Friday, February 27, 2009

The things you learn

It’s amazing the things you can learn on your way to finding out about something else. I was at the website of the Advertising Standards Authority to read their decision in the complaint about the Mitre 10 commercial. I scanned the list of decisions and found one entitled “08/628 - Right to Life New Zealand Newspaper Advertisement”. I know that RtLNZ is a far-right christianist group, as the name suggests, so I had to have a look.

It turns out that someone filed a complaint with the Authority over an ad RtLNZ placed in the Christchurch Press the day before the last election (and I never saw this mentioned in the mainstream media). The advertorial-style ad was headlined, “The Government’s secret agenda for social engineering?” (boldface was in the ad). The three subheadings were “The first attack could be on the unborn child,” “The second attack could be on the elderly and the seriously ill,” “The third attack could be against the institution of marriage.” It was this third section that was the source of the complaint.

The complete text under the third heading was: “The institution of marriage is exclusively confined to one woman and one man; it is the foundation stone of civilised and stable society. In a letter to the Right to Life, dated 20 October 2008, Jeanette Fitzsimons, leader of the Green Party stated: ‘As a specific Green Party policy, we state that rainbow and heterosexual partnerships are equally entitled to respect and support. We support the extension of all legal partnership arrangements and rights to same-sex couples’. The Greens therefore support legislation to provide for same sex marriage.” What any of that has to do with abortion—RtLNZ’s focus—is beyond me. But, I digress…

In fact, the Green Party did not support same sex marriage, but did support Civil Unions. The complainant felt that “Right to Life have misrepresented the Green Party on the day prior to the 2008 general election with an advertisement in a prominent part of a widely distributed newspaper. The advertisement may have had an adverse effect on the Green Party election result.” That’s obviously true, but did it breach the Code of Ethics?

The Chairman ruled that two provisions were relevant. First, “Rule 2: Truthful Presentation” requires that advertisements should not be “likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, makes false and misleading representation, [abuse] the trust of the consumer or [exploit] his/her lack of experience or knowledge. (Obvious hyperbole, identifiable as such, is not considered to be misleading).” The second was “Rule 11: Advocacy Advertising”, which says that while expression of opinion is essential for a functioning democracy, “opinion should be clearly distinguishable from factual information.”

The Authority also had to consider freedom of expression guaranteed by the Bill of Rights Act 1990. However, Section 14 of that act does make clear that in advocacy advertising, opinion and fact must be clearly identifiable. Moreover, freedom of expression is not absolute, as it could infringe on another person’s rights. The Code is there “to ensure there is fair play between all parties on controversial issues.” However, robust debate also ought to be encouraged. It would seem to be a conundrum.

The majority of the Complaints Board held that the line saying “The Greens therefore support legislation to provide for same sex marriage.” “was presented as a statement of fact in the advertisement but was in fact the Advertiser’s interpretation of the Green Party policy in relation to legal partnerships.” This placed the ad in violation of Rule 11 because separation of fact and opinion wasn’t clear. So, the complaint was upheld—on a pretty narrow point.

I fully admit to a little schadenfreude whenever far-right groups get their comeuppance, but I was actually more interested in the way the Board got to their decision (which I think was correct).

I have no idea what, if any, penalties were imposed, but they would’ve been minor, probably just a requirement for the paper that published the ad publish the decision. In my experience, most newspapers don’t review ads very carefully (except for ones making therapeutic medical claims). There’s a wall between advertising staff, who are working to meet sales targets, and the editorial staff who put the paper together. Sometimes someone on the editorial staff will query an ad they see on a page proof, but not always, and even if they do, very often nothing is done (even ads with bad grammar or punctuation are often left alone).

I hope that the wingnuts at RtLNZ learned that they can’t get away with misrepresenting their opponents' positions. I certainly learned a bit more about how complaints are handled, and that could be useful if I ever lodge one. But the main thing is that the voters lost out in this, deprived of fair and honest debate by an extremist group determined to misrepresent the truth for their own political ends, and by a newspaper that was far more interested in money than vetting ads. I hope we all learn something from that.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Progressive greed

Last week I wrote about big business feigning concern for the public good in order to promote their narrow business interests. I called their slick PR move “one of the baldest examples of corporate greed”. A saga complete with similar tactics has just ended and it, too, is an example of corporate greed.

Australian-owned supermarket operator Progressive Enterprises fought the opening of a competitor’s supermarket using all sorts of legal manoeuvres to avoid competition—something they adamantly denied they were doing. Quite frankly, I don’t know a single person who believed their spin.

Two decades ago, New Zealand-owned cooperative grocery store chain Foodstuffs—the slightly larger supermarket operator in New Zealand—bought a large corner site in an area of North Shore City called Wairau Park. They fought for years to get the appropriate consents to build their “big box” Pak ‘N Save supermarket on the site, finally getting the go-ahead in 2004, and construction began.

Progressive started its manoeuvres and won a halt to construction; all Foodstuffs could do was close-in the building and make it weather-tight, but they couldn’t finish it or open the store. The legal manoeuvres continued four years as Progressive filed one silly objection after another.

Late last year, Foodstuffs cleared the final hurdle in the Environment Court, and moved to complete the store for opening early this year. Naturally, Progressive wasn’t done: They filed their final appeal and asked for a stay to prevent the Pak ‘N Save from opening while the legal manoeuvres went on.

In addition to supposedly fretting about the consents and District Plan processes, Progressive claimed they were interested in traffic flows a kilometre away from the Pak ‘N Save store. Yeah, right: They were clearly interested in preserving a near monopoly in the area. There are seven grocery stores in the “catchment” area of the Pak ‘N Save and—surprise, surprise—six of them are owned by Progressive. The seventh store they grudgingly sold to Foodstuffs only when ordered to do so during the merger of two Australian-owned chains; otherwise, they would’ve had all seven (this is ignoring smaller stores in the area that are clearly not supermarkets).

Progressive got a business group located a few kilometres away to join their objections, supposedly in the interest of their business area. Oh, and quite coincidentally—of course!—Progressive has a grocery store in that association’s shopping centre. No connection, of course, none at all, although Progressive had begun making threats about abandoning town centres if they lost, which would affect areas like the one the business group represented.

Yesterday, Progressive lost their final delaying tactic, as was inevitable: The High Court dismissed Progressive’s appeal. Foodstuffs hopes to have their new Pak ‘N Save open by May, bringing 250 jobs with it.

I’ve been a customer of various Progressive stores since before the Australians bought the chain, and I still am. I’ve shopped at one particular store—one of those six I mentioned earlier—for most of the years I’ve been in New Zealand, but clearly that loyalty has been misplaced. If they want to treat their customers as imbeciles, and with utter contempt, they shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for it.

When the Pak ‘N Save finally opens, I plan to shift nearly all of my business to that store. However, different stores carry different products, so it may not be possible for me to take all my business away from Progressive, much as I might like to. We’ll see.

At least this silly battle is finally over. I’d hate to see how much the companies have rung up on their lawyers’ tills.

Progressive’s stores are Countdown, Foodtown, Woolworths, Fresh Choice and SuperValue. Foodstuffs stores are Pak ‘N Save, New World and Four Square.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The Mitre 10 commercial above is, for most people, cute, funny, maybe a bit cheeky, but clearly all in good fun. One person, however, didn’t agree and filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority calling the commercial “racist towards Australians”.

The relevant section is where the boy wearing an Australian rugby jersey refuses to help his mates with a Saturday project, declaring “Mate, you’re dreaming!” The camera cuts to the other two boys, one says “Aussies.” To which the other responds, “No surprises there.”

I have no idea if the complainant was serious or just taking the mickey, but if real, the complaint was absurd. The Authority agreed. In their decision (09/006, available here), they said the commercial “incorporated a well established satirical theme which played on the spirit of competition between Australia and New Zealand.” That “satirical theme” can be seen throughout popular culture in both countries.

As a result, the Authority ruled that the ad “did not reach the threshold to cause serious or widespread offence in the light of generally prevailing community standards, and there was no apparent breach of the Advertising Codes.” And there clearly wasn’t. But the ad was funny.

Summit’s lows

Participants in the upcoming “Jobs Summit” sponsored by Prime Minister John Key, which is supposed to help find ways to keep and grow jobs in New Zealand, are overwhelmingly white, male and from business, especially big business. The New Zealand Herald reported on the guest list today.

Among the participants are 165 men but only 30 women; there are 20 Maori, 2 Pacific Islanders and one Asian (meaning 172 are white); 118 of the guests are from the business sector: Big businesses (62), finance (22) and 30 from smaller businesses and sector groups, but only 12 are from unions; there are 30 from central government, 10 from local government and four from state-owned enterprises. Only three are from community organisations, one dealing with disabled people.

Add it all up, as the Herald did, and the make-up of the attendees doesn’t look very much like New Zealand. Obviously business must be a major component of this sort of summit, but wouldn't it make sense to have workers, the unemployed and community organisations helping them better represented? And wouldn’t it make sense to have greater participation by Maori and Pacific Islanders in particular, who are among the hardest hit by unemployment? And why no participation by the migrant community?

I don’t know that anyone really expects anything concrete or even useful to come out of the summit. That’s a good thing, really, because that makes it impossible for the summit to disappoint—the only thing it may do is exceed expectations.

But I have to admit I’d feel a bit more optimistic about the summit if it looked a little more like New Zealand, and a little less like a typical National Party gathering.

Roberta Flack in Auckland

Last night we went with two old friends to see Roberta Flack in concert at the Civic Theatre. It was a fun evening and everyone attending—including a noticeable GLBT segment—seemed to enjoy the experience.

I won’t do a real review because I’m not particularly good at it. When I go to a concert, I can’t remember the names of musicians and backing singers (if I can even understand them when introduced), and I can never seem to remember the order of songs. The New Zealand Herald’s review (meh…) is here.

Roberta appeared here after stops in Australia and on her way to Wellington and Christchurch. It’s the first time she’s been in New Zealand in more than 28 years; the last time she was here she learned of the death of John Lennon and that her own mother was dying. This was a much happier time.

At 72 years old, she still has the voice to take on the songs that made her famous. She also performed for the better part of two hours, including playing piano as she sang.

Back home, she’s big on artists controlling the rights to their own work, and she also works to train people in music. That education work is part of why she had the audience sing lines on a few of her old hits—that, and they’d be singing along, anyway. On her own, she was hauntingly beautiful singing “Jesse”, and her other, perhaps less well-known songs didn’t disappoint. Her backing singers and band were excellent, though the sound system sometimes wasn’t. It happens.

We didn’t see the opening act because a delay at the restaurant where we had dinner made us late (they were apologetic and gave vouchers; we weren’t angry). The Civic has flat panel TVs in the lobby area that showed the opening act and I’m afraid I didn’t think we missed anything. The reason we were there was to see Roberta, anyway, so the rest didn’t matter.

It was a fun—though late—night for us all.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Green’s aide

The announcement of the departure of Green Party Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, although inevitable, raises questions about the future viability of the party. As Green MPs go, Fitzsimons was on the more conservative side. Many people trusted her personally, even if they didn’t trust or agree with her party. In the last election, a funny poll chose her as the politician that voters would most trust to babysit their children.

After her, what? The Green Party mandates one male and one female co-leader. The male co-leader, Russel Norman, took over after the sudden death of Rod Donald, who, like Fitzsimons, was also respected more than the party generally. Despite environmental activism, Norman doesn’t yet have much of a national presence or identity.

Two Green MPs have announced their candidacy so far: Metiria Turei and Sue Bradford. Turei is largely unknown among NZ voters, having entered Parliament in 2002 after working as a resource management lawyer. She’s young, Maori and seemingly not threatening to average voters but, like Norman, her emphasis has been on environmental issues.

Bradford was a leftist activist for some two decades before entering Parliament in 1999. Since then, she’s moderated her image and tone. However, she’s also closely identified with her “anti-smacking” legislation and there’s a certain segment of New Zealand who despise her and that law to the core of their being. It could become a distraction.

I’m not a Green Party supporter, so it doesn’t concern me who becomes the new female co-leader. However, as a centre-left voter, I want a strong party to serve as a coalition partner for Labour, my preferred party. But here’s the thing: Fitzsimons made me feel that I could at least think about voting for the Greens, though I never have, because she was so calm, reassuring and, well, safe. If the new leadership can’t make me feel that way, what hope will they have for winning support from more conservative voters?

Whoever becomes the next co-leader in June will have about two and half years to establish herself before the next election. If the past is any indicator, National is likely to win re-election (unless they totally screw up) because it takes two to three terms before NZ voters get sick of a party and want change. So, the Greens may have some time to rebuild and, if necessary, re-brand before they’re again within shot of being in a government coalition. That’s a good thing for them. Hopefully, it’ll be a good thing for New Zealand, too

Monday, February 23, 2009

The future of the Internet in NZ?

I don’t think that the opponents of Section 92A of the Copyright Amendment Act are entirely correct in what they say about it. Nevertheless, it’s clearly very bad law and the opponents could be right. That’s why I’m joining the today’s Blackout in the only way I can on a Blogger blog. For more information, go to the Creative Freedom Foundation.

Update 4:37pm: TV3 News reported that the Government announced that it will delay implementation until March 27. Prime Minister John Key said, “We are hoping that by that time we will have come up with a voluntary code of practice.” If no agreement is reached, Section 92A will be suspended.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Immigration progress

The recent reintroduction of the Uniting American Families Act (HR1024/S424) came with 80 co-sponsors in the US House of Representatives and 14 in the US Senate. I wanted to know who the co-sponsors are and, specifically, if my US Representatives and US Senators were co-sponsors (Representative yes, Senators no). I had to go digging for the lists, so I’ve included them below in case anyone who lands on this post is looking for the same information.

These lists always grow over time, of course, as more members of Congress add their names. So, at this stage I wouldn’t worry about the absence of some of the well-known supporters of equality, nor the total absence of any Republican co-sponsors. Republicans have often told me that my criticisms of the party are unfair, that not all Republicans in Congress are anti-gay, and that far right christianists aren’t in total control of the party. If they’re right, I’m sure there will soon be Republican co-sponsors, too.

The list of sponsors comes from Thomas, a service of the Library of Congress which is extremely useful for anyone needing information on what the US Congress is doing, status of legislation, etc. But it’s not as easy to use as it should be, and offers no way to link to most information. So from time to time I’ll update this list (you may want to bookmark this post). You’ll be able to tell how current the list is by looking at the date at the end of each list.

If your US Representative and Senators aren’t listed, it’s time to contact them and ask them to sign on. It’s easy to do, and the Immigration Equality website can help. Passage of this legislation is such a no-brainer that it should be much easier to achieve than it actually will be, but it could also be one issue where our support will make a big difference.

Related: I interviewed Julie Kruse of Immigration Equality for my podcast. That episode, AmeriNZ 210 - US Immigration Equality was posted April 2, 2010.

US House of Representatives
Sponsor: Sponsor: Rep Jerold Nadler [D-NY-8]. Co-sponsors: Rep Abercrombie, Neil [D-HI-1], Rep Ackerman, Gary L. [D-NY-5], Rep Baca, Joe [D-CA-43], Rep Baird, Brian [D-WA-3], Rep Baldwin, Tammy [D-WI-2], Rep Becerra, Xavier [D-CA-31] , Rep Berkley, Shelley [D-NV-1], Rep Berman, Howard L. [D-CA-28], Rep Bishop, Timothy H. [D-NY-1], Rep Blumenauer, Earl [D-OR-3], Rep Brady, Robert A. [D-PA-1], Rep Capps, Lois [D-CA-23], Rep Capuano, Michael E. [D-MA-8], Rep Carson, André [D-IN-7], Rep Chu, Judy [D-CA-32], Rep Clarke, Yvette D. [D-NY-11], Rep Clay, Wm. Lacy [D-MO-1], Rep Clyburn, James E. [D-SC-6], Rep Connolly, Gerald E. "Gerry" [D-VA-11], Rep Conyers, John, Jr. [D-MI-14], Rep Courtney, Joe [D-CT-2], Rep Crowley, Joseph [D-NY-7], Rep Cummings, Elijah E. [D-MD-7], Rep Davis, Danny K. [D-IL-7], Rep Davis, Susan A. [D-CA-53], Rep DeFazio, Peter A. [D-OR-4], Rep DeGette, Diana [D-CO-1], Rep Delahunt, William D. [D-MA-10], Rep DeLauro, Rosa L. [D-CT-3], Rep Deutch, Theodore E. [D-FL-19], Rep Doyle, Michael F. [D-PA-14], Rep Edwards, Donna F. [D-MD-4], Rep Ellison, Keith [D-MN-5], Rep Engel, Eliot L. [D-NY-17], Rep Eshoo, Anna G. [D-CA-14], Rep Farr, Sam [D-CA-17], Rep Fattah, Chaka [D-PA-2], Rep Filner, Bob [D-CA-51], Rep Frank, Barney [D-MA-4], Rep Grayson, Alan [D-FL-8], Rep Grijalva, Raul M. [D-AZ-7], Rep Gutierrez, Luis V. [D-IL-4], Rep Hall, John J. [D-NY-19], Rep Hare, Phil [D-IL-17], Rep Harman, Jane [D-CA-36], Rep Hastings, Alcee L. [D-FL-23], Rep Heinrich, Martin [D-NM-1], Rep Himes, James A. [D-CT-4], Rep Hinchey, Maurice D. [D-NY-22], Rep Hirono, Mazie K. [D-HI-2], Rep Holt, Rush D. [D-NJ-12], Rep Honda, Michael M. [D-CA-15], Rep Inslee, Jay [D-WA-1], Rep Israel, Steve [D-NY-2], Rep Jackson, Jesse L., Jr. [D-IL-2], Rep Jackson-Lee, Sheila [D-TX-18], Rep Johnson, Eddie Bernice [D-TX-30], Rep Johnson, Henry C. "Hank," Jr. [D-GA-4], Rep Kennedy, Patrick J. [D-RI-1], Rep Kucinich, Dennis J. [D-OH-10], Rep Langevin, James R. [D-RI-2], Rep Larsen, Rick [D-WA-2], Rep Larson, John B. [D-CT-1], Rep Lee, Barbara [D-CA-9], Rep Levin, Sander M. [D-MI-12], Rep Lewis, John [D-GA-5], Rep Lowey, Nita M. [D-NY-18], Rep McCarthy, Carolyn [D-NY-4], Rep McCollum, Betty [D-MN-4], Rep McDermott, Jim [D-WA-7], Rep McGovern, James P. [D-MA-3], Rep McMahon, Michael E. [D-NY-13], Rep Maffei, Daniel B. [D-NY-25], Rep Maloney, Carolyn B. [D-NY-14], Rep Markey, Edward J. [D-MA-7], Rep Matsui, Doris O. [D-CA-5], Rep Meek, Kendrick B. [D-FL-17], Rep Meeks, Gregory W. [D-NY-6], Rep Michaud, Michael H. [D-ME-2], Rep Miller, Brad [D-NC-13], Rep Miller, George [D-CA-7], Rep Moore, Gwen [D-WI-4], Rep Moran, James P. [D-VA-8], Rep Napolitano, Grace F. [D-CA-38], Rep Neal, Richard E. [D-MA-2], Rep Norton, Eleanor Holmes [D-DC–observer only], Rep Olver, John W. [D-MA-1], Rep Pallone, Frank, Jr. [D-NJ-6], Rep Pascrell, Bill, Jr. [D-NJ-8], Rep Pastor, Ed [D-AZ-4], Rep Payne, Donald M. [D-NJ-10], Rep Pierluisi, Pedro R. [D-PR – Resident Commissioner, no vote], Rep Pingree, Chellie [D-ME-1], Rep Polis, Jared [D-CO-2], Rep Price, David E. [D-NC-4], Rep Quigley, Mike [D-IL-5], Rep Rangel, Charles B. [D-NY-15], Rep Richardson, Laura [D-CA-37], Rep Rothman, Steven R. [D-NJ-9], Rep Roybal-Allard, Lucille [D-CA-34], Rep Rush, Bobby L. [D-IL-1], Rep Ryan, Tim [D-OH-17], Rep Sánchez, Linda T. [D-CA-39], Rep Sarbanes, John P. [D-MD-3], Rep Schakowsky, Janice D. [D-IL-9], Rep Schiff, Adam B. [D-CA-29], Rep Schwartz, Allyson Y. [D-PA-13], Rep Scott, Robert C. "Bobby" [D-VA-3], Rep Serrano, José E. [D-NY-16], Rep Sherman, Brad [D-CA-27], Rep Sires, Albio [D-NJ-13], Rep Slaughter, Louise McIntosh [D-NY-28], Rep Smith, Adam [D-WA-9], Rep Speier, Jackie [D-CA-12], Rep Stark, Fortney Pete [D-CA-13], Rep Sutton, Betty [D-OH-13], Rep Tauscher, Ellen O. [D-CA-10]*, Rep Tierney, John F. [D-MA-6], Rep Tonko, Paul D. [D-NY-21], Rep Towns, Edolphus [D-NY-10], Rep Tsongas, Niki [D-MA-5], Rep Velázquez, Nydia M. [D-NY-12], Rep Wasserman Schultz, Debbie [D-FL-20], Rep Waters, Maxine [D-CA-35], Rep Watson, Diane E. [D-CA-33], Rep Waxman, Henry A. [D-CA-30], Rep Weiner, Anthony D. [D-NY-9], Rep Welch, Peter [D-VT], Rep Wexler, Robert [D-FL-19], Rep Woolsey, Lynn C. [D-CA-6], Rep Wu, David [D-OR-1].. As at November 16, 2010—now 134 co-sponsors. Sources: Sponsors—Thomas; Party affiliations—Office of the Clerk, US House of Representatives. *Although still listed as a sponsor by Thomas, Ellen Tauscher resigned 26 June 2009 to take a position in the Obama Administration. My co-sponsor count, above, reflects the loss of Tauscher, even though Thomas still counts her.

United States Senate
Sponsor: Sen Leahy, Patrick J. [D-VT]. Co-sponsors: Sen Akaka, Daniel K. [D-HI], Sen Boxer, Barbara [D-CA], Sen Brown, Sherrod [D-OH], Sen Burris, Roland [D-IL], Sen Cantwell, Maria [D-WA], Sen Cardin, Benjamin L. [D-MD], Sen Casey, Robert P., Jr. [D-PA], Sen Dodd, Christopher J. [D-CT], Sen Durbin, Richard [D-IL], Sen Feingold, Russell D. [D-WI], Sen Franken, Al [D-MN], Sen Gillibrand, Kirsten E. [D-NY], Sen Harkin, Tom [D-IA], Sen Inouye, Daniel K. [D-HI], Sen Kerry, John F. [D-MA], Sen Lautenberg, Frank R. [D-NJ], Sen Menendez, Robert [D-NJ], Sen Merkley, Jeff [D-OR], Sen Murray, Patty [D-WA], Sen Sanders, Bernard [I-VT], Sen Schumer, Charles E. [D-NY], Sen Specter, Arlen [D-PA], Sen Udall, Mark [D-CO], Sen Whitehouse, Sheldon [D-RI], Sen Wyden, Ron [D-OR]. As at September 23, 2010—now 25 co-sponsors. Sources: Sponsors—Thomas; Party affiliations—United States Senate.

This post last updated: 16 November 2010. With the end of the 111th Congress in December 2010, this bill is now over, so this post will not be updated again.

Arthur needs…

I stole this from Bjorn (who stole this from Walt):

Google your name and the word "needs" in quotes ("Arthur needs") and see what you get. List the first 7 entries. In my case, several were the same and one I kinda edited to make it a sentence. But the point is the fun, right?

1. Arthur needs space.
2. Arthur needs a new friend.
3. Arthur needs Wales.
4. Arthur needs you!
5. Arthur needs money.
6. Arthur needs tidying up.
7. Arthur needs to discover Twitter.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wired self interest

The three biggest telecommunications companies—Telecom New Zealand, Vodafone and TelstraClear—have banded together to try and stop the National-led Government from fulfilling a campaign promise to dramatically expand New Zealand’s broadband connections and speeds. The companies, who together provide most of the broadband connections in the country, claim to be concerned about the Government spending money in a bad economic times.

I’ve never seen a better example of corporations promoting their self-interest and trying to deceive people about it. This is, in fact, one of the baldest examples of corporate greed.

The three telcos hired consultancy company Castalia to write their propaganda paper. The author, Alex Sundakov, dismissed the need for any government investment (except in some limited areas), declaring “in five years time there are no applications that we currently know or are forthcoming that would not be able to be used given existing technology” [emphasis added]. Got that? Sundakov is the greatest technology genius the world has ever seen! He knows that absolutely nothing will be introduced in the world in the next five years that would require better infrastructure. Whew! I was worried that things might change, but thanks to Sundakov we now know that all technological progress will be halted for at least five years.

The self-serving pseudo-justifications in the propaganda are blatantly obvious. Yet Sundakov himself actually stated why the Government should toss this propaganda into the rubbish:

"When you ask what a government should be doing you are really asking 'what is it that the private sector isn't providing?' The reason why the Government should be spending money or doing anything is because the market outcomes are not what we want."

Exactly! The previous Labour-led Government had to force Telecom NZ into structural separation in order to get competition into both phone and broadband service. Why? Because the “market outcomes” were not what we wanted. Telecom New Zealand spent years deliberately delaying action and avoiding cooperation because cooperating would affect their profits.

The same thing is true now. The three Telcos all concentrate their efforts in cities because that’s where the people are, leaving the rural areas underserved (as even the propaganda piece acknowledged). But they also invest very, very slowly because, like all business, they need a return on investment. But keeping broadband availability limited also makes it more expensive and so, more profitable—simple supply and demand.

The Telcos don’t want the government to roll out fibre optic connections to 75 percent of New Zealanders because with better infrastructure they’d no longer be able to justify relatively slow speeds and very high prices. They would, in other words, have to offer value for money for the first time, and that would lower their high profits.

Speaking of which, what do they say is the barrier to faster broadband? It’s the customers, of course! Those pesky customers don’t want to pay obscenely high prices for their broadband, their wiring is old and so are their computers. They’re too cheap! Oh yeah, international bandwidth is expensive, too (they want us to ignore their piece of that business). Besides, the propaganda piece sniffs, the only reason people want the high speeds is to download high-definition movies.

The propaganda piece says “our point is you've got to think really long and hard to decide what the problem is and the problem right now seems to be not that there is not enough fibre being strung to the homes.” Of course they’d say that—they don’t want that level of high-speed connectivity. The real problem is with Telcos keeping connections limited, speeds slow and prices high all of which are holding New Zealand back.

Even accepting the telcos’ propaganda at face value, it’s a boneheaded mindset: “What we have is just fine, we don’t need any more”. It sounds like the builders of the Auckland Harbour Bridge who said, “We’ll never need more than four lanes!” The bridge soon reached capacity and four “clip-on” lanes were added. Now another harbour crossing is needed. It also sounds like the Auckland politicians who passed on building a light rail commuter network because “we’ll never need that”. Daily traffic congestion shows how stupid and foolish those politicians were.

I hope that the Government has the good sense to thoroughly reject the telcos’ propaganda and go ahead with its plans. If they listen to the self-serving nonsense in the telcos’ propaganda they’ll be as short-sighted and ignorant as those bridge builders and the politicians who rejected light rail. All those people are now seen as stupid: Surely National doesn’t want to follow that example.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sanctity of marriage

Nearly a year and a half ago, I wrote about a New Zealand radio station that made marriage the prize in a contest among three strangers. I mocked the whole thing as an indication that “marriage really is sacred”.

My contempt for that stunt is based on the simple fact that those prizewinners instantly had more legal rights than most American same-sex couples. For that matter, Britney Spears and her 55-hour marriage had more legal force behind it.

The Indianapolis Star recently ran a story about an Indiana woman who’s been married 23 times. The fact is, all 23 of those marriages, even her stunt marriage to the “most married man”, had more legal rights, protections and privileges than any same-sex couple has in Indiana (and most other US states), even if that same-sex couple has been together for decades (the Indiana woman’s longest “marriage” was her first—7 years).

I think any reasonable person would conclude that this woman is making a mockery of marriage, but the thing is, she can. Because she’s a woman marrying a man, she can get married a thousand times (one at a time, of course) if she wants to, but a same-sex couple in Indiana and most US states can’t marry even once.

So when far right christianists attack marriage equality, declaring that same-sex relationships aren’t real, and preaching that heterosexual marriage is a sacred institution, I’ll think of that radio station contest, I’ll think of Britney’s sham marriage and I’ll think of the Indiana woman. Yeah, the christianists are clearly right, and their marriage is far too sacred for same-sex couples who want to make a lifelong commitment to one person.

Apparently, marriage is too sacred for even heterosexuals.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Seeing the future again

Yesterday I went to an all-day product demonstration from Adobe, the largest producer of graphics software and the inventor of the Postscript computer language that made laser printers—and the desktop publishing revolution—possible. This “Adobe Creative Suite 4 Roadshow” was intended to show off the latest version of their graphics bundle of software, in the hope it may nudge users to upgrade. In the end, I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu.

Creative Suite is a powerful set of applications which, depending on the specialised bundle, allows designers to do pretty much anything they want in their chosen area—print design, web design, interactive, video or some combination. Many years ago, I went to a Roadshow for an earlier version and they were touting their “design once, publish anywhere” mantra. Quite frankly, they weren’t there yet, but if their demonstrations yesterday are truly representative, I think they may have arrived.

Adobe is first and foremost a company for designers: Its products promise to take the “grunt work” out of the design process to, as they might put it, free the user’s creativity. In my own experience, despite a few missteps along the way, each new version of their software has lived up to that promise.

Adobe claims that their features for preparing files for the web produces “completely clean code” (meaning no errors or extraneous stuff). They stressed in their presentations that designers could take their work to the web, cutting out the “code warriors”. In recent years, the industry has been split: Graphic designers do the creative stuff, then hand it off to web developers (or similar titles) who then re-do the design for the web, sometimes writing the HTML code by hand.

What Adobe is promising—even if only by implication—is that designers will take control of their own work in all its formats, eliminating web developers. Put another way, those creating the content in the first place will control it from start to finish, without handing it off to others.

I’ve seen this before. When I entered the industry, there were two distinct roles—graphic artists and production artists. Graphic artists were usually trained in art schools using traditional methods and media, such as pencil, pen and markers. They came up with designs that were handed to production artists who used the computers of the day, along with manual techniques, to produce what printers needed. Graphic artists couldn’t use computers and production artists were usually trained on the job.

The Apple Macintosh—and especially Adobe Postscript—changed everything. Graphic artists took control over their own production work, taking their designs from concept to print. Production artists adapted to the new technology and began taking over design work, or moving into other areas of printing/publishing. Eventually, the two merged into a single “graphic designer” label, with rankings by “level”, the chief difference being skill with particular software, design ability, creativity and experience.

So here we are again, with Adobe leading the charge as designers take more control over their work. Web developers will, like production artists before them, move into design work or another area (like tech support). The only bad thing I can see is that designers who work for companies are unlikely to see increased pay for the increased responsibilities, but it could mean survival for small firms or freelance designers. And of course it means greater control over content to ensure that the way audiences interact with that content is consistent across all media.

And by the way, Adobe Creative Suite 4 very possibly could be the greatest thing since sliced bread. But, I’m just a tad biased, having used their products for over twenty years (and I’ve lived to tell the tale). Evolution in the graphics industry is possible for those who seize the opportunities. I bet that will be true in the future, too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Focused protest

I want political protests to be focused. By that I mean I want them to have an obvious message and a specific demand. So when I heard about an Internet protest campaign to draw attention to the soon-to-be-implemented Section 92A of New Zealand’s copyright act, I was disappointed to find the whole thing confused, unfocused and a bit pointless. Never mind, I’m taking part in the campaign in a way that makes it more effective and pointed. More about that in a minute.

The fight over Section 92A is because it requires Internet Service Providers to terminate the Internet connection of anyone—person, school, business, library, government agency, whatever—accused of repeatedly unlawfully downloading or uploading copyright material. This is where it gets truly ugly: There's no definition of what a repeat offender is or when, exactly, ISPs are required to act. This will be a total mess until Parliament finally repeals it and replaces it with a real copyright law, since no court will be able to figure out what this law is supposed to do or how it's supposed to function.

As the clock counts down to implementation on February 28, the Creative Freedom Foundation, which is leading opposition to Section 92A, has been urging a protest campaign in which people turn their icons on Twitter, Facebook, etc., into solid black squares between now and February 23. Now, I’m all for protesting this stupid law, and I think for Internet users, protest is an especially good idea. But what, exactly, is this supposed to accomplish?

Here’s where I took matters into my own hands: I turned my icon into the black square protest sign accompanying this post. This way anyone seeing it will know what it’s all about and can follow the web address to find out more. By the way, anyone is free to use the icon, as one Twitter buddy is already. At midnight on Monday, February 23, I’m going to post a simple black rectangle in place of a regular post. That will be my only post that day.

I chose February 23 because the protest graphic at the upper right of this blog implies that February 23 is THE day of protest, so I decided to just go with it. By the way, I had to modify the code to make that banner fit on this blog; if you’d like this smaller version for your site just email me and I’ll send the code to you.

The right-wing National Business Review, in a report critical of the law's critics, reported that the new Attorney General, Chris Finlayson, has announced he’ll let the law take effect and wait and see what happens. This is despite his saying as an Opposition MP last April, "I think this bill is very much a patch-up job and very much what I would call third-rate law reform legislation." Now he has the opportunity to fix it, but he won’t.

This story is far from over, and no amount of icon blackening is likely to change that. Still, protest for its own sake is legitimate—just as long as it's focused.

Related link:

The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPANZ) statment

Privatisation begins

If there was one constant criticism of the National Party in last year’s election, it was that the party would begin selling off state-owned assets, which has been among its core party policies for around two decades. The party leader, and now Prime Minister, John Key, pledged there would be no sales of state-owned assets during a first term of a National-led government.

They didn’t say anything about not privatising core government services, though.

National MP Judith Collins, who is also corrections minister, has announced plans to allow private companies to run New Zealand prisons (though, so far, not to own the prisons). National claims, consistent with party policy, that private companies can do a better job for less money.

Labour, which outlawed private-run prisons when in government, disagrees: "Labour believes that it is the role of the public sector to deprive people of their liberty and not the role of the private sector. Prisons are a core public service along with defence and police."

Funny they should mention defence: National MP and defence minister Wayne Mapp has announced that the Territorial Army (similar to the Army Reserve in the US) will be sent on more overseas missions. The move would save money by allowing a smaller regular army, relying instead on part-time soldiers who could be called up when needed. There has been no mention of privatising any defence functions, so this looks to be a cost-cutting move only.

The difference between the two plans is that using the Territorials means reallocating Government resources, while the prison plan means abandoning them. I wonder if National is aware of some of the high-profile, spectacular failures among private prisons in the US. At any rate, is it ever a good idea to allow private companies to lock up citizens for a profit?

I’ve supported some moves by the National-led Government, opposed others and strongly opposed a few. However, I think it’s inexcusable that they’ve continued to use urgency to ram through their agenda without ordinary citizens having the chance to participate in the process. Some of their moves have profound implications that citizens ought to have more of a say on, but National is making sure they don’t, and that’s just plain wrong. I hope citizens are allowed to have input on this plan, unlike the other agenda items National has implemented so far.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Looking at the pretty ladies

“Wanna go to Queen’s?” My father’s invitation was to go to Dairy Queen, and it was a rare summer treat. There was one Dairy Queen in our city, as far as I remember, and it wasn’t open year round. We used to drive past it in winter and I used to look for signs that the boards over the serving windows were coming down, a better sign of spring than any natural phenomena.

Summers in Northern Illinois are short, so the opportunities for a trip to the Dairy Queen were limited. My father or mother or both often had meetings in the evening, and my mother didn’t drive, all of which limited opportunities even more. The rarity of the trips made them all the more exciting.

I usually had a cone dipped in chocolate, sometimes a Dilly Bar or a hot fudge sundae. Once in awhile, I had a Mr. Misty and—just once—I had a Peanut Buster Parfait; I didn’t like it. I can remember my choices, and the way they tasted, with complete and vivid clarity, as if the last 40-odd years had never happened. But I can’t remember what anyone else had.

After we picked up our orders, my father would ask, “Should we go look at the pretty ladies?” We always agreed, and we’d head downtown to look at the mannequins in the shop windows. They stood looking stately, the display light glowing brightly in the darkening evening. Their gaze was always fixed somewhere above the heads of people passing by, as if they had a bored indifference to those marvelling at their style, class and elegance.

Once in awhile we’d park and walk down the street, looking intently at the pretty ladies. I wasn’t terribly interested in them, but I was fascinated by the sidewalks: The concrete had little shiny bits mixed in and I thought it looked like the sidewalks had tiny diamonds in them. In some places, small glass squares were embedded, providing light, I learned years after we’d moved away, to a delivery area under the sidewalk; big steel doors in the sidewalk provided the access.

We moved away when I was nine. The last time I was in that city I was in my twenties. The department stores, whose brightly lit windows had provided free entertainment, were empty or boarded-up. There was hardly anyone around what had been a vibrant shopping area. The people had moved on to the malls on the edge of town, and in the years after that some would move even further to the big box retailers.

But most of those impersonal bargain barns have nothing in their windows except sale banners obscuring views of checkout lanes. Certainly they have nothing to entertain small kids with dripping ice cream cones: Their sidewalks have no diamonds in them, nor any mysterious glass squares. Their bland windows have no attraction, and certainly no pretty ladies, with their elegant poses, staring out into the evening. The bored indifference now belongs to the staff and the patrons, and to little kids who no longer get trips to Queen’s on a warm summer evening, followed by a trip to look at the pretty ladies.

Toward Immigration Equality

On February 12, US Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Uniting American Families Act (HR 1024 and S 424) which, if passed, will give GLBT couples the same immigration rights that heterosexual couples have.

Under current US immigration law, US citizens and permanent residents can sponsor their spouses for immigration purposes, but gay and lesbian Americans cannot. This means that if the foreign-national partner can’t obtain a residence permit any other way—green card, work visa, etc—the couple will either be torn apart or they have to move to another country.

The Uniting American Families Act would allow US citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for family-based immigration by meeting the same standard as different-sex couples. This would give the US immigration law similar to many Western nations, including New Zealand, which has had this for well over a decade.

One of the main reasons some gave for opposing the bill before is that they assumed that it would be used for fraudulent immigration—as if heterosexuals don’t already do that. At any rate, the bill provides harsh penalties for fraud, including a maximum five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

This is clearly a step in the right direction. The US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents the US Government from recognising legal same-sex marriages performed in any US state or territory or foreign country, meaning that even legally married same-sex couples cannot be treated equally under US immigration law. When DOMA is finally repealed, that may help married same-sex couples, but un-married couples (like those in states that have outlawed marriage equality) will need the protections of the UAFA.

The main reason I moved to New Zealand in 1995, rather than Nigel moving to the US, is that the laws here made it possible for us to be together, while the laws of the US prevented it. After more than 13 years here together, our roots are deep and it’s frankly unlikely we’d move to the US. But as an American citizen it ought to be an option for me to sponsor my partner because equality is supposed to be my birthright. The UAFA, in whatever form it’s ultimately passed, will move us another step closer to securing America’s promise of freedom and liberty for GLBT citizens, too.

Update: This post has a follow-up (posted February 22, 2009). The follow-up has a list of co-sponsors in the House and Senate, a list I keep updating.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Real life does not compute

Yesterday morning, when I was recently out of bed and barely awake, I went to get something out of a junk drawer. I pulled the drawer out a little too far and the drawer and its contents ended up on the floor.

My first thought was how much I wished real life had an Edit:Undo command. Well, to be honest, my thought was how I wish I could use the Macintosh keyboard command of Command-Z (which, of course, is Control-Z on a PC). I’m not sure which is weirder, that I first thought of a computer keyboard command, or that I wanted to use it on real life.

Many people, apparently, would change or edit aspects of their lives if they could. I’m not one of them. Sure there are things I wish had been different, but changing one thing would change other things, and that might mean I wouldn’t be where I am now. So, I’m glad that changing the past is impossible because I’m happy where I am (literally and figuratively) and I’d never risk derailing that.

Still, there are times when CMD-Z would be a nice option to have.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Basking in the glow of natural selection

We may be a day ahead in New Zealand—and ahead in other ways, truth be told—but today the rest of the world is observing Darwin Day, in celebration of science. Science and religion need not be mutually exclusive but if we’re honest, they almost always are.

There are plenty of religious people who accept the fact of science. Some of them believe in what I call the Cheesemaker Hypothesis (and there must be a proper name for this, but that’s what I call it). This belief structure holds that, like a human making cheese, natural forces take their course according to the laws of nature, but from time to time the cheesemaker intervenes.

When I was a Christian, I often said that there was no reason that the Christian God couldn’t have set the forces of evolution in action. I also said that that it could have been the spark behind the Big Bang. Now, I’m not so sure. If there is any god, then my old beliefs could still be true, but the existence of the universe is for me no proof of the existence of any god.

Whether there is a god or not—and I simply don’t know either way—it’s obvious that species have evolved, and that natural selection is, as Darwin first suggested, the mechanism by which life advances. I simply cannot understand why the Judeo-Christian god couldn’t have chosen to act in that way.

My hostility, as I have often said, is not to religion itself, even if I don’t share it, but rather to the politicisation of religion. Science is a fact, not a belief, and not an ideology—it is constantly questioning itself. Why can’t religion do the same?

Games or worse?

Judd Gregg, a Republican US Senator from New Hampshire, has abruptly withdrawn from nomination to be Commerce Secretary. He claimed there were major conflicts with President Obama’s actions on the stimulus, conflicts which somehow or other he just didn’t notice when he first expressed interest in the job. He also spoke darkly about the 2010 US Census, which the Commerce Department oversees.

On the face of it, this looks like more Republican game playing. After all, he can’t seriously expect us to believe that he didn’t know how much he disagreed with the Administration’s stimulus plans when those plans were well-known before he accepted the nomination. So, he could be playing the Republican game of pretending to be responsible, or maybe he wants to embarrass the president.

It could also be a calculated political move looking toward the 2010 elections, in which the Republicans desperately want to regain control of Congress. Gregg said he wouldn’t accept the nomination unless the Democratic Governor of New Hampshire appointed a Republican to fill his seat, so as not to give the Democrats a “Super Majority” in the Senate. Although highly unusual, the Governor agreed and announced the appointment of a moderate Republican woman who said she would not run in 2010—giving the Democrats a clear shot at taking the seat. So, Gregg may have acted to keep the seat in Republican hands.

A third possibility is hinted at by his statement, in which he declared that the vetting process that all appointees go through had nothing to do with his decision. Why would that be a potential issue? The day after his appointment was announced, the AP reported that a former staffer, Kevin Koonce, was under criminal investigation in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal. While working for Gregg, Koonce is alleged to have accepted sports tickets in exchange for legislative favours. Could there be more to this story and investigation?

Gregg may have meant what he said when quit the nomination for Commerce Secretary. But given the partisan games the Republicans are playing, that party’s fear of losing more seats in the 2010 election, Gregg’s own suspect history with the US Census (such as allegedly voting to cut funds so that minorities are undercounted) and given that he is closer to the Abramoff scandal than we knew, there could be something far darker going on here.

If the darker possibilities are true, good riddance. But if he was being genuine, however unlikely that may be, it’s all the better to be rid of him. Differing opinions are one thing, actively working to subvert the programmes of the president are another matter entirely. We’re all better off without him.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The other bicentennial birthday boy

Charles Darwin: There probably is no name in history that can cause more arguments in America than that one. Well, actually, it’s one side arguing and the other trying to resist sometimes.

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago today, and his influence is still being felt. He is one of the most important scientists the world has seen, and he made possible so much science that goes far beyond his area of study.

In America especially, there are people who insist that evolution is a myth, that all the universe is the result of special divine creation that took 144 hours 6,000 years ago. That position is completely irreconcilable with science, and therein lies the problem: Extremist christianists want the teaching of evolution to be banned or, at the very least, reduced to a sideshow alongside religion class.

To me, it’s pretty obvious that allowing religion to be taught alongside science in secular public school is an affront to rationality. Permitting it is not being tolerant of religion, it’s denying the reality of science.

So, here’s to Charles Darwin, who explained so much of the way the natural world works and made it possible for later scientists to understand even more. Darwin, despite being an agnostic, never tried to ban the teaching of religion.

A high resolution version of the photo accompanying this post is available for download from Wikipedia.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today, February 12, is the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, the man who saved the Union and ended slavery by winning the American Civil War. There are plenty of Americans who say Lincoln was the greatest president. I’m one of them.

But I’m not going to talk about Lincoln and history, nor praise the good or criticise the failings. This post is about Lincoln and me, because no child of Illinois can escape the stovepipe-hatted shadow of the state’s most famous son.

My earliest years of life were spent in the centenary of the Civil War. A child’s mind has difficulty telling the difference between a year, a decade or a century, and to me the Civil War seemed not long over, as, indeed, the two world wars seemed to me to have happened somewhat recently.

The centenary of Lincoln’s April 15, 1865 assassination happened to fall on Easter Weekend. I was six years old. As we went to Good Friday services that year, I dressed in dark colours, appropriate for mourning the martyred president. Maybe my mind was muddled because only a year and a half earlier we’d buried another murdered president, but at the time it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

At any rate, a year or two later our town built a big new public library and I was there on their open day. We were shown how to use one of those newfangled photocopiers, and I made a copy of some book page. Then I took another book and made a copy of a photo of Lincoln that I framed and hung on my bedroom wall. It would be with me for decades.

In my very early teens, my parents took me on a special trip to Springfield, Illinois, where we visited the only home Lincoln ever owned, and the reconstructed Old State Capital, where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech. We also visited New Salem, where Lincoln lived when he struck out on his own. And, of course, we visited Lincoln’s tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Time passed and, as always happens, the interests of childhood and youth fell away. At some point, my framed photocopy of that Lincoln photo disappeared. But my regard for Lincoln never did.

Without looking it up, I remembered by heart that Lincoln was the 16th president, and that he was born two hundred years ago in Hardin County, Kentucky. I remembered that his parents were Thomas Lincoln and Mary Hanks Lincoln.

I don’t know if Illinois schoolchildren are still immersed in the history of Lincoln, but I’m glad I was. It gave me a feeling of personal connection to my state and my country that I’m not sure would or could have happened otherwise.

Abraham Lincoln did a lot for the United States by preserving it and moving it toward a more perfect union. But he did something for me and other Illinois kids, too. Pretty good legacy, really.

The photo accompanying this post is available for download in high resolution from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More occasional good news

I like to mix in good news whenever I can, in part to make up for the fact that I’m often critical of one thing or another. I don’t call special attention to that good news, but I decided to start a new tag, “Good News”, for positive posts about positive news.

Today the news is that Olympic gold medal winning Australian diver Matthew Mitcham has secured a major sponsorship deal with Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company. Mitcham’s final dive received the highest single-dive score in Olympic history. He said of his sponsorship, "Hopefully, this will have a snowball effect. If I can get the opportunity where I would be able to train without having to worry about paying the bills, that would be the ultimate goal.”

Mitcham is openly gay (among the few Beijing Olympians who were), but he said that he thought that the economic downturn had more to do with his lack of sponsorship than his sexuality. I hope he’s right. In any case, it’s good to see Telstra back Mitcham.

Telstra operates in New Zealand as TelstraClear.

Found through Joe.My.God.

Pay compromise

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced yesterday that on April 1 the minimum wage will rise fifty cents to $12.50 (today, roughly US$6.76; the current federal US minimum wage is US$6.55, or NZ$12.12). As a centre-left voter, I’d like to see a bigger rise, but I think it’s a good compromise. It will mean 4.2 per cent rise for the approximately 120,000 workers on the minimum wage, while prices rose 3.4 per cent in the year to December. This will help these workers avoid losing ground.

Business lobby groups, of course, didn’t want any increase. However, Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly was realistic, saying "…the Government's decision is pragmatic. I'm a realist, and it's certainly not as bad as it could have been." Which kind of suggests that the Government could have increased the wage a bit more.

Also predictably, the Unite Union, which tries to organise low-wage workers, said the rise wasn’t enough. The average wage rise in the year ending December was 5.4 per cent.

The union wants a citizens-initiated referendum asking if the minimum should be raised to $15 an hour, and then to two-thirds of the average wage within three years. O’Reilly said this proposal was "utterly ideological". What, like the positions of the business lobby aren’t?

The National Party, which leads this Government, doesn’t generally enjoy any support from unions (the members of which are generally automatically members of the Labour Party). That they’re not also being savaged by the business lobby is probably a good thing for National.

If the pay rise had been any lower, I would’ve criticised it. But given the current economic situation, I agree with the Prime Minister when he said, "I think we have hit the right balance." It must be looked at again as the economy improves, but for now, this is a sensible move.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Republican fiddle players

An old phrase “fiddling while Rome burns”—with its allusion to fully-muddled, imaginary history—is suddenly relevant. It means, of course, being irresponsible or concerned with trivial matters during a crisis. That describes Congressional Republicans precisely.

When President Obama’s economic stimulus package was first announced, some Congressional Republicans praised its balance. That must’ve been before they got the memo because within days they were all marching in lock step in their opposition to the plan. To me, it’s pretty obvious they’re just playing political games—just as they did for the past eight years.

There’s no such thing as a perfect stimulus package: Someone, somewhere, regardless of where they are on the political continuum, will complain about something in the package: Perhaps it’s too much here or not enough there. But everyone except the far, far right and self-described libertarians agree that the federal government has a duty to stimulate the economy. It’s a conclusion shared by developed countries around the world.

So what’s the Republicans’ problem? Contrary to their constant media posturing, it has absolutely nothing to do with principle or fiscal responsibility. After eight years without either, they’re hardly likely to start now. Instead, what the Republicans are scared to death about is that the plan will work. They’re terrified of any sort of renewed New Deal because they know it will show that, in contrast to their propaganda of the past 25 years, liberal programmes and policies actually work. Once American voters see that liberals are good for America, Republicans are doomed. That is why they’re digging their heals in: Pure partisan gamesmanship.

In opposing the president’s plan, Republicans attacked Democrats with lies and distortions, just as they did when they controlled Washington. They’ve deliberately misled Americans about what’s in the package (that’s called lying), and they played up minor parts of the package that they think would be unpopular (that’s called distortion).

If the Republicans want to continue to fiddle as the crisis grows worse, that’s their business. But how many months does America have to lose a half million jobs, and how high does the unemployment rate have to get, before the obstructionists on the right understand that helping the American people is more important than their political games?

Update 10/02/09: Today I saw a US News & World Report story via Yahoo News looking at 15 companies that, based on ratings from Moody's and other data, the magazine thinks could fail in 2009, risking more than 350,000 jobs. Many of those 15 are companies that depend on ordinary people spending money, which isn't happening. And, of course, this isn't counting plenty of other companies, large and small, that may go under this year, taking their jobs with them. Just one more indication of the urgency.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Wingnut cooperation

During the Clinton Administration, supporters complained there was “a vast rightwing conspiracy” behind the persecution of Bill Clinton. “Conspiracy” is too strong a word for it, but there certainly was—and is—great cooperation among groups on the far right. Why would the rightwing engage in any sort of criminal conspiracy when they can meet their goals legally and openly?

Some will no doubt see the revelation that far right Texas christianists bankrolled the attempt to stop the “Troopergate” investigation of Sarah Palin as proof of “conspiracy”. The six Republican Alaska legislators who sued to stop the investigation declared the donation of legal services as gifts, as they were legally required to do. There’s no law preventing out of state lawyers from taking part in Alaska cases, and long as the value of their donated work is declared, as it was, everything was completely legal.

Nevertheless, it’s certainly interesting the lengths to which the far right will go to protect and promote their own. The legal help came from an organisation associated with arch-homophobe and überbigot James Dobson’s Focus on Hate, er, the Family. The declared value of the legal services was $185,000.

Ultimately, of course, the lawsuit failed and the final report criticised Palin (and she, locked in her reason-free Orwellian world, declared she was “cleared”). Interestingly, the lawyer for the Alaska Legislature was paid $29,845 for his successful work in defeating the lawsuit.

This whole thing proves that not even the bottomless pockets of the wingnuts can buy everything they want. It also shows that they’re not as powerful as they want us to think they are. Both are very good things.

Why marriage matters

Those of us who advocate for marriage equality have shown how it’s the many every day, common things that make full equality the only option. Here’s one such example.

A Washington state woman, Janice Langbehn, is in federal court suing Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami claiming emotional distress and negligence after the hospital refused to allow her to see her dying partner. As the Miami Herald reported it:
As her partner of 17 years slipped into a coma, Janice Langbehn pleaded with doctors and anyone who would listen to let her into the woman's hospital room.

Eight anguishing hours passed before Langbehn would be allowed into Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center. By then, she could only say her final farewell as a priest performed the last rites on 39-year-old Lisa Marie Pond.

Jackson staffers advised Langbehn that she could not see Pond earlier because the hospital's visitation policy in cases of emergency was limited to immediate family and spouses—not partners…
Langbehn and Pond were on a cruise docked in Miami with their three adopted children when Pond suffered a brain aneurysm. Even though she presented the hospital with “documents declaring her Pond's legal guardian and giving her the medical ‘power of attorney,’ Jackson officials refused to recognize her or the kids as family.”

If Langbehn and Pond were a legally married heterosexual couple, this would never have happened. It’s also unlikely that they would ever need such documents.

But last November, 62% Florida voters decided to make same-sex marriage—already illegal in that state—extra illegal by enshrining the ban in their state constitution. But the amendment wasn’t just aimed at all the evil homos, it essentially stripped legal protections from gay or straight “domestic partners” alike.

In the United States, marriage is a state matter, which is why cases in individual states matter. Everyone knows what legal rights marriage conveys—especially, as in cases like this, next-of-kin status. In the US, “civil unions” or “domestic partnership”, or whatever separate-but-equal name states give it, can potentially have 50 different definitions.

So when the opponents of marriage equality talk grandly of “protecting” marriage, or of “strengthening families”, what they really want is to destroy gay and lesbian families and to rip them apart. They talk about their “concern” for children, but they think nothing of destroying loving homes in their zeal.

No opponent of marriage equality has ever—ever—provided a single logical, rational and secular reason why marriage equality shouldn’t be the law in all 50 states. They haven’t because they can’t. Being determined to deny the freedom and legal rights of other citizens without any logical, rational and secular reasons has a name: Bigotry.

This case is only one among thousands of similar cases happening every day in the US as a consequence of this bigotry. How many more people will be forced to suffer in the name of hate? Yes, marriage matters.

A word of warning: If you read the linked article, don’t read the comments. Like most newspapers these days, comments on stories like this bring out a swarm of wingnuts, bigots, haters and religious fanatics. Don’t spoil your day by reading them.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Fixing the Bush messes

When Americans elected Barack Obama as president and gave Democrats solid majorities in both houses of Congress, they did so to accomplish the same goal: Change the direction America was headed in. They didn’t want more of the same failed policies of Bush/Cheney, they wanted change.

This week America took a major step in fixing the messes left by Bush/Cheney and the Republicans when President Obama signed the S-CHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) reauthorisation act into law.

S-CHIP provides health insurance coverage to children in poor and low-income families, but in October of 2007 Bush vetoed the reauthorisation of S-CHIP. At the time I said: “Of all the lame-brained nonsense coming from the Bush White House, his veto of the S-CHIP measure to provide health insurance to children from low-income families, has got to be among the most inexplicable.”

The Republican mantra in 2007 was that S-CHIP was some sort of socialised medicine by stealth because it would have made more children eligible for coverage. This year, some Republicans continued to push this bizarrely absurd idea. In their “let them eat cake” attitude, Bush and the Republicans said sick poor children could always go a hospital emergency room—the most expensive form of healthcare there is.

The new Congress moved in January to get the programme reauthorized, including an expansion to cover about 4 million more children. To fund it, the bill raised the cigarette tax by 62 cents (today, about NZ$1.16) per pack, thereby funding one pubic health need by taxing a public health problem. If ever there was a win-win situation, that’s it.

President Obama signed the final version of the law on February 4. This is only one of the Bush/Cheney messes that President Obama and Congress have either fixed or are in the process of fixing. Helping children from poor and low-income families finally get the healthcare they need? That’s what I call change I can believe in.

Friday, February 06, 2009

“Please Don’t Divorce Us”

"Fidelity": Don't Divorce... from Courage Campaign on Vimeo.

In December last year, the liars and bigots who ran the “Yes on 8” campaign to re-ban same-sex marriage in California hired the reviled Ken Starr (who led the persecution harassment witchhunt investigation of President Bill Clinton) to take the legal lead in their campaign to keep the California Supreme Court from invalidating Proposition 8. Then, shortly before Christmas, Starr filed a brief demanding that the California Supreme Court invalidate all 18,000 same-sex marriages performed in that state between May and November 2008 (despite the “Yes on 8” campaign leaders consistently telling California voters during the campaign that they’d do no such thing—which is one of the many reasons they’re legitimately called liars).

In response to Starr, the Courage Campaign solicited photos of ordinary people sending the same message: “Please don’t divorce…” their friends, parents, co-workers, themselves—whoever was appropriate. The Courage Campaign then assembled the photos together and created the above video, “Fidelity”: Don’t Divorce… It’s part of a campaign in which they’re asking people to express their support for defeating Ken Starr.

It’s certainly true that, as the video says, in the end “love will prevail”, but right now the lives and happiness—not to mention freedom and equality—of 18,000 couples hangs in the balance.

Oral arguments on the case begin before the California Supreme Court on March 9, 2009, with a decision expected within the following 90 days. Hopefully justice will prevail and Ken Starr will be handed another defeat. More importantly, hopefully justice will be restored for all Californians, especially those 18,000 couples.

I found the video, as I have so many other things, over at Joe.My.God.

Of Tweets and Twooshes

I really like Twitter, which puts me in one half of the universe—the other half doesn’t. Unlike other social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Last.fm, etc., the way Twitter works is obvious: You have 140 characters to answer the question, “What are you doing?” Sometimes it’s called a “micro-blogging platform,” which is a bit silly, really: Twitter is whatever users want it to be. Some people use it as a sort of chat platform, others as a way to offer short, witty observations of life. Most are somewhere between the two.

There’s a culture to Twitter, of course, and users have invented words to describe their world. For example, when you post to the service it’s called a “Tweet”. If you manage to Tweet with exactly 140 characters it’s called a “Twoosh”, something I didn’t know until yesterday. Your fellow Twitterers are “Tweeps”, which is short for “Tweeple” (and is much nicer than the obvious “Twits”).

There are innumerable services available to amalgamate statistics from your Twitter use, among them Tweet Stats, where I learned I’ve had 10 “Twooshes”. It also told me that the top five words I used in my Tweets are: new, time, good, thanks and today. Okay, then.

So yesterday I Tweeted: “My new Tweet this time won't be good, thanks to the fact that I'm trying to use all my top 5 words today,” Which simply reinforced my top 5 words. It was fun only because it plays with Twitter; screwing with the system—what’s not to like?

As with most other social network sites, there are people who use the service to promote themselves, their products or services. While some “Tweeps” get annoyed by the spammers, I don’t have that problem because my updates are “Protected”, which means I have to approve anyone who wants to ”Follow” me, that is, be allowed to see my Tweets. “Following” is the Twitter equivalent of “friending” on other social network services. To use statistic sites like Tweet Stats, I have to temporarily “unprotect” my updates, but I can immediately turn Protection back on so it’s not a big drama.

I mostly follow folks I know through podcasting or blogging, but I also follow a few celebrities. The first was Wil Wheaten who I followed because of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as well as his blog, which is interesting. I added others (Levar Burton, Brent Spiner and Stephen Fry) I found through other celebrities. I follow these people because they’re all using it like normal Twitter folk and not to promote their latest project or their celebrity (I should note that only Stephen Fry follows me back).

Twitter isn’t for everyone, but people who are social or who enjoy writing pithy observations (or both) will probably like it the most. I think it can be a lot of fun to take part in and entertaining to watch others play. Your results may vary.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

No mercy

Call me a bastard—or worse—if you want, but I’m simply not the least bit sorry that Antonie Dixon is dead. He callously murdered an innocent man and maimed two innocent women and now he’s saved the taxpayers the cost of incarcerating him. Why, exactly, should I feel bad about that?

His lawyer is saying all sorts of lawyer nonsense, blaming the Corrections Department, yadda, yadda, yadda. The fact is, no mainstream Kiwi is mourning his death, and I’m with them. I watched his bug-eyed performance—since that’s what it looked like to us ordinary people—before the TV cameras and I remained unconvinced. From the very beginning, I thought he was acting and nothing since then has made me think otherwise.

Say what you want about this case or about me, but I don’t know a single person who’s sorry that Antonie Dixon is dead.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Devil in the details?

The National-led Government has announced plans to make a lot of changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA). The law is the main way to protect the environment from rapacious development.

The RMA has long been hated by the right wing, sometimes with justification. But the neoconservative ACT Party has in the past pledged to get rid of the RMA altogether, while some on the far left thought it was fine the way it is. The truth, as usual, lies between the extremes: While generally solid legislation, it did need some tweaks.

But I can’t tell you what I think about the Government’s proposed changes because I haven’t seen the text yet. Some of the reported changes seem bad: Making it easier to cut down large trees (which would overturn policy in the city where we live), for example. The rhetoric so far has also included attacks on local councils for delaying the processing of consent applications under the RMA, even though statistically local councils don’t take a long time to process the applications and, in any case, the delays are usually caused by requirements placed by Central Government.

Some things seem to be good: Fines for breaking environmental laws will be increased, and it will be much harder for businesses to use the RMA to prevent competition, as we’ve seen recently right here in North Shore City (a story in itself).

I wanted to know what opponents thought about the changes, since the NZ Herald can be counted on to lead the business and conservative cheering section. Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Society are both concerned about proposed changes. Among other things, it will be much harder for grassroots organisations to file challenges, no matter how legitimate.

But what about the Opposition? I went to the Labour Party website and was assured that “We’re already planning for the future” which is just peachy, but what about the Party’s position on the RMA changes? The most recent posting was on January 21 about a summer camp for Labour Party activists. That’s simply not good enough. The Party ought to be putting out new releases constantly, even when Parliament is in recess. So, I have no idea what Labour’s position is.

So, for now, I think some of the proposed changes look like they could be good, some look like they could be bad but, on balance, I have no idea whether the proposed changes are good or not. Guess I’ll have to read the details, too.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Gives me gas

Petrol in New Zealand has gone up yet again—another six cents per litre. In most places, it’s now NZ$1.689 per litre (or today about US$3.21 per US gallon). Petrol has gone up 36 cents a litre since January 14 (about 68 US cents per US gallon).

The reason for this is allegedly the plummeting New Zealand dollar (last night, the Kiwi dropped below 50 US cents for the first time in six years), even though world prices for petroleum remain relatively low. What ordinary people notice is that when the Kiwi gains strength and/or the cost of oil drops, the pump price falls slowly, sometimes as little as 2 centre per litre, once in awhile it’s 6 cents, but it’s usually 3 cents, and usually well after the drop in price or increase in the Kiwi. However, the second there’s an increase in oil prices or the Kiwi drops, the pump price jumps at least three cents a litre, sometimes 4 cents and quite often six cents a litre (like this time). This is why most Kiwis don’t trust the oil companies.

Some months back, my friend Dawn wrote a long and thorough post explaining the background to petroleum pricing and profits. It’s no simple situation, far more complicated than it appears by watching pump prices.

In any case, it seems like the days of cheaper petrol are over in New Zealand for now, and that can only make things worse for ordinary Kiwis. That’s not a good thing for anyone—including the oil companies.

Meta madness

Bloggers do some things that annoy me—and no, I’m not talking about their content. It’s not even about layout or styling (though I’m not keen on a whole lot of Flash animations). Instead, I’m talking about things they use regularly or add to posts. Here are three:

US-only video sites

I know that very often a blogger in the US won’t know that a given video site is only accessible inside the US, but once they become aware of it, I really wish they wouldn’t continue to post those video players. No one likes a tease, but in this case it’s frustrating not knowing what the blogger or commentors are talking about. If it were me, I’d ask myself if the video was really that important.

However, the growing trend toward video being corralled into US-only sites controlled by American media conglomerates is more than annoying—it’s potentially stifling of discussion and free thought. Many old media companies are vigorously enforcing their “copyright” and ordering sites like YouTube to remove their content—even if it’s not actually theirs (like when HBO began forcing YouTube to remove all privately-shot video of the pre-inauguration concert because they had “exclusive rights” to the public event).

Sometimes old media companies provide their own video players, and sometimes they even work outside the US, but it seems to me they’re shooting themselves in the foot by preventing wider non-commercial exposure to their content. In any case, I wish other bloggers would avoid this US-only video prison.

HaloScan sans halo

Considering how buggy and failure-prone HaloScan is, I can’t understand why any blogger uses it. A prime example: The HaloScan comments over at popular blog (and daily read for me) Joe.My.God, whose comments are sometimes screwed-up several times over a week (like it was much of today). High-traffic blogs like his are interesting in part because of the comments—if they’re totally screwed up or missing, then half the fun and a large part of the interest are missing, too.

Obviously it wouldn’t matter so much for low-traffic sites like this one (I just use Blogger’s in-built comment system), but I still have to wonder: How many chances to fail does something get before you get rid of it?

Don’t Feedjit

Okay, this one is just a personal dislike: I can’t stand Feedjit, a “Live Traffic Feed” monitor that all the kids are playing with these days. I admit it’s kind of interesting for a few minutes watching “in Real-Time” (um, more or less…) as people arrive on a popular blog, but I don’t like other people seeing when I arrive and where I came from.

I know that Feedjit gets my point of origin wrong (it measures where your ISP is directing you from, not where you actually are), and I also know that most blogs have some sort of site monitor that tells the owner where readers are coming from, how long they stay, etc. (and those monitors seem to be more accurate than Feedjit). Having the blog owner know I was there is one thing, having all other readers know is a bit different.

And in case you’re wondering why I provide links to the blogging tools I don’t like, it’s because I believe people should be free to make up their own minds about things. Which is why of these three, the one that annoys me the most is US-only video sites. Information was born free, but increasingly it’s living in chains of gold, to mix up metaphors.