Saturday, December 31, 2016

Another New Year’s Eve

The current year is passing, a new one is about to begin. As is the case many years, I’ll be waiting up alone to see in the New Year. This is my choice: I could just go to bed like everyone else, but there’s a part of me that needs to see the old year go away so the new one can begin.

This year, that’s especially true. I’ve joked a lot about the end of this year, but it’s because, like so many others, a lot of people I liked and admired died this year, and the election disaster in the USA makes me truly sad—and afraid. Obviously, none of that will be any different in the year starting soon: Those folks I liked and admired will still be dead, and the Orange Menace will see be about to ruin destroy take control of the USA.

Right now, though, so many of us just want something—anything—to feel hopeful about, and the start of a new year is as good a thing to rally around as any. So, I’ll embrace that new beginning a little more gladly than in most years, and hopefully I’ll even follow through. The results of that will be next year’s blogging journey.

But that’s it for this year’s blogging—I’m off to watch some TV and bide my time waiting for the New Year. I’ll be back tomorrow with—well, whatever I come up with (I have nothing planned at the moment).

Thanks for another year of fun: May 2017 be better for us all. See you next year!

The video up top is by Abba, and a song I used to listen to this time of year. The one below, by Barry Manilow, is another, though a lyrics version (not what I like to share normally, but this will have to do). I used to listen tho that one, too.

Arthur Answers, Part 6: Me!

This is the sixth and final post in this year’s “Ask Arthur” series. Today’s questions from Roger Green are all related to a very, very important topic: Me! First up:

If you never came to New Zealand, where would you be living and what would you be doing?

Not surprisingly, I’ve pondered that very question many times, and, also not surprising, my answer changes often. At the time I met Nigel, I was ready for change—big change, even. In early 1994, I’d gone to Berlin, which I’ve written about before, but what I didn’t say is that for a time—very brief, as it turned out, due to my language problems—I thought (fantasised?) about living in Berlin for a while, or just living overseas for maybe six months. I couldn’t imagine doing it longer alone.

Moving to another country to be with someone is a completely different thing, and, in that sense, was much easier. However, it only happened because I was ready for change, and the trip to Berlin kind of primed the pump.

So, had none of those events happened, I may still have moved away from Chicago, anyway. Before I met Nigel, I thought about moving to San Francisco, a city with greater freedom for LGBT people, and also a more agreeable climate than Chicago’s. Whether that had happened or not, I might have moved somewhere.

On the other hand, I also have a vision of myself as being something like Mary (Donna Reed) in the alternate vision of reality that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) sees when Clarence (Henry Travers) grants George’s wish in It’s A Wonderful Life: It’s possible that I could have gone in the completely opposite direction I did, and become more insulated and isolated.

I think the most likely scenario is somewhere between those two extremes: I may have stayed in Chicago, but moved on to a different (and better paying) job, and had a better quality of life there than I had at the time I left. I think that this is the most likely because even though I was primed for change, making too much change all by myself may have been too much.

Next, Roger asked:

In an ideal world, would you have wanted to have children of your own? I know you're an uncle.

I honestly don’t know. I entered adulthood thinking that I’d never have any legal recognition of my relationship, that in the eyes of the law it would always be temporary and unsubstantial. It also wasn’t easy for gay people to adopt in those days. However, even in the 1980s, gay men and lesbians were making arrangements with each other to have children, often with the gay man involved, though not necessarily as a parent. At one point a lesbian friend asked if I’d ever considered that, and I would have (she ended up marrying a man). As things turned out, it’s good that I didn’t because my entire life wouldn’t have happened as it did, and I wouldn't be in New Zealand.

By the time laws were changing, I was in New Zealand and we could have provided a good life for a child, but we felt it was too late. Once we had a Civil Union, it became impossible to adopt (New Zealand restricts that to single people and married couples—even now). I was 50 at the time, and when we were married, and legally able to adopt, I was 54. That’s all kind of moot, however, because there are very few children available for adoption, which is why foreign adoption is so popular, though fraught. We could have fostered a child, but didn’t think we could handle it emotionally if a child we’d raised and nurtured was sent back to the birth parent(s).

So, in an ideal world? Maybe. But because I grew up certain that I could never marry and have children, and because until relatively recently it was impossible or extremely difficult to do, I just never really gave a lot of thought to it—I never seriously considered the possibility.


What talent do you have which you've never shared in your blog or on your podcasts?

I couldn’t think of any, and even asked others what they thought some might be. I came up empty. Part of the problem is that I think I have certain abilities, but not necessarily talents, though I may be “better” at some things than other people are. To me, it’s the result of effort and commitment, not innate talent. At any rate, I can’t play any musical instruments, my singing is barely par, I have no aptitude for foreign languages, and I’m useless at sports. Certainly little has come easy to me, except for memorising history and internalising the rules of English grammar, though without necessarily knowing those rules.

Still, I have some minor abilities I haven’t discussed, like a knack for finding things others can’t (like lost keys or whatever), and I’m quite good as spatial things, like maximising what will fit in an over-filled closet (because I think and analyse visually much of the time, including for work). This also makes physical organising easy for me.

Beyond that, the abilities I’ve nurtured over the years have helped me grow, and I haven’t talked much about that, either (though a little bit). For example, my blogging has vastly improved my writing, politics has helped me with public speaking and leadership, podcasting has also helped with public speaking and acting more confident in public. Do I have any talents in those areas? I think that’s for others to decide. All of which means that if I have any talents I haven’t shared, it probably means that I can’t even see them.

Speaking of blogging:

How many draft posts do you have RIGHT NOW? How many will likely see the light of day?

As of this moment, 151, most of which will never see the light of day. Some are complete posts that I decided not to publish—mostly political rants, but also some that were just too similar to previous posts (like, for example, too many posts on US politics all in a row). However, some of the “rough drafts” contain the barest of bones—maybe a link or two, or even just a title. A few are even carry-overs from last year, “evergreen” topics I thought I could turn into finished posts (but didn't) for times I couldn’t come up with anything new for whatever reason. Those will end up in the drafts folder for 2017. I ended last year with 175 unpublished drafts, all of which were similar to this year’s.

Speaking of heady subjects:

Did you ever inhale?

Because the statute of limitations has well and truly expired, I can say yes, I did. I’ll add that I quite liked it, too, unlike certain former presidents, because it was always a good experience for me. I mentioned this at least once in passing, back in 2011. I stopped decades ago because I read that cannabis was immunosuppressive at a time when no one knew what caused AIDS. I figured that as a gay man it was better for me to not tempt fate. Nowadays, I’m so damn legal I don’t like walking past people smoking it outside. If it was legalised (as I think it should be), it might be interesting to revisit it. More likely, though, I wouldn’t. Still, never say never, right?

That’s it for this year’s series—I’ve checked several times, and I don’t THINK I missed any questions! The next "Ask Arthur" series will probably be in December 2017 (assuming a great many things…). Big thanks to Roger Green and my friend Sherry for all the questions!

The Year in Search – 2016

The video above is Google’s annual look at the Year in Search, the things the world searched for in 2016. It’s always interesting to see it visually, but it’s even more interesting to look in more depth at what was popular, something that varied from place to place. Google makes that easy to do.

Google used to call these videos “Zeitgeist” correctly using the German term that refers to the spirit of the times. However, a few years ago they dropped that term, no doubt because of some popular conspiracy theory videos. Whatever they call it, what we searched for tells us a lot about ourselves and our year.

Google’s Year in Search site includes a special section on what they call the “Breakout Searches” of 2016, broken down by month. These show what people wanted to know about in each month, making it easy to see what was going on in the world that month, and what we felt we needed to know more about.

The regular search data is viewable globally, and in any number of national views. For example, here’s the ranking of overall global searches:

The top five worldwide searches about news were: 1 US Election, 2 Olympics, 3 Brexit, 4 Orlando Shooting, 5 Zika Virus.

Each topic in every ranking can also be viewed separately (by clicking on the search item) and that shows more information about it, like when the search peaked, where people searched for the term from, etc.

Many of us are specifically interested in what people around us want to know, and Google shows search data for a lot of countries. The New Zealand searches were interesting to me, of course, and so were the USA’s searches.

The top overall searches in New Zealand were: 1 Geonet (they monitor earthquakes and list details about them), 2 Olympics, 3 US election, 4 Euro 2016, 5 Earthquake NZ.

For News searches, Kiwis wanted to know about: 1 Earthquake NZ, 2 US election, 3 Pokemon Go, 4 Brexit, 5 Dreamworld (there was a tragedy at the Australian theme park). For Sporting events, it was: 1 Rio Olympics, 2 Euro 2016, 3 All Blacks vs Ireland, 4 Melbourne Cup 2016, 5 T20 World Cup.

People are always of interest, too. Global people searched for were: 1 Donald Trump, 2 Usain Bolt, 3 Hillary Clinton, 4 Michael Phelps, 5 Bernie Sanders. Kiwis: 1 Joseph Parker, 2 Aaron Smith, 3 Eliza McCartney, 4 Lisa Carrington, 5 Jordan Mauger. People we lost: 1 David Bowie, 2 Prince, 3 Christina Grimmie, 4 Muhammad Ali, 5 Alan Rickman.

The searches in the USA were somewhat different. General searches were: 1 Powerball, 2 Prince, 3 Hurricane Matthew, 4 Pokémon Go, 5 Slither.io. The news stories Americans searched were: 1 Olympics, 2 Election, 3 Orlando Shooting, 4 Brexit, 5 Zika Virus.

Naturally, Americans were interested in people: 1 Donald Trump, 2 Hillary Clinton, 3 Michael Phelps, 4 Bernie Sanders, 5 Steven Avery. People we lost: 1 Prince, 2 David Bowie, 3 Christina Grimmie, 4 Muhammad Ali, 5 Alan Rickman. There were also separate categories for Actors, Actresses, and Athletes.

Among other searches, the #5 question under “How To” was “How to move to Canada?” The Chicago Cubs were the #1 sports team search. But this was the most interesting to me:

I think most of those searches suggest that the newsmedia isn’t doing a very good job of explaining things people need to know about. In the case of how US elections are done, it also shows that perhaps schools aren’t doing a very good job of educating American kids on civics.

The things people search for tell us about what they were focusing on, what they felt they needed to know more about, and even the stuff that just interested them—it really is a look at the spirit of the times. Personally, I’m glad that Google makes this so easy to slice and dice in numerous ways.

After all, finding out what’s going on is fun.

2016: The Movie

I saw the video above, from Friend Dog Studios, last night on Facebook, and I thought it was hilarious. So much so, I had to go find the YouTube version so share here.

New Year’s is an arbitrary point to begin/end years, but this year for a lot of reasons many of us are looking forward to it precisely because in our culture it represent the end of one year and the beginning of another one—and the chance to begin fresh.

I don’t know anyone who will miss 2016, with all the deaths of beloved celebrities, the election of the Orange Menace, Brexit, natural disasters, wars, terrorism—the list of things in 2016 that were truly awful is long and depressing. Which makes humour and videos like this all the more important, I think.

Laughing beats crying.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My mom would be 100

My Mom n the 1950s. She hated this photo.
One hundred years ago today, my mother was born. That fact is just as surreal to me as my dad’s 100th birthday in February was. On the one hand, I can intellectually accept that I’m the product of people born a century ago, but on the other, that seems impossible: They were in their 60s the last time I saw them. But, then, I was 20-21, so clearly a lot of time has passed since then.

When I’ve written about my mother’s birthday in past years, I’ve included anecdotes and stories about her, and all of those have been basically positive. In last year’s post, I said that “there are other stories, maybe darker ones, that tell other things about her, and about me,” and I intended to tell some of those in that post, then didn’t. I wasn’t ready, mainly because I also wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind, having been sick earlier that week.

That mattered because my having been sick, and needing to write a post for her birthday, collided in what would have been a darker story: My mother had a problem with illness.

This post is basically an edited version of the post I didn’t publish last year. Having re-read it, I think it provides a fuller picture of who my mother was, and, besides, having talked about my father’s childhood challenges in his birthday post, some balance makes sense.

When my mother was a little girl, she came down with one of those childhood diseases that at the time could be deadly, but that now are easily prevented with vaccination. I don’t remember which disease it was, but she told me years later that as she was recovering, she played with her somewhat older brother and her younger brother. I’m not clear if they were already sick or became sick, but either way, they died from disease. She blamed herself for this throughout her life.

My Mom, ca 1940. My dad took the photo.
I didn’t realise it as a kid, but she was a barely adequate nurse when I got sick. She was reluctant to be around me too much, nor to tend to me, which I thought was just because she was annoyed that I was being too demanding. I later found out that she hated it when we kids got sick, and sometimes even got panicky. For her, every time we kids got sick, she revisited her guilt over her brothers, and nursing us, even taking care of necessary tasks, stirred it up again and again.

My dad was often a better nurse than my mother was, though he often seemed annoyed, too, for other reasons—maybe that my mother wasn’t a better nurse? I’ll never know.

As I got older, I got sick less often, and this became less of an issue. But when I was still in university, she herself became sick with cancer. My father died suddenly about the same time, so I took time off from school and became her primary caregiver for the last months of her life. That meant blending food for her feeding bag, changing her adult nappies (diapers) and washing her. She was rarely conscious the last months of her life.

I long ago blocked most of my memories of those months and that work, so over the years I’ve often wondered if I was annoyed as I took care of her. Was I displaying the behaviour that had been modelled to me when I was younger? I can’t know the answer to that.

And yet, I remember certain things. I read that lecithin helped with brain function, so I sprinkled a little lecithin powder in her formula in the hope she might stay conscious, and she might fight the disease. I didn’t know that vegetable lecithin didn’t help in that way, but eventually stopped when it obviously did no good.

I also put a fish tank in her bedroom so that she could have something living to see and watch when she was awake. The light on the tank provided a nightlight, and the gurgling was a soothing sound. That eventually became pointless, too, but I kept up the attempt pretty much until the end.

When she died, I was adrift, not knowing what to do or where to go. I went back to my university and completed my degree. I came out, and started to find a place for myself in what was a much more hostile world than I’d anticipated. I stumbled far more often than anyone ever knew, sometimes fell very hard, and I made some colossally stupid decisions as I struggled just to survive—and I survived. I didn’t know where the strength came from.

Things eventually got better, and in time they got great, but that led eventually to a stark realisation: My mother had to die so that I could live.

Had my mother survived, I would have stayed in my hometown to look after her, and nothing else in my life would have turned out even remotely the way it did. Much the same probably would have happened if my father hadn’t died, because I would have ended up looking after the both of them in some way.

My Mom in her Confirmation
photo, ca 1930.
Not having my parents to fall back on was a huge problem many times in my young adulthood, but the reality is that only because I had nothing holding me, no one depending on me, I was able to get on with life, and that led me to where I am now.

Years later, I realised that this is what they prepared me for—not literally, of course. They wanted me to be strong, resilient and independent, and they succeeded. My mother’s persistence in the face of her family tragedies ended up making me resilient, too.

I know I didn’t appreciate all that in the darkest times of my young adulthood, but I do now: My mother made me strong.

SO, when I look at old photos of my mother, like those with this post, I often see sadness in her eyes. I know why it was there, because of her childhood and other things, but I also see something else: A survivor.

By the time the cancer took her, she’d fought a long war, first with life, then her disease. My siblings were launched in life by then, and I was well into university. She knew we’d all be okay. She was right, of course—she’d seen to that.

In her own way, my mother taught us (well, me—I haven’t talked about this with my siblings) to be strong and resilient. It’s served me well. Add this to the long list of things my parents gave to me, things that help me to this day.

Happy 100th birthday, Mom. And, thanks.

Tears of a clown
– one of my favourite posts about my mother

Previous years’ birthday posts:
Mom at 99 (2015)
Remembering my mother (2014)
Mom’s birthday (2013)
Mom’s treasure (2012)
Remembering birthdays (2011)
That time of year (2009)
Memories and words (2008)

Arthur Answers, Part 5: Pop culture

Today’s questions from Roger Green are all related to pop culture. First up:

Your favorite TV shows, movies, albums – however many you want.

I’ve thought about this over the week and a half since the most recent post in this series, and I had a LOT of trouble with it: At any given time, I may only have a couple “favourites”, and the list changes constantly. Also, my list of favourites is entirely dependent on the mood I’m in at the time, how tired I am, all sorts of things like that. And if that wasn’t complicating enough, if I don’t hear a song (for example) for a long time, I tend to forget about it until it pops up somewhere and I suddenly remember how much I once loved it.

So, these are really just sort of random lists in no particular order other than the order; ranking them would be too difficult, and, anyway, pointless since it will change sooner rather than later.

TV shows: I don’t have any true favourites at the moment, however, my favourite programmes tend to be ones about home improvement/renovation. This began way back in 1979 when This Old House debuted on PBS. Over the years, I’ve learned a LOT of useful things from those shows that helped me when we were renovating our previous house, and with routine projects ever since.

So, shows I currently enjoy are Homes Under the Hammer, a BBC programme about people who buys British houses at auction and do them up; various Grand Designs programmes, various programmes from Mike Holmes, among others. I’ve enjoyed all of the Star Trek TV series over the years, and still watch re-runs sometimes. In the past, I’ve enjoyed public affairs programmes, but there aren’t any decent New Zealand ones at the moment, and we don’t get American ones (assuming there are any these days—how would I know?), and I also enjoy documentaries. But the truth is, apart from the evening news, I really don’t watch much TV anymore.

Movies: We hardly ever go to the movies any more—maybe once or twice a year. Most recently it was Rogue One, which we both enjoyed. My favourite movies have been Star Wars (the original three and the most recent; I didn’t care for the episodes one through three), many of the Star Trek movies (though I have mixed feeling about the reboot films). I enjoy films that are a bit quirky, like the New Zealand film, What We Do In The Shadows. I like some blockbusters, others less so (I didn’t like Avatar, for example). Among old movies, I enjoyed High Noon, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s A Wonderful Life, Wizard of Oz, various old movie musicals, cheesy horror and science fiction films of the 1950s, and more. In general, movies don’t need to be anything more than entertaining for me to enjoy them—they don’t have to be great art or whatever.

Albums: This is much easier for me because I listen to music all the time. In fact, it was TOO easy, so I limited it to full albums (no EPs or singles released as such), and also only albums I now have in digital format; I’ve lost and not replaced many vinyl LPs, and a few CDs that I ripped to digital files aren’t included because they’re not in my iTunes (most likely due to computer changes over the years). This is a mixed bag, but they’re all things I’d sit and listen two from start to finish.

First, some greatest hits albums I played constantly, and that led me to like the artists and buy more of their music: BowieChangesOne and BowieChangesTwo by David Bowie; Pop! The First 20 Hits by erasure; Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975; Greatest Hits by Linda Ronstadt, Hot Rocks 1964-1971 by The Rolling Stones, and others.

Among other albums I liked: Boston Boston: My Life In The Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne; Boys In The Trees by Carly Simon; Horzon Carpenters, Let It Flow by Dave Mason; Scary Monsters by David Bowie; Violator by Depeche Mode; Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield; Hotel California and The Long Run by The Eagles; A New World Record and Discovery by Electric Light Orchestra; The Innocents, i say i say i say and Loveboat by erasure; At Last! By Eta James; Savage by Eurythmics; Einzelhaft by Falco; Fleetwood Mac and Rumours by Fleetwood Mac; Penthouse and Pavement and The Luxury Gap by Heaven 17; Earth by Jefferson Starship; Escape and Infinity by Journey; Autobahn and Computer World by Kraftwerk; Hasten Down The Wind, Prisoner In Disguise, and Simple Dreams by Linda Ronstadt, also What’s New; Thriller by Michael Jackson; With Sympathy by Ministry; This is the Moody Blues and Long Distance Voyager by The Moody Blues; Polysaturated by Nesian Mystik; Substance by New Order; History of Modern by OMD; Very by Pet Shop Boys; Automatic For The People and Out Of Time by R.E.M.; Cornerstone, Pieces of Eight, and Paradise Theatre by Styx; Even In The Quietest Moments and Breakfast in America by Supertramp; Songs From The Big Chair by Tears For Fears.

See? That was too easy.

Roger also asked in a later question:

OK, your reaction to the death of George Michael. The Boston Globe wrote George Michael’s work had a unique, profound effect on LGBTQ people: "This year has not just been a year in which our beloved celebrities have died, but it’s been a year in which LGBTQ people of a certain age have lost those who helped us come out and live authentic lives."

I answered this in a special post that I was already working on when Roger posted his question. But I’d I wanted to add some specific comments on role models and icons for young LGBT people: They are vital in TV shows, movies, and pop music so young LGBT people will experience them. That’s because we need to see the reality of our lives reflected, and because we need to see people like us succeeding and being visible. This is especially important in places where being openly gay, whether in rural areas or in the Southern USA, or in some country that puts people to death for being gay. To change the world, people first have to be happy within their own skin. Role models in pop culture are an important, even vital, part of that, and they matter.

There’s one more post in this series.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

States of delusion: The Rightwing’s latest nutty obsession

There’s a notion popular among the USA’s rightwing at the moment that’s both wrong and dangerous. Nothing new in that, of course, but the danger is to democracy itself because they want minority rule, all based on an utterly delusional view of the United States’ population.

What currently has the USA’s rightwing in a frenzy is the map above: It represents which candidate carried which counties—Blue for Hillary Clinton and Red for Donald Trump. It’s totally misleading and even deceptive, but to the rightwing, the map looks like “proof” that states with large cities—New York and California in particular—would, all by themselves, determine who the US president was if it wasn’t for the Electoral College. That’s absolute nonsense, of course, but to understand why, and why it’s a dangerous belief, we first need to look at some more maps, starting with this one:

This map also shows the results by county, but shades them by percentage: The darker the colour, the higher the percentage for the winning candidate (and, of course, the lighter the colour, the lower the percentage). What this map shows us is that very few counties were solidly Republican or Democratic, and most were shades and tints.

This is shown even more starkly in this map:

This map shows the counties as Red, Blue, or Purple, the latter representing counties where the winning margin for the candidate who won the county—whether Hillary or Don—was 10% or less. As before, the more Blue a colour is, the more heavily it went for Hillary and the more Red it is, the more it went for Don.

Putting all this together, the map at the top of this post is misleading: The USA is NOT a giant swathe of Red, but more Purple than either Red OR Blue. This is born out by election data that shows that Independents—those who are neither Republican nor Democratic—determine most elections because there are somewhat more of them than either Democrats (usually in second place) or Republicans (in third place). It’s important to note that the exact percentages fluctuate constantly, but the Republican Party is always the smallest of the three divisions, and the Democratic Party is always in second place or roughly equal with independents; it’s been this way for many, many years. [Update: Gallup reported in early January that "Independent Political ID in US Lowest in Six Years" as more Americans chose to identify as either Republican or Democratic, but they still outnumber Democrats, in second place, and Republicans, in third place.]

What we can also see from the second and third map is that there are votes for both parties in every state—every, single, state. Even in populous states like California and New York, campaigning there has value, especially if it’s covered by the regional newsmedia. This is because without the Electoral College, every vote matters, whereas with the EC, Republican presidential votes don’t matter much in New York or California, nor do Democratic votes matter in Texas. We cannot possibly know how many people don’t vote in such states because their vote doesn’t matter, but it’s nonsensical to assume it doesn't or wouldn’t matter for such “irrelevant” voters.

Moreover, the rightwing belief conveniently ignores the fact that Texas and Florida both have large cities—Miami is the USA’s fourth largest city and Houston is the sixth—yet Texas is strongly Republican (for now), and Florida is more Purple than anything.

The danger in the rightwing’s delusion is that it creates two Americas: The first is the “real” America, located in the Red counties in the map up top, and “other” Americans in the Blue counties in the same map. The “other” Americans are suspect to rightwingers, in part merely for being Liberal (or, at least, not Conservative), but also for their higher concentration of brown and black people. Rightwing rhetoric constantly talks of Latinx people as being “illegal” and of black people wanting “handouts”. This language both shapes and describes the attitudes that the Rightwing has toward black and brown people, and also toward the cities in which they live.

I’ve seen and read many people—pundits and ordinary people alike—singing the praises of the “real” Americans, and either explicitly or implicitly saying that urban residents are the exact opposite of the supposedly wonderful, kind, thoughtful, and friendly people of the “real” America. Rationally, the view that all rural people are “good” and all urban people are “bad” is no more true than the reverse would be: People are complex and diverse, and it’s bigoted to imply that one set of people is “better” merely because of where they live.

This attitude is also anti-democracy: Elections are waged on the premise that the majority rules, that whoever has the most votes wins the election. There are problems with the way elections are done in the USA, and there are many needed reforms, but it’s nevertheless the foundation on which democracy is built. The obsession with viewing the USA as being divided into “real” Americans and everybody else undermines that precisely because it supposes that the minority should be able to dictate election results.

The biggest problem with the rightwing obsession is that people living in rural areas are a small minority of the USA. According to the US Department of Agriculture (or download the PDF with the data), rural counties account for 72% of the USA’s counties, but only about 15% of the USA’s population in 2014. Put the other way round, 85% of the US population—the overwhelming majority—live in 28% of counties. We see that most dramatically in the map up top, where the large swathes of the USA in red, most of them sparsely populated.

The rural population of the USA declined by 30,000 people per year 2010-2014, and the only rural counties to experience an increase were in scenic areas or counties involved in energy booms. Urban areas, meanwhile, have grown by more than 2 million a year. The rural poverty rate in 2014 was 18.1%, compared to an urban poverty rate to 15.1%.

So, the rightwing obsession is wrong for several reasons, beginning with the fact that the USA is a mostly urban nation, and it’s unthinkable that a mere 15% of the population should be allowed to dictate to the other 85% who the president should be. Also, every state has supporters of both parties, but under the current system using the Electoral College, some voters don’t matter because there are far more supporters of the other party. And, finally, people who live in urban areas are people who live in urban areas, and people who live in rural areas are people who live in rural areas, but they are ALL American. The rightwing needs to learn all these things, the last one in particular.

Democracy matters, and is based on the principle that the majority rules. That didn’t happen in 2016, the second time this century. Making bizarre and bigoted excuses for why that should always be the case is an insult to democracy and liberty, and downright un-American.

The USA deserves more democracy, not less. Conservatives ought to be ashamed of themselves for arguing the opposite.

The important points
  • The USA is a mostly urban nation, and is becoming more urban all the time (which is common in many countries).
  • Every US state has voters who support both parties – the USA is mostly “purple”, that is, split between the two parties.
  • Abolishing the Electoral College would give everyone an equal vote, regardless of where they live, and will make voters of both parties matter in states in which they currently don’t.
  • People who live in cities are people who live in cities, and people who live in rural areas are people who live in rural areas; they are ALL American.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

George Michael

2016 has been a crap year. Along with everything else, we saw the deaths of far too many people who meant so much to so many people. Some belittle that mourning, but I don’t—I’ve been one of the millions of mourners. As the year draws to a close, we’ve been subjected to ever more loss including George Michael earlier this week.

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened when I heard that George Michael had died. For me, he was so many different and varied things all at once. I’ve found myself remembering them all.

Michael became a role model for many gay men: “George Michael’s work had a unique, profound effect on LGBTQ people”, is how Patrick Garvin put it in a piece for the Boston Globe, and I have no doubt he’s right. But I’d been out for at least 15 years by the time Michael finally came out, and I’d already finished my career as a gay activist and was living happily here in New Zealand with Nigel. So, I didn’t need him as a role model as younger gay men did.

However, there was also a clear sexual ethos in his videos with Wham! and in his solo career, which was liberating (as well as, you know, sexy…). I particularly remember sitting in a gay video bar in Chicago called Take One (long gone) watching the video for their hit single, “Club Tropicana” () and fancying Michael quite a lot (and also thinking bandmate Andrew Ridgeley was cute, too). At the time, Michael was around 20 and I was 24. And yet, at that time, I didn’t know for sure Michael was gay, so it was more of an appreciation than anything else.

I also appreciated his politics and his charity work, some of which was largely unrecognised at the time. All of that was laudable.

It was, of course, his music I liked the most about him. I liked something from all of his albums, though, as with most performers, not necessarily everything on every album. On the other hand, I very much liked Songs From The Last Century, his least-successful album. Among other things, I liked his cover of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” [LISTEN], which includes male pronouns. His performance was probably influenced by Nina Simone’s version [WATCH], which had been used for a TV commercial in the UK and became a hit again. I still like it when I don’t have to “fill in the blanks” with song lyrics.

Among his many solo recordings, two stand out for me. The first is “Freedom! ‘90” (video up top). The sarcasm and cynicism of the lyrics appealed to me, as did the use of female and male models lip-synching rather than Michael himself appearing. Visually, the video was well done, and the destruction of elements from Michael’s earlier music videos was especially good, I thought. And, the chorus is great. Pop music at its best.

But one of my favourites of his videos was for “Outside” (video below). The video mocks his arrest for “lewd conduct”, allegedly the result of entrapment. So many people—especially Americans—are so annoyingly prudish about sex and this video takes that on. It struck me as kind of a giant and well-deserved “fuck you!” to all the self-righteous idiots who were quick to condemn Michael over it. The cops kissing at the end of the video is probably a middle finger to the American cops, and the final words serve the same function for the moralisers. I like all of that about this video, but the men’s toilets turning into a disco always makes me smile.

That gets at one of the things I admired the most about Michael: His openness and directness about his sexuality (after he came out, of course). He didn’t try to be, or present himself as, some sanitised, wholesome guy who happened to be into other sanitised, wholesome guys. Instead, Michael was what he was: Gay, sexual, and himself. The sexuality in his videos, then, was clearly authentic, not merely contrived for marketing purposes (though it undeniably helped with that, too).

Like so many iconic singers we’ve lost this year, Michael was unique and a huge presence. I may not have needed him as a gay icon, but I was pleased when he became one because I knew—and still know—how important they are. Mostly, though, I just enjoyed his work—audio and visual, because he was a master of both.

He will be missed by millions, including me.

Footnote: I was working on this post, in fits and starts due to being so busy (and tired) this week, and then Roger Green posted a comment asking about my reaction to the death of George Michael. This post mostly addresses that comment, but it’s not actually part of this year’s “Ask Arthur” series. Even so, I’m tagging it for that series.

Missing summer

This summer has been a joke: Cooler than normal (even cold sometimes), and much rainier than it should be, too. Everyone seems to be expecting real summer to start, but it never does. If it does, though, people will complain about that.

We spent Christmas in Paeroa with family, and had a lovely time. We went down there Christmas Eve, and came back Boxing Day. Yesterday was the public holiday for Christmas, since the actual day fell on a Sunday this year. That meant that some places were closed, thought most shops were open.

The middle of the day yesterday we attended the funeral the mother of a friend of ours. And then in the evening I felt fairly unwell. Maybe it was all catching up with me.

Despite getting a lot of sleep the past two nights, I’m still pretty tired today, but determined to get caught up with blogging—which, in this case, means finishing this year’s Ask Arthur series, along with a few other posts to complete before the end of the year. I finished my annual goal last Friday, of course.

So, the holidays were fun, but they also took a lot out of me. Must be the way it is nowadays. We’ll see if I fair better this weekend. That, too, will be blogged.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast 2016

Above is the annual Christmas Broadcast from Her Majesty the Queen of New Zealand (etc.). Once again, I saw it on YouTube. New Zealand gets a name-check early on.

The Queen has been ill this Christmas, and missed Christmas Day church services due to what her spokespeople referred to as “an abundance of caution”. This seems prudent—she IS 90, after all.

The religious stuff doesn’t mean anything to me, of course, but the Queen’s talk of the importance of volunteering did. I’ve volunteered in the political realm for decades, on and off, and this year I began moving toward non-political community volunteering instead.

The music played at the beginning is, of course, “God Save the Queen”, the national anthem of the United Kingdom. It’s also one of New Zealand’s two official national anthems, though I’ve never heard it played in place of “God Defend New Zealand”. Someday, when New Zealand becomes a republic, it’ll drop the other national anthem (among other things royal). But that day is still quite awhile away.

In the meantime, I’m still fascinated by these annual broadcasts, even if most of the Kiwis I know aren’t.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

I took this photo several days ago at Birkenhead Wharf in an ill-fated attempt to take some photos of pohutukawa in bloom. Sadly, the ones at ground level were all done. Still, this is what Auckland looks like in summer, so it's a good choice for a photo, I think.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

This Christmas Eve

Today is Christmas Eve, and I have to admit that one song—the video above—has been on my mind the past couple days. Must be because of something in the news. Or maybe something the next day.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A mission accomplished

This is the 366th AmeriNZ Blog post for 2016, and that means—even without a single post the rest of this year—there’s now an average of one post per day for 2016, and this post is the perfect way to make that achievement. This also means that the pressure’s off for this year—not that it matters, because there are several posts in the queue between now and December 31. It is, however, a good sign for many reasons.

2016 has not been one of my better years, and for a lot reasons, some of which are shared by millions of other people. But this was the year of my hospital adventure, and also feeling terrible for months before that. There were also two interruptions in our Internet connections that made posting blog posts difficult. So, the fact that I caught up on blogging, that I made up for lost time and actually completed my annual goal, means that this year is ending far better than it was in the middle. It also probably means that 2017 will be better than this year was—it pretty much has to be, to be fair.

The fact that 2016 was a pretty bad year for me personally suggests why achieving this goal matters so much to me: I triumphed over my own adversity, and did so with vigour. Yeah, the goal in ordinary years is unimportant in the grand sweep of life, but this year it was much more important to me than ever because it symbolised not just the achievement of a personal goal, but also of survival itself. Melodramatic? Tough—it’s actually true.

I achieved this goal because I set out to be a blogging machine, and that was actually harder than I thought it'd be. I’ve never been one to just post a YouTube video (or whatever) without saying something about it, so everything I posted since August was the result of thought and effort (some more that others, of course, as is always the case).

Because I knew I needed a LOT of posts, I created a lot of very rough drafts of posts to flesh out later, mostly nothing more than things like YouTube embedding code, links to relevant articles, and anything else I wanted to reference in the post. I’ve always done that to some extent, but over the past few months they were deliberate, planned, and numerous—and most of them ended up polished and published.

There were a lot of posts over the past few months, beginning with a slow start, the one extra post in September, followed by a strong October (43 posts) and a an outrageously productive November (51 posts), leading into December—31 posts in the first 23 days. That adds up to 156 posts from September 1 through this one, and that’s almost 43% of my annual goal in less than four months.

The truth is, I started out reasonably strong this year (33 posts in January and 35 in February) because I knew there would be periods when I wouldn’t have time to blog, as is true every year, and I wanted a buffer. But with the exception of July, I didn’t again come close to the one-per-day average until September, and I fell further and further behind.

I caught up because I wanted to, and I made it my priority. During this period I also resumed podcasting, still not regularly, but a resumption, nevertheless. In the New Year, I plan to resume making videos, but more about that when it happens.

For now, the important thing is that I achieved a goal that mattered very much to me because achieving it symbolised triumphing over adversity, and even over what could have happened. Sure, it’s the goal’s not important, but the triumph is. And it’s a good sign for what next year could bring.

Special thanks to Roger Green, who encouraged me and cheer-led (is that a word?) for me to meet my goal, probably because he’s one of the few people I know who cares about such things. Speaking of which, check out his latest “Ask Roger Anything” post in which he talks about some of the things he feels about blogging; I completely relate to what he said.

Related: This is blog post 333 for 2016 – a progress report on this project from the end of November, including some surprises I found along the way.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

These days

The video above is from Yahoo News, and posted to their Facebook Page to mark the final month of the Obama Presidency. It’s a nice video, but it attracted negative comments. Of course it did. These days, people can’t NOT say negative things, it seems, not when there are total strangers who must be told how wrong they are.

I shared the video on the AmeriNZ Facebook Page, and said:
“This is a nice video. I'm not interested in hearing anything negative about President Obama in the comments. If you can't say anything positive, then don't say anything at all, because negative comments will be deleted. Seriously. I'm one of the people who will miss the Obamas, and this is NOT the post to debate him or his legacy.”
I wrote that aware that when it comes to President Obama, certain commentators feel they’re required to tell Liberals/Progressives how stupid we are for liking the Obamas, how ignorant we are of “the facts” about President Obama, and how the country will be “better off” without them. Yes, rightwingers said all those things, but that wasn’t what was in my mind at the time: It was Leftwingers.

Lately I’ve seen leftwingers—the people I call “on the Leftward side of Left”—exhibiting the exact same behaviour as people on the Rightward Side of Right: Irrational, neck-deep in conspiracy theories, fact-free, anti-intellectual, absolutist and fundamentalist, aggressive and belligerent, and absolutely without any willingness whatsoever to consider the possibility that they may be wrong—but with an all-consuming drive to tell other people how wrong THEY are.

Such people—Left or Right—are nothing new, of course, and this year the infamous “Bernie Bros”, and later Green Party activists, were the most obvious examples on the Left. I didn’t and don’t frequent sites or Facebook Pages where such people hang out, so my only exposure was accidental, or through Facebook friends who who have Facebook friends like that. Frequent use of blocking on Facebook has helped me reduce the noise from them and their identical twins on the far Right.

But we shouldn’t HAVE to put up with this! We all know that there are people who disagree with us, but we do NOT have to tolerate people being dicks and beating us over the head with their contrary positions. Maybe it’s too late to restore any sort of civility, but whether it is or not, we don’t have to accept such behaviour as normal or acceptable.

So, because of that, I made the comment I did when I shared the video, and the comments left on it were ones I agree with; so far, no one has left a negative comment. I’ll admit that, good Liberal that I am, I hesitated before being so firm in my instructions. But, then, the most belligerent Far Lefties and Far Righties too often ignore social cues to be restrained, so I thought being direct was best. I also felt it was only fair to warn would-be commenters that I’d delete anything negative—not for the Grumpy Brigades of the Left and Right, but so that those who share my admiration for the Obamas could feel safe in making a comment knowing I’d protect them from harassment.

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows that I value discussion, even when it’s robust and passionate. And, in another context, I’d be happy to debate the worth of President Obama’s many accomplishments, etc., but this video just isn’t the appropriate context for such a discussion. It was a chance for those of us who would rather have four more years of President Obama than a single second of the Orange Menace to reflect on what we had.

An activist friend of mine observed recently that President Obama makes him want to redouble his efforts and to continue fighting to preserve what we’ve accomplished, and to expand on that in the future—to keep moving forward, in other words, despite everything. If I can help encourage more people to feel like that by posting a simple video and banning negativity, that’d be awesome. The real world is harsh enough, and has few brakes or controls to ensure civility. In the spaces we build, we have the right to do as we choose, and I choose to enforce civility whenever necessary.

These days, it seems, enforcing civility seems to be a growing necessity.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Work in progress

Sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do: Everyone has different ways of coping with unpleasant news, though they may seem pointless or silly to others. Mine, it seems, is gardening work.

I posted the above photo to Instagram today. What I didn’t say (deliberately) is that I decided to work outside for the same reason I did the day after the US election: To cope with the “victory” of the Orange Menace. At least today’s Electoral College victory wasn’t a shock like the November election was.

When the news broke today, it felt like my homeland had committed suicide, which led me to post a snarky Tweet:

The “joke” is that until recently is was illegal for New Zealand journalists to report that a Kiwi had died by suicide unless the Chief Coroner gave permission, but that restriction doesn’t apply to people in other countries. That’s eased a bit recently, so there was a bit of poetic license in my Tweet, but it’s still forbidden for the NZ news media to report the method of suicide.

The point behind my “joke” was that, for me, the USA had just committed suicide. However, in reality, it was the second act (the first was the election), and there’s a final act, the inauguration. I won’t watch that travesty, of course.

So, I was in profound mourning for my homeland today. Sure, I knew this would be the result, but since the Electoral College move was the last possible thing that could save the country, I hoped that the Electors would have a moral centre and do the right thing and reject Donnie. They didn’t. Draw your own conclusions about the possible moral failings, torpidity, or whatever, of the Republican Electors; I certainly have.

But, it is what is, and there’s now no remaining hope that Donnie won’t become the Cheeto in Chief (a nickname I heard for the first time today and loved instantly). America is doomed to a very dark time ahead before it gets a chance to start fixing things, starting in two years when they can vote the Republicans out. That’s now the only remaining hope.

Meanwhile, I have more garden work to do.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Arthur Answers, Part 4: Murder in the VR degree

In today’s question, Roger Green asks about something quite theoretical—and fascinating, I think:

Do you think murder in VR should be banned?

Roger provided a link to a piece entitled, “Murder in virtual reality should be illegal” by Angela Buckingham and originally published on Aeon. The tl;dr version is the final paragraph:

“In an immersive virtual environment, what will it be like to kill? Surely a terrifying, electrifying, even thrilling experience. But by embodying killers, we risk making violence more tantalizing, training ourselves in cruelty and normalizing aggression. The possibility of building fantasy worlds excites me as a filmmaker—but, as a human being, I think we must be wary. We must study the psychological impacts, consider the moral and legal implications, even establish a code of conduct. Virtual reality promises to expand the range of forms we can inhabit and what we can do with those bodies. But what we physically feel shapes our minds. Until we understand the consequences of how violence in virtual reality might change us, virtual murder should be illegal. ”

I am always suspicious of moral panics, which is what the piece sounded like to me. Generally speaking, such things are based on spurious claims, and tend to suggest the broadest possible approach in the first instance, and that’s not usually the best approach. The main problem right now is that the facts don’t support her argument. Still, should be heed her call, anyway?

First things first: The virtual reality—VR—that Buckingham envisions doesn’t actually exist, and likely won’t for a while yet. It’s simply not possible to physically “feel” anything, so when she writes of a VR “murder” and says “you feel the density of his body against yours, the warmth of his blood,” she’s talking about something that is entirely imaginary. Someone using VR SEES things, but cannot touch or feel them. Which makes VR porn equally odd, though in a Rule 34 sense its existence is predictable.

Second, seeing things in VR requires bulky goggle-like things, and giving touch would require some sort of glove-like things. That’s not true to life at all, and that artificiality undermines Buckingham’s argument: If it’s no more “real” than a game someone might play now, how can it really be any worse?

I think this matters: If the experience is only visual and vicarious, I don’t believe that it can cause an increase in violence any more than watching violent movies or playing violent games do. The phrase “any more than” is important: I’m not suggesting that watching violence or taking part in it through a game or even VR can’t lead people to be more violent, merely that it’s no worse.

However, the science is still inconclusive on whether vicarious violence can lead someone to become more violent, with the preponderance of evidence suggesting that it doesn’t for otherwise mentally and emotionally healthy people.

But, what’s the harm, then? If the evidence is still unclear, why shouldn’t we ban VR murder until, as Buckingham says, “we understand the consequences of how violence in virtual reality might change us”? Because there’s no evidence to suggest that would do any good, either.

If something is made illegal, it doesn’t go away, it just becomes more difficult to obtain. But that’s just a pragmatic point: The bigger issue here is that banning and censoring things is a restriction on liberty, and that ought to be a last-resort, after there’s real evidence of clear and obvious harm that cannot be prevented in any other way.

By all means, restrict such things to 18+, and criminalise giving such materials to minors, as we do with other things deemed unsuitable for them. But banning them from all people when the evidence of harm is weak and the probability of censoring free expression is great? I can’t see any good that would outweigh the harm in loss of liberty.

There are a couple things that might persuade me to agree with Buckingham. First, if the technology were to evolve to be more like real-life—for example, entirely within one’s own head, Matrix-like. But that would raise all sorts of other questions and potential problems, too. The point here is that the artificiality of VR would have to be greatly reduced for it to pose any sort of unique threat.

The other thing would be if there was a lot more credible research indicating that vicarious violence permanently increases the propensity toward violence among otherwise mentally and emotionally healthy individuals. I’m a bit dubious that such a thing is likely.

So, at the moment, no, I don’t support making “VR murder” illegal, at least not until research provides good evidence that it could cause harm bad enough to justify the loss of freedom and liberty.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Summer evening

There’s finally been more summery weather in Auckland, though maybe not as warm as it will be later. Last night, we had dinner at a family member’s house, and then went out on Milford Beach. Nigel and went for a walk along the beach while the rest of the family played some beach cricket.

When I shot the photo above, the sun was setting behind us, giving Rangitoto the last of the day’s light. It was as quiet and peaceful as it looks—even the waves were gentle and quiet just then. After the sun set, the wind picked up a bit and the waves became louder again. But it was remarkably quiet when I took that photo. I posted the same photo to Instagram, but it was cropped for that; this is the uncropped version.

The photo below is of pohutukawa in bloom next to the beach. The trees are particularly full and pretty this year. I also posted this photo to Instagram, but forgot to lighten it a bit before I did, so the photo below fixes that.

And that was my summer evening.

Arthur Answers, Part 3: Political dreck

Today’s questions, also from Roger Green, are all related to political stuff, long one of my main interests. First up:

How do you keep from getting depressed by the political dreck? Do you think being in NZ has helped you survive Agent Orange more easily?

The second part is the easiest to answer: Yes, absolutely. I’m safe from the all the terrible things that Donnie will do to the people of the USA who aren’t rich oligarchs or plutocrats, and I’ll also escape the economic pain that ordinary Americans will feel, too—unless he really does cause a global depression, of course. Our freedoms in New Zealand aren’t in any danger, and we may even elect a Left-leaning government next year, although it’s worth point out that most Republican politicians and pundits would call our current Right-leaning government “ultra-Leftist”.

All of which is part of the answer to the first question: It is quite possible for me to close my eyes and ears and ignore what happens in the USA, immersing myself entirely in this country and this part of the world. There have already been times when this has been very useful, since it allowed me distance to calm down my anger or as a salve for emotional pain.

Internet meme, author unknown.
The thing is, I feel awful about what’s about to happen to my homeland, the freedoms that will be lost, the decades of progress that will be erased, the severe hardship that the poor, the working class, and the middle class will all endure in order to transfer more and more of their money to the ultra-rich. But there’s also pretty much nothing I can do about it from here. I have no choice, really, but to try and have a buffer, some space to keep my head and heart safe from the coming dark times in my homeland, and New Zealand gives me that. This is part of what keeps me from getting depressed.

I also use what’s basically the “unsent letter” strategy: I write about whatever I’m outraged about at the moment—and Donnie outrages me every single day, sometimes several different times a day—and then I do nothing with it. That allows me to engage in a full-throated venting to express my rage and pain and disgust without censoring myself in any way. Sometimes, I delete such raging rants, but even if I don’t, I also don’t re-read them. Their purpose is merely to let out all the negativity I’m feeling so I can let go of it.

Then, I focus on all that’s positive: My husband and our wider family, our furbabies, the awesomeness that is summer in New Zealand, the great community we live in—all that and more. Add all that up, and I can cope remarkably well—so far, anyway. But it doesn’t take away the worry.

Next, Roger asked:

That spate of hate crimes and harassment post-election: why are Trump supporters such sore WINNERS?

The number of reported Trump-related hate crimes and harassment has slowed dramatically, but the overall question is still valid. I think it’s mostly the arrogance of victory among the “alt-right” creeps, people who have been frustrated by having a president who opposed them, after succeeding a Republican president who didn’t enact their agenda, and a Congress that similarly ignored them. They truly believe that Donnie’s going to turn the USA into their white, heterosexual, “Christian”, cisgendered man’s utopia, and that’s an at least partially justified belief. So, because they think they're seeing their dream come true, they feel freed to engage in all the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., etc., etc. rhetoric and violence they want. I think we’ll continue to see spikes every time Donnie or his gang do something against minorities, which they’ll do every time they need to distract attention from their corruption or mistakes.

Turning to the real world of Facebook, Roger asked:

What is your rule of thumb in how long you'll stay in a Facebook pissing match, and do you need to have the last word?

How long I’ll stay in a fight depends on whether I “know” my sparring partner(s), like if they’re “Friends” or friends of “Friends”, and whether I’m “discussing” something with one person or several.

If I know the other person(s) I’m “discussing” something with, I may engage for quite awhile. If I don’t, I usually try and limit myself to no more than a maximum of maybe five replies total, from both of us combined. This isn’t always a successful strategy, and I can get carried away sometimes, but it’s my goal.

I usually stop when I see the argument is pointless, that my opponent is being irrational, engaging in ad hominem attacks against me, using circular arguments, failing to provide any evidence to back up their opinions, etc. There have been several times in which a conversation like that went on too long and I deleted all my comments, making the other person look like some sort of deranged idiot raging into the wind. Earlier this year, I wrote about doing that.

This year in particular, I’ve become much better at simply walking away, starting with not responding in the first place (most common) to just abandoning a pointless argument. So, no, I don’t need to get the last word, and I’m even more likely to avoid doing so when my adversary declares I’ll try to have the last word—because I know that pisses them off by leaving them unsatisfied in their self-righteousness. Obviously that’s petty, but so are nearly all Facebook pissing matches, so it's in keeping with the ethos.

Related to Facebook, Roger asked:

Someone just wrote that he "rocked Facebook." What the hell does that even mean?

No idea, but it sounds like they were proud of their performance in one of those Facebook pissing matches. If so, it sounds like Danth’s Law in play. Other than that, maybe they promoted an event that many people took notice of or something. In general, I think that praising oneself for one’s actions on Facebook without the hashtag “#humblebrag” (or similar self-deprecating acknowledgement) would be a bit unseemly.

That’s it for today! There will be at least a couple more of these posts to finish up this series, but feel free to leave new questions in the comments. I can always do more posts, after all.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Options, choice, and woo

It’s human nature to want to fix things that are wrong with us—disease, conditions, even just things we don’t like about ourselves. Science and medicine give us many tools to help with disease and health conditions, but sometimes we want something more or different. Most of the time, that’s okay, but sometimes it’s quackery. I found that out in my own fight against gout.

Rationalist sceptics of all sorts (especially in the areas of religion and science) have a name they use for nonsense: Woo is a word used to describe any belief for which there’s no supporting evidence, or insufficient evidence, and that’s unscientific or even anti-scientific. It was derived from woo-woo, which I’ve often heard was coined because of the mocking spooky sound of the word. It definitely IS insulting, intentionally so, I think, and I don’t have a problem with that: Sometimes it takes a little push to get people to confront their irrational beliefs.

Over the years, I’ve searched for solutions to gout, things that could help prevent attacks as much as possible. This was because of my stubbornness in avoiding all prescription drugs, something I managed to do until this year, though it wasn’t a good idea, obviously.

Still, part of the problem I faced was that doctors wouldn’t give definitive recommendations, a problem I wrote about last year. I wrote:
Without any real help from the medical establishment, people will often go looking for “alternative” answers, which can cause problems or make their condition worse. It also doesn’t help when actual medical advice is given with a declaratory nature, as in, “avoid this thing”, when gout is highly individual and some things just won’t bother some people.
Not long ago, I heard a science sceptic say that there’s no such thing as “alternative medicine”—there’s either medicine, or there’s quackery. Her point was that medicine is evidence-based and results can be proven, predicted, and reliable. So, the implication is that anything that isn’t those things isn’t medicine, it’s woo.

But, is it really?! Well…

The problem is that lack of proof is not the same thing as lack of evidence, and something that isn’t proven isn’t necessarily ineffective. As long as something isn’t actually harmful, there’s little reason not to try something unproven, and if there’s any evidence it might be beneficial, there may be good reason to try it.

Tart cherries are a good example of this. There’s evidence that tart cherries help fight gout, especially when combined with allopurinol. It’s thought that substances in tart cherries, particularly the Montmorency variety, helps break down uric acid in the blood. That substance is also what gives cherries their dark reddish colour, and it’s higher in tart cherries than in other cherry varieties or in berries.

Researchers at Otago University are studying the efficacy of tart cherry in reducing the frequency and severity of attacks, partly because so many people would rather not go on the drugs. Tart cherry seemed to help me, however, my circumstances changed and I needed stronger weapons.

Not all cherry capsules are the same. For the past few years, I’ve been taking Redd Remedies’ Gouch, which I only recently learned contains ordinary cherry. It also contains ginger (about which, more in a bit), among other things. Before that, I took Radiance’s GoutEze, which contains tart cherry, but much less of it than Gouch has of ordinary cherry, and it has a lot more ginger, plus baking soda, which made me burp too much, leading to me changing brands. Both cost roughly a couple dollars a day.

The problem is the ginger—and the baking soda, and all the other stuff added. Most of it has no evidence of efficacy, but the use of ginger and baking soda are both nothing but woo.

Fans of including it claim that ginger “warms the blood”, and that keeping joints warm is critical to avoiding gout attacks (I saw a recommendation that gout sufferers should wear socks to bed). The fact, however, is that ginger does not “warm the blood”. It absolutely has warming properties—in the mouth and stomach alone. Once consumed, ginger is eventually neutralised in digestion and it doesn’t—and can’t—“warm the blood”. I knew this, but ignored it because, at the time, I couldn’t find tart cherry pills without ginger.

The use of baking soda and similar compounds, fans say, “alkalinises the blood” making it less hospitable to uric acid and the crystals they form. This is utter nonsense, and can even be dangerous.

The human body is designed to operate within a very narrow pH range: If the body becomes too acidic or to alkaline, we die. Because of that, humans have all sorts of natural mechanisms to control the pH balance (for example, respiration). The foods we consume DO increase the acidity or alkalinity of the digestive system—for a while. There, too, the human body naturally intervenes to keep the pH balance in the normal range, and if our bodies can’t do that, we need medical help, but unless that’s the case, nothing we consume can change the acidity level of the blood—nothing.

This particular woo can become dangerous: I saw advice that gout sufferers should consume baking soda directly to “alkalinise the blood”. Trouble is, consuming too much can be fatal in some circumstances, and it’s adding extra sodium, one of the leading causes of hypertension, to the body.

So, sceptic that I am, I want to see some evidence that something may be effective, as is the case with tart cherries. But even I have been desperate enough to try full on woo: Apple cider vinegar.

I tried it many years ago, and suffered a gout attack shortly after I started. However, in my recent misery, I was desperate enough to give it another go, and I read up on it.

All the advice was that it must be organic apple cider vinegar (ACV). This was my first red flag: There is no chemical difference between organic and non-organic ACV, since they're both acetic acid solutions. Also, organic ACV can actually have higher levels of pesticides because organic-approved ones have to be used more often and at higher levels than non-approved ones.

Fans of ACV said that it works because the acetic acid is “alkalinised” in digestion, and then lowers the acid levels of the blood. There’s an element of truth in this, in that the body does alkalinise acids in digestion, but, as I’ve already said, that doesn’t and can’t “alkalinise the blood”.

So, I wondered if the effective part might actually be the “mother”, the cloudy, stringy-ish stuff in organic ACV that’s the bacteria that produces the acetic acid. We know that certain bacteria can be very beneficial (for example, the bacteria in yoghurt can help restore bowel health after a course of antibiotics), so I thought that possibility was enough to give it a go.

I had zero benefit from ACV. Despite claims that a gout attack would end in hours or, at most, a few days, ACV had absolutely no effect on my attack, and I ended the experiment after a couple weeks. What DID work was increasing my dosage of tart cherry and drinking tart cherry juice, too: Once I started that (well after the ACV experiment), my symptoms finally eased, and I finally went into remission.

So, how could all those people who claim such miraculous results be so wrong? There are a lot of reasons, starting with the “it worked for me” fallacy. Trying a substance on ourselves without controls or strict observable regimen means we can’t possibly know if it worked or not. Instead, it could just be confirmation bias—essentially, we got the results we expected. This is a form of self-deception, sure, but for most people it’s most likely to be a placebo effect, a real phenomenon in which people believe that a substance has helped them when it hasn’t.

For people like me, who want evidence—not proof, necessarily, but verifiable evidence—that something is safe and effective, we are perhaps a bit less likely to believe that something “worked” when it didn’t. Fans of woo dismiss our experience with a special pleading fallacy, arguing that something wasn’t done right—we didn’t take enough ACV, we didn’t take it correctly, we didn’t use it long enough, etc. But without controlled studies, there’s no verifiable evidence, and that fact beats their confirmation bias, whether they want to admit it or not.

The bottom line for me is that extraordinary claims require evidence—it doesn’t have to be proof, just verifiable evidence. People can talk about their own self-described wonderful experience, but that’s not evidence.

Which brings me back to tart cherry. There is evidence that it's effective, though we don’t yet know how effective or whether prescription drugs are needed, too. I’m well aware that my own seemingly positive experience using tart cherry is not evidence, and I don’t claim that it is. People must always do their own research, talk to their doctor, and listen to their own bodies.

In my opinion, we must all trust our intellect and judgement, and follow the facts and evidence, not blindly follow the latest woo. If we do, we’ll save time, trouble, and probably some money, too.

Still, people have the right to make their own choices, even ones some of us may consider irrational. However, they don’t have the right to preach their choices unchallenged. No one does.

And that is definitely a fact.

Friday, December 16, 2016

YouTube Rewind: The Ultimate 2016 Challenge

The video above is YouTube’s annual Rewind, “Celebrating the videos, people, music and moves that made 2016.” As usual, it features some of the most popular YouTubers, as well as well as the popular trends and videos of the year.

I have to admit that I recognised very few of the YouTubers (not counting those popular outside of YouTube), and among those I did recognise, I only subscribe to a couple of their channels. There’s only so much time in a day, after all.

Probably because these videos feature so many popular YouTubers, they’re enormously popular in themselves. There were a mere 67 million views in the first two days (which is when I first saw it), but by the time I was preparing this post—some 8 or 9 days after the video was posted—there were more than 143 million views. That’s pretty popular.

These videos are just silly and fun, and at a time when maybe we need it the most. So what if I don’t recognise most of the people in it, or get all the references—is that even necessary?

YouTube said in the final screen of the video: “Dedicated to all the moments that brought us together this year, and to love and understanding in 2017.” That alone is reason enough for the video, I think.

A complete list of all the participants can be found in the YouTube description.

2Political Podcast announcement

We posted a short announcement to the site, but the gust is we’ll be back in January.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Arthur Answers, Part 2: About podcasting

For today’s question, Roger Green asks: “You ought to do a political podcast – oh, wait, you do! Besides the actual recording, what goes into making a podcast ready for listening?”

What a timely question, since I just released a new episode! Okay, so Roger actually asked the question two weeks ago, and I’ve released two podcast episodes between then and now, but still…

There are two aspects to making a podcast episode—the process, and the technology needed. Both vary, depending on the podcaster, so I’ll just stick to how I podcast.

First, the basic technological information: One has to have a microphone, some sort of audio interface to connect the microphone to the computer, and software to record the episode. The better the mic, the better the sound, but there’s good free software available that isn’t too hard to learn.

When I began podcasting I used an ordinary USB headset, of the type typically used (in 2007, anyway) for Skype calls. It plugged directly into the PC I had at the time, and my software was Audacity, which is open source free audio recording software. I used that for all of 2007, until Nigel gave me a new, better mic for my birthday in 2008.

Eventually I switched to a Macintosh and used the GarageBand software that comes with all Macs (and there’s a version for iOS devices, too). I also got a better audio mixer, and that was the setup I used until this year.

The process is the same, regardless of the software: Recording, editing, creating an MP3 file, uploading that to my podcast site, then promoting it on social media.

The recording is the most obvious: Press record and speak into the mic, click on stop when finished. That’s the easy part. Next, I have to listen to what I recorded, first to make sure the levels are right—not too loud or too soft—but also to listen for “dead air” (where I’m silent), areas where I say um too much, where I make mouth smacking noises (which really irritates some people), and even where I get things wrong, in which case I may re-record that part or else cut the entire thought.

This editing process can be as complex and time-consuming as one wants, really. For my AmeriNZ Podcast, I edit very lightly—mostly to remove dead air. That’s because that particular podcast has always been a bit more free-form. With 2Political Podcast, it’s much more complicated because there are two of us talking in two separate audio tracks. If I cut something from one track, I have to cut the exact same amount, and at the exact same time, on the other track or else they’ll get out of sync.

Because I edit AmeriNZ Podcast so lightly, that takes only about as long as it takes me to listen to the recording, maybe a bit longer. 2Political Podcast, on the other hand, tends to take two to three times as long as the finished podcast, meaning that a 45 minute episode would take, on average, 90 minutes to more than 2 hours to edit, and that's part of why they take so long to post (about which, an announcement is coming soon).

The next step is to prepare the MP3 file, and add the ID3 Tags, which adds information to the MP3 file, things like title, artist, album, track number, etc. This is how an MP3 player can tell you what a song is, who recorded it, what album it’s from, etc. I know some podcasters who manually add these tags, but I do NOT.

Both Audacity and GarageBand allow one to export a file as an MP3 and to add the ID3 tags at the same time (basically, it's like filling out a short form). However, I export in a high-quality file format, open that in iTunes, and use THAT to create the MP3 file and add the tags (both of which a very easy to do).

Next, I take the MP3 file and upload it to my podcast website (which is really a self-hosted Wordpress blog, with a special plug-in called podPress to post podcasts). I can upload it using FTP software, or through the website itself. I don’t usually make artwork (called “album art”) for specific episodes, but if I do I need to make that before I click “publish”, and I need to add it to my MP3 file.

Once the file is uploaded, I then write the “shownotes”, which is basic information about what the podcast episode is about, along with links to things I talked about or other related information. Basically, it’s a blog post, except that some of it will end up with the downloaded podcast (all of the ID3 tags are there, along with the album art, and some of the shownotes, too).

Once published, I share the episode on Google+, my AmeriNZ Facebook Page, and on Twitter. Finally, I post an announcement here on this blog. The five most recent episodes of both podcasts are listed on the righthand side of this blog, too.

Then, it starts all over again for the next episode.

Finally, I don’t script my podcasts at all, and much of the time I don’t even use any notes when I record. The quality would probably be higher if I did, but I’m only now getting to the point where I feel (and sound) comfortable reading a script, something that’s come about from doing voiceovers on my most recent YouTube videos, actually.

Those are the highlights of the process, and naturally there are a lot of specific details I left out. Nevertheless, that’s the general process. If anyone wants more specific information, feel free to ask in the comments or send me an email.

Thanks for the question, Roger!

There’s still time to ask a question if you want to, just ask in the comments to this post.