Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It seemed so innocent

When the morning radio news reported there’d been an earthquake near American Samoa, it didn’t seem all that worrying, even when it triggered an automated tsunami warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. After all, such things usually amount to nothing.

But as the morning wore on, things began to look more serious, and it began to look like New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence had no idea what was going on. Colin Feslier, a spokesperson for the ministry, was grilled by Paul Henry, co-host of TVNZ’s morning programme, Breakfast. Henry asked Feslier specific questions, but got vague answers at best, despite the fact that it was by then known that the tsunami would hit New Zealand.

Feslier said he’d have some information “in an hour”—the same time it was due to hit East Cape. Henry was having none of it and told Feslier that simply wasn’t good enough, and Feslier finally said that it would be a good idea for people in the affected coastal areas to move to higher ground (meanwhile, ships were leaving ports in the affected areas and putting to sea for safety).

I often don’t care for Henry’s combative style, but he said what most New Zealanders would’ve. In fact, he badgered out of Feslier that he should’ve said unprompted. The ministry needs to have people who are trained to give information clearly, directly and quickly—none of which Feslier could do, so I think he was filling in. Breakfast was broadcasting live to the entire nation at that moment—a direct way to get official emergency information to people who needed it, especially people who might be in the tsunami’s path. TVNZ did the best it could, but got better information from Hawaii (which had no idea what NZ Civil Defence was doing—do these people communicate in an emergency?). Ultimately, the Minister for Civil Defence came on and provided useful information—finally.

Auckland radio wasn’t any better: The music stations largely had normal programming. The local talkback station, NewstalkZB, had the insufferably pompous and self-righteous windbag Leighton Smith on air at that time, and Radio Live had NZ's biggest dickhead, Michael Laws. Radio New Zealand National was, well, impossibly boring—I wondered if the hosts were even awake. So I relied on TVNZ to keep me informed, and they did a reasonable job, with updates every 30 minutes after 9am (they usually broadcast a news bulletin every hour between 9am and 12 noon).

It turned out that there wasn’t much to it in New Zealand—this time. People went down to the beaches to watch the tsunami arrive, as photos by the New Zealand Herald documented. Police tried to keep people away, but some people are stupid through to the bone. This could easily have been much worse if the earthquake had been even stronger, or in a different spot. Next time, New Zealand may not be so lucky.

And that’s something to worry about: If people were so blasé about this tsunami, even after the news became more serious, what will they be like next time, even if it’s a bad one? And if most of the media didn’t take this event very seriously, why would ordinary people?

Living on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” means that an earthquake, volcano and/or tsunami is always a risk—every hour of every day of every year. No one can afford to take things lightly or assume their own invincibility. One day, nature may prove them wrong.

The loss of life and property damage was in the Pacific Island nations of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. The New Zealand Red Cross is collecting donations for disaster relief.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Read and weep

It’s the middle of Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual celebration of free speech through the freedom to read. Their Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIC) compiles a list of the most Frequently Challenged Books, which is the basis for the event.

So far this century, the OIC has recorded 3,736 challenges, of which 1,225 (32.7%) were due to “sexually explicit” material, 1,008 (27%) due to “offensive language”, 720 (19.2%) due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”, 458 (12.2%) challenges due to “violence” and 269 challenges (7.2%) due to “homosexuality”. A further 103 (2.7%) were challenged because they were “anti-family,” which is coded language often—even usually—used to mean something that is positive about gay people or issues.

51% of all challenges were made by parents, which doesn’t mean they weren’t part of organised or coached campaigns by religious fundamentalists. However, not all challenges come from the right. In fact, many challenged works—such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn or To Kill A Mockingbird—face opposition because they’re deemed to be racist in a modern context. Liberals, in other words, also challenge materials that don’t fit their values.

The question is, do parents have an absolute right of veto? One could argue that they should be allowed to determine what their own minor children are allowed to access, but hardly anyone would agree that they have the right to decide what everyone’s children will be allowed to read, nor what adults may access.

Some things are banned by governments without much dissent—child pornography, for example. Many countries have an official censorship regime that controls what’s not allowed (Emma Hart wrote about Banned Books Week and New Zealand’s censorship regime on her blog at Public Address).

The problem for those who love to censor—individuals, churches, governments—is the Internet, where almost anything is available. Many governments have attempted to restrict access to “objectionable” material, but that’s met with limited success (so far…).

The commercial marketplace is the big new battlefield in the war against censorship. This includes media conglomerates’ attempts to exploit copyright laws to block access to materials, as well as other businesses imposing their own rules.

Recently, Amazon was sued when it deleted two e-books from users’ Kindles (because the media conglomerate that controlled the copyright changed its mind about offering a digital version). While refund were given, and an apology issued, Amazon’s power to do this means they could also easily delete anything for any reason. They can also replace purchased books with changed versions, something they’d claim allows them to correct errors, but which makes me think of the official revision of history in Orwell’s 1984.

And now comes a report that Apple Computer declined to authorise a free application for the iPhone/iPod Touch because it was “politically charged.” The App advocated a single-payer healthcare system, but such advocacy speech is legal in the US and one would think that Apple ought to allow it (unauthorised Apps void the device warranty and in the past have been deleted by Apple when the operating system software was updated).

With written expression increasingly digital, the censorship war may move primarily to that environment. While that’ll be easy to track, the pity and shame is that we’ll have a whole new set of opponents to take on, opponents who are fighting not for ideological or religious reasons, but for money—to protect and enhance their profits.

Fighting off the zealots of the right and the left is hard enough; fighting off the power of wealthy corporations may prove impossible. Changing the way publishing is done, and authors are paid, may ultimately be the only way to overcome the banning of books.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Times have changed

It’s all about the clocks: We’re ruled by them and we organise our lives around them, yet we’re the ones who determine what they mean. You’d think we’d make things easier for ourselves by changing what clocks mean and say, but no.

Last night, our clocks jumped ahead by one hour as we began NZDT—New Zealand Daylight Time. New Zealand changed the starting and stopping times for Daylight Saving Time in order to give Kiwis more summer, which to me seems like a fine idea.

I’m not one of those people who minds the seasonal changing of the clocks—especially when it gives us more summer daytime. However, there are two things about it that do annoy me.

First, for the next two or three weeks I’ll be listening to folks telling me how hard the time change is on them. If they flew to another country on holiday, within a day or two they’d be adjusted to the new time. So, I just don’t get why changing the clock by only one hour apparently wreaks so much havoc on some people.

The other thing is more of a curiosity than an annoyance: Reminding Kiwis which way the clocks go. I grew up fully knowing this because of the mnemonic device, “Spring ahead, Fall back”. But in New Zealand, “Fall” is called “Autumn”, which clearly doesn’t work in the phrase.

Interestingly, the term “Fall” is very old and was once commonly used in Britain, but the British gradually switched to “Autumn” sometime after the American Revolution. Cut off from the English version of English, Americans tended to settle on “Fall”. Because the English migration to New Zealand and Australia was mostly well after the American Revolution, settlers to these countries brought the word “Autumn” with them. And that’s why this difference exists.

Still, if for no other reason than to help them remember which way to turn their clocks, it could serve Kiwis well to learn and adopt “Fall”, even if only as a less-favoured synonym for “Autumn”. Or, I guess they could always ask the American expats in their midst.

Friday, September 25, 2009

John Key’s rainbow tour

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key appeared on the David Letterman Show to deliver the “Top Ten” reasons people should visit New Zealand. Some of the answers, written by Americans, may have been a bit naff, but some were spot-on (my personal favourite—apart from number one—was "It’s like England without the attitude").

John Key has done an outstanding job on this trip so far—he has presented New Zealand—and himself—well. It was his job, in part, to be New Zealand, and I think he did that well—especially since most Americans have no idea where New Zealand is. And, I have to admit, the sight of the New Zealand flag at the New York Stock Exchange was thrilling on its own.

So, well done, John. You’ve done well (despite what the perpetually grumpy New Zealand Herald implied).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Picking up bullets

American gun nuts are running out of bullets. It’s not that they don’t have enough, it’s that they can’t buy enough because of ongoing shortages: The gun nuts are hoarding ammunition.

According to America’s National Rifle Association, Americans buy about 7 billion rounds of ammunition a year, but they’re now buying at a rate of 9 billion rounds per year. The reason? Oh you know, there’s a (black) Democrat in the White House, the Democratic Party has a majority in both houses of Congress and did you know the President is a (black) Democrat?

Gun nuts themselves have been claiming that hoarding of ammunition (and buying guns themselves) soars when Democrats are in control, but they provide no evidence to support that. What we know for certain is that far-right websites and organisations—along with supposedly “mainstream” Republicans—claimed in the last election that President Obama would “take away guns”. Apparently lacking in their education, many gun nuts didn’t realise that’s impossible.

However, some gun nuts did realise that and instead insisted that President Obama and the Democrats would focus on restricting ammunition as back-door gun control. Apparently they haven’t noticed that no one in government is making any moves whatsoever to do as the panic merchants said they would and, in fact, the president has said repeatedly that he supports gun rights and common sense on gun laws—like the vast majority of Americans.

I’m not a fan of allowing nearly anyone to own as many guns and as much ammo as they want. Allowing just about anyone to stockpile a huge, unrestricted personal armoury cannot lead to good things. But neither the president nor Congress share my concern.

So we have a bunch of well-armed folks who don’t know the first thing about what’s really going on in Washington, but who believe any crackpot conspiracy theory that comes along, trying to become even better armed. And they wonder why some of us might be a bit concerned for the future of the republic.…

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fun from television viewers

One of my favourite things is to read the decisions of the Broadcast Standards Authority. It’s often fun to see how worked up people can get over nothing, and the extent they’ll go to in order to demand that their “nothing” be treated as if it was really something. Actually, many of these complaints take themselves far too seriously.

Two recent decisions illustrate both points.

A Lower Hutt woman complained about a June TV3 News item on the MTV music awards. The report “showed actor Sacha Baron Cohen as his character Bruno dressed as an angel and only wearing a harness… lowered in front of musician Eminem… Bruno was suspended upside down so that his buttocks were in the musician’s face.”

The complainant alleged it was in breach of good taste and decency and children’s interests, but the Authority declined to uphold the complaint (Decision No: 2009-080). “The Authority has stated on a number of occasions that unaccompanied young children are unlikely to watch news programmes” (Ouch!). The Authority’s decision continues, “there is nothing inherently harmful to children in seeing a fleeting image of a man’s buttocks, and that the brief news item would have been more likely to puzzle than disturb young children.” The Authority also found that “the item did not contain any material that would have disturbed or alarmed child viewers.”

All very sensible and reasonable—to reasonable people. But what about when the complaint presents itself as an appeal to reason?

Last May, TVNZ’s Sunday programme carried an item about economist Gareth Morgan spending $500,000 of his own money to find out what the truth is about climate change. His conclusion was that climate change is real.

It’s probably obvious what happened next: Three climate-change deniers complained alleging the item violated standards of balance and accuracy. The three submitted what is the longest and most detailed complaint I’ve yet read, and the Authority’s decision (Decision No: 2009-063) was long, too.

Because they’re all so long, I won’t summarise them (follow the link to read them in their entirety). However, I’ll note that many of the complainants’ points are typically found in climate-change denier propaganda. Their sources weren’t listed in the decision, which is a shame: It would have either proven or refuted my suspicion that the complainants’ sources were of dubious quality or reputation. Certainly one book mentioned, written by an extremist christianist, has no credibility.

The Authority declined to uphold any complaints alleging a breach of requirements for balance. It also declined to uphold most the complaints about accuracy, except for one: The programme suggested that an atoll near Indonesia was “the ugly face of global warming” when, in fact, tectonic activity is a significant part of the reason the islands are sinking—a pretty specific and limited point.

What I find interesting about these determinations is that the Authority rules specifically and narrowly and isn’t swayed by emotive appeals. Sure it gets it wrong sometimes, but the vast majority of times it strikes the perfect balance. It also provides me with entertainment in the bargain.

Protect insurance companies’ profits

The gang at Funny or Die have made this PSA in association within MoveOn.org to highlight what healthcare reform really ought to be about: Protecting the profits of the insurance companies (I’m not being sarcastic, not at all).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Into the West

Today Nigel had a meeting in Henderson, in Waitakere City, so I went along to have a bit of a look around. I forgot to bring my camera, but really, there’s not much to see in the area where I was. If I’d had my camera I may have wandered around a bit more, but maybe not.

Waitakere City is also known as “West Auckland”, and a resident is often called a “westie”. Depending on how the term is used it can be pejorative or not, but Wikipedia’s description of the stereotype behind it is pretty accurate: “This stereotype depicts people from the outer suburbs as unintelligent, undereducated, unmotivated, unrefined, lacking in fashion sense, working-class or unemployed. Clothing… "uniform" [is] black t-shirt and ripped jeans. Clothing associated with the female westie includes jeans with tassels and tight-fitting tops, often white.”

The same term was used in Australia (I don’t know if it still is), but there it’s apparently being replaced by the term “bogan”. Neither it nor westie are used as much in New Zealand as they used to be.

So there I was in West Auckland, ending up near the new rail station near the headquarters building for Waitakere City Council, and trying to figure out how to get into the Westfield mall. There were no signs on the street, but I saw some stairs leading up to the parking levels, so up I went. At the top of the stairs there were no directional signs of any kind, but across the level I saw a Westfield sign glowing in the doom, so I went to the door and climbed the stairs—only to realise at the top that it wasn’t a public entrance but, apparently, an employee or other locked entrance for The Warehouse. Back down the stairs, further along in the carpark and I found an entrance leading to travellators heading down into the mall.

The extremely pedestrian un-friendly area around the mall isn’t unusual in some urban areas, so Waitakere City isn’t unique in this. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that for a city that fancies itself as a “green” city, Waitakere ought to be at least a little pedestrian friendly.

My first impression of the mall wasn’t favourable: Dark, closed-in and not welcoming. I walked a little further and it opened up into a brightly lit atrium-style area with most of the food outlets around it. Although the mall looked a little tired and in need of some refurbishment, this area was bright and welcoming.

When I was in Newmarket, the stores along Broadway had almost no one in them, and the stores in Westfield’s 277 mall weren’t dramatically better. I was at this mall in Henderson at basically the same general time of day, but it was very busy, with shoppers in nearly every store—some were quite full.

The stores were mostly what I was used to in a mall, with the same national chains, but there were some I hadn’t seen before. The area is, generally speaking, a lower socio-economic demographic than the malls I normally go to, so this could explain some of the differences.

It could also explain some of the people who, it seemed to me, were much rougher than I’m used to seeing. Some looked as if they lived a hard life containing too much drink and tobacco. The youths were all desperately trying to look tough (I can’t remember seeing any teenage boy who did anything but scowl, some fiercely). Many were dressed in their version of hip-hop clothing (hoodies in abundance). While I wouldn’t have tested the theory, I got the feeling that if one were nice to them they’d turn out to be pretty normal kids. And yet, their look said, “keep away”.

I found a bookstore in the quiet, darker lower level, and stayed there longer than anywhere else. It was, in fact, the only store in the mall where I felt comfortable (though the Farmer’s probably would’ve been the same; I didn’t go there because there wasn’t anything I wanted to look at).

So, while my impressions weren’t entirely favourable, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad place—far from it. It’s a very diverse area, and that can be a good thing. But it’s not a place I felt comfortable walking around in, so I didn’t explore the area very much—maybe I would have thought more of it if I had, but I just didn’t feel comfortable enough to do that. Still, being out of one’s comfort zone from time to time is a good thing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Calling out Fox as liars

CNN’s Rick Sanchez, in an unusually honest and direct statement for a mainstream news outlet, says what we all know to be true: Fox Noise are liars.

Sanchez refers specifically to a newspaper ad Fox placed that claimed CNN didn’t cover the recent teabaggers (snicker) protest in Washington, DC when, in fact, CNN did. Sanchez shows clips to prove the point, and also attacks Fox for not knowing the difference between covering the news and promoting it.

It’s arguable that were it not for Fox’s constant promotion of the event, the rally in DC may not have had enough people to hold all the racist signs. Fox promoted the event relentlessly and had a vested interest in making it seem like it was important and bigger than it really was. That’s why they were later obsessed with dramatically inflating the number of people attending: If there had been anywhere near as many people as Fox claimed, it might have approached being a real story.

I don’t get why CNN and other mainstream news outlets continue to report on the astroturf protests as if they’re real, but at least this time Fox was called out for being liars. I just wish the mainstream news media were honest about that all the time.

People die, ideas don’t

Irving Kristol, one of the main founders of neoconservatism (and father of current neocon leader Bill Kristol), died yesterday. Unfortunately, his ideology didn’t die with him

Like many of the neoconservative elite, Kristol was a former Democrat who had moved in his life from radicalism through liberalism and on to the aggressive conservatism known as “neoconservatism”. In America, that philosophy is belligerent in world affairs (for example, neocons wanted to invade Iraq but couldn’t find an excuse until after September 11, 2001). They believe in unrestrained use of American military might to achieve government goals, especially protecting corporate interests.

On economic matters, they promote what one could call a muscular laissez-faire economics. Like all conservatives, they don’t believe in government interference in or regulation of business, but they go a bit farther, with the equivalent of a big bouncer at the door forcefully blocking any government involvement. This led them to oppose both the recent bailout and the economic stimulus packages, but it can also include opposing consumer protection laws, privacy laws, financial regulations—in short anything that gets in the way of corporate elites maximising their profit. They are the epitome of the current business paradigm in which nothing else matters except for returning maximum profits to shareholders—not employees, not customers, not suppliers, not the environment, nothing but their unrestrained ability to maximise profits.

Where they stand even farther apart from traditional conservatives is their hatred for anything non-traditional in society and culture. Many of them don’t make this a priority, and come across as sort of grumpy curmudgeons, but many others serve as the glue between the true believers of the religious right, and the more libertarian traditional conservatives who believe that social and cultural issues are none of the government’s business.

Irving himself was part of the arrogant neoconservative elite, convinced he was better than and superior to his fellow Americans. While in the US army in World War 2, he came to think of his fellow soldiers as "thugs or near-thugs." He wrote, "My army experience permitted me to make an important political discovery. The idea of building socialism with the common man who actually existed—as distinct from his idealized version—was sheer fantasy, and therefore the prospects for ‘democratic socialism’ were nil."

He spent his career in the paternalistc world of neoconservatism where they always know what’s best, and common people can never be trusted with making important decisions. Common citizens, after all, might want fairness and equality among all citizens, they might want limits on corporate power and they might want a more rational and restrained foreign policy, all things neocons like Irving could never tolerate.

Neoconservatism is less a political philosophy than an aggressive anti-democratic force. They suffered major setbacks in the 2008 elections, but they haven’t gone away (indeed, many of them are behind the astroturfing attacks on President Obama and the Democrats as part of their rear guard action to regain Congress in 2010 and the presidency in 2012).

So Irving Kristol is dead. I can’t say I’m sorry about that, but I am sorry his reprehensible, disgusting ideology didn’t die with him.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The travesty ends

I last wrote about this case a week ago, in another context, but it still stirs up feelings of contempt in me for an aspect of New Zealand’s current legal system.

Today Ferdinand Ambach was sentenced to twelve years in prison, with a minimum of eight years without parole, for murdering Ronald Brown. This is a travesty.

The murderer Ambach beat his victim with a banjo before it broke and he then rammed the banjo's neck down his victim’s throat. The murderer then trashed his victim’s home, including treasured items and things that had come from his parents.

I keep calling Ambach a murderer because that’s what he is, no matter what New Zealand’s legal system says: Under current law, he’s technically not a murderer because he committed “manslaughter”. Ambach claimed the victim allegedly made “sexual advances” (which, quite frankly, I’m beginning to think was a lie). It’s the good old fashioned “gay panic” defence.

Ambach slandered his victim in an attempt to get off his murder charge and it worked, as it pretty much always does when the victim is gay. Only a few days ago, a certain high-profile heterosexual murder case was decided. In it, the absurd partial defence of provocation failed, and the murderer received life in prison with no chance of parole for 18 years. What’s the difference between the two cases? In the latter case a heterosexual man murdered a pretty white woman. Can anyone seriously believe that’s not why there was a discrepancy in the sentence?

Ambach is murderer, plain and simple. What he did to his victim is no more defensible than what the heterosexual killer did, but the sentence is dramatically different. The government is currently working on repealing the defence of partial provocation and it must do so with all deliberate speed. GLBT New Zealanders have been victimised enough by this reprehensible law.

Personally, I couldn’t possibly care less what happens to Ambach, who has shown no signs of remorse. According the NZ Herald, “Justice Helen Winkelmann said the show of remorse had come late and was likely to be ‘self-serving’.” The murderer’s lawyer, Peter Kaye, said Ambach had no previous convictions, as if that mattered. He added that unlike New Zealand prisoners, Ambach will not have visits from family members because he has none in the country. Boo-fucking-hoo.

Predictably, Kaye said "I think provocation should remain. I there are some compelling situations that just cry out for the defence of provocation. It's already very carefully policed by judges and there's no doubt in my mind it should remain." What planet is that man on? There is no “careful policing” unless the murder victim is heterosexual.

With a bit of luck and determination from Parliament, this indefensible defence will soon be gone. I certainly will not be letting this go.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What the H?

The North Island city of Whanganui is to have the “H” restored to its name, if the New Zealand Geographic Board's unanimous decision isn’t overruled by the National Party-led government. For generations, the city’s name has been incorrectly spelled “Wanganui”.

Outside of the region, the fight over the “H” looks like a stand-in for fights over other issues. Certainly, the town’s mayor, Michael Laws, has pursued a largely racist course through town politics, which makes his declaration that the Board’s decision is “racist”, ironic.

Laws referred to a referendum last May in which 77 percent of people voting preferred to keep the name spelled incorrectly. Voters who took part in a referendum in 2006 had the same opinion. Laws also claimed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that “a majority” of the submissions to the Board were opposed to a change, and declared, in the manner of all who don’t get their way, "Why have submissions at all?" In fact, submissions were 444 opposed and 436 in favour of a change, fairly evenly divided.

In 1991, the Board changed the spelling if the river the Whanganui, so it was inevitable that the town’s name would be changed, too. Laws played up the issue, a move that played well with the rednecks Laws tries to represent and appeal to. Quite frankly, most other New Zealanders probably can’t figure out get what the H Laws’ problem is.

The decision now goes to Maurice Williamson, the Minister for Land Information, who can confirm, modify or reject the decision. Laws is a former National Party Member of Parliament, but that may not help him with the government, especially after a series of decisions that its coalition partner, the Maori Party, has not supported.

Although the decision is the right one, I have to admit: I always like seeing Michael Laws knocked down a peg. Few NZ politicians deserve it as much as he does.

Update 18/09/09: Predictably, Michael Laws has been using this to rally the rednecks and, in the process, has managed to make Whanganui look like the redneck capital of New Zealand. Not all of the district's residents are as bigoted and racist as Laws is, and I would certainly hope that there are enough of them to send Laws into retirement. His antiquated politics of division really have no place in modern New Zealand. But, I hear the US Republicans are always looking for racists to join their party… (yes, that's sarcastic)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Perceiving the bigotry of others

Bigotry exists, but it’s almost impossible to prove. Discrimination, however, which is basically bigotry in action, can sometimes be documented. And yet we all know that bigotry and discrimination exist—and apparently we can see it in others.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released its “2009 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey” and there are some interesting results. Their interviewers asked respondents if it was their impression that there was “a lot of discrimination” against various groups.

64% of respondents said that gays and lesbians faced a lot of discrimination. That’s nearly two thirds—and more than any other group in the survey. What this seems to suggest is that Americans recognise that discrimination against gay and lesbian people is a fact, and that suggests that a clear majority of Americans could well be persuaded to support legislative remedies to deal with that discrimination.

The next most discriminated against group, according to the survey, were Muslims (58%). In the years since September 11, 2001, Americans have become better informed about Islam, though still only a bare majority know Muslims’ name for their god or their holy book. On the other hand, a plurality of Americans again answer “no” to the question, “Does Islam encourage violence more than other faiths?” (45% yes, 38% no). This suggests to me that Americans learn about groups they don’t understand only slowly, and even then are reluctant to give up prejudices. This could explain why so many Americans are susceptible to demagoguery, whether on race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality.

The important thing to remember is that this survey does not indicate—and doesn’t claim to—who’s actually discriminated against or how much. Rather, it’s an indication of how Americans perceive discrimination. That’s part of what makes it so interesting.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life “seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It studies public opinion, demographics and other important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world.” It and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press are respected researches in issues of public affairs. Better still, their results are always free and provide a wealth of interesting data about the way people think.

Understanding is the first step toward transforming.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Anniversaries three and fourteen

Sunday was my blog-o-versary: My first post on this thing was September 13, 2006. Three years—I’ve had jobs that didn’t last anywhere near that long.

Blogging is still fun for me (which is why I’m still doing it), and while I’ve since branched out into podcasts and even the odd video, I still think of myself primarily as a blogger. It has something to do with the written word, I think.

Over the past three years, as I’ve noted before, I’ve produced a few posts I’ve been proud of, and only a very few I’m not proud of. Sometimes I’ve been surprised where a post ends up, or the way it got there, very different from what I intended when I started typing. Taken together, these posts tell a tale about what I’ve been doing and thinking about over the past three years.

Last week brought another anniversary: Saturday was the fourteenth anniversary of when I arrived in New Zealand as a tourist. Because of that, Nigel and I decided for sure we’d be together, and that I’d have to completely re-organise and reinvent my life. That was the date that the immigration service used to calculate how much time I’d spent in New Zealand, so for years it had a lot of significance because it related to my ability to stay in New Zealand.

Some six weeks after I left New Zealand as a tourist, I was back to stay, and the journey really began. That November date was the one we chose to focus on—and still do. It’s obviously more important than the other anniversaries.

We humans like to mark our progress through life by acknowledging anniversaries, and that’s really all I’m doing. Pausing to remember such things is good. The only bad thing, really, is that there’s always another one around the corner. But, it’s better to be able to have them then not…

Monday, September 14, 2009

When irony came to town

The teabaggers (their nickname for themselves still makes me snicker like an adolescent) descended on Washington, DC for yet another of their anti-government protests. They seem to hold them every other day or so, perhaps rather than working for a living (at least that way they wouldn’t have to pay the taxes they hate so much).

One of the leading wingnut websites declared that ABC News reported two million people were at the protest. In fact, they’d actually reported 40-70,000 (and veteran journalist David Schuster of MSNBC reported that, based on his 20 years of covering protests in DC, there were—at the very most—50,000 people). Did the wingnuts not realise that claims like that can be checked and, once it’s found to be blatantly untrue, they’d look, well, like they have a truth problem?

At the event, irony was thick. As Oznick wrote on The Daily Kos:

“After using Publicly Funded Transportation and Publicly Funded Roads to get to the Publicly Funded sidewalks to walk to the Publicly Funded Parks, at the end of their protest, what did these haters of Government Interference do?

“They threw their rubbish down for the Publicly Funded garbagemen & women of Washington DC to take care of. Carrying home all those thin sheets of Cardboard was obviously the task of someone with a larger work ethic.”

Ouch! Photos accompanying the post document what these self-anointed “patriots” left behind, but one photo was especially funny: It showed an American flag dumped onto a rubbish heap—in direct and clear violation of US Code Title 4, Section 8, which governs how flags no longer suitable for display are to be disposed of. Yeah… patriots… right…

The folks on the far right are great at creating irony. Too bad they’re not bright enough to see it or understand what that means.

Update 15/09/09: The wingnuts have been circulating a photo to “prove” how many teabag protestors were supposedly on the Mall in Washington, DC. One slight problem: The photo is over five years old. The Huffington Post reports on the scam, and how some wingnut sites have corrected their claims, while others seem obsessed with claiming it started as a “leftwing conspiracy” (I wonder what colour the sky is on their planet…). The post also names the origin of the false claim that ABC News “estimated a crowd of 1 to 1.5 million”: The same lobbying company that’s been organising these astroturf protests for months.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Toyland training

The other day on Twitter, one of my “Tweeps” (people I follow/am followed by) asked something about favourite childhood toys. The replies were varied, as you’d expect, and the youngest didn’t necessarily know what the oldest was talking about, or vice versa. A fair bit of explaining was done.

Many of the toys I had were connected to television, mostly through commercials. The 1960s was the era in which advertising to kids took off, and cross-promotions began. Like other kids, I was trained to play consumer.

One of the TV toys I remember most is a Johnny West doll with his Indian friend Chief Cherokee, by Marx. Johnny came with his horse, Thunderbolt, but I never got any more of the accessories, including a horse for Chief Cherokee, so I used to borrow my sister’s horse statue (I can’t remember if I ever asked, and so I don’t know that she knew her horse was being ridden by a plastic Indian doll). This was all very un-PC, of course, but it also wasn’t very interesting: I got sick of them pretty fast.

GI Joe dolls (by Hasbro) were far more interesting. I had them when they were a foot tall and couldn’t “talk”. Unlike Johnny West, you could take their clothes off (and they weren’t anatomically correct), but like the Johnny West dolls, they came with a lot of accessories—the GI Joe ones were definitely more realistic. I liked them a lot. I actually remember having my two GI Joe dolls naked, lying on top of each other, kissing. Kids do the darndest things…

There were two toys I really wanted, thanks to TV commercials, but both turned out to be less than advertised. The first was a large, battery-powered tow truck called Big Bruiser. It seemed so cool on black and white TV ad, but it was a little limited in what it could do. The tow truck broke fairly quickly, but I had the pickup truck and parts for quite awhile afterward.

The other disappointing toy I found out the name of only when I was looking for links for this post: It was a semi-trailer truck operated by a kind of gearshift remote control attached with a cord. It was called Johnny Express and was made by Topper, a company that apparently named all their toys “Johnny” something. My version was a little before the “new, new, new” version in the linked commercial—mine didn’t have headlights or a horn. It also broke pretty quickly and, like Big Bruiser, could only go forward or backward. Not all that interesting. And, since I never got any of the accessories, I had to play with my other toys.

The toys that lasted the longest were all made of metal. Biggest of these were Tonka Trucks (now owned by Hasbro). While they were mostly trucks, one of my sister’s high school boyfriends gave me a black Tonka VW Beetle. Those toys were indestructible and outlasted my childhood (they probably would’ve survived nuclear war…).

Far more numerous were my Matchbox cars by Lesney. Originally solidly made die cast metal, they declined when Mattel introduced Hot Wheels. Matchbox introduced Superfast to compete, but eventually the company went bankrupt and is now owned, ironically, by Mattel—the company that made Hot Wheels.

I had so many Matchbox cars that I had to get a bigger carrying case. I had them into adulthood, but lost them in one of my many moves when I was a young adult. I actually still miss them.

There were other toys I had because of TV (like a “Do Bee” handpuppet and some modelling clay from Romper Room or Play-Doh), but the main toy from television—and the only one I still have—is Gumby and his pony pal, Pokey, too. I spent hours and hours playing with them (and for awhile I also had a rubber Bozo the Clown who was about the same height as Gumby). I had no accessories, no related toys, but I didn’t need them: In the 1960s version of Gumby, he and Pokey often used toys—real toys, including some that I had, too—as if they were real (like driving a car, for example). This really appealed to me. And I also liked that he could “walk into any book” for his adventures.

The storylines were often creaky (at best), the animation primitive by today’s standards, and were generally empty entertainment—and I loved every minute of them.

Gumby was produced by Clokey Productions, which also produced a series called "Davey & Goliath" for the Lutheran church. I used to love that, too and it's reputedly the longest-running church-sponsored programming on television. They were wholesome, Lutheran, and similar enough to Gumby and Pokey that I liked that, too, but I didn't have any toys from it, and wouldn't have wanted any.

In the mid-1980s, I found a VHS tape of Gumby episodes and bought it (I still have it). Then, I found a Gumby watch (I wore it, but it was hot). I still have that, too. An ex-boyfriend gave me a set of Gumby and Pokey puffy stickers, and I think I MAY have them packed away somewhere.

When the subject of toys came up on Twitter, I was looking for information on Gumby and found out that the episodes were available on DVD (seems most anything is now…). The other day, I saw it at a store in Auckland and bought it (buying the combined set was cheaper than buying 1 and 2 separately, you see).

A final toy I wanted because of television arrived much later: The Fright Factory Thingmaker toy by Mattel. In those days, kids could get seriously burned from the things. I got Etch-A-Sketch, Spirograph and other toys, but of all of them, Gumby and Pokey are the only ones that have stayed with me—for more than forty years now.

I could add games, and I did have a few, like Booby Trap, Hands Down, Mousetrap and, when I was quite young, Candyland, but there was a problem: As a young kid I didn’t have many friends (there weren’t many kids around), so I usually didn’t have anyone to play them with (although I do remember setting up Mousetrap and playing with the contraption).

Which is why the toys I could play with by myself were the ones I liked so much. Many of my toys were hand-me-downs, or completely unrelated to television, but the ones I remember the most—and would still own if I could—were all sold to me on television.

I still find most of my toys on TV. I was trained to play consumer, after all.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What Joe Wilson meant to say

I saw the fundraising letter sent out by Joe "The Liar" Wilson in an attempt to make money from his heckling of the president and, well, I couldn't resist skewering it. So below is my mocking joke: I imagined what he'd add to the letter if the universe suddenly forced him to say only the truth. So this is the real letter, and the things in red are my sarcastic additions—or are they?!

Dear friend,

Today, I need your help more than ever before (cuz I really screwed up!). I've been under attack by the liberal left (cuz we all know there’s a conservative left, too…) for months because of my opposition to their policies, especially government-run healthcare (and their attempts at restoring that pesky rule of law). They've run commercials in my home district and flooded my office with phone calls and protestors (damn democracy!!). They've done everything they can to quiet my very vocal opposition to more government interference in our lives (again, damn democracy!!). Now, it's gotten even worse (Man, I hate democracy…).

But I will not stop fighting against their policies that will only lead to more government interference, more spending, and higher deficits (and more of that damned democracy!).

Will you please watch this video and stand with me against liberal attacks by making a donation to my campaign? (Cuz, you know, since I screwed up I’m afraid I’ll get screwed financially, too! Those corporate elites may not want to give me any more money if they think I’m “damaged goods”!).

I know that my voice is serving as the voice for Americans across the country who are tired of irresponsible government programs that have only worsened our situation (yeah, everyone thinks Fox can speak for itself, but I love them!). During the August recess, I listened to thousands of concerned taxpayers (of course I did—we PAID to have them speak!) who are mad at the rate in which liberal Democrats are spending their hard-earned money (thankfully, they haven’t noticed how much of their money we Republicans blew when Bush was around. Whew!). They were shocked distraught by our nation's slide toward extreme liberal big government (hey, even I don’t know what that means!) and the attempts by Democrats to nationalize the auto industry and the banking industry (Psych! They don’t even know that was OUR idea!).

I am also frustrated by this, but watching my Democratic colleagues in Congress scoff at the protests of their constituents (am I ever mad that they ignored the shouting we Republicans paid for!) has made me even more infuriated (see?). Unfortunately I let that emotion get the best of me and I reacted by speaking out during the President's speech. I should not have disrespected the President by responding in that manner (but hey, water under the bridge—there’s money to be raised from it!! LOL).

But I am not sorry for fighting back against the dangerous policies of liberal Democrats (like restoring democracy and the rule of law and fighting my beloved corporate elites). America's working families deserve to have their views represented in Washington (which is why I’m so scared—that would mean electing a Democrat!), and I will do so with civility (as long as I’m talking to Republicans only, of course). But I will not back down (from lying, shouting down Democrats and generally ignoring the people who elected me so I can do what the corporate elites want).

Now, I need your help (I mean money, cuz it’s, like, probably too late to make me smart). Yesterday, the liberals used my outburst as a rallying cry behind my Democratic opponent (damn, those Democrats are clever!). Some of the nation's most liberal online activists have helped him raise over $400,000 in just a few short hours (and from REAL people! Not the corporate elites like us Republicans!! This must not be allowed!!). Many friends and organizations are kindly helping me out (and by "friends" I mean super rich folks, and "organizations" means corporate elites and whacko groups, of course—I’m not dumb enough to rely on REAL people!), but this is your chance to donate directly to my campaign to ensure that every dollar goes toward fighting back against and defeating my Democrat opponent (and keep me rolling in the taxpayer money I love so much—hey, I don’t want to have to work a REAL job, would you?!)

As I said, I will continue to passionately fight against the Democrats' big-government agenda (and work for the Republicans’ big government agenda), but I can't do that if we let the Democrats take this seat (cuz then I’d be unemployed and, if I succeed in Congress, I'll be without health insurance, too).

Will you please visit take a few minutes today to watch this video (cuz I worked real hard trying to look sincere—do you think that outfit makes my ego look big?), and make a donation to my campaign (pretty please with sugar on top)? It will take a lot of work (which I hate), but I know we (by which I mean the corporate elites and Republican fatcats) can match what the liberals poured into my opponent's bank account last night (as long as we use play money, of course), and fight back against the Democrats' unwavering attacks (since WE’RE the party of attacks!).

Please click here now to watch my video and help me continue my fight. Thank you.


Joe Wilson

U.S. Representative

P.S. I will not give up my fight against big-government policies (except the Republican ones, of course), but I need your help to push back against liberal attacks (cuz they’re really scary and so true it hurts). Will you please watch this video and stand with me today by making a donation to my campaign?? (please, please, please don’t make me beg—even more…)

Walking the street: Along Karangahape Road

If Broadway in Newmarket is Auckland’s “premier shopping” district, and most ordinary people visit malls, then Karangahape Road (also known as “K Road”) truly is Auckland’s alternative shopping district. Sometimes the area is called “bohemian”, but I like the word alternative best because it fits on so many levels.

I visited the area and took photos yesterday when I went there to pick up something from a shop on Pitt Street (where I was served by Grumpy McGrump-Grump—their other location is the same, and I now find it funny in a tragic kind of way). I used to pass through the area every day after work when I’d walk from work to meet Nigel. But it’s been years since I was last there on foot.

The street was much cleaner and tidier than the last time I was there, and while some chain retailers have moved into the area, it’s still dominated by shops selling craft-like artwork or housewares, art, various Middle Eastern food, vegetarian and “cruelty-free” food and products, clothes not found anywhere else, and so on. There are no foreign fast food chains located on K Road, unless you count Starbucks, which is kind of refreshing.

The area’s also the home to most of Auckland’s gay nightspots. Pictured above is the Naval and Family Hotel, which has been there for decades. It’s now gay–owned, but, like the rest of K Road, it welcomes everyone. Time was that K Road and the nearby Ponsonby Road were the only areas where GLBT people felt welcome, but times—and society—have changed. Auckland’s GLBT clubs and straight clubs alike pretty much welcome anyone.

I quite like St Kevins Arcade (like most NZ signs, it’s lost its apostrophe), a 1924 version of a shopping mall (the photo below is looking in from K Road). I like old-fashioned places like that; there are a couple others on Queen Street, and Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building is among the best examples.

About halfway in, some stairs (the treads of which all slant downward) leads down and out of the building. There, some steep steps lead on down to Myers Park, a green oasis that hardly anybody uses (which is what makes it a dangerous place after dark). Just as I did years ago, I walked through Myers Park and on into the Auckland CBD before ultimately heading home.

The title for today’s post is sort of reference to the area’s past. In the days before prostitution was decriminalised, hookers would ply their trade on the streets here. Some still do, but legal brothels make that unnecessary. The Prostitute’s Collective is still located on K Road—where else would it be?

It was a dreary, rainy day yesterday, but even so I found K Road to be much more colourful and alive than Broadway, probably because it stuck me as more honest, genuine and downright real. Given a choice, I’d rather that Auckland was more like K Road and less like Broadway, nice as it is. Real counts for a lot with me.

I’m posting more photos to my Flicr Account, including a photo set I made just for various photos from the Auckland region. More photos from my excursion yesterday can be found in that set.

Righting wrongs

In a perfect world, Alan Turing would have been knighted, he would have been elevated to the peerage and he would have been treated as the hero he was. But he didn’t live in a perfect world, and the imperfect one he inhabited ultimately consumed him.

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and is often called “the father of computing” for his work in what we now call “information technology”. But his hero status was the result of his work in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code, a feat that undeniably shortened World War 2 and helped to liberate Europe from fascism. Had this work not succeeded, the war would have turned out very differently, and it’s entirely possible that the British would have had to learn German.

Alan Turing was also gay, something that was a crime in Britain at that time. In 1952, he had a sexual relationship with a man who later broke into Turing’s home. When Turing reported the burglary to police, he was forced to admit the sexual relationship and he was charged, tried and convicted of “gross indecency”, the same charge used against Oscar Wilde a half century earlier.

Turing was given two choices: Accept chemical castration, or go to prison, as Wilde had done. Two years later, Turing killed himself.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has now issued an apology—too little, too late, but the right thing to do. He wrote:
“While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.”
This is an important acknowledgement that what Britain did to thousands of gay men is indefensible. The country in so may other ways tried to advance civilisation, yet this remains a recent stain on its national character. “So on behalf of the British government," Brown's statement continued, "and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”

Official apologies like this are good and appropriate, but alone they don’t change anything—the past is still the past, after all. There’s still much work to do.

Many countries are fiercely anti-gay: Iran executes gay men (and then lies about doing so), anti-gay death squads roam Iraq, officials in countries like Poland and Russia make all sorts of viciously anti-gay pronouncements—and they all get away with it.

The US, of course, has a long way to go: Organised religious bigotry uses the political system to oppress GLBT people, and monstrous laws like “Defense” of Marriage Act, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and bans on same-sex couples’ immigration remain on the books. The religiously-motivated drive to take away rights from GLBT people continues apace.

New Zealand was once a typically anti-gay Western democracy, but in less than a generation became one of the most rational and progressive nations. Even here, there are things to be fixed, like the anti-gay anomaly in adoption law. Britain, too, has made tremendous advances over the past decade or so.

So it’s great to see Britain finally apologise for the wrongs it did to Alan Turing and countless other gay men, but to finally right that great wrong, it must do more. Actions speak louder than words.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fire the liar

At the moment, there’s probably no more despised Republican than Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Congressman who yelled out “you lie” as President Obama delivered a speech to a Joint Session of Congress. Well, the lunatic fringe loves him, of course, but the reality-based community doesn’t.

I now live in a parliamentary democracy, and I’m used to hearing elected representatives shout at the Prime Minister, but one can’t get away with shouting things like “you lie”. But such outbursts are unprecedented in the US Congress: In eight long years, no Democrat EVER shouted abuse at George W. Bush. Democrats didn’t shout insults at Bush the First, they did not shout at Ronald Reagan. For that matter, Republicans didn’t heckle Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.

For the record, Joe Wilson couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. The healthcare reform bill before Congress specifically states that illegal aliens cannot receive government-funded healthcare. Wilson continues to say that the bill will pay for illegal aliens. Joe? YOU lie.

Wilson also published an op-ed column repeating the Republican canard about “death panels”, which is also utter nonsense (and apparently coined by a Republican who lobbies on behalf of the healthcare industries). That’s been thoroughly debunked so, um, Joe? YOU lie.

So, the pro-Wilson reaction from Republican media commentators and performers on TV and radio is not just obviously and completely wrong, but hypocritical. Perpetuating lies and distortions, and doing so in order to prop up a Republican Congressman who repeas lies and distortions means that they’re lying for a liar.

A clear positive affect of all this is that since Wilson’s self-created disgrace, his Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, has raised more than $600,000 from angry Americans. With luck, this will lead to political oblivion for Joe Wilson.

And that’s the truth.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Law Society is wrong

The New Zealand Law Society has recommended that the partial defence of provocation should be kept until Parliament creates a law to replace it. Parliament should completely ignore the Law Society.

The defence is, in essence, a kind of “self-defence” plea in which a murder accused attempts to mitigate the charges by claiming that their victim somehow drove them to commit the murder. It was in the news recently because of a high-profile murder case in which the accused, Clayton Weatherston, said he was provoked into stabbing his girlfriend, Sophie Elliott, 216 times. His ploy failed, as it often does, and politicians—shocked that he was able to try and assassinate the character and impugn the integrity of his victim—made moves to end the charade of this defence.

However, a few shorts weeks before the Weatherston case, the defence was successful: A 69-year-old gay man, Ronald Brown, was beaten with a banjo before the banjo's neck was rammed down his throat. The murderer, Ferdinand Ambach, was found guilty of manslaughter rather murder, using the partial defence of provocation; he claimed Brown made sexual advances toward him.

A couple years (more or less) before that, another gay man was murdered and his killer got off with manslaughter by claiming the victim made unwanted sexual advances—despite the killer being a rentboy.

In fact, the first calls to repeal this defence began after a group of teenage thugs beat a gay man to death in 1964. The youths had set out that night for "spot of queer bashing", but were found not guilty because—of course—they claimed their victim made a sexual advance.

"It's very hard to escape the question from our point of view that while it was just a couple of gays getting whacked nobody was all that concerned, but when a pretty young girl was involved it was somehow different," as Rainbow Wellington spokesperson Tony Simpson put it. He’s absolutely right.

The Law Society apparently believes that there may possibly be cases in which a defence of provocation is legitimate. If so, wouldn’t it make far more sense to change the laws on self-defence, rather than keep on the books a law that’s been used by homophobic killers to avoid conviction for murder? Wouldn’t it be better to make defendants prove self-defence rather than allow them to slander their victims?

This law must go. The Law Society is wrong and Parliament must ignore them. Failure to repeal this law simply has no defence.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


I’m not into numerology or anything else supernatural, so the arrangement of numbers in the date today doesn’t really “mean” anything to me. But I do admire symmetry of numbers, so the fact that the nines line up so nicely today is kinda cool. I guess I’m easily amused.

In any event, I read some stuff about how other cultures find the sequence auspicious in some way or other that I don’t really relate to. And I saw this:

“Any grade-schooler could tell you, for example, that the sum of the two-digits resulting from nine multiplied by any other single-digit number will equal nine. So 9x3=27, and 2+7=9. Multiply nine by any two, three or four-digit number and the sums of those will also break down to nine. For example: 9x62 = 558; 5+5+8=18; 1+8=9.”

My primary school must’ve been deficient because I never learned that. Actually, maybe I was taught it and it didn’t stick—I am and always have been absolutely shocking at anything to do with mathematics (unless I can use my computer or, at least, a calculator; then I can get by).

So while the number sequence has no particular significance for me, metaphysical or otherwise, I nevertheless like the symmetry of it. And whether the next single-digit sequence happens January 01, 2101 or not until January 01, 3001 doesn’t bother me at all: I’m not likely to see either. However, I do expect to be here for 10/10/10—unless my number’s up, of course.

On Broadway (Auckland)

When Auckland’s Newmarket (above) is mentioned, it’s usually along with words like “premier shopping” or “upscale”. The stretch of Broadway between, roughly Khyber Pass Road and somewhat past Remuera Road has some of the toniest shops in all of Auckland—or, in some case, New Zealand.

Yesterday I was heading over to Newmarket, where I’d meet up with Nigel. I decided to head over early to have a bit of a look around.

I’ve said before that Auckland has NO public transport system, by which I mean a rational, sensible, affordable complete way to get around the area. In my case, my only option was two buses, a lot of walking and up to one hour 50 minutes in transit. I had to walk about half a kilometre (all uphill) to the nearest bus stop, but ended up walking a further half kilometre (also uphill) to a bigger one which was in shade and had benches to sit down. The bus ride into Auckland’s CBD ($4.30) was uneventful and got in to Victoria Street about five minute early.

I again walked about a half kilometre (all flat or downhill this time) to catch the next bus out to Newmarket ($1.60). Other bus options would have mean me leaving home earlier and arriving in Newmarket later, which seemed dumb. The ride to Newmarket was a bit harrowing (the driver loved her brakes), and road construction severely slowed progress on Khyber Pass Road. Ended up getting off the bus a few metres from Broadway—arriving on the street about one hour 45 minutes after I left the house (it would take maybe 20 minutes to drive there, depending on a number of factors).

In the nearly fourteen years I’ve lived in New Zealand, I’ve been through Newmarket many times, stopped to go to a store or two a few times, and driven over it dozens of times (the Newmarket viaduct for State Highway One goes over one end of the area, some, what, five storeys up? Probably more).

So this was my first chance to stroll down Broadway, from one end to the other. I passed little shop after little shop nearly all, apparently, expensive. I also noticed that in most cases the only people in these shops were the people who worked there, sometimes sitting around bored, sometimes tidying up, but without shoppers. This was between noon and 1pm, an people were around, just not shopping.

My first real stop was 277 Shopping Centre (pronounced “two double seven”, at left). It’s run by Westfield so, in that sense, like any other mall, only vertical. If I thought the Borders store in Aotea Square was a rabbit’s warren, this mall gives the place a run for its money. The shops were, in many cases, ones I hadn’t seen at any other mall (and included a CD store that was part of a chain that I thought had gone out of business). There was nothing remarkable about 277, really—Albany’s mall is actually nicer, probably because it’s still pretty new. 277 could use a bit of a tidy up—it wasn’t shabby at all, just looking a wee bit tired and a bit worn around the edges.

Back outside, I wandered back up Broadway and stopped in what must be one of the last Dymocks bookstores in New Zealand. I kept going until I got back to the intersection with Khyber Pass Road, and there I saw an odd bas-relief sort of sculpture (right) hidden just of the street in the entryway to a building. I have no idea what it’s about, why it’s there or who put it there (the building didn’t seem to have a name and the tenant directory provided no clues).

On to meet up with Nigel, I was a bit early so I picked up a coffee and headed up to Auckland Domain to sit under the trees (below left) for awhile to wait for him. The view across the playing fields was toward the back of the Auckland (War Memorial) Museum (below right), and kinda sorta facing home. Then, I met up with Nigel and we were away.

I’m glad I had a look around Newmarket because now I don’t have to be curious about it anymore. Can’t say I’ll be likely to head back any time soon, but at least I finally explored it. That, and I found out how close it is to the Auckland Domain—I had no idea. This will probably be useful to know at some point.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Balance, bias and journalism’s delusions, part two

Yesterday, I talked about why I think that “balance” in journalism is illusory. Today I’m going to talk a bit about how journalists’ pursuit of balance is a threat to democracy.

This isn’t some right wing (or worse) rant about how “evil” journalists are. In fact, I respect journalists and the work they do. I just want them to be better.

As a consumer of news, I want the best possible product. As an informed citizen, I want journalists to get the facts right, yes, but also to speak the truth in a way that current journalistic ethics seem to forbid.

The pursuit of balance and objectivity has led journalists to treat all points of view as if they have equal merit and standing, when they clearly do not. For example, yesterday the AP published a story about the healthcare reform “debate” and said, in part: “Unsubstantiated allegations that the legislation would promote euthanasia grabbed headlines.” [emphasis added]. That phrase implies that it might be possible to substantiate the “allegations”, as if the protesters who said it just hadn’t provided their sources.

In fact, one simple word change would have made all the difference: Had they said “unfounded allegations” that would have been factually correct and far less inflammatory than what I called them (“outright, bald-faced, deliberate lies” is the phrase I used elsewhere). This isn’t mere semantics: As the townhall charade was being played out, most of the mainstream newsmedia did little or nothing to point out that much of what was being screamed was simply not true, as if each lunatic conspiracy theory was as important to the debate as, say, questioning how it would be paid for.

I saw some refutations on ABC (US) News’ World News: One day they mildly pointed out that the rightwing charge for that day was incorrect, the next day they pointed out that President Obama was incorrect in saying that AARP had endorsed his plan, as if lunatic claims from the right were intellectually, politically or even morally equivalent to the mistake made by the president, as if the issues had equal weight.

The mainstream newsmedia has been doing this throughout the Obama Presidency so far. Rather than shooting down the “birther” movement as an hysterical conspiracy theory movement based on everything from imaginary nonsense through to deliberate lies (and racism), the newsmedia chose to simply report that it was going on, as if it were a valid "viewpoint".

The rightwing media—Fox Noise, the radio host “he-who-shall-not-be-named” and scores of others—have been actively promoting and distributing the latest conspiracy theories. We expect that. Similarly, the liberal media—MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”, the “Rachel Maddow Show”, Democracy Now!, and publications like The Nation—have been countering the lies and distortions (as well as exposing the links between the “protests” and the corporate elites in the healthcare industries). However, the mainstream, supposedly centrist newsmedia have done little to nothing to end the lunacy.

I know that some argue that this isn’t the job of news reporters, it’s the job of columnists. Nonsense. Each news reporter has an obligation to the profession and a duty to his or her fellow citizens to report facts, including when claims aren’t true (and that’s true whether it’s someone on the left or the right who’s wrong, by the way). In that AP example, a simple word change would make clearer that the “allegation” was utterly without any merit whatsoever—it’s as simple as that.

And this is why I say that journalists’ pursuit of balance is a threat to democracy. By failing to provide citizens with the whole story, by being afraid to call a lie a lie (or an “unfounded allegation”, if you prefer), they are unwittingly helping to advance the truly lunatic, and to create an equal place for it with normal, reality-based political discourse.

Personally, I think there’s more than a bit of bias in this: They would never dream of letting loony leftwing claims or conspiracy theories be treated seriously, so their reluctance to call out the right seems suspicious. I admit that I don’t know why this is. Some would argue it comes from the inherent small “c” conservative mindset and goals of the media conglomerates that own most of the newsmedia. Others would say it’s the logical result of a generation of rightward movement in the body politic: What once was merely moderate is now called “liberal” and what once was liberal is now called “leftist” (often with a modifier in front implying an extreme).

Regardless of why this happens, it must stop. Journalists must take some responsibility for what they help to cause or advance, however inadvertently, and in presenting facts, they must present all of the facts—including calling out the truly crazy.

Update 09/09/09: Today ABC News' Dan Harris reported on the rightwing frenzy against President Obama's speech to schoolchildren, and after a commentator noted that anyone with a video cellphone can turn a story into national news, Harris said "And that's because the mainstream media love a good fight—even if the charges are unfounded." Exactly.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Balance, bias and journalism’s delusions, part one

Yesterday, I said (third item): “I think journalistic ‘balance’ is illusory under the best of circumstances.” I need to explain that further. But it’s a big topic so I’ll do it in two parts. In this part, I explain why “balance” is illusory by highlighting one specific area, then in part two I’ll talk about the wider implications.

“Balance” is illusory because it’s based on another flawed newsmedia tenet, “objectivity”. I believe that humans are incapable of true objectivity because we all have biases and prejudices. The best any journalist can hope for is to acknowledge their biases and work extra hard to be fair. Calling news stories “objective” doesn’t make it so—just look at Fox Noise.

The bigger problem is that “balance” assumes equivalence for all issues, and that’s just nonsense. Yesterday I used the example of newsmedia asking the KKK to comment about civil rights for African Americans—no real journalist would ever contemplate doing anything so stupid because they know there’s no equivalence between civil rights for African Americans and white supremacy.

The newsmedia, however, still feels it must bring in far-right religious figures to provide “balance” in discussions of GLBT civil rights measures, thereby implying equivalence where none exists. Marriage equality is the current example, but they do this with all GLBT issues, like anti-discrimination laws. This implies that human rights for GLBT people are something that fundamentalist religious people have a right to veto, or to urge others to stop, yet supporters of GLBT human rights would never be offered the chance to comment on suppression of rights for fundamentalists. Religious belief and secular matters are separate in one direction only, apparently.

So, because religious conservatives don’t like GLBT people, and don’t want them to have any social or legal recognition, the newsmedia feel that they’re the ones who can “balance” discussion of the GLBT struggle for equality. This is the lazy way out, taken because secular opponents are hard to find: Most of the public opponents who claim to be secular are, in fact, rightwing religionists who are trying to hide the fact. Yet, it’s possible to oppose civil rights for GLBT people, or marriage equality, without resorting to particular religious belief. Personally, I think that any such arguments would be every bit as weak, but at least their foundation wouldn't require belief in a deity or adherence to the doctrine of a subset of believers in that deity.

But I think the problem is bigger than mere naïve journalistic ethics: The newsmedia in general are deathly afraid of offending anyone, but at the same time they crave controversy—vicious fights even—because it sells papers and gets ratings (“if it bleeds, it leads”). Having a calm, rational discussion on GLBT issues, one that doesn’t assume religious belief has equivalence with purely secular matters, may be enlightening, but it won’t bring consumers’ eyes and ears as quickly as an argument will.

It’s hard enough to keep the newsmedia accurate, in this age of shrinking newsroom resources. When the newsmedia embrace an inherently anti-GLBT mindset by assuming equivalence between the secular and the religious—and then put it in a wrapper of “balance” with a ribbon of “objectivity”— what hope can we have for sane public discourse?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Short shots

Last week was so busy that I (clearly) didn’t have time for blogging. When that happens, I inevitably miss out on things I’d otherwise comment on. So, here are a few that slipped by:

Repeal this Laws

Michael Laws, the mayor of Wanganui, was criticised this week for reacting badly to letters from some 11 and 12 year old schoolchildren urging him to reconsider his opposition to spelling the town’s name, correctly, as “Whanganui”. Laws responded: "When your class starts addressing the real issues affecting Maoridom—particularly the appalling rate of child abuse and child murder within Maori society, then I will take the rest of your views seriously."

Pardon?! What do those issues have to do with the spelling of the town’s name? And why on earth would he think it was appropriate to blast kids with his redneck adult views?

I’ve always thought Laws was a dick, and just this proves it. His problem is that he thinks he can treat everyone in the world like they’re a caller to his rightwing talkback radio show. That, and he thinks he’s King of Wanganui.

Stories like this always bring out the rednecks and racists to pontificate and impart their infinite and pure knowledge of everything that’s wrong with Maori. Those are the people who love Michael Laws. New Zealand can do without both.

Sunday, money Sunday

Readers of the Manawatu Standard—as well as some folks from other parts of the country—sent the paper letters supporting the owner of three local Mitre 10 hardware stores who refuses to open his stores on Sunday. He claims that, while he’s religious, the issue is fast-paced modern life: "It's go, go. We have no time just to go and switch off anymore."

Not everyone shares that view, since small communities like that often have no similar place to shop. I know what they mean: When we lived in a small town, many local shops were closed on Sundays (some were closed all weekend). DIY projects are usually done on the weekend, and when you need a part you need it right then. So, we’d drive to bigger towns to do our shopping there. The local business lost out, not us.

Personally, I don’t care about this guy, his opinions or those of his supporters since they don’t affect me. What I find fascinating is how his supporters say things like “it is often the lower-paid employees who end up giving up the weekends to work and miss out on family time”. The right always argues that workers can negotiate with their employers about whether they’ll work on weekends or holidays, but this sentiment seems to suggest that they know such negotiation isn’t realistic. Cognitive dissonance?

WaPo is sorry—sort of

Last week, the Washington Post ran a PR puffery piece on the head of the National Organisation for Opposite Marriage, a profile so fawning and downright sycophantic that I couldn’t even read the whole thing. Others, however, did, and the writer was deservedly roasted in blogs and emails.

The paper’s ombudsman has now admitted some of the (many, many) shortcomings in the story. It’s not exactly an apology, but it’s about as close as most newspapers will go.

The Washington Post has been drifting steadily rightward for most of the past decade, and I just thought this PR piece was in keeping with their current editorial slant. Apparently, "The lesson is to always, in some way, represent the other side." You’d think they wouldn’t need that “lesson” considering the media’s obsession with providing “balance” on any favourable story about GLBT people. Or did they not realise they should “balance” portrayals of the far right?

This is a topic in itself, but I think journalistic “balance” is illusory under the best of circumstances. The idea that fundamental human rights for GLBT people has to be “balanced” by the opinions of the right offends me. Do they insist on “balancing” discussions of religious people by talking to atheists? Do they insist on “balancing” discussions of African American civil rights with the opinions of a representative of the KKK?

Still, I suppose that’s better than allowing the far right to froth on unchallenged, as the WaPo story did, so I can tolerate their obsession with “balance”. I just hope the WaPo has really learned their lesson.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Auckland View: Birkenhead Shops

Birkenhead shops, around 2:30pm Friday afternoon, 4 September 2009. Our supermarket, banks and post office are all located in this general area, so I visit it more than any commercial area in Auckland. Birkenhead is a suburb (“neighbourhood” in Chicago language) of North Shore City.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Driving in New Zealand

This video says what I’ve been saying for years about driving in New Zealand: Really, it’s not that hard!!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Truth through humour

There’s more than one way to make a point, and humour is one not used enough. As I watched this video, I thought to myself, “who says Americans don’t ‘get’ irony?”—and then I heard the woman who started talking at about 3:30, and I remembered why people say that. Sigh!