Friday, September 13, 2019

AmeriNZ Blog is thirteen

Today is the thirteenth anniversary of the AmeriNZ Blog—it’s a teenager! I published my first post, “I live in a land downunder. No, the other one…” on September 13, 2006 at 10:53pm NZST. This blog and I are are both still here to tell the tales.

For me, this blog has been a lot of things over the years—fun, exasperating, interesting, educational, even exasperating. It’s also been challenging, at least when it comes to meeting my goals. Last year I said:
Last year [2017], I looked at where I was in my annual blogging goal of an average of one post per day, and at this point last year, it wasn’t great. I had a shortfall of 64 posts from where I should have been if I was on track. That meant needed an average of 1.59 posts per day to meet my goal. That never happened, because I was right: It WAS a tall order.

This year [2018] is better. Including this post, the shortfall is 55, and the daily average required is 1.5 posts per day. That’s a somewhat shorter order than last year.
Here in 2019, the shortfall (as of today, and including this post) is 45, meaning a daily average of about 1.41 posts per day, which is better than last year, but—fair warning—I know that I almost certainly won’t achieve my blogging goal this year, for reasons I’ll explain another time. Right now, though, I’ll say this: I don’t care about that. Part of the reason for that is, as I’ve said before, the goal itself doesn’t really matter. I now truly understand that.

As always, thanks for joining me on the journey so far.

Previous posts on my blogoversaries:

Anniversay Time (2007)
Blogoversary 2 (2008)
Anniversaries Three and Fourteen (2009)
Fourth blogoversary (2010)
Fifth blogoversary (2011)
Sixth blogoversary (2012)
Seventh Blogoversary (2013)
Ten years of the AmeriNZ Blog (2016)
The AmeriNZ Blog is eleven (2017)
The AmeriNZ Blog is twelve (2018)

This 2015 AmeriNZ Video explains the origins of the name “AmeriNZ”:

Thursday, September 12, 2019

24 years ago

Twenty-four years ago yesterday, I arrived in New Zealand as a tourist, the beginning of my current story arc. I left New Zealand later that month, and returned five weeks later to stay. I’m still here, and that’s what matters.

I used to remember this anniversary for the first few years, and then everything changed six years later, something I’ve explained before: September 12 here is September 11 in the USA. As I said last year.

Despite that, and even in the years I’d “forgotten” about it, September 12 is an important anniversary because of the past 24 years of my life. I’ve called it “a sort of foundation date”, and it was. And that’s why I remember it each year, even if there are sometimes it seems better not to say so.

I’m still here. That’s what matters.

Previous posts about this anniversary (the first three only mention it):

Anniversay Time (2007)
Blogoversary 2 (2008)
Anniversaries Three and Fourteen (2009)
Where it began (2010)
Anniversary of the beginning (2011)
Another anniversary (2012)
18 years ago today (2013)
19 years ago today (2014)
Twenty years ago today (2015)
21 years ago today (2016)
22 years ago today (2017)
23 years ago today (2018)

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Last week, I talked about an album Waiata/Anthems in which New Zealand artists took their hit songs an re-recorded them in Te Reo Māori for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week). The album has now been released, and artists are starting to share their work. Here are two of those.

Among the songs on the album are two I’ve previously shared, and because some people may want to hear the two side-by-side, here they are, with the new audio-only version first, followed by the original video.

First, and the oldest of the two, “Don’t Forget Your Roots” by Six60. Originally released in July 2011, it was their second single and hit Number One in New Zealand:

Now, the original version:

I first shared the original version in a post for NZ Music Month back in 2014, and I shared a different video in a post last year about the NZ Music Awards.

Next up Drax Project, and their first big hit, “Woke Up Late”, a song released twice already:

And, the original version

This particular song has now had a triple life: The first, original version (which I also shared in that NZ Music Awards post last year) was released in November, 2017, and hit Number 15 in NZ. That was followed by another version with, with Hailee Steinfeld an American Singer/songwriter and actress. That song also got a new video (WATCH) shot in Los Angeles. The original video was shot in New Zealand. The 2019 version only hit Number 35—maybe it didn’t seem new to Kiwis? I have no idea whether the new version for Waiata/Anthems will chart or not, but it is a very different version.

The entire album is available for streaming on Spotify, though the embed may work for some people, too (it is ad supported for those without Spotify Premium):

As with pretty much every various artists compilations, we may like some songs more than others—I certainly do. I'm not exactly a "fan" of any of the artists, though I like songs by many of them. But that's not the entire point with this album. Instead, it's about helping people perceive Te Reo Māori in new ways, in this case by exposing people to it through pop songs they already know, recorded by the same artists who made the songs a hit in the first place. That's an interesting and fresh approach to spreading awareness of, and appreciation for, the language. It may bother some folks that the lyrics are often interpreted rather than literally translated, but it shouldn't: Literal translation is seldom used in any translation we encounter. In fact, for the sake of understanding and, in this case, artistry, it should be interpreted rather than literally translated.

Probably most of us who hear the songs don't speak Māori, or, at least, not fluently; many of us never will, either. But many of the artists who re-recorded their songs also don't speak the language. If they can do their songs in a language they don't even speak, maybe there's hope for the rest of us, too.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Dumber than a box of markers

One of the many "Sharpie-Gate" photo memes.
There’s a harsh, cold reality that the current occupant of the White House just doesn’t seem to understand: When you dig yourself into a hole, stop digging! Everyone else understands the truth of that statement, though smart people can be dumb about this and fail to pay attention to the wisdom. But the current occupant has staff—are there no grown-ups left to tell him he’s being an idiot over the latest hurricane?

Another reality is that if he’d merely mistakenly Tweeted out an already old forecast that Alabama was at 5-20% risk of tropical storm conditions in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, he could have easily moved on by saying that in the earliest stages experts thought it may have been true, but that they later felt otherwise. Most of us would have ignored that—after all, he says and does truly dumb and laughable things in the course of an average day, and this didn’t need to be that.

In this case, his bizarre overreaction to criticism of his erroneous Tweet says a LOT about him.

First, he pulled out an obviously doctored map to “prove” his erroneous claims about the possible path of Hurricane Dorian were “true”. Then he claimed he had no idea who doctored the map, but then reports emerged that he was the one who doctored the map, with an unnamed White House official commenting to The Washington Post, “No one else writes like that on a map with a black Sharpie.” Indeed, he always uses one when publicly signing a document, both real and fake.

As if that wasn’t dumb and laughable enough, then he Tweeted out a doctored CNN video to try and back up his false claims. So, when he Tweets out a doctored video, isn’t that the definition of “fake news”?

All of this comes from a man who claimed, "I'm not sure that I've ever even heard of a Category 5. I knew it existed." Trouble is, he said the exact same thing back in 2017 after Hurricane Irma hit. In fact, there have been four Category 5 hurricanes since that man took up residence in the White House, three of them since Irma. But, despite all that, he didn’t remember having heard of Category 5 hurricanes before, even though, well, he did—at least three times before Dorian.

Things then took yet another bizarre—and very ominous—turn when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is supposed to be a scientific agency, politicised the weather by taking the side of the current occupant of the White House. They claimed that their National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, was wrong when they Tweeted on Sunday that the Alabama was not at risk. NOAA said the Birmingham office’s Tweet was “in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.” Oh, really?! In fact, there was one prediction that southeastern Alabama might face a 5 to 10 percent chance of experiencing 40 mile per hour winds. In the end, winds there were actually no more than 9mph—proving the original assessment was correct.

So, why did they rush to defend the current occupant from—well, what exactly? Alarming people for no good reason? Or maybe it was because he was merely caught out misunderstanding something he heard somewhere (maybe on Fox “News”?). Whether it was their intent or not, they ended up running political interference designed to help the current occupant, but, worse, their politicisation also means people can no longer trust the NOAA to provide accurate forecasts—unless, it’s purely by accident, and in accordance with what seems to be their new mission of making the current occupant of the White House look good.

As for the latest utterly bizarre behaviour from the current occupant, there are several plausible conclusions. First, and simplest, it’s merely another example of his malignant narcissism, where he cannot be criticised, he cannot be shown to be wrong, and he has to lash out—lying whenever necessary—to “prove” his lies were true, and that he was “unfairly” criticised. However, it’s also entirely possible that this is the result of advancing dementia, or perhaps underlying insanity. Whatever the case is, this latest bizarre behaviour is clearly not normal, and there’s something seriously wrong with him—as in, 25th Amendment seriously wrong. That option won’t be used, obviously, so we must expect to see a lot more utterly bizarre and inappropriate behaviour from the current occupant.

We also now know that there are no grown-ups in the regime, no one who can tell him to stop digging himself in deeper. At least when he does dumb things like this it gives us yet another reason to laugh at him. Right now, that’s all we get. Hopefully in November 2020 the joke will finally end.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Unions make us strong

Monday of this week was Labor Day in the USA (New Zealand’s Labour Day is the end of October), and also the 125th anniversary of the first one. For years now, a common narrative has been about the decline of unions, and the Right has constantly added rhetoric about how awful they think unions are. In fact, things are better than they have been in some time, and they’re likely to get better.

The graphic above is by Gallup who recently reported, “As Labor Day Turns 125, Union Approval Near 50-Year High”. Gallup explains it this way:
Union approval averaged 68% between Gallup's initial measurement in 1936 and 1967, and consistently exceeded 60% during that time. Since 1967, approval has been 10 points lower on average, and has only occasionally surpassed 60%. The current 64% reading is one of the highest union approval ratings Gallup has recorded over the past 50 years, topped only in March 1999 (66%), August 1999 (65%) and August 2003 (65%) surveys.
That sounds like good news, but tGallup also reported:
Higher public support for unions in the past few years likely reflects the relatively good economic conditions in place, particularly low unemployment. By contrast, the lowest union approval ratings in Gallup history came from 2009 through 2012, years of high unemployment that followed the Great Recession. Gallup also observed relatively low union approval during the poor economic times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Put another way, the one thing that will stand up for workers—unions—are shunned when the economy turns bad. That could plausibly mean that workers blame unions for higher unemployment, rather than the corporations cutting costs to maintain profit levels.

We see some evidence for that assumption in the data about union membership. Again according to Gallup, around 10% of the USA’s full and part-time workers belong to a union, which continues record low levels.

The largest share of unionised workers are in so-called “white collar” jobs, especially workers in all levels of government. While there’s little statistical difference in party identification (union members are slightly more Democratic than Republican), the biggest differences are in geographic region (workers in the South are least likely to be unionised), and income (workers earning over $100,000 per year are more likely to be union members).

In recent years, unions have been working to unionise low-paid workers, such as fast food workers, whose employment conditions and schedules leave them vulnerable to being disadvantaged or even exploited by their employers. That means that generally low-paid workers in industries like fast food, retail, and service jobs (including “gig economy” jobs like ride-share drivers) could be a real growth area for union membership, just as it was for similarly vulnerable workers in factories a century ago.

This post was inspired, in part, by a US Labor Day post by Roger Green, “Labor Day: unions; corporate greed”. Roger discussed the current state of work in the USA, and referred to a piece titled, “The Answer to Burn Out at Work Isn’t “Self-Care” — It’s Unionizing”, which included my current favourite observation about work in the Corporatist Era: “Eating a salad isn’t going to fix the systemic problems at your workplace.” Indeed. But unionising would help.

Labour unions have fallen on hard times, relative to their past, but the same economic forces that have made things so dire for ordinary working people in the USA may also help unions rise again. Sick of being exploited and constantly losing out, they tried voting for a political party actively working against them, and many of them put their trust in a presidential candidate they knew to be a con-man and fraud, all in a desperate hope that things might get better for them. They haven’t, and they won’t. To really change things will require doing things differently, and joining a union could be an important step in that direction.

Also, voting for the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Nothing they’ve tried so far has changed things. It’s time to try something different.


Robert Reich talks about “The 5 Biggest Corporate Lies About Unions”:

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Forgiveness is a gift

I posted the above to the AmeriNZ Facebook Page yesterday. The questions raised by the linked article are simple: Can we forgive those who have caused us grievous harm? Also, should we?

The story is about a man who promoted the myth that gay people can be “cured” though so-called “conversion therapy”, which is also known by the colourful phrase, “pray the gay away” and the more pointed, “ex-gay torture”. His work harmed countless vulnerable LGBT+ people over the 20 years he promoted that nonsense. Can they forgive him? Should they?

By promoting the ex-gay myth, he also harmed the friends and families of LGBT+ people, not merely through giving them “false hope”, but especially by putting them through it all for nothing. Moreover, it also gave people without LGBT+ friends or family members reason to hold onto their anti-gay animus: They could continue to believe that “change” was possible, that gay people who lived their lives with honesty, integrity, and authenticity were being wilfully sinful and disobedient, instead of the reality, namely, that they were being themselves. Can they forgive him? Should they?

People like this guy harmed specific LGBT+ people and their family and friends, and he hurt us all by providing a sort of moral cover for his kindred religionists to cause us great harm. That can’t possibly be undone merely because he’s repudiated his past and come out as gay.

The now openly gay former “ex-gay” torturer was part of a whole system that leads to hatred and violence against LGBT+ people. He cannot escape his role in that. So: Can we forgive him? Should we?

I think that the answer is entirely personal: We each must decide for themselves. But we also have to realise that there are no easy answers, that each instance is unique and requires thought and reflection.

Personally, I think the “ex-gay” torture guy could merit forgiveness if he sincerely and appropriately atones for his wrongdoing—and merely turning away from it or saying it was wrong isn’t enough. Similarly, the fact he’s now out doesn’t absolve him of his duty to atone. Because he did such enormous damage to individuals and to an entire community, he has a moral obligation to try and make up for that. Then we might be able to talk about forgiveness.

People often say, “forgive and forget”, as if they’re the same thing, or at least connected. They’re neither. We can forget about grievous wrong done to us without ever forgiving the person who did it. Basically, we move on with our lives. Or, maybe based on our personal belief structure we forgive such a person, despite the fact we can’t forget what they did. Others can’t do either.

It is a rare person, I think, who can do both. Forgiveness really is a gift of sorts, as I said in the Facebook post. It’s something that many of us can never quite achieve when it comes to the big wrongs done to us individually or as part of a larger community. I think that’s okay.

I stand by what I said the other day, that when people do or say bad or stupid things, they need a path to redemption. I’ve laid out one path the “ex-gay” torture guy could take, but, obviously, that path won’t please everyone. Ultimately, he needs to choose his own path to redemption, and leave us to decide for ourselves whether he’s earned forgiveness. Or not.

Forgiveness is a gift. The people who have caused us harm are the best ones to give us that gift. The choice on forgiveness, ultimately, is theirs well before it’s ours.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Video: ‘All Blacks to the Nation’

The video above, titled “All Blacks to the Nation”, is an ad, obviously, but there are a couple reasons I’m sharing it. First, it’s pretty quintessentially New Zealand, and second, because of the music in the background.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup will soon get underway in Japan (which is what this ad relates to; Air New Zealand is a sponsor of the NZ national rugby team, the All Blacks). Although the importance of rugby has been slowly declining in recent years, it’s still important to this country, especially when the World Cup rolls around (and this year New Zealand will attempt to win it for the third time in a row). The ad captures some of the passion of fans, kids in particular.

The music in the background is the new Te Reo Māori version of Six60’s big hit, “Don’t Forget Your Roots”, the original version of which I shared back in 2014. The new version is part of a project headed up by Hinewehi Mohi to re-record hit New Zealand songs in Māori (all were originally done in English). Another recent hit included in the project is Drax Project’s “Woke Up Late” (I shared the original video last year). The various clips of the project I’ve heard sound awesome [See also the video about the project below].

The thing is, 20 years ago Hinewehi Mohi sang the NZ National Anthem at a quarter final of the 1999 Rugby World Cup, but she sang it in Māori only. She instantly became probably the most hated person in New Zealand—on talkback radio, anyway. At the time, the NZ National Anthem was sung in English only at All Blacks rugby matches. However, also at the same time, it was sung in Māori, then English, at international netball matches, which I thought was great, and I thought should be done at rugby test matches, too.

Nowadays, the Māori-then-English method is used at all international events where the national anthem is sung, including All Blacks test matches (only the first verse is sung in each language; most countries only sing their anthem's first verse). A lot has changed in 20 years.

To be sure, a simple change in singing the national anthem didn’t end racism or prejudice, nor will re-recording English-language pop songs. But it does put more cracks in it—and it helps advance the Māori language. So, while New Zealand isn’t perfect, obviously—since NO country is, this shows that if this country can get over racist attitudes around our national anthem, it shows that progress can be made even on something that people feel passionately about, and that should inspire hope for all countries.

And all of that is embodied in one simple ad. No wonder I shared it.

This is a revised and extend version of something I posted to my personal Facebook earlier today.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Iconic images and reality

Tonight, TVNZ’s Sunday progamme featured one of the Loading Docs series of short documentaries (video above), this one about Levi Hawken, who is best known to New Zealanders as “the Nek Minnit guy” because of a 2011 viral video he was in. Many of us made assumptions about him based on that video, and it turns out many of us were also wrong about him. He’s so much more than that one iconic image would suggest.

Back in 2011, Hawken made a comedic video with friends, something Wikipedia describes well:
Levi Hawken is a professional skateboarder (for Sector 9) from Dunedin, New Zealand who suffers from ectodermal dysplasia. The condition caused his hair and teeth to grow abnormally, which resulted in him being bullied as a child. In the "nek minnit" video, Hawken appears shirtless with a shaven head; his missing teeth have also been noted by many viewers. The video takes place in a Fairfield, Otago skatepark; Hawken announces, "Left my scooter outside the dairy; nek minnit ...", the camera then tilts to show Hawken's broken scooter. The nine-second-long clip was recorded for South in Your Mouth, an independent skate film by Colin Evans, Hawken's friend; however, the "nek minute" video was uploaded separately. The video was popularised in mid-2011, and was viewed on YouTube 600,000 times by late September 2011; at December 2011, the video had received over 1.5 million views. By August 2018, it had reached 4.4 million. The phrase "nek minute" was the sixth most searched term in New Zealand on internet search engine Google in 2011, and was voted the runner-up in the 2011 "Word of the Year" poll by website Public Address.
The only thing most New Zealanders knew about him was “nek minnit”. Some assumed he was, as he says in the documentary, a “dumb homeless guy”. He’s anything but.

Hawken is an artist, who’d once been a graffiti artist. At some point he decided to stop making “public art” to concentrate on painting and making sculptures from cement, some of which is available for purchase on his website. This is now his passion.

Watching the documentary, I was struck by how poetic he was in talking about his art, and also the video that made him public property for a time. Earlier this year, he told Newshub that he used to say “nek minnit” before the famous video, but he never does any more. Who can blame him for that?

There was one more thing that struck me while watching the documentary. Through his impromptu video, Hawken managed to bring Kiwis together through a shared cultural experience, and that’s not something that happens all that often. However, he was also a victim of that same iconic moment, not the least because people assumed a lot about his intelligence and in so doing helped to perpetuate the bullying he experienced as a child because of his unusual appearance.

Hawken seems to have found a way forward, a path to his own peace and to his own creativity. That’s an awesome thing for anyone, but I hope many people see the documentary, and those who judged him based on that viral video will realise how wrong they were about the real guy, and, better still, take the lesson to never judge someone just by appearance—or viral videos—alone.

A path to redemption

We need to talk about redemption, and of scale. This is about more than just politics, it’s also about the way we treat other people, especially prominent people, who are accused of misdeeds of one kind or other. We need to accept that not all of these transgressions are equal, and also that we need to find a way to allow people to redeem themselves. Our common humanity requires us to gain some perspective. Which is why we need to talk about it.

During the height of the “MeToo” frenzy, there was a simple equation: Accusation meant guilt meant certain punishment. There was seldom any chance to evaluate the allegations, nor any opportunity for the accused to receive a fair hearing, much less do anything to redeem themselves. I talked about this in an answer to an “Ask Arthur” question back in 2017:
The problem is, first, not all allegations are equal, no matter what the Left says. There’s a HUGE difference between someone accused of rape (actual or attempted), child molesting (actual or attempted), and someone accused of making sexually-suggestive remarks/propositions. Yet at the height of the frenzy, they were all treated as if they all carried exactly the same seriousness and had to be punished equally seriously.
That attitude set the stage for several high-profile cases. I talked about that in that 2017 post:
The allegations against Conyers were very serious, and his resignation seems like a good outcome. But unless there were more allegations against Franken that we weren’t told about—which is absolutely possible—forcing him to resign seemed excessive (I certainly raised my eyebrows at what seemed like an over-the-top response from Kirsten Gillibrand). Still, maybe there’s more that we don’t know about, but, if so, forcing him to resign seems like a good way to prevent those allegations from being reported. Which is why I have my doubts that forcing him to resign was the right move. But, I can certainly be persuaded.
We’ll probably never know if there were more allegations against Franken that justified the harsh reaction to the ones we knew about, but, at the time, the response seemed all out of proportion to the alleged transgressions. However, we do know that we’re still dealing with the consequences of that saga, with Gillibrand’s role in it being part of the reason her presidential campaign never got anywhere and she had to drop out.

The issue that became obvious is that there was no permitted way for Franken (or anyone else) to adequately apologise or to find a path to redemption. The equation created in those fevered days, that allegation = guilt = need for severe punishment, is with us still, and it’s a huge problem.

The first problem with the harsh punishment that results from allegations alone is that it could make victims of behaviour that, while objectionable, was neither violent nor criminal, and that fact could easily make them refuse to come forward because doing so could destroy someone who made a mistake. That, again, is because the perpetrator could have no way to apologise or atone. So, this determination to punish at any cost can actually discourage victims from coming forward.

There’s a bigger problem, though, and it’s this: If we’re forever trapped by the wrong things we’ve said or done, we’ll never have any incentive to do better or become better.

I doubt very much that there are or ever have been any humans who haven’t said or done something they later regretted. Many people have even done or said things that they’re later ashamed of. Were they prominent, their transgressions may become public, and their chance to atone could be taken from them.

But suppose, for example, a perfectly ordinary, non-famous person made inappropriate sexual remarks. Later, they realise how wrong they were, and they try to educate other people about how bad that sort of behaviour is. Maybe they also donate to charities that deal with victims of sexual assault. As a perfectly ordinary, non-famous person, that would probably be the end of it. They would have come to the realisation that they’d behaved inappropriately, they’d learned from that, and they tried to atone for it.

In recent years, when has any famous person ever given the chance to do anything similar?

And that gets to the third problem: It’s bad politics. That sounds crass, absolutely, crude, sure, and it’s even more than a little cynical. But, it’s also true: That vast majority of voters who are not “woke” don’t care that someone made inappropriate sexual remarks, and they’re not interested in seeing such a person harshly punished for their past, especially if the person had come to the realisation that they’d behaved inappropriately, they’d learned from that, and they tried to atone for it. “Move on,” ordinary voters would say.

One of the things driving ordinary voters away from the Left are those demanding harsh punishment for even the smallest transgression (that's not the only factor, obviously). That happens, first, because they perceive the reaction as an overreaction and as grossly unfair. Part of that reaction is because they’re well aware that there are not now, nor have there ever been any humans that haven’t said or done something they later regretted, and that many people have even done or said things that they’re later ashamed of. Perhaps they have, too. By demanding harsh punishment for even minor transgressions, plenty of ordinary people will see themselves in the crosshairs, and that makes progress on the larger issues unlikely or impossible: They've not only stopped listening, they've tuned out completely.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t punish crimes like sexual assault and rape—of course such charges should he heard in court and, upon conviction, the person should be punished. But that relies on due process, a fundamental concept underlying everything democracy is built on.

A person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that’s the same for any alleged crime. Their guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before they’re punished, and that’s what’s been missing from all this.

On the other side of the equation, we’ve been told we must believe the women, always, and without question—a standard we’d never accept for any other alleged crime. We must listen to the women, and also take their allegations seriously—but we’re under no obligation to assume that allegation = guilt, regardless of whether the accused is famous or not. This isn’t because of the myth of “false rape accusations”, which are so statistically insignificant as to be pretty much irrelevant. Instead, this is about due process, the fundamental concept to which everyone, accuser and accused alike, is entitled.

If we’re forever trapped by the wrong things we’ve said or done, we’ll never have any incentive to do better or become better. We must always strive to be better people, and for most of us, that will mean attempting to atone for the things we’ve done or said that we’re now embarrassed by or ashamed of. How can that ever happen if there is no path to redemption?

We need to talk about this a lot more.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Cuomo fact-checks Trump's claims of genius

In the video above, CNN's Chris Cuomo takes on the current occupant of the White House’s claims of genius and him saying that he knows more than anyone on numerous subjects. And yet, the current occupant is a genius on one thing, the same thing that makes him so awful: His ability “to bring out the devil in us all”.

With the current regime doing so many terrible and even illegal things so fast, it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with them all. Every day I see at least a dozen different political things I want to comment on, stuff the regime has done, or that the current occupant has said, but there’s just not enough time to do that, especially when I’m doing this for free, as a hobby.

So, I’ve decided to share more videos like this one (not necessarily with much comment from me) in an effort to help keep issues in our minds, and also to ensure the regime doesn’t get away with sending it’s misdeeds down the memory hole. Some videos will be challenging, some may be very hard-nosed, or they may put things more stridently than I might, but I’ll nevertheless share the things I do for one reason: Before we can erase this stain of this regime from our minds, we’ll need to clean up all of the mess they’ve created. To do that, we’ll first need to remember everything the regime has done so that we can be sure to repair and heal the USA. This is just one way to help us all to remember how bad it really is right now.

The old ‘away’ returned

Soft plastic recycling restarted in Auckland back in May, which is a good thing for Aucklanders: It provides a way to get rid of soft plastics that would otherwise have to be thrown away in the general rubbish. But its resumption happened shortly before New Zealand’s ban on single-use plastic bags took effect. That created some issues, but for us it meant better solutions.

After the end of the original soft package recycling programme, I routinely threw our soft plastics away in the ordinary rubbish, as everyone else did, too. But by then I was also trying to reduce the amount of soft plastics we had to get rid of.

My first move was to buy some mesh bags to put fresh fruits and vegetables into rather than the plastic ones that were still in the grocery store (because I use them exclusively, I actually don’t know what grocery stores have now, but they kept using them for a very long time). I also stopped buying fruits and vegetables—apples, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, that sort of thing—in prepackaged plastic bags (this had the additional benefit of reducing waste: I now buy only what we need, so nothing has a chance to rot). But meats are still packed using plastic wrap, even if the trays are usually recyclable, as I talked about way back in 2016.

So, the soft package recycling scheme restarted, but we had less soft plastics to be recycled. What we did have, however, no longer included plastic shopping bags that stores used to give out, and that meant I needed a new solution for packing up the plastics.

The photo above is my solution: Bread bags. Some time ago, I realised the bread bags would be useful for bagging “icky” things. It was a natural choice for bagging the soft plastics.

It turned out to be the ideal choice because the bags are small, and even if overstuffed, they fit into the collection barrels without any problem because their diameter is smaller that the diameter of the barrel opening. Since then, I’ve also used a plastic bag that some sort of electronic thing was put into before being boxed. The bag had holes punched in it (probably so the ting could "breathe"), so it wasn’t useful for anything that might leak; this was a good and useful way to get rid of that bag.

Now that the scheme has been running for several months, I know for sure that we have far less soft plastics to get rid of than we did when the original scheme was running. That’s good in itself.

This is just a part of our efforts to tread more lightly on the planet by, in this case, reducing waste. Because the reality is that there’s no such thing as an “away” to throw things to. Still, at least we now have less to send to the mythical “away”.

Small steps.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Good 2020 ads

Amy McGrath is running for the Democratic nomination to take on long-time US Senator Mitch McConnell, who was first elected to the seat from Kentucky in 1984, 35 years ago. She has produced some very good ads as she ramps up her campaign to win the nomination, though the ads are clearly aimed mostly at the General Election. Here are two of them.

The ad up top is her latest, “10 Hour Bus Ride”. It’s about former coal miners with black lung disease who road on a bus for ten hours to meet with Mitch McConnell, who only gave them one minute of his time. In so doing, it shows that the current Senator has ignored coal miners, an important constituency in the commonwealth. The ad does a good job underscoring the consequences of McConnell ignoring key constituencies, but it’s also good for letting ordinary people do the talking, telling their story and why it matters to them that McConnell ignores them.

The other ad, below, is called “The Letter” and focuses on the essence of democracy, serving the people. It’s theme is summed up in the tagline at the end: “Defeat Mitch. Defend Democracy.”

Both ads are good, but the strategy is also good: Get Democratic voters to see Amy McGrath as the challenger to McConnell. While the effort may be a long shot, she probably has the best chance of any Democrat.

Talking about this race in early July, Geoffrey Skelley wrote on FiveThirtyEight that literally any Democrat is up against it in deep red Kentucky. However, McConnell is among the most unpopular US Senators in any state, with a 36% approval rate and a 50% disapproval rate, according to Morning Consult. The means that Mitch is even less popular than the current occupant of the White House is nationwide. Worse for him, though, Mitch is far less popular than the current occupant is in Kentucky, where the current occupant had 55% approval rating (and 40% disapproval rating) at the beginning of July, also according to Morning Consult. Put another way, their poll standings are pretty much the exact opposite of each other.

So, Mitch’s weakness provides an opening for a strong Democrat, like Amy McGrath, to defeat him. Skelley correctly spelled out the challenges any Democrat might face in doing so, no matter how strong a candidate they are, but Mitch’s unpopularity could cancel all that out.

The polling so far also suggests that whoever the Democratic nominee is, they’ll have to run against Mitch, and not the current occupant of the White House (assuming, of course, that his popularity in Kentucky doesn’t do a huge nosedive, which is possible, but not probable). In other states, a Democratic candidate tying an incumbent Republican US Senator to the current occupant might help, but it appears that, for now, anyway, it wouldn’t help in Kentucky.

Another unknown is how the Democratic presidential nominee will affect the race. If the nominee is unpopular in solidly red states, it could encourage Republicans to go to the polls to vote against that candidate, and in Kentucky they may go farther and hold their noses and vote for Mitch. They might split their ballot, of course, but in the deeply polarised politics of the USA, that seems far less likely to happen now than it did in the past. In any case, because of Kentucky’s partisan makeup, motivated Republican voters would probably be a bigger force than motivated Democrats and Independents.

Still, it’s early days yet. The Kentucky Primary Election isn’t until May 29, 2020, and no one can possibly predict what might happen between now and then. Mitch won’t give up without a fight, obviously, but if this turns out to be an election cycle that favours Democrats, that will make his challenge much harder.

In the meantime, these ads are example of what can be done, especially in red states: Appeal to real people and highlight real issues. Voters respond strongly to authenticity, and that, combined with some good luck and a strong tail wind, could just be what’s needed topple Mitch.

Let us all hope so.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The ever-changing story

The 2020 race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination is ever-changing, with people entering and leaving, debates that produce good moments for pretty much all the candidates, and some candidates fretting over who is excluded from the debates, and what that may mean for them and their campaigns. All up, it’s been unusually entertaining for politics junkies. But, is it a good process?

The chart above was published today by Statista, and it was out of date not long after it was posted, when US Sentor Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) dropped out of the race. At the same time, three candidates came close to making the third debate, but failed to do so. This left Democrats with a field of ten candidates for the third debate, meaning the debate will be only one night.

In the earlier debates, candidates needed to hit targets for either fundraising or polling. For the next debate, they needed to both hit a minimum of 2% in four approved nationwide polls, and they also needed to raise 130,000 unique donations from 400 different donors in at least 20 states. As that chart above shows, three candidates—Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, and Marianne Williamson—met the fundraising targets, but they failed to hit the polling threshold. Of the three, Steyer came closest, meeting the target in three polls.

The ten candidates who qualified are Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. This will be the first debate with Biden and Warren on the same stage.

Candidates who missed out were, not surprisingly, upset about the rising standards for participation. The Democratic Party is clearly trying to winnow down the field by the end of the year, and that makes sense to focus voter attention. The polling requirements have been criticised because they’re nationwide, when the primaries/caucuses are state-by-state. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism: Whoever the nominee is will need to have broad appeal, and not just appeal to people in regions. Having said that, though, the nationwide popular vote doesn’t matter. Maybe a better idea would be to make candidates hit a certain threshold in the “battleground states”?

The departure of Kirsten Gillibrand came as no surprise. She never really connected in a crowded field. Writing about her departure, Li Zhou observed on Vox:
Her campaign attributed her stalling with donors to a couple of factors, including blowback from members of the Democratic establishment over her decision to call for the resignation of then-Sen. Al Franken after he faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Gillibrand, who’s long been an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement in Congress, stood by her decision and argued that she couldn’t hold Franken to a different standard than others who have been accused of such behavior.
While I definitely think the Franken business was a factor, it’s rather disingenuous to attack “members of the Democratic establishment”. While we don’t know precisely what that’s supposed to mean, these days it’s usually used to refer to people who run the Democratic Party. However, many ordinary Democratic voters were uncomfortable with her actions. Was her campaign trying to dismiss all those Democrats as “establishment” in order to dismiss them like those on the Leftward Side of Left always do? [See also: "Did Gillibrand’s push for Al Franken’s resignation doom her 2020 White House run?" by Casey Quinlan on ThinkProgress]

For people on the Left and Centre (and probably the Right…) of the Democratic Party, one other factor played an even bigger role, in my opinion: Her change in positions. As the Vox piece put it:
Critics questioned Gillibrand, too, over her ideological evolution on issues like immigration and gun control, policy areas where she’s significantly shifted her stance after taking over her Senate seat.
I definitely agree with that. Prior to becoming a US Senator, Gillibrand’s positions on a number of issues was often quite conservative. At the time, I didn’t consider her an ally of the LGBT+ communities, not the least because she supported separate and somewhat equal civil unions for same-gender couples, not marriage. One could say she evolved—after all, at that same time (prior to 2009), Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all opposed marriage equality. I’d be prepared to accept that—progressive evolution on issues is an inherently good thing, in my opinion. However, she “evolved” on that (and other issues) only after she became a Senator. So, I asked myself, was she being opportunistic as a US Representative or as a US Senator? And that, far more than her crusade on Sen. Franken, is what made me distrust her.

And now, it seems obvious to me, she’s trying to position herself to be selected as the vice presidential nominee. Who knows? If Biden is the nominee, maybe she’d be a good choice? If she is the vice presidential nominee, obviously I’ll vote for her since the presidential nominee and vice presidential nominee run as a team, and I’ve already committed to vote for the Democratic nominee, no matter who she or he may be. That doesn’t mean my unease will suddenly go away. I could be sarcastic/cynical and say that maybe that unease would go away if I became a US Senator, but I’m far too nice to say that.

So, here we are, only a couple weeks out from the third Democratic presidential debate, ten candidates on one night. Since it’s possible (or probable) that there will be more candidates for the fourth debate, maybe this debate could have been five candidates each on two nights? I’d like to hear what the candidates actually have to say, rather than their 30-second soundbite approach to answering questions. I think we’ll have to wait quite awhile for that to happen, though.

The 2020 race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination is ever-changing. But at least it’s been unusually entertaining for politics junkies. That’s a good thing for us, at least.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A danger for democracy

Last night, TVNZ’s Q+A programme posted the above report on how the New Zealand National Party has suddenly changed its online advertising to something much more aggressive, and highly targeted. Much of it is also very misleading. This same problem is happening in democracies throughout the developed world, and it poses a serious threat to democracy itself.

We all know how the Russian government used propaganda and deliberately deceptive messaging to help elected their chosen candidate, who went on to become the current occupant of the White House. While the 2018 Midterm Elections saw less of that, we can expect to see it return in force in 2020, especially if it looks like the Republican candidate is heading for defeat.

As it happens, the next New Zealand general election is also in later 2020, most likely a few days after the US election. Because New Zealand elections are every three years, this will be the first time the two countries’ elections have happened in the same month/week since 2008 (the US election was November 4, and the NZ election was held the following Saturday, November 8). Both countries' fair and free elections are at risk.

The problem is that ordinary people will have a hard time telling if some political messaging that they see on social media is true or not, especially if the message is steered to them because the person has been targeted. In a fast-paced campaign, deliberate disinformation can take hold—and sway elections.

We’ve seen in the past how this worked in New Zealand, because the NZ National Party has used deceptive techniques before. Investigative journalist Nicky Hager detailed the party’s deeds in the 2005 NZ elections in his book Hollow Men, and he wrote about the secret tactics (allegedly coordinated with the party) used as far back as the 2011 election. That book, Dirty Politics was released on August 13, 2014, about five weeks before that year’s general election. National won re-election in 2014 despite the book, though then Prime Minister John Key’s integrity was called into question, and he never really recovered from that. [Full disclosure: I bought and read both books when they were released.]

This time, it looks like National intends to be more open about its deception. Its ads so far have copied successful ads used by Australia’s rightwing Liberal Party, among others, which wouldn’t be of much interest if so much of their messaging wasn’t deliberately deceptive.

And that’s the bottom line: The issue isn’t that rightwing political parties (or leftwing ones, for that matter) might copy ads used by counterparts in other parts of the world. Instead, the issue is that they’re cynically using messaging—propaganda—to deceive and mislead voters without them having much hope of knowing it’s happening. Just like the USA in 2016.

It seems that much of electoral politics in Western Democracies, especially the marketing tactics used by the Right, has now become about deception and manipulation. That can’t be a good thing for a healthy, functioning democracy, but is there anything we can do about it? With the public having so much distrust of the newsmedia, deliberately curated by those who stand to gain the most from that distrust, who will be able to expose deceptive messaging and tactics? And if there is no one, what hope do we have of countering it?

Right now, we have only one option: To learn to recognise attempts at manipulation. The video above is part of that effort here in New Zealand. We need more of that everywhere, and often. It may be our only hope.

Guarding what, precisely?

Are the USA’s border guards there to protect the USA’s borders, or are they there to protect the current occupant of the White House? There’s growing evidence that it’s becoming the latter, and whether it’s individual initiative or official policy only matters because of the degree—the offence is the same. It sends a chilling message to foreigners and US citizens alike, journalists in particular, and it also inevitably will put lives at risk.

The latest evidence that border guards are acting inappropriately came a few days ago when James Dyer, a journalist with Empire Magazine (a British film magazine published by a division of German international multimedia conglomerate Bauer Media Group) posted the above Twitter thread (which are also readable on Crooks and Liars). His next three Tweets tell the gist of the story:
He wanted to know if I’d ever worked for CNN or MSNBC or other outlets that are “spreading lies to the American people.” He aggressively told me that journalists are liars and are attacking their democracy.
James Dyer @jamescdyer August 22, 2019

Apparently the only truth now comes from YouTube and the president. All this said under a CBP sign that says “we are the face of our nation.” And with a framed picture of 45 staring down. In fucking California!!! Welcome to Trump’s America!
James Dyer @jamescdyer August 22, 2019

He let me go after I said that I was just here to write about Star Wars, and would keep the fake news about that to a bare minimum. Thankfully the statute of limitations has expired on @ChrisHewitt’s 5 star review of Attack Of The Clones...
James Dyer @jamescdyer August 22, 2019
Dyer goes on to make clear that he was not detained: “He made no attempt to physically detain me beyond the questions (and lecture),” he Tweeted. He added, “Questions at customs are to be expected while fingerprinting etc is going on. It’s just the fake news/MSM diatribe that was surprising and inappropriate.” He didn’t get the agent’s name, nor make a complaint, at least in part because he wasn’t mistreated or detained.

There’s nothing new about harassment of journalists at the border. Back in March, it was reported that under the current regime the US Government was engaged in surveillance of journalists, lawyers, and immigration/migrant activists. The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that the regime’s behaviour is unconstitutional—as if the regime would care about that.

In Dyer’s case, however, this wasn’t part of official harassment, and this appears to have been the actions of a CBP agent who supports the current occupant of the White House and took it upon himself to be political police by aping the current occupant’s lies and smears about the newsmedia. Dyer subsequently Tweeted that CBP contacted him to apologise and to assure him that “they’ve identified the agent concerned and are taking appropriate action to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” That’s good news.

The problem here is that the agent implied that supporting the current regime and not critiquing it, its actions, or its Dear Leader is a perquisite for a foreign journalist to enter to the USA. That one agent did a lot of damage to the USA’s image overseas, but the big question we can’t answer is, how many other journalists has this happened to without being reported anywhere? How common is this?

Other presidents have hated the newsmedia—hell, Nixon's infamous “enemies list” included a few journalists. What makes this current regime different from all the previous presidential administrations is that the current occupant of the White House is promoting hatred of the newsmedia in general, and journalists and particular media outlets in particular. That’s unprecedented and incredibly dangerous.

This should even need to be said, but in the modern USA, apparently it does: A free and unfettered press is a necessary prerequisite to a functioning democracy. Once cannot exist without the other. In the USA, the ability of journalists to do their important work is becoming harder and harder—which pretty much seems to be the point of the current regime’s harassment of journalists.

So, sure, this incident seems to be the action of one fervent frothing fan of the current occupant of the White House taking it upon himself to act on the words of the current occupant—you know, like the El Paso shooter did. Or the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter did. Or as the guy who sent pipe bombs to critics of the current regime, including media organisations and journalists. There is a link, a clear and direct line from the words spewed out by the current occupant of the White House and the decision of individuals to act on those words.

This time the incident was gross, disgusting, and illegal, but next time? There’s clearly no limit to how far the fervent frothing fans of the current occupant of the White House will go to act on the messages from that man.

Harassment of journalists isn’t the only thing going on here, and they’re not the only ones in danger from those fervent frothing fans. How can we be sure one of them won’t choose a weapon rather than mere haranguing?

The rhetoric of the current occupant of the White House inevitably puts lives at risk. This is how it starts.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Quislings and traitors?

The “gay” Republican group Log Cabin Republicans recently announced they were endorsing the current occupant of the White House in the 2020 elections. As a result, they were called quislings, traitors to the LGBTQ community, and far worse things. Was the criticism justified? Of course it was. They really are quislings and traitors.

The first issue is the endorsement itself. Their whole thing reads like a love letter to their hero, as if none of the horrible things he’s done—not just his racism, his anti-semitism, his cryptofascism and cult of personality, no, they also excuse the current regime’s war on LGBT+ Americans (the only thing it can be called). Their lame, pathetic statement, “While we do not agree with every policy or platform position presented by the White House or the Republican Party…”, it’s immediately undone when they declare how they actually do agree because of ideology they admit they share with the party that is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the current occupant of the White House.

They never directly mention the current regime’s war on trans* people, not even when they declare, “we are committed to letting all qualified Americans serve in the military”. We know that doesn’t apply to trans* people because they then talked about how they supported an end to the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that expelled LGBT+ people from the USA’s military. That was nice back then, but why are they such doormats now?

The group also highlights the current regime’s entirely fake “initiative to end the criminalization of homosexuality” in the 72 countries where it’s illegal. That was obviously a political stunt, and the current regime never had any intention whatsoever of doing anything even remotely similar to that. When the fake story broke, I pointed out the cynicism of the move, and I could have added that it was fake because the opposition of his fervent christofascist fans—and the current vice president—meant that there was no way this fake ”initiative” was ever going to happen.

The group swayed with ecstasy in declaring that the 2016 Republican Convention was so wonderful, and seeing their hero take the stage was “like a dream fulfilled” for “gay” Republicans. Pity they forgot their group’s own past about that very convention.

The group’s then-president sent an email to supporters telling them that their party had just “passed the most anti-LGBT Platform in the Party’s 162-year history,” and also, “This isn’t my GOP, and I know it’s not yours either.” But all that’s apparently forgiven by the current leaders of the group—including by that guy, actually.

Their current betrayal is also in stark contrast to the principled stand the group took in 2004 when it refused to endorse Bush the Second for election to a second term because of his support for a constitutional amendment to forever ban the freedom to marry. What happened to that kind of Log Cabin “gay” Republicans? When did they make betraying the LGBT+ community central to their idendentity?

All of that is the reason that the Log Cabin “gay” Republicans are rightly called quislings, a term for both a collaborator and a traitor. They’re giving cover to the current regime, “pinkwashing” it so it can pretend it gives a shit about LGBT+ people when they absolutely do not. The current occupant of the White House declared he was “very honored to receive [the endorsement]”, before adding, “I’ve done very well with that community. Some of my biggest supporters are of that community, and I think they—and I talk to them a lot about it. I think I’ve done really very well with that community.”

What they actual hell was that man talking about?!

The facts prove that the current occupant of the White House couldn’t possibly care less about the LGBT+ community, nor does it bother him at all that his regime is waging a Holy War against the community. It’s also fact that he did NOT win the vote of LGBT+ people.

So, when the “gay” Republicans pretend that this regime is so wonderful, it’s little wonder they’re called quislings—collaborators and traitors to the LGBT+ communities. Because, you know, well, they are.

One will want to suppose that the folks on that group’s Board of Directors aren’t really as stupid a their actions seem, nor that they’re as delusional as they sound, and if so, then something else must be going on. Naturally, I have some theories.

The group may be driven by their affinity for the current occupant himself: They support him because he’s one of them, that is, rich, classist, elitist, and even racist. People like the “gay” Republicans have always assumed their money and connections would protect them from any oppression faced by us mere peasants, and for a time, it does. But, sooner or later all authoritarian regimes turn on their rich, connected, elite, “gay” supporters. Always.

Evidence for their affinity for the current occupant is the leaders’ idiotic assertion:
The president’s tax cuts have benefited LGBTQ families and helped put food on their tables. His opportunity zones have helped create new LGBTQ-founded small businesses. The administration’s aggressive negotiations on trade deals have preserved LGBTQ jobs. His hard line on foreign policy has protected LGBTQ lives. What benefits all Americans benefits the LGBTQ community, as we cross every racial, socioeconomic, religious and cultural divide.
All of which is demonstrably false here in the reality-based world. We know that the regime’s tax cuts for the wealthy primarily benefitted corporations, the rich, the obscenely rich and, especially, the OMFG they’re rich. Any “benefits” that ordinary people got were temporary—only the rich elites will benefit long term. Aslo, the deficit is skyrocketing because of it, which isn’t a very Republican thing to do. Well, in the old days, when there were still real Republicans, back then it wasn’t okay.

Beyond that, there’s no specific evidence that the regime’s policies have “helped create” any LGBT+ small businesses, and it is a flat out lie that the regime’s trade wars have “preserved LGBTQ jobs”. To be fair, though, that may be true among the elites and trust fund babies the “gay” Republican group represents. The bit about foreign policy is also an outright lie.

The absolute ONLY thing in their entire fanboi letter that actually was unequivocally true is “What benefits all Americans benefits the LGBTQ community, as we cross every racial, socioeconomic, religious and cultural divide.” But the “gay” Republicans clearly have absolutely zero understanding of anyone not like them. That’s the only logical conclusion from reading their screed that ignores the very real issues faced by LGBT+ people who are black, Hispanic, trans*, poor, or just not rich enough, all in order to praise the man and regime who are the cause of so much suffering of, and growing oppression of, LGBT+ people.

As a result of the Log Cabin “gay” Republicans’ betrayal of LGBT+ Americans (LGBT+ Republicans in particular, the group is losing its supporters. One of them gave the best possible reaction to this.

Jennifer Horn, who resigned from the board of the “gay” Republican group, deserves the final word on this. She wrote, “There is no world where I can sit down at the dining room table and explain to my children that I just endorsed [the current occupant of the White House] for president. It is contrary to everything that I have ever taught them about what it means to be a good, decent, principled member of society.”


See also: “‘He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term” — Washington Post One of the things the current occupant “gets”, apparently, is that the rights of LGBT+ people must be rolled back

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Weekend Diversion: Jonas Brothers

Back in the Weekend Diversion post on June 16, I shared a video of the song “Cake By The Ocean” by DNCE (at the top of that post). The lead singer was Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, though I didn’t realise that at first. Once I did, I knew I’d end up sharing new Jonas Brothers videos, since they re-formed earlier this year and their videos were playing on our now defunct free-to-air music video channel. And so, here we are.

I have to say first that I was never a fan. Part of that has to do that they began as a Disney product and focused on teen-oriented music at first. I just never paid attention to them, but I certainly knew who they were. I was only vaguely aware that they broke up in 2011. However, I saw youngest brother Nick on the American TV series Empire where he played a closeted young gay man.

Then came this year, and the release of their fifth studio album, Happiness Begins.

The video up top is for “Sucker”, the first single from their new album, and released March 1, 2019. I liked the sound of the song from the first, though I wasn’t watching the video the first time I heard the song. When I paid attention to the video, I realised who it was, and I was surprised. I hadn’t particularly followed their careers, obviously, so I wasn’t aware they were reuniting.

“Sucker” hit Number One in Australia (3x Platinum), Canada (2x Platinum), New Zealand (Platinum), Number 4 in the UK (Platinum), and Number One in the USA’s Billboard Hot 100—where it debuted at Number One. It also went Platinum in the USA. In New Zealand, it didn’t drop out of the NZ Top 40 until the first week of August.

Next up, their second single, released the following month, on April 5, “Cool”:

It’s fair to say that “Sucker” made me pay attention to the Jonas Brothers, and so I recognised it was them in “Cool” from my first hearing of it—and I liked it, too. I thought the video was fun, with its homages to earlier videos and a Miami Vice kind of vibe. I also thought that when combined with the lyrics, it showed the brothers poking some fun at themselves.

“Cool” wasn’t as successful as “Sucker” had been, hitting only Number 54 in Australia, 34 in Canada (Gold), 6 in New Zealand, 39 in the UK, and 27 in the USA’s. I agree that “Cool” wasn’t as good a song as “Sucker”, however, it was still fun. For me, that’s often enough.

The third song from their album was “Only Human”, officially released July 2 (though it first charted in New Zealand the week before):

I heard this song when it was on the NZ Top 40 chart, but i didn’t particularly connect with it. I thought the reggae influence was interesting, and combined with a bit of EDM, it pointed to something interesting that I’d like to see them and other artists play with some more. I never saw the video above until today because it was only released on YouTube on August 13, well after the music video channel was off air. Actually, the video was released well after it dropped off the NZ Top 40, which it did the third week of July.

Speaking of charts, “Only Human” was even less successful that “Cool”, hitting Number 57 in Australia, 52 in Canada, 36 in New Zealand, 64 in the UK, and 53 in the USA.

Even so, the album Happiness Begins was successful: So far, it’s hit Number 3 in Australia, Number 1 in Canada (Gold), 5 in New Zealand, 2 in the UK, and Number One in the USA.

I still couldn’t say that I’m a fan of the Jonas Brothers, but I do like some of their songs. I’ll also pay more attention when they release new songs. That’s actually a pretty good result.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Water and not

It’s been raining a lot in Auckland this month. Actually, over the past six weeks, more or less, the days that have been sunny have been few and far between. At best, we get a bit of sunshine in a day, but not even much of that. This is common enough in winter, and normally that fact makes it bearable, but this year all this rain carries a sting: There hasn’t been nearly enough of it.

As of this past Sunday, Auckland’s reservoirs together are only about 73% full. In winter. When it rains. A lot. Historically, they’d be about 89% full. Still, a few weeks ago, when they asked us to conserve water, and before this rainy season kicked in, they were only around 65% full, so, yay?

The reason for this problem is that we had a dry autumn with very little rain, so winter had a lot oc catching up to do. Problem is, winter started dry, too. So far this month, the dams have had a combined total rainfall of around 150mm of rain (about a third of that in the previous 7 days; it’ll be interesting to see if this week there’s been a higher rainfall, as it seemed). The average historical monthly total is around 180mm, so we’re a long way off of that—after dry periods preceding it.

The problem with this is that if our reservoirs are so low in winter, Aucklanders will need to prepare for water restrictions in the dry weeks of this coming summer. Saving water isn’t a long-term solution, though, and it’ll take a multifaceted approach to deal with inevitable droughts we’ll experience more frequently in the future.

Right now, there are too many barriers and costs associated with installing rainwater tanks for urban houses. Auckland Council will need to change that. There will probably need to be some sort of financial incentive to get people to install the tanks, and to upgrade their homes to be more efficient in water use.

Meanwhile, all this rain has definitely been miserable, with large ponds—almost small lakes—in farmers' fields throughout the area. Today I took the photo on the right side of this post. It's shows some minor flooding along our fenceline (the same fence that’s given us quite a few problems to deal with, most recently in May of this year). The flooding isn’t bad, obviously, but the thing about it is that in the two and a half years we’ve lived in this house, it’s never flooded there. I have no idea why it did now, but the ground is absolutely saturated (walking on it sounds like walking on a very wet sponge).

Still, even though it’s been raining a lot in Auckland this month, there hasn’t been nearly enough of it. That’s winter, 2019.

See also: “Auckland's dam levels”, which Watercare updates ever week.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Commercials that travel well

The ad above is for House of Travel, which bills itself as “New Zealand’s biggest locally owned and operated travel company.” In this era of Internet travel arranging, this may sound like a quaint, sort or retro kind of thing, but there’s clearly still a need for such services, which is what their television ads are attempting to tap into. For a variety of reasons, these ads all work, even the one that’s annoying.

These ads are part of a series of ads under the theme, “Let’s make holidays better, together”, and all say they’re based on true stories, and all the versions here are the longer versions of the ads.

The ad up top is my favourite of the three, and was actually the second in the series of ads, posted the beginning of March. The main reason is the actor who plays the wife. In her consultation with House of Travel’s “Lucy”, she says her lifelong dream is “silly, really”, and it’s not hard to believe a person might really say that, resigned to never fulfilling that dream, at least, not really. At the end of the ad she wordlessly depicts what to me looks like happiness, wonder, and even sheer joy. It’s very well done.

This ad tries to convey caring, a commitment to the customer, and willingness to go farther than expected, as shown in the ad next ad (third in the series), which they posted at the end of March:

The main point of this ad is that the company will go beyond the call of duty for their customers, and that they’re essentially friends. People really do forget their passport, and even though I’d be unlikely to do so (I compulsively check constantly to make sure I know where it is before we ever leave the house, and then again on the way to the airport), I can imagine this sort of thing happening. This ad seems to have been intended to be humorous, as the first ad in the series (below) was, but I would have liked the couple to be a bit more desperate to be more believable. Even so, it’s an okay ad.

The first ad in the series, posted in February, was also supposed to be humorous, but I find it annoying, for probably obvious reasons:

What I do think is funny about the ad is that many people really do think that travel agencies aren’t needed any more. It’s that guy that annoys me. Of course—he’s clearly meant to.

The story arc of the three ads has a narrative beyond the theme of the campaign. The first ad aired, the scene with the guy in the bar, establishes that travel agents still exist, and that they can save customers money over what they would have spent on their own, using the Internet. The second ad establishes that travel agents will go beyond the call of duty, and suggests they’re our friends, and the third ad suggests they care about us, not just our business. So, they save us money, look after us, and even help fulfill dreams. That’s a lot of work for some three minutes of television advertising to accomplish.

I think this TV ad campaign works precisely because it makes travel agents human, but it does so in such a good natured way, with a healthy dose of humour. It means we can get the message without feeling lectured. Of course, it helps that “Lucy” is so darn likeable, too.

As I often say, to be effective TV advertising has to capture people’s attention, first, then it has to stick in the mind somehow, and there are a lot of ways to do both. Story, music, imagery, the acting—all those are the sorts of things that make ads work and be memorable, and it why these ads work.

There’s one more critical piece to make TV ads effective: We mustn’t start to get annoyed when the ad comes on again. I’ve included the ads in order (top to bottom), from my favourite to my least favourite. I’m not tired of the top ad yet, a little tired of the middle ad, and the last one is starting to annoy me. Of course, this is entirely subjective, and other people may have completely different reactions. These are merely mine.

I may not personally have used a travel agent for decades, but it’s kind of nice to know that they’re still there, if for no other reason than that we might need them. This ad series shows my why I might need them, so, for me, the ads worked.

But I do especially like the woman’s reaction at the end of the ad at the top of this post.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Taught by ‘Ugly Gerry’

A couple weeks ago there was a bit of social media buzz about a font* called “Ugly Gerry” (the image up top is a screenshot of the font). It was a simple 26-letter alphabet made up of oddly shaped US Congressional Districts. The districts chosen are supposedly particularly bad examples of gerrymandering, but are they really? Things are seldom as simple as political arguments try to suggest.

I downloaded the font two weeks ago today because, like so many other people, I saw an article about it shared on social media. I grabbed the font because I thought the idea was funny, and because I’ve been a critic of gerrymandering my entire adult life. I thought, what wasn’t to love about a font that points out the absurdity of gerrymandering? Nothing—if you put aside the fact that it’s not quite that simple or even necessarily very fair.

I discovered that four of the letters—some 15%—were made from Illinois Congressional Districts. I realised how implausible it was that Illinois has among the worst gerrymandered districts, so I looked at them more closely and discovered how misleading those choices—and even the idea that they’re gerrymandered—actually is.

The original "Gerry-Mander".
The fact that districts could be branded “gerrymandered” when they’re not necessarily so isn’t surprising. The word comes from the name of Elbridge Gerry**, who was Governor of Massachusetts 1810-12. During his second term, his party re-drew electoral district boundaries to benefit their own party—which is the very definition of gerrymandering. The irony is that Gerry himself didn’t like the highly partisan map, but signed it anyway, and so, got the blame for the next two centuries (although there were other reasons that Gerry came to be disliked).

The original intent behind the term gerrymander was to describe electoral districts that have been drawn to advantage one party over others, or especially ones drawn to disadvantage the party out of power. That was the case in Gerry’s time, and it continues right up to ours, though now it's also often done to dilute the power of minorities. However, that’s that not the only way that districts get odd boundaries.

Congressional Districts, and most legislative districts within states, are supposed to have roughly equal populations. That’s the starting point. There’s also usually a desire to avoid splitting communities, wherever possible, but the first demand sometimes makes the second impossible to achieve, especially in states with large rural areas and a few small pockets of urban areas, like Illinois has (Chicago, and even the six counties surrounding it, are unlike most of the state in that they’re far more urbanised than most of the state is, geographically speaking). This makes a third goal, making a district relatively geographically compact, very difficult to achieve in real life.

What this means is that even when electoral district boundaries are drawn with no regard for political party, there will still be some odd shapes in order to keep the populations roughly equal; it’s pretty much unavoidable, at least some of the time.

An additional factor in Illinois is that much of the state, aside from Chicago and Cook County and some other urban areas, is pretty Republican—there just aren’t as many people in the rest of the state, with Democrats concentrated in its northeast, and in some Democratic pockets in other parts of the state. Because it’s hard to avoid dissolving Democratic votes into Republican districts, it’s not uncommon for Illinois’ Congressional maps in particular to advantage Republicans in the majority of the state (again, geographically speaking), because the more urban and more Democratic areas outside the Chicago area have to be shared among mostly rural and mostly Republican districts just to keep the populations roughly equal.

This whole process becomes harder after every US Census, because Illinois has been losing one or two Congressional Districts each time. Between 1973 and 1982, the period in which I first became intensely interested in electoral politics, Illinois had 24 Congressional Districts, and it now has only 18.

All of which means that many oddly shaped Illinois districts don’t fit the usual definition of gerrymandering, and that’s probably true for other states, too.

Here’s a look at the four Illinois Districts included in the font (all pictures are from the Ugly Gerry website), listed in Congressional District order:

 Illinois Fourth Congressional District (the letter “V”): Anyone looking at this would conclude it’s gerrymandered, but even this weirdly shaped district isn’t really. First, rotate the picture 90 degrees to the right. The district was created in this shape after federal courts ordered Illinois to create a majority-Hispanic district in the Chicago area. The resulting district combines two heavily Hispanic areas into one district, a mostly Puerto Rican area in the North, and a mostly Mexican-American one in the South. The funny strip on the left (Western) edge of the district (when rotated to its proper orientation) is Interstate 294, where there are no residents, but which served as a convenient way to link the two areas. Not surprisingly for a Chicago Congressional District, the district has a Democratic lean of 33 points. So, this weird district wasn’t drawn this way for partisan reasons, but to obey a court order. Which doesn’t mean it’s not dumb—it is—but gerrymandered?

Illinois Eleventh Congressional District (the letter “N”): This one has to be rotated 90 degrees to the left, which doesn’t make it any less oddly shaped. The area is mixed politically, but being closer to the Chicago metropolitan region means that the area is more Democratic than Republican, and it generally has Democratic lean of about 8 points. This is one of the districts I was talking about, one that tries to balance population by mixing rural and more urban areas. Despite its odd shape, it’s nevertheless relatively compact, unlike Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, above.

Illinois Twelfth Congressional District (the letter “Y”): This one doesn’t have to be rotated. The squiggly line on the left (Western) edge of the district is the Mississippi River. This district is pretty geographically compact, and doesn’t actually look gerrymandered district, especially when viewed in the context of other Illinois Congressional Districts. In fact, the district is a little more competitive than other Downstate districts, in part because it includes urban areas and more heavily Democratic university towns. Most of this district was once part of a district that was represented by US Rep. (later US Senator) Paul Simon, a Democrat, and it’s where the university I attended is located. It now generally has a Republican lean of about 5 points.

Illinois Eighteenth Congressional District (the letter “J”): This one is presented on an angle to make it look kinda like the letter “J”; in reality, it runs East-West, and the squiggly line on the bottom of the “J” is actually the Mississippi River. As a Central Illinois district, it’s more heavily Republican: It generally has Republican lean of about 15 points. In fact, I don’t remember a Democrat representing that area, though that may have happened at some point in my life.

This experience has shown me that gerrymandering isn’t the same as drawing oddly shaped districts, even though some people treat it as the same thing. I think we need to be pedantic about what a gerrymandered district actually is because the real thing—trying to advantage one political party over others and to dilute minority representation—is an affront to democracy. In contrast to that, most of Illinois’ “oddly” shaped districts (and probably many in other states, too) are the result of trying to balance conflicting goals in trying to ensure fair representation, and less about trying to advantage one political party over another.

Which means that as fun and funny as this font is, it may not necessarily be fair, and it definitely isn’t a good guide to what gerrymandered districts are (this exercise made me wonder about whether the districts included from other states are actually gerrymandered). Until now, I never really appreciated that there are a lot reasons why district boundaries can be drawn with odd shapes, and it’s not always as “bad” as it may look.

The lesson I take away from this is to always look more deeply into a political argument and try to determine if it’s fair and accurate. This takes a lot of time to do, which is why most of us don’t do it, or don’t do it enough. Even so, it’s important to verify claims made—even when it’s just a novelty font doing it.

Things are seldom as simple as political arguments try to suggest.


*There's a difference between font and typeface, one that Fast Company described this way: “The difference between a font and a typeface is the same as that between songs and an album. The former makes up the latter. Remember that and you’re good to go.”

**Since these footnotes are being pedantic, gerrmander is properly pronounced like “Gary-mander”, not “Jerry-mander” because Elbridge Gerry pronounced his surname “Gary”. While pronouncing gerrymander incorrectly is common, it’s also adding another layer of insult—but good luck convincing anyone to say it any other way than “jerry-mander” (in fact, I pronounce it incorrectly most o the time). Fun fact: Gerry, who died while serving as Vice President to President James Madison, is buried in Washington, DC, and is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be buried in the capital of the nation he helped to form.