United States will now be assigned a secret computer generated terror threat score, based on information from their car number-plate to the food they ate on the flight. The rating cannot be seen or challenged and will be held on file by American authorities for 40 years.5
Ongoing security restrictions, such as the ban on carrying liquids onto US-bound planes, may also deter some travellers. So, too, many complain about being photographed and fingerprinted.

When the US started fingerprinting and photographing foreign travellers on arrival, at least one country retaliated by doing the same to Americans. “They’re treating us like criminals!” a clearly shocked and outraged American tourist complained to the TV reporter. He experienced only what foreigners feel like on arrival in America.

With such barriers put up against tourists, one would expect to see a decline in international travellers to America. For New Zealanders, the November 2006 report showed that while fewer Kiwis were travelling to America, total short-term travel overseas was up 2.3 percent over November 20056. If this is repeated in other countries, it will mean that tourist dollars are shifting from America to other places.

There are plenty of people who will avoid travel to the US—and spending their money there—because of what seems like overzealousness at the US borders. Really, who can blame travellers who make other plans? There aren’t many people who will visit where they don’t seem to be welcome.

1“Search and Seizure,” by Marilyn Head. New Zealand Listener, January 20, 2007, page28. Also available after 3 February 2007 at: http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3480/features/7909/search_and_seizure.html
2“International Visitor Arrivals Report,” November 2006. Ministry of Tourism, page 1.
3“Key Tourism Statistics,” published by Travel Agents Association of New Zealand (TAANZ) with the Ministry of Tourism, page 2.
4“U.S. Agency Tries to Fix No-Fly List Mistakes,” Washington Post January 20, 2007, published on www.washingtonpost.com (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/19/AR2007011901649.html)
5“Terror on the menu in US,” Christchurch Press, 4 December 2006, published on www.stuff.co.nz (http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/0,2106,3888081a34,00.html)
6“International Visitor Arrivals Report,” November 2006. Ministry of Tourism, page 1.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Auckland Anniversary Day

Today is Auckland Anniversary Day, a public holiday. There are twelve of these anniversary days* corresponding to nineteenth century provinces, meaning that a particular day may extend far from the modern place named (like Auckland, for example).

Provinces were abolished by Parliament in 1876, making Parliament the supreme government in the country. Parliament further consolidated power in 1950, when the upper house of Parliament (the Legislative Council) was abolished, leaving only the lower house, the House of Representatives. Today, the House is Parliament.

Anniversary days may be remnants of a provincial New Zealand that no longer exists, but for workers they just represent a day off. Five are in summer, the rest in spring or autumn. Not surprisingly, none are in winter.

One of today’s features was Auckland’s 167th annual Auckland Anniversary Regatta, New Zealand’s oldest sporting event. Basically, it’s a whole lot of boats sailing around Auckland Harbour. Sailing’s not my thing, which is a pity, really, with it so readily available (one of Auckland’s nicknames is “the City of Sails”).

For me, like most people, Anniversary Day is just a nice, quiet summer holiday. That’s good enough for me.

*The actual dates of the various anniversary days (in alphabetical order) are: Auckland, 29 January; Canterbury, 16 December; Chatham Islands, 30 November; Hawke's Bay, 1 November; Marlborough, 1 November; Nelson, 1 February; Otago, 23 March; South Canterbury, 16 December; Southland, 17 January; Taranaki, 31 March; Wellington, 22 January; Westland, 1 December. These holidays are usually observed on the closest Monday.

Making New Zealand and Australia closer

Not for the first time, elected officials from Australia and New Zealand are meeting to try and make the nations’ already close relationship closer still. New Zealand’s Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, and Australian Treasurer Peter Costello are meeting today in Wellington.

The two countries have had the Closer Economic Relations agreement since 1983, and attempts have been made ever since to move from free trade toward integrated economies, with some pushing outright merger.

The Dominion Post reported that “Dr Cullen said talks would focus on trans-Tasman tax issues, business law coordination, banking supervision, climate change and trade, and mutual recognition of qualifications.” Not exactly rabble-rousing stuff for most people.

In the past, moves toward greater economic—well, merger, is probably the best word—have stalled on this side of the Tasman as people worried that New Zealand companies might be swallowed up by Australia or, worse, New Zealand’s national identity might be lost, making us Australia’s de facto seventh state.

In fact, plenty of leading New Zealand companies have already been swallowed up by Australian companies (including all our main trading banks). A common currency would most likely mean adopting the Aussie dollar, given their stated opposition to any other option. New Zealand has always rejected that idea.

I’ve said before how I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of some sort of union happening in the future. What fascinates me about all of this is that the subject of closer economic integration and outright merger of the countries comes up again and again and again, and it’s always treated seriously, even if merger is often described as not going to happen.

I can’t imagine any similar serious ongoing talk of union between the US and Canada and/or Mexico. Does that mean that some sort of Aussie-Kiwi merger is inevitable? Probably not, but it does mean the idea’s not totally absurd, either.

In the meantime, both countries settle for talks aimed at reducing barriers for business. Maybe that’s all we should expect for now. But such talks certainly don’t make the larger discussion of merger go away, nor my fascination with the subject’s persistence.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Another little trip

We went to the Waikato yesterday for a family party (an engagement party) and spent the night at my mother-in-law’s before heading back today. It’s a nice, easy drive from Auckland, but we thought it would be a bit much to drive home late at night, so we decided to stay.

The party was held in a community hall, which every rural community over a certain size seems to have. This one was typical of many I’ve been in—an older frame building with really basic amenities and no fans (and certainly no air conditioning). The point of such gatherings isn’t the location, of course.

I’ve always enjoyed these country get-togethers, drawing, as they do, so many people from so many walks of (mostly) rural life. It makes for a really interesting time. Large city get-togethers aren’t “worse”, of course, they’re just different and maybe a bit more homogenous in some ways.

If you follow State Highway 2 through to Paeroa, you see a lot of typical rural North Island life—typical, at least, for the Waikato. The area is a living billboard for the “0800 GO DAIRY” television ads trying to get people to go into dairy farming (which, apparently, has a severe shortage of workers). I didn’t take any photos because I haven’t yet seen one that does justice to the area, with its wide open spaces.

At any rate, we have family and friends throughout the area and really like going there for visits. Sooner or later, there’s bound to be a chance to take a decent photo.

On our way home, we stopped at the Copper Kettle in Ngatea for lunch. It’s not for nothing that they say “You can’t go past us… without stopping”. The food and coffee is always great and we like to stop there on the way to or from Auckland. Owners Terry and Dennis are friends of ours, and real pillars of their community. So having that custard tart (as we always do) isn’t naughty—it’s, um, supporting the community—yeah, that’s it.

Tomorrow is Auckland Anniversary Day, a statutory holiday and one of the last of summer (though summer itself still has more than a month to go). So, we may have had a night away, but we still have a full day left in our weekend. To me, that’s just about perfect. And so was the trip.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The source of irritation, part 2

Back in November, I wrote about how privet was making me miserable. Back then, it was Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) in bloom and irritating me to no end. Well, like the movie says, “They’re Baaaaaaaack!"

This time of year the culprit is the equally annoying tree privet (Ligustrum lucidum), pictured above, with some in the background, too. Like Chinese privet, the scent can best be described as a sickly sweetish foul stench—not at all pleasant, even in small doses (which is impossible). The tree privet nearest the house is much bigger than the annoying Chinese privet I wrote about before. Fabulous.

If I had my way, every last one of these foul, stinking remnants of horticultural terrorism would be yanked out of the ground in a massive nationwide campaign, probably involving the military, possibly involving explosives. I hates ’em, I do.

I’m not alone, either. Privet pollen is bad for people with asthma or hayfever. The leaves and berries are poisonous to both people and animals. What the hell were those people thinking when they planted privet? “Gee, this obnoxious, toxic plant with no natural enemies will look great once it gets loose and conquers the country.”

Early settlers in particular did a lot of stupid things, as people in those days did. They were ignorant of the world around them, and had no idea their actions had consequences, some of which we’re still paying for today. This was true in most countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fortunately for New Zealand, privet couldn’t be legally introduced today, although that isn’t very helpful for the current problem.

Barring military manoeuvres against these things, I’ll just have to wait it out. Just don’t blame me if I’m grumpy these days; the privet makes me do it.

Update 12:10 p.m.: Since I first published this post, I took a photo of tree privet (above) because I couldn't find one that was copyright-free (my photos and posts are covered by the Creative Commons share-alike license, if you want to know—see the bottom of this page). I also made a few minor edits for better clarity.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Australia Day

Today is Australia Day, that country’s national day. It commemorates the arrival on this day in 1788 of the first fleet and the establishment of the Colony of New South Wales. Like national days in other countries, it’s marked by official celebrations, swearing-in new citizens and so on.

But like
New Zealand’s Waitangi Day, there’s also controversy.

To Aboriginal Australians, the day represents the arrival of their oppressor. But even some Australians of European descent don’t see the attraction of this particular date, commemorating the establishment of one colony.
Western Australia, for example, wasn't claimed by Britain until 19 September 1829.

Alternative days for celebration are sometimes proposed. One day, also proposed sometimes for
New Zealand, is ANZAC Day, but that’s already a pubic holiday and sacred to military veterans. January 1 is the anniversary of the founding of the Australian federal union. But that, too, is already a public holiday. So, January 26 is it for now at least.

It’s good for people to pause every now and again to think about their country. Those counties in a pretty good space should take time to feel some pride—without veering into jingoism or blatant nationalism, of course. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pride, well-measured and well-understood, in one’s own country.

Australia has much to be proud of. There are real achievements and accomplishments to celebrate, and much more to come.

Sure, there are bad things about
Australia. Every country has dark pages in its national history, and every country has things about it that are embarrassing or worse. Those who criticise Australia for its shortcomings should also recognise that the country isn’t alone or unique in having negative aspects. To be sure, even I mention those shortcomings from time to time.

But not today.

Today is
Australia’s national day. So to them I say, Happy Australia Day.

News for parrots

I’ve often joked about Sky News Australia, the 24-hour news service carried on our pay-TV service. I call it “news for parrots” because it always focuses on Australians, even when they’re nowhere near the focus of the story.

This ethno-centrism reminded me of the Monty Python sketch in which ordinary news is presented as if parrots were the focus, as in “No parrots were involved in an accident on the M1 today…” Sky News is very similar.

When Australians are involved in some international sports event, they’ll report on how the Aussies are doing, ignoring all others, even if the Aussies are way behind. When the space shuttle had an Australian on board, the news said his name “and several others are due to blast off today…” as if the Aussie were the most important person on the mission. Same with the Aussie woman who married the crown prince of Denmark—you’d be forgiven for thinking she was the royal.

And then came the Oscar nominations. Sky News reported that Cate Blanchett had received a nomination (for Notes on a Scandal), as had the Aussie-made animated film Happy Feet. This one time they had reason to be “news for penguins”, at least.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

State of the Onion

President George W. Bush greets Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi before delivering his State of the Union Address at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, January 23, 2007. White House photo by Eric Draper, taken from the official White House site (www.whitehouse.gov). No copyright or other informaiton was on the site.

I watched the 2007 State of the Union Address. All of it. I even paid attention to a lot of it. But I have to admit that part of the reason I watched was similar to why I watch the various CSI shows: I kept waiting for the gory bits.

I knew that the Members of the US Congress, despite its new Democratic majority, would never boo Bush, no matter how much he might deserve it or provoke them. Still, I had to watch just in case.

I have to give credit where credit is due: I thought George was gracious in the start of his speech, and cynical ol’ me got a little choked up when he began…

Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own—as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.

His going on to congratulate Pelosi as the first female Speaker of the US House was the right touch for an historic moment. His mention of absent Members of Congress was similarly appropriate. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid:

Some in this chamber are new to the House and the Senate—and I congratulate the Democrat majority.

The majority party in the US Congress is the Democratic Party; for some reason, Republicans, especially right-wing ones, like to refer to the “Democrat Party,” which they seem to think is some sort of insult. It is, in the sense it’s using the wrong name, a bit like calling George Bush “Jeb” or something.

Right after the speech, all the pundits noticed this and pointed out that the official transcript correctly said “Democratic Party.” Maybe the one handed out in advance did, but the version on the White House web site reflects what he actually said, wrong though it was.

As for the substance of the speech—same old, same old. Some teasers about working on alternative fuels, greater fuel efficiency for cars, some sort of proposal on health care taxes and such—blah, blah, blah. I wasn’t paying all that much attention because as a lame duck president he’s going to have a hard time selling anything to Congress.

And despite the good feelings Bush legitimately created in the first few minutes of his speech, overall it was just repeating the same tired, failed policies, especially in Iraq. There was nothing there to capture my imagination, and certainly nothing—apart from those first few minutes—to make me think any better of him.

Oh, well. In less than two years a new president will be in charge.

Footnote: The "Onion" in the title of this post isn't just a little play on words; for me, "onion" is a metaphor for Bush's America: From the outside, it looks dry, crusty, unfriendly. Underneath that, it stinks, makes you cry and is impossible to swallow.

Addendum 30/01/2007: According to the Washington Post, Bush now claims his saying "Democrat Party" instead of its proper name (Democratic Party) "was an oversight". Also according to the Post, "Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said, 'We certainly take the president at his word.' That'd be a first, surely—and a last, we hope?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The heat is on

One of the oddest things about Auckland (and probably other parts of New Zealand) is temperature. Not what it is, what they say it is.

When I moved to New Zealand, I had a hard time working out what the temperatures were. I grew up in the last non-metric country on earth, so I didn’t know Celsius from celery. But what made it especially hard to learn was the way temperatures were reported.

For some totally incomprehensible reason, the official Auckland temperature is taken in a nice, cool shady space that receives lovely summer breezes. In winter, this same place is sheltered from all that nasty cold weather. Apparently, the weather is far too inconveniently variable to place the official thermometer in a place where it might record a real temperature that real people really living in Auckland might really experience. You get the idea.

Auckland isn’t alone in this madness. When I lived in Chicago, the official temperature was taken at O’Hare International Airport, despite the fact that most city residents lived nowhere near the airport. Masses of them lived along or near Lake Michigan, which made it necessary for weather presenters to say “cooler near the lake” or “warmer near the lake”, as the case may be, so city residents would get some sense of what the temperature would really be.

What made me think of this today was that it was bloody hot. The weather presenters all said the high in Auckland would be a relatively reasonable 23 degrees (Celsius, of course—roughly 73 American degrees). However, as a commentator on this blog said today (on a completely different subject), the temperature there was 29—that’s 84 in American temperature and a lot hotter, especially when you factor in humidity (as we said in Chicago, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”).

Don’t get me wrong: As uncomfortable as these days are, I’ll take these temperatures over Chicago weather any day. I do wish, though, that the official temperature more closely matched what people actually experience. A word to my overseas friends and family: If you see a New Zealand temperature reported on CNN or a website or whatever, add a few degrees. If you do, chances are you’ll know what we’re really experiencing.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What I like and don't

A few articles in the news point out what I like and don’t like about living in New Zealand.

First, Australian Nature.

Look, there’s a lot about
Australia that’s really interesting, places that are must-see. However, there are a few other things I could do without.

A news story reported that a diver on New South Wales’ south coast was attacked by a 3-metre white pointer shark (usually known in America as a great white). It chomped on his head before biting his torso. The diver eventually fought off the shark and survived.

Meanwhile another article begins “Forget the sharks, it's the tiny bluebottle jellyfish that could get you.” Apparently more than 30,000 swimmers were stung last year, double the previous year. “They come in invasions called armadas,” Reuters was told. Their stings aren’t normally fatal, just painful.

has several species of the world’s deadliest snakes and spiders, plus crocodiles and other creatures that can kill or maim humans. New Zealand has nothing even remotely similar apart from one species of spider that’s seldom seen and highly unlikely to kill a person. We have no snakes, no crocodiles, and seldom have white pointers in our waters (which, to be fair, isn’t nearly as great a threat to humans as other species, despite their reputation).

The lack of snakes in particular is one of the things I like best about
New Zealand.

Auckland may be at risk of a very big bang.

There’s at least one thing that I don’t like about
Auckland: The prospect of sudden geologic destruction.

New research has shown that five
Auckland volcanoes erupted within 50-100 years of each other—possibly all at once. A researcher with the University of Auckland's School of Geography, Geology and Environmental Science department, said:

This is the first evidence that multiple volcanic eruptions in such fields may have occurred at the same time and could have tremendous consequences for people living in these highly active areas.

“Tremendous consequences?” You think? The researchers point out that most disaster preparation follows the assumption that there will be a single eruption, which may not be the case.

In a geologically active place area like
Auckland, it’s important to be prepared for disaster. Even so, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the prospect of several volcanic eruptions all at once. Actually, I’m not living in fear of even a single eruption. I’ve never experienced even an earthquake in Auckland (though I did once in the Waikato).

Naturally, there are plenty of other places that face this risk, like
Honolulu and Mexico City, for example. There are a lot of places living on borrowed time, including those threatened by rising sea levels.

Volcanic risk or deadly snakes? For me, it’s an easy choice.

e-Books don't check out

An article in the The Sunday Times breathlessly reported how Google is said to be working with publishers “on plans that they hope could do for books what Apple’s iPod has done for music.” The article says:

The internet search giant is working on a system that would allow readers to download entire books to their computers in a format that they could read on screen or on mobile devices such as a Blackberry.

So? This isn’t new. Adobe PDFs have been available for more than a decade and there are versions of the Adobe Reader for PDAs. Adobe’s Creative Suite applications have design tools to help migrate content to small devices like PDAs or mobile phones.

Neither is it any big deal that Google has some 380 million people using it each month (according to the article). Okay, 380 million users IS a big deal, but not for this—the existence of a lot of potential customers doesn’t automatically translate into actual customers.

Google, like Adobe before it, has one fundamental problem: Bathtubs.

While it may be theoretically interesting to read a novel on a laptop or handheld device, no one will risk taking one with them as they soak in the bath. You drop a book into the hot sudsy water and you lose a few dollars. You drop an electronic device and you lose a few hundred, at least.

The problem is that there’s still no cheap, easily transportable bath-proof reading device that’s as easy, handy and safe as paper. There’s been work on developing various forms of plastic “paper”, essentially thin sheets that could be rolled up and even thrown away (or maybe recycled…) when the customer is finished. So far, nothing’s come of it.

I always used to say that eBooks wouldn’t take off until there was the equivalent of the data pads on “Star Trek” (newer series, thank you). Plastic “paper” would be even better. Until we have better reading devices, however, people are likely to stick with tried-and-true paper for their books, and not even Google can change that.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Da Bearssss

For the first time in 21 years, my hometown’s American football team, the Chicago Bears, are headed to the Super Bowl in Miami. The Super Bowl is the top title in American professional football.

To real Chicagoans, the team name is pronounced “duh baresssss” with a longer “s”. These days, anyone living in Chicago—wherever they’re from—will probably pronounce it that way, even if only for effect. Maybe it's sort of a tribal indicator.

The only Super Bowl I ever watched form start to finish was the year the Bears won. The truth is, I never really liked American football, preferring baseball. Since moving to New Zealand, where the American sport is called “gridiron”, I discovered rugby which I prefer to American football (that’s not saying much, really, because most of the time I’m not interested in that, either).

I’ll probably watch the Super Bowl this year—for the second time ever. And, of course, I’ll be cheering for the Bears.

Update: The Bears will face the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl in two weeks in an all-Midwest contest as the two neighbouring states battle it out. What I think is odd, though, is that this is the first time in the 41-year history of the Super Bowl that a team has an African-American coach. Both the Bears and the Colts coaches are African-American. What took so long?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

One plus one equals

A majority of New Zealanders—61%—are living in a relationship. Thirteen percent are in de facto (unofficial relationships, neither marriage nor civil union), which is double the number in de facto relationships in 1991, according to an article in today’s Sunday Star-Times. 47% are married, down 5%. No figures for people in civil unions were provided.

In 2002, the Labour-led Government changed New Zealand property law so that couples—both same-sex and opposite-sex—who have been living together three years or more almost always have to split their property equally if the relationship ends. This is similar to the way property division is usually decided in dissolving marriage and civil unions (civil unions became law later). However, marriage and civil unions provide next-of-kin status so, among other things, if one partner dies, the other inherits the partner’s property.

It’s possible to “contract out” of the Act before that three-year period is up. This is similar in some ways to pre-nuptial agreements and tend to be more popular with wealthy people or business owners who don’t want to risk having to divide up their pre-relationship property with their partner if their de facto relationship ends.

Marriage in New Zealand isn’t any more permanent than in other developed countries, with about a third ending in divorce. Civil unions are too new for any meaningful figures about the longevity of those relationships.

The larger point here is that in New Zealand, people in relationships are protected by law, whether or not it’s officially registered (marriage or civil union). And, unlike most of the United States, same-sex couples have fundamental protections on the same basis as opposite-sex couples. That includes the option for civil unions, which offer official recognition and registration for relationships. Civil unions are legally equivalent to marriage.

For New Zealand couples, there is equal justice under law. I still hope that one day the US will offer the same.

And now Hillary

Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Senator from New York and wife of former US President Bill Clinton, has announced the formation of her Presidential Exploratory Committee as she begins her campaign for US President in 2008. If nominated by the Democratic Party and elected by American voters, she would be the first female President.

At the moment, Clinton’s main opponent for the nomination of the Democratic Party is Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who this week announced the formation of his committee. Obama is seeking to become America’s first African-American president.

Exploratory committees are established early to line up campaign contributions and to hire the best staff—before either is grabbed by other campaigns. Once a person becomes an official candidate for president, they come under closer scrutiny of US election authorities.

Whoever is elected in 2008 will replace the current president, George Bush, who cannot run again. US Presidents became limited to two four-year terms after ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution, which was proposed largely in response to the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected to four terms (he died in office in his fourth term, making Harry S Truman president).

Clinton isn’t the first female candidate for a major party’s nomination, nor is Obama the first African American to seek a major party nomination. There are several other candidates seeking (or expected to seek) the Democratic Party nomination. They’ll be joined by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is seeking to become America’s first Hispanic president.

Meanwhile, radical conservative Senator Sam Redneck Brownback of Kansas has announced he’ll seek the Republican Party nomination for president. Senator Throwback Brownback is a rabid opponent of both abortion and gay marriage. He made sure to mention both in his announcement. He’s a favourite of extremist Christians who are suspicious of the sudden lurch to the right by both Senator John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, both of whom once supported gay rights but who are now outspoken opponents. Also fighting for the Republican nomination will be former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is a supporter of abortion and gay rights.

Clinton faces a major challenge in her campaign: To many, especially on the far right, she’s a polarising figure who they would do anything to keep out of the White House. Many of these same people hated her husband just as much and spent most of his two terms looking for ways to get him out of office. Having failed in two elections, they impeached him for lying about a sexual affair, but even then they failed to remove him form office. That hatred, however, has never left them and they will be quick to organise against Hillary if she wins the Democratic nomination. It’s impossible to know if they’ll have any political strength left after the failure of the Bush presidency.

In any event, the 2008 campaign could get very interesting—and long, since the actual election isn’t until November 2008.I’m sure the various candidates will provide me with plenty to write about. Politicians always do.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Truth can be very inconvenient

A school board in the US state of Washington has effectively banned Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth after Christian fundamentalist parents objected to it, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. It’s apparently the first time this has happened to the film, though similar events happen in the US all the time.

The gist of the story is that a fundamentalist who believes the earth is 14,000 years old and opposes sex education objected to the film being shown in a public school in the town of Federal Way, Washington. He told the paper, “Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore.” Clearly a very scientific objection. “The information that’s being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. …The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD.”

The documentary is a summary of scientific evidence on global warming and climate change. As such, it doesn’t present various religious views. Not to be outdone in this scientific debate, the fundamentalist’s wife added:

From what I've seen (of the movie) and what my husband has expressed to me, if (the movie) is going to take the approach of “bad America, bad America,” I don't think it should be shown at all. If you're going to come in and just say America is creating the rotten ruin of the world, I don't think the video should be shown.

In fact, the
US accounts for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, despite having only five percent of the world’s population. Per capita, it is the world’s biggest polluter overall, and the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels.

Things like facts and truth don’t matter to the fundamentalists because they challenge their religious beliefs and assumptions. They want their particular brand of extreme Christianity presented as fact even though there’s considerable variation and debate about matters of faith among Christians.

As is often the case in these situations, school students can be more sensible than their elders. One student told the paper, “Watching a movie doesn't mean that you have to believe everything you see in it.”

It’s hard for people in other parts of the developed world to understand why
America continues to fight these battles with religious extremists over and over again. I’m at a loss to explain it. America promotes freedom and progress, but it seems that all anyone in America has to do is scream “Christian bashing!” and they get whatever they want, however illogical, irrational or undemocratic.

It seems
America has yet to learn that practicing religious tolerance doesn’t require pandering to people with particular religious views. If it did, we’d also have to take into account the views of all religions, like Pastafarians and their god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I’d like to see
America stick to the truth—fact-based truth—however inconvenient it may be for some people.

Update 25/01/07: The Washington Post reported that the email the fundamentalist sent to the school board said "
No you will not teach or show that propagandist Al Gore video to my child, blaming our nation—the greatest nation ever to exist on this planet—for global warming." He apparently believes that global warming is a sign of the "End Times" some fundamentalist Christianists fervently believe in.

Update II (03/02/07): Reuters reports "The British government will distribute Al Gore's dramatic global warming film to all secondary schools in England…"

Friday, January 19, 2007

Censoring for fun and profit

A 2006 documentary opening tomorrow in Toronto, This Film is Not Yet Rated, exposes the secret methods and agenda of America’s MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), according to Canada’s globeandmail.com (thanks to Slap Upside the Head for the pointer). The MPAA is both America’s film censor and a trade lobbying organisation for America’s film industry.

The documentary alleges that the MPAA uses the NC-17 rating to force cuts to films and to stifle competition. The rating, introduced in 1990 to replace the “X” rating, was supposedly for adult-themed films but has become to be the same as X. Many newspapers and television stations won’t accept ads for NC-17 films, some film distributors won’t touch them and some cinema chains won’t show them.

Using undercover investigation, the film shows the NC-17 rating is used mostly on anything that the secret reviewers think is aberrant, including gay themes as well as some other sexuality. Violence, however, clearly doesn’t raise the risk of an NC-17 rating.

What does the MPAA stand to gain from this? Most films threatened with an NC-17 rating are foreign or independent—meaning, direct competition to
America’s established film industry. This provides them a seemingly legitimate way to fend off some competition.

It also allows them to reward the Christian Right, who don’t want film depictions of homosexuality, among other things, but whose support the MPAA needed to enact some repressive legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. To advance the financial interests of their industry, the MPAA is happy to cede censorship duties to the far right.

So, the MPAA have things completely their way. They get to reduce competition from foreign and independent films that won’t bend to MPAA ratings, they can make money distributing those that do, and then they can make more money from the same audiences when they sell uncensored versions on DVD. Sweet deal.

The American system shows the folly of allowing a film industry lobby group to control the censorship of films. In many other countries, like
New Zealand and Australia, a government body handles it.

New Zealand, unrestricted films (G rating) and many rated PG and M (16 and over) films aren’t reviewed if they’ve received their rating from similar authority, like in the UK or Australia. Restricted films are checked here against NZ standards.

The overall system is like a traffic light: Green is rated G; yellow is PG and M, and red is restricted. Restricted films are generally R16 (must be over 16) or R18 (over 18; this includes adult films). A general R rating has some other restriction, like must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. In addition, the labels may carry an informational warning (like “contains violence”) which aren’t legally binding, but help consumers—and parents in particular—to make informed choices.

Being separate from the industry, a government system like
New Zealand’s provides a more impartial review than the MPAA can. Some people feel that having an official censor is dangerous, but how can it be any more dangerous than having totally unaccountable secret individuals with private agendas deciding what people can and cannot see? In NZ, if we don’t like what the censor does—and the public has a lot of input into the office’s work—there is a democratic means to change things. It’s impossible to change the MPAA system.

I suppose this is just another reason why I don’t go to movies (generally, only one MPAA-approved version is released worldwide due to cost). Instead, I wait for the uncensored version on DVD or on pay TV. Declining attendance at movies? Perhaps the fault, dear MPAA, lies not with your stars but with yourselves.

The costs of war

Writing in the New York Times, David Leonhardt offers an excellent analysis of the financial cost of Bush’s Iraq War. The original estimate was that it would cost US$50 billion (one White House official estimated US$200 billion, but was fired for saying so). The current estimate is that Bush’s war will end up costing at least US$1.2 trillion, or roughly US$200 billion per year.

The article helpfully provides suggestions on what that money could buy:

For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.

The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

So, as if all the lives senselessly wasted on Bush’s disaster weren’t enough, we now see what else the US has been denied at home. Can Congress now exert some control over that man? If so, will it do so?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Different Planets?

This video, "Scary Mary", presents an alternative movie trailer for a well-known family movie. This completely different take on the film shows how in the hands of a media master something innocent can be made to seem menacing (the Karl Rove approach). It's also kind of like the way people can look at the same issue/politician and see something completely different. Whatever, I just think it's a great vid. Thanks to American Values Alliance for putting up the link (they're a group in Indiana that seems to want to do the right thing about political discussion, even if I personally think they're not quite there yet). The path to them came courtesy of a comment at Joe.My.God (blog link at right).

4:55PM: This post has been slightly edited and expanded since originally posted.

Barack to the future?

Barack Obama, US Senator from Illinois, has announced the formation of a Presidential Exploratory Committee. It’s probably the first step in announcing he’s running for US President in 2008. If nominated by the Democratic Party and elected by American voters, he would be the first African-American President.

Few would argue with him when he said in his announcement:

Challenging as they are, it’s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It’s the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions.

Let me disclose my biases: Actually, I can’t think of any—I have an open mind about his candidacy. Even though I’m
Illinois born and bred and spent many years in Chicago, none of that makes me any more or any less likely to support him. But neither am I prepared to fall in behind his candidacy, at least not yet.

The right wing is flapping around, saying he’s too “inexperienced” to be President. And that’s important why, exactly? George Bush/Dick Cheney were both “experienced”, yet they’ll go down in history as having run the worst presidency in American history—and the most incompetent. In their case, clearly “experience” was meaningless.

The far right also accuses Obama of being an “extremist liberal”. Yeah, right—as if there was such a thing in mainstream American politics. Putting aside the fact that the American Right uses “liberal” like their parents once used the word “communist”, the fact is that Bush and especially Cheney are “extremist conservatives,” and look what a disaster they’ve been. Let’s try something different so we can have different results.

I could point out that another skinny man from
Illinois entered the White House with no executive experience, yet Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as one of the best US Presidents. Ironically, when he ended slavery Lincoln helped set the wheels in motion for an Obama presidential campaign to be taken seriously.

Obama isn’t
Lincoln, of course. He may not be great—he may not even be simply “good”. There are things that make me uncomfortable about him, like his strongly religion-oriented view of things. But he also opposed Bush’s Iraq War before it began, unlike every other Democratic candidate for president.

In his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama summed up the traditional values of the Democratic Party:

Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.*

The Republican Party doesn’t believe those same things, even if sometimes it tries to make people think it does. In that same speech, Obama also talked about what makes the Democratic view of politics different from Bush and his Republicans:

There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. Wecoach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people…*

In time, we’ll see if this rhetoric is backed up by substance. And, we’ll see if Americans are finally ready to see beyond the colour of a person’s skin.

To be honest, I have concerns about my fellow Americans. In the 1986 Illinois Democratic Primary Election, two followers of a right wing political extremist with “normal” names defeated two Democrats with “foreign sounding” names. Can a man with the name “Barack Hussein Obama” succeed in a land ripped apart by divisions caused by Karl Rove and the rest of the Bushies?

The neocons will work overtime to discredit Obama. And, maybe he doesn’t have what it takes to mount a successful campaign, much less be president. But whoever is nominated, and whoever is elected, I’m hoping it will fulfil the closing sentiment of Obama’s 2004 speech: “Out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.”

*Quotes from Obama's 2004 speech taken from the 2004 Democratic National Convention Official Site,
www.dems2004.org, no longer in operation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More Meta For Us

This will only interest other bloggers, and probably not many of them. Nevertheless…

Tags are it

A few posts back, I included a footnote saying that as an experiment I was creating a new tag for my posts, “expat / expatriate”. Previously, I’d had two separate tags, which meant listing the same post under two different tags—different, but essentially the same. I wanted the posts to show up whether someone was searching for “expat” or “expatriate”.

And so my experiment.

I wanted to know if a joined tag would still show up in Technorati searches for just the one word. When I found they did, I also created a new tag called “gay expat / gay expatriate”. Then I went back through all my old posts and changed the tags to the new ones (and, in some cases, re-thought how the posts were tagged in the first place). It was boring, to be honest, so that process took a few days.

I’m trying to limit using tags to ones that are most directly relevant to my post, though I still get carried away sometimes. Like a lot of bloggers, I get visitors who land here through some sort of totally irrelevant Google search. I’m trying to make it easier for people who use Technorati or similar tag searches to land on relevant posts in this blog.

And on the subject of Technorati, for some reason, not all blog posts that link to my blog show up in a Technorati search, even though they’re counted in the totals (I think). I have no idea why that is.

Blogger blues?

I’ve been reading on some blogs how some Blogger users are having a lot of trouble with uploading their posts or files. I’ve never had any trouble, apart from some times when there were other Internet problems having nothing to do with Blogger. I’d be curious to find out if any other Blogger users have had trouble uploading posts/files.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Today I set off to pick up some stuff at a store about fifteen minutes or so away, and about two thirds of the way there I suddenly realised I’d left my cellphone at home. It was the first time in a very long time that I’ve been anywhere without a phone and I suddenly remembered what it used to be like.

When I first arrived in New Zealand, cellphones were still fairly scarce, restricted mostly to executives and tradespeople who needed to be reached on the road. In those days, I used to carry plastic phone cards for pay telephones. The cards had a stored dollar amount and were available in different amounts. McDonald’s sometimes gave them away as a promotion.

Phone cards were needed because it was becoming extremely difficult to find a pay phone that accepted money. Now, it’s hard to find a pay phone of any kind.

I got my first cellphone after Bell South began offering Prepay in New Zealand. With it, a customer could buy a phone without a contract, and buy airtime in advance as needed. Bell South’s New Zealand business was sold to Vodafone which in the years since has taken it from an also-ran to the largest cellphone operator in New Zealand in terms of connections.

I’m now on my fourth phone, but still with Vodafone Prepay because it suits my needs, which are clearly very limited. Nevertheless, I carry my phone everywhere just in case—in case the car breaks down, I see a crime or my partner rings to tell me we need milk. I can even post to my blog with a cellphone, though I haven’t done that (yet).

All of which means that it felt odd to be running around without my phone. And yet it also felt a bit liberating to be incommunicado, even if it was only for a short time. I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but it’s probably a good thing to be reminded from time to time of how things used to be. It helps us appreciate how things are now, and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the past.

Monday, January 15, 2007

What’s in a name?

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but for American men changing names at marriage stinks.

California man is suing the state for the right to take his wife’s name. In that state a woman can take the man’s name without any trouble, but a man who wants to do so has “to file a petition, pay more than $300, place a public notice for weeks in a local newspaper and then appear before a judge,” according to the AP. Apparently, only six US states have name-change equality.

Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would want to change their name at marriage. Admittedly, it wasn’t something I ever thought much about being a man, and also because I never thought I’d be able to legally marry another man.

I see the tradition of a woman automatically taking a man’s surname as some kind of sexist throwback. After all, she’s no longer considered his property, and she doesn’t stop being her family’s descendant just because she marries. What do most women get out of the deal by changing their names?

In the
California case, the wife has no brothers and wants her family name to continue. The man is estranged from his father, so has no connection to his surname. Clearly for them his taking her surname is a thought-out choice.

Here in
New Zealand, partners getting married or entering a civil union can take one or the other’s name, form a new joint name or keep their own names. Neither taking the partner’s name nor forming a joint name affects the birth name.

New Zealand marriage is restricted to two people of opposite sexes, and the Department of Internal Affairs website advises:

In New Zealand it has been customary for a woman to assume the man’s surname after marriage. In some cases couples are combining their names to create a new family name, or some husbands are assuming their wife’s surname on marriage. You may retain your current surname.

Civil unions are the legal equivalent of marriage in
New Zealand but open to same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex couples. The advice on names is the same, without the reference to one partner customarily taking the other’s name. Civil unions are still too new for anything to have become “customary”.

Gender equality in name choice upon marriage/civil union is good, of course. Whether it’s silly or not, and even though I wouldn’t do it, people—men and women both—should have the choice as they do in
New Zealand. The name for that is “equality”.

Update 16/01/07: Just to prove some people don't take the whole name thing too seriously, a New Zealand couple decided which person would change surnames by playing a game of minigolf. Well, that's one approach…

That wacky George

Hot on the heels of asking critics to suggest alternatives to his loony “plan” for Iraq (ignoring, of course, all the alternatives suggested over the past few months), Bush now says of his critics, “I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it. But I've made my decision. And we're going forward.”

Cheney, meanwhile, continued to try and push the failed war in Iraq as part of the “war on terrorism” and suggested, as he so often does, that opposing their “plans” would undermine US troops. Yawn! It’s all so very tired and predictable. They clearly don’t understand how much the American people oppose them. So, let’s help them realise it: Impeach Cheney first!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

What kind of dollars?

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in NZ was how seldom actual money was needed. Instead, people pulled out their ATM cards, swiped them, entered a PIN and they were done—without ever touching a coin or note.

In NZ it’s called EFTPOS (Electronic Funds Transfer at Point Of Sale), but the same thing is in many countries under other names. It’s very convenient for cash purchases, and also for credit card transactions: We enter a PIN and don’t have to sign a receipt. For some reason, this can’t yet be done in Australia.

New Zealand is now going one step farther by making it possible to make a credit card payment in a tourist’s home country’s currency (like US dollars, for example). The system tells the user the exchange rate being used, the conversion charges and still gives the option of paying in New Zealand dollars.

Why would this be good? Say you have a specific budget on how much you can spend. It could be very helpful to know right then and there what the charges will be in your own currency with no surprises when the credit card bill arrives.

Touring New Zealand is becoming better and easier all the time. Packed your bags yet?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

New Zealand on holiday

A lot of my posts lately have in one way or another talked about how New Zealand is on holiday this time of year (for example, see my previous post). Here’s some more evidence.

Regular readers will have noticed the Technorati chart I placed on this blog, showing the number of posts per day containing “
New Zealand”. On December 23, the number dropped below 1000 per day for the first time in a long time, and only began to go up again on January 8—which, as it happens, was the first day back at work for a lot of people following the Christmas-New Year holidays.

We all know that bloggers are the centre of the universe (just ask us—we’ll tell you), and the fact we stopped making mention of New Zealand over the public holidays proves what a big deal it was. I mean, if the summer holidays can tear bloggers away from their computer keyboards, just imagine the general holiday mode that covers the country.

Seriously, though, it’s one of the things that makes this country so great at this time of year.

NZ Minister also doesn’t like the “surge”

It’s often in the off-times that New Zealand gets dragged into seeming clashes with the US. At the moment, the government is on a kind of hiatus, with one cabinet member being designated as “Duty Minister” to kind of look after the shop for a few days.

It was reported yesterday that Jim Anderton, while Duty Minister, criticised Bush’s plan to send more US troops to Iraq:

It is hard to see how an additional 20,000-25,000 troops are going to be capable of making any real difference and this has an eerie Vietnam revisited element to it. One wonders whether the lessons I would have expected to be learnt from that fiasco have been learnt in any way at all.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was quick to point out that Anderton wasn’t speaking for the Government. Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the remarks were "ill-informed and regrettable".

Predictably, the conservative National Party leader John Key condemned it, with another story reporting that he’d criticised Anderton’s “anti-American” comments which, the article reported Key as saying, would “weaken the Government's attempts to improve relations with the US.” Key was probably referring to a “free trade” deal with the US, something that in the last election his party was so eager to gain that it was willing to drop New Zealand’s nuclear-free status. The article also asked for Key’s position on the “surge” and reported that “Key was non-commital, saying New Zealand was too far away to judge the best course of action.”

On the Left, Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons praised the remarks and criticised Clark for different reasons:

The fact that Clark has been willing to bag her closest coalition partner in order to keep relations with the US friendly is not something I would have expected from a leader who just three years ago inspired New Zealand by refusing to bow to pressure to join the “coalition of the willing” (in the invasion of Iraq).

Early reports are that ordinary New Zealanders seem to agree with Anderton. Actually, most Americans probably do, too. But it’s typical for the National Party to brand any criticism of US policy—however justified—as being “anti-American”. As a sovereign nation, New Zealand has a right to have differences with the US, something even the current US government grudgingly admits. History will show the Clark government was right to avoid supporting the Iraq war, and that Key is wrong in blindly backing US policy because we’re “too far away to judge the best course of action”.

Seems to me, this is one issue where it’s far better to be on the right side of history.