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.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

When it all ends

It seems obvious that the existence Hong Kong has known is about to end. Whether it’s a brutal crackdown by Hong Kong police or invasion by China, either way the movement demanding democracy will be crushed. It’s not a question of if, but when.

A couple days ago, I posted this on my personal Facebook:
I don't know how many of my FB friends are following what's happening in Hong Kong, but I've said from the beginning that China will inevitably intervene to put down the protests. I think that time is approaching rapidly—mere days, maybe even hours.

When the suppression begins, it will most likely end Hong Kong's special relationship, and China will fully incorporate the city into China. When it does, no country, including the USA, will be able to do anything to stop them. Maybe this is the reason China has waited so long to intervene? To wait until the protests became so "bad" that they had "no choice"? We all know that a lot of countries will buy that excuse, not the least because they want to.

In any case, it seems obvious to me that the people of Hong Kong will soon lose all democratic rights, especially the ones they're exercising so exuberantly at the moment, like free speech and the right to protest. The question is merely how soon will that happen?
The inevitable repression will likely come soon, possibly this weekend, with more protests planned. The Chinese army has been training riot suppression techniques all month, and video of some of their training included signs partly in English, probably for the world’s newsmedia. They’ve also been photographed training with a giant—2 and a half metre—electrified “devil fork” crowd control weapon. They mean business.

In her Washington Post column, Anne Applebaum writes, “Hong Kong and Russia protesters fight for democracy. The West should listen and learn.”. Yes, it should. But it won’t—least of all the supposedly democratic Western countries that have lost their way.

Also writing in the Post, Keith B. Richburg, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, tells us why “The Hong Kong protests are the inevitable effect of an impossible system”, and how the “one country, two systems” idea was never going to work. In other words, this day was inevitable.

But at least the current occupant of the White House offered words of wisdom: , "I hope nobody gets hurt, I hope nobody gets killed," he said. Yippee. So comforting.

Meanwhile, a boycott of Disney’s new live-action remake of Mulan is being urged after its star expressed her support for Hong Kong police. Action movie star, Jackie Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, has also drawn criticism for his backing of China. That’s show the Chinese government! As if.

This cannot end well. The only thing holding the Chinese back is that they realised that this could look like a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where the Chinese Government put down protests demanding change. Back then, protesters had a 10 metre tall statue, Goddess of Democracy a statue that was strongly reminiscent of the USA’s Statue of Liberty. Now, protesters are using American flags.

The reality is that there’s not a lot the world can do to stop China’s inevitable crackdown and repression. The world certainly can’t intervene militarily, but it could at least make clear whose side it’s on. Just as the “one country, two systems” was always going to fail, its collapse may provide a blueprint for China’s invasion and subjugation of Taiwan. The only thing that might make them hold their fire—literally—is if the world makes it unmistakable that doing so would have severe consequences. But the head of the USA’s government can’t be bothered to speak up in defence of democracy and freedom—perhaps because he doesn’t value them?—so the message China is receiving is that they just have to make their excuses for invading defensible by milquetoast Western politicians. That was the whole point of all the military training, and their signs in English, and—allegedly—various other tactics like—allegedly—infiltrating the protest movement to instigate violence to help give China a pretext for invasion.

When it all ends, Hong King will be under China’s authoritarian rule. And the world could be one day closer to what may end up being a war with China. Who would be there to stand up for our freedom and democracy? As unstable as the world and its political leaders are at the moment, would any of us survive?

We know how this chapter will end. But we don’t yet know how the story will end. It’s up to us to write it, and so far we’ve been pretty illiterate.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Delivering mistakes

The USA is poised to withdraw from an international treaty that could make life more difficult for citizens who live overseas temporarily or permanently. This could affect a great many things, including voting by overseas US citizens, but the reason behind the change seems to be about money—and mistakes.

The (US) National Association of Counties (stylised as NACo) reported on its blog yesterday that the USA is about to withdraw from the United Nations’ Universal Postal Union (UPU). The UPU is a 142-year-old treaty, which the UPU describes this way:
With its 192 member countries, the UPU is the primary forum for cooperation between postal sector players. It helps to ensure a truly universal network of up-to-date products and services.

In this way, the organization fulfils an advisory, mediating and liaison role, and provides technical assistance where needed. It sets the rules for international mail exchanges and makes recommendations to stimulate growth in mail, parcel and financial services volumes and improve quality of service for customers.
Back on October 18, 2018, the White House announced (copy and paste this link to get to the White House Press Statement: http://bit.ly/33znhi6) that it was withdrawing from the UPU. That process is due to be completed on October 19, 2019—just a few short months before the 2020 presidential primary voting is due to begin.

According to estimates by the Federal Voting Assistance Programme (FVAP), and shared by NACo in the link above, there are approximately a million active duty service members and three million other US citizens living in 170 countries that are eligible to vote in federal elections, and all of them will rely, at least in part, on postal delivery. No one knows how the US withdrawal from the UPU will affect those voters.

We could find out soon. There are some state and local elections in November of this year, and some ballots will be sent out in September. That means that the withdrawal from the UPU will happen right in the middle of the 2019 voting programme, and no one knows what that will mean for returning ballots on time this year. Tt may out to be a test for what could happen in 2020.

It’s tempting for some to think that this is part of a plan to deny the vote to US citizens living overseas, but while that’s without basis, it’s definitely understandable. As everyone knows, the USA has long been notorious for its efforts to make voting harder, whether through gerrymandering districts, actively suppressing the votes of minorities or supporters of the other political party, or refusing to allow former prison inmates to vote—the list is practically endless. However, not only is there no evidence suggesting vote suppression is the reason for this, the evidence suggest that it’s merely a consequence.

First, there’s no solid data on how overseas US citizens vote. That means there’s no way of knowing which party would be most affected by the change, so targeting overseas voters could be self-defeating for the current regime, particularly since no one knows if it will affect voters at all. Second, and regardless of party preference, there just aren’t enough overseas votes to sway a statewide election, like for US Senator or US President in a state, and that means overseas voters are highly unlikely to influence what candidate gets a state’s Electoral College Votes (the only total that actually matters). That said, those votes might, at least theoretically, help determine small elections, like for US Representative. Maybe.

The real issue is that withdrawal from the UPU is that it will affect far more than just voting: Potentially, all letters, cards, small packages, etc., sent through postal services could be affected, with higher costs and potential delays. Even NACo, which is interested in the move because counties are usually responsible for sending out and receiving elections material, noted that the current regime “cited concerns over terminal due rates as the primary reason for the withdrawal and hopes to establish self-declared rates for small packages to ensure American businesses remain competitive in the e-commerce marketplace.” In other words, it’s all about money. It’s not hard to imagine the leader of the current regime calling the UPU arrangements “very unfair”. Probably in a Tweet. Well, maybe if he understood it.

The best and most likely explanation, then, is that this is all about money, as such things usually are. It seems unlikely that withdrawal from the UPU will accomplish what the current regime thinks it will, of course, which, of course, isn’t unusual for them. Based on the evidence, I think the move is absolutely ideological, but only because it’s all about money for corporations. It’s also probably about the current regime’s general, ordinary incompetence.

I’m certainly open to evidence that I’m wrong—about the regime’s motives or even its incompetence. But absent that, this seems to be one of those times that the simplest explanation is the best.

US citizens living overseas could, potentially, have a harder time voting, yes. But they also could have a harder time sending a birthday card to Great Aunt Agnes, or a Christmas present to their parents. And this could result in higher costs for e-commerce companies, including ones shipping TO the USA. Time will tell if these are a problems or not, but, for now, there’s no evidence that the regime is intending to make life harder for US citizens living overseas, even though it could very well do so. The really sad part of all of this, though, is that saying the current regime doesn’t appear to be trying to make people’s lives harder intentionally is unusually high praise of them.

The photo at the top of this post is from a 2016 Instagram Post that I also shared in a blog post called, “I Voted, 2016 edition”. It’s my own photo. And my hand, for that matter.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

When you visit

The video above is a new TV commercial from Immigration New Zealand (INZ) talking about the NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority), something that all foreign visitors will need to get before travelling to New Zealand, beginning on 1 October 2019. Many countries, including the USA, already have a similar requirement, so, in that sense, New Zealand is just joining in. What these programmes all have in common is that they provide an easy way to exclude someone before they get on the plane—and, potentially, having to be deported. It’s good to see INZ promoting awareness of this here in New Zealand, since many of us have family and friends overseas, but it’s important that they promote it overseas, too.

This new programme applies to people from “visa waiver countries”, that is, countries whose citizens can travel without first needing to apply for and obtain a vistor’s permit/visa. The agreements are usually reciprocal, but not always. Some countries are more welcoming than others, too: The USA allows people from 38 countries to enter the USA without first obtaining a visitor’s permit/visa, and New Zealand permits people from 60 countries.

The US programme has several requirements. A traveller to the USA must:
  • Have a biometric passport (most are nowadays)
  • Have an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), which is like New Zealand’s NZeTA.
  • The passport must be valid for six months beyond the expected date of departure (this is also pretty standard)
  • A ticket on a commercial carrier, either to return home or to travel onwards, before the time limit for a tourist ends. This, too, is a common requirement in some form or other.
What all this means is that New Zealand followed all the same procedures apart from the NZeTA, and now it will have that, too. Naturally, there’s a cost to that, and, naturally, that’s not the only new cost for visitors.

The NZeTA will cost NZ$9 if purchased using the free App, or NZ$12 if purchased online (today, that’s about $US5.82 and US$7.76, respectively). The USA’s ESTA costs US$14 (today, about NZ$21.64). Both countries say to allow 72 hours for approval, though it's usually faster. Australian citizens don’t need an NZeTA, nor do we need their Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) to visit their country, due to specific bilateral agreements.

New Zealand has also enacted an International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy, which is intended to raise funds to maintain infrastructure and the natural environment put under strain by the growing numbers of tourists from overseas. The fee for that is NZ$35 (today, US$24.62). The fee is paid when someone applies for their NZeTA (or their visa, if they’re not from a visa waiver country).

As I noted in a recent AmeriNZ Podcast episode, this is the first time in more than two decades that I’ve actually seen a concrete benefit from being a dual national. Because I’m a US citizen, I don’t need the ESTA, and because I’m a NZ citizen, I don’t need an NZeTA. There’s actually a third benefit: Because I’m a NZ citizen, I don’t need an ETA to visit Australia, but I would if I was just a US citizen. Sadly, I don’t actually get much benefit from this reality because I don’t travel overseas very much at all.

International travel is becoming much more complicated all the time. While at least some of that was probably inevitable, it would be nice if countries figured out a way to streamline these requirements to make it easier for travellers. At least New Zealand allows people to pay for their NZeTA and the IVL at the same time. I guess.

Because I talk about this sort of stuff on this blog and on my podcast, I’m probably a bit more aware of these changes than most people are. That’s why I think it’s good to see INZ promoting awareness of the NZeTA here in New Zealand. But it’s also important that they promote it overseas, too. I hope they do, but maybe these days travellers just need to expect to do more research about travel requirements.

That, and remember to not pack too much and make their suitcases too heavy.

A trick for (living with) dogs

For quite a while now, there’s been a popular subject on the Internet called “lifehacks”. There are all sorts of memes, blog posts, articles, YouTube videos and probably more devoted to what are really nothing more than helpful hints. Some people loathe the term for the implication that it’s about “cheats”, but that’s not actually possible. Instead, it’s really just about finding shortcuts through daily life, better and more efficient ways doing things, and there are plenty of them. Like how to deal with dog registration tags.

New Zealand recently went through the annual dog registration process, and part of that involves putting a tag or strip on the dog’s colour, both as proof of registration, and to make it easier to locate the dog’s family if it gets lost. Since July 1, 2006, all dogs newly registered in New Zealand (except for working farm dogs) have had to be microchipped. Dog Control officers often have a microchip reader, but chips do fail, and ordinary people won’t have one. So, the tag is manual back-up (as well as a visual sign to others that the dog is registered).

Most (maybe all) local governments in New Zealand offer a choice between a plastic tag and a plastic strap. We’ve used both over the years, but I prefer the tag. One of the main reasons for that is that I can reuse it as part of a key chain. For example, I have an old one on my house keys—yellow so I’m more likely to see it if I drop the keys on the ground, especially if it’s in the grass. I also put them on spare keys that we might give to a guest. It’s at least theoretically possible that if I lost my keys they might be able to find me though the dog registration number on the tag—although, so far I’ve never lost my keys (still, I’m only 60½, so there’s still time…).

The problem with this is that the tag and its little metal ring arrive taped together onto the letter acknowledging the registration—but the rings and tags are separate from the each other. So, first the tag has to go onto the metal ring, and then that has to go onto the ring on the dog’s collar. Neither task is easy.

In the past, I always tried to open the rings using my fingernails, often breaking my nails. Then I found a lifehack that said to use an ordinary staple lifter to pinch open a ring like that. It worked—and my fingernails now remain intact. Even so, it’s not easy to open those little rings—it’s just that it’s definitely easier with the staple lifter.

One problem with the plastic tags is that they often have little nubs on them left from the manufacturing process. Because the tags are made from a hard plastic, those little numbs can be quite strong, and can easily scratch. I don’t want to be scratched when I’m giving my dog a scratch, so the first thing I do is cut off those nubs using an ordinary fingernail clipper (funny how often fingernails enter into this process…). After that, I swing out the little nail file to make sure the edge where the nub was is smooth.

Then I put the tag onto the little ring, which sometimes takes a little manoeuvring. When I put them onto the much bigger ring on the dog’s collar, I have to open the little ring the tag is on much wider—in fact, it’s more open than the staple lifter can manage. So, my solution is to insert the file from those fingernail clippers (again with the fingernails!) to keep the ring open to I can gradually slide the staple lifter along as I slide it over the ring on the dog’s collar. Eventually I get the little ring completely onto the dog’s collar.

I don’t always succeed in my first attempt: The ring the tags are on is quite small, which makes the whole process very fiddly. I once tried using a larger metal ring, one from a previous year’s tag, but it turned out it the hole on the new tag was too small (or the ring was too thick, depending on your perspective). Personally, I think that if the metal ring merely had a wider diameter it would be so much easier to work with.

Despite some quibbles with the size of the ring, this process nevertheless allows me to eventually succeed, while keeping my fingernails intact (again!). And it just goes to show that not every blog post has to be about a serious or important topic.

Though keeping nice fingernails obviously is.

The photo above is of this year’s tag before the lifehack was applied.

Footnote: I originally intended this post to be for last week, since I knew I’d be too busy with work to create new posts, but I ran out of time to finish it. I was trying to pre-plan posts, like Roger Green does so well, and I, um, I don’t (except for our trip to Australia in 2017, when I wrote and set-up several blog posts to publish automatically). Best laid plans, and all that. Still, if I’m now free to resume blogging, why not start with a lighter topic? So, that done, I now need to go trim my fingernails.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Second Democratic Debate

The second Democratic Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, was terrible. That wasn’t the fault of the candidates, at least, not exclusively. Instead, it was CNN that ran an absolutely awful show. It was silly, pandering, and often seeming like it was little more than “Survivor: Democrats”, with the show attempting to manufacture conflict where there really wasn’t any, and to ignore those who weren’t singled out for attention. Americans and Democrats alike deserved better, and CNN failed utterly.

We could see early on how awful coverage would be. Both nights, the coverage began with a long verbal introduction of the candidates for the night, a commercial break, then back to the broadcast beginning with yet another introduction of the candidates in the debate. Then a long flag ceremony, an interpretation of the US national anthem, and, finally, a dozen minutes or so into the broadcast, they got ready to begin the actual debate.

Night One was the Bernie and Elizabeth Show, and Night Two was the Joe and Kamala show. Other candidates occasionally got to say a few things, but the questions and follow-up questions were mainly directed at the two candidates who were the focus of the night.

We can see this in the amount of speaking time given to the candidates:

On Night One, Elizabeth Warren got 18:33, and Bernie Sanders got 17:45. The candidate with the third-most amount of time was Buttigieg, who got 14:07. The next four were all similar: Bullock 10:59, O’Rourke 10:58, Klobuchar 10:49, and Delaney 10:31. The small amount of time given to Delaney will surprise some people on Twitter, since they complained abut how much he was talking. Ryan was next at 9:47, followed by the bottom two, Williamson on 8:52 and Hickenlooper on 8:49.

On Night Two, Joe Biden got 21 minutes, and Kamala Harris got 17:18. Booker was this on 13:05 and Gillibrand was fourth on 11:25. The next four were all similar: Inslee 10:48, Tulsi Gabbard 10:47, Bennet 10:25, followed by de Blasio with 9:17 and Yang on 8:53.

Commentators on the night and since seemed unimpressed with Night One, and CNN’s use of Delaney, and to some degree Hickenlooper, to attack Sanders and Warren without giving much else. Vox’s Ezra Klein Tweeted: “Seriously? More time for Delaney in the hopes he'll attack Warren's wealth tax? But...why?” At the time, I wondered if it was just for the fireworks. Williamson was lauded for some of her statements, especially on contaminated water for Michigan, but at the time it didn’t impress me because the same point had been made many times before by others. Her comments on race and reparations, however, were better than most of the others—but despite that, I still think she’s a flake. I also thought that Mayor Pete got in some of the best comments of the night. A transcript of Night One was posted by The Washington Post, saving us all the burden of having to watch it all.

I still followed Twitter on Night Two, but I actually didn’t listen as closely as I did on Night One—I was already over the whole thing by then. I rolled my eyes when de Blasio used his opening statement to attack Biden and Harris, because it seemed like little more than a desperate play for attention. It also set the stage for the tone of the night, mostly a fight between Biden and Harris, as it was in their match-up in the First Debate. This time, though, Harris seemed far less able than she did in the First Debate. Instead, Booker did the main job of attacking Biden—at the very least, he was generally more effectively than Harris was. Castro, like Harris, also wasn’t nearly as impressive as in the First Debate. Yang got a lot of positive talk after the debate, but he didn’t impress me, either. The last thing the USA needs, in my opinion, is another president who was a businessman who thinks he has all the answers.

As it did for Night One, The Washington Post posted a transcript of Night Two.

NBC’s coverage of the First Democratic Debate may have suffered from technical glitches, but CNN’s suffered from something far worse: Bad choices. From wasting viewers’ time at the start of each night, through to giving Warren and Sanders too much speaking time on Night One and doing the same for Biden and Harris on Night Two, CNN made too many dumb choices for the debate to be of any use to anyone, especially undecided voters.

Actually, it wasn’t terribly attractive even for politics junkies like me. Roger Green, who is a political science major like me, didn’t watch either debate, but nevertheless had some good observations on the candidates and how they did. The two nights certainly didn’t persuade me to back any candidate, nor did I become opposed to any—or, to put it more accurately, nothing changed my opinions of the candidates.

The second Democratic Presidential Debate was terrible. Americans and Democrats alike deserved better, and hopefully they’ll get it in the debate next month. I’m just not sure I’ll want to watch it.

CNN Was Ill-Equipped for This
by Megan Garber, The Atlantic

What a real president says

Former President Barack Obama issued a statement from him and Michelle on the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings in the USA:
Michelle and I grieve with all the families in El Paso and Dayton who endured these latest mass shootings. Even if details are still emerging, there are a few things we already know to be true.

First, no other nation on Earth comes close to experiencing the frequency of mass shootings that we see in the United States. No other developed nation tolerates the levels of gun violence that we do. Every time this happens, we're told that tougher gun laws won't stop all murders; that they won't stop every deranged individual from getting a weapon and shooting innocent people in public places. But the evidence shows that they can stop some killings. They can save some families from heartbreak. We are not helpless here. And until all of us stand up and insist on holding public officials accountable for changing our gun laws, these tragedies will keep happening.

Second, while the motivations behind these shootings may not yet be fully known, there are indications that the El Paso shooting follows a dangerous trend: troubled individuals who embrace racist ideologies and see themselves obligated to act violently to preserve white supremacy. Like the followers of ISIS and other foreign terrorist organizations, these individuals may act alone, but they've been radicalized by white nationalist websites that proliferate on the internet. That means that both law enforcement agencies and internet platforms need to come up with better strategies to reduce the influence of these hate groups.

But just as important, all of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy. We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don't look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people. Such language isn't new – it's been at the root of most human tragedy throughout history, here in America and around the world. It is at the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it's time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much – clearly and unequivocally.
This is what a real president says, down to getting the names of both cities right. Even two years after leaving office, he’s still demonstrating what acting like a US President means, how it should be done.

Obama later Tweeted a link to an article from Vox, “Democrats have been discussing the same ideas on guns for 25 years. It’s time to change that.”, in which German Lopez argues that "There should be a Medicare-for-all or Green New Deal for ending gun violence." His article is as much a review of how the USA’s politics on guns became so skewed to the Right as it is a call for Democrats to begin a bigger conversation rather than advocating the same minor changes over and over. While some of the proposals talked about in the article go far beyond what Democrats have called for in the past, they’re also common-sense, tried and true measures that work. We should at least talk about these solutions.

And, the USA should have a president who understands that promoting racism and intolerance is never, ever, acceptable. The USA needs a president who will stand up to the forces of hatred, call it by its proper name, and do everything feasible to end it. In 2020, the country will get the chance to make sure that happens, to make sure it gets a real president again.

Update – Tuesday, August 6 (US time, August 7 NZ time): A White House spindoctor has attacked President Obama for his remarks. Deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told Fox "News" (of course): "For [President Obama] to interject himself into this conversation, this debate, at this point, it’s his right to do it. But the fact is Donald Trump is the president of all Americans. He’s trying to move this country forward, and comments like that take us backwards and take us to a dark place that we never want to be and we never want to visit again.” Hogan clearly mixed up the presidents he was talking about…

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Weekend Diversion: All the hits

Time was, I waited eagerly for the new music charts to come out, first the ones put out by radio stations, then later the ones from Billboard. Looking back, I have no idea why I cared about them, but I know I liked seeing the songs I liked doing well. This “Weekend Diversion” post is made up of current hits, the Top 4 in New Zealand, minus one.

First up, the video above. Every once in awhile, a video comes along that makes us go, “WTF?!”, and that was my reaction when I first saw the video above, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, "WTF?!" was precisely what I said (only not as initials alone…). I first saw it on our now defunct broadcast video music channel, and I’ll admit that I couldn’t quite figure it out. Watching it I was a bit like the people on the street in the opening shot.

I was surprised when the video went to Number One in the USA and other places, but the fact that it went on to become the song reigning at Number One on the Billboard pop chart for longer than any other song. That was as historic as it was unexpected. Even more, the fact that this was achieved by a young black gay man was simply astounding. Times have changed?

The song accomplished this, in part, because Billboard counts all remixes and versions when calculating chart position. The version that charted in New Zealand was a remix. This week the song is back up to Number Two here (it was Number Three last week), and has been on the NZ chart for 19 weeks.

Overall, the song went to Number One in Australia (6x Platinum), 3 in Canada, Number One in New Zealand (3x Platinum), the UK (Platinum), and the USA (3x Platinum). It also reached Number 19 on Billboard’s country chart—despite earlier being removed because it “didn’t fit the genre” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Town_Road#Billboard_genre_classification_controversy )

I may have originally been confused or sceptical by the song, but it IS catchy, and it grew on me. Plus, Lil Nas X is really endearing in the video. I wouldn't have noticed any of that if I hadn't had that "WTF?!" reaction at first.

Next, the Number One song in New Zealand this week, “SeƱorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello:

Shawn was the subject of a “Weekend Diversion” post a year ago, but I’d never heard of Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello before this song, even though they’ve recorded together before. Both Mendes and Cabello are credited among the song's co-writers.

The song and video were released on June 21. So far, the song has reached Number One in Australia (Platinum), 2 in Canada (2x Platinum), Number One in New Zealand (Gold) and the UK (Silver), and Number 2 on the on Billboard “Hot 100”. It's been Number One in New Zealand for several weeks.

Finally this week, the Number Four song in New Zealand this week, "Beautiful People” by Ed Sheeran and Khalid:

My first impression of this song was that it covers much of the same thematic territory as, Sheeran’s song with Justin Bieber, “I Don’t Care”, which I shared in a “Weekend Diversion” post on July 14. And, having shared one of Sheeran's song so recently, I’d have been reluctant to share another so soon, were it not for its current chart position. But I wanted to share it because I think it’s the best performance by Khalid in ages.

I first heard of Khalid when he released his second single, “Young Dumb & Broke” [WATCH/LISTEN], released on February 2, 2017, a few days before his 19th birthday. I really liked that song—but not a whole lot of his songs since then. Because the defunct music video channel played his songs so much, I saw most of his videos over the past couple years, and not only did I not like most of them, some really annoyed me (especially ones that were visually similar to each other). In fact, at one point I thought about doing a “Weekend Diversion” post about how overrated I thought he was, in light of what he’d done the past couple years. But I don’t usually do negative posts, so I canned the idea. And then along came this song, and my faith in Khalid was restored, at least a bit. His vocals are kind of Tracy Chapmen-ish at points, but the important thing is that he doesn’t sleepwalk through the song, something I felt he was doing for most of his songs the past couple years.

So, when I heard the song when I listened to the NZ Top 40 Chart a couple weeks ago, I thought I might share this video. A post about the current top pop songs in New Zealand provided the perfect time to do that.

So far, the song has hit Number 4 in Australia (Gold), 6 in Canada (Gold), 2 in New Zealand, Number One in the UK, and Number 19 in the USA.

There is a reason this is the Top Four minus one, and it’s not merely that I prefer to share, ideally, only three videos. The reason is that the current Number Three song in New Zealand is “The Greatest” by New Zealand band Six60 (currently one of the biggest-ever NZ bands, at least, in this country). I’ve shared their videos twice, one in a 2018 post about the NZ Music Awards, and also on Day 8 of the series of posts I did for NZ Music Month back in 2014. But the reason I’m not sharing them this week is that they don’t have an actual music video, just an audio-only one [LISTEN]. Maybe I’ll share it later on if they do a music video, and if I like it enough.

• • •

That’s the end of this little trip through New Zealand’s most popular songs this week. Turns out, I actually still like following the charts. Some things really don’t change, I guess.

Culture Cruise: Edith’s Crisis of Faith

The video above is the latest installment of Matt Baume’s “Culture Cruise” video series, and it’s a continuation of a discussion about the storyline from 1970s TV hit All In The Family, which talked about “female impersonator” Beverly LaSalle as a recurring character (the first episode is on YouTube, of course, but it’s not necessary to watch it for this video to make sense). The video covers a lot of territory and puts it all into historic and cultural context, the latter not necessarily linear, which isn’t always easy to do well. Matt does it effortlessly.

Matt first recaps the episode “Beverly Rides Again”, which first aired on November 6, 1976, setting up Beverly as a recurring character. It was important to talk about that episode first to set up the “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” episode, part one of which first aired on December 18, 1977. I remember watching it at the time it aired, when I was still very closeted and struggling with remaining so. I do know I was moved by Edith’s emotional reaction to the death of her friend. Seeing it again after all this time, I was struck with what a great actress Jean Stapleton really was.

I’ve been sharing Matt Baume’s videos for nearly nine years now, beginning with his work to get rid of California’s infamous Proposition 8, on to his work fighting for nationwide marriage equality, and on to, well, everything he does now. However, this is only the second video from his “Culture Cruise” series (the first was in April, 2018).

I thought that this was a really a good video, with a very good perspective. It's about a topic "Yury Your Gays" that needs to be talked about, and about a time to be remembered so it's never repeated.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Burdened lightly

Let’s be honest: On the list of issues that health problems make us humans deal with, fatigue is among the least awful. Sure, there are degrees even of that, and for some it can be extremely debilitating, but most of us would say that it’s not usually anywhere near as bad as, say, severe pain or constant nausea. Even so, “among the least awful” can still be awful.

For most of the past two years, I’ve had to deal with fatigue caused by either the drugs I was put on to control heart arrhythmia, the condition itself, or a combination (doctors aren’t sure). Whatever the cause, the problem has gotten worse over time.

When I last talked about this at the end of May, two weeks after my latest hospital adventure, I said:
Some days I’m extremely tired, which makes sense: The drug regime is keeping my heartbeat consistently around 70bpm or less (it’s usually in the mid to low 60s), something they’ve wanted for ages, ever since they put me on beta-blockers; this is the first time it’s actually happened. Twice so far—both on a Tuesday—I struggled to wake up in the morning, and was dog-tired all day long. Other days I can get more done, but sometimes I need to sit and rest for awhile. However, sometimes I have a good amount of stamina.

Because of that, I think this new drug regime is somewhere between beta-blockers at the worst, and the old regime. Sometimes I’m more tired than I was before the afib incident, but usually I’m better than on beta-blockers. Also, my mind is clearer in the daytime, though, like on beta-blockers, it kind of goes mushy in the evening.
Back then, I assumed that things would eventually even out, and they did—in the wrong direction. I’m incredibly tired all the time, and while I haven’t had many days where I’ve had trouble waking up in the morning, there have been plenty of times I’ve dozed off in my chair, and that could be at any time of the day. The problem is that I’m often, even usually, sleepy, and not just tired. This is a problem.

I now think that the drug is as bad as metoprolol, the first beta blocker, I was on, in that it makes me as tired as that one often did. It’s a bit of a tough call, though, because atenolol, the last one I was on, also made me tired, and even the calcium channel blocker I was on, Diltiazem, also make me tired—just not as bad.

What definitely is different is that my mind is generally much clearer than it ever was on beta-blockers. Since May, though, I’ve realised that it’s not that my mind gets mushy at night, it’s just that I get too tired to do much. Like blog for example.

It turns out that the reality is that most of the time I find it hard to concentrate enough to do things like blog posts or podcast. In recent weeks, I’ve begun several of both, only to run out of gas before I complete them. This is very frustrating.

I have to go to the doctors to renew my prescriptions early week after next, and I’ll report the things I’m feeling. However, I don’t think they’ll change my drugs right now, maybe not unless my blood tests sho things are turning bad. If I’m right, that could mean they’d leave me on this drug, and feeling this awful, until February of next year (assuming the longest timeline for treatment). That’s not acceptable.

However, the only drug that’s controlled my arrhythmia was beta-blockers that made me feel somewhat worse. They are, however, safer, so maybe that’s an option if this is going to go on for months. At least it doesn’t cause organ damage.

Still, it’s not all bad. I weighed myself on Friday and I was a good 2 to 3kg ( 4.40 to 6.61 US pounds) lower than I expected I’d be. The only reason for that that I could think of was that it may be because I’m not drinking alcohol, nor even much of the alcohol-free wine I wrote about. The one thing I know for certain is that it’s not because of exercise, since the fatigue keeps me pretty sedentary. I can only imagine how low my weight would be if I did get some exercise, and that would've make the doctors very happy. Life goals.

So, sure, on the list of issues that health problems make us humans deal with, fatigue is among the least awful. Even so, “among the least awful” can still be awful. I can attest to that.

Important note: This 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.