Monday, January 15, 2018

Back to it?

All summer holidays must come to an end, sooner or later. In New Zealand, time was nearly the entire country shut down from Christmas until the end of January, but those days are over. Mostly. And not for me.

As it happens, I don’t go back to work until the beginning of February, thanks to the arrangement of dates and the fact the project I work on every month skips January. It’s a good chance for me to get some projects done around the house, and every year I set out to do that. Sometimes I even succeed. This has already been one of those years.

Last week, I talked about my office reorganisation project, and the barriers to completing it. I didn’t mention one weird obstacle: I couldn’t find a Sharpie, and I knew we had at least four—somewhere. Today I went and bought a different sort of marker (only because the store didn’t sell Sharpies), and I was ready to finish that part of the project.

I wanted the marker so I could write on a scrap piece of paper what years were in the plastic box, which I then folded and faced outward so the signs could be read theough the transluscent plastic. So today I finished the re-boxing of all those receipts and statements I’d sorted, and I even wrote down the destuction date so I don’t have to do the arithmetic later on (because, reasons).

Now, I have little bits of detritus to box up, something I started this afternoon. These are things I want to keep (like political ephemera, for example, something I’ve collected for decades, though I have virtually nothing left of what I had in the USA), but that I don’t need close at hand. That’s a small job, really, and something I’ll complete tomorrow.

In the first few days of the new year, a friend mentioned on Facebook that he was seeing a lot of stuff about decluttering in his newfeed and he wondered why. I pointed out that he was probably seeing it because getting organised is a common New Year’s Resolution. But, in truth, decluttering has been popular on various Internet sites—especially Pinterest and YouTube—for a long time now.

There are a lot of different approaches to this sort of thing, such as, some people merely want to be better organised, as they define that, others want less “stuff”, among other things. As a 22-year-old, I was intrigued by Henry David Thoreau and his talk of people possessing no more than they could carry on their backs. He also coined, “simplify, simplify”, though I think most people wouldn’t take that to mean eat only once a day or have only five plates as he did. Still, the ideas are interesting, if somewhat difficult to achieve in the modern world.

Today I saw a somewhat extreme variations on this “simplify” riff. Called “Swedish Death Cleaning”, it’s basically about getting rid of more and more stuff, starting around age 50, so that our children don’t have to spend hours after we die going through stuff that means nothing to them. I had two completely different reactions to this notion.

First, I frankly resent the assertion I have a moral duty to live like a monk in order to make things easier for my survivors. I have no children, so chances are that if I’m the last one to go, it’ll be some company hired by my estate executor and paid to come in and look for things of value to sell, everything else going to the tip. How is that my problem, and who am I inconveniencing? It’s not, and no one.

My other thought was that—up to a point—this makes some sense. It’s always good to get rid of truly useless stuff, and a good idea to leave explicit intructions as to how to get rid of anything for which we have very specific wishes. If anything. Mainly, though, I want to get rid of stuff and simplify for MY sake.

I often think of the quote from William Morris, a Victorian textile designer and artist (among other things…) who said: “If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

I often think of this when I see home renovation/decoration stuff, whether on TV, the Internet, or in a magazine. I think about it most frequently when I see the artwork used, often chosen for colour alone, and I think, why?! Sometimes useful things can be beautiful (however we define that), but what we personally think is beautiful is all that matters. To me, Morris’ Golden Rule is always useful when decorating, and also when deciding what to keep and what to discard.

Except when it’s not.

I often remind Kiwis that when they need to connect with earlier phases of their lives, especially childhood and young adulthood, they can easily do so: They can visit the town where they grew up, the schools they attended, the houses where they lived. I can’t do that without spending thousands and thousands of dollars and days—maybe weeks—of my time.

Instead, I have three boxes and bit more.

In this reorganising I’m doing, the stuff I’ve accumulated in the past 22+ years is fair game, but anything before that? Out of bounds. Forbidden. Getting rid of stuff and reducing the weight (literal and figurative) of that stuff is a worthy goal, but life touchstones do matter to most of us, and for me they’re contained within three boxes (and a very few books)—three boxes that aren’t going anywhere. Some day my executors can worry about them.

I’ve actually—What? Enjoyed?—this process of getting rid of stuff. It’s liberating. I can see how my office space, once emptied of junk, will make it easier for me to feel creative and to do something about it. These have been goals for years, and they are now within reach.

And the best part is that my summer break isn’t even over yet.

Friday, January 12, 2018

A day out

Today was a day out. The caption for the photo above pretty much explains what we were doing out and about early in the morning, but it was a good a day even despite the early start. And, it taught me a thing or two.

My breakfast of sweetcorn fritters is one of my go-to meals at a café because it’s not eggs, not over the top (usually), and I like the various ways it’s done. And for me, that was pretty much all there was to it until my sister posted a question: “Aren't corn fritters a Southern dish over here?” I didn’t know. So, I looked it up. Of course.

It turns out that, yes, corn fritters are made in the Southern (especially) USA, and the main difference between theirs and ours is that theirs includes butter, and ours doesn’t [Edmonds provides a classic Kiwi sweetcorn fritter recipe]. In most NZ cafés, the fritters are more like pancakes, and one near our hosue uses a waffle maker to make theirs (probably with butter…), which works surprisingly well. The best corn fritters I’ve had (so far) are still from the place I blogged about nearly three years ago.

After breakfast, we ran a couple errands (dog food and grocery shopping, mostly) before heading home. We were almost no sooner in the door before Nigel got a message that his car was ready. I put the groceries away, we rested a bit, then headed back out.

We had lunch in Pukekohe (just fast food, so, not Instagram-worthy…), stopped for a couple more retail errands, and then went to pick up Nigel’s car. Then, we went home, and our errands were done.

All in all, a productive day. We ordered some fencing for a project we’ll be doing soon, but that won’t be delivered until next week, which is fine. And we would’ve needed the dog food tomorrow, so that was important. But, we also got to have a nice breakfast out together, at a Pukekohe café we’d never been to before. The best part is, there are a lot more left to explore.

I’d never had corn fritters until I came to New Zealand, and until today I never really knew all that much about them. Having a day out can be a good thing for many reasons.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

In his shoes

The video above is a New Zealand public service TV ad. This country has a long history of running somtimesd confronting ads promoting road saftey, one way or another. In that sense, this ad is just another of those. And yet, it’s not.

In past years, the road safety ads were often quite graphic—though not as graphic as Australian road safety ads of the same period. That ended around the turn of the century when the NZ ads stopped being so graphic, and instead began to use humour or matter-of-fact delivery, but not any crash-related injury or death was usually just implied.

This ad revives some of the techniques of the original ads, including graphic depictions of crash scenes and their aftermath. Having the main actor speaking directly to the camera is a little unusual for these ads, though. In this case, it featured a cop showing the consequences of too much speed, which the NZ Police has said is a factor in nearly all crashes, even when it’s not the main cause, by which they mean it makes crashes worse, with more injury and even deaths than may have happened at lower speeds. This is a debatable assertion, but the point of the ad is to get people to see that there are consequences to driving too fast. That’s a very worthy goal in itself.

Favourite line: “Everyone thinks they drive well. But I’ve never seen anyone crash well.”

Very true, that.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


Auckland emerged from the storm in one piece, and so did we. However, by the time the storm passed, I was already getting sick. Saturday evening I finally wandered out to look at the damage (photo above), but that was hard work. Now, I’m recovering, too. With a bonus epiphany.

The caption on the photo pretty much explains what I saw, but I was in no condition to do anything about it. We fixed the damage yesterday.

Meanwhile, on Sunday I felt awful. I don’t think I got out of my chair all day. However, I suddenly felt fine later that evening—the first time all year. Actually, it was the first time since late last year that I felt totally fine (we’ve previously established that I make that sort of New Year joke, but this has been my only opportunity this year; I wasn’t going to miss it).

I woke up during the night feeling yucky, so I took a couple paracetamol. When I got up a couple hours later, I felt okay again. I was fine until afternoon, when I felt yucky again, and popped a couple paracetamol again. Yesterday and today I’ve felt basically okay.

This has meant I just didn’t feel up to doing all the physical work I’d planned for my office project, so, as I said in my previous post, I did what I could. That meant sitting quietly on the floor sorting through all the unfiled receipts and statements I’d had boxed up, sometimes for years. Progress was slow, but steady.

In the process I came up with a solution. I took small plastic lidded bins I’d just emptied, and started putting the sorted papers in year older, the oldest on top. Each January 1, I discard everything that’s more than seven years old (so, anything from 2010 or earlier can go; one year from now, 2011 can go, and so on). This way I need three of the plastic boxes plus one small one for last year.

As I did this, I had an epiphany when I realised this will be the last time I’ll ever have such a huge job to do, and not because of a sudden change of behaviour to be thoroughly organised: We don’t get bills or statements in the mail anymore, so there will be very little to file. In fact, the current year’s file is just a plastic sorting folder, something I’ll never fill up during the year.

This also means I no longer need the filing cabinet where I filed bills and statements as they came in, but the bigger story there is that I’ll never have to sit and file receipts again—easily the houseold job I despise most of all and put off endlessly. Instead, I can take each folder, distribute the contents to the appropriate year’s box, and then the drawer will be empty. I DO have archival stuff, mostly samples of things I’ve done, that I want to keep, and the filing cabinet will be good for that, I think.

All of this has happened because nearly all our statements and bills are now online. I keep them on my computer, but if there’s a disaster and I lose them I can just download them again. This is one way win which this digitial age has made my life so much better.

And I probably realised all of this because I was sick. If I’d been 100%, I’d have just moved everything out of my office so I could reorganise it, but since I couldn’t do that, I decided to sort and purge stuff to be filed, and that gave me time to realise the fuller implications of what I was doing right then—and in the future. Sometimes being sick isn’t all bad.

In any case, I’m doing better. So is everyone else, too: The sun is shining here today.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Under the weather

Our first big storm of 2018 (the link was updated during the day) was more or less as promised. Some parts of the country, especially coastal areas, were hit hard, while inland areas faired much better. Mostly as promised.

Things were mostly pretty sedate at our house. I shot the video above this morning, during a relative lull in the windy conditions.

The day the storm was due to arrive on Thursday, but what we got was mostly gentle, if somewhat steady, rain. The strong winds, which were supposed to arrive by around 5pm, didn’t actually show up until much later in the night. By morning, the winds were quite strong, but they started to fade by late morning/midday today.

There was rain overnight, but not the torrential rain that had been predicted—sometimes there was little to none. This afternoon and into this evening, the wind mostly faded, but it picked up again this evening. The rain this afternoon was sometimes heavier, but still nothing like what was predicted.

The winds may have damaged my tomoatoes (I haven’t been out to look yet), but the mostly gentle, and not too heavy when it wasn’t, rain will have really helped the gardens and our lawns, which were looking pretty brown. I read somewhere that we got more rain in Auckland overnight than we got in November and December combined. That sounds impressive until you find out we’re talking about around 41mm (around 1.61 inches). Clearly we had a very dry two months. That’s why the rain we got is so welcome.

The flooding from the storm hasn’t been because of rain as much as from the strong winds and king tides, which meant there was a lot more water for those winds to push around, and they did. Watching the reports on the news and looking at various photos, I couldn’t help think that this was kind of dress rehearsal for what will be common as climate change makes sea levels rise and storms much worse. But, then, New Zealand already knows that; too bad one of the countries that's a major causes of climate change is absent in the fight for the earth.

While all this has been gong on, I’ve also not been feeling well—sort of flu-y and very tired. I still worked on my office project, but doing only what I felt up to doing, and that wasn’t much. It wasn’t a good couple days for working on projects; I’ve been “under the weather” in every sense.

The centre of the storm will have moved quite a way south by tomorrow, but they’re still predicting rain for us. That’s okay, we can still use more rain. Regardless of what the weather does, though. I hope I feel better tomorrow. There are tomatoes to inspect.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Before the storm

A major storm is headed for New Zealand, with heavy rains and strong winds hitting Auckland by around midday tomorrow. Early reports said we could get “hurricane force winds” and surface flooding, particularly because so much of the North Island has been very dry. We need rain, but…

I decided I wouldn’t take chances, so I went out to tie my tomatoes a bit more to their supporting stakes. Afterward, I took a selfie (photo above). It’s possible to see some baby tomatoes in that photo, and below is a close-up of some of the first to appear. I hope I did enough.

I did all that after we got home from lunch. When we left the house, it was 30 at our house (86F), bright, sunny, and with a few clouds in the otherwise blue sky. Gorgeous day, in other words.

After lunch, we stopped in the local Four Square and stocked up on some food so we don’t have to leave the house tomorrow, which seemed prudent. I plan some inside projects tomorrow, mainly starting work on re-organising my office, the perfect project for a rainy day. I may even work on some kitchen reorganisation (making changes to what I’ve already done). It’s nice to have options, especially since the storm isn’t supposed to leave New Zealand until Saturday (I presume the worst of it will have left us before then…).

So, today was a pretty ordinary summer day, really, and included preparation for a very different one tomorrow. It was a pretty good day, I’d say.

Some looks at the year just gone

At the end of every year, there are many videos that look at the year that’s ending. They often have different viewpoints and emphases, and some choose to split their reviews into several videos. When videos can be taken together, they can provide a pretty good overview of the year just gone.

The video above is from TIME Magazine and covers the “roller coaster that was 2017”. It’s mostly US-focused, but for what it’s about, not bad.

Next up, a much more focused video from TIME:

The video is called “Why 2017 Will Always Be Remembered As A Year Of Resistance”, which pretty much tells everyone what its focus is—and other, unrelated news doesn’t really make the cut for this video. This video ends on a definitely hopeful note, from a certain perspective, noting the Democratic election victories in 2017, and ending with a suggestion that 2018 may see an emboldened resistance movement. We should all hope so, because keeping the momentum building will be vital to ending Republican control of Congress and various state legislatures.

Next, an even more narrowly focused video from TIME:

This video takes a look specifically at the five areas where the current occupant of the White House has been successful in his attempts to destroy the USA. Yes, he only had one major legislative victory, which is a pathetic record any real president would be embarrassed about, but in addition to that one victory, he’s had plenty of opportunity to use executive actions to make things worse for average Americans. It must have been hard for the video makers to limit it to only five things.

Finally, a video from Vox:

The video is called “2017, in 7 minutes” and, seen by itself, could seem somewhat depressing. After all, it talks about natural disasters, tragedies, and international news of all sorts, and plenty of human suffering. It also includes a few of the many international screw-ups of the current occupant of the White House. The Resistance features prominently, of course, but the video’s theme seems to be at the end: “Anything is possible”, which can good or bad. If that’s what they meant to convey, did they mean it’s possible 2018 will be much, much worse? Better? Neither?

I didn’t notice the TIME videos when they were posted last month—too busy preparing for Christmas, maybe, and because I don’t normally follow their YouTube Channel, even though I subscribe to it. The Vox video was only released three days ago, but I was already away for the New Year’s Eve holiday by then. Like the TIME video, I found out about the Vox video because of a notification from YouTube. Which goes to show, I guess, that those notifications have some value.

In any case, I watched these videos today and decided to share them. Putting them all in one post was just a way to make them easier to skip for those so inclined. Always thoughtful!

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Auckland has a beach of a problem

Auckland has a major problem with the water quality at its many swimming beaches. Many are unsafe to swim at due contamination from stormwater or even raw sewerage when there’s a heavy rain. While this would be bad for any city, it’s especially bad for Auckland, which is built on an isthmus. Worse, people clearly don’t understand the causes or cures to this problem.

The problems with water quality is that the former city governments underinvested in infrastructure, and left wastewater and stormwater systems combined rather than separating them. They did this to keep rates (similar to property taxes) lower. Other areas, including the former North Shore City, invested in separation to prevent raw sewerage being dumped into waterways and on beaches whenever there was a heavy rain.

The current Auckland Council is planning to fix those earlier failings of the old city councils, but doing that won’t fix all the problems. First, cities are incredibly dirty places, and when there’s heavy rain, stormwater carries all sorts of toxic urban pollution off streets, buildings, and private property. This can include oil and petrol, paint, industrial chemicals, and even garden chemicals used by private gardeners, among much more. For a city the size of Auckland, in a country the size of New Zealand, building a system to capture and treat stormwater is impossibly expensive.

So, in addition to separating stormwater and wastewater (sewer) systems, Auckland Council plans on building a huge underground tunnel system to catch stormwater so it doesn’t flood beaches. The first phase will cost around $1 billion (today about US$713 million)—that’s the first phase.

This is similar to what my former hometown Chicago, did. Beginning in 1975, the Metropolitcan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago began construction of what everyone called the Deep Tunnel Project. The first phase as 176km of tunnels and was completed in 2006, with the next phase due for completion in 2029.

Chicago’s situation is different from Auckland’s in that wastewater and sewerage are both treated before being discharged into rivers. Before Deep Tunnel, severe storms would mean that untreated water—including raw sewerage—had to be pumped out into Lake Michigan, which is particularly bad because Chicago and nearby areas—millions of people—rely on the lake for their drinking water.

The system Auckland is planning is similar in that it will be, essentially, a reservoir to hold stormwater. As near as I can tell, it still won’t be treated before it’s released, and that’s not good.

The projects planned for Auckland’s wastewater and stormwater systems are important, but in addition to being able to contain some stormwater, at least, there’s more that needs to be done. Much of the pollution of beaches is fecal—human and animal. The human part comes from ageing sewerage systems, illegal connections of stormwater systems to sanitary sewers, from poorly maintained (or non-maintained) septic systems in West Auckland, and from dairy farms, whose run-off enters the harbours mostly carried by rivers and streams.

All of which has confused people to no end.

Recently, Auckland Council launched a website called Safeswim to provide Aucklanders with information to assess whether it’s safe to swim at beaches and some freshwater locations. Some 84 beaches and 8 freshwater locations are included, and among them are 16 that have “long-term water quality alerts” and they recommend that people don’t swim at those spots. The closest beach to us, within walking distance, is on the list.

The problem with the site and the list is that no one could figure out where the information was coming from and how reliable it was. Today the New Zealand Herald published “12 Questions” with Andrew Chin, Auckland Council’s water manager. In it he explained what happens far more clearly than I’ve seen anyone else do:
Safeswim forecasts what the water quality is going to be like today, rather than testing samples and telling people what it was like three days ago. People can now go online and check not only the water quality but also the sea conditions including tides and safety risks at 84 beaches and eight freshwater locations region wide. It's a joint initiative between Auckland Council, Watercare, Surf Lifesaving and the Auckland Regional Public Health Service.
So, the advisories are projections, but we know that the water quality is tested. I think, but do not know, that the beaches with “long-term water quality alerts” are backed-up by actual testing, though I have no idea how often that’s done. But even if they tested daily—which ratepayers would never agree to pay for—it’s not where the focus should be, because it’s telling us there’s a problem, not fixing that problem.

In addition to the infrastructure already planned (there’s more than what I mentioned, of course), there’s more that needs to be done.

There’s a lot more that needs to be done, not all of it up to Council. Here’s some of what I think should be in the mix:

• A carrot and stick approach toward people with septic systems in West Auckland: A carrot to encourage the owners to maintain them, followed by a heavy stick of punishment for those who don’t.

• An accelerated programme to ensure dairy cattle are kept well away from waterways, and to restore wetlands to catch run-off. This will require Central government’s involvement, plus the voluntary sector (NGOs are big in New Zealand), probably.

• Education and help for homeowners to install rainwater tanks and graywater recycling systems. This would involved both Council and Central Government, and it should include some financial incentives and well as fast-tracked permits and consents.

• Education to remind people that whenever there’s a heavy rain, they shouldn’t go swimming at any beach. If people understood that obvious point, there wouldn’t be a huge freakout every time a beach is closed due to stormwater contamination as happened yesterday. This will require advertising, and it’s probably Council’s responsibility, but it will cost. I wish common sense was more common, because I’d rather the money went to fixing the problem rather than telling people what they ought to figure out all on their own, but needs must, I guess.

This problem won’t go away any time soon. If Auckland ratepayers won’t pay a little bit more in their rates (currently $1.30 per week is being mooted), then by the most optimistic estimates it will take at least 30 years to bring about any real change.

I have to admit that I don’t fully understand the problem, or what can be done about it, but I’d like to. I’d like to think that one day soon people can swim at our local beach without worrying that they might get sick. And maybe, despite my protestations to the contrary, I’ll have to actually do something to help make that possible.

Related: Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s plan to fix this problem (via New Zealand Herald)

Monday, January 01, 2018

Our new year has begun

The New Year arrived in New Zealand, as it always does, before any other sizeable country. This is clearly one of the main perks of living so far from the USA and Europe. The other big perk is that we have the Christmas and New Year holidays in summer. There’s no underestimating the importance of that to an émigré from the frozen Northern Hemisphere.

This year’s New Year’s Eve was somewhat unique: I wasn’t sitting up alone waiting for the new year to arrive. While there have been other years in which we’ve had company at our house to ring in the new year, most years I’ve been the only one awake. Not this year.

We went to Hamilton for a small New Year’s Eve party at Nigel’s brother’s house. There were several family members there—immediate family and extended whānau—as well as friends of theirs (and Sunny and Jake, though Jake put himself to bed well before midnight). It was a really good night, with karaoke, great food, and fun chats. No one got messy on adult beverages, either. Everyone who was staying at my brother-in-law’s house was in bed before 12:30am, BUT, that was after we all saw in the new year and gave each other hugs and hearty handshakes to celebrate. Considering how different my New Year’s Eves usually are, this was bliss for me.

However, both Nigel and I were shattered today (naps may have been had when we got home early this afternoon…). I was up late the night before working on blog posts, so for me it was the cumulative effect of two late nights in a row. Even so, it was well worth it.

Now, it’s the first day of the new year. New Year is always a great time to make changes because of the fresh start a new year represents, and this year is no different.

My first goal for this year is that I’m going to rearrange my office, which is a big job because it involves moving bookcases that are so heavy it’ll take two of us and a lot of effort. That, and emptying the shelves and then putting everything back. Which is why I haven’t done it yet. But doing this will make it possible for me to finally organise the room—the last unorganised room in the house—and that, in turn, will let me turn my attention to the even bigger job: The garage.

The reason all of that matters is that the huge amount of work I have yet to finish has been draining. First, having all that stuff I need to do keeps me from focusing/working on the creative things I want to do (instead of doing Creative Thing A, I really ought to put that time and energy into working on Practical Thing B). Having so much undone work is kind of depressing, too, so, for a lot of reasons, finally finishing those organising projects is important to making the fun and interesting stuff possible.

Which brings me to this blog. Last year was not a good year for me, obviously, but the fact that I failed to reach 365 posts is a disappointment, not a disaster. Quite frankly, I don’t much care, and for reasons I wrote about a year ago today, that, basically, it’s okay to not comment about things as a way to keep oneself charged and ready for the real battles.

2017 took a toll on many people in the USA as they fought whatever outrage the current regime in Washington, DC was attempting. That’s on top of the usual sorts of challenges in people’s personal lives, so for most of the Americans I know personally, 2017 was a very bad year.

Here in New Zealand, it’s quite different. We finally had a change of government, and things are already moving in a better direction. What happens in the USA doesn’t really affect other countries nearly as much as Americans think it does, and much of what the US newsmedia was debating didn’t even get a mention in our news.

I’m caught between two cultures. While I’m glad that the geographic distance means that much of what happens in the USA stays in the USA, it’s still my homeland and I mourn all the damage being done to it by one man and his political party. So, while I may not be focused on the current regime as much as folks living in the USA are, neither can I just ignore it like most New Zealanders can do. So, the awfulness of the regime in Washington, DC has taken a toll on me, too.

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, as I’ve said many times before, so, I won’t promise 365 blog posts in 2018, nor many podcast episodes, or videos, or anything else. My first goal is to get the house better organised so that I CAN devote more time to those things. That’s certainly achievable with my recent health improvements.

All of which means that whether I hit 365 blog posts this year or not, the number I do achieve will be enough. And so will whatever else I achieve this year. A new year, it turns out, is also a great time to adjust one’s attitudes.

Here’s one more look at New Year’s Eve, starting with some shots in Auckland:

Happy New Year, World!

Happy New Year!!

Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.