}

Friday, July 31, 2009

Blogger bug

You may have already noticed this, but Blogger has recently developed a bug in which the most recent post doesn’t necessarily show up. This mostly affects people who access a Blogger blog directly, like through a bookmark. If you get to a Blogger blog that way, you need to immediately refresh in order to make sure you see the most recent post(s). If it clears up—and assuming I remember—I’ll update this.

Put your records on



This is a video from notcalebkruzel, one of the people I subscribe to on YouTube. I think it goes to show two things: The intelligencia who say that YouTube is passé miss some really interesting things, and the other thing is that I am amazed at what people come up with—which is one of the reasons I don’t do more videos. And my posting this has NOTHING to do with the fact that he’s the only one to post a comment of any kind on my YouTube Channel—no, nothing at all.

Invite a friend to New Zealand

News item: “Prime Minister John Key wants everyone to invite their overseas-based friends and family for a visit to New Zealand.”

I may sometimes be critical of John Key, but other times even I agree with him, and this is one of those times. Mind you, I’ve constantly invited friends and family to visit, but hardly any have. Sigh!

In all seriousness, visit New Zealand! You will NOT regret it!

Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori

Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori—Maori Language Week—is drawing to a close. Each year since 1975, New Zealand has observed Maori Language Week. The idea has been to advance usage of, and to celebrate, te reo Maori (the Maori language), and to get all New Zealanders to embrace it.

This week we’ve seen a LOT of Maori on television. Most of it has been non-threatening to people of European descent, but I’m not sure how much the language was actually advanced (for example, subtitles are useful).

Some New Zealanders are dead set against te reo Maori generally, and it’s dishonest to deny that. But it’s also dishonest to avoid pointing out that many of the people complaining the most loudly weren’t even born here. These people declare with false sureness that te reo Maori is “a dying language”. In fact, more and more people are becoming fluent in it. They say it’s “useless” and young people would be “better off” learning a traditional, European language. That’s simply racist (let’s not be shy about calling it what it is).

However, all is not perfect. I once took a class in Maori: I lasted one day. It was apparently a dramatically different experience than Nik, my fellow blogger (and American expat in Auckand). The course I took was politically correct, culturally focused and total immersion. That means that class members were expected to function in Maori from the beginning, even when we had no idea what was going on—that’s not how I can learn a language. We were also told to use only approved words for phrases (like for “good morning”), instead of the widely-used common phrases because the common ones were transliterated from English.

As teachers of foreign language will tell you, the greatest problem is the “sound barrier”, meaning, basically, people feeling comfortable speaking the new language out loud. I never felt comfortable speaking in that class and decided right there and then that I’d never return. If Maori want people of European descent to learn Maori, it will have to be taught in a way that they can relate to, and not necessarily the Maori way.

While I know many of the 100 Maori words every New Zealander should know, someday I would like to be more advanced. I don’t think I can ever be fluent—I’m sort of beyond being able to learn new languages—but when I study, it’ll be on my terms, suited to the way I learn. But learning it is the point, right?

Bennett spins to survival

Paula Bennett has again managed to dance around one of her blunders and keep her job. Her caucus, most notably the Prime Minster, have expressed their support for Bennett using bullying, and apparently John Key thinks it’s perfectly fine for a Minster of the Crown to ignore the Cabinet Manual and even break the law if it’s to silence critics of the National Party.

Despite Bennett’s insufferable spin, this was never about a “fair debate”. If it was, she would’ve also revealed how much money she received when she was on a benefit. If it was really about beneficiaries entering the public debate, Bennett would’ve revealed how much money she got from the government when she was a student activist. But the need for her imaginary “fair debate” doesn’t extend to openness from the Minister herself.

She’s revived the old National Party’s Muldoonist bullying of opponents, and that sets a dangerous precedent. How many poor people will be willing to criticise policies of the National-led Government when they know that if they piss-off Paula Bennett she’ll retaliate by spreading their personal information to the entire country?

One of Bennett’s worst excuses for her law-breaking bulling is that she “was open about it”. So what? Breaking the law openly is still breaking the law, and trying to stifle free speech through bullying and intimidation is wrong, regardless of whether she did so openly or leaked it. Wrong is wrong.

But the worst thing of all is how Bennett lit a firestorm against beneficiaries and now cries crocodile tears about the personal, often vicious attacks against the two beneficiaries (or even all beneficiaries). As an ex-beneficiary, she knows damn well the low opinion “middle New Zealand” has of beneficiaries, and she knows how easy it is to get people into a beneficiary-bashing frenzy. She’s directly responsible for every foul word spoken about these two women and beneficiaries generally.

It seems to me she knew exactly what she was doing. She intended to light the firestorm as a warning to others who might dare to criticise National. That’s disgusting, no matter how hard and fast she spins.

Update 02/08/09: Bennett says she’ll apologise to the two beneficiaries if the complaint to the privacy commissioner is upheld. According to the NZ Herald, one of the beneficiaries victimised by Bennett “has had her telephone lines disconnected, after threats and abuse on talkback, online message boards and blogs.” The paper also reported that “Other mothers who have written to the minister have told of fears they would be similarly outed.” All of which is evidence that Bennett’s goal—using bullying to suppress dissent and criticism of National-led Government policy—was successful.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kevin Rudd: It’s NOT too much to ask



Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has declared that his Australian Labor Party will not endorse marriage equality, despite moves within the party to do so. Rudd said, "We went to the last election being very clear-cut about our position on marriage under the Marriage Act being between a man and a woman." So what? Parties and politicians change their positions all the time, and there’s no reason that the ALP can’t change theirs. Endorsing marriage equality doesn’t mean the Government has to do anything about it this term, so, if it makes Rudd feel better, they can go to the electorate before they actually adopt marriage equality.

Rudd, who in the past expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, declared added, "We've also said that in terms of all legal discriminations against same-sex partners that we would act to remove them, and the Attorney-General has been hard at work." It’s a smokescreen, and Australian activists have pointed out the numerous ways in which same-sex Aussie couples are still discriminated against and will continue to be even after Rudd thinks his government is done.

In Australia, like the US, only marriage equality can ensure that all citizens are truly equal. The Australian Labor Party should defy Rudd and commit to achieving marriage equality, but they won’t. Full equality, making sure that same-sex Australians aren’t second-class citizens, those ought to be the commitment of Rudd and the ALP. It’s not too much to ask.

The video above is the latest from Equal Love.

Fox FAIL map

Now we know why America’s rightwing gets things so desperately wrong with the Middle East: They have no idea where anything is! The above map is from the from Faux News' The Live Desk on July 27.

The map was probably put together by a behind-the scenes nincompoop in the graphics department, but it was fed to editorial and production nincompoops for use by their on-air morons. You could say it’s a perfect storm of stupidity.

What I find especially interesting is that this is indicative of the way such things are shared nowadays: I found out about this not from a blog or news article, but from a Tweet on Twitter from Brad from the 773 Podcast who linked to Media Matters (where I got the screen grab). They, in turn, found out about it from another Twitter user. I read somewhere that increasingly Twitter is becoming the medium of choice for sharing web links. I use it to share things I wouldn’t normally blog about, and sometimes things I would.

And, for the record, I’ve known where Egypt is for almost as long as I can remember.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Góða Ólavsøku

Today is Ólavsøka, the national day of the Faroe Islands, home of fellow blogger and podcast listening superstar, Kim Beaver. So several podcasters (including me) have done some sort of special episode in observance of this day. So, I thought I’d add to the festivities by mentioning it here, too, because Kim follows this blog as well as my podcast. Góða Ólavsøku, Kim Beaver!

Statistical Ignorance

In my post about Paula Bennett’s bullying tactics earlier today I mentioned people attacking the two beneficiaries. I’ve also written recently about right wing commenters on blogs and news articles. The people commenting actually share one thing: They often have no understanding of facts and statistics. Very often, they’d contradict or disprove what they say, but sometimes their ignorance even prevents them from stating their case strongly.

There’s a huge difference between people who are simply ignorant of the facts of an issue and those who deliberately ignore them. At some time or other, most people say things we believe to be true, facts we assume to be facts but don’t check. That can be forgiven; people who ignore facts deliberately cannot.

Commenters on the Paula Bennett controversy are a good example of all this. Many people attacked the two beneficiaries by declaring that they get more money than “most New Zealanders.” This is what I meant when I said these harsh critics “believe that beneficiaries are living in the lap of luxury, creaming it at taxpayer expense.” Is there any truth in that—do they have a legitimate gripe?

No.

According to Statistics New Zealand’s “New Zealand Income Survey: June 2008 quarter” (the most recent available), the average (mean) weekly wage and salary income in New Zealand is $827. One beneficiary received $715 per week, the other $554 per week. That means that the average wage/salary earner in New Zealand received nearly 16% more than the highest paid beneficiary, and nearly 50% more than the lowest paid one. I found this out in less than a minute.

Why do so many people have it so wrong? Part of it is psychological: Life isn’t fair, and when people see themselves as suffering, they hate seeing people who they think “don’t deserve it” apparently doing better. Their underlying assumption—that the beneficiaries are doing better—is false, but they don’t know that because annual wage and salary reports aren’t exactly top of most people’s reading lists.

Maybe it’s time we all change and check our assumptions before we comment on a news story or blog post. Just like anyone else, I’ve been caught up in the heat of the moment, or I’ve simply made an assumption about the reality of the facts I knew. Lately, I’ve tried to go to original sources whenever possible, even if only to satisfy myself. It’s okay to have an opinion about something because of how you feel, but arguments are better when based on verifiable facts.

And facts are what was missing in the beat-up of the beneficiaries in New Zealand and what’s so often missing when conservatives, in particular, discuss public policy or issues. I don’t think they should be missing, and I’m trying to do my part to make sure they’re there. Getting people to pay attention is another matter altogether, and that may prove to be statistically impossible.

Paula Bennett must go

The Minister of Social Development must go. If she doesn’t resign, Prime Minister John Key must fire her before she becomes an even bigger liability to his government.

I had high hopes for Bennett when her appointment was announced. Back then, I said she seemed “easygoing, competent, not grossly partisan”. Apparently, I was wrong on all three.

The latest trouble she’s gotten herself into happened when she revealed how much money two beneficiaries were receiving from the government. The two beneficiaries were critical of the Government’s cuts to allowances beneficiaries receive for tertiary education. Bennett claimed that since the women were publicly criticising the Government’s policies, they wouldn’t mind the disclosure of how much their receive in benefits, in the interest of “a fair debate”, as she told Newstalk ZB’s Larry Williams.

There are three main problems with Bennett’s actions: First, she deliberately broke the law—she had no legal right to reveal that information. Second, she violated the Cabinet Manual, which governs how Ministers of the Crown are to behave. She also engaged in the sort of bullying tactics former National Party Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was famous for: If anyone dared to oppose him, he’d threaten to reveal personal information and, in fact, he often did.

If Bennett remains in Cabinet, it sends a clear message that National approves of bullying as a means to silence criticism and dissent. If she’s allowed to get away with violating the Cabinet Manual, then no minister can be held accountable for bad behaviour. And if she’s allowed to get away with violating the law, it sends a message that the National Party thinks its MPs are above the law. On this last point, there may be some progress as at least one of the women is looking to file a formal complaint against Bennett.

Bennett is also a hypocrite. As an ex-beneficiary herself, she ought to understand where these women were coming from. In Parliament, she refused to disclose how much she received while on the benefit declaring—correctly—that it was nobody’s business. Apparently, Bennett meant it’s nobody’s business unless they have the gall to disagree with the National-led Government’s policies.

Her Muldoon-like bullying tactic is playing well with a certain segment of society, not just those on the right. They believe that because beneficiaries receive taxpayer money, we all have a right to know how much they get—specifically, for each beneficiary. Really? Do they want everyone knowing specifically how much their parents or grandparents are getting? Superannuation is a benefit, too.

The problem is that there are too many people in New Zealand who believe that beneficiaries are living in the lap of luxury, creaming it at taxpayer expense. This myth has been encouraged by right wing parties (including the National Party), and Bennett has now given them more reason to feel self-righteous.

Paul Bennett has failed to live up to expectations and has lurched from one mistake or gaffe to another. She is way out of her depth and if she doesn’t go now, she will certainly make another huge mistake sooner or later. John Key must cut his losses and make sure she goes now.

Monday, July 27, 2009

End of the beginning?

I fervently hope that we’ve witnessed the beginning of the end of the career of Governor Quitter (Sarah Palin), but it’s probably just the end of the beginning—for now. Sarah Palin has no depth, no intelligence, nothing to offer and it’s inevitable that her worshippers will get sick of her, though I doubt she has enough self-awareness to know that.

In one way, it’s too bad she’s so utterly useless: If she paraded her lunatic ideas around the country, and then succeeded in causing a split in the Republican Party, it would be easier to beat the party in 2010 and 2012. That would be a good thing for one reason in particular: It could lead to realignment on the right, with the truly crazy people on one side, the somewhat more rational conservatives on the other. America cannot succeed with the constant threat that the crazy end of the right is always within potential reåach of power, and Governor Quitter could, theoretically, help end that.


But, more than likely, Governor Quitter will be gone soon, and when she is, probably no one will even notice.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jake’s big weekend

This weekend was a big adventure for Jake, and it wasn’t even about him.

We went to my mother-in-law’s house in the Waikato to celebrate her birthday with other family members and, since we were staying overnight, we brought Jake with us. Jake seems to enjoy all the attention he gets at these gatherings.

After a full day with the family—and his older dog-cousin Midget (a fox terrier)—his evening got interesting: Our niece and nephew were dog-sitting a puppy, a fox terrier-Jack Russell cross, and brought him to the house. Did I say puppy? Nuclear generator would be more like it—the little thing just wouldn’t stop!

Fox, as he was called, decided that Jake’s fluffy tail was a perfect toy, and frequently lunged for it, getting a mouthful of fur. After awhile, Jake became a bit annoyed and barked at him. Jake’s dog-cousin told off the puppy, too, but to no avail. Eventually, we picked up Jake and kept him in our laps (taking turns) so Jake could get away from the puppy (plus, he was tired). When the puppy left, Jake seemed almost relieved.

That night was cold—I don’t think I’ll ever complain again about Auckland being cold in winter. Jake slept firmly wedged between us to keep warm.

This morning, just the four of us in the house, Jake was relaxed (as the photo above, taken mid-nap, shows). But then we stopped by the niece’s house, where Fox was as full of energy as he was the previous evening. The photo below shows Fox and Jake nose-to-nose (though, being dogs, their noses were usually closer to other dog body parts).

Jake slept all the way back to Auckland, and slept much of the evening, too. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if he also spends most of tomorrow sleeping.

Jake always seems happy to have these little adventures, and he’s often tired after them. This time, that little dynamo called Fox left him especially tired. I was a very big weekend. Oh, and Nigel’s Mum had a good time, too…

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Australia’s National Day of Action 2009

Activists in Australia are holding this year’s National Day of Action for marriage equality in that country on Saturday, 1 August, in order to coincide with the triennial national conference of the Australian Labor Party, the current party of government in that country. Activists say that the Labor Government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is unlikely to adopt marriage equality as long as his party’s platform rejects it.

The current ban on same sex marriage harkens back to a cynical political move by the former rightwing prime minister, John Howard. Howard noticed how Karl Rove’s anti-gay election crusades in the US worked well for Bush/Cheney and the Republicans (up until 2006), and copied him. Labor Prime Minister Rudd, who soundly defeated Howard and the rightwing in the last election, opposes marriage equality for religious reasons. The Day of Action is part of a larger campaign to force politicians to back the majority of Australians who now support marriage equality.

The situation in Australia is quite different from New Zealand, where Civil Unions are equivalent to marriage. Australia’s situation is closer to that of the US: Australians who get a partnership recognition of some sort in one state or territory would have to register all over again should they move to another state—and possibly have fewer rights and privileges. Civil Unions as we know them in New Zealand don’t exist in Australia, and what’s been proposed so far fall far short of equality with marriage.

Even before the Civil Union Act was adopted in New Zealand, many laws had been changed to equalise the way same-sex couples were treated. But there’s also long been a more relaxed attitude toward couples—married or unmarried—than seems to be the case in Australia. Here, there’s clearly less importance for formal relationship recognition of any kind than activists suggest is true in Australia.

In any case, I certainly wish them well with their campaign. As I say frequently, there’s no rational reason to oppose full marriage equality. I hope that the Australian activists are successful in helping their politicians realise that fact.

The video below if from Equal Love, the leaders of this campaign. They have a YouTube Channel where you can see all their videos, though I’ll be posting more on this blog, too. It’s funny, but not surprising in this globally interconnected age, that I found out about all this through gay American überblogger, Joe.My.God.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Justice, but…

Like most New Zealanders, probably, I was delighted to hear that Clayton Weatherston was found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend Sophie Elliott. He claimed that she provoked him, and that he was only guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Provoked?! He stabbed and cut her 216 times—what kind of “provocation” could possibly justify that murderous frenzy? The jury found there was no justification and correctly found him guilty of murder.

However, this same defence was used recently in another high-profile case with a very different outcome. The NZ Herald summed up the events:
Ferdinand Ambach, a Hungarian tourist, was drinking with Ronald James Brown, on December 7, 2007, at a suburban Auckland bar before they went to Mr Brown's Onehunga flat. A violent argument erupted and Mr Brown, 69, was bashed repeatedly with a banjo before the neck of the instrument was rammed down his throat.
Ambach claimed that Brown “provoked” him by making “two unwanted sexual advances”. Judge Helen Winkelmann gave the jury much the same basic instructions that the Weatherston jury got, but the judge added, "Mr Brown was a homosexual but he kept his sexuality separate from his friends and family. That doesn't make it blameworthy.” Yet she then went on to suggest it was, adding that “the jury had to consider… whether [Ambach] was provoked by sexual advances from Mr Brown. They were also told to consider whether these advances caused Ambach to lose the power of self control,” according to the Herald.

In New Zealand, as in many countries, there’s a right of self-defence, but that’s limited to reasonable force in proportion to the threat. In no way whatsoever is a “sexual advance” a provocation sufficient enough to justify killing someone. What Ambach used is the famous “gay panic” defence in which a supposedly heterosexual male claims that an “unwanted” sexual advance from another man justifies murder. The jury found that “unwanted sexual advance” apparently is reason enough to kill someone, if the person making the advance is a gay man, since they found Ambach guilty only of the lesser crime of manslaughter.

Weatherston used the same “provocation” defence, in his case claiming, basically, that his victim goaded him into murdering her. He didn’t get away with it.

Both murderers were making mere excuses for their crimes, and the existence of the defence is an insult to every concept of justice.

Fortunately, there is hope for the future: Gay Labour MP and former lawyer Charles Chauvel is spearheading a drive to repeal the “partial provocation defence”. If it passes Parliament—and it must—murderers like Clayton Weatherston and Ferdinand Ambach will never again be able to use “provocation” as an excuse for murdering someone. The Government claims to be a promoter of law and order and justice, and this is a chance for them to prove it by backing this bill.

Update 23 July: Justice Minister Simon Power has announced that the "partial
defence of provocation" will be "the subject of reform," something the media has interpreted as a pledge to scrap the defence. Power said that it "effectively rewards a lack of self-control". He gave no details on how or when this reform would happen.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Power of superstition

India’s astrologers have been in the news a lot lately, and for all the wrong reasons—spreading superstition and religious bigotry.

The first shot was fired earlier this month when the high court in Delhi struck down a 148 year old British colonial law banning gay sex. An astrologer and a yoga guru challenged that decision—proving that religious nuts aren’t confined to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions (although Hindu, Muslim and Christian groups also opposed the ruling, they didn’t challenge it).

According to the BBC, an astrologer said in his petition that India's ancient scriptures and values do not permit homosexuality, and he argued that the recent court judgement would lead to the spread of HIV and AIDS. This proves that stupidity isn’t confined to the main religions.

The Indian astrologers are in the news again because of an upcoming total solar eclipse. Like people in ancient times, the astrologers believe an eclipse is a sign of some sort of impending doom. The astrologers are predicting all sorts of dire things, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks to birth defects (seriously). This proves that superstitious nonsense isn't confined to the main religions.

I’m dismissive of religious stupidity, no matter who’s behind it. These astrologers, while playing a different societal role than those in the West, nevertheless also make their living by trading on peoples’ superstition and ignorance. They have a vested interest in promoting “traditional” beliefs in order to shore up the ignorance and superstition their livelihood is built on. In these cases, they’re putting people at risk—challenging peoples’ humanity in the court case, and fomenting panic over the impending eclipse.

All of which is further evidence of what I’ve said many times before, that religious fundamentalism is the greatest threat to freedom and democracy the world faces. It doesn’t matter if the fundamentalists are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, from any other organised religion or even just astrologers or gurus, their religious fundamentalism is a profound threat to the world and humanity. Clearly some are greater threats than others, but sometimes that’s only for lack of opportunity.

The world will have to face up to this, and the negative force of superstition, sooner rather than later.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stark reality and healthcare

Recently I visited comments to a news story on a mainstream site. The story related to a wingnut media personality and healthcare reform, so the rightwing was out in force to defend their hero and to trash liberals—especially the latter.

I learned a lot about the far right by visiting that circus. Before this, I’d only seen them interacting with each other in their alternate reality or, rarely, in comments on mainstream news sites. But those pale in comparison to the great oozing mass of rightwing nonsense I saw.

Among the things I noticed in the hundreds of comments: They had absolutely no awareness of what’s going on in the world, including the history of their own country. Also, they happily and blindly regurgitate the talking points of the rightwing media without any critical thought whatsoever.

One rightwinger declared that the rest of the world was adopting the US healthcare system. I’d guess the commenter probably believes that the rest of the world is converting from the metric system the Imperial system still used in the US (for the record, only the USA, Myanmar and Liberia don’t use the metric system).

This was the logical extension of the rightwing talking point that universal healthcare is “a failure” everywhere. They declared that the French system had infected thousands of people with HIV and had let old people die in their heatwave awhile back. Another claimed that in Britain people are given a pain relief tablet and told to go home to die.

This is all utter nonsense, of course, as anyone with the tiniest bit of curiosity would find out in seconds. It’s based on the Fallacy of the Anecdote—that because a bad thing has happened to one person, it therefore happens to everyone. So, the rightwing uses isolated mistakes and bad incidents to condemn universal healthcare in general.

Does the right wing really want to go there? It would be very, very easy to find thousands of anecdotes from Americans who have had bad or disastrous experiences with the US healthcare system. But that would prove nothing. Instead, one needs to look at the overall statistics—like the tens of millions of Americans who have no health insurance, and so, no access to adequate healthcare. That doesn’t happen in countries with universal healthcare because, by definition, it’s universal: Everyone is covered, everyone is treated.

If someone in the US—even with insurance—gets seriously ill, or has a bad accident, he or she can very easily run up massive bills far beyond what their insurance will pay and they face bankruptcy as a result. That cannot happen in a country with universal health care.

But everybody (apart from the right wing) knows all that, or they should. But the right wing is completely incurious about the world and completely uninterested in finding things out for themselves.

It’s all a distraction and complete joke because this sort of single-payer universal healthcare is NOT going to be the result of healthcare reform in the US (even though I think it should be). Instead, the result will be a kind of mix between the single-payer universal healthcare that most developed countries have and the broken American system.

The stark reality is that healthcare reform in America is facing not only the millions of dollars a day being spent by healthcare industry lobbyists, it also has to take on the massive wave of lies and distortions coming from the right, treated as legitimate debating points by the mainstream media, and mindlessly held as true by far too many people.

This will be a major battle, but one that cannot be lost.

Different days

Obviously I haven’t been posting as much to this blog as I usually do. I’ve been extremely busy, which isn’t unusual, but I’ve also been feeling kind of indifferent about it all, which is unusual. I’ve had things I wanted to say, but not badly enough to find the time.

Which is not to say I’m about to “blogfade”, or whatever the word would be; in fact, things will return to normal pretty soon. But I’m beginning to think that the occasional break from routine—any routine, including blogging—is a good thing.

So that’s why the blog has been starved for new posts lately. But now it’s time to get back into it and see what mischief we can make.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

No earthquake here

Media reports of an earthquake and Tsunami warning in New Zealand have caused some concern for our friends and family overseas. So, for their benefit, we are completely fine—the earthquake was at the opposite end of the country from us, about 160km northwest of Invercargill (the official report is here). Invercargill is approximately 1183km (735 US miles) south of Auckland, so we never felt a thing, though much of the South Island did.

According to GNS Science, there are between 10,000 and 15,000 earthquakes in and around New Zealand each year, of which 100 - 150 are big enough to be felt. I’ve felt two in thirteen years, neither of them particularly strong, though the most recent one—nearly two and a half years ago—got my attention.

The Tsunami warning is pretty standard procedure for earthquakes of this magnitude, but that doesn’t mean one will happen. Still, earthquakes and Tsunamis are something that all New Zealanders are told to be prepared for (and in Auckland, we add volcanoes to that list).

So, we are fine, people in the South Island are fine, and at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any reason to worry about a Tsunami. I have to admit, it was great (and touching) to see Twitter—which is so quick to relay breaking news—light up with folks’ concern for our well-being. Thank you all.

Seeking truth

Today I received an email from a friend of mine. It included the text of an anti-Obama chain email, one that wasn’t overtly extremist in its language; in fact, it sounded like an angry person who wasn’t necessarily extremist.

My friend asked me if the claims were for real, so I checked and one by one the assertions in the email fell—some were outright lies, the rest distortions (some so distorted that they’re more correctly viewed as lies). So, it turned out, it was extremist propaganda masquerading as being from a normal person.

Frankly, I spent far too much time refuting the lies and distortions of that email—far more time than the average person would ever spend. And here’s the thing: I had no problem finding original sources (Presidential Executive Orders, laws passed by Congress, etc.). The only link provided in the chain email—to the Federal Register—was legitimate, but the interpretations were truly bizarre.

This particular email doesn’t matter, but rather how easy it is, even now, for political people to distort the truth to suit their own ends, and how, even now, people don’t check out what they hear in such emails (I checked because I was asked to; if I’d received the email I probably would’ve rolled my eyes, assuming it was nonsense, and deleted it).

I don’t see anything that can be done about this apart from this: When we get a political email—particularly one that seems to come from either end of the spectrum—we ought to completely ignore it if it doesn’t provide verifiable sources for the claims made—not news media sites, but actual original sources. Yeah, I know, I’m not going to see any political activist actually do that.

So, let me instead again quote that supposed journalists’ dictum: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” We may not want to take our email checking quite that far, but a healthy scepticism is a good thing. With some time and effort, if we seek the truth we can find it, whether the activists want us to or not.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Eating sovereignty

There’s a controversy in New Zealand over the imminent requirement that bread be artificially fortified with folic acid. It’s intended to help reduce birth defects, but critics argue that the possible risks to other people are too great. To me, the larger issue has nothing to do with that.

First the health side: Women who get additional folic acid before pregnancy and in the early stages have a greatly reduced chance of birth defects in their babies. So, proponents argue that artificially adding folic acid to bread will mean women will get it for the critical period, and that will lead to between four and fourteen fewer birth defects each year. However, a woman would have to eat 11 slices of bread per day to get enough folic acid.

If it helps, why not, right? There’s a growing body of evidence that excess folic acid causes other health problems, including encouraging the growth of cancers, especially of the prostate and colon. The science is worrying enough that the UK and Ireland have suspended plans to require that folic acid be added to their bread.

Why not New Zealand? The answer lies in New Zealand’s sometimes troubled economic relationship with Australia.

New Zealand and Australia have joint food standards, something that is, for the most part, a hugely great idea: It essentially turns the two countries into one market for most—but not all—food. The problem is that when New Zealand disagrees with a standard, it must nevertheless obey Australia’s wishes.

Or, at least, that’s the line being delivered by Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson who says she’ll ask the authority for a review—a month after the regulations go into effect. Why doesn’t she just suspend the rule pending a review? Because the Authority has established the rule, and Must Be Obeyed.

Really? Then why is organic bread exempt in New Zealand, but not in Australia? And in any case, why should Australia—which has ten votes on the authority to our one—be able to dictate food policy for this country?

Australia ignores rules and treaties when it suits their domestic political needs: They continue to ban New Zealand apples because of an hysterical fear of fire blight (actually, it’s fear of competition). Australia and New Zealand were to be a single domestic air travel market—New Zealand obeys the agreement, Australia flatly refused to (fear of competition again). And there’s the famous case of New Zealand pies being rejected by Australia because they contained too much meat. So, Australia clearly doesn’t value its international agreements as much as New Zealand does.

However, if New Zealand feels that a food standard poses a potential risk to the health and well-being of New Zealanders, this country has every right to act, whether Australia likes it or not. I have no idea whether adding folic acid is a threat, but surely we—as a sovereign nation—have the right to decide that for ourselves.

From September, those who want to avoid “medicated bread”, as some call it, will have to buy organic or, apparently, bread that doesn’t have wheat flour. It would be much simpler—and cheaper for ordinary New Zealanders—if this government stood up for its own people and delay the new rule until questions about its safety can be resolved.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Weekend Diversion: Auto-Tune the News #6



Okay, this is getting to be a habit, but Auto-Tune the News continues to be one of the best things on the Net. This episode features three of the most absolutely batshit crazy Republicans there are: Michele Bachmann (the most insane member of Congress, hands down), John Boehner (ever so slightly less crazy), along with the National Joke, Sarah Palin. Thrown in for good measure is Michael Jackson absurdity.

What I love about Auto-Tune the News is that it demolishes the self-important nonsense of the mainstream newsmedia by showing the absurdity of the very people they insist on treating seriously. The people in this video are jokes—why does anyone pretend otherwise?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Podcasting live—again!

Tomorrow I’ll be podcasting live on Pride48.com. The live podcast begins at 9PM Eastern US on Friday, July 10, 2009, which is 1PM Saturday, July 11 in New Zealand. The Pride 48 site allows you to change the time listings to your own time zone. Nigel will be joining me. There’s also a chatroom where you can interact with us while we podcast.

I plan on recording this so I can post it later, but why take a chance on missing out? Join us live!

Je suis grincheux

A new survey for Expedia has found that tourists from France are the worst in the world. This may seem obvious to New Zealanders, given the recent performance of a visiting French rugby player.

But this survey of 4500 hotel owners across the world found that the French are “bad at foreign languages, tight-fisted and arrogant”. Those of us who have encountered foreign tourists may not have put the French at the top of that list, and we may be surprised to find “the British and the Germans judged the best of the Europeans.”

Similarly, most of wouldn’t have said that the French finished “third after the Italians and British for dress sense while on holiday.” I mean, have people actually seen the way tourists from some countries dress?

But what I found most interesting was the defence of French pride mounted by the survey’s sponsors. "The French don't go abroad very much. We're lucky enough to have a country which is magnificent in terms of its landscape and culture." Um, many countries can say that—it’s no defence for bad behaviour overseas.

Oh well, this gives me another chance to use the translation widget on my Mac. Apparently unlike French tourists, I’m willing to at least try and use a language I do not speak. Like them, apparently, I don’t care that much if it’s correct.

Now, excuse me while I go explore a place magnificent in terms of its landscape and culture—New Zealand.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Still more random shots

It’s again the busiest work-week of the month for me, and I haven’t had time for normal blog posts. Things will be back to normal soon. In the meantime, here are a few things that caught my eye.

Let’s call the whole thing off

Last month I posted “Wanna Buy a Vowel” about how people got upset over TV advertising in TXT style—without vowels. The title was adapted from “Wheel of Fortune”, the New Zealand version of which, as luck would have it, was in the news this week.

It turns out that the programme, which ended recently, had as one of the words on the final day “orthopedic”. One slight problem: The normal New Zealand spelling is “orthopaedic” (with “ae”), but—and this is typical in New Zealand—both American and British spellings “are acceptable”. You have to wonder how anyone ever got a puzzle right—never mind that, how’s an immigrant supposed to adapt?

Grumpy Aussie flyboy

The chief executive of Qantas subsidiary Jetstar, Bruce Buchanan, has been whining that their rivals at Air New Zealand have been guilty of “sabotage” for supposedly spreading rumours. Right…

I wonder if, just maybe, their trouble might have maybe be due to the scores of disgruntled customers who complained about everything from late or cancelled flights to rude and unhelpful staff. Unhappy customers don’t pop up due to “dirty tricks,” Bruce. Get your airline running properly and your bad press will disappear. It’s really that simple.

Update 10 July 2009: Buchanan has been in New Zealand on a sort of mea culpa tour: Seems they're finally accepting that they fucked up their launch. TVNZ's One News reported that only 20% of the airlines flights in the beginning were on time, and now 20% are still delayed or cancelled. Jetstar now promises to do better, and promises $50 to customers if they don't. Is that cash or a voucher? Under the circumstances, I know what I'd choose. But, hey: They can sort their problems out if they want to—and if they focus on their customers. Personally, I think I'll wait until I consider trying them.

A U-turn on UN indigenous rights declaration?

The government is apparently getting ready to endorse a UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people. The resolution was adopted by the UN last September with 143 votes in favour, four against and 11 abstentions. The four opponents were the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Australia changed government and is changing policy to support it.

Prime Minister John Key described the declaration as “an aspirational, non-binding declaration. From this Government's point of view we take the rights of indigenous people seriously and we are working hard to advance those." Since it’s non-binding, New Zealand’s logical position is to support the declaration.

Resolutions like this by themselves don’t fix anything, and all nations will have to deal with indigenous issues more seriously. The irony is that New Zealand and Canada in particular are arguably much farther along that road than many of the nations that voted yes.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How Auto-Tune works


A couple weeks back, I posted the latest episode of “Auto-Tune the News”. America’s PBS series “Nova” explained how it works. I kinda knew the basics of it, but I find it always helps to actually see something explained, so I thought I’d pass this along.

(via Joe.My.God.)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Time, distance and home

My sister-in-law asked me recently if I thought I could live in the US again, after so much time away. Of course, that’s not something that’s even remotely possible right now, especially since the only way we could live in the US under current law is if Nigel was offered some fabulous, too-good-to-pass-up job, and that’s not going to happen (one has to seek a fabulous job to be offered one). That lack of legal status would be a huge barrier: Our legally recognised NZ relationship—our family—would instantly be transformed by US authorities into a mere friendship. I, of course, can live the in the US at anytime.

Which brings me back to the question: Could I live there now? One of the things about moving this far away from home is that even short-term visits are expensive and in my case, a couple days are lost in travelling. So, the difference between my mental image of the people and places I left behind and the reality of how they are now becomes greater over time.

Basically, in my mind the people and places I knew were sort of frozen in time, as if everything stopped on Halloween, 1995. Obviously I know they haven’t, and the few trips back have helped me see some of the change. But there’s so much other stuff that I haven’t been part of that it’s like it’s an entirely different country.

I’m reminded of that from time to time when I watch American TV news and they refer to something in pop culture and I have no idea what they’re talking about. A recent example was the death of TV hawker Billy Mays: I had no idea who he was or what he did, and the inevitable jokes about him went right over my head.

We’re hardly isolated in New Zealand: We get TV shows, movies and music from the US, Australia and Britain, as well as home-grown stuff, of course. But the US is a big country and many of the things that become pop culture phenomena there never makes it past its borders, so I never hear about it.

Add that to the march of time for the people and places I knew, and it means that were I to move back, it would mean not merely starting all over again, but also in many ways it would be as if I was an immigrant to my own homeland. Time and distance do that.

I think that’s a reality that all would-be immigrants should keep in mind as they contemplate moving overseas: You can always move back to your homeland, but the more time that passes, the truer it is that you can never go home again. It's better to make sure that your home is where your heart is—literally, whichever country you and your heart find yourselves living in. And don’t look back if you can help it.

The Fourth of July is the one day when I can’t help it, even if I really don’t know my homeland anymore. But I do know where my heart and home are, and that's enough for me.

Immigrant victims

An article from the Christchurch Press describes how the recession is affecting immigrants to New Zealand who are here on Work Permits/Visas. Because they have neither permanent residence nor citizenship, they’re not eligible for unemployment benefits. So, if their jobs end, they have to rely on their savings to get by and, if that runs out they have to rely on charity. That, or leave the country.

These immigrants can look for a new job and if they manage to find one they can apply for a variation in the conditions for their Permit/Visa to allow them to work for the new employer. However, this can take as long as 72 days—how many employers will be willing to wait that long and put up with that hassle?

There’s no specific timeframe for redundant immigrants to find a new job, but migrants on short-term visas have been told they had three weeks to find a new job or leave the country. Given the long processing times at Immigration, migrants are being put into an impossible situation.

I faced something similar many years ago when the company I was working for closed down. For a time after that I was in New Zealand on a Visitor Permit, which meant no working. But then I qualified for permanent residence and was successful, so I was free to find a job working for anyone. Now, of course, I’m a citizen and have the same freedoms as NZ-born citizens.

I feel for these migrants and the situation they find themselves in. Many of them were brought in on the Skilled Migrant programme to fill critical skills shortages in New Zealand. But all migrants in New Zealand on work permits/visas are here only because the Immigration Service was satisfied that no New Zealander could do or was available to do the job they were hired to do. It’s tempting in bad economic times to scapegoat immigrants, to demand they be removed. But these migrants are demonstrably hard working, skilled people who are an asset for New Zealand.

These newly jobless skilled migrants need faster service from the Immigration Service. They’ve made their homes in New Zealand and have built lives here. But their lives are in limbo and their wellbeing is in jeopardy not just from the bad economy, but also because of the slow bureaucracy.

I survived the legal limbo I found myself in. I hope these migrants can, too.

Friday, July 03, 2009

NZ’s first illegal verdict?

A recent law change by the National Party-led Government allowed juries in New Zealand to convict someone even if one juror dissents. For the first time, that has happened. The particular case was weird, since one juror had already been excused due to illness, so the vote was only 10 to 1.

This is a hard slap in the face of common law stretching all the way back to Magna Carta. For centuries, a unanimous verdict has been required for a conviction. Now, a single dissenter can be ignored to achieve conviction.

There aren’t many of us, actually, who would disagree with the intent: Why should one stubborn person stand in the way of conviction? But without any guarantees—and there are none—how long can it be until a simple majority of jurors is required to convict?

The larger issue here is whether juries are still the best way to determine whether guilt is proven. In the meantime, I’m extremely uneasy about where this lack of unanimity among jurors could lead. Politicians, motivated by purely political concerns, and bent on achieving convictions at any cost, could easily keep pushing the edges on this.

This is one thing that will require careful and close monitoring by independent people, folks outside Government who don’t have a vested interest in finding this to be all okay. I hope that happens, but I’m not optimistic. The end of democracy sometimes comes not all at once, but by a thousand tiny cuts. I hope this isn’t part of that cutting.

Addendum: I should point out that I'm not suggesting dark motives on the part of the government; their stated goal is that they want to save money by speeding up trials and reducing the need for re-trials. I have no reason to doubt them. The problem is unintended consequences, and that a future government, less committed to democratic traditions, could use this as justification for further eroding legal freedoms and rights. And that's why this sort of thing must be monitored—to ensure that this move doesn't lead down a darker path. By itself, this move may not—and probably will not—make any real difference. We just need to keep an eye on it to be sure, as we would with any other change of this kind, including any move away from jury trials altogether.

World peace breaks out

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are now following each other on Twitter. Can other major conflicts be far from resolution?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009