Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thank you, John Edwards

Today John Edwards withdrew from the 2008 US Presidential race. That's a real shame. Edwards' campaign often spoke of “two Americas”, one for the rich and powerful and one for everyone else. He was the only candidate to talk about the dangers of corporate greed, saying that he grew up believing that the person who worked in a mill was as good as the person who owned the mill.

I liked John Edwards' message, and I voted for him in the Illinois Democratic Primary. US citizens who live overseas permanently can vote in national elections for Federal office (President/Vice President, US Senator and US Representative) from the US Congressional District where they were last registered to vote in the US. In my case, it was the Congressional District for the northern end of Chicago. Because of distance and time needed to mail things, overseas ballots are sent out early (in my case, December). I mailed my ballot back to Chicago several weeks ago.

As it happens, my vote for Edwards was meaningless, even before he dropped out. Illinois has one of the dumbest primary election systems in America. First, the voter casts a vote for the person wanted for the nomination. This is called the “beauty contest” because no delegates come with that; it's essentially just a taxpayer-funded opinion poll of voters. The delegates are selected directly in an election in each Congressional District—if the candidate has any. Edwards had no delegates running in the Congressional District I vote it.

Edwards campaign was probably doomed from the start, with all the attention going to Clinton and Obama and their “historic” campaigns. I hope that his themes of ending poverty and providing universal healthcare are adopted, because they were the best in the pack.

So, you may be wondering, what did I think was wrong with Obama and Clinton? Let me be clear: Whichever one of them is the Democratic nominee will get my vote. There's no way I'd vote for any of the remaining Republicans, and Bloomberg? Yeah, right. And pigs will fly.

Having said all that, Obama is without a doubt the best speaker in the 2008 presidential race, however, too often he says nothing, but he says it really well. Clinton, on the other hand, says a lot, but not necessarily what I want to hear. Neither candidate speaks to me or my ideals as well as Edwards did, which is why I voted for him. But with Edwards gone, I actually wouldn't be unhappy with either one; they were my second choices. To be honest, right now it doesn't matter to me which one is the nominee.

To me, the most important thing is electing someone to undo all the damage caused by the Bush-Cheney regime. Either Clinton or Obama would at least start the process, but none of the Republicans would. That choice is clear.

I'm glad John Edwards was in the race. He raised issues that need to be talked about and dealt with. I hope that the person elected in November will deal with some of those issues.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Australia will finally say 'sorry'

The Australian Government, under recently-elected Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, will formally apologise to aborigines for the Stolen Generation. Defeated conservative Prime Minister John Howard flatly refused to do so.

The apology will be made at the first session of the new Parliament on February 13.

The Stolen Generation refers to aboriginal children who were taken by force from their parents and communities, often to be raised in orphanages. The policies existed in some from between around 1869 and 1969.

No one knows how many children were removed, but the Bringing Them Home Report in 1997 stated that at least 100,000 children were stolen. They estimated that in the period of 1910 and 1970, between one in three and one in ten aboriginal children were forcibly removed.

Howard's government disputed that this ever even happened, partly devolving the discussion to one of semantics. Mainly they argued that saying “sorry” would lead to compensation claims. They also argued that it would lead to a “culture of guilt” for modern Australians, a position the current leader of Howard's right wing Liberal Party has repeated.

This is, of course, a very big thing to aborigines. "It's fundamental to our healing, it's actually fundamental to the healing of the whole country and so we're very excited about it," sais Christine King of the Stolen Generations Alliance, as quoted in an AAP story in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Well done to the Rudd Government. Sometimes “sorry” really is the hardest word, but sometimes it's the word that's needed the most.

State of the Onion Redux

George Bush delivered his final State of the Union address yesterday. He filled it with proposals that will go nowhere, since he has less than a year left in office (we think...). He was a little bolder in pushing a neoconservative and right wing christianist agenda than last year, but then, what does he have to lose?

Every time I watch Bush, I'm reminded of the late 1990s TV series Sliders. In that series, a band of people had a gateway to alternate dimensions, where it's the same day, but everything else is different, or so they said.

Bush always talks about some other reality than the one we all live in. In the real world, he's been an utter failure. But he's either from another reality or completely out of touch with ours to think that his wars are going well, that the rich deserve to have their tax cuts made permanent or that church groups should get federal tax dollars to do things that government and secular non-profits are already doing as well or better.

I cannot wait for that man to go.

Fortunately, the US news media presented us with important news about his possible successors: Obama snubbed Clinton! Hold the front page! Change the lead story on the evening bulletin! There's a big story to report!

Mind you, the recent childish games of the two have led the news media in the direction of reporting only stories that reinforce the existence of a petty feud. But, really: Since nothing is more important to the US news media than Paris Hilton, Britney Spears or Sean Young's meltdown (did you hear?!), can we really expect much from the US news media?

Well, I expect more. I expect them to report news, not nonsense. I expect them to document what's happening, how this administration has failed and how the proposed successors say they'll fix the country. I want the news media to deliver news, in other words.

I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Fat One Returns!

Big Fatty's back! This news arrived too late for my podcast, but Big Fatty's big enough for his own post. Go to Big Fatty Online, where you can find his Preview episode.

Welcome back, BF!

Update 30/01/08: Oops! Apparently, this wasn't quite ready for public announcement. I found out about it on Technorati because Big Fatty Online links here. So I went, listened to the Preview, then posted about it. For a more official kind of announcement and discussion, head on over to There Are Some Who Call Me Tim, where Tim is joined by Big Fatty and another podcaster.

AmeriNZ 67 – Summer Holiday

Episode 67 is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.

This episode: Auckland had a holiday weekend. Thousands were amused, if only to have a three-day weekend in summer. Christian youth in New Zealand parachuted to music. New Zealand's election campaign is underway, sort of.

First up today, I tell you about Auckland Anniversary Day, which was yesterday. That means talking a bit about why there are no provinces in New Zealand. But there's also something about how the day is celebrated, and how our own holiday weekend went.

Some 27,000 youth took part in Parachute, a Christian, so-called, youth music festival. It's the largest outside the US. TV News coverage of it was a bit creepy, I thought.

New Zealand's 2008 election campaign got underway today, sort of. The Leader of the Opposition gave a speech today, and tomorrow the Prime Minister will do the same. This is unusual, and I tell you what's behind it all. The real, official election campaign won't begin until later this year.

A recently-passed law has given me pause. I tell you why, even though, on the whole, I think it's a good law. This also means talking a bit about recent NZ political history.

In Australian news, the Aussie Foreign Minister is in the US and has said that his country's leaving Iraq won't harm US/Australian relations. Australia will also be keeping their citizenship tests. I'm not a big fan of such tests, and I'll tell you why.

Comments create the opportunity for my podcast to be part of ArcherRadio. And more, of course.

Happy belated birthday to David Byrd of That Blue Jeans Guy and to “the Boyfriend” (as in Archerr's boyfriend).

Leave a comment or you can email me at amerinz(at}yahoo.com or ring my US listener line on 206-339-8413.

Links for this episode

iSay iSay iSay

Blue Savannah by Erasure iTunes USA Store or iTunes NZ Store. You can also buy Blue Savannah through Amazon.com.

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Holiday Weekend

This weekend was Auckland Anniversary Weekend. I thought about posting something about it, but I said pretty much all I wanted to last year. So suffice it to say that it was a nice three-day summer weekend, with food, family, wine and fun. We also watched a few movies, and I'll talk about that another time. I love holiday weekends.

Wednesday of next week is another Public Holiday, Waitangi Day. Coming in the middle of the week, though, it's not as much fun as a three day weekend. Still, a day off work in summer is always a good thing.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Stop fighting, children!

When this US primary campaign started, it seemed there was no way in hell that anyone but the Democratic nominee could win the presidency, so discredited was the current Republican regime and the party generally. But like Democrats love to do, they're positioning themselves to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Again.

I don't need to remind anyone that this happened in 2004, when certain Democratic victory turned into defeat despite rapidly increasing disenchantment with Bush and his regime. Of course, much of the blame for that goes to Republican vote fraud, voter intimidation, dirty tricks, lies and smears. But they couldn't have pulled it off without Democratic help.

So now we have Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sniping at each other like spoiled brats, completely disregarding that the most important thing is electing a Democrat as president in November. I keep waiting for a big parental Democrat to tell both of them, “I don't care who started it, I'm stopping it! But that won't happen.

If this childish pettiness continues, Clinton and Obama will ensure that a Republican is elected in November. They'd then change the meaning of their “historic” candidacies to ones associated with stupidity—and selfishness—of epic proportions.

So if I could, I'd say one thing to both Barack and Hillary: Grow up! And get over yourselves, too, because you don't matter—restoring constitutional democracy does. If you can't do that, then get out of the way of Democrats who who are committed to giving Americans their country back.

Friday, January 25, 2008

AmeriNZ 66 – NZ is number 7

Episode 66 is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.

A new study ranks New Zealand number 7 in the world. It doesn't matter on what, exactly, because New Zealanders are fascinated by what other people think of the country. A dead New Zealand Prime Minister is causing a stink in Northern Ireland. Kiwis love classic rock—or do they?

Today is a mixed bag as I talk about a few small things about New Zealand. There are comments, of course, and I give you a brief update on something in in my professional life. There are even some updates from the pod-o-sphere.

Leave a comment or you can email me at amerinz(at}yahoo.com or ring my US listener line on 206-339-8413.

Links for this episode:

NZ seventh in environmental index, Australia 46th

Irish target NZ PM's statue

Kiwis prefer classic rock over pop

We're Mean Because You're Stupid

iSay iSay iSay

Blue Savannah by Erasure iTunes USA Store or iTunes NZ Store. You can also buy Blue Savannah through Amazon.com.

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Book Talk: "Blackwater"

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army
By Jeremy Scahill

As the title suggests, this book is a history of the foremost American mercenary company, as well as the mercenary industry in general. Through detailed description, a story unfolds that would give any true American patriot reason for concern.

This isn’t merely a story of one company or one industry, though, as it details the underlying far-right and neoconservative agendas, including the privatisation of core military functions which created the opportunities that Blackwater and other companies seized.

Blackwater in particular is an example of interlocking connections between various far right and fundamentalist christianist groups and leaders. These connections led the company to become, as Scahill says, a virtual Republican Praetorian Guard.

The book also provides a history of the failures, lies and deceptions of the Bush Administration’s occupation of Iraq, how the interests of both the US and Iraq were ignored for the interests of big business and the neoconservative world view, with deadly and tragic results.

Amply footnoted, the book provides exhaustive sources, most of them readily available to the public, if they had the means or interest to put it all together. Fortunately, we don’t have to, since Scahill has put it together for us in an easy to read, very accessible form.

Some people have dismissed the book as left wing. But that’s a common tactic used by the right to deflect criticism and analysis of what it’s doing. Read the book with an open mind and decide for yourself.

I was left with a strong distrust of Blackwater and the mercenary industry generally, and I came away with a simple realisation: When it comes to government services, and military operations in particular, cheaper isn’t always better, and or even a good idea. This book shows why.

The best way to sum up this book and its subject comes from Scahill himself, near the end of the book, when he says:

“What is particularly disturbing about the ‘expanding role’ of Blackwater specifically is the issue of the company’s right-wing leadership, its proximity to a whole slew of conservative causes and politicians, its Christian fundamentalist agenda and secretive nature, and its deep and longstanding ties to the Republican Party, U.S. military, and intelligence agencies. Blackwater is quickly becoming one of the most powerful private armies in the world, and several of its top officials are extreme religious zealots, some of whom appear to believe they are engaged in an epic battle for the defense of Christendom.”

What I read: Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. 452 pages, including notes and index. Serpent's Tail, London. ISBN 978-1-84668-630-6.

Click Here to go to the Amazon.com page for this book.

This originally appeared in a slightly different form on Facebook.

Book Talks

Today I'm beginning a new series of occasional posts about books. They're called “Book Talks” because they won't necessarily be reviews, though sometimes they may be. Basically, they'll just be posts where I talk about a particular book. I'll include basic info about it, including an Amazon.com link where you can read more about the book or buy a copy, should you want to. Mostly, they'll just a be a place for me to talk about a book I've just finished, and maybe even sometimes discuss it more through the comments section.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


On Tuesday (US time), Jose Pedilla was sentenced to 17 years in prison, which the AP described as “relatively lenient”. Padilla, a US citizen, was arrested in 2002, allegedly for planning to set off a “dirty bomb”. In the end, he was convicted on charges relating to aiding terrorism.

The current charges were laid in 2005 after the Bush Administration was facing the prospect of having to release Padilla, so they ignored the original allegations and added him to an existing case. They also declared him an “enemy combatant”, which meant, in Bush's eyes, that normal legal rights and concepts of habeas corpus and due process did not apply.

Between 2002 and 2005—three and a half years—Padilla had been held by the Bushies without charge and subjected to severe mistreatment that most thinking people would call torture. The Bushies, of course, have attempted to redefine “torture” so that they can practice it without having to admit that's what they're doing. So, thanks to their Orwellian newspeak—partly authored by disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—when Bush declares that the US doesn't practice torture, in his mind he's telling the truth. We all know better.

Of course, Padilla is no saint. He has a criminal record from his time as a member of a Chicago street gang. He converted to Islam in prison, and he may very well have intended to eventually become a terrorist.

So what? That's all beside the point.

The US Constitution guarantees all US citizens certain rights, including the right to trial by jury and to face their accusers, among other things. The foundation for these rights and habeas corpus stretch back centuries, all the way to Magna Carta. The Bushies, however—aided by the Republican-controlled Congress—decided otherwise. The mostly Democratic-controlled Congress has done nothing to reverse the Bushies' wholesale assault on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

This administration has decided that anyone—including US citizens—can be designated as “enemy combatants” and held indefinitely without charge or the right to know what the allegations are, they can be denied access to attorneys and can be mistreated, all on Bush's say-so. Worse, he can grant anyone he wants the authority to make such illegal arrests.

If Americans want their fundamental human rights restored, they'll have to vote for that. Given the record of the past seven years, and Republican enthusiasm for Bush's fascistic moves, I certainly don't trust any of the Republican candidates with my rights. Do you? Can you?

We already knew that

Today the Associated Press published a story by Douglas K. Daniel that begins, “A study by two nonprofit journalism organizations found that President Bush and top administration officials issued hundreds of false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Everybody knows this already, so why is it news? Because this study quantifies those lies. They found 935 false statements, including “at least 532 [false statements] that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or was trying to produce or obtain them or had links to al-Qaida or both,” according to the AP story.

The story goes on to name the Bush Administration officials who were studied. “Bush led with 259 false statements, 231 about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 28 about Iraq's links to al-Qaida, the study found. That was second only to Powell's 244 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 10 about Iraq and al-Qaida.” It's now become a matter of speculation whether Powell actually knew he was lying, or whether he was passing on the lies generated by others, but which he believed to be true.

By studying this administration's false statements, which led directly to the Iraq war and occupation, this study has unveiled the Bushies' disinformation campaign for the public record. And it also shows part of the reason why we can't believe anything this administration says.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

AmeriNZ 65 – Sweet and Sour

Episode 65 is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.

Today is a both sweet and sour. I've just finished celebrating my birthday, which was really good. But today was the state funeral for Sir Edmund Hillary, which was sad. Today, I talk about both.

First I talk about Sir Ed's funeral, and explain a little bit about how much he meant to New Zealanders. He was an extraordinary man, and we'll probably never again see anyone like him.

Then it's on to a lighter topic—my birthday! What did Nigel get me, and what did I think about it? How did we celebrate? It's different from how I celebrated in Illinois.

A few comments, another bald plea for reviews on iTunes, and that's it for this Tuesday edition.

Leave a comment, or you can email me at amerinz(at}yahoo.com or ring my US listener line on 206-339-8413.

Links for this episode:

Sir Edmund Hillary coverage on TVNZ, including the funeral itself.

"Blue Savannah" by Erasure iTunes USA Store or iTunes NZ Store. Or go to Amazon.com.

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Pedestal puppy

Jake likes to jump on things—chairs, sofas, beds, whatever. Often, this is when he amuses himself by chasing his own toys: He'll jump up on the furniture, drop his toy off it, then hop down to get it and jump back on the furniture to drop it again, or else run off with it. He's clever.

But I've never seen him lie down on that footstool, like he's doing in this photo. He's jumped up on it and stood on it, but this was his first horizontal visit. That's the thing about him: He's always coming up with new things for us to watch.

The other day he encountered a neighbour's cat in our yard. He barked furiously until we came outside. We assured him it was alright, and he stopped barking. He ran around a bit, sometimes sat down and looked at the cat, but he made no effort to actually get the cat, and he could have. He's never displayed the slightest bit of aggression. We've never even heard him growl.

So new behaviours are still common, and that's nice. And so is he.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Another Birthday

Birthdays are great. Every year I look forward to mine, and today is that day. I've never talked about it here on my blog, though there's no particular reason for that. I guess now is as good a time as any.

Nigel outdid himself to give me a great birthday. We had some people around for a BBQ last night, then today he and I went out to dinner at our favourite Thai restaurant. He gave me all kinds of cool stuff for my podcasting, too. In truth, even after all these years he still amazes me.

Birthdays are more than meals and presents, fun as they are. Many years ago, when I reached the point that Christmas stopped having my meaning for me personally, I looked toward New Year as the height of the holidays. I always thought they were filled with so much hope and optimism—a beginning filled with opportunities. To me, everything felt new again at the New Year.

So I was lucky to have a birthday only three weeks later. Birthdays are kind of like a personal New Year, and being so close to the main one, I had three weeks of that optimistic feeling. I still do, and it takes most of the year to grind me down to the numbness of day-to-day life.

However, getting older can kind of dampen down that enthusiasm a bit. One becomes aware, as the birthdays pile up, that they are finite and that there are consequences to getting older. But I've always said that getting older beats the alternative, because there's only one way to stop having birthdays.

My Dad reached a point, as apparently a lot of people do after a certain age, when he stopped celebrating birthdays. “I just observe them,” he said. Every year my mother would make him a cherry pie and whatever he wanted for dinner. The dinner choice was something we all got on our birthdays, but I don't remember my mother having any special choice. Maybe I've just forgotten.

Anyway, I'm different from my Dad, though the years have revealed unexpected ways in which we're alike. While he observed birthdays, I still celebrate them and I still have the optimism I always felt, now tinged with a certain relief at having completed another year.

But the main thing is, this was a good birthday. Again.

The best gift

As regular readers of this (and many other blogs) will have noticed, the “Official George W. Bush 'Days Left In Office' Countdown” has dropped below 365 days—finally! Coming as it does on my birthday, I think this is a great gift.

The best gift would be if George and Dick and their whole regime resigned from office right now, but that's not a wish that will come true, no matter how many birthday candles I blow out (and there are beginning to be quite a few...).

So instead, we have to wait and see who the nominees will be so we can determine who will be the next president. I'll be saying more about that in the days and weeks ahead.

In the meantime, I just want to enjoy the knowledge that Bush finally has less than a year left in office.

A royal snub?

There's a certain disgruntlement in New Zealand among people who are upset that no member of the Royal Family will be attending the funeral of Sir Edmund Hillary. It seems to me that calling it a “snub” is a bit strong, but it does display, at the very least, that Buckingham Palace has a lack of attunement to appropriate responses and behaviours with regard to places outside Britain.

It's important to remember that prior to his death, Sir Edmund Hillary was almost universally regarded as the greatest living New Zealander. After he died, some people started saying that Sir Ed was the greatest New Zealander ever. It may be a bit early to say that sort of thing, but it's probably accurate to say, as some overseas media outlets did, that Sir Ed was the best known New Zealander who ever lived (even though, of course, there are plenty of people in the world who didn't know he was from New Zealand).

At any rate, it's fair to say that he was very important to New Zealand.

Days passed after Sir Ed died without any word from the Queen. Her press office said the Queen would send a private message to the Hillary family, which is great. But you'd think that a nation mourning its greatest son could have had a word of condolence from the constitutional head of state. But there was nothing from the Queen to the people of New Zealand. That was a mistake, a wrong decision.

Instead of attending the funeral, the Queen is holding a special service in memory of Sir Ed, a service that will, it's been reported, accommodate a couple hundred Kiwis in London. Ordinarily, when a Knight of the Garter dies, there's a small service where the honour is returned. The Queen's decision to have a larger service is said to be a special honour and an indication of the regard she had for Sir Ed.

No senior royal will be attending the funeral, either. Personally, I think it's fine that the Queen isn't attending, and I agree with Prime Minister Helen Clark, who said “Clearly the Queen in her early 80s is not in a position to travel at short notice as far as New Zealand.”

Nevertheless, many New Zealanders think it wasn't expecting too much to have a high-ranking royal make the trip. Both Prince Charles—who is supposed to be King of New Zealand one day—and Princess Anne had charity commitments in England. This left some to ask, how far down the ranking do you have to go before the royal attending becomes irrelevent.

To me, the New Zealand Herald put it best in an editorial on Saturday, January 19: “While in New Zealand eyes Sir Edmund is forever linked with this Queen by their shared history nearly 55 years ago, surely no one could expect the busy 81-year-old monarch to journey this far on short notice. To offer a lesser royal would carry little of the emotional connection so treasured in this land. Their presence is not important. Her words would have been”

If the monarchy is to survive in New Zealand, it needs to connect to this country and its people, and having a more astute press office would be a good first step. So, while I don't agree that this is a royal snub, it is, as ordinary Kiwis would put it, a royal cock-up. I just hope the Queen's press office learns from its mistakes.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pumpkin Pie

Sometimes, it's the small things that matter most.

Tonight we had some folks around for a BBQ to celebrate my birthday, a little early. I decided I'd make a pumpkin pie for the occasion, the only connection being, well, I'm American.

So I used the most dented of the three cans of pumpkin that I recently brought from America (the left-most one in the photo at the top of my recent post with a couple photos from my US trip; all three were a gift from my friend Reid who wanted to make sure I was able to make pumpkin pie for Nigel). It's hard to go wrong when most everything is pre-mixed and measured, but I still had to make a few adjustments: I had to convert the temperature to Celsius and our tin of evaporated milk, being metric, had more than 12 ounces in it.

But I overcame all that. The only problem was the crust was a bit over done, but the rest was perfect. Spices, texture, “wetness” were all as they should have been.

Nigel made a lovely BBQ dinner, and we had plenty of really good food and wine. But, of course, it was dessert I was hanging out for.

The photo shows my piece of the pie, with maybe (perhaps) a bit more whipped cream than may be advisable (but the perfect amount for me). I don't want to hear anything about the crust: The bit in the photo looks pretty burned (it wasn't). This was the first piece of pumpkin pie I've had in thirteen years or more (I can't remember for sure), so to me it was perfect.

It was a small thing, really. Sometimes they count for the most.

Republic of New Zealand?

This week, former New Zealand Primer Minister Mike Moore “stirred up a hornet's nest” when he suggested that New Zealand should examine its constitutional structure with an eye toward adopting a written constitution and, possibly, becoming a republic. Predictably, the reaction was heated, but it's a debate that won't go away.

I am a republican (with a lower-case “r”, of course). This has nothing to do with the present Queen of New Zealand, but rather the notion that it's inherently un-democratic to have someone as head of state simply because of an accident of birth and, in New Zealand's case, a foreigner, as well. So New Zealanders, I believe, should choose their own head of state by a democratic means that's appropriate for New Zealand.

Here's where things get weird. Many of the opponents bring up images of “banana republics” as if that's the only way to do it. Monarchist propaganda barely worthy of notice, but let's just state what should be bloody obvious to anyone who's had even a little education: There are plenty of stable, prosperous and robust democracies in the world that are republics. There's no reason New Zealand can't be one of them.

Opponents sometimes bring up the US as a bad example, which must be a difficult thing for conservatives who otherwise greatly admire the country. Nevertheless, there's no reason that New Zealand has to adopt a US-style republic, though some see merit in that system. Again, there are many ways to have a republic, and NZ can do it another way.

Finally, there are the opponents who argue that the Commonwealth is too important to lose. They ignore the fact that the Commonwealth actually includes many republics, and there's no reason it can't have more. The Queen is the figurehead for the Commonwealth for many countries—including republics and monarchies with different monarchs.

The bigger issue in this is Constitutional structure, and that's thorny and difficult. While sometimes the ease of making constitutional change is criticised, mostly for being too easy, it nevertheless means that New Zealand is a more nimble when it comes to structural change than, say, the US is.

A bigger issue is the relationship with Maori, with whom the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Any written constitution would have to address that relationship, which I suspect would be a far more difficult task than choosing between being a monarchy or a republic.

I believe that New Zealand will become a republic one day. So will Australia. But neither will change tomorrow; it will happen only after lengthy public debate. So I'm glad this has come up again, though I think it's a shame it's become wrapped up in the discussion of the death of Sir Edmund Hillary (who many people felt should've been the first president of the Republic of New Zealand).

So, let's talk about the merits of the different systems. But let's try and do it rationally, according to the facts. That, however, is probably too much to hope for. A republic, however, is not.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

AmeriNZ 64 - Political Catch-up

Episode 64 is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.

My last political podcast was before Christmas—which was before the Iowa Caucuses—and a lot has happened since then. Joining me to discuss all that today are another podcaster and Jason.

I begin today with a brief explanation of what's going on for the benefit of non-American listeners. Then it's a brief recap of where we're at, especially the delegate totals. We then talk a bit about what's wrong with public opinion polls. This leads into a discussion of Super Tuesday and whether it will or won't be “all over” then.

I get the chance to slag off my home state of Illinois for it's asinine primary system, before I go on to reveal who I voted for President in the Illinois Democratic Primary and why. I also talk a bit about how US citizens living overseas vote.

The rest is a wide-ranging discussion of all sorts of things related to this campaign. Do Republicans hate each other? One leader says they do. Did you know that Mitt Romney has far higher negatives than Hillary Clinton? What about the economy? Iraq? They all get a look from us and we're not shy about saying what we think.

Leave a comment, or you can email me at amerinz(at}yahoo.com or ring my US listener line on 206-339-8413.

Links for this episode:

This Boy Elroy post on polls
Jason's blog
"Blue Savannah" by Erasure iTunes USA Store or iTunes NZ Store. Or go to Amazon.com.

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Friday, January 18, 2008

It's not just Obama and Clinton

Here's a bit of education for the US news media: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are not the only candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. As a public service, I thought I'd point that out because apparently the US news media don't know it.

I found the above video at The Horse's Mouth which has been pointing out how the media has been ignoring the campaign of John Edwards. The video pokes fun at the media for this.

Greg Sargent noted on The Horse's Mouth that there are some legitimate reasons for focusing coverage on Obama and Clinton; that they both have historic candidacies and that modern newsrooms have extremely limited resources are just two of those possibly legitimate reasons. But as the blog also says, “I'm not at all arguing that the media is solely to blame for the Edwards camp's problems. Just saying again that we should all admit that in a broad sense Edwards got screwed here, because, well, that's exactly what happened.”

If the news media started focusing on issues and not personalities, on facts and not hype, they just might give Edwards the coverage he deserves. Instead, their obsession with Clinton and Obama means that Edwards has received less press coverage than Huckabee, and Democratic voters are deprived of hearing about all the choices available to them.

With the American news media doing such a bad job of covering the campaign at this stage, what hope is there that they'll be any better when covering the general election? And isn't that in itself a threat to democracy?

All sweetness and light

It may seem that I've gone soft all the sudden, avoiding political criticism and commentary. Actually, I've just been busy with the holidays, then my trip to the US, and then re-adjusting back to my normal life.

Rest assured, my normal self will be reappearing on this blog.

My next post is about the current US political campaign and media failings in it—politics and the news media, two of my favourite topics. With elections this year in both the US and New Zealand, there'll be plenty of opportunities to comment.

Fasten your seatbelts. This year should be a bumpy ride.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Photo evidence

Here are a couple photos from my trip to the US, both illustrating things I've already talked about.

The top photo is of the three cans of pumpkin, for making pies. These aren't available in New Zealand. These three cans started out normal, and now, well, they're not, thanks to rather, um, energetic baggage handling.

In case you're wondering, I got three because they were on special, a “3 for” deal, and I'm a good, obedient consumer. Using the power of the Internet, I found recipes and instructions for making pumpkin puree which can be used instead of the canned stuff when making pie. I'm not quite that brave yet.

The second photo is of me and Tom, the Ramble Redhead. It was taken on a bitter cold Sunday, 30 December 2007 on Northalsted (note the rainbow pylon...), directly across the street from Chicago's gay and lesbian community centre, which didn't exist when I was last in Chicago. It was fun meeting Tom and Joe (who took the photo), and apart from the cold (my hand is in my pocket to avoid frostbite—swear!), I thought it was a great day.

The main purpose of my trip wasn't tourism, of course, and the few other photos I took are personal (friends and family), so I won't be sharing them here. But I'm planning more up-to-date photos next week, so stay tuned.

I made the front page! w00t!

Today I found out that my AmeriNZ Podcast made the front page of the iTunes Store (USA) Personal Journals sub-category of the the Society & Culture category of podcasts. To those who don't know what that means (or don't care), it's sort of the equivalent of being on the NY Times bestseller list. Sort of. Okay, it's not all that much like that, but it's the best analogy I have.

There's a little bit of mystery as to how these rankings are determined, but a lot of it has to do with iTunes reviews (especially the 5-star variety). I'm up to 13 reviews on the US store, along with one each in Australia and Germany (I haven't checked other countries recently, so I think that's it).

My main goal in soliciting 5-star reviews was so that my podcast would be listed first in the search results of anyone who searches iTunes for my podcast. These reviews help that, but they've also now lifted me onto the front page, and that may help me gain new listeners among casual browsers.

I frankly never paid much attention to the front page until Eric from Confessions of a Southern Boy in Yankee Land moved onto it after begging (pleading, cajoling...) for 5-star reviews. His podcast started well after mine did (I'm just sayin'), so that kinda got my attention. To be honest, I'm glad it did because hitting the front page feels good.

I'll never ask for a donation or cash support of any kind for my podcast. If you want to help me, or if you like what I do, then please write a 5-star review on your country's iTunes Store and that'll help me a lot. If you don't want to do that, go to my podcast's section on your iTunes (search “amerinz”, as in the picture with this post) and click “yes” to the question, “Was this review helpful?” That helps a lot, too. By the way, you can do this on any country's store, but you can only (easily) write a review for the iTunes store you're registered for.

Blog bits

Just so this blog isn't left out of all the meta talk, I was looking at the keywords used to access my blog. By far the most common way people have found it lately is some variation on a search for information about the song “Forever Young” as used in the Tourism New Zealand commercial (and now this post will turn up in the search results, too...). But one was “the point of life is not to arrive in good condition”. I thought that was really interesting, but I have no idea what that has to do with my blog. Still, it seemed appropriate with my birthday on Monday.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

AmeriNZ 63 – Home from home

Episode 63 is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.

I'm back! Did you miss me? I missed doing my podcast, to be honest, and I'm certainly glad to be back. Today I'm going to tell you a bit about my recent trip to the US, then after comments I have a brief personal update and all the usual contact details.

I've called today's episode “Home from Home” because I'm back home from my home. I tell you about that trip and some of my impressions and observations, since this was my first trip back to the US in eight years.

All things considered, the trip went pretty well (though I talk a bit about some things that didn't). I got done what I needed to, and I spent time with friends and family, which was great. I even met a real, live podcaster!

I tell you what it feels like now, with this 12-year-old hold on my life now gone. There's a lot more about the trip, including more observations, on my blog, www.amerinz.com, where photos will be posted soon.

Leave a comment, or you can email me at amerinz(at}yahoo.com or ring my US listener line on 206-339-8413.

Links for this episode:

Creedance Clearwater Revival's "Lookin' Out My Back Door" iTunes USA Store, iTunes NZ Store, Amazon.com music.

Ramble Redhead Episode 184

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Monday, January 14, 2008

American observations

In my recent (long) posts I've been talking about the travel ordeals of my recent trip to the US. There have been the odd observations thrown in, but I really haven't added any since my post from Chicago. Well, here are some more random observations of NE Illinois (remember, other regions may be different):

When I was in Illinois, I saw many men (no women) walking around with Bluetooth cellphone ear pieces clamped to their ear. Most seemed not to be actually using them.

A White Castle hamburger joint has opened in my hometown. But my hometown has an ordinance that no business can have a white exterior (WTF?), so it's brown. Actually, if memory serves, there was also an ordinance that it was illegal to fire your canon on a Sunday. Whew, what a relief, eh?

Portions in cheap restaurants were gigantic, but in the more expensive restaurants they were small (or is that normal sized?). All of them had a lot of fat and not much from the vegetable category.

In diners, soup or salad is always a first course, while in New Zealand a salad is always served with the meal. I've only been gone a few years, but I thought the American way was weird.

To continue this food theme a little more, no one makes pizzas as good as Americans do, not even the American franchises now in New Zealand. Chicago is an especially good place for pizza.

Taxes in Illinois are astronomical. Property taxes are unbelievable, and that's on top of state and federal income taxes. Property taxes in NE Illinois are often ten times what we pay in rates—and again, that's on top of all income taxes.

I had to sign credit card purchases. Sure, the pen was usually electronic (and the signature looked nothing like my own), but it was still kinda archaic. In New Zealand I use a PIN for credit card purchases and can't remember the last time I signed a receipt. Only two retailers asked for a photo ID for a credit card purchase; both accepted my New Zealand Driver Licence.

People weren't as fat as I'd expected, given the media hype. But a lot of people were overweight to some degree (hey, I'm not criticising, just observing; I'm in that category, too).

Bad customer service is everywhere (as you know from reading my earlier posts). But almost without fail store clerks became friendly when I was friendly to them and treated them like humans (as I would here in New Zealand). The exception were grocery store cash register ladies who seem to be grumpy the world over. In particular, black and brown people were friendliest to me.

Jeez, ordinary people have a lot of American flags...

I detected a common pessimism among ordinary folk I talked with. I found no one—absolutely no one—who had anything nice to say about Bush, but all of the alternatives seemed to be disliked, too.

There's what I'd call a “lazy racism” that's common among many—not all—white folk. They're not really racist as that term is understood, but they find it easy to lace their speech with racist slang, especially against “Mexicans”.

I'm no xenophobic racist redneck, but the spread of Spanish seems to have gone a little too far to me. It's absolutely everywhere now, even in places where it's doubtful anyone speaks Spanish.

The number one concern of Americans I spoke with was the ability to afford healthcare, with ever-rising health insurance premiums and reducing benefits. Many people, it seemed to me, are virtual slaves because they can't leave their jobs because of health insurance: Their current conditions wouldn't be covered by a new policy. So, they're stuck. This was one discussion that would always make me think to myself—silently—“thank god I live in New Zealand!”

The morning network TV programmes in America are crap—nothing more than fluff and commercial promotion. I have new-found respect for what we have in New Zealand, which I used to dismiss. Not any more.

I already commented a bit on prices being comparable to New Zealand. I found out that also includes books. America is blessed with many inexpensive editions of classic works, but ordinary new releases (or newer releases, at least) were the same price or even more expensive than in New Zealand. This was a total surprise to me because I thought we paid a lot for books.

Despite it all, especially the past seven years, Americans remain on the whole a good, decent people who want the same things out of life as anyone else. The tragedy is that their politicians can't deliver it, big business won't and the people don't seem to know what to do about it. Maybe with a new president they'll be able to sort it all out.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Good and bad

When it comes to customer service, it's safe to say that few companies are at the extremes of the good/bad continuum. Good companies can have bad days/people, and vice versa. On my trip to America, I dealt with both, and I wanted to highlight some of those experiences so that others can take what they want from it.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the three biggies and what I think of them:

Air New Zealand. Overall, this is a good airline. The frontline staff I dealt with—check-in agents, inflight crew, telephone customer service representatives—were all excellent. They were friendly, professional and clearly competent. The planes I flew on (and on other trips) have been good, clean, modern and with excellent in-seat entertainment.

But the airline isn't perfect: I ordered special meals, but my dinner was incomplete and my breakfast was not only incorrect, it actually had things in it that I can't have. That's not just bad, it's inexcusable—what if I'd had an allergy? As it was, the inconvenience was mild, but the point is they need to take more care. The missing baggage system is also terrible. Agents in person were friendly and efficient (I'm tempted to add “of course”), but once the report was logged there didn't seem to be a way to speak with a real person and their phone and web checking system was woefully inadequate. That's terrible.

On the flight over, we were kept sitting in the plane for three hours while they fixed a problem. I have no idea whether that was something that could have been dealt within advance, but they did, at least, try and keep us informed. Still, even with all the problems I'd gladly recommend Air New Zealand (itself, not a “Star Alliance” airline) to anyone, and I'll certainly fly them again—though with tighter control over my luggage. Did I mention that the flight to Auckland landed ten minutes early? It was the only one of my four flights not to arrive late.

Allied Van Lines. This started out promising: I contacted them on a recommendation and the Wellington office was friendly and got back to me in a timely manner. Once I got to Chicago, I rang the contact I'd been given and in short order I was talking with their local agent at Allied Reeby Moving and Storage. He, too, was friendly and professional, and suggested ways of streamlining the process to avoid the holiday.

My first mistake was calling Wellington: Apparently, the quote had to go back to them since they were the referrers (it had to do with sales commissions). I had a weekend and the New Year holiday in the mix. On Wednesday (January 2, a work day in America), I emailed all the people concerned. I received no reply. I rang the agent. He didn't phone me back. On Thursday I again emailed them all, and no one replied, not even to say “sorry we were unable to help”.

Because of this, I could only bring back with me what I could fit into suitcases, and that was less than half of what I'd otherwise have brought. The rest will end up in the rubbish. I now know that I should have contacted the Americans directly and that I should have contacted many international movers and let the threat of competition drive them. Those were my ignorant mistakes.

However, nothing can excuse Allied at any level not bothering to return my emails or phone calls. They really let me down. So, I wouldn't recommend them to anyone for anything and would only consider them myself if there was no other alternative (apart, maybe, for moves within New Zealand). For international moves, my best advice is contact many reputable international movers in the country you're moving from. Apparently, you need to hound them to death, too.

United Airlines. Well, what positive thing can I say about them? Hang on, give me a few minutes, I may be able to think of something. I know, that Gershwin music they use in their branding is kinda nice.

Seriously, I can't say anything nice about United. Once upon a time, they were my favourite airline and I'd choose them before any other. Those days are gone.

An hour in a check-in queue in Los Angeles, a two hour queue at O'Hare along with hundreds and hundreds of people whose flights had been delayed or cancelled (roughly half their flights that day, by the look of the monitor), no food apart from a $5 box of total crap on a four and half hour flight, losing my luggage, surly and indifferent frontline staff, including inflight crew: Add it all up and I'm just not sure that there's a way to make flying any more unpleasant.

I will avoid United Airlines in the future and I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemy (okay, maybe I would). If I'm going to be treated like cattle, then I'll choose an airline where I'm paying for it. As it was, I paid full fare and was subsidising the folks in cheap seats, but I was treated as badly as everyone else. At the high price I paid, I'd expect to be treated like a pet cow, at the least, not like soon-to-be hamburger.

If you do get stuck flying United, allow no less than three hours before your next flight (I'd recommend four or five hours because so many United flights are delayed or cancelled). Then, collect your bags at your destination and check them in for your next flight yourself (to be safe, even if it's United). It'll take a couple hours in line, but that's better than having United lose your bags.

There you have it, from best to worst, along with suggestions. I recommended one (with caveats) and the other two I wouldn't recommend, and one of those—United—I'd urge people to run away from as fast as they can.

When I was standing in the line-from-hell at O'Hare, I kept wondering why Americans put up with such awful service. Many told me that “they're all bad” or “what can you do?” Well, there's a lot that can be done: File complaints wherever possible, boycott the worst offenders and choose the ones that are best in their category (retail, air travel, whatever). Companies will not change their ways until their bad service affects their bottom line. Make them feel some of the pain they cause and they'll improve. Accept bad service, and you'll only get more of the same.

The irony is that the modern concept of customer service was born in America, and now that country's businesses are doing everything they can to destroy it. Fortunately, there are places in the world—and companies within the US—who are bucking the trend toward appallingly bad service. We consumers need to reward that and punish bad service. Without us, businesses will fail. The choice over whether to provide good or bad service is each company's, but ultimately the power is ours.

Update 14/01/08: Today I received the quote from Allied. It came from New Zealand, two weeks after I spoke with the rep in Chicago.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Five come home

My luggage came home this afternoon. Finally.

Nigel and I went out for lunch and when we got home the first thing I did was go to check the website for baggage tracing (a screenshot from which I included in my post “Five go missing”). I was just clicking on the link for flight information to see if there were any changes when the Air New Zealand baggage services people rang to confim delivery address. The taxi would be here in two hours, she said.

In fact, it was more like three. On the whole, things arrived okay, despite the ordeal. Only one item was broken, and some artwork was slightly crushed, both in bags that the TSA opened (they take no care in putting things back well). The bags themselves were definitely worse for wear, but the main thing is that they arrived at all.

I was beginning to fear the worst, and I kept thinking about all sorts of things that would be gone if the bags didn't show up. I thought first about the clothes I'd brought with me, including most of my underwear, socks and long-sleeved shirts. I wasn't sure how long I could hold out before having to buy some new clothes, underwear at least.

Then I thought about the things I'd bought, some fun things for Nigel, Jake and me, but mostly a lot of clothes, the majority for me. I absolutely hate clothes shopping, but I bought quite a bit, which is very unusual. As an aside, the clothes weren't really any cheaper than in NZ, apart from bulk packs of socks or underwear, but I knew the shirts I bought wouldn't be commonly worn in New Zealand. Blue jeans were a lot cheaper, with a major American brand costing me less than half the price of Farmers' house brand, which isn't all that great. I bought three pairs.

And that leaves the stuff I brought back from storage in Chicago. Nearly everything has no cash value, as far as I know, just sentimental value for me—things like souvenirs of trips, things I wrote over the years, that sort of thing. But all of it was irreplaceable, which made it all of great value to me.

I don't mind saying that I was feeling literally sick at the thought it could be all gone. I thought about the thousands I'd spent on the trip, my purchases and extra baggage charges and at the end of it had less than when I left. My main feeling, though, was one of numbness.

In Chicago, I'd spent hours going through things, sorting the wheat from the chaff, then sorting the wheat again and again (because I had weight limits). In the end, I took only a small portion of what I planned on taking, focusing mostly on the things that had personal meaning to me, resonance with my life, rather than just things of my parents that I remembered fondly and nostalgically. There's some of that, too, but it was the stuff with the deeper personal connection I kept.

I knew that I'd feel better once I got away from Chicago and the stuff I left behind—out of sight, out of mind, and all that. And, a day or so later, I was right. It was a weird feeling once it was over. Now, it's weirder still.

For twelve years, I've held off buying books or CDs because I thought to myself, “I have that in Chicago”. Now, if it's not here, I don't have it. Clearly if I didn't have something for 12 years I don't really need it, but that's not really the point. There was always this restraint on my life, a bit like a dog chained up in a yard, allowing me to go a certain distance and no farther. Humans give us connections, but they move around. My stuff didn't, and so it was like an anchor or weight preventing me from moving forward.

So this afternoon I unpacked all my suitcases and started washing all the clothes in them (don't ask; I just need to wash it all, especially in the bags the TSA opened). Actually, I didn't unpack so much as empty the suitcases and pile up the stuff to put away later, but the effect is the same. I said to Nigel, “Now, everything I own in the world is here.” That's never been true before.

In some ways, I feel liberated and released. But what's weird is that the backdrop for over twelve years—that I had stuff stored in Chicago—is now gone. I'll have to learn a new reality now.

In this now completed tale, there are things that made this more difficult than it needed to be—Air New Zealand, United Airlines and Allied Van Lines all failed me, the last two pretty spectacularly. But that's a subject for another day. Right now, I want to just relax now that everything I own, and everything I am, are in the same place for the first time in a dozen years.

I can definitely get used to this.

So long, Sir Ed

Yesterday New Zealand lost its living icon, Sir Edmund Hillary. It's a terrible loss. Nearly every person in New Zealand, regardless of who or what they are, had huge admiration for the man and are sad at his passing.

Sir Ed, as most people called him, was the epitome of how Kiwi men see themselves (or as they'd like to be): Practical, confident, competent and modest to the point of promoting team mates over oneself. That was Sir Ed in a nutshell, and the combination is part of why he was so admired and loved (though true Kiwi blokes wouldn't be likely to admit that last part).

Sir Ed was universally regarded as the greatest living New Zealander, the only living Kiwi to be depicted on currency (the $5 note; the Queen who is on the $20 note, is not a New Zealander, of course). But exploits like Sir Ed's probably aren't possible anymore; in a sense, there aren't any mountains left to climb. Of course there are other challenges, but maybe not the sort that will lead to such enormous public adulation.

We'll probably never see anyone like Sir Ed again, and that's a loss for us all.

Also: "In Ed we Trust", an earlier post where I talk about a poll that found Sir Ed to be the most trusted New Zealander.

Photo of Sir Ed by Graeme Mulholland. It can be found here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Five go missing

I have to admit that more than 48 hours after my arrival back in New Zealand, I'm getting just a little concerned that my bags are still missing. The picture above shows the status of the search, with text that appears when I hover my mouse over it (I have no idea what the word starting with “f” is, though I'm beginning to think of a few...).

Anyway, those bags contain what I bought in the US (chiefly clothes), what I brought with me to the US (clothes again) and all the possessions I was bringing back with me—you know, the whole reason I went there in the first place. So, I arrived back in New Zealand with less than I left with and nothing connected to the reason for my trip.

Still, hope is not exhausted. Mainly, I have to wait for United Airlines to do their bit (since they're the ones who lost the bags). That obviously takes time. Hopefully, though, not much more time.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Twixt and between

The worst thing about flying the long haul between New Zealand and the US is that travellers tend to leave part of their consciousness somewhere over the Pacific. It takes a good day to catch up with the body. I find it worse going east than west, but, even so, I'm not in top form today.

Part of that is due to my luggage being missing. Maybe that's too strong a word, but the recorded message on the Air New Zealand phone system makes it sound that way. In any event, they haven't shown up yet and I haven't been able to get through to a real person to enquire further (or even to make sure that they're checking the flights I was scheduled to take, rather than the ones I did take). Maybe tomorrow there'll be news.

But today I'm just recovering, catching up on some things and spending time with Nigel (not necessarily in that order). And I'm hoping that somewhere over the Pacific my consciousness and luggage have met up and will arrive together tomorrow morning. I could really use both.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Home again

I made it home to Auckland. My suitcases, however, didn't.

I set out extra early on Monday (Chicago time). After the horrendous lines at the United Airlines check-in at LAX, I thought allowing a LOT more time would be a good idea. I also hoped to get booked on an earlier flight. However, the check-in went so quickly, it was all done before I knew what happened.

I had plenty of time to kill. I had a coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. Then I made a couple phone calls to friends I didn't get to see and read the papers. I decided to go buy a water, and then checked the departures monitor to see if my gate had changed. I was shocked to find out the flight was delayed two and a half hours! Many other flights were delayed or cancelled. However, since I only had an hour and a half between flights, this meant I'd miss my flight to Auckland, and there's only one a day from San Francisco.

So, off I went to United's Customer “Service” area and joined the queue. Two hours later (no, I'm NOT exaggerating!) I finally got to an agent who re-booked me on a flight to Los Angeles (my beloved LAX) where I could catch a different Air New Zealand flight. Great. He said he'd re-book my bags and they'd be on the same plane as me (I'd booked them through to Auckland). I was worried, however, when he asked me to describe them.

I waited, and the plane started boarding slightly late, then waited until a family of four boarded late. We left nearly twenty minutes late. Nearing L.A., the pilot announced that “headwinds were stronger than we expected” and the plane would land “about” a half hour late.

Once off the United plane (and a tired, tatty thing it was, too), I raced through the terminal to get outside. This was no easy task since, in typical LAX fashion, there were few directional signs and no maps at all. It took nearly 20 minutes to escape the hell of that terminal.

Once outside I set off for Terminal 2, only to find out that there was no direct way to walk, though, yet again, a sign or map could have made that possible. I raced back to wait for the shuttle bus. I waited, and waited and waited. In all, it took nearly 45 minutes to get from United's gate to Terminal 2.

Once there, I found that Air New Zealand had assumed a lady and I were no-shows and had closed check-in. They got us on, and I raced to the gate.

Of course, it wasn't that simple.

First, I had to go outside to come back in again (!) to get to the TSA security area. It was totally shambolic as they herded two lines of shoeless people through one metal detector. The grim-faced, bored TSA agents didn't do much spot checking. No US authorities looked at my passport, aside from a brief glance from a TSA drone who checked only that my passport name matched the boarding pass. As far as the US passport people are concerned, I guess I'm still in the US.

Anyway, I got to the gate and found lots of people standing around waiting to board. I guessed that general boarding hadn't started. I heard an announcement being made, though it was impossible to make out what they were saying, so I jumped in line, since my seat was near the back of the plane.

Once I finally got on the Air New Zealand plane, I nearly cried, because I was so happy, especially because not long before then it looked like I'd miss another flight home.

The flight back was long, uneventful, but on a nice, clean, newer plane in good condition. The flight attendants were friendly, engaged and efficient, at least two of which were missing from the “service” I received from United staff. Actually, more often than not, all three were missing. The flight landed ten minutes early. That didn't surprise me at all.

In Auckland, I went to the baggage claim area and waited, probably longer than I should have (hope springs eternal and all that), before I went to “baggage services” to report my missing bags. I took one look at the huge queue, and rang Nigel on my cellphone. “It'll be at least an hour to hour and a half,” I told him, based on the other recent queues I'd been in.

After around five minutes of waiting and little line movement, two Air New Zealand staff members emerged, handed out forms and helped us fill them in. I looked up after I was done with mine and—no exaggeration—the entire line was gone! If United had people helping like this in Los Angeles, I wouldn't have been waiting two hours.

The Air New Zealand agent took me aside to log the report right then, since I was the victim of “disrupted flight”, or something like that. She said she thought my bags would arrive tomorrow on the same flight I was on, they'd arrange customs clearance and deliver them to my house. Yes, well, considering the mixed-up itinerary, that may be a tad optimistic.

I went out and met Nigel about two and half hours after I landed. We went home where we talked and I had a coffee (I was really hanging out for a coffee by then) and Nigel a tea. I had a shower and we went out to lunch, which was really nice in every sense. Ordinary life, in other words, returning at last.

And that's it so far—except that I washed some underwear to tide me over until my suitcases come home. I'll say more about my trip and observations of the US in a later post, and my podcast returns next week. In the meantime, I'll just say that there really is no place like home.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Heading home today

Today I begin the long journey home (and I do mean long) to New Zealand. All things considered, it's been a good trip to my native land (Illinois, USA), and I'll have more to say about that when I get home and recover. But I'm anxious to get home now (and especially back to Nigel), so long trip or not, I'm primed and ready.

I obviously didn't post the audio I was going to, and I'll do that, too, when I get home, probably as part of my next regular podcast next week.

In the meantime, that's it for this trip. Next post will be from Auckland.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Frozen Greetings from Chicago

I've been in Chicago just a week now, and I can confirm that I was right all along: I hate Chicago winters. It was bloody cold the night I arrived, and the second day it snowed—the first time I'd seen snow fall in thirteen years. I wouldn't have been disappointed if it turned out to be the last.

However, since then it's snowed more and now much of the US is in the grip of "unseasonable" cold, sometimes called "dangerously freezing weather" by the TV news people. As I write, the temperature is around MINUS 12 degrees (10 degrees in American temperature), and the windchill (which means how cold the wind makes the air temp feel on exposed skin, like hands or cheeks) is around minus 18 (minus 1 in American temperature). The expected high for today is minus 4 (around 24 American degrees).

Needless to say, perhaps, I'm not used to such cold. While I bought myself a knit hat and gloves (US$2.99 each at Target—such a deal!) on my first day here, I decided it's best if I just wait until things warm up a little before I venture outside. So, with little else to to but watch TV, I thought maybe a blog update would help pass the time.

The trip to the US was delayed by three hours as they replaced a de-icing unit on the Air New Zealand plane, something, I dunno, I thought was kind of a good idea. But that meant I'd miss my connecting flight in Los Angeles. The Air NZ staff re-booked me, but I still had to check-in for the new United Airlines flight in Los Angeles.

I've said this before, but probably not here: LAX is the worst airport I've ever been to anywhere in the world. The main reason is the total lack of any directional signs to tell you where to go or how to get there. Not only do they not tell you where the terminals are, once you get to it there are no signs telling you where to go inside it. Inexcusable treatment of passengers, especially tired ones just off a trans-Pacific flight.

Once I found the check-in at the United terminal, I was relieved to see a relatively short line, maybe a quarter the size of the line I had in Auckland, which took me about 20 minutes to get through. I should have known better: It took nearly an hour to get through the line, mostly because the agents spent around 20-25 minutes with each passenger (I timed them). I was beginning to think the agents were writing everything out longhand and sending the information by carrier pigeon, but the real culprit was that there weren't anywhere near enough agents. Staff cutbacks, I was told.

No food is served on United flights anymore, even a long one like from Los Angeles to Chicago. Instead, you can buy a US$5 box of junk food. I was warned about that, though, and bought my own junk food at LAX.

The flight was very basic, but basically okay, too, apart from the sound system not working on the two movies they tried to show. Once in Chicago, the plane was taken to the wrong gate and we had to wait several minutes trapped inside the plane while they sent for an agent to baby sit the gate door as we left the plane (the clerk didn't seem to be actually doing anything). Part of that time was spent in total darkness, since the plane had no power until they restarted the engines to provide lights.

Being at the wrong gate meant a long walk to baggage claim, and there I saw my one complaint about O'Hare: They ought to tell you on a the arrivals monitor where the bags were being deposited (the flight crew didn't tell us on arival; probably they didn't know). Mind you, LAX doesn't tell you which carrosel to go to, either.

I'm told that by current American standards, I had an excellent "flying experience". I'm told that due to continuing staff cutbacks, customer service is now a quaint nostalgic concept and long delays and cancelled fligfts are common. I don't know about all that, but the staff I encountered in the US were (mostly) friendly and helpful, thought clearly overworked. Air New Zealand was more than excellent and that flight, despite the delay, was great. I highly recommend them; United, not so much.

One pleasant surprise was with the passport control people at LAX: They were friendly and efficient in dramatic contrast to what I experienced in my previous arrivals. They still don't tell citizens "welcome home", as I think they should, but I'm not complaining. On a related note, the TSA agents at LAX were fine—bored, uninterested and definitely not friendly, but not the arbitrary authoritarian bullies they're often portrayed as.

Here are a few things I've noticed about my homeland in the week I've been here:
  • TV ads seem to be mostly for prescription drugs, an alarming number of which appear to have "potentially fatal" side effects. Some of the ads for non-prescription remedies would never be allowed on NZ television.
  • When Americans say "extra large" for food or clothes, they mean it. Probably the first leads to the second, but that's another subject.
  • The local grocery store has far more aisle space devoted to ice cream and frozen desserts than it gives to tinned fruits and vegetables or other more or less "healthy" foods. Actually, the frozen desserts aisle is three times larger than the pet food aisle.
  • Prices overall—for food, clothes, technology—are roughly comparable to what we pay in New Zealand, mostly thanks to the strong NZ dollar. If the exchange rate was worse, American products would be much more expensive than the same or similar items would be in New Zealand. As it is, I've found some things to be surprisingly expensive, but the vast number of choices in every category means it's still possible for a New Zealander to get good value for money; not great value, maybe, but good value.
  • My fellow Americans are still friendly, especially if I'm friendly to them first. Americans are often portrayed overseas as excessively paranoid, suspicious and prejudiced, but I haven't yet found that in anyone I've met. However, most times when it's come up, people have no idea where New Zealand is (no surprise).
It's been an intersting trip, and productive. I've done what I needed to do, so I'm really just marking time until I go home, which I'm really anxious to do. On the other hand, I'm spending the coming weekend with my family, and that'll be nice.

In many ways, it doesn't seem like it's been eight years since I was last here, but there are plenty of things that seem foreign to me, in every sense of the word. Maybe that's just the passage of time.

I'll have more observations later, and also an update about the trip home, and a comprehensive podcast after that. But this weekend I'm going to post a little audio from this trip, and maybe a photo or two.

For now, I'll just concentrate on staying warm.