Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tears of a clown

Parents worry about their kids. A lot. It’s in the job description, right up near the top. With all that worrying going on, some is bound to be unfounded, but I’m not sure how many other kids caused their parents to worry because of a clown.

My mother had a flair for the dramatic. Before she and my father were married, she acted in plays; somewhere I think I may have a copy of a favourable review of her in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan. Her acting career ended, as most women’s careers were meant to in those days, when she married.

Eventually my mother directed plays at the church. In addition to them, she wrote poetry, two unpublished children’s books and some published book reviews, she painted and sketched and she gave talks at her various women’s groups. I grew up assuming that every family had creative endeavours.

But there was one thing that—to me as a little kid—she seemed to excel at: Children’s birthday parties. It was one of these—for my fifth birthday—that caused my mother to worry about me intensely.

The theme of the party was the circus. In the living room, she set up a “centre ring” with benches for me and my guests to sit on as she performed with her marionettes (which, by the way, she made). The “side show” contained a “fat lady” (this was, of course, a long time ago, when such things were still socially acceptable): She stuffed one of her maternity dresses with pillows and made the face out of a Halloween mask of Wendy (the friend of “Caspar the Friendly Ghost”).

One of her planned highlights for the “games arcade” was a beanbag tossing game: We had a board with a clown painted on it with various holes to toss the beanbags through. Her idea was to make beanbag clowns for the kids, one each that they could take home with them.

As the birthday boy, I got to choose the fabric for my beanbag clown. But when my mother was ready to draw the face on my clown beanbag, I insisted the clown should be crying. Crying! My mother was almost instantly in a fit of worry, though she did as I asked. She wondered what could be wrong, what sort of message I was giving her or if I was secretly troubled by something. She said nothing.

More than a decade later, she finally asked me why I wanted my clown beanbag crying. “So it would different from all the other kids’ beanbags,” I told her. “That way I could be sure I had mine”. It was just a kid’s simple, territorial possessiveness at work and nothing more. Had she asked at the time, I would’ve told her, but instead she worried needlessly—for many years, apparently.

Parents worry about their children, regardless of whether the worrying is justified. I’m sure over the years I gave my parents a legitimate reason or two for their worrying, but the crying clown wasn’t one of them. Sometimes, even the tears of a clown mean nothing.

The photo at the top of this post shows the party when the cake was brought out. I’m the boy at the far end, in the red and black shirt—I guess that's kind of obvious, with the cake in front of me and all. Not surprisingly, I can’t remember the names of the other kids. Below is the table before the party, with the “fat lady” in the background. The basket in the middle of the table held our party favours—I think it was those beanbags. I scanned these photos from 35mm slides using a bad scanner, btw.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Words and impressions

A recent AFP story began with this lead:

Hardline Saudi clerics have called on the government to ban women from appearing on television and to prohibit their images in print media, which they called a sign of growing "deviant thought."

Fundamentalist christianists in the US have said similar things about gay people. So, I wonder: How come the Saudi clerics are “hardline”, but similar christianist ones in the US are simply ”conservative”? Can the mainstream media really not see how similar the two are?

Amen, brother Part II

“I would like to remind those legislators who took their oath of office with their hand on the Bible, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution; you did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

The above quote was from Brad Peacock (pictured), speaking in favour of a proposed marriage equality law before a Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee hearing recently. He clearly states a simple fact that all American elected officials ought to always have in mind as they do the people’s business. Religion ought not to have anything to do with this issue.

Not surprisingly, the Republican Governor of Vermont today pledged to veto the marriage equality law when it reaches his desk, though he expects the state legislature to override his veto.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Amen, brother

At 17, James Neiley showed the way to present the argument for marriage equality: Real world, real life experience. In his testimony, he presented the implications of inequality that most older people would probably never even think of. If you listen closely to the questioner toward the end, you’ll hear him say that thanks to James’ testimony he could see his own kids. Moving the debate onto a discussion of what marriage equality means for real people, and not some intellectual abstraction, is the best way to move forward. While the far right talks emotive nonsense based on stereotypes or outright lies, we can counter with the real world. Understanding is the first step, and James presented an example of how to do that. Well done!

You can find the original video here.

Found at Joe.My.God

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


They say that humour is just another way of expressing truth, and we laugh because we’re surprised by revelation of truth. Whatever, this video is funny precisely because of its truth. Actually, this almost could be an animated documentary—okay, almost. I guess the old saying is true: It’s funny because it’s true…

Monday, March 23, 2009

People power

Prime Minister John Key confirmed today that the government was killing the infamous Section 92A of the Copyright Amendment Act after Internet Service Providers failed to come up with a voluntary code of practice to enforce it.

The grassroots "Blackout" campaign opposing the law has been called the first mass protest campaign conducted on Twitter, though Facebook and dozens of high-traffic websites around New Zealand also played a part.

About ten days ago, the leader of the neo-conservative ACT Party announced he would work to repeal Section 92A. After that, the leader of one-man party United Future, like ACT a coalition partner with National, announced that he also wanted 92A repealed. So did Internet giant Google. The telecommunications company TelstraClear pulled out of the negotiations on the code of practice. Add it all up, and it was pretty well doomed.

The report on TVNZ’s One News this evening sounded almost frightened that not having the flawed law in place will make it harder to get a “free trade” agreement with the United States. An FTA with the US won’t happen any time soon, possibly not for many years, so there’s plenty of time to get it right. But a larger question is, why should the US be allowed to dictate our laws, anyway?

The architect of the law, former Labour MP Judith Tizzard, said the National-led Government “fluffed” the opportunity to craft a Kiwi solution. Nonsense: They responded to the demands of ordinary New Zealanders for a fair copyright law that respects fundamental concepts like natural justice. Tizzard seems not to understand such things, nor the right of people to oppose bad law.

Tizzard called the “Blackout” protest campaign “childish”, adding pompously: "It is not going to get us any further forward. While I understand the concern of internet users who think that their rights to free music and free films are threatened, the right is not to steal New Zealand music and film makers' work. The right to use the internet is a vital one, but libraries can provide it."

What planet is that woman on? The battle was never about illegal downloads—it was about the seeming presumption of guilt, a legal response out of proportion to the alleged offence and vague wording totally open to all sorts of draconian interpretations. She also seems unaware that her law could’ve cut off Internet access in libraries, too, if patrons used it there in a manner inconsistent with her law.

Tizzard lost her seat in Parliament in the last election, but she could be back if both Dr. Michael Cullen and Helen Clark leave Parliament before this term ends (this assumes that, as expected, a current Labour List MP runs in and wins the by-election for Helen Clark’s seat). At least as an Opposition backbencher she couldn’t do any more harm, unlike her now-rejected law, which would have.

Kudos to John Key for dumping this bad law, and shame on Judith Tizzard for continuing to defend it.

Worker pressure

The National-led government has announced plans to allow workers to ask to be paid for their fourth week of annual leave instead of taking the leave. When the previous Labour-led Government added a fourth week of annual leave for all full-time employees, they also made it illegal to accept payment in lieu of leave.

National promised that they would change to the law to allow workers to “sell” leave. Prime Minister John Key denied that any employers would pressure workers to “sell” a week of leave, pointing out that businesses would still need to pay for the week of leave and the week worked. However, the head of business lobbying organisation Business New Zealand told the media that paying for that week would amount to a 2% pay rise for workers and businesses could afford to pay for it due to the productivity gains they think they’ll get.

The news angle changed this afternoon, however. The media started reporting that Key said that "only an employee can ask to cash up the fourth week and the employer can't ask for that." Talking about who can and can’t “ask” for this is beside the point: We all know that there will be employers who will pressure employees to do it, or take advantage of workers who need cash. I’d have a lot more faith in what John Key says if the law also makes it specifically illegal for employers to ask to buy a week’s leave and, more importantly, illegal to pressure workers.

It’s also probable that businesses that think they’ll come out ahead will be surprised. Some workers will sell that time, then take sick leave, unpaid even. So, companies won’t necessarily end up with workers working more hours. The law must also allow companies to deny the request to sell leave, and smart companies would refuse as a matter of policy.

I wonder, though, if this isn’t a backdoor way of removing that fourth week of annual leave altogether. Perhaps they hope the cash incentive will encourage works away from taking the fourth week giving National justification for removing the obligation. Maybe not. But given some of the government’s recent actions, I’m getting pretty suspicious of their motives.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday quiet

When I was a kid, Sunday afternoons were always quiet, relaxed times. After Sunday School and church services (as a preacher’s kid, I had to go to both), we’d come home to “Sunday Dinner”, usually something roasted—beef, chicken, pork, ham or even lamb (having lamb made us unusual among people we knew).

My mother got everything ready and put it in the oven before leaving for church, a process that was easier when we lived right next door; when we moved to another town, and lived on the other side of town from the church, the dinners became less varied because she couldn’t leave it to the last minute before putting it in the oven. The main reason for this is that my mother never learned to drive and always had to rely on others for a ride to church.

After Sunday dinner, the afternoons were quiet—my dad had worked in the morning, after all (though a lot of people seem to forget that it was work). In the summer, he’d watch the Cubs on TV, probably falling asleep before it was over. I’d read the comics from the Sunday paper (something my dad wasn’t allowed to do when he was a kid, a story in itself). My mother read and napped.

Obviously this eventually ended. I grew up, my dad retired from the church, and a few years later, both my parents were gone. Sundays on my own continued to be quiet, though quiet all day because I stopped having anything to do with churches. This is when I started going out for lunch on a Sunday.

Now, half a world—and half a century—away from where my Sundays began, the days are still quiet. Today, for example, Nigel and I had lunch at an Asian foodcourt in Northcote (at a shopping area I’ve mentioned before). Sometimes we do a little shopping. But whatever we do, the day is still as quiet as it ever was.

All of which is why I try to write quieter posts on Sundays, though sometimes circumstances have interfered with that good intention. Actually, sometimes other days’ posts are quiet, too. In any case, Sunday’s are quiet for me, so it makes sense this blog should be, too.

The surprising thing, though, is that whatever fond memories I have of earlier Sundays, and even through they’re still relaxing, all things considered, I love Saturday more. But that’s a topic for another quiet Sunday post.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

First day of Autumn

Today was officially the first day of Autumn: The March equinox was at 12:44am last night in New Zealand, so nearly the entire day has been in the new season.

As it happens, and coincidentally, most of today was a bit cooler and a good chunk of it was also cloudy. The warm weather isn’t quite done yet, fortunately, and it’s another two weeks before we turn our clocks back. So, today was just a sort of dress rehearsal for what is to come.

New seasons always strike me as a nice time to make changes, and I’m doing that. Some I’ll mention here, others I won’t. Mostly, I’ll get a few topics to write about.

And now, I must get back to one of those projects. Happy Autumn!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Likin’ the Obama

Get the Republicans and assorted fellow travellers on the irrelevant right whining and moaning, and you’ll probably find me very happy. After all, I find it very hard to take Republicans seriously about anything these days—that’s how stupid they’ve become.

But when they start attacking President Obama because he made picks on America’s NCAA university basketball finals, or because he appeared on Jay Leno’s show or—gods forbid!—he allowed the White House fountain to be dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day, well that only makes me like the president all the more.

Reality check: Most adults can, to at least some degree, multi-task. Maybe the Republicans don’t understand what that means, or how to do it, but it means dealing all at once with all the problems and failures Bush-Cheney and the Republicans stuck us with. Maybe Republicans just need to leave things to the grown-ups.

All kidding aside, I definitely do support the Obama Administration. Considering how intellectually and morally bankrupt Republicans are, that’s easy, of course. Will I support everything that Obama or the Democratic-led Congress do? Of course not. But as I’ve said before, their worst day will be better than the best day under the rule of the defeated crowd. And I hope to see more of that in pop culture.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Celebrity focus

This afternoon, I got an email update from the Chicago Tribune saying that Natasha Richardson had died. I thought it was sad, especially for her family but, to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan so it didn’t affect me personally. Online, I saw a comment from someone declaring an inability to feel sad, then asking why we should care more about a celebrity dying than an ordinary person.

At the time, it struck me as a bit grumpy, even mean-spirited—although I realised it was unlikely any of the grieving relatives would see the message. Still, the question is understandable in one way: Celebrities are people we don’t personally know, probably never will meet, and yet many of us seemingly care more about what happens to them than the people next door—perhaps more even than we care about some relatives. Why?

I think part of the reason for that is the constant media exposure. We see these famous people over and over and through that we tend to think that we sort of know them. This is especially true of actors and performers, it seems.

I think there’s something else, too: Our humanity. In a case like this, we see a vibrant woman, seemingly happy, with children who still need her, cut down in what seems such a freakish and arbitrary way. We can feel for her family, we can imagine how we’d feel in a situation like this. All of which is understandable and a good thing.

It seems to me that maybe there’s one aspect further: Our modern society is disconnected and detached, and we often have little or no connection to the people who live geographically closest to us. The “village” is long gone. This isn’t news, of course, but maybe the focus on the passing of a well-known person, especially in tragic circumstances, is a way for us to reinforce our shared humanity through sharing the experience.

There are a lot of theories why us ordinary people are so fascinated by celebrities. I’m sure some academic somewhere has a far better explanation for this than I have, but this is what occurred to me after I read the comments of one Internet user. I don’t care, I still think the whole thing is sad.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I got nothing

While I have plenty to say about current political shenanigans, both here and in the US, I just can’t be bothered right now. So instead, here’s another photo of our boy Jake, taken Sunday. He’s more interesting than politicians, anyway. Actually, his yawn is kinda what I think about it all.

Further signs

A few months ago, I started receiving spam emails promising to help me avoid foreclosure. Today I received the first spam email offering to help me buy foreclosed homes. If spam emails have changed direction, could it be that the economy is next?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Signs of the times

Yesterday, we went to the mall closest to our house. We don’t go there very often anymore, usually, like this time, just for a haircut (not me this time). On that level of the mall, a major storefront was vacant where a store had closed a couple months ago.

The real changes were on the main level. One prime corner location was closed so a neighbouring store could expand (so the sign said, as it has for several weeks). A short walk away, a jewellery store was closed, still with signs promoting a “demolition sale”, but not when or if it was reopening. Inside we could see staff packing up the contents of various cases.

At one of the busiest ends of the mall, a pet store was in its final day. The store has been there at least since the mall was refurbished many years ago. The store was virtually empty and the five teenage girls working there were all gathered at the counter talking, having nothing else to do.

The store next door was newly empty. A bigger store next door to that was also newly empty. Both stores were closed too recently for them to be boarded over as malls usually do to make it look like the store is being made ready for a new shop. Across from those stores, another big shop was empty. It, too, wasn’t boarded up yet.

A long-time shop employee (who we’ve seen there for a long time) said everyone’s hurting, and it looked like it. The remaining shops all had signs in their windows and more inside promoting sales. 30% off seemed to be at the low end of discounts.

Few people seemed to be buying anything and the mall was about as empty as I’ve seen it on a Sunday. Which is part of the reason so many shops were newly closed and the remaining ones all had sale signs.

And things are still predicted to get worse before they get better.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Smart puppy

Jake is one smart boy. I suppose I would say that, but it’s true all the same.

Jake has a special rubber toy that we fill with dog treats when we leave the house. It’s designed to keep dogs occupied for awhile as they work to get the treats out, thereby not noticing that their humans aren’t there.

Jake worked out that if he takes his toy into the bedroom, then jumps on the bed and drops the toy on the floor, the treats eventually come out and then he eats them. We come home to find the abandoned toy lying on the floor next to the bed.

He must have discovered that trick by accident (well, I assume that’s how it happened…), but he was clever enough to keep doing it.

Whatever. Accompanying is the gratuitous Jake photo for today: He's sunning himself out in his courtyard this afternoon. Maybe he just wanted to call my attention to the weeds I need to pull.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Credit where due

I may not have had much reason lately to praise the National-led government or the National Party specifically. Today I have praise of the ACT Party (I know, I didn’t see that one coming, either).

At the party’s annual conference, party leader Rodney Hide said he would work to repeal Section 92A of the Copyright Act, which is currently suspended until/unless a Code of practice can be agreed to by Internet Service Providers, the music industry, and other related parties. The suspension was done after a widespread Internet-based protest, including what is believed to be the first grassroots campaign conducted on Twitter.

Hide said of Section 92A, “It should be repealed . . . it is fundamentally flawed because it breaches the principles of natural justice. It makes people guilty without trial and that is wrong." The phrase “natural justice” ordinarily refers to fundamental, essential fairness that citizens have a right to expect from government.

I don’t have anything against Hide personally, but he does often really annoy me (for example, his pledge on 92A came with a strongly partisan attack, which is typical for him). I have stronger feelings about the ACT Party: I simply cannot stand it or its neoconservative agenda. But if they and Hide can help get Section 92A repealed, I’ll certainly give them credit for that, even if I criticise them normally. Right now, it’s obviously just words, however good they may be. We’ll see if I’ll have reason to praise Hide and ACT again, but I’d like to be able to praise other parties on this, too; all they have to do is repeal Section 92A.

McCain we can believe in

I was among the harsh critics of John McCain, for many reasons. But there’s someone who’s voicing the only future the Republican Party has. That person is a McCain—Meghan McCain.

Meghan burst onto the scene with a bold column on The Daily Beast called “My Beef with Ann Coulter”, in which she said, “Coulter could be the poster woman for the most extreme side of the Republican Party. And in some ways I could be the poster woman for the opposite.” That much has been picked up by a lot of the mainstream media. But what caught my eye was a little further along when she said:

“…here is what I don’t get about Coulter: Is she for real or not? Are some of her statements just gimmicks to gain publicity for her books or does she actually believe the things she says? Does she really believe all Jewish people should be “perfected” and become Christians? And what was she thinking when she said Hillary Clinton was more conservative than my father during the last election? If you truly have the GOP’s best interests at heart, how can you possibly justify telling an audience of millions that a Democrat would be a better leader than the Republican presidential candidate?”

“Is she for real or not?” How many people have asked the same question? “Are some of her statements just gimmicks to gain publicity for her books or does she actually believe the things she says?” Don’t we all say that, apart from her True Believers (note capital letters)?

The far right dismisses Meghan as a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) because, as she says, “I am not ‘conservative enough,’ which is something that I am proud of. It is no secret that I disagree with many of the old-school Republican ways of thinking. One of the biggest issues from which I seem to drift from the party base is in my support of gay marriage.” You go, girl!

If the Republican Party has a future, then Meghan is pointing the way. No party can survive on the extremes, no matter what blowhard media entertainers say. The alternative is not merely a Republican Party “about as edgy as Donny Osmond”, as Meghan put it, but a party that may not even exist. Now is the time for real Republicans to take their party back from the nutjobs and the wingnuts who’ve been running it. It’s either that or remain a permanent minority party or even fade into oblivion. I can live with any of those options.

Friday, March 13, 2009

National’s mistakes

I’m not a National Party supporter, so it’s no surprise that I disagree with things they’re doing in government. In fact, it’d be surprising only if I didn’t disagree with them.

Still, I was prepared to give them a chance when they came to power; John Key, who’s clearly a moderate, pledged to be Prime Minister for all New Zealanders, and that would mean me, too. So when they’ve done something right, I’ve said so. Lately, though, it seems I’ve had fewer reasons to talk positively about them.

This week I’ve criticised National 2½ times (the half a time was the post on restoring knighthoods, something I’m pretty indifferent about). The two areas I criticised at length were national’s plans on ACC privatisation and changes to the Resource Management Act.

Today, I’m adding to the list with a few short-takes:

Nine day joke
One of two big things to come out of the Prime Minister’s jobs summit (which I wrote about here), was a “nine day fortnight”, in which workers will work nine days out of every two weeks, taking the tenth day off without pay. This was supposedly a way to stem job losses, the idea being that it might give companies just enough time to get through a rough patch.

But the plan is open only to the biggest companies, which employ a small minority of New Zealanders, and can be used for a maximum of six months. It’s not a good deal for workers, either: The government will pay employers a subsidy of five hours at minimum wage (which they can top-up or not, as they wish) per worker who’s been employed by the company for at least two months. For these kinds of workers, it’ll likely mean a huge pay cut.

How will Key police this to make sure companies don’t claim the benefit, but have the workers work ten days, anyway? No answer, apart from a promise to “come down like a tonne of bricks” on any company that does that.

All in all, this sounds to me like a rushed, poorly thought-out programme. The other big idea that came out of the summit, building a cycleway from one end of the country to the other, is suddenly sounding like the best idea.

Crime for profit
National plans to allow private companies to run and, eventually, own prisons. They’ve already started meeting with companies even before the law is changed. Let me reveal my bias: I’m philosophically opposed to private companies running prisons; only the state has the power to deprive citizens of liberty, so, in my opinion, no company should ever be able to make money by depriving liberty to citizens.

My real problem with this idea is that it’s just plain stupid. National says it’ll save money. And how do you think private companies do that? Personnel cuts: They cut staff and staff pay, endangering both staff and prisoners. They also cut programmes designed to rehabilitate prisoners, helping to ensure that they’ll remain criminals.

The bottom line
The common thing in my criticism of National this week is this: They’re putting ideology ahead of common sense. ACC ought to focus on getting people back to work, which represents a cost savings and so much more. Changes to the RMA ought to focus on streamlining it—for real—and not just on making things easier for developers and big business. Programmes to keep people in work ought to keep “people” in the plan. Prisons ought to be about rehabilitation as much as punishment. In all these things, cost-saving is not the highest priority.

I haven’t given up on National yet. But more and more I expect less and less.

As I said at the start, I’m not a National Party supporter. They have a long way to go to win me over. This week shows why.

Republican fiddle players—again

Last month, I wrote about Congressional Republicans putting partisan interests and game playing ahead of the needs of the country. Now it’s the turn of Republican governors.

Some Republican governors have been declaring solemnly how they’re looking after the interests of their states and will reject stimulus money. Most commonly, they’re rejecting money to help the unemployed (even though state legislators may overrule the governors, or that they’re only rejecting a fraction of the stimulus money).

With the nation—the world—in the worst economic situation in decades, the response of Republicans from Congress to statehouses has been to do nothing, just like Herbert Hoover did. Not content with continuing to advocate the failed policies of Bush/Cheney, they’re now reaching back eight decades for another Republican failure. It seems that they don’t care how bad things could get, how much suffering the American people have to endure because failed principles matter most.

But what “principles” are those, exactly? Republicans have a well-earned reputation for promoting the interests of big business to the detriment of workers, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Instead, it’s just politics.

2012 is a presidential election year with no credible Republican in the lead for the party’s nomination to challenge President Obama. These governors are pandering to the right wing of their party in the hope they may advance their careers in some way. Others just want to keep things bad to help Republican candidates in the 2010 elections. So, it’s not about “principle” unless the principle is pure, bald, partisan politics and self-interest. No wonder so many people think the Republican Party is a joke.

But the current situation is no joke. It’s time the Republicans put the people’s needs first and stopped trying to fool us.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cutting down the trees

The National-led Government is moving to change the Resource Management Act in ways that may prove to be pretty dramatic. The move comes after a few high-profile cases in which the Act has been used to slow development projects. The Government’s goal is to reduce costs and delays for developers while, they say, still protecting the environment.

Among the more than 100 changes in the "Resource Management (Simplification and Streamlining) Amendment Bill" is one that especially caught my eye: The government proposes that local councils be stripped of the power to protect trees over a certain size (as many do), meaning that those councils would be powerless to prevent the clear-cutting of bush on private land, no matter how big the trees, nor to prevent removal of coastal pohutukawa trees, now that they’re no longer considered endangered.

Instead, National proposes to allow local councils to protect only those trees that are specifically mentioned in the councils’ District Plans. Some of those will be individual trees of historic or other importance, but councils will also be allowed to include “groups” of trees, but they fail to say how large a group can be.

This is a really bad idea. All the councils that make up Auckland have tree protection bylaws that are now at risk. The area where we live has a lot of large, old trees on private land that might be cleared to make way for development if this law change goes through.

The government is doing this at the insistence of the right wing elements of the National Party as well as their coalition partner, the ACT Party. Both of them want basically unfettered development, though ACT also denies climate change exists, so they’d see no problem in clear cutting trees.

Despite this particularly stupid proposal, not all proposed changes are bad: The Government plans to outlaw “vexatious” or anti-competitive uses of the Act. If enacted, this would prevent the supermarket debacle I wrote about recently. The centre left agrees there are things that need to be changed in the Act (though I doubt the left does). Our disagreement is with the government is over what and how.

This time, however, I’m not going to just complain about the actions of the National-led Government: Submissions on the proposed changes close on April 5, and I fully intend to make my first-ever submission to Parliament. But I’m also going to look at all the changes to the Act to make sure there aren’t other bad ideas contained within it. Expect to hear more about this in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

These changes not an accident

The National-led government is moving with all deliberate speed to privatise ACC—the Accident Compensation Corporation, New Zealand’s accident insurance and rehabilitation organisation. They’re just not being honest about it.

National is claiming that the liability to asset ratio soared, implying it’s on the verge of collapse. They don’t want people to realise that it was even worse when National was last in power: The proportion of liabilities that were unfunded was 64 per cent in 1999, when National was last in government, but was only 45 per cent in December 2008 when Labour left office. In other words, the situation isn’t the way National wants us to believe it is.

National’s propaganda said that the situation is so “dire” that auto registration fees might soar by over $200 a year, rehabilitation services will have to be slashed and patients will be charged. But then National announced that they’re increasing auto registration fees by $32 year—roughly 24 percent. They’re also increasing the ACC levy on a litre of petrol by 6 percent.

Now, fellow sceptic, how could it be that a situation is so dire that a fee increase of more than $200 was needed, yet it would be satisfied by a $32 increase? It’s called political manoeuvring. They want hard-pressed Kiwi consumers to think, “Whew! National kept the increase down!” They certainly don’t want them asking, “hang on a minute, why are they raising it at all when things are better now than when National was last in government?”

The cuts to services and increasing costs to patients will force Kiwis who can afford it to take out private accident insurance—on top of ACC levies—in order to be sure of getting rehabilitation treatment, getting it in a timely manner and being able to afford it. That’s National’s goal, even if it means many poorer Kiwis will find accident insurance gone or rehabilitation services prohibitively expensive.

The reason they’re raising the fees, planning service cuts and massive increases to patient fees is simple: They getting it ready to privatise. While they’ve promised not to sell assets in a first term, they also said they planned to “open up” ACC to “competition”. That’s normally called “privatisation”, but National doesn’t want us to focus on their real agenda.

We knew this was coming—they told as much in the campaign. But that doesn’t make it right. This will become among the first things that Labour will have to fix—again—the next time they’re in government.

Online killed the newspaper stars

According to some, bloggers are almost solely responsible for the dire straits many newspapers find themselves in these days. If it wasn’t for bloggers “stealing” content, they argue, everything would be fine.

Their argument basically goes like this: Newspapers publish their stories online, and also through sites like Yahoo! News or Google News. Bloggers see the stories and react to them (or restate it in a newsy sort of way) with or without links or even citation. This erodes the value of the news stories printed in the papers, fewer people buy them, advertisers bail, revenues fall, journalists are laid off, the newspaper dies. Therefore, bloggers—and the online world generally—are responsible for the death of newspapers.

Like all myths, there’s an element of truth: The availability of news online does make people less inclined to buy a paper and declining circulation leads to declining ad revenues. But that lets the publishing companies off the hook too easily.

Big media conglomerates, like all corporations, are focused primarily on return to shareholders. Profitability at a paper must be high enough to produce ever-increasing returns or the investors want out by selling the paper or closing it down. The media companies, meanwhile, have plenty of other revenue streams to produce the returns investors demand. Companies without those profit pressures—smaller companies or not-for-profits—are better positioned to deal with declining revenues and many small, independent papers are still thriving.

However, increasingly people expect to get their news online and for free, and that is a threat to ink-on-paper news reporting. Some newspapers tried to charge readers for access to online content, but it was pretty much a dismal failure. Why would people pay to read about a topic when they could find free stories about on other mainstream news sites? That’s still true.

To attract more online readers, newspaper companies have adopted the tools of the new media—blogs, podcasts and video news reports. And yet their revenues continue to decline. Even free papers have faced this problem, despite their printed content being free to readers.

The problem is not that bloggers or anyone else uses newspapers’ content, it’s that the old way of doing business just doesn’t work anymore. Classified advertising—once newspapers’ most profitable type of advertising—has migrated to online sites. Retailers and service companies try and market directly to potential customers, rather than use the “shotgun approach” of newspaper or free-to-air TV advertising. If every blogger stopped right now, none of that would change.

Ultimately, media companies will have to adapt and evolve, using the tools of the new media where appropriate. They also need to get innovative.

What doesn’t work is complaining about the way things are, or blaming others for the current situation. Action and experimentation are required, and if newspapers can’t manage that, they will die. The news, however, will not, but what emerges could be very different.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Knights these days

The National-led Government has announced it’s bringing back knighthoods for New Zealand’s top honours. These were abolished by the former Labour-led Government in 2000, revising the honour system introduced by their predecessors in the National-led Government that was defeated in the 1999 elections. 85 people honoured under the old system who would now be given a title will be able to choose if they want one or not.

“It is my pleasure to be able to reinstate these titles that will recognise the service of outstanding New Zealanders," Prime Minister John Key said in a press release. "This is about celebrating success."

Is it? The system Key’s changing was obviously about “celebrating success,” but some felt that without titles, the honours were at best, bland. The Government says that knighthoods “…more visibly recognise the contribution of the most outstanding New Zealanders”.

The knight-less honours system was an entirely New Zealand system, while knighthoods link us back to the motherland again because the Queen must approve the granting of knighthoods. "The Queen has given approval for the reinstatement of titles,” Key said. He apparently asked her about it when he visited her during a trip to Britain after his government’s election.

Key accepts, as many New Zealanders do, that New Zealand will be a republic one day, which makes the move to re-link the NZ honours system to the reigning monarch a bit odd. But the National Party has long been associated with the establishment and social status quo, and that includes titles; never mind that some of the people chosen over the years have been fairly questionable—National especially preferring National Party politicians and leaders of big business, for example.

Personally, I don’t think that anyone needs a title to be a hero, and granting titles doesn’t make heroes out of people who aren’t. To me, knighthoods seem quaint and old-fashioned, like the little old ladies who keep crocheted antimacassars on their chairs. Neither is particularly offensive, but they’re not necessary, either.

No one could argue with the whole system being old-fashioned. A man gets the title “Sir” and a woman “Dame”. The wife of a male knight has the honorary title of “Lady”, providing she uses his last name, as in Mary, Lady Smith. She’d never be called “Lady Mary Smith” because that would make her sound like a peer. If her husband dies or they’re divorced, she can continue to use the honorary title unless she changes her last name (if the male knight is married many times, it’s possible for there to be several women called “Lady” running around). The husband of a female night has no honorary title because no one has been able to come up with one. Apparently, that means that if a gay or lesbian person is knighted, their partner would have no title; the partner of a lesbian made a dame would probably not have an honorary title (since a male partner wouldn’t either—though “Lady” could be kind of fun), but the partner of a gay man made a sir would also not have a title because there is none (though some might also have fun with “Lady”).

Does any of this matter? Nope. But to me, neither do knighthoods.

Update March 11: I don’t often say this, but I agree with a New Zealand Herald writer. Brian Rudman wrote about the return of knighthoods and “what a joke it all is”. The Herald also carried some more light-hearted reactions to the move.

The first knights and dames to be appointed under the new Royal Warrant will be announced in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List on Monday, June 1, 2009.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Testing day

Today I took my car in for its Warrant of Fitness (WoF). It’s not the sort of thing I’d have chosen to do on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, but the WoF expired today, so this was necessary. If I’d waited until tomorrow to go and had an accident on the way, insurance probably wouldn’t cover it.

A Warrant of Fitness is a mandatory safety inspection to make sure vehicles are roadworthy. Cars less than five years old are inspected once a year, while cars older than five years are inspected every six months. My inspection cost $47 (today, about US$23.60). Oddly, there’s no emissions testing, though that has been suggested from time to time.

The exam takes 20-25 minutes and they check things like seatbelts and airbags, brakes, lights, glass (cracks and chips aren’t permitted), windscreen wipers and washer, doors (they must close and latch), speedometer, steering, suspension, exhaust (looking for breaks), fuel system, car body (rusted areas are not permitted), the underbody and general structural condition (chiefly looking for corrosion) and tyre condition and tread depth. As the photo above shows (and no, my car's not visible), there’s usually a queue, so the total time spent is often over an hour (in my case, about an hour and a quarter).

I watched the people—an odd assortment. Most memorable, apart from a couple cuties, were a woman in a Dolce and Gabbana top and her silver-haired husband who carried a woven flax big purse; they rode up in their Porsche.

The whole scene made me think how an immigrant wouldn’t have a clue what to do the first time they got a warrant, though the process is pretty simple. You drive up and park behind a car in one of the queues. You go inside, give your registration number (licence plate number), pay the fee, and you’re given the inspection form for your vehicle. You go back outside, place the form inside the car (like on the driver’s seat), leave the key in the ignition and go sit down to wait. Once the inspection is done, the inspector hands you the form back and—if your vehicle passed—you hand the form in and you’re given a little sticker for inside the windscreen. If they’re busy, you put the sticker on, if they’re not too busy, they do it. Once the sticker is on, you’re done.

If your car fails for some reason, you’re given the opportunity to fix it and can come back for a free re-check within 28 days. If you wait longer than 28 days, you have to pay the full fee all over again. A burned out taillight can be replaced right there—they stock replacement bulbs. Very often tyre shops and other repairers are located near to inspection centres, which must mean good business for them.

The whole point is to make sure that the cars on New Zealand roads are safe. As a result, you don’t see rattling, rusting cars that I grew up calling “beaters”, often called “bombs” here. The oldest cars you’re likely to see on the road—apart from classic cars—are about 10 years old. There are some that are older, of course, but they’ve been well-maintained over the years (or else they’d never get a WoF and wouldn’t be legal to drive on the road).

Unfortunately, even a well-maintained car doesn’t protect you from bad drivers. But that’s another story.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Starr’s chamber

Today the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a legal challenge to Proposition 8, the ballot measure voters approved last November to re-ban same sex marriage in that state. Leading the charge in defence of Prop 8 was Ken Starr. (I watched most of his performance live via UStream, where the screen cap comes from), and he seemed affable, measured, he sounded confident and competent—all of which makes him one of the most dangerous people on the far right for precisely the same reasons that Mike Huckabee is: They don’t seem bad, and actually seem quite mild and reasonable, even though they’re anything but reasonable.

If logical gymnastics was an Olympic event, then Starr would have won a gold medal for his performance in trying to argue that invalidating 18,000 same-sex marriages performed in California isn’t really invalidating them—even though they’d be, you know, invalid and all. Starr is probably the slimiest of the far right reptiles because he knows better than most that what he was arguing was utter nonsense, but he sold it convincingly, anyway.

According to California newspapers (neatly summarised over at Joe.My.God, where I watched the UStream player), the court seems poised to uphold Prop 8, though they were clearly having trouble with the idea of voiding—essentially divorcing—18,000 legal same-sex marriages as Starr urged them to do.

One way forward the justices discussed that even Starr didn’t disagree with—today, that is—would be for the California legislature to declare that all married couples in California are henceforth in civil unions, and that civil unions are the only legally recognised partnership in California, thereby getting out of the marriage business altogether (leaving churches to fight over "marriage").

Sound familiar? I wrote about the same idea nearly ten months ago. If a huge state like California abandons “marriage” altogether in favour of civil unions, then other states will be forced to re-consider their approaches if for no other reason than the Full Faith and Credit clause of the US Constitution. This could be the way to make civil unions actually mean something in the US, rather than it being a separate, and usually completely unequal, sop to gay citizens.

Whichever way the court rules, this battle is far from over in California or anywhere else in the US. The radical right created this battle, but there may be a way forward that ends the debate and the power of far right christianists to dictate public policy. The question, though, is if politicians have enough vision—and courage—to embrace it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Fine weather for ducks

Today was a blustery day—very strong winds in the morning, gusty all day long, and rain by afternoon. But before the rain, a group of ducks decided to go for a walk in the park near our house. Actually, they were really looking for handouts since they came waddling over when they heard me moving to take their photo.

The strong winds returned this evening, accompanied by heavy rains. This storm is far worse than one recently that was supposed to be terrible but that was a total dud. It happens.

Anyway, I’ve been extremely busy with work this week, which is where I’ve been. I should have a more normal schedule now.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

New month, new season

Today is the first of March, which means we’re sliding into autumn. March is roughly the equivalent of September in the Northern Hemisphere.

I grew up hearing the classical names “Vernal Equinox” in March and “Autumnal Equinox” in September, but those terms—with their Northern Hemisphere bias—are now being replaced by the more season and hemisphere neutral terms “March Equinox” and “September Equinox”.

In any event, the astronomical equinoxes mark the point when the sun is directly over the equator (from earth’s perspective) and the day and night are equal. “Equinox” comes from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The exact moment varies from year to year, but this year the March Equinox will occur at 11:44 UTC on March 20 (00:44—12:44am—March 21 in New Zealand). From then on, the Northern Hemisphere is officially in Spring and we’re officially in autumn.

There are some who claim that New Zealand—by which they really mean Auckland—doesn’t have seasons, which is nonsense, of course. It’s true that Auckland is pretty mild all year (at least by Chicago standards), but there are seasonal variations and even some changing leaves.

English immigrants planted the deciduous tree species they were used to in their homeland, but without frosts in Auckland, the leaf colours aren’t too exciting and make more of a mess than pretty display. New Zealand doesn’t have many native species with leaves that change colour or drop, so Auckland and other regions are green all year (barring droughts, of course).

Fall, however, doesn’t exist in New Zealand: The word is “autumn”. That took me a while to get used to, especially because the old phrase “Spring ahead, Fall back” was such a useful way to remember which way the clocks go. As it happens, New Zealand’s Daylight Savings has been extended and this year won’t end until April 5, after autumn has already begun.

Many places don’t experience seasonal changes—whatever they are—on the Equinox: Some change earlier, some later. We’ll have some nice weather this month before the cooler temperatures start settling in, but the change doesn’t really happen until around the Equinox or later. In Chicago, the changes always started closer to the first day of the Equinox month.

I’ll try and remember to talk a bit more this year about the seasonal changes, since I really haven’t before. But for right now, it’s still summery outside, which is fine with me.