Thursday, May 27, 2010

National's Jobs Plan

This video from the New Zealand Labour Party presents an alternate view of what National’s 2010 budget could lead to. It’s worst-case scenario mixed with projection from a partisan viewpoint—but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Time will tell on some of this, but the budget definitely doesn’t favour ordinary New Zealanders.

In any case, I’m glad to see the party hitting back with some Internet-friendly messaging. The party is much better at all this now than it was even a couple years ago, but that’s another topic altogether.

A sign of disbelief

A Tauranga church has been warned by DB Breweries that their religious-slogan billboards that mimic those of the brewery’s Tui brand are infringing on the brewery's copyright. The billboards feature a statement on a black box on the left side, and “Yeah, right.” on the right side. The main difference between the two signs is that the church replaced the Tui logo with its own.

The church’s preacher said that replacing the Tui logo meant it wasn’t the same and didn’t infringe on DB Breweries or its Tui brand. Apparently, he is unaware that look and feel is part of what a logo is and can be trademarked.

Still, he offered to go on national TV to apologise—because nothing says “I’m really, truly sorry” quite like gaining national exposure for a church most New Zealanders would otherwise never hear of. What, exactly, was DB supposed to get out of that?

Proving adept at making jokes, the preacher went on, "I think it shows the church has a sense of humour but when it comes to breweries, they just care about making money." Because no one would ever think a church was just “about making money” like, for example, by offering to go on national TV to “apologise” while gaining marketing exposure. Incidentally, since DB came up with the campaign in the first place, it kind of proves that they have a sense of humour. More importantly, they also have the law on their side.

It seems pretty obvious that the preacher is trying to spin this for his own advantage. He claimed that DB called only after the church posted a sign saying, “Atheists have nothing to worry about! Yeah Right.” The preacher was trying to imply it was that particular sign at issue. However, it’s documented that DB said in 2004 that the church’s signs were copyright infringement.

Still, if this sign did, in fact, prove to be a sort of last straw, it would be deserved: It’s one thing to promote one’s own religious beliefs (as in "Jesus was just a man. Yeah Right."), and something completely different—and completely wrong—to denigrate other people’s beliefs on religion. The church’s sign was the moral equivalent of saying “Jews have nothing to worry about” or Muslims or Catholics. You could say they took the joke too far.

Personally, I find the preacher’s claims of innocence to be laughable. If it wasn’t for the Tui billboard campaign, the church would never have thought of doing them, and they wouldn’t have been effective—the church depended on DB establishing the image for it to resonate. They simply had to know they were copying a corporate marketing campaign and one day they could be held to account.

Will the preacher admit the church was wrong? Will they understand that their latest sign went a bit too far? Yeah, right.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Flying high

Auckland International Airport is the ninth-best in the world, and the best in the region, according to an annual survey of travellers by Skytrax. Auckland, which moves up one place this year, was the only airport from the region, and one of only four from outside of Asia, to make the top ten.

Last year, Seoul Incheon was the best in the world, but this year Singapore’s Changi airport took the crown. Brisbane was the highest-ranking Australian airport at 18. No other Australian airports made the top 25. The only US airport to make the top 25 was San Francisco, at number 20.

Winners of the top 25 airports in the World Airport Awards for 2010 are: 1. Singapore, 2. Seoul Incheon, 3. Hong Kong, 4. Munich, 5. Kuala Lumpur, 6. Zurich, 7. Amsterdam, 8. Beijing, 9. Auckland, 10. Bangkok, 11. Vancouver, 12. Kansai, 13. Centrair Nagoya, 14. Helsinki, 15. Copenhagen, 16. Frankfurt Main, 17. Tokyo Narita, 18. Brisbane, 19. Cape Town, 20. San Francisco, 21. London Heathrow, 22. Istanbul, 23. Bahrain, 24. Hamburg, 25. Vienna.

We’re STILL Number Four!

Mercer’s Quality of Living worldwide city rankings 2010 has been released and Auckland is still ranked fourth in the world for cities’ quality of living, again tied with Vancouver. Sydney, the highest ranked Australian city, was at number ten.

This year Mercer also ranked “Eco-Cities”, and Auckland ranked only 13th-equal. Wellington, however, was ranked 5th (it was ranked 12th for quality of life). Adelaide, at 7, was the highest-ranked Australian “Eco-city”; Sydney didn’t make the top 50. The criteria for this were: “Water availability, water potability, waste removal, sewage, air pollution and traffic congestion”. That last one gets Auckland every time.

Among American cities, Honolulu (at 31) was the highest ranked US city for quality of living, followed by San Francisco (32) and Boston (37). Minneapolis was the highest ranked US “Eco-city” (6th place). Pittsburgh was tied with Auckland for 13th place among the world’s “Eco-cities”.

Mercer conducts an annual Quality of Life Survey “to help governments and multi-national companies compensate employees fairly when placing them on international assignments.” In other words, this is a sort of “expat’s love list”.

Like last year, I take these rankings at face value. I’m also still pleased that Auckland rates better than any Australian city for quality of living, and that New Zealand still has two cities in the top twelve, while Australia has only one. Again. Even among “Eco-cities”, New Zealand has a higher-ranking city that Australia has. Not there’s competition or anything.

The top-ten cities in the world for 2010 are basically the same as last year:
1. Vienna (Austria)
2. Zurich (Switzerland)
3. Geneva (Switzerland)
4. Auckland (New Zealand) and Vancouver (Canada)
6. Dusseldorf (Germany)
7. Frankfurt (Germany) and Munich (Germany)
9. Bern (Switzerland)
10. Sydney (Australia)

The rankings in the Asia-Pacific region are:
1. Auckland (4th overall)
2. Sydney (10th)
3. Wellington (12th)
4. Melbourne (18th)
5. Perth (21st)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A question of taste

Ever since I started going to Martha’s Backyard, the Auckland store that sells imported American products (especially junk food), I’ve been puzzled about the taste of those products, how they sometimes differ so much from what I remember. I even wrote a post about some of those differences.

Since then, I’ve thought that in some cases the formulations or manufacturing processes may have changed, or maybe I just don’t remember them correctly. Either or both may be true in some cases, but I’ve come to think that the reason for the disconnect is that I’ve changed, and New Zealand is a big part of that.

Our tastes change over time. For example, as a child we may have liked some sickly-sweet soft drink that we now find repulsive. Or, we’ve grown to love something we once thought disgusting, like coffee or dark chocolate. Okay, maybe those examples say more about me, but you get the point.

I arrived in New Zealand with my 1995 American tastes and found that I couldn’t get many of the food products I was used to. As any expat would do, I adapted, using local equivalents or just forgetting about things I once took for granted. In either case, I became used to New Zealand products and tastes that are very different from those in America.

For example, soft drinks in New Zealand have sugar, not high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—and that includes locally-made American brands. In fact, you’d have to look hard to find products with HFCS in them. Sugar starts out cheaper, and corn isn’t subsidised here as it is in the US. In general, NZ-made food products are less sweet or fatty than American products (of course there are exceptions). But they also tend to be far less processed, with the fully- or nearly fully-prepared, packaged meals far less common here.

The difference with HFCS may be mainly one of cost, but much of the rest can be accounted for by the fact that New Zealand is a small country and it takes maybe a day for a product to get from factory to store (or distribution centre, at least). In the US, a product can take days or weeks to reach grocery store shelves. Preservatives and other additives make that practical in the US.

Kiwis, for all the media worry about the declining rate of consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, appear to me to cook more and from generally fresher ingredients than do Americans. I know that our own meals never come from a packet merely needing to be heated up (although, we do probably eat too many takeaway meals).

My point is that I’ve grown used to fresher products, and I don’t like the taste of processed food anymore. I also don’t like things as sweet as I used to. All of which explains, at least in part, why the taste of the American products is so jarring to me.

Finally on the subject of taste, a local food manufacturer is now producing Doritos here in NZ. As part of my second haul at Martha’s, I bought a little snack pack of the “Nacho Cheese” flavour of the American original. The NZ version of that flavour tastes nothing like the American but, in fact, tastes a bit like nachos with cheese—imagine that!—complete with a hint of salsa taste. The NZ flavour called “Cheese Supreme” tastes like the American “Nacho Cheese”. That’s just one small indication of how New Zealand tastes really are different.

I suppose the fact that I’m so interested in junk food probably speaks volumes about my own tastes—or lack thereof.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Oh, just great

A headline on the NZ Herald site: “Kiwis urged to brace for a weather bomb”. Apparently, we’re do for one of the “bigger weather events” in awhile with winds up to 90kph and particularly heavy rains in some areas. Wonderful.

So, it could be a very messy Monday morning.

Update: This ended up being nothing more than a common rainstorm in Auckland, not like the winter storm three years ago or even the one two years ago. Other parts of the country have faired much worse, however.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Arizona’s war on America

The Arizona state senator who authored the state’s racist “papers please” anti-hispanic immigrant law has revealed the next step in his war on the US Constitution. In an email, Republican Russell Pearce wrote: “I also intend to push for an Arizona bill that would refuse to accept or issue a birth certificate that recognizes citizenship to those born to illegal aliens, unless one parent is a citizen."

The problem for Pearce and his fellow wingnuts is the US Constitution: The 14th Amendment states with crystal clarity in Section 1:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…”

In other words, Pearce’s plan is even more blatantly unconstitutional than his first racist law. Not that this bothers Republicans or the teabaggers, who have convinced themselves that irrespective of numerous court rulings on this subject, the amendment doesn’t mean what it says.

US Representative Duncan D. Hunter, a Republican who succeeded his father as the representative from the San Diego area of California, said on April 28 that he would support deporting children who are natural-born American citizens if they’re children of illegal aliens—a US Congressman, who’s sworn an oath to uphold the US Constitution, would support deporting children who are US citizens.

Backpedalling furiously from his incredibly stupid remark, Hunter’s spokesperson told the Associated Press, “US-born children of illegal immigrants should stay with their parents unless there is a legal guardian who could take care of them." So, if the illegal immigrant parents are deported, the US citizen child would be deported, too, unless there’s a “legal guardian” they can stay with in the US.

Duncan can cry all he wants, but the fact remains that the 14th Amendment, and subsequent court rulings based on it, makes his desire to deport child US citizens who are the children of illegal immigrants completely illegal. But he and other Republicans and teabaggers have a plan: They want to pass a law stating that automatic citizenship granted by the 14th amendment doesn’t apply to children in the country illegally. That, too, would probably be unconstitutional.

They can always try to amend the US constitution to accomplish their goal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they succeeded. The attempt would become something to be debated, but it wouldn’t be unique. For example, from January 1, 2006, New Zealand changed its laws and no longer grants automatic citizenship to children born in New Zealand unless their parents are permanent residents or citizens.

But unless there’s a change in law or an amendment to the US Constitution, all children born in the US are automatically US citizens, regardless of the status of their parents, and no matter what the wingnuts think. So, Duncan cannot deport them and Pearce cannot refuse to register their births (in fact, Arizona has no say in the matter at all, and Pearce can do nothing in state law to change that).

US Immigration—legal and not—is a complex issue, one desperately in need of calm and rational discussion and debate. The desire to limit citizenship to people with a permanent connection to the US, such as being born to US citizens and permanent residents, is not inherently racist, even if the motivation for it usually is.

But it doesn’t help achieve rational debate when Republican and teabagger politicians grandstand and display contempt for the US Constitution and the rule of law. If they’re allowed to get away with that on this issue, where will it stop?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Change the government

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English has indicated that the National Party is looking into what government-owned assets it might sell off. This has long been National Party policy, so it’s nothing new. But coming right after the most anti-ordinary New Zealander budget in my memory, it’s a bitter far-right pill to swallow.

English, who as party leader led his party to its biggest election loss in many, many years, declared: ''It seems to me, and I have checked this, that there is a strong demand among the mums and dads for a Kiwi investment model and if we put product into the market people would buy it. Would I be right about that?''

You’d be completely wrong, Bill, and you damn well know it.

If Bill English gets his way, National will sell everything that’s not nailed down—and many things that are—to the highest foreign bidder. It’s simply dishonest—a lie in plain terms—to suggest otherwise.

Kiwibank would be scooped up by the Aussies who already own ALL of our largest banks. KiwiRail would be bought by some foreign owner with no interest in or concern for ordinary New Zealanders (look at what a disaster rail became under American ownership and you’ll see what a sold-off KiwiRail would become if Bill English and National get their way).

The National Party has nothing but contempt for ordinary New Zealanders. That’s why their budget and tax cuts look out only for the most well-off and leaves everyone else to fend for themselves. That’s why they want to sell-off state owned assets.

We can stop this. We can make sure that the New Zealand government focuses on ordinary, hard working New Zealanders and not the corporate elites. We can ensure that Government works for all New Zealanders and not just the richest people or biggest corporations. To do that, we have but one task: Change the government.

American fascists

The teabaggers are fascists—there, I said it! The one thing that most centre-left analysts have been reluctant to say is the most obvious: The teabagger movement is entirely fascist, and we’re lying if we say otherwise.

Teabaggers (“libertarians”), claim to want “limited government,” but what they really want is absolutely no controls on corporations. Put another way, corporations should be able to do whatever they want, to whomever they want (which is why neo-fascist Rand Paul declared that businesses should be able to discriminate against anyone they want to; this is nothing new—it’s long-established libertarian philosophy).

And now the teabaggers want to repeal the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution. That amendment provides for the direct election of US Senators by the people. In the old days, they were selected by corrupt political bosses who did whatever big business told them to do. The 17th Amendment changed all that.

So, given the fact that most “tea party” groups are actually completely funded by corporate lobbying firms, and given that the teabagger movement is now arguing almost exclusively for things that will benefit corporations, it has become a fully fascist movement. And, unlike some VERY well-paid performers on the Fox “all the wingnut propaganda, all the time” channel, I actually know what fascism means and what it is.

Is it too late for America to stop them?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Something positive

Okay, okay, here's something completely positive and totally non-rant-y. Daniel Radcliffe did a PSA for The Trevor Project, the USA's leading national organisation focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. It’s a very worthwhile organisation. This video was released March 31, but was posted today at Joe.My.God., where I saw it for the first time (though I've posted the official version).

One thing I find interesting is that today’s 18 year olds were nine when the first “Harry Potter” film was released. That means that today’s teenagers grew up with the films, and with Daniel Radcliffe. For some teens, he’d be a perfect person to try and reach LGBTQ youth.

All of which goes to show that there really are some people in this world doing good things.

Comic relief

I’ve been pretty blistering in some of my posts the past few days, so it’s time for a little laughter: Yet another “family values” Republican has fallen in a sex scandal.

Eight-term Republican US Representative Mark Souder, who described himself as an “ultra conservative” has resigned after an extramarital affair with a staff member. To use his own language, he committed adultery. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

There are those, of course, who would judge me harshly for my schadenfreude at the fall of people like Souder but, quite frankly, I couldn’t care less. These fallen hypocrites have been waging a holy war on ordinary Americans—GLBT Americans in particular. They’re trying to impose their extremist christianist ideology on everyone and create a theocracy in America. So when they fall from power committing the very “sins” they rail against, I can’t help but laugh at them.

Souder was, as they say, “a piece of work”. A rabidly anti-gay politician, he voted against every piece of pro-gay legislation and in favour of every anti-gay bill. He compared gay people to alcoholics, adding, “I believe [people] can have a propensity to be homosexual. But I believe that it's wrong and it's controllable. That is a fundamental, biblically based view that doesn't leave a lot of room or comfortability [sic] in a society where they don't want you to have absolutes.” He also declared that “there just isn't much room to compromise” on any GLBT rights issue.

In 2003, he got a 100% rating from a leading christianist theocratic organisation, and in 2006 he got 0% on church-state separation issues—meaning he voted against separation of church and state. He was—laughingly ironically—also a loud proponent of “abstinence” education—do as he says, not as he does, apparently. Talking Points Memo’s YouTube Channel has a video of Souder and his mistress talking about abstinence education.

I’m delighted Souder will be out of Congress. He did evil to advance his religion, and he deserves his disgrace. America will be better off without him polluting Congress. Maybe now he can reform himself and do some good in the world, or maybe put his religion into action feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, those sorts of things.

However, I have a lot of sympathy for his wife and children who will be shamed (and probably shunned) because of Souder’s sexcapades. I hope they have a support network to help them deal with what Souder has done to them.

So, just as I do with every other fallen “family values” hypocrite, I laugh at Souder. But the funniest thing is that even amidst my schadenfreude over his fall, I’m still showing him far more compassion and humanity than he ever showed to GLBT Americans. And that is merely another of his sins.

Tip o' the Hat to Joe.My.God., where I found a couple of the links above.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pandering Republicans

Two Republican Governors are pandering to the religious extremists that run their party. One is doing it to prepare a presidential campaign, the other, because she’s probably just stupid.

Minnesota’s Republican Governor, Tim Pawlenty, followed through on his threat and vetoed his state’s recently passed “death rights” bill for same-sex couples. The law would have allowed a surviving partner to make funeral arrangements for the deceased partner, and the right to sue for wrongful death.

Pawlenty said he was doing so because of his exclusive support for “traditional marriage” and that the measure was addressing a “non-existent problem”. In his opinion, if same-sex couples want some weak approximation of the protections he vetoed, why they can always spend hundreds of dollars on legal fees and hope that if something happens the deceased’s family doesn’t swoop in and invalidate those documents—it only takes a homophobic judge to do that, and that’s easy enough to find. If Pawlenty left his megachurch from time to time and talked to real people, not just those he’s pandering to, he might know what a crock he’s spouting.

In his veto message, Pawlenty preached: “Marriage—as defined as between a man and a woman—should remain elevated in our society at a special level, as it traditionally has been. I oppose efforts to treat domestic relationships as the equivalent of traditional marriage.” He pontificated that a “surviving domestic partner” should not be “afforded the same legal recognition” as a legally wedded spouse

We’re talking about the right to make funeral arrangements—not marriage, not civil unions, not any kind of legal recognition whatsoever—just the right to make funeral arrangements for one’s partner! What kind of heartless bastard would kick people in the gut when they’re at their lowest? Tim Pawlenty is that kind of heartless bastard (just like another Republican governor was).

The mainstream newsmedia used to portray Pawlenty as a “moderate”. He’s not. Instead, Pawlenty is either just another radical-right extremist Republican, or a self-aggrandising opportunist who will use anyone and say or do anything to get power, which is even worse.

Meanwhile Hawaii—the state that caused the frenzy to outlaw legal recognition of same-sex relationships when it looked like that state’s courts were about to legalise same-sex marriage—has a similar Republican governor problem. Linda Lingle has said she “may” (read, she absolutely will) veto a civil unions bill in that state. Her party’s convention yesterday puffed up their chests and passed a resolution demanding that she do so, arguing that while people are free to “choose” their own “lifestyles”, "their choices [sic] may not always be good for all of society." If Lingle does veto the bill, it’ll prove that she’s stupid, and interested only in doing what the religious extremists in her state demand, not in doing her job on behalf of all the people of Hawaii.

Both Minnesota and Hawaii are proving, as I’ve always said, that Republicans were lying when they said they pushed Proposition 8 and similar measures not because the party was anti-gay, but merely because the measures were “pro-marriage”. The Republican Party is anti-gay to its very core.

And all of this news breaks on the sixth anniversary of the day on which Massachusetts became the first state in the US with same-sex marriage—not civil unions, not mere funeral rights, but full marriage equality. The state still exists and the world hasn’t ended, despite christianists’ predictions to the contrary. In fact, the state has the lowest divorce rates in the US. Seems to me they’re doing something right.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why I’m closing the Facebook

Last Friday, I wrote about the sudden flurry of media coverage about Facebook’s contempt for personal privacy. I pointed out that on Facebook there’s really no such thing as privacy and those that can’t deal with that “shouldn’t be on Facebook”.

I’ve had a complete change of heart.

First, and probably most importantly, I’ve done more extensive reading. That Columbia Journalism Review article I linked to last week in turn linked to a piece on Wired by Ryan Singel: “Facebook’s Gone Rogue; It’s Time for an Open Alternative”. It’s a blistering look at what Facebook has done and become, and the view isn’t pretty.

First, Facebook drew people in with promises of privacy. Then, when its own needs changed (chiefly, to make money), they completely changed their privacy policies making nearly everything public by default. That led to the bewildering 50 settings in 170 different options that Facebook now has to control some privacy settings.

I say “some” because there are many things that are not only public by default, there’s nothing you can do about it. Facebook may also have broken US federal wiretap laws by censoring private messages between members. Add up all their anti-privacy behaviour, and on May 5 some 14 privacy groups filed an unfair trade complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission.

I first became concerned about their rogue behaviour when they suddenly announced that everything you posted on Facebook—every photo, every video—would become the property of Facebook, your own copyright be damned. The public fury was specific and angry enough that Facebook backed down, but I deleted all my own content because Facebook hinted they might still steal your content some day (one of the things I’d posted was my podcast show art, and there ain’t no way in hell I’m letting them have that).

Then recently a friend told me about receiving an email asking to link various email addresses together—personal, work, others, all listed out—to make it “easier” to interact with Facebook. Trouble is, my friend had never given those email addresses to Facebook or to the third party that now wanted to use them.

So, you’re thinking, it was a trojan or virus, right? Wrong: It was Facebook. What most people don’t know is that if ANY of your friends use one of those stupid applications like “What kind of cheese are you?” they give access to that application not only for their own private information, they give access to the private information of everyone they’re friends with.

And that’s the problem with Facebook: There are no options, there is no control. I can’t control who sees my profile (much of which is public with no other choice); I can’t be sure they won’t steal the rights to any photos I might post; There’s also far too much information that can’t be restricted to friends only.

So, over the weekend I spent an hour or so laboriously going through the privacy settings and setting them to the highest possible settings: Visible to me only. I deleted all my schools, my hometown, hid my birthday completely, my relationship status—in short, everything that makes the profile about me. And I’m not done: There are a few things I left temporarily visible to “friends only” so I can explain what I’m up to, but eventually I’ll reset many of those, too. I also deleted the link to Facebook among my links on this blog.

Why not quit Facebook altogether? Because at the moment, there’s no alternative—which is precisely why Facebook gets away with their contempt for their members (yes, MySpace still exists, but it’s mostly musicians now and membership numbers have declined sharply since Rupert Murdoch bought it).

Ryan Singel’s Wired article talked about the need for an open, distributed alternative and proposes a way that might work. One approach along those lines is being developed under the name Diaspora, which calls itself “the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network”. Whatever emerges as the alternative will probably be something like that.

Which brings this back to privacy. People ought to have a reasonable expectation of privacy at most times—even on the Internet. On Facebook or its eventual descendants, that means you should be able to restrict everything to people you actually know, and not have it open to the world; it means your content should be unquestionably your content, and you should have complete control over who can see or use it; it means that if you “Like” something, you don’t have to tell everyone in the world about it. In other words, the user should have control over their own information and online identity, not a company with a complete disregard for privacy.

In the Internet Age, it’s far too easy to unwittingly surrender one’s privacy. Facebook’s great sin is that it has forced members to do so by default, while making it impossible to have any real control over one’s privacy.

And that’s why I’m slowly closing the Facebook.

GOP’s descent into madness

The US Republican Party is quickly sliding off the edge (of sanity, of reality, the planet…). Their Congressional caucus routinely opposes everything the Democrats and Obama Administration propose—even when they’re Republican ideas—for no reason other than to oppose everything that the Democrats and Obama Administration do or say. Even when it’s Republican.

First the party was saddled with christianist extremists trying to impose an American christianist Taleban regime, then they had the “something-for-nothing” teabagger extremists pushing the interests of corporate elites. Now, it’s war criminals as their candidates. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the party.

Writing on The Daily Beast, Benjamin Sarlin details the stories of two Republican Congressional candidates who committed war crimes in Iraq, but who escaped prosecution and then became the focus of far-right adulation.

One Republican candidate killed two unarmed Iraqi detainees, emptying his gun into their bodies, shooting 50-60 times. Then he placed a propaganda sign on their corpses. And this criminal is not only proud of his crime, he added: “The idea of people being prosecuted for doing their jobs in what is in fact a war—it struck me that members of Congress were being disingenuous. What our men and women were doing in enhanced interrogations was not torture…”

The other Republican candidate apprehended an Iraqi policeman he thought was planning an ambush. He stood and watched as his men beat the policeman, then he fired a shot by the Iraqi’s head to get him to "talk". The Republican says this torture—for that’s what it was—“saved lives”, but no evidence of a “plot” was ever found. Still, his crimes make him “a decorated war hero who’s served with distinction” to the former half-term Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who, of course, endorsed him (as Keith Olbermann so rightly says of her, “that woman is an idiot.”)

So, this is the face of the new Republican Party: Religious extremists pushing for a far-right christianist theocracy in America, far-right pseudo-libertarians pushing for a corporate takeover of America, and war criminals running for Congress. And this party actually believes that people should vote for them, rather than against them?!

The Democratic Party is far—very far—from perfect, but they have one overriding virtue: They’re not Republicans. That, and the US electoral system, makes them the only party that in most of the US has a realistic chance of defeating Republicans. It’s the defeat of Republicans that matters, though, not the election of Democrats. But that, of course, is another topic altogether.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why I won’t consider voting for Republicans

In this video, President Obama pretty well sums up why I wouldn’t even consider voting for a Republican for Congress. In my case, that’s easy because the Democratic candidates for US Senator and US Representative I get to vote for are really good. As an expat, I get to vote for US Senator and US Representative for the place I was last registered to vote. I’ll be proud to vote, too—for Democrats.

Dickhead of the Week: Tim Pawlenty

I’ve been pretty consistent about calling-out politicians when they’re being complete dickheads about GLBT people. Minnesota’s Republican Governor, Tim Pawlenty, wins the Dickhead of the Week award for promising to veto a Minnesota state law to allow gay people to make funeral arrangements for their deceased partner, and to sue in the case of wrongful death of their partner.

If this sounds familiar, Rhode Island’s dickhead Republican Governor, Donald Carcieri, vetoed a similar law in that state in late 2009 (the state legislature easily over-rode Carcieri’s veto). At the time, I called him a “heartless bastard” (because he is), but his veto was motivated by his far rightwing, extremist Roman Catholicism.

Unlike Carcieri, Pawlenty has no ready-made excuse. Instead, he merely claimed it was “unnecessary”. Pawlenty knows damn well that’s nonsense, so he’s also a liar. All married couples—and gay people can’t get married in Minnesota—get this right automatically, no questions asked. Gay couples, Pawlenty claimed, can get this right by drawing up wills—which can’t give the surviving partner the right to sue.

Many gay people in America are estranged from their families, and gay couples often aren’t designated as each other’s “next of kin” as married partners are automatically. So, the blood family of the deceased can swoop in and take over all decisions on what happens to the deceased. It’s practically impossible that this could happen to a married couple. How many times do I have to keep repeating this? Gay people in America are NOT equal to their heterosexual family members.

Tim Pawlenty knows all this. He’s lying about the lack of need for this bill because he’s running for president in 2012 and he needs to establish his extremist credentials among the frothing christianists who now control the Republican Party. Being wrong about this issue is one thing. Lying about it makes it worse. But lying about and using it for political advantage makes Tim Pawlenty a total dickhead.

Tip o’ the Hat to Joe.My.God., where I first read about this.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Facebook and privacy

Why is anyone surprised that Facebook can’t protect privacy?

Facebook's "privacy" statement has 5,380 words, while the US Constitution has only 4,543 words. Facebook's "privacy" FAQ has 45,000 words. According to the New York Times, "To manage your privacy on Facebook, you will need to navigate through 50 settings with more than 170 options."

Facebook is the equivalent of leaving your personal journal lying around (or other modern equivalent). There is no privacy. If you can’t deal with that, you shouldn’t be on Facebook. So: Why is anyone surprised that Facebook can’t protect privacy?

Update 15/05/10: The Columbia Journalism Review published a tidy summation of all this sudden interest in Facebook’s disdain for privacy. The article calls Facebook “a corporation run amok”, and I can’t disagree with that assessment.

A Tip o’ the Hat to veteran journalist Rex Wockner who sent out the links to both articles I've linked to (I blame my cold for forgetting to credit him yesterday).

The genuine Cold Colossal

I have a cold, and it’s the first one I’ve had since June last year. I know that because I did a search on my blog. If I had another cold since then, I didn’t mention it, and I’m sure I would have, so I’m guessing I didn’t have another.

This cold began yesterday and reached maturity today. This only matters because, first, it makes me not really feel like doing much of anything (including writing a post yesterday). It also means I'm likely to make even less sense today than usual, so cautious blogging is in order.

Apologies to Ogden Nash, whose memorialised cold was, apparently, far worse than the one inflicting itself on me right now.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I can’t resist: I TOLD you so!

A new report from the OECD has found that New Zealanders have the second-lowest total tax burden among the 30 richest countries in the world. New Zealand’s “tax wedge” (the difference between one’s pay and how much one takes home) was half the OECD average; only Mexico was lower.

Among the differences with other OECD nations was that many had compulsory superannuation and social security taxes on top of income taxes. So, while other countries may have lower tax rates, New Zealanders’ tax burden is lower.

The National Party, currently leading the New Zealand Government, constantly goes on and on about what’s called the “headline tax rate,” which looks merely at rates. But when the tax wedge is taken into account, New Zealand taxpayers have it far better than do Australians—despite National Party propaganda.

As Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman put it, "With the second lowest tax wedge in the OECD, it is hard to justify borrowing to pay for tax cuts at the top."

So: Why, exactly, does National plan to borrow money to fund tax cuts for the rich? Why does National plan on raising GST, which will impact poor and working people the hardest? Why doesn’t National tell the truth?

They’ll have a hard time lying their way out of this one, but they’ll certainly try. Hopefully, they won’t get away with it anymore.

The five countries with the highest tax burden: Belgium (55.2%), Hungary (53.4%), Germany (50.9%), France (49.2%) and Austria (47.9

The five countries with the lowest tax burden: Iceland (28.3%), Australia (26.7%), South Korea (19.7%), New Zealand (18.4%) and Mexico (15.3%).

Ruling Britannia

The news coverage of the ascendency of David Cameron as the next British Prime Minster has been mixed. One thing that’s remained fairly constant among establishment newsmedia in Britain and the US is the suspicion that a coalition government cannot last. But, are they right?

Cameron says he wants a full coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which is sensible since Cameron lacks a majority of seats in Parliament. It’s to his advantage to have the LibDems bound to the Tories so they don’t walk over the first disagreement. The LibDems will need to be very careful.

First, if the government manages to last for a full term, the LibDems risk being reduced to irrelevancy. The New Zealand experience has been that minor parties in a coalition tend to disappear—literally or figuratively. If they become too closely identified with the government, voters will often ignore the minor parties in the election.

But another big issue for the LibDems is, can they really trust the Tories? The Conservative Party has steadfastly refused to back proportional representation or any other electoral reform. They know that Duverger's Law suggests that a First Past the Post system like Britain’s tends to favour a two-party system, while proportional representation tends to favour a multi-party system. While the law isn’t absolute, there’s enough common belief in it to make major parties resist proportional representation.

The UK’s Labour Party also wasn’t a fan of proportional representation, but agreed to it to try and win a coalition with the LibDems. Cameron responded by promising the LibDems a referendum. That’s something that could be easy for the Tories to put off, even though electoral reform is the main issue separating the LibDems from other parties.

But what of the Tories themselves? Have they really evolved beyond Thatcher? It’s difficult to tell. In Thatcher’s time the Tories pushed through Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which was intended to “protect” children from school literature “promoting” homosexuality. It was particularly heinous because it equated gay people with paedophilia, it seemed to prevent teachers from doing anything to minimise anti-gay bullying, the language implied that homosexuality was a “choice” and it put the government’s support behind homophobia.

The Labour government sought to repeal Section 28 against fierce opposition from the Conservative Party. In 2000, David Cameron, then an unelected member of the party, attacked the Labour government's plans and said then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was "anti-family", accusing him of wanting the "promotion of homosexuality in schools". In 2003, as a Conservative Party MP, Cameron pushed a party amendment to basically keep most of Section 28. When Labour finally succeeded in repealing Section 28, Cameron was conveniently absent.

On the other hand, in 2009, Cameron was Leader of the Opposition and formally apologised for his party having introduced the law. He called it a mistake that had been offensive to gay people. As recently as January of this year, Cameron re-stated that and proposed to change Conservative Party policy to push the teaching of equality in schools.

Good then, right? Not so fast. A woman described in media reports as “rising Tory star Philippa Stroud” was an unsuccessful Tory candidate. What makes her significant is that she’s credited with shaping the social policies of the party—despite having founded a church to “cure” gay people by praying away “demons.” If this woman is really one of the out-of-sight powers of the party, they have a lot of work to do.

It’s fair to say that I’m not a fan of any conservative party in any country, and the UK’s Conservative Party is not one I’d vote for. Hopefully, they’ve grown beyond Thatcher and really have moved into the modern age. If not, that could prove another barrier to the LibDems supporting them for full term, and that could mean early elections.

The next few months will be very interesting.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The old is new again

In 1984, an independently produced song shot to the top the NZ charts, remaining there for four weeks. Poi E (lyrics by Ngoi PÄ“whairangi and music by Dalvanius Prime) by Patea Maori Club was intended to promote pride among young Maori, particularly in an area, Patea, that had hit hard times.

When mainstream record companies were indifferent to the song, Prime produced it himself. It got very little notice at first, but a TV news report gave it wide exposure and the song not only shot to number one, it became the best-selling single of the year—outselling domestic and foreign songs alike, having spent 22 weeks on the charts. In an industry dominated by imports, that’s no small feat, but the song having been sung entirely in Maori makes its success even more amazing. There’s something quintessentially Kiwi about the “work hard and triumph over adversity” the song’s story embodies.

The video above is the original version of the song. It combines traditional Maori culture as well as what was contemporary 26 years ago. The song’s back in the news because it was featured in the hit New Zealand film “Boy”, leading to a new music video. I watched it over on Stuff (which strangely reported, “The newest version of the Maori classic Poi E was today debuted.” Was it, now?). I wasn’t impressed by the new version, which features clips of the original, some out-takes and scenes from “Boy” as well as new footage. It all seemed a bit disjointed and inauthentic to me. Maybe once I’ve seen the movie I’ll feel differently. As it is, I prefer the original.

Because of the film, the song is back on the New Zealand charts (currently at number 22). I’ve seen it at number one on the iTunes New Zealand chart (it was at number three when I checked tonight). It’s nice when a classic is rediscovered and gets new life.

More about Poi E:

New Zealand Folksong has the lyrics (and translation) and more about the song.

The song is available for purchase from iTunes New Zealand as well as iTunes USA and probably other countries.

Update: Stuff has changed their convoluted wording to read "Watch the latest version of the Maori classic Poi E." My media criticism has such power…

An early election?

I’m beginning to wonder if Prime Minister John Key may be manoeuvring for an early election. After a string of bad decisions by his government, he then also received intense flak from the most conservative members of his own party over his dealings with the Maori Party.

There have been some indications that his government is backing off of proposals to mine sensitive conservation land (for now), dealing to the National Party’s biggest electoral weakness. Then yesterday Key suddenly announced that the Crown would not turn over ownership of Te Urewera National Park to Tuhoe—the iwi (tribe) from whom the land was originally seized.

Negotiations with Tuhoe had been going on for about two years and indications were that they were about to announce an agreement in principal. Tuhoe had always said that ownership of the national park was a bottom-line issue for them. But over the weekend, Key received intense disapproval from members of his National Party for what the party’s right wing sees as too much accommodation of Maori; transferring ownership would’ve been too much for some members of the party.

At the moment, voter disenchantment with National Party policies hasn’t translated into support for the Labour Party. This means that if the election was held early, Key may be able to hold onto power. If he waits, he faces other risks.

In November, the Auckland Super City comes into being, a huge upheaval lasting for a decade or more. Rates bills (similar to American property taxes) will soar. If the elections are held on time, National will lose all of the Auckland electorates it won from Labour in the last election, and probably a few more as well: National and the neoconservative Act Party will bear the brunt of Aucklanders’ wrath.

Act, Key’s other main coalition partner, is already in trouble: The party will not cross the five percent threshold no matter when the election is held and will be in Parliament only if its leader, Rodney Hide, wins re-election. However, it appears that many mainstream Aucklanders hold Hide personally responsible for the Auckland merger, and their opinion of him will only get worse as time goes on.

All of this gives Key a strong incentive to go to the polls early, and manufacturing a split with the Maori Party may be his excuse. It may, in fact, be his only shot at a second term. Such an election would scapegoat Maori, though, so it’s in their best interests to stay with the government in some form (National doesn’t need the party to lead government).

In any case, this is one political soap opera that’s nowhere near its final act.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Auckland is a ‘hot spot’

I didn’t know I lived in a “hot spot”, but according to Yahoo! Travel, that’s what Auckland is.

Today Yahoo! Travel posted a feature called “Affordable New Hot Spots” and subtitled “10 destinations — from Malaysia to Marseille — that fuse style, authenticity, and affordability.” Well, take that, Wellington!

Seriously, I think it was the oddest list of travel destinations I’ve seen. I have no idea if they’re ranked or not, but from top to bottom the places listed were: Langkawi, Malaysia; Marseille, France; Nanjing, China; Moravia, Czech Republic (the photo caption read “Czhech Republic”); Ko Lanta, Thailand; San Blas, Panama; El Calafate, Argentina; Auckland, New Zealand; Dakar, Senegal; Rusinga Island, Kenya (Kenya?!). I’m pretty up with the geography, but I’ve only ever heard of a few of those places, and I live in one of them. Compared with the others, I kind of wonder why Marseille and Auckland are on the list.

Answering the question “Why Go Now” the site says: “This yachting-obsessed city has more than its share of sophisticated food and art. Best of all, the exchange rate turns the city’s hotels, restaurants, and boutiques into affordable indulgences.” They then proceed to list some places at the indulgence end of the spectrum (there are places to sleep and eat in Auckland that are far more affordable than what they feature).

I always take things like this with a grain of salt, but they are a bit of fun. And I did like seeing the Auckland Harbour Bridge on the Yahoo! homepage. Oh yeah: I also get to tell people I live in a “hot spot”.

Weak tea?

Like most liberal and progressive bloggers, I’ve sounded warnings about the teabagger political “movement”, the danger in their ignorance and the extent to which they’re being manipulated by corporate elites, among other things. While they’re not nearly as powerful as they think they are, there's still danger.

The teabaggers declared they’d drive out incumbent members of Congress, though whether that meant all incumbents, only Democrats or only those who weren’t conservative enough for their liking varied from place to place. The score so far? Not exactly in their favour.

This weekend, three-term Republican US Senator Bob Bennett of Utah was tossed aside by his party’s convention. His sin was that he wasn’t conservative enough for teabaggers because he’d voted in favour of Bush’s Wall Street bailout package. But even this “win” is debatable: Both US Representatives from Utah and the state’s Governor won the party’s re-nomination, and they’re incumbents.

In Indiana, the teabaggers assumed their candidate would win the Republican nomination for US Senate. They were wrong. Instead of a teabagger, Hoosiers picked former Senator Dan Coates, now a corporate lobbyist and ultimate insider—the opposite of what the teabaggers like to think they are.

To liberals and progressives, this serves as proof that the supposed power of the teabaggers has been greatly exaggerated, and conservative Republicans might breathe a little bit easier since their candidates may not be turfed out for not being conservative enough. I’d argue that it’s too early to count out the teabaggers or the danger they pose.

First, Republicans are under threat: The teabaggers who are active in elections tend to be extreme rightwing Republicans; apart from the odd quixotic independent run here and there, we can expect them to be active only in the Republican Party. This is why once at least occasionally sensible conservatives like John McCain have recently lurched to the far right. Even when teabaggers don’t win Republican nominations, they can force Republican politicians to the far, far right.

Democrats shouldn’t take them for granted, either. While polls show that the teabagger movement is a minority, fringe movement, mid-term election years, like 2010, often have very low voter turn-out and when that happens fringe movements can have a huge impact and even determine who wins an election (particularly when backed by a cable network running teabagger propaganda 24 hours a day).

All of which means that it’s too early to count the teabaggers out, despite their mostly poor results so far. I hope this reality sinks in among liberals and progressives so they do the hard work necessary to keep teabaggers out of government. The teabaggers won’t sit out the elections, after all.

I took the photo at the top of this post, by the way. I've been experimenting with taking more editorial-style photos.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Britain’s quandary

The UK’s elections failed to produce a winner, and the country is now in a quandary over it as the main parties talk of deals. It’s all so unnecessary.

The UK uses the “first past the post” election system in which the electorate candidate who has the highest number of votes wins that electorate, even if they have only a minority of the total votes cast. That can easily happen whenever there are at least three strong candidates in an electorate, and the more strong candidates there are, the probability that a minority candidate will win reaches near certainty.

That’s bad enough, but the FPP system means that whoever wins a majority of the electorates forms government—even if every one of their electorate winners won with a minority of the votes cast. Similarly, strong parties that fail to win electorates would be shut out of Parliament altogether; a party could actually receive more popular votes than the eventual winner, but still be totally shut out of government.

The solution is a proportional representation system to ensure that the final make-up of Parliament matches the popular vote: The number of MPs each party gets mirrors their percentage of the popular vote.

TVNZ’s One News did a rough calculation of what the UK results would be if they had the MMP system used by New Zealand, Germany and Israel. According to them, the Conservatives would have 51 fewer seats, Labour 53 fewer. The Liberal Democrats, however, would have 102 more seats.

British and American media commentators, who don’t understand how all this works, have been talking about how the Liberal Democrats didn’t do as well as expected when, in fact, the system was always stacked against them: The LibDems did well—the system didn’t.

The British newsmedia is also wringing its collective hands over the prospect of a coalition government, suggesting that they’re unstable and incapable of governing. Those of us living in countries with proportional representation, whose governments are coalitions more often than not, find that a huge laugh; newsmedia ignorance like that is always funny.

Britain can change all this simply by reforming their system and moving to a more democratic system than FPP. This is nothing new, of course, and it’s been a goal for more than two decades. Maybe this time they’ll be stirred to act.

Update: The BBC has published a story, “Lessons from New Zealand in art of coalition building,” which clearly illustrates both how proportional representation works in practice, as well as how New Zealand specifically has something to teach “Mother England” about how coalition government works. (Tip o’ the hat to SteveINtheUKok for the link).

The second haul

Our friends Dawn and Darren, American expats, arrived from Wellington yesterday. In the afternoon, I picked them up at their hotel and took them to Martha’s Backyard, the Auckland store selling products imported from America. Some of what Dawn and Darren bought was for folks back in Wellington. Sadly, I can’t claim anything similar (my haul is pictured above—don’t judge).

The store’s selection was different than the last time I was there, which is to be expected. This time they had Twinkies in stock. Despite ignoring the email inviting me to rush in and buy some, I ended up taking home a box of 20 (what was I thinking?). Most of the rest of my haul was, like my first trip, purely because of nostalgia.

It’s good that the stuff I bought isn’t available in New Zealand or I’d end up larger than our house. Did I say not available in New Zealand? Today I saw the “Reese’s Crispy Crunchy” at our local dairy; I’d never even heard of it until I went to Martha’s and now I see it available at a local store.

Speaking of not knowing, I saw bottles of drink for sale, but I didn’t recognise the label. I thought it looked like one of those high caffeine, high sugar “energy” drinks. “That’s Gatorade”,” Darren told me. The bottle’s shape and label had changed completely in the years since I left the US.

And that’s the irony of the whole thing. Many products reminded me of years gone by, bits and pieces from my own past. But many of them don’t have the same packaging that I remember, and it turns out the realities of the contents don’t connect with my memories, so are they really a connection with my past?

In a sense, it doesn’t really matter. I see the products and have a nostalgic connection; as an expat, that’s something I can’t experience all that often. People who don’t move far from home have touchstones to keep them connected to their past. But those who move far away, especially those who move to another country, lose those connections.

Junk food can be a force for good.

Friday, May 07, 2010

While I was working

This busy week is wrapping up, so it’s time to catch up on some things I missed during the week. And stuff has happened this week…

Why does Joe Liebermann hate America?

Or Scott “Centrefold” Brown. The two propose to push a law that would give the US State Department the power to strip US citizens of their citizenship if they are deemed to associate with “terrorists”. No need to be accused of a crime, no need to stand trial, no need for presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. Nope: Joe and Scott think one should lose citizenship on mere accusation.

This is the looniest of the looniest things I’ve ever heard US Senators propose, and that’s a high hurdle to leap. It is blatantly unconstitutional, utterly, completely and irredeemably beneath contempt. Why do Joe and Scott hate America and the US Constitution?

By the way, did you hear that one of the first people to raise the alarm in Times Square was a Muslim immigrant? Yeah, not something the US news media wants people to know. Kinda makes Brown and Liebermann’s actions look even more stupid, and that would hardly seem possible.

Greece bleeds, the markets panic

Greece is in an economic disaster, that’s obvious. But doesn’t it seem a little fishy that ordinary people revolt against imposed austerity measures and the capital markets panic? Most of the measures being imposed on Greece are at the behest of banks, German banks in particular, whose interest is merely in protecting investors’ money, not in helping Greece out of its mess. What if the people of Greece—whose lives and livelihoods are at stake—reject the demands of international corporations and investment banks and instead chart a third course, one that adds the peoples’ needs onto the balance sheet, what then? I’d love to see the mainstream newsmedia answer that, but they’d need to be able to take a wider view first, and that’s unlikely to happen.

Arizona is still racist

Just in case you forgot.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Another busy week

This is another busy week, and I don’t know how much time I’ll have for blogging. So far, things have been going well, so I’m optimistic. Even so, I don’t have a lot of spare time at the moment. I hope that will improve as the week goes on.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Gratuitous siblings photos

Jake and Bella are now playing with each other—mostly Bella chasing Jake, or finding a spot to stand and swat Jake as he runs by. They both sleep on the bed at night, and sometimes they sleep near each other, especially when it’s cold.

Yesterday morning, Jake was sleeping on the bed as I got dressed. Bella jumped onto the bed and lay down right next to Jake. I casually went to get my camera but couldn’t find it easily; I didn’t want to make a lot of noise so they didn’t jump down to see what I was doing, so I grabbed the digital video camera and used it to snap the photo above.
Later that night, I got up from my desk to go to bed and saw that Jake and Bella were sleeping next to each other. As it happens, the video camera was sitting on my desk, so I grabbed it again (photo below).

This camera isn’t ideal for shooting snapshots: There’s no flash, and the resolution is a bit low. Still, it’s what I had, so I’m sharing the photos even though the quality isn’t that great. Hopefully the next ones will be better.

People say ‘no’; will National listen?

Today a massive protest march in Auckland delivered a strong message to the National Party-led government: NO mining on sensitive conservation land.

Easily 50,000 people marched up Queen Street today. Police said there were only 20,000, but when the first of the marchers arrived at Myers Park, the last were just entering the bottom of Queen Street. That takes more than 20,000 people.

The largest-ever demonstration in New Zealand history was a labour march and rally in 1938 (50-70,000 people). Police estimates would make today’s protest the fourth or fifth largest rally. Clearly the National Party would prefer this latter count.

Even so, National must be worried. They extended the public submission period by three weeks because they’ve already received 14,000 submissions (submissions now close at 5.00pm on Wednesday 26 May 2010). Public pressure on National on this issue is building, but that’s not yet being fully reflected in polls and National has seized on that as validation for its plans.

Even tonight, a typically smug Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee kept pushing the imaginary economic benefits that would come from mining conservation land, implying, as conservatives so often do, that There Is No Alternative. There’s always an alternative.

In the end, the National Party may choose to ignore the strong and growing opposition to mining sensitive conservation land. If they do, then the way for ordinary New Zealanders to be heard will be to change the government.

The next Parliamentary elections in New Zealand will be in around 18 months.

Update 2 May: The Sunday Star-Times reported (via Stuff) that the attendance was 40-50,000, ignoring the Police estimate entirely (apparently they don't believe it, either). They added that over 20,000 people have signed a petition against the proposal, which is in addition to the 14,000 submissions so far.

As an aside, while Stuff's reporting was pretty good (if brief), when I looked yesterday evening I saw that Stuff had published nothing at all about the protest march. That's not good enough.