Thursday, November 15, 2018

Let the 2018 asking begin

It’s once again time for my annual “Ask Arthur” series of posts, beloved by many and hated by a few (or, the other way around…), something I’ve been doing every December since 2012 (plus two July series). Last year, I asked for questions the end of November so that I could begin the answers earlier and spread them out a bit more. The idea was good, even if it didn’t change the timeframe too much. So this year, I’m beginning the asking ten days earlier than last year, and though I still plan on beginning the answering in at the start of December, I’m hoping this time it’ll actually happen.

This series of posts is a chance for people to ask me nearly anything, and I’ll try to answer whatever I’m asked. I have no particular topics that are “off limits”, but if I can’t answer something for whatever reason I’ll say so, though I’ve never had a question that I wouldn’t answer.

In earlier series, I’ve been asked about myself, my past, about life in New Zealand—mine or in general—about being an expat, what I think about various topics or events in the news, and so on. Many different things, many possibilities.

To ask questions, leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. You can also send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Facebook Page.

Finally, as I always note, this idea is stolen from inspired by Roger Green’s “Ask Roger Anything” (“ARA”) posts, which he still does, and far more often than I could manage.

So, over to you: Ask your question whatever way works best for you, and I’ll do my best to answer it.

All posts in this series will be tagged “AAA-18”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, ”Ask Arthur”.


What do you want to know? (December 2012)
Ask Arthur (July 2013)
Ask Arthur – Again (December 2013)
Ask Arthur Again, again (December 2014)
Ask Arthur yet again (July 2015)
It’s that time again (December 2015)
It’s ‘Ask Arthur’ time again (December 2016)
Let the 2017 asking begin (November 2017)

I think he’s on to something

John Green posted the video above to the Vlogbrothers YouTube Channel last week. Despite the clickbait-y title, he talks about a real problem shared by many people these days: There are many aspects of social media that are good, interesting, and helpful, but none of it is all three all the time, and there’s so much that is none of those things, ever. John is doing something I wouldn’t do, but I think he’s on to something.

John’s specific problem is wasting too much time on social media, and needing to compulsively refresh, and all the problems that flow from that. Many people do the same things, and, in fact, social media is designed precisely to manipulate us into that sort of behaviour because it makes them more money that way.

Even so, most of us don’t want to swear off social media altogether, not when there really is much that’s good about it. For example, most of us have friends and/or family members we’d never hear from or about if it weren’t for Facebook. That’s why most of us don’t want to make a complete or permanent break.

John is taking a year off, but what if we dumped the services that don’t, well, serve us anymore, then drastically cut back what we decide to keep? I think that’s the sort of thing that most people—or just me—could actually do.

I hardly ever use Twitter anymore because while I once loved it, it’s become so toxic from, and burdened by, trolls that going there is now very unpleasant. Every time I check in, I end up blocking trolls—one time by the dozens.

I only use Instagram to post photos, and seldom even see comments as a result. Oops? I don’t use any of the other small social media sites, though I’ve seen some people call Pinterest part of “social media”, which I find odd: I’ve never interacted with anyone there. I get several notifications a week from Pinterest, but I sometimes only go there once every couple months.

That leaves, of course, the biggest and baddest of them all, Facebook. My use of that varies widely, depending on things like my mood, what I’m doing (or avoiding doing), etc. I have the Facebook App on my phone and tablet, and, obviously, I can access it on my computer. I have Messenger alerts coming to my phone, something I only switched on a few months ago so I could see when a family member had sent me a personal message.

One solution is to delete the Facebook App from my phone and tablet, meaning I’d have to go to my computer to access it. I don’t know if this would be good or bad. Good because I wouldn’t waste time on tablet accessing Facebook, but that’s also the main place I do (on my phone, I only post brief status updates on the go, or I share photos through Instagram). It also might just shift my Facebook use to my computer, which may not help.

So, I’m thinking about adopting a two-part plan. First, I may delete the App from my tablet, but keep it on my phone, for now, because I don’t use it very often on that. I’m definitely going to turn off notifications for Messages, though.

Regardless of whether I delete the App, the second part is about self-control through a plan: I think I’ll limit my Facebook use to a few days a week. It may turn out I don’t need it at all.

This won’t affect the AmeriNZ Facebook Page that much because I share blog posts and podcasts there, so there will be new content of some sort every day without me actually using the page or Facebook. There aren’t usually any or many comments, so it’s not like I have to go there to reply to them very often, but if I do, I could just ignore my personal Facebook to be active on the AmeriNZ Facebook Page.

I think that dialling down the social media will improve everything for me, from the stress of politics I talked about yesterday, to dramatically reducing the waste of time social media can be. That would give me more time—probably more than I realise—to work on other projects, including this blog, my podcast, and other productive things.

John Green is on to something, I think. There’s far too much I want to do to continue to allow myself to be sucked into yet another social media spiral. But taking a year off is too drastic for me, particularly when I’m one of those people who has friends and family members I’d never hear from or about if it weren’t for Facebook.

So, I’m going to try and tame the hungry lion. I hope it really does help as much as I think it will.

Different faces

Yesterday, I shared Robert Reich’s post (above) on the AmeriNZ Facebook Page. All I said about it was, “The difference is pretty stark when you see it all laid out like that…” and that was all I intended to say about it, and I wasn’t going to share it here. But as a result of my Facebook share, I think it’s important to reiterate a few points so that they’re within the context of things I’ve talked about on this blog.

I said in a reply to a comment on that: “The Democrats look more like America”, because it does. Today I heard some American TV hosts saying the same thing, which I was happy to see. I’m such a trendsetter, right? Well, it could be it’s so bloody obvious that even I saw it.

I talked about the increased diversity brought about by the Democrats in a post on Saturday, and I even talked about it in a post the day before. The truth is, there’s even more that could be said.

My deeply held belief is that diversity is good, and monoculture is not. For electoral politics, that means electing more women, more young people, more people of colour, more people of diverse backgrounds, more people with diversity of religious belief (minority or none at all). US legislatures of all kinds ought to look like America, not the privileged elites who have always held power.

Each of the specific segments of society bring different things to the table, from viewpoints, to backgrounds and experiences, and priorities. This is good for democracy, not just because people see themselves represented, but also because it helps them create laws that benefit everyone, not just the few.

The USA is still a long way from achieving a diverse democracy, and there will be a lot of resistence along the way. But as people formerly ignored demand to be listened to, the drive for diversity won’t go away, and the fight will continue. As it should. Frederick Douglass knew as much: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” and he knew it’s “born of earnest struggle.”

The USA is far more likely to get there than it seemed a few short weeks ago, and while it could all still be taken away, the pace of change could also pick up speed. Don’t bet against diversity. Look again at those varied faces in the newly-elected Democrats. They don’t look likely to accept anything less than moving forward. They shouldn’t—they look like America.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Me memes

It’s good to have friends, isn’t it? And as a blogger, it’s good to have blogging friends who provide content to blog about. Recently, Roger Green tagged me in one of his posts “but”, he added, “only if he wants to so he can make par.” Roger is the only person I know who cares as much as I do about whether I make my annual goal for the number of blog posts (he may quite possibly care a bit more about it than me…). So, here’s his meme:

Available/Single? Neither. I’ve made that clear by now, I think.

Best Friend? Well, Nigel obviously. Aside from him, probably someone I’ve known since fourth grade, when we were nine or ten.

Cake or Pie? Depends. Cake for birthdays, and maybe just because. Pies are nice, too, and nothing beats a good NZ meat pie for lunch. Steak and cheese or (beef) mince and cheese, if you please.

Drink of Choice? Well, by volume, coffee, hands down. But I also choose wine (less than I used to) and the odd fizzy drink (soft drink).

Essential Item You Use Everyday? Like Roger, my electric toothbrush—or maybe my iPad. I could get an old fashioned toothbrush if I had to choose…

Favourite Colour? Well! It’s been blue my entire life, but it has a political meaning here (the leading party on the Right uses blue). So, I pick red, the colour of the party I support, the Labour Party. But in the USA, they’re the exact opposite. So, while blue is still my favourite, I’ll choose red in some NZ contexts instead.

Gummy Bears or Worms? I don’t care. In high school I sold gummi bears, but I’ve had gummi worms since, and they have some charm.

Hometown? I’ll pick Chicago, where I lived before moving to New Zealand, a city I have a strong attachment to.

Indulgence? Dunno. Probably the iPad game “Simpsons: Tapped Out”. I play it every day.
January or February? January because of my annual increasing number.

Kids and Their Names? No human kids, but the furbabies’ most-used nicknames are just minor corruptions of the actual names, Jakey, for example, or Bells-a-bells, Sunny-bunny, Lee-lee.

Life is Incomplete Without? My husband—duh! Other than that, probably writing stuff. I just can’t stop.

Marriage Date? Which one? Actual marriage was October 31, Civil Union (the big ceremony) was January 24, and we mark our anniversary together as November 2. I may have talked about those dates a time or two, but I’m not sure.

Number of Siblings? Two, both older.

Oranges or Apples? Either. I will eat either or drink their juice.

Phobias/Fears? Roger said, “Trump in 2020”, which is true for me, but I get the actual “fight or flight” response from two things: Spiders and snakes. Well, not the last one in New Zealand, but I would if I saw one.

Quote You Like? Changes frequently, but today I was reminded of one from Oscar Wilde (from “The Importance of Being Earnest”): “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Reason to Smile? Silliness. Life is too serious, too much.

Season? Summer.

Tag Three or Four People? Nope. People can self tag, if they so wish, and let me know they did it by sharing a link in the comments.

Unknown Fact About Me? I was once brought home by the cops. I was about five, I think.

Vegetable You Don’t Like? Can’t think of any, but I haven’t had every one. Among fruits, though, I utterly despise passionfruit.

Worst Habit? If I knew that, I’d stop it…

X-Rays You’ve Had? Chest twice (once for immigration, the other for my stent) and arm after a work accident (nothing broken).

Your Favourite Food? Pizza, ideally American-style cheesey-gooey pizza. Otherwise, Margherita pizza.

Zodiac Sign? Aquarius. I’m still waiting for my age to dawn, but I don’t really know what the moon’s “Seventh House” is, or why it needs so many, so maybe I missed it…

Okay, so that was Roger’s meme. I ran across another a day or two later from one of “The Robs”, friends from the Pride 48 podcasting community, and Nigel and I have met both of them in real life. This blog is public, so I won’t say which Rob I stole this from, but he’s welcome to claim credit.

The Name Game meme:

It may be harder than you think. Every answer has to start with the last letter of the previous answer.

Last name.........Schenck
Animal............... Kiwi
Girls Name.......... Ingrid
Boys Name.......... Damian
Color.................. Navy
Feeling............... Yucky
Name of a movie... Year of Living Dangerously
Something you wear.... Yarmulke
Food................... Eggs
Bathroom Item.... Shampoo
Place.................. Oamaru
Reason for being late.... Unwell

Copy, paste, and erase my answers then add yours. Have fun! Or, not.

Stressful politics

Boy oh boy oh boy oh boy, do I ever agree with this headline from Pew Research: “More Now Say It’s ‘Stressful’ to Discuss Politics With People They Disagree With”. There’s simply nothing else I do in my entire life that has the same capacity to drive up my blood pressure (probably literally) than doing that. Which is why I’ve chosen to disengage more often than not—it’s simply not worth it.

The chart from the Pew article linked to above shows that Liberals who identify with/lean the Democrats are by far the most likely to find it stressful to discuss politics with someone with whom they disagree, while only a minority of moderates and liberals among those who identify with/lean Republican feel the same way, though conservatives find it only somewhat more stressful. This is interesting in itself.

Stress, however, is a personal thing, really, that one has some control over. Pew found a much bigger concern:

A majority of Americans (63%) say that when they talk about politics with people they disagree with, they usually find they have “less in common” politically than they thought previously. Fewer than a third of Americans (31%) say they find they have more in common with people they disagree with politically.

Looking again at the chart above, it’s clear that only Moderate/Liberal Republicans find talking about politics with people they disagree with is “Interesting and Informative”, and everyone else doesn’t.

The complete report, available at the link, has more information on all of that.

Two things jumped out at me when I read the report. First, if people find they don’t have as much common ground with people they disagree with politically as they thought they would, and if they find talking about politics with such people is stressful, then what hope is there for finding a way out of the USA’s toxic politics?

The second question is one the report doesn’t even try to answer: Why? Partisanship in the USA has become visceral and tribal, and that may be part of the answer: People are so much inside their own bubbles that maybe they’re unwilling to to listen to anyone else, which would be stressful. That’s suggested by the fact that most people don’t find talking to those with different positions “Interesting and Informative”.

The portrait painted by the report suggests that USA’s political problems are far from being resolved. If we better understood how the USA got into this mess in the first place, maybe we’d be better able to find a way out. Fortunately, there are some critical examinations of that very topic that are being published. Maybe they’ll help.

But one thing I know for certain is that no one wants to be called “stupid” by someone who disagrees with them, or told to “do your research” or “educate yourself”. Those have all happened to me, and folks from both the Left and the Right have lobbed those—and worse—at me. Clearly it was impossible for us to find any middle ground. I bet plenty of others have experienced similar things.

My response to all that, my plan for avoiding this stress on social media is that I simply don’t engage. If I see some Facebook post or Tweet that I can see won’t go well—and by now I’m pretty good at spotting them a mile away—I just move on. If I make a mistake and engage, I leave the moment it starts turning toxic. So far, that works pretty well.

But my strategy only works on social media. If I encounter in real life someone who’s basically a political opponent, there’s no much I can do to avoid the stress. There, the only think I can think of is to care less, because I can’t change them and they can’t change me, so the only other alternative for me is to simply shrug and walk away, metaphorically, at least.

Someday maybe we can go back to the days when people could disagree without being disagreeable. I just can’t see it happening any time soon.

Finally, when I went to the second page on the online version, I got what’s known as a “404 error”, when a webpage can’t be found. I thought this simple, understated error message was too perfect, and funny in a geeky sort of way. After a serious topic like this one, a bit of humour is especially good.

Pew strikes the right tone with their "404" message.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Still bagging change

Back in August, I wrote a few times about New Zealand’s move away from single use plastic bags. It’s been a story that hasn’t been a straight line—is anything?—and progress is being made. We’ve probably all learned a lot along the way.

On August 23, I wrote about Countdown supermarkets switching from reusable bags to paper bags for deliveries. It didn’t happen quite as quickly as they implied it would. Last week, I received an email from them saying, “Over the coming weeks, online orders at your store will be packed into paper bags”. Back in August, I’d received an email from them declaring, “Shopping online? Your online order will now be packed into paper bags.” I have no idea what the delay was.

On the other hand, progress has been made. As their email last week put it:
With your help, we’ve stopped using single-use plastic carrier bags at checkouts and in our online shopping service, which means that 350 million of these plastic bags will no longer find their way to landfill, or worse, to our waterways and oceans.
An email from them in September said:
With your help, Countdown Pukekohe South alone has prevented on average 6,000 of these bags from entering New Zealand's waste stream – every single day.
Apparently, their copywriters struggle to phrase things in new ways so they—ahem—recycle phrasing. But another part of the September email caught my attention:
We're continuing to reduce and remove plastic from other parts of our store. Already this year, we've removed 70 tonnes of plastic from our produce section. And we'll be giving single-use plastic straws the flick from all our stores by 1 October 2018.
That last part certainly came true—they only sell paper straws now (though maybe they’ll eventually sell the reusable stainless steel straw sets that come with little cleaning brushes, like Storage Box is now selling).

They were talking about the single-use plastic bags that customers use to pack their produce, something my usual store was still using at that point, though apparently some stores had switched to paper. But that September email underscored a problem I’d already found.

I’d bought reusable mesh bags for produce and took them to Countdown when I did my grocery shopping. I needed some onions, so I put them in the bag, and then looked at the unit price: The price of the loose onions was actually higher than the unit price of a pre-packed bag. What this means is that it was costing me more money to avoid the plastic bag of the pre-packed onions.

Having said that, there were some advantages: I could choose onions so they were all the appropriate size for anything we might make, rather than the—literal—mixed bag of the pre-pack. And, once I got them home, I put them into an onion storage bag I’d also bought: It’s breathable, but it also blocks out light to discourage the onions going bad. It works really well. And, I had no plastic bag to get rid of. Still, I think that if I’m going to go to the trouble of packing my own onions, I ought to save a little over the pre-packed options.

Last week, I visited a grocery store I hadn’t been to before, New World in Papakura, and was very surprised: They weren’t pushing reusable bags. I brought my bags into the store, as I now always do, and I was pretty much the only shopper doing that. As I understand it, the Foodstuffs’ New World and Four Square stores will be single-use plastic bag free on January 1. Countdown already is, and I’d have thought that the New World, at least, would be, too, by now. The Australian-owned company that owns Countdown, Progressive, has a chain of smaller stores called Fresh Choice (which I gather is similar to Foodstuffs’ Four Square) that are advertising they're phasing out single-use plastic bags.

Today I stopped in our local Four Square, and they had a bunch of options for bags available—still single use plastic, but also some for purchase, from cheap heavy-duty plastic ones to large paper bags that looked similar to what I grew up with. The paper bags are what caught my attention.

The end of August, I talked about other bag problems, and part of what I needed was a solution for dealing with the cat box. I found that Countdown carried small paper bags they called “lunch bags”, but they were very small, the type used in any Kiwi dairy for packing pies, sausage rolls, and other yummy things—but single serving only. They were suitable for a small clean, but two days’ worth would overwhelm it.

I said in that late August post that most paper bags were expensive because I’d have to order them from a specialty supplier. Well, a few days ago I felt inspired: If anyone in New Zealand carried American-style flat bottom lunch bags, I had a hunch who would, and I was right. It turns out I can get the bags from Martha’s Backyard, the American products store I’ve mentioned frequently. They sell a 50-pack bag for $3.50 (today, about US$2.36). Those large bags I saw today at Four Square, sold for around 20 cents each (today about 13 US cents), would be perfect for major clean outs.

There are bags designed for dog poop, and I have some somewhere I can use up. But compostable versions are very expensive, so paper is a much cheaper alternative. This search is getting somewhere, though.

Which still leaves the problem of the kitchen bin. I said in that late August post that the home compostable bags I bought for our kitchen rubbish bin were too small and the sides could slide down. I found out that this meant the sides could easily stick to the plastic bin, and, being short, they left nothing to grab onto to pull the bags out. Worst, the last one I used ripped open when I tried to pull it out, and the rubbish went all over the floor (fortunately, since we compost, the rubbish wasn’t yucky).

When I was at New World, I found they sold the 60-litre “Extra Large” version of the compostable bin liner bags (apparently, there are even large ones…). The extra large ones are slightly wider—650mm rather than 600mm—but the important part is that they’re significantly deeper: 950mm rather than 710mm. This is large enough, but there are only five bags in a pack, rather than 15 in a pack of the smaller ones, which also means that the larger bags are $1.12 each (76 US cents) while the smaller ones are only 46 cents each (31 US cents). Theoretically, these should last up to two weeks per bag, since we don’t generate that much rubbish, but the price per bag is significantly higher. These larger ones have handles, like plastic ones often do, which so far seems to make them easier to remove.

So, this story that hasn’t been a straight line, but progress is being made all around. That’s the important point. I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag, though.

The products/companies listed and their names are all registered trademarks, and are used here for purposes of description and clarity. No company or entity provided any support or payment for this blog post, and all products used were purchased by me at normal retail prices. So, the opinions I expressed are my own genuinely held opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the manufacturers, any retailer, or any known human being, alive or dead, real or corporate. Just so we’re clear.

A week of firsts

Last week was a week of firsts for me. All of them were ordinary and relatively unimportant, but for some reason I noticed all of them and the coincidence of them happening in the week.

First, and most importantly, I voted in the US Midterm elections using a system I’d never used before. Unlike previous elections, I printed out the PDFs e-mailed to me, including the ballot, and marked them and posted those back. In all previous elections I’ve used the official stuff posted to me.

Last Week I also went to a new grocery store, the New World in Papakura (the entrance is in the photo above). The truth is, I didn’t even know it existed until last week. I had to go to Papakura, anyway, so I was planning on going to the Countdown there, rather than the one a few minutes farther away in the much busier Takanini—a store I got to from time to time because it’s right next to the pet store/vets where I get Bella’s special food.

Nigel said there was a new New World in Papakura, so I decided to try it. It turns out, it’s a really nice one, better than the only other one I knew about, in Waiuku, which I’ve been to twice (and the second trip made me think I’d judged it too harshly the first time I went there). In fact, it’s good enough that I’ll add it to the list of stores I’ll choose.

Last week was also the first time this season the temperature hit 20 degrees (68F), and it went on to hit 23 (just under 74F). We’re definitely warming up now, which makes sense, since we’re in late Spring, and only a couple weeks from the start of Summer. To me, this is a very good thing, however, I may change my opinion if the summer is really as hot and dry as the weather mavens have predicted.

At the end of the week I was meant to accompany Nigel to the birthday party for the child of one of his work colleagues, who is from India. I’ve never been to an Indian celebration—I’ve been to Māori ones, of course, and Samoan, but not Indian. Sadly, I was behind in my work and couldn’t go, so that first will have to wait for another time.

None of that is out of the ordinary, and mostly it’s stuff that's important to me alone, not necessarily anyone else. But sometimes it’s good to just stop for a minute and note ordinary things that happened for the first time. We all need a break sometimes.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Armistice Day 100

The Great War, The War to End All Wars, The First World War: It ended one hundred years ago today (Europe time). The guns fell silent at “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918”, but all wars didn’t end, and the nationalism unleashed a century ago led to another world war within a generation. Was it worth the price?

I was born a little bit more than 40 years after the end of the war, so it was as much, and as little, a part of my life as a child as the Vietnam War will be for today’s toddlers. There’s one important difference, though: When I was a child, people weren’t conflicted about World War One, and they are about Vietnam.

So, as a kid, I remember watching the American TV sitcom “My Three Sons”, and one of the characters, Uncle Charley, was a World War One veteran who often mentioned “W, W, One” and “doughboys”. The actor who played him, William Demarest, really was a World War One veteran. As a kid, I was vaguely aware of older people in the community who were WW1 veterans.

By that time, veterans of World War 2 and the Korean War were in or approaching middle age, and they were the fathers (mostly) of my friends and classmates, the men who were part of the church council at my dad’s church, so they were common. Vietnam was just picking up speed, and the soldiers were young men “whose average age was nineteen”.

I mention all that for s simple reason: War didn’t end in 1918. It has stalked us like a nameless, shapeless monster, taking people from us too soon. It is undefeatable, invincible, and—one would think—impossible to keep away. We will keep having hundredth anniversaries of war, quite possibly forever.

What will be different is that as more recent wars pass farther into the past, they’ll seem more real than World War One does with its grainy black and white images, film with incorrect frame rates, and lack of sound. More recent wars are better documented, including moving images, often filmed in colour, and with sound. We may not have figured out how to end war, but we’re getting really good at documenting it.

The First World War unleashed the dark force of nationalism, which some 20 years later would lead to a second war fighting those same forces, but with the kings replaced with dictators. Nationalism became a force because there was nothing to stop it when it began. The USA, still an emerging global power, was gripped by isolationism, a force that continued to hold, even after World War One, until the country itself was attacked by nationalists in 1941.

Now, the world is again plagued by spreading nationalism, a dark force taking root in countries throughout the world, from Russia (again), to Turkey, countries throughout Europe, Brazil, and, of course, the United States. It’s hard to see how this cannot end in war yet again, unless the forces of democracy can band together and stop it. Can they? On November 11, 1918 some leaders thought they could stop nationalism and future wars. They were wrong. Will we do better?

World War One was ultimately pointless. It began as a spat between spoiled and privileged royal families that ended up burning down the world they knew, and unleashing forces that would take another war and millions of lives to beat back. Maybe World War Two would have happened in some form anyway, had the first one not happened, maybe it wouldn’t have. But either way, it’s impossible to justify the massive loss of life and the suffering caused by the First World War.

On April 2, 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson asked the US Congress to declare war on Germany. It was needed, he said, so that the world would “be made safe for democracy.”It was an absurd thing to say—the belligerents were imperial monarchies, after all—but he was on to something. He also said that “civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” and he was right. But it would take another world war to safeguard civilisation for—a few decades, so far.

Democracy is far from perfect. It takes too long, is too torturous and fractious, but it is the best hope for stopping the dark forces of nationalism and making war less likely. But if we are to defeat nationalism and to truly make the world safe for democracy, we must all take personal responsibility for resisting the darkness. It means voting, political activity, and even simply refusing to allow people to get away with racism and other bigotry and the dismissing of facts and truth. We must be the light standing against the darkness.

Can we win? I have no idea. But I’m damn sure not going to go quietly. I intend to rage against the dying of the light. If we don’t all do that, then the dead we remember from World War One, ended exactly one century ago, will have all died in vain.

They did their work, they paid their price, they their made sacrifice. We owe it to them to truly make the world safe for democracy.


Anzac Day 2015 – the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing, and the start of New Zealand’s World War One centenary commemorations.

Anzac Day 100 – the 100th Anniversary of the Anzac Day commemorations.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

More evidence elections matter

Getting younger people in positions of power, along with more women and people of colour, is absolutely vital to fixing the USA’s broken politics. This is NOT about political party, it’s about democracy itself and making sure that government represents the people, not the elites.

Friday, November 09, 2018

What the other side fears most

The US Midterm elections were far better for Democrats than Republicans can admit for political reasons, though they are—and should be—deeply worried. The results show a bright future for the USA’s only truly diverse party, the Democrats, and a dimming one for the country’s only conservative party, the Republicans, precisely because it’s so unrepresentative. The election was built on everything Republicans fear the most.

The video above from ThinkProgress highlights some of the Congressional Districts that had been held by Republicans for decades—until Democrats flipped them. It’s one of the headline stories of the night, but it’s why so many seats flipped that shows where the USA is headed.

Democrats did astoundingly well in districts in suburban areas outside of cities. Those areas have long voted pretty predictably Republican for Congress—until this year. There have been demographic shifts all over the country, and as it becomes browner and more female, a party that’s mostly backed by older white men has become less relevant. But in suburban areas, voters were driven away by the Republican Party.

Many of those districts voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but also for their Republican US Representatives. This year, they flipped those districts. We still need to wait for the dust to settle, but there are some reasons for that are already clear. For example, Democrats campaigned on healthcare, especially protecting people with pre-existing conditions. Republicans in Congress kept voting to take away those protections, and then lied about it in the campaign. Voters weren’t gullible.

Republicans, meanwhile, tried to make the campaign about their new wedge issue, immigration. Exit polls showed that in most of the country, voters simply weren’t concerned about that, looking at other issues instead. Some commentators have said “immigration is the new abortion”, referring to the long-time hot-button social issue Republicans have exploited for political and electoral gain. There’s a lot of truth in that, but their campaign on immigration has more than a little racist tinge to it, something that appeals to Republicans’ base of angry white men, but not to mainstream voters, including white suburban voters, as the results showed.

Democrats picked up seven governorships, including ousting the vile and rabidly anti-union theocrat Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Democrats also defeated the Republicans’ poster boy for voter suppression, the equally vile Kris Kobach, in Kansas. They also elected the nation’s first openly-gay governor, Colorado’s Jared Polis, and by all reports his being gay wasn’t an issue there, but, rather, the progressive Democratic issues he ran on: Universal health care, stricter gun laws, the expansion of public education, and an opposition to fracking. Public education—and Republicans’ hostility to it—was a factor in Democrats’ wins in Wisconsin and Kansas, too.

In state legislatures, Democrats flipped the state senates in Maine (where they already had the lower house and the Governor-elect is a Democrat), Connecticut (where they already had the lower house), and Colorado (where they already had the lower house as well as having the Governor-elect). In Minnesota, they flipped the House, though the Senate is still Republican, making it the only state in the USA with a divided legislature, a situation that last happened in 1914. In New Hampshire, they also took control of both houses. In New York, Democrats took control of the state Senate, which, combined with control of the House they already had, will likely force Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to deliver on the progressive agenda he’s long promised.

So, according the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats now control 37 chambers (up 6) and 18 legislatures (up 4), and they have the trifecta—both houses of the state legislature and governor—in 14 states (up seven), and 13 states are divided (this all may change somewhat as races are finalised). This will be important in ending Republican gerrymandering after the 2020 US Census.

The number one reason that Democrats didn’t do better than they did is Republican gerrymandering: Republicans drew the maps to rig elections to try to ensure they would retain control of the US House and state legislatures. In order to beat Republicans, Democrats needed to vastly outperform Republicans, and, in fact, they did: At the moment, and subject to change once all elections are final, Democratic candidates for the US House had a popular vote margin of 9.2 percentage points over Republicans, which is a huge amount. However, because of Republican gerrymandering, they didn’t do as well as they would have if the elections had been free and fair. In 2010, Republicans had a popular vote margin of 7.2 percentage points over Democrats, and they picked up 63 House seats. So, in 2018, Democrats did FAR better than Republicans did eight years earlier, but will pick up HALF as many seats, give or take, as Republicans did. This is why the so-called “down ballot” races for state legislatures matter so very much, and why voter turnout is critical: Controlling redistricting.

Republican politicians and their leader have focused on the US Senate, which figures since they picked up seats (a net gain of two at the moment, having flipped three to the Democrats flipping one). That’s bad news for the country, but absolutely no surprise at all. Democrats were defending 26 seats—the most in decades—and 10 of those were in states that voted for the Republican nominee in 2016. The Republicans, meanwhile, only had to defend nine seats, most of which were completely safe. The surprise here isn’t that Democrats didn’t do better, it’s that they didn’t do far worse.

So, here’s what can we learn from all this. First, the electoral system is rigged to elect Republicans. Second, support for parties in legislative races, including Congress, is shifting, and that favours Democrats. Third, the performance of Democrats overall paints a hopeful, inclusive future, as compared to the dark, fearful, and often bigoted picture painted by the Republican Party and its politicians.

The only way to get around the rigged electoral system is to massively increase Democratic turnout, and that will be MUCH easier to do in 2020, a presidential election year. Democrats also need to get more state legislature houses and governorships to ensure Republicans don’t control the redistricting after the 2020 Census. This is a temporary measure until we can get redistricting away from the control of politicians, and under the control of independent non-partisan commissions.

The current realignment of the parties is driven, in part, by the stark and rigid partisanship in the USA generally. Urban people favour Democrats, rural people favour Republicans, more now than ever. By alienating suburban voters, the Republicans have driven more votes to the Democratic side. Republicans may be able to fix that by moving away from the far right, but there’s no evidence they will, can, or even want to do that, neither at the top of their ticket in 2020 or in any other race. So, the switch of suburban voters from R to D is likely to grow and will stay at least and until either the Republican Party moderates (highly improbable), or until a new mainstream conservative party emerges (possible, though so difficult as to be unlikely; even if one emerges, those votes will still be lost to the Republican Party, and that would still help Democratic candidates).

Democrats offer a much more inclusive and future-focused party than the Republicans do. Consider the US House races alone. As Robert Borosage put it in The Nation:
The new Democratic House is expected to feature over 100 women. A new wave of progressive legislators—younger, more female, more diverse, more progressive—will energize the Democratic caucus. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Abby Finkenauer (IA-1) are the youngest women ever elected to Congress. Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) and Jahana Hayes (CT-5) will be the first African American congresswomen from their states. Veronica Escobar (16th District) and Sylvia Garcia (29th District) will be the first Latina women in the Congress from Texas. Ilhan Omar (MN-5) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13) will be the first Muslim women in the Congress, and Deb Haaland (NM-1) and Sharice Davids (KS-3) the first Native American women in the Congress.
Add to that the LGBT+ people elected to offices for the first time, and all the progressive state ballot measures that were approved, and the future for the USA is surprisingly bright—once the current dark times have passed.

The harsh, cold reality is that the USA is still in a very dark and dangerous place right now, with a president determined to promote hatred, bigotry and divisiveness for personal political gain, and he leads a party that lets him get away with extremist and racist language without any protest or even mild criticism. His hardcore supporters may only be about a third of the population, give or take, but they can do a lot of damage to the country. If they intimidate or frighten enough people into silence or inaction, they can become far more powerful than their minority numbers would otherwise permit.

But the forces allied in darkness ARE a minority—never forget that! Republicans created this mess, first by fanning the teabaggers in 2010, then by failing to control their presidential nomination process to ensure they had a qualified and mentally/emotionally stable candidate. But Democrats, that diverse group, which is often fractious because of that diversity, can fix it. Democrats show a way forward, one that embraces diversity, rather than cowering in fear of it. Democrats are working for a future that moves the country forward, rather than trying to push it backward into darker, less tolerant times. And Democrats want government to work for ALL the people—and the planet itself—and not just the extremely privileged few at the very top.

Over the next two years, there will probably be many Constitutional crises caused by the current occupant of the White House. He, and his party, will try to divide and distract and disrupt, and Democrats must not let them. Democrats must avoid rising to the bait, and instead remain focused on trying to move the country forward. If they do that, Democrats will be able drive away the darkness and actually start moving the country forward, but it’s something they have to earn the right to do.

In the meantime, ordinary people need to get busy. There’s a lot of organising to do, and that is what Republicans fear most of all.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

First 2018 Christmas ad

The ad above is for Australian-owned NZ supermarket chain Countdown. It started airing on New Zealand TV a few days ago, making it the first real Christmas commercial I’ve seen this year. It’s a nice place to start.

The Christmas commercials I like are the ones that don’t make selling the specific point of that ad (apart from the 1960s/70s ad for Norelco’s triple head shaver…). Instead, I like to see them sell feelings that the products or Christmas (or both) inspire. This ad does that by having ordinary people rushing to get ready in the “final countdown” to Christmas. The song used also reinforces the store name, which is always good, but I like that it goes against tradition by not using a Christmas song. I think it makes it seem more real and relevant.

I actually saw this much earlier because the store emailed a private YouTube link to their customers (I am one of them). It was, as far as I can remember, the first time that I saw an ad before it was generally released. Naturally, I like that.

While the Countdown ad was the first real Christmas ad I saw, it wasn’t the only Christmas-related ad I saw this week. The ad below is promoting “Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park” an annual charity concert in Auckland and Christchurch. I really like this ad, too:

The “Christmas in the Park” ad will be short-lived, but other companies will advertise throughout the season. Two retailers—discount retailer The Warehouse and department store Farmers—have started advertising, however, they’re only technically related to Christmas. The ad for The Warehouse is their normal style ad with the voiceover using the word “Christmas” twice, and also included in a title card. The ads just sell whatever is on special at the moment, not things that are necessarily, or even probably, Christmas gifts. The ads aren’t in any real way relevant to Christmas.

The same is true for the Farmers ads. They use the same initial shot in all the ads, but the contents of the ads, like those for The Warehouse, just sell whatever is on special at the moment, not things that are necessarily, or even probably, Christmas gifts. They at least look a little more Christmasy.

Still, because they don’t really have anything to do with Christmas, I won’t be sharing them—I’ll wait to see if they eventually have real Christmas ads. I have my principles!

So, those are the first two real Christmas ads I’ve seen this year. There will be more to follow, of course, but most of them will probably be from overseas.

But today, I kinda needed this as a break from politics. Even I get sick of it from time to time.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

2018 US elections quick take

The dust hasn’t settled on the 2018 US Midterm elections, and there will be much to analyse in the weeks ahead, especially when a few very close races are finalised as absentee and other special ballots are counted. Even so, I have a few observations right now.

First, I’m generally pleased with the results. Obviously, I wish the Democrats had done better than they did, but the party re-took the US House, which was the main battle. Taking the Senate was always a huge ask because of the Senate map, which favoured Republicans: Democrats had to defend far more seats, and many of them were in Red or Deep Red states. With Republican gerrymandering and their voter suppression efforts, doing better was not really possible.

Democrats are sending more women, people of colour, and younger people to Congress, including the first two Muslim women, two Native American women, and the youngest-ever woman. One third of the Democratic caucus in the House will be women. Democrats encouraged millions of new voters, including, millennials, who have historically not voted in great numbers. All of that is great news for American democracy and for renewal of the Democratic Party.

We also picked up a lot of governorships, and expanded our seats in state legislatures. This will be important for the redistricting battles after the next US Census.

After watching TV coverage, I don’t think people should draw simplistic conclusions about how Democrats can win elections. I heard TV pundits speculating that the reason that Democrats didn’t pick up more House seats is that their candidates were “too progressive” and didn’t appeal to voters. That may be true in some places, as time will tell us, but not everywhere. Moreover, if all it took for a Democrat to be elected was to be conservative, then Republicans wouldn’t have defeated the Democrats in North Dakota and Missouri. Instead, it suggests that it’s not enough to be a conservative, one has to be conservative enough—and not a Democrat, perhaps. This line of reasoning also ignores and excuses Republicans’ gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts.

Instead, I’d argue that all the Democrats who won elections actually ran races appropriate for their electorates, running on the issues their constituents cared about and sharing the same values as those constituents. In other words, they ran to win, as all successful politicians have always done. I don’t think it matters if the candidate is Left or Right as long as they’re correct for the place they’re running. Like always.

The initial results seem to suggest that the current occupant of the White House has lost white suburban voters who always used to vote Republican. They may be conservative on some things, but they are NOT fans of the current occupant, and they voted against Republican candidates for the US House.

At the same time, there’s an opportunity here for the current occupant to do things differently. He ran on fixing the USA’s crumbling infrastructure, and Democrats will work with him on that—in fact, non-extremist Republicans in the House would be glad to do so, too, and support their party’s leader while also doing things popular with voters. The Senate has never been as extremist as the House has been, and may be more bipartisan, too.

On the other hand, the current occupant is so self-centred and narcissistic that he may be incapable of that. If that’s the case, then there will be two more years like the two we’ve been through, with one important difference: The US House will be able to exercise its constitutional role to provide checks and balances and oversight. There will be investigations of the current regime, and the various cabinet secretaries will be held to account for their deeds—or lack of action, as the case may be. This is really good news for democracy.

For the first time in two years, I feel like I can breathe again. I suspect it will be a short-lived feeling, because I seriously doubt that the current occupant will suddenly start acting like a responsible adult.

So, the battle now moves on to 2020. But let’s leave that for another day. Right now, tonight, I’d rather just be happy about the victories we achieved.

The USA’s problem in one chart

The chart above from Statista shows the voter turnout in the most recent national elections held in various countries. The USA’s election turnout is always pathetic, and it is the very reason US politics are so awful: If more people voted, things would change.

Voter turnout numbers are the percentage of the eligible voting age population that turns out to vote in an election. In 2016, the USA’s 55.7% turnout, as shown in the chart, was low, though not unusual for a presidential election year: 54.9% in 2012, 58.2% in 2008—49% in 1996. Turnout is FAR worse in Midterm election years, the elections when the presidency is not on the ballot. In 2014, it was a disgusting 36.4%, which was down from the also shocking 40.9% in the 2010 Midterms. 2014 was the lowest Midterm turnout since 1942—in the midst of World War 2.

ALL elections always have consequences. The low turnout in 2014, for example, gave the US Senate to Republicans. The low turnout in 2016 gave the keys to the White House to the current occupant. Non-voters, then, are the ones who really determine elections.

There are two ways non-voters could change things. First, they could select a better class of party candidates by voting in primaries. The primaries determine who will be the candidate of that party for any office, and in the Republican Party, the most extremist supporters ALWAYS vote, and the moderates often—or usually—don’t vote, and so, candidates are increasingly extremist. If sensible mainstream people voted in the Republican primaries, they could ensure that sensible mainstream Republicans would be candidates (in part because politicians wouldn’t feel obligated to pander to the most extremist base of their party).

In some areas, Democrats sometimes have a similar problem with their primaries, but it’s not as pronounced or as widespread. I have no idea why that is.

The second way non-voters could change things is the most profound of all: They could vote in general elections and change absolutely everything. In some races, the percentage of non-voters is so high that that if they wrote-in a candidate, they candidate would win. THAT is power.

What’s interesting to me about the chart, too, is the relativity. It shows that New Zealand had a 75.7% turnout. In 2002, NZ voter turnout dropped below 80%, and despite briefly nudging back up above it in 2005, it’s been below 80% ever since. This has led to much wailing and rending of garments in New Zealand as the country frets about its “low” voter turnout. Everything would begin to change in the USA if it had a 75%+ voter turnout, which puts the problem in context.

The situation is even more pronounced in Australia, which, unlike New Zealand, has compulsory (mandatory) voting. In their most recent elections, 2016, Australia was wringing its imaginary national hands over the “lowest voter turnout since compulsory voting began in 1925”. What was their “shocking” and “low” turnout? Ninety-one percent! A mere 9% didn’t vote. Such a burden they carry!

Of course, high turnout alone isn’t enough. In Australia, the high turnout returned a terrible rightwing government to power, so even a high turnout doesn’t guarantee GOOD government. But it does guarantee one with widespread support, which is very important for a healthy democracy.

The health of democracy is the important point here. Countries with high voter turnout have governments with much greater actual support from actual people than do government elected by a low turnout. Consider: In 2014, around one in five eligible voters gave the US Senate to the Republicans—80% of voters did NOT. Last year, the current occupant of the White House was elected with the support only about a quarter of eligible voters—75% of Americans did NOT vote for him. Whether you love or hate the current occupant or the Republican party is NOT the point here: It’s not just pathetic, it’s downright dangerous that a relative handful of people determine who runs government.

Getting non-voters in the USA to vote is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING necessary for restoring sane, rational politics to the USA. Can it be done? The jury’s out. The fate of the USA’s democracy waits for the answer.

There is one thing we know for sure: If more people voted, things would change.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

What could happen

Three words talk about the US election tomorrow, and the punctuation used determines so very much. If it’s with a question mark, "What could happen?", then the person is like every sensible person, meaning, they don’t know. If it’s said with a colon, they’re about to tell you what they think will happen. The truth is, NO one knows what’s about to happen. It’s all a question mark.

There are two polar opposite possibilities: Democrats win a landslide and take control of both houses of Congress, as well as state offices. Or, Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress. Pundits mostly agree that the truth is somewhere between those two. Here are the factors that favour both.

Factors that favour Republicans

Gerrymandering. Republicans fought hard to gain control of state legislatures in 2010 in order to be able to draw the boundaries of state legislative and Congressional districts. This ensured Republicans would win and retain control, even when winning fewer votes than Democrats did, as happened most recently in the 2012 Congressional elections. The maps Republicans created favour them so much that Democrats need to outperform them by at least 5% (more in some areas) to be in with a chance of winning. Gerrymandering also helps keep the number of seats that Democrats win far lower than it should be, which could determine if they win control of the US House.

Voter suppression. Republicans have also been busy writing laws to make it harder for people to vote, especially black and brown people who—purely coincidentally!—vote overwhelmingly Democratic. This year there’s been a surge of active and baldly racist attempts to stop non-whites from voting in states from Georgia to North Dakota. Most of those efforts will succeed, though mainstream people are organising to fight back.

Money. Republicans have virtually unlimited money to help them through Super PACs and other dark money. Democrats just don’t have anything that compares.

Lethargy. Historically, Democrats can't be bothered to vote in Midterm elections. Eligible younger voters now outnumber eligible older voters, but they vote in far lower numbers.

Loyalty. Republican voters can be counted on to turn out and vote, and the hardcore base of the current occupant is by far the most likely part of the Republican voter bloc to turnout and vote. They’re far more reliable than any similar sized group of Democrats.

The Senate map. In the Senate, which isn’t affected by Republicans’ gerrymandering, Democrats are defending more seats, and they’re defending many of them in states they lost to the current occupant in 2016. This gives Republicans a head start and a strong wind at their back.

Factors that favour Democrats

Historic candidacies. Florida and Georgia have popular black Democrats running for governor, and Texas has a popular, charismatic progressive running for US Senate. There are more women and more people of colour running as Democrats than ever before, and many candidates who are young (compared to the norm). [See also: “The candidates in the midterm elections are among the most diverse set to run in the history of the United States.”New York Times]

Enthusiasm. There is measurable enthusiasm among ordinary Democrats that’s lacking among ordinary Republicans (as distinct from the current regime’s base). All of that is meaningless if people don’t actually vote, of course.

History. The party controlling the White House usually loses seats in the US House in the Midterm elections—but, not always. In 2006, this was enough to give Democrats control of the House, and in 2010 it helped Republicans take the house amid the teabagger wave. There have been years in which the party controlling the White House picked up seats, but the norm is for that not to happen.

Youth. Younger voters back a progressive agenda, and are far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans—if they vote, of course. But they also use their energy and enthusiasm to drive campaigns, and this year the ground game is critical. Youth could be the deciding factor in this year’s elections—or not.

A factor that’s uncertain

Early voting. The news media has been reporting on how there has been a dramatic increase in early voting, a couple hundred percentage points in some cases, 700% in another—it’s all very impressive. But they combine increases from 2016 with increases from 2014, and those are vastly different things. 2014 was a Midterm election with low voter turnout, as usual. 2016 was a presidential election, and although they, too, have low turnout, they’re significantly higher than in Midterm years. An increase is likely, though not certain, to help Democrats, however, if it’s an increase from 2016, that suggests more votes than if it’s an increase on 2014.

I saw a report from MSNBC where they were talking to an election official in California who will oversee the counting of results for four toss-up Congressional Districts in that state. He said that early voting was up some 130%, and when asked if that favoured Democrats or Republicans, he said that in-person voting favoured Democrats, while mail-in voting favoured Republicans, something that’s in line with history.

The problem here is that when we hear about early voting totals being up, we don’t know if it’s mainly in-person, mail-in, or across the board, and that matters because which one dominates will influence which party will benefit the most from the upsurge. Put another way, we ordinary news consumers just don’t have enough information to evaluate what this all means for the two parties.

A factor that’s not terribly useful

Polling. Political polling in 2016 was a disaster, and we have no reason (yet) to believe that the industry has learned from the disaster and improved its methods. That means the polls MAY be totally accurate, or they MAY undercount Democrats, or they MAY undercount Republicans. We can’t know until actual votes are counted.

• • •

All of which means that we have NO one knows what’s about to happen. What will happen? It’s all a question mark.

The news should make your uncomfortable

In the video above, MSNBC’s Katy Tur talks to supporters of the current occupant of the White House outside one of his many campaign rallies, this one in Macon, Georgia. There’s nothing in it that will surprise anyone—until her closing comments, where she tells viewers: “[MSNBC is] not your safe space”.

The USA’s hyperpartisan reality is now so deep and bitter that the two sides aren’t even listening to each other. Worse, they actively reject the other side without even even listening to them. Abraham Lincoln famously said about the issue of slavery that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. That’s always been self-evidently true, but never more so than when the country is deeply and bitterly divided as it was then, and as it is right now.

I get it: Sometimes we really do need to be within our own bubbles to heal from the things that anger, disgust, frighten, or outrage us. We need to hear from people who share not just our political ideology, but also our values. But if we live full-time in that bubble we can never find out what common ground—what shared values—we may possibly have with people with whom we disagree. If we live full-time in our respective bubbles, we will never have our assumptions and beliefs challenged, so we can never be sure that they’re sound and rational. Feeling they are doesn’t make it true.

Which is why it’s so important to consider the other side’s views, and not assume their media is “lying” just because someone in our bubble told us they are: We need to check it out for ourselves. I’ve written several times about the methods I use to evaluate news stories, regardless of the topic or the ideology of the source. The method used isn’t important, it’s that it’s possible to objectively evaluate the truthfulness of what is reported without relying on a gut reaction—OR our bubble.

In evaluating news, one terrible approach is to “pray about it, think about it, if it sounds right, it is right.” That’s looking only within one’s own bubble. So is decrying MSNBC talking to Republicans, and for the same reason. One cannot challenge one’s own assumptions or verify a news source by staying within one’s bubble. It’s impossible. As Katy Tur says at the end of her piece, “If everything you read or watch gives you comfort, you’re doing it wrong.”

We all want to accept what those in our bubble tell us. That’s understandable. However, we can remain in our bubble and still venture out to check things for ourselves. Nuclear arms reduction negotiators used a phrase that is very apt for this: Trust, but verify. Sometimes—shock!—people within our bubble, even politicians, will tell us things that aren’t true, or that are misleading.

The job of the news media is to report facts based on the available evidence, not to make us comfortable or to present only flattering fluff about politicians. If news media reports make us uncomfortable, that’s a good thing! It can spur us to truly look into an issue ourselves, and to look outside of our own bubble, even if only to try to refute the report. And in so doing, our own opinions and beliefs will become better and more valid because they’ll be based on evidence, not hunches or feelings or agreement within our bubbles.

If we look only for news media that makes us comfortable, we really are doing it wrong.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Yes, I voted

I’ve voted in the 2018 US Midterm Elections. There were things that were new to me this year, and the need for my vote is minimal—which is the main reason I voted. There’s more to all that, of course.

All US citizens living overseas are entitled to vote in US elections, though what elections and offices will vary depending on the citizen’s circumstances and state laws. At a minimum, US citizens living overseas are entitled to vote in all federal elections, that is, President/Vice President, US Senator, and US Representative, all from the last US address the citizen was registered at.

It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since the person lived at that address, or even if there’s any housing at that address any more. All that matters is that the citizen was legally registered to vote at that address before moving overseas.

What happens after that varies from state to state, and some make it much harder to do than other states do. My native Illinois is in the middle of the pack, in which some things are easy, others are not. On balance, however, it’s lightyears better than the states that make it difficult.

A citizen living overseas registers to vote every two years (in time the federal election cycle) using a process called the FPCA (Federal Post Card Application) process, something every state must support by law. It used to be that one could register less frequently, like every four years, but the law was changed to make it harder.

A voter registers before the state’s primary election, and they will receive a ballot for the general election, too. I didn’t vote in the Illinois Primary this year only because I was disorganised. But I was also tempted to skip voting in the general election because this year’s there’s only one office I can vote for, US Representative, because neither US Senator from Illinois is up for re-election this year.

Illinois’ 9th Congressional District is represented by Jan Schakowsky, who was elected to succeed Sidney R. Yates, who represented the district for all but two years between 1949 and 1999. When I lived in Chicago, I voted for Yates, and as an ex pat I’ve voted for Schakowsky.

I thought about not bothering to vote this year because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, and there’s no doubt that Schakowsky will win re-election. But for months I’ve been preaching the importance of voting for Democrats no matter what, and I needed to practice what I preached.

So, I submitted my FPCA application late, and received the ballot and information by email. The postal version hadn’t arrived as of today, so I used the PDFs they emailed me. I’d never done that before.

I was careful—VERY careful—to follow the instructions to the letter, to make sure my vote is counted. The way it works is that the envelope containing a ballot must be postmarked on or before the date of Election Day. If the postmark can’t be read for whatever reason, they go by the date on the certification the voter signs and affixes to the outside of the envelope containing the actual ballot. I voted yesterday, and posted it today, both before deadline.

The photo up top is a sample of the ballot I received. The law says that no one can watch me mark my ballot (which created a problem ten years ago when I wanted to make a video about voting from overseas), so the photo doesn’t show my ballot or who I voted for. There seems to have been something on the lens, though, that obscured part of the ballot. Sorry about that.

Someone who is overseas only temporarily—like, for example, on a one-year work contract—would probably cast an ordinary absentee ballot, depending on their state’s election laws. But the FPCA programme is there for them, too, should they need it.

Sometimes people ask me why I’d bother, since I don’t live there anymore. Occasionally there’s an air of disapproval in the question, as if I shouldn’t, but there are damn good reasons for voting. First, it’s every American citizen’s right to vote, paid for in bloody wars and the struggle of ordinary people to make America “a more perfect union”. Failing to vote would dishonour everyone who fought in whatever capacity to make America better.

There’s also a practical reason. The USA is one of only two countries (the other is Eritrea) that tax citizens based on nationality rather than residence. What that means is that US citizens living overseas may, under some circumstances, be required to pay taxes to the federal government AND whatever country they’re living in. That’s double taxation on the same income, in other words. Most countries only tax the people living and working within their country, not their citizens living overseas.

A foundational principle of the USA is that there must never be taxation without representation. US citizens living overseas—subject to US taxation—have every right to vote on the people who will decide their tax burden and the onerous reporting rules. That’s not just sensible and fair, it’s common sense and a fundamental requirement of a democracy.

So, I did my part. Again. That also means that if Republicans win this week, it’s Not My Fault. I did my duty to help restore democracy and checks and balances to the USA. Hopefully, enough others will have done the same, too.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

He sows, we reap

Anyone seeing the news from the USA over the past couple weeks couldn’t help but be shocked by it. It’s not just the politically motivated terrorism, but also the response from the current occupant of the White House. The sad reality is, no real president would even act like he has been acting.

A series of bombs were sent to prominent Democrats and to CNN. What they all had in common is that the current occupant of the White House has frequently attacked all of them in both Tweets and at his frequent campaign rallies. The terrorist was a huge fan of the current occupant, and plastered the outside of his van with all sorts of propaganda backing the current occupant—and also attacking Democrats, often by placing rifle sight graphics over the faces of prominent opponents of the current regime.

The terrorist who killed 11 people at the Pittsburgh synagogue allegedly wasn’t exactly a fan of the current occupant, reportedly thinking him too much of a “globalist”, but he was motivated to attack in part because of the lie that the current occupant has been promoting that George Soros is funding the “caravan” of refugees two-months walk from the USA. That smear is meant as a an under-the-breath smear against Jewish people, though the current occupant may not be bright enough to understand that.

In the wake of those horrific murders, and the attempt to assassinate two former presidents and plenty of other prominent Democrats, the current occupant had the opportunity to act like a real president. He failed completely. Unlike what any real president would have done, he didn’t speak to any of the intended victims of the bomber. But worse was to come.

Speaking to his frothing fans hours after the attack in Pittsburgh, the current occupant complained that the attempted bombings and the murders in Pittsburgh (he never mentioned the murders committed by a racist in Kentucky) had broken the “momentum” of his campaign to for Republicans in the elections next week. What kind of sick bastard does that? People were still grieving the loss of loved ones, and he tried to make it all about him, and how much of a “victim” HE is because his political rhythm was broken. Unbelievable.

But, of course, the current occupant wasn’t done.

He’s repeated his moaning about the interruption to his campaigning several times since the terrorist acts. In typical fashion, he also blamed the media for the rising rightwing violence and denied his rhetoric has had anything to do with it. Of course he did.

The current occupant is delusional.

He has constantly demonised Democrats and liberals, and then one of his fans sends bombs in an attempt to kill Democrats that the current occupant is constantly attacking—even after the plot was revealed—but somehow those constant attacks aren’t responsible for encouraging his violent fan to act? Seriously?!

The current occupant has been spreading many lies about Soros, not just about the “caravan”, but also lying that Soros was funding opponents of the current regime (a lie he’s repeated so often that Democrats started to make fun of him over it before the terrorist incident). That lie has been a favourite of the nativist rightwing that makes up a significant portion of his base, people who believe “the Jews” are part of a global conspiracy. And then a rightwing terrorist takes up arms to murder Jewish people.

The thing is, one cannot say that Word A was the direct cause of Crime B. Things don’t work that way. But when one of the most prominent people in the world constantly repeats lies and smears as attacks against his opponents, and freely spreads anti-Semitic dogwhistles, there can be no surprises when violence-prone followers take action.

No real president would EVER use the sort of language that the current occupant uses. No real president would ever stir up hatred and divisiveness as the current occupant has. No decent human being would ever complain about their own campaign inconvenience caused by a terrorist attack, let alone while people were still grieving their dead.

The man is sowing hatred and division for political gain. What he says is harming the entire USA, and will encourage extremists to engage in violence. No real president would ever act like that.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Twenty Three Years Together

Today is the biggest anniversary: Twenty-three years ago today, November 2, 1995, I arrived in New Zealand to live. It was the day that Nigel and I began our life together, and it became the date we observed as our anniversary. Later we had many other dates to choose from, and all them matter for their own reasons. But this date is the most special of them all.

I used to call this my “expataversary”, because it’s the day I officially became an expat. It was also the day that my story in New Zealand began. I later shared those stories on this blog, my podcast, or even my YouTube videos, so, in sense, they’re all directly related to that “expataversary”.

But, the expat aspect diminished in significance as the years have passed because my life is so firmly entwined with this country, and with Nigel, of course. As I said last year:
“…because this date was when Nigel and I began our life together, it has even greater personal importance. Sure, that couldn’t have happened if the expat thing hadn’t happened, but when looking at what matters most to my life, how it unfolded, how my life was changed and shaped, it was beginning life with Nigel that matters more than anything else in my life, including the arrival here—which made all that possible.”
So, while this date has always been significant for multiple reasons—including for this blog—it’s the personal aspects of it that matter the most. I can’t see that ever changing.

Here’s to 23 more!

Posts from previous years:
Twenty Two Years Together (2017)
Twenty One Years Together (2016)
Twenty Years Together (2015)
Surreal 19th Expataversary (2014)
Eighteen (2013)
The day that really mattered (2012)
Sweet sixteen (2011)
Fifteen (2010)
Fourteen (2009)
Lucky 13: Expataversary and more (2008)
Twelfth Anniversary (2007)
Eleven Years an Expat (2006)

Ex, but not ex- – A 2006 post about being an expat
Changing policies and lives – A 2011 post about becoming a permanent resident
12 years a citizen – A 2014 post about becoming a NZ citizen
Foreign-born human – A 2015 post re-examining the word “expat”

A new new strategy

My Healthcare Journey has followed a meandering path. With loops. Now there’s another one bend in the road. Maybe this one will head in a better direction.

As I’ve said a few times, the drug they put me on to regulate my heart rhythm, diltiazem, has had similar side effects to the beta blockers I had been on. I knew I was going to have a follow up with the cardiologists, which was due soon, but I hadn’t been offered an appointment.

On Wednesday afternoon, the “SuperClinic”, as it’s called, rang to tell me there’d been a cancellation for Thursday at 3pm, and did I want the appointment? I snapped it up—not the least because I had no idea when I’d be offered an appointment otherwise. But I also was eager to consult with them about the drugs I’m on.

As it turned out, the weather yesterday was a terrible: Windy, rainy, and with sometimes frequent downpours. I left the house earlier than I needed to to give myself extra time, and ended up getting there roughly a half hour early. On the way, I battled several downpours, and I was still hobbling a bit, so I was stressed.

Not surprisingly, my blood pressure was high, but my ECG was normal, and so was the sound of my heart when the doctor listened. He also asked me about how I was doing, and in the end he said that I clearly wasn’t suited for beta blockers, and the Diltiazem was the best drug for me, especially since there weren’t a lot of other drugs available. There was one that could damage the thyroid, liver, and several organs (I don’t remember which ones because I’d stopped listening by then—it wouldn’t be an option for me). That drug required strict monitoring, including blood tests every three months—maybe more often.

So, instead, he decided to halve the dosage on my statin, atorvastatin. He told me something I vaguely remember being told in hospital, namely that atorvastatin and diltiazem fight each other, resulting in making the bad effects of diltiazem worse. By cutting the dosage of atorvastatin, he hopes it will reduce the fatigue I’ve been experiencing. We’ll see.

Today was the first day on the new dosages, and I did feel a little better—less tired. However, I’m still not totally healthy, so my perception may not be accurate. And, in any case, it’s only the first day.

The other day I mentioned feeling sick, and I thought it was the flu-like feeling that comes with a gout attack. However, the joint soreness and stiffness waned, but my “flu-like symptoms” didn’t. I’ve since realised it was actually a “flu-like condition”, quite possibly a hayfevery sort of thing, or maybe just a cold. I have no idea.

In any event, this sickness, whatever it is, will soon be over, and I’m already walking more normally, so those things are improving. Now, if the new drug dosages really work, everything will be great.

Clearly this journey isn’t over yet. Let’s just see what’s around this next bend.

Important note: This post is about my own personal health journey. My experiences are my own, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative for anyone else. Similarly, other people may have completely different reactions to the same medications I take—better or worse. I share my experiences because others may have the same or similar experiences, and I want them to know that they’re not alone. But, as always, discuss your situation and how you’re feeling openly, honestly, and clearly with your own doctor, and always feel free to seek a second opinion from another doctor.

AmeriNZ Podcast episode 340 now available

AmeriNZ Podcast episode 340, “Adventures” is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast. Who knows? There may be more episodes soon.

The five most recent episodes of the podcast are listed on the sidebar on the right side of this blog.

Not a whole other country

The story linked to above is an interesting one for a number of reasons. It’s also sad and pretty pathetic, in a “totally not surprised, but still…” kind of way. The story, though, isn’t just about the crap politics of one small town in Texas, it’s really about much of small town America and what could spread throughout the country.

The story paints a picture of a town run by a political cabal who appear to be interested only in their own power, and who will stop at nothing to protect it. In that sense, this story really isn’t about their undeniable homophobic bigotry, but about their ruthlessness in pursuing their political self-interest.

Even so, rank homophobic bigotry is absolutely at the core of the story. The politicians easily exploited that bigotry to get what they wanted, just as Lee Atwater famously exploited racism for Reagan and Bush the First. But it seems highly improbable that those smalltime Texas politicians will ever be bothered by their actions or repent for them as Atwater did as he was dying.

What that young city councillor did was nobody’s damn business. It was legal and between consenting adults, end of story. Can the Good Christians™ of that Texas town REALLY be sure that their elected representatives are pure and wholesome? What about their pastors? Their neighbours, friends, coworkers, their family members. They don’t know, and the harsh truth is that they don’t want to know. They have no interest in hating those people, only the young gay man.

In a sane and rational town, they would have swallowed hard and got on with it. They would have celebrated having a young person involved in a field dominated in most places by old(er) folks. But, no, their hatred and bigotry blinded them to the opportunity they’d been handed, and arming themselves with religious zeal and rank hypocrisy, they lunged for their victim.

I can guess what the result of their cynical campaign will be, as, in fact, everyone else probably can, too. Bigoted small town Texas is highly unlikely to act against its nature. But the thing is, they’re really not so different from any small town in the USA where a small clique runs everything, and religion is used as a shield to hide away what they don’t want voters to see, and as a weapon to smite their political enemies. Worse, those people exist in big big towns and cities, too, just waiting for allies to help them take control.

It’s that last part that we must note. Fascism is on the march throughout the world, including the USA, and it’s not hard to map out scenarios in which all of the USA could become like that small town in Texas and its cousins throughout the country. The base is already there, and all it needs are willing enablers and enforcers, something it has in abundance is the current regime and Republican-controlled Congress. Whether they advance or are pushed back will depend on what happens next week.

No matter what happens, stories of elected officials exploiting bigotry in pursuit of political greed, corruption, and ruthlessness will not go away. The question is, will they become dominant?