Friday, February 26, 2010

America is probably mad

There are times that I—a native-born American citizen—look at the US as being a case of the asylum being run by the lunatics: It looks to me as if everyone is quite mad.

If I had to pick one particular incident that made me notice this it would be The Nipple: The momentary exposure of Janet Jackson’s (still covered) nipple. I could not understand—and still cannot—what the big deal was. Did Americans think that most titties are nipple-less? Back then, the first thought in my mind was that my countrymen needed to grow up.

Not much has changed since then. It seems like Americans delight in being outraged over some imaginary moral failing that was none of their business in the first place. When did the country become a bunch of self-righteous tut-tutters?

Tiger Woods: If ever there was a story to tell Americans to mind their own damn business, this was it. He cheated? It’s between his wife and him. In my opinion, the folks who think they have the right to pontificate on the Woods family dynamics are the perverted ones. Brit Hulme of Fox “News” had the unmitigated gall and personal arrogance to tell Tiger that all he needed to redeem himself was convert to Christianity—as if there have never been seriously perverted Christians. Brit? It’s called a clue. Get one.

And now we see bronze medallist Scotty Lago “expelled” from the Vancouver Olympics because he allowed ladies to be photographed with his medal in poses that the Poobahs of Taste and Morality have decreed are “compromising”. Apparently, they’ve never seen any advertising on display in any mass circulation magazine because if they had, they’d never have been so stupid and condescending.

I know I’m being harsh. Maybe I’ve lost my tolerance for such foolishness after so long away from my homeland. But really: No matter how offended one claims to be over Janet’s nipple or Tiger’s cheating or Scotty’s photos, can anyone—in complete and sincere seriousness—tell me that there are not more important issues worth attention? America’s still fighting two wars, far too many people are unemployed and healthcare is a mess, yet such irrelevant bullshit is what America focuses on?!

That’s why I think that America is probably mad. People who disagree are welcome to tell me so in the comments, because I really—sincerely—cannot understand the American obsession with irrelevance. Okay, that’s enough: “American Idol” is on.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What Kind of Planet Are We On?

I’ve written many times about the inequalities that gay and lesbian Americans face, especially the way Americans can’t sponsor their same-sex partner for immigration purposes the way heterosexuals can. The gross inequality with which same-sex couples are treated by Social Security is another, one that hasn’t been discussed much in the past, despite more that $2 billion in Social Security benefits denied to same sex couples since 2000. This will likely be a subject about which we’ll hear a lot more as Baby Boomers age.

This video (and a pretty amazing one at that…) is from Rock For Equality, which is sponsoring protests at Social Security offices around tax day in the US. Part protest, part fundraiser, it’s the first step in what will be a very long campaign to equalise Social Security benefits for same-sex couples.

It would help if Congress repealed the vile “Defense of Marriage Act”, but without nationwide same-sex marriage, even that won’t be enough. Still, every small step on the road to equality is important.

Tip o’ the Hat to Joe.My.God.

My US Representative is among the best

About eight months ago I wrote about my US Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois-9). In that post, I mentioned that part of my admiration for her was because of her strong and continuing “willingness to take on the Republican-connected mercenary firm Blackwater” as well as other mercenary firms.

Yesterday Rep. Schakowsky and US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced The Stop Outsourcing Security Act (H.R.4650/S.3023) which, if passed and signed by the president, will phase out the use of private military contractors doing jobs that the military used to do.

Appearing on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, Schakowsky pointed out that at the very least these contractors have given the US a bad name and image and at worst many have committed serious crimes. This is the first real attempt to get rid of mercenary firms like Blackwater.

On her website, Schakowsky invites people to “Become a Citizen Co-Sponsor of the Stop Outsourcing Security Act”. Her idea is to mobilise ordinary citizens to put pressure on Congress to pass the bill. She certainly has my support, and I hope the bill succeeds.

Add this to the list of reason for why I’m proud to vote for Jan Schakowsky and to have her as my Representative in the US Congress.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A new part of Parnell

Today I found myself in Parnell for awhile, in a part I’d never been to before. With some time to kill, I went for a short walk and ended up on Gladstone Road, at the end of Cleveland Road. The arched entrance to Dove-Myers Robinson Park is there, something I’d never seen before.

The park is named for Dove-Myers Robinson (“Robbie”), who had been Mayor of Auckland for 18 years and was very popular. He was also a visionary, arguing for the building of a commuter rail system. Sadly, the town fathers of the day, like so many short-sighted politicians in history, felt it would never be needed. Auckland is still paying for their stupidity, and still wishing those politicians had listened to Robbie.

The park, which I didn’t go into, is noted for its rose gardens (from October to April), and has the oldest manuka and largest Pohutukawa trees in Auckland—all of which I didn’t know until I got home. I’ll have to go back and have a proper look around.

The photo above is of the stone arch entrance. The photo below is of the entrance and Gladstone Road, looking toward the harbour (the cranes at the wharf are visible).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Photoshop at 20

Last Friday, Adobe Photoshop turned 20. I didn’t notice because, well, why would I? It is, basically, a product, a thing that’s sold (at a very high price…). With rare exceptions, one doesn’t normally take notice of the anniversaries of products.

Yet Photoshop is more than a mere product. Toward the end of the video above, John Knoll, one of the creators of Photoshop, talks about people coming up to him saying, “I have a career now because of Photoshop.” That’s no exaggeration. The software made it possible for computer-literate people to do what once only high-trained graphic artists could do using actual, physical tools.

In the early days, a distinction was drawn: “Graphic artists” took over from graphic designers. They were trained in most of the same techniques as in the past, and were the artists. “Production artists” were the folks who used the emerging technology to make the graphic artists’ designs printable. That was a situation that couldn’t last.

Eventually, the two merged and “graphic designer” and “graphic artist” became interchangeable names. That person is now far more likely to receive computer-based education and may not be trained in any of the old, manual skills that once were the focus of the trade. Photoshop didn’t create that change, but it did make it inevitable.

There are plenty of people—me included—who have made a career out of computer-based design using (mainly) Adobe products. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with the software—we love what we’re able to do (always more, better, faster), but hate the costs (always more to learn, ever escalating prices).

Still, for the career opportunities that Photoshop led to, and for the enormous creative opportunities it unleashed, it’s worth pausing and acknowledging its anniversary.

But my “birthday wish” would be that it didn’t cost so much.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An Auckland summer night

This past Saturday night, we went to our niece’s 21st birthday party. Such parties are a big deal in New Zealand: A rite of passage that’s kind of orphaned now, with the voting and drinking ages both 18. Nevertheless, families and friends gather to celebrate that particular birthday. It was held exactly a week after we celebrated one of my sister-in-law’s 50th birthday party.

Her mum, Nigel’s sister, planned it as a surprise and held it at a local rugby league club. This has the advantage of there being bar service and security, neither of which would be true if she’d rented a community hall or something similar, as many people do. The best part was, though, that we didn’t have to go back the next day to clean up (that was also included).

It was a great night with family and her friends. I thought it was especially interesting to hear how highly her friends think of her. They should, of course, but I suppose I’m biased: She and her mum have been big parts of my life in New Zealand. She’s a great niece, and a fantastic person.

I don’t post many personal photos on my blog, basically because I won’t unless I ask the people in advance if it’s okay with them. I didn’t even ask. It wasn’t my night.

So instead, I'm including a couple photos I took looking out of the clubroom window at about 8:00pm. I’d never been up there before, they had some pretty nice views. The photo above is of Rangitoto. The photo below is looking further south, toward Takapuna, Bayswater and Devonport. North Head is also visible. Auckland City is further to the right, hidden by the palm on the right side of the photo.

We have no more family parties for several months. This is a good thing—we need a rest.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Weekend Diversion: The new unreality

I saw this “Virtual Backlot Reel” over at Joe.My.God. and was amazed at what they’re able to do with special effects nowadays. Tonight I watched a segment about Weta Digital and the making of “Avatar” on TV One’s “Sunday” programme. They showed how digital effects had progressed from “Lord of the Rings” to “King Kong” and on to “Avatar”, and how medical imaging research played a role.

As I said, what they can now do is truly amazing. No doubt there’ll be all sorts of new and exciting things in the future.

However, it also means that movies and TV shows can be almost entirely fake—shot with special effects and green screen rather than on location. I’m not saying that’s all bad, but maybe some of the immediacy of film may be lost if real locations aren’t used. Yeah, I know none of it’s really “real”, but still.

One thing I thought was particularly interesting in the “Sunday” segment was that as the technology has progressed, the need for actors to perform has increased. Film makers are no longer just creating digital lookalikes of the actors, they’re capturing the actors' actual expressions and gestures. So, even if real places stop being used, real actors are still needed—for now.

It's an amazing world, real or otherwise.

Changing the rules

The National-led Government is planning changes to the way New Zealand conducts election campaigns and is beginning the consultation process. While some proposed changes are good, others caused me to raise an eyebrow.

For a change, let me start by mentioning what the government is getting right: They plan on closing funding loopholes that allow Members of Parliament to campaign using taxpayer money in the three months leading up to an election. This is good because it’ll take away an advantage of incumbency, but mostly because the current system is a campaign rort.

Another excellent change is that National will include exceptions for people expressing political opinion on blogs or social networking sites. The old law was so unclear that many bloggers—me included—refrained from commenting on the election campaign rather than risk being accused of violating it.

But these bright spots aside, National gets many things wrong.

One of the first things National did upon taking power was to repeal the Electoral Finance Act, passed by the previous Labour-led Government as a direct response to National’s abuse of the system in the 2005 election by then-leader, Don Brash. Then, a secretive fundamentalist Christian sect spent some $2 million on a smear campaign against Labour and the Greens in an effort to elect a National-led government. The new effort is intended to replace that repealed law.

National now plans to let special interests—like that sect—spend unlimited money on election campaigns, except that if they plan to spend over $12,000, they’ll have to register with the Electoral Commission but—and this is significant—unlike political parties, they’ll face no requirement to declare the source of their money or report how they spent it. Seems to me that if special interests want to influence election campaigns, then voters ought to have the right and the means to find out who’s paying for that campaigning.

The reason they’re not imposing spending limits is, they say, because “New Zealanders were strongly divided on these issues.” That’s nonsense. Like with the pro-smacking referendum, the campaign against the now-repealed Electoral Finance Act was run by an assortment of far-right ideologues, most notably a fundraiser for the neoconservative Act Party, John Boscawen, who’s now one of that party’s MPs. Some National Party supporters were also involved because they resented not being able to receive undeclared campaign assistance from special interest groups (like that sect). So, the right was screaming against the law, and Act demanded its repeal—that’s hardly New Zealand as a whole being “strongly divided”.

Apart from that thorny issue, the parties themselves are getting some reforms. For example, parties will be required to declare the number of donations that fall between certain bands (to be determined). Previously, only large donations had to be reported.

However, it’s unclear if the most glaring funding loophole—and National’s favourite—will be closed: The use of trusts to solicit campaign donations that are bundled together and donated to a party in bulk. In this way, donors can donate large amounts of money, but remain completely anonymous. It’s important to note that while Labour has benefited from this system, National has benefited far more.

The National-led Government is right to want to fix the rules for running election campaigns. Justice Minister Simon Power said, "If we are to have a system which is fair, workable, enduring, and in place before the 2011 election, broad consensus is essential." I agree. I’m just not convinced they really mean it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The big truth about NZ taxes

Okay, it’s time we got this out in the open, the one thing no one will talk about publicly. It’s the central proposition of the National-led Government’s tax “reform” plans.

So, it’s time to speak the unspeakable truth: No one moves overseas and leaves New Zealand because of taxes.

I know, I know, I’m shouting that the emperor has no clothes, but that’s because the conservatives’ plans are utterly naked. Both the National Party and their coalition partner, the neoconservative Act Party, constantly declare that taxes simply must be cut or we’ll lose a generation of young New Zealanders to other countries.

Do these people expect us to buy this rubbish? Do they think we were all born yesterday or something?

Young people have been leaving New Zealand to live overseas for decades—there’s absolutely nothing new in this. Not only have they done this, they’ll continue to do so no mater what happens with New Zealand income tax. That’s a fact, one that conservatives don’t want people to know.

People go overseas for a variety of reasons: Adventure, career opportunity, the chance to live in another country or a bigger city. New Zealand is a small country. Its biggest city has only about 1.4 million people. Bigger countries are, and will always be, a draw.

The right wing also exaggerates their case. For example, studies have demonstrated that New Zealanders who move to Australia find things aren’t as great as the NZ right likes to tell New Zealanders they are. Also, there have been record numbers of New Zealanders returning home.

These and other examples show that life overseas isn’t attracting people for economic reasons alone—and definitely not because of New Zealand tax rates.

Yet the right keeps pushing this nonsense, anyway. It’s about time the newsmedia in New Zealand stopped letting them get away with it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

And Radio New Zealand, too

The National Party-led Government has been busy lately. Cutting ACC services raising levies, raising taxes on ordinary New Zealanders so they can cut taxes for the well-off, mining public land—the list is starting to get quite long.

Add attacking public broadcaster Radio New Zealand to the list.

Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman has threatened to sack the board of Radio New Zealand if they don’t do as they’re told, namely, to commercialise. True, the Government isn’t silly enough to say that, exactly, but it’s what they mean by demanding that the broadcaster adopt “new business model”.

The Government feels that $38 million per year is too much for quality non-commercial independent broadcasting available throughout the country, and has demanded budget cuts, staff cuts and even commercials. The broadcaster has looked at switching to AM in most of the country to save some $750,000 a year, among other things, but all of the solutions so far would make Radio New Zealand into just another commercial radio network—which would make it easier for National to sell off, of course.

Coleman now claims he never threatened the board of Radio New Zealand, but merely made his intention clear. I can’t see what the difference is. But as far as I can see, it really is "unacceptable political interference" in media, as the unions are charging.

How much more mischief can National get into?

Defining 'conservative'

A bunch of prominent American rightwingers and far right christianists have decided to put out a sort of conservative manifesto. The “Mount Vernon Statement” tries to dictate what a “real” conservative is. It declares:

“A Constitutional conservatism unites all conservatives through the natural fusion provided by American principles. It reminds economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America’s safety and leadership role in the world.”

The phrase “Constitutional conservatism” is an interesting one. These people laud what they call the “conservatism” of both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Apparently, they’re unaware that the Declaration was a revolutionary document and that it and the Constitution set out a radical new way of approaching governing. They also fundamentally distort the reality of the creation of the documents, implying that the authors would never—ever—want anything changed. That’s plain crazy.

But it’s by invoking “morality” that they indicate where their ideology is. Point four of their Agenda says, in the same convoluted style their entire document is written in, “A Constitutional conservatism based on first principles provides the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda.” … “It informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood,
community, and faith.”

That all means that one cannot be a conservative unless one also embraces a far right christianist agenda, too. That’s some pretty stinky hubris they have there.

So, does this matter? Of course it does. It’s endorsed by some of the biggest biggies in rightwing American politics. It indicates what these movers and shakers intend to be the litmus test for all Republican candidates. Conveniently, it’s also a document many of the teabaggers will be happy to endorse.

However, the problem for this rightwing cabal is simple: They can’t enforce it. A Republican running in a liberal district cannot hope to win running on this agenda so there will continue to be “moderate” Republicans. No matter how much these folks want to force ideological purity onto the Republican Party, they simply can’t.

But if they’re even partly successful, the people calling the shots in the party, both elected and in leadership positions, could very well endorse the entire agenda. If so, that’d mean that the demise of the Republican Party would be inevitable. And if this statement is the cause, then the party deserves to die.

Real conservatives would never worship the founding documents as if they’re holy writ, while at the same time using those documents to deny freedom and liberty to others they don’t like. We’ll see if the real conservatives can save their own movement from the imposters seeking to define it.

Bye bye Bayh

So Evan Bayh is quitting the US Senate race, possibly handing that seat from Indiana to the Republicans. That’s bad, but the truth is, he won’t be missed.

Bayh is usually described as a “moderate”, which is more an indication of how far to the right the centre of American politics has shifted than any true descriptor of Bayh. As part of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, the best one could say he is that he was a “right of centre” Democrat, but “conservative” is the accurate and best descriptor.

And yet, he could do some things right: Over the past three Congresses (basically his final term), he steadily improved his vote-rating on GLBT issues backed by HRC: 75% in the 108th, 89% in the 109th and 90% in the 110th. He also correctly voted against confirmation of US Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, among others.

However, Bayh was also an enthusiastic early supporter of the Iraq War, though in 2004 he called for Donald Rumsfeld to resign after Rumsfeld’s disastrous handling of the war. Worst, he voted to reauthorize the “Patriot Act” in 2006, by which time it was clear how truly despicable that legislation truly was.

He was also known for whining—rather a lot, actually—about how bad his fellow Democrats were, and he carried that through to his announcement that he was quitting the race. He criticised both parties, but he was, kind of typically, not entirely thorough. In talking about the jobs bill, he neglected to mention that the reason it was killed was that it included billions in tax cuts for the rich and super rich. I have no idea if he was being dishonest or just didn’t know what was in the bill, but either way it wasn’t as he said.

On balance, he was a pretty middling Senator: He voted correctly sometimes, badly other times, and is unlikely to be remembered for much of anything after he’s gone. That means he’s also unlikely to be missed, certainly not like his father still is.

The stimulus is working

It’s been a year since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. While the economy still struggles to rise out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Act has saved or created around 1.8 million jobs. The map above shows where those jobs are (the darker the colour, the more jobs).

The original version of the map above was created by the Center for American Progress, a progressive thinktank. The map on their site is interactive, so go to it to find out the situation state by state. And while you’re there, why not check out a progressive viewpoint on ideas, an alternative to the usual conservative ones served up by the US newsmedia?

Back in 2007, I posted a video, “That’s Progressive”, created by the Center for American Progress. I still think it’s one of the simplest and most direct explanations of “left” vs. “right” in US politics, and it does it by being positive, not attacking the opponent.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes on Wednesday

Yesterday I wrote about Shrove Tuesday, and mentioned that it had no particular significance for me back when I was religious. Ash Wednesday wasn’t a particularly big deal, but I still have memories of that.

I think that my dad held services on the evening of Ash Wednesday, but it was one of the times I wasn’t required to go, so I don’t remember if I ever did (which is why I’m not even sure if he held services). My most enduring memory of Ash Wednesday, though, has nothing to do with me or anyone I know.

Every year up until 1976, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (pictured) would appear before TV cameras on Ash Wednesday with a little smudge in the middle of his forehead. I had no idea what that was and thought it was dirt. I was later told it was a Catholic ritual (other churches may have done it, too), but we did nothing even remotely similar. To my child’s eyes, it seemed that the smudge stayed on for days, and I wondered how he did that (in reality, it probably wasn’t there more than the one day).

Daley died suddenly at the end of 1976. Years later, when I’d had a chance to study various religions, and actually gotten to know some Catholics, I understood what had been going on all those years (I also found out that Daley, like his mother, went to mass every day).

So, Daley’s Ash Wednesday appearance wasn’t what I thought it was at the time. But it remains my one enduring memory of a religious day for which I have no other memories.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy Pancake Day

Growing up—literally—in the church, I nevertheless paid little attention to Shrove Tuesday. Even Ash Wednesday wasn’t a huge deal, just the kick-off to the 40 days of Lent. Catholics were big on both and, since we weren’t Catholic, largely ignoring Shrove Tuesday and mostly downplaying Ash Wednesday both seemed to me a way of exerting independence from the Roman church.

So imagine my surprise, all these years later, when religion is no longer a part of my life, to find out that “Among Anglicans, Lutherans, some other Protestant denominations, including ethnic British communities in Canada, as well a few Catholics, this day is also known as Pancake Tuesday, as it is customary to eat pancakes.” Really?! Then why didn’t my family?

Seriously, I actually heard about this accidentally today on Twitter when Curt Smith (best known, perhaps, as co-founder of the 80s group Tears for Fears) mentioned it in a Tweet. The Wikipedia article I quoted above contains the details. All of it was new to me.

It’s the second time in a month that I’ve found Wikipedia to be not wrong, but incompletely correct. What I mean is, they state things that are true, but they don’t tell the complete story. In this case, I’d never heard of “Pancake Day” until today, so it’s clearly not a tradition among all Lutherans.

Some people constantly dismiss Wikipedia as if it’s always incorrect. But I’ve never discovered anything that was completely wrong, so I’m kind of reassured to find something that’s not completely correct.

And, oddly, I’ve been craving pancakes today…

Education before profits

The neo-cons’ attack on public education in New Zealand has been resurrected. And the Maori Party is an accomplice.

The neo-conservative Act Party, along with the right wing rump of the National Party, is keen on privatising education. That’s mostly because of their neo-con religious zeal for private enterprise first at all times and for all things. But they knew they’d never succeed in the wholesale transfer of public education to private companies, so now they’re trying to do it piecemeal.

In reading about the neo-con proposal, I was reminded of the old university term paper axiom: “If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with bullshit.” The “modified” voucher proposal reflects this in abundance.

Act’s assistant leader Heather Roy said there wouldn’t be an increase in costs. When a politician tells you that, hide your wallet—they’re always either wrong or lying. Using the usual neo-con rhetoric, Roy bristled at the word “voucher”: "In essence we are providing choice, we are not talking about vouchers here, we are talking about providing choice." She’s lying.

The only “choice” will be for the rich in choosing which private school taxpayers will pay for. And as the richest opt out of pubic schools—at taxpayer expense—the only kids left will be from ordinary families and, of course, the poor.

Why is the Maori Party even considering working against the interests of their constituents? If Act gets its way, poor people will be stuck in public schools because they won’t be able to afford the difference between their vouchers and what private schools charge. So, the rich will get taxpayer subsidies for their private schools and poor people will give their tax money to pay for the rich people’s taxpayer subsidies. But, importantly, there won’t be any money to help poor people send their kids to better schools.

What an ingenious scam Act is selling: Get ordinary people to pay for rich kids’ private education, force poor kids—especially Maori and Pacific Islanders—to stay in underperforming low decile schools and convince those people they’re getting “choice” instead of the shaft.

The National-led Government must stand up to Act and reject privatisation of education by stealth. And the Maori Party needs to wake up and realise that Act is playing them for fools. The children of New Zealand deserve world-class education, not more right wing ideology and profit-motive masquerading as rational policy.

Here we go…

The National-led Government has announced the questions for the referendum on New Zealand’s voting system. The first referendum will be held at the 2011 elections, and will ask first: “Should the current MMP voting system be retained?” Voters will have two possible choices: “I vote to retain the MMP voting system” or, obviously, “I vote to change to another voting system.” The referendum will cost an estimated $11 million and will include a public education campaign so voters can intelligently answer Part B on the same referendum: “Regardless of how you voted under part A, if there was a change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?” The choices are: “I would choose the First Past the Past system,” or “I would choose the Preferential Voting system,” or “I would choose the Single Transferable Vote system,” or “I would choose the Supplementary Member system.” Most of the National Party hates MMP with an unsurpassed passion. The mainstream of the party has what’s been called a “born to rule” attitude, and with reason: They really think they’re the only ones who ought to rule New Zealand and they despise the more democratic and representative democracy that MMP has brought to New Zealand. Under the old “first past the post” (FPP) system, National could comfortably count on ruling more often than not. The one thing I can guarantee right now is that there is now way, no how that I’ll vote to support FPP. It’s old fashioned, anti-democratic and rewards privilege. It is, in short, the opposite of everything I believe in. The final wording of the question may change, but this is only a first step. If MMP loses Part A in the 2011 referendum, then the top option in Part B will go to a second referendum against MMP in 2014. If there is a change, the first election will be in 2017—a very long time, in other words. One thing’s certain: This will not be the last time I post about this.

Monday, February 15, 2010

2010 Big Gay Out

Yesterday was the annual Big Gay Out celebration (we were out of town, so weren’t there). The video above is of Prime Minister John Key’s appearance. GayNZ.com (who also supplied the video) reported that around 12,000 people took part.

Beside Key, politicians who attended were Labour Leader Phil Goff, gay Labour MPs Charles Chauvel, Chris Carter and Grant Robertson, lesbian Labour MP Maryan Street, gay Green Party MP Kevin Hague. National Party MP Chris Finlayson, who’s reportedly openly gay, did not attend, but heterosexual National MPs Nikki Kaye, Melissa Lee and Pansy Wong were there. So, too, was Auckland Mayor John Banks—somewhat surprisingly, considering his previously anti-gay record in politics and on his former talkback radio show.

The Big Gay Out is a stand-alone event that took place during the Auckland’s defunct HERO Festival, which was wound up beginning in March of last year, after almost two-decades. HERO began as a mega dance party, added a parade (which ended years ago), and had many side events, two of which, the Big Gay Out and Heroic Gardens Festival, remain. HERO wound up, in part, because a conservative majority on the Auckland City Council wouldn’t give any support to the festival, a situation that may very well change when the new Auckland Council is elected later this year.

At any rate, a new festival called OurFest began this year, about which I know nothing, apart from what’s on their website and what’s been mentioned on GayNZ.com. Over time it could build into something.

I’ve always thought it was a shame that Auckland (or New Zealand as a whole, for that matter) doesn’t have more organised GLBT communities, but, then, that’s not uncommon in places where fundamental rights are guaranteed by law. For example, there’s no national or Auckland-specific GLBT political organisation, which means that when the newsmedia need someone to provide GLBT commentary on a news story, journalists turn, more often than not, to the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. To me, that’s not ideal for a lot of reasons.

It’s good to see that the Big Gay Out continues to thrive and that our leading national politicians see it as important and are relaxed and comfortable attending. This is a very different place than the one I left.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Truth in labelling

I’m not fanatical about food, or labels, but there’s one thing I expect: Honesty. Recently I was reminded that it’s important to read labels because we can’t rely on manufacturers to be honest.

The bottle of lemonade in the picture is a leftover from Christmas. As I was tidying recently, I left it out on a table and Nigel glanced at the ingredients list (photo below) and noticed the last ingredient: “Sweetener (961)”.

Turns out that’s the artificial sweetener “neotame”.

I don’t buy soft drinks with artificial sweeteners mostly because I don’t like the taste or aftertaste of most of them. However, I'm also not keen on the idea of artificial sweeteners, and I’m not entirely sure they’re safe. If you search for them on the Internet, you’ll find plenty of people who are convinced they’re actually poisonous. I don’t know about that, but why take the chance if I don’t have to?

I never buy “diet” drinks so that I can avoid artificial sweeteners. Instead, I chose the normal “sugary” drinks because, I always thought, they didn’t have artificial sweeteners (and, I should add, they’re a rare treat). So, it never occurred to me to look on their labels for artificial sweeteners—until now.

I’m not singling out this particular brand—for all I know, they all do it. I do know I’ll be avoiding this particular brand from now on, and I’ll be reading the ingredients list of any I may buy in the future to find out what’s in it. Clearly I can’t rely on manufactures letting me know that their product unexpectedly contains artificial sweeteners. It’s no doubt true of other ingredients I may want to avoid.

In the absence of truth in labelling, let the buyer beware.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bye, Bye Frappr

One of the first “social networking” things I ever joined was Frappr, and I put a “Guest Map” on my blog. Some folks complained about it because it slowed down the speed with which the page loaded, so eventually I took it off my blog and just included a link in the sidebar.

The free Frappr Maps are now going away.

I have no idea why, but tonight I clicked on the Frappr badge on my site and found this warning:

So, I exported my data, and that meant I had to download Google Earth so I could view it (I’d never gotten around to downloading that on my Mac, but used to have it on the PC). And then I had to do a flying tour to “visit” the pins from my map. As you do.

So, that’s it: The Frappr badge is gone. It's the first time I’ve ever left a social networking site, but it won’t be the last.

Parisian Love Too

This video response to the Google Super Bowl ad presents the ad’s story from a gay man’s perspective—and makes a great point. However, it’s really hard to see it properly or read it at this small size, so I’d suggest watching it on YouTube (right-click on the video above to do so).

Tip o' the Hat to Joe.My.God.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

National’s wheels coming off?

It hasn’t been a good start to the year for the National Party-led Government. Everything it’s proposing is—or will—meet strong public opposition, so much so that its coalition may collapse.

The government plans to increase GST. When John Key was campaigning in the last election, he promised that National would not raise GST. Now he tries to excuse breaking his promise by saying he only meant he wouldn’t do it to deal with government deficits. This led Progressive Leader Jim Anderton to quip in Parliament, “…what did he mean by the word 'not?' Has he got a lot of other definitions that most of us don't understand? "

The Maori Party, one of National’s coalition partners, is opposed to an increase in GST. They’re hinting they may leave the coalition if the increase goes through.

The government also plans to tighten eligibility for benefits, and force the countries 42,000 sole parents back into work as soon as their youngest child is six. The government says they’ll “be staging this over a period of years because we can't handle thousands coming in at once.” They’re not saying how they plan on creating 42,000 new jobs for those beneficiaries, especially the low-skilled ones and especially when unemployment is at a ten year high. If there are thousands of low-income workers who have been hit hard by GST increases and poor people lose their benefits as part of “reform”, how’s that going to look to the majority of New Zealanders who prize giving everyone a fair go?

And the government is also planning to open up conservation land to commercial mining, which would severely damage the entire country’s “clean and green” image. New Zealanders love this land—does National really think they can get away with destroying it?

The National Party won't fall before the 2011 elections. The neo-conservative Act Party would never abandon National, no matter what—coalition with the National Party is the only way those troglodytes can ever be part of government, and they know it. National doesn’t need the Maori Party or one-man party Peter Dunne to rule, and they know it.

But the people don’t need National. If the party continues to go after ordinary working New Zealanders and also punishes the poor, if it thinks it can wreak havoc on conservation land, if it thinks it can treat ordinary New Zealanders with utter contempt, while rewarding the corporate elites and the wealthy, then they had perhaps better start packing now. There’s no reason this can’t be a one-term government, after all—the people will decide that.

The Intelligence² Debate – Stephen Fry

The Intelligence² Debate - Stephen Fry (Unedited)

In this video from late last year, Stephen Fry takes on the Roman Catholic Church. Critics have dismissed him, saying that he says nothing new. Maybe not, but he says it so much better than most of us are remotely capable of. His eloquent passion makes the religious debates in the United States (and elsewhere) look like nothing more than children’s schoolyard arguments. Whatever one’s position on what he says, we could all learn a lot by the way he says it.

Possible proof positive

The other day, I found a rusty washer lying by Jake’s dog door in the living room. Weird, but then today I found a small nut a metre or so from where I found the washer. They’re in the photo above.

We’ve never assembled anything in the living room that had little nuts and bolts, so I have no idea where they came from. But taken together, they suggest that maybe I have a screw loose. That wouldn’t be a surprise to my conservative friends.

Update: The mystery is solved. After careful investigation, it turns out they came from Jake's dog door. We are all greatly relieved.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Taxing believability

Today Prime Minister John Key delivered his annual speech to Parliament outlining what his government plans to do in the coming year. Critics on the right are saying he’s still a “do nothing” Prime Minister, apparently because he isn’t embracing the two recent reports from the neo-conservative “working groups” on taxation and competitiveness.

The left, predictably, is suspicious of the National Party’s tax plans, especially raising GST to fifteen percent. This will, as I’ve written repeatedly, hit ordinary working New Zealanders hard. Also, as yet we have no reason to believe the Prime Minister when he claimed that income tax cuts will be “across the board”. National’s past history is that it always rewards the upper income brackets and ignores the lower brackets. We’ll see.

However, this is what I find weird: National campaigned against Labour and its “Working for Families” programme in particular. They said it made no sense to take people’s money in taxes, only to give it back in benefits—yet this is exactly what National is proposing to do: National is planning to raise superannuation, the benefit and the Working for Families benefit to offset the increase in GST. Put another way, they’ll take money from people in taxes to give it back as benefits—what they said was a bad thing when Labour did it.

Also, the supposed benefits from income tax cuts are largely illusory. TV One estimated that those on $100,000 will get more that $5,000 a year, but someone on $70,000 would get less than a thousand. That could be—and likely would be—wiped out by the increase in GST. Folks on the average wage or less will almost certainly be worse off, even with the hikes in benefits.

Of course, all this could change between now and the release of the budget the end of May. National didn’t campaign on this, especially raising GST by 20%. Maybe if enough people object to it they’ll pull back. Maybe.

It should be an interesting—and taxing—few months in New Zealand politics.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Goose and gander

ABC (US) World News asked today if self-help “gurus” should be regulated. It came in response to the highly-publicised case of James Arthur Ray, who presided over a “sweat lodge” ritual at his retreat in which three participants died.

Said ABC, these “gurus” use their position of authority to convince or cajole their followers into unproven, sometimes harmful treatment, despite being having no professional qualifications. Maybe it would be a good idea to regulate such people—but if they do, shouldn’t they also regulate churches? There are plenty of preachers who do the same things ABC described, so why should they get a free pass just because the majority endorses their spiritual beliefs? Seems to me harm is harm.

There’s no way churches will be regulated, of course, so the next best thing would be to toughen penalties for anyone offering “treatment” that ends up harming someone. After all, shouldn’t the goal be to prevent victims, regardless of whether the majority approves of the perpetrator or not?

Is TVNZ homophobic?

There are some controversies you just can’t sort out easily. You don’t know who to believe or what the facts are. So sometimes it’s best to just stay out of it.

That’s what I was thinking when last month GayNZ.com reported on a Women’s Day magazine article (not available online) in which Steve Grey suggested he’d been sacked as a presenter on TVNZ’s “Good Morning” programme because he was “too gay”.

"About five or six months ago I was pulled aside by my producer and told, 'I've had a call from upstairs and they just want you to look at your gayness and not play to it so much'”. Grey was understandably irate at that: "Tone down your gayness? How do you do that? It's like saying to Brendon [another Good Morning presenter], 'Tone down your Maori!'"

TVNZ originally claimed Grey was fired as part of cost-cutting, but they later admitted it was "it was a network decision – not related to costs". So: ARE they homophobic? Today, I had to wonder.

I saw the opening of today’s show, back after a two month “Christmas Break”. They introduced the new co-host, TVNZ reporter Hadyn Jones.

In introducing Jones, co-host Sarah Bradley gushed, “He is married and he has a beautiful baby girl… and she is six months old.” If that wasn’t enough to establish Jones’ heterosexual bonafides, co-host Brendon Pongia introduced a clip of an interview Jones had conducted with a female New Zealand model saying: “And also, there’s an interview he did with a particular person, and a question all men wanted to ask.”

In the clip, Jones said to the model, “Now your breasts…” he paused, she said, “yes?” and Jones went on, “Are they real?”

After the clip, Bradley said, “well, I guess he only asked what everyone else in New Zealand wanted to ask.” “Every male,” Pongia corrected.

It struck me as a particularly aggressively heterosexual way to introduce Jones, as if to declare, “our new guy’s NOT one of them.”

TVNZ has long shown little interest in GLBT programming or viewers. When Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” was on the charts, TVNZ censored the video of the song removing the scene in which two young men kiss—taking away from young gay people the very affirmation the video was supposed to deliver. TVNZ said at the time that they were acting in the place of parents, something I thought was an incredibly lame excuse.

TVNZ has aired the occasional NZ GLBT programme, funded by NZ on Air, but they always aired it very late at night and gave it no real support. They currently don’t air any NZ GLBT programming and most foreign programmes with strong gay-themes air on other networks (“Glee” and “Modern Family” are on TV3, for example).

Some might argue that Tamati Coffey on TV One’s “Breakfast” programme indicates TVNZ isn’t anti-gay. But Coffey is the programme’s “roving reporter” and weather presenter, not a co-host. He’s also has a different demeanour than Grey.

Add it all up, and it suggests that there could be a problem with homophobia at TVNZ. I wish a professional journalist would investigate because if the state-owned broadcaster really is deliberately keeping GLBT people off the air, then GLBT taxpayers have the right to know that.

All that aside, I thought the new line-up was boring and turned the TV off within the first five minutes.

Friday, February 05, 2010

What the…

The other day we were in the grocery store and saw this plastic can: The body is plastic, like a bottle and the top is aluminium with a drink tab, like a normal drink can. I’ve never seen anything like it. To me, it frankly looks bizarre, like something designed by a committee to use up spare parts.

I’ve never heard of the drink—it’s made somewhere overseas, but I have no idea where since the country of origin isn't listed on the label. I should add for the benefit of my American friends and family, in this part of the word “lemonade” is like the commercial brands “Sprite” and “7-up”.

At any rate, I don’t expect plastic cans to catch on, and I hope they don’t: They’d be a nightmare for recyclers. I was told they used to be around in the past. As far as I’m concerned, they should stay there.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Spokesbird for Conservation

2010 is the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity, and Sirocco, the world-famous Internet sensation kakapo, is New Zealand’s official spokesbird for conservation. As one of the last 124 kakapo in the world, he has a particular interest in the subject.

As for this video, my favourite line: “Sirroco has put his sex-video behind him.”

I love New Zealand.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

More bigotry on parade

Only two days ago I wrote about far right christianist bigots calling for gay people to be imprisoned. Now another rightwing christianist group is calling for homosexuality to be criminalised (near the end of the video above, and also on Right Wing Watch):

Matthews: Do you think we should outlaw gay behavior?
Sprigg: Well I think certainly...
Matthews: I'm just asking you, should we outlaw gay behavior?
Sprigg: I think that the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas which overturned the sodomy laws in this country was wrongly decided. I think there would be a place for criminal sanctions against homosexual behavior.
Matthews: So we should outlaw gay behavior?
Sprigg: Yes!!

It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Make no mistake: These people mean business. They’re powerful and have access to big piles of money. They’re also not as far outside the Christian mainstream as we might like to believe: Sodomy laws in the United States didn’t end because states finally realised it was the right thing to do, but because the Supreme Court reversed itself and struck them down—a decision Sprigg says was “wrongly decided”. There was no pressure from mainstream Christians for states to finally act, just as there isn’t now on marriage equality or any other issue, and just as the silence now among the mainstream Christians is deafening.

These extremists must be stopped: They’re the enemy not only of GLBT people, but of freedom and democracy. If people of good conscience don’t join in the condemnation of this sort of rhetoric, it will inevitably become part of the political mainstream for the ordinary right and from there, policy and law. It has happened before, it is happening now in Uganda.

After they’ve rounded up the gay people, and they’ve then switched their sights to mainstream Christians, it’ll be too late to stop them. Condemn and oppose them—while you still can.

Update: The video above has been deleted, but another source has it. Follow this link to the video on YouTube to get to the relevant part (the rest of the video is the entire debate).

Tip o' the Hat to Joe.My.God.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Wars in the stars

Who doesn’t love a viral video? If nothing else, they fill a post when I’m too busy to write anything. Actually, I would’ve posted the video even if I wasn’t busy. Which I am. So, there.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Calling them what they are

Radical right christianists pose a problem for rational people: If we call them what they are—hate-filled bigots—they spin that as an attack on all religion. If we document their extreme hatred of GLBT people, they spin that as an attack on voters they’ve hoodwinked into supporting them at the ballot box. Put another way, they can get away with lying about, slandering and defaming GLBT people with giddy abandon and there are no consequences, but the moment rational people push back and correctly point out these people are motivated only by pure hatred, then somehow we’re making them “victims”.

This must stop.

I have absolutely no patience with religious fundamentalists of any kind because their blind religious beliefs lead them to lie, slander and defame in the self-righteous certainty that those sins are excusable in their promotion of their religious “truth”—the end justifies the means. That same certainty has led some of them to violence, including extreme violence, and it’s dishonest not to say so.

Today I read how the host of a radio show of the leading anti-gay hate group American “Family” Association used his radio show to call for imprisoning gay people. In a letter to someone who disagreed with him, he declared:
“The bottom line here is that, biblically, those ‘who practice homosexuality’ should come under the purview of the law just as much as those who take people captive in order to sell them into slavery.”
Like most fundamentalists, he twists and convolutes his holy book to make it say what he wants it to so it’ll support his particular political agenda. The specific section he’s quoting doesn’t say anything like what he’s claiming, of course, not that he’d care about that. Without any appreciation for irony, he tells the person, “I trust your confidence in Scripture is not selective.”

What his picking, choosing and re-writing of the bible lead him to propose is:
“We impose the same sanctions on those who engage in homosexual behavior as we do on those who engage in intravenous drug abuse… If you believe that what drug abusers need is to go into an effective detox program, then we should likewise put active homosexuals through an effective reparative therapy program.”
“Reparative therapy” is a scam radical right christianists run, making millions of dollars off the misery of gay people who are miserable precisely because of the message of hate these people promote. There’s absolutely no scientific evidence that such “therapy” does anything but cause harm—even sometimes driving the victim to suicide.

I’m well aware that these hate-mongers say things like this to raise money, as well as to rile up their political base. They even count on intemperate words from the centre-left so they can use them to claim to be “victims” so they can raise even more money. But that doesn’t mean they don’t mean it: These are the same folks behind Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill and who want similar laws in other countries—including the United States.

So when some prominent far-right religious nutcase calls for gay people to be thrown into prison for being gay and demands that they be forced into some sort of fundamentalist torture programme, good people—people of conscience—absolutely must stand up to them and call them what they are: Hate-filled bigots.