Thursday, September 30, 2010

Politics and religion

It’s often said that one should never talk about religion or politics. Of course if I followed that, I’d have few blog posts and not much to talk about. Yeah, I’m that sort of person—but, then, you’ve already worked that out.

So when I heard about the Pew Forum’s “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” I knew two things: I’d be fascinated by it and I’d have a subject for a blog post. I wasn’t disappointed on either point.

This study found what many commentators felt was Americans’ shocking lack of knowledge about religion—including their own. The main focus of reporting, however, was on the ironic result that Atheists/Agnostics knew more about religion than the religious. The study also found that Jews and Mormons knew more than Catholics and Protestants. Atheists/Agnostics did best on questions about world religion, while Mormons and white evangelical (fundamentalist) Protestants did best on questions about Christianity.

This provides some background to the larger problem of Christianity being a de facto religious test for public office in the US: If one wants to be elected, one must be a Christian, preferably a Protestant. If people really don’t know much about religion, it’s much easier for them to make intolerant, even bigoted, decisions.

In 2007, Gallup conducted a poll that asked if people would be willing to vote for their party’s presidential nominee if the party nominated a “generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an atheist” (among other categories). Only 45% would vote for an atheist, and 52% would not. Interestingly, Americans hate Atheists even more than gay people, with 55% saying they’d vote for “a homosexual” as opposed to 45% who would not.

This cuts across the political spectrum: Only 67% of Liberals would vote for an Atheist (and 81% for a homosexual), as opposed to 48% of Moderates (57% of whom would vote for a gay candidate) and a mere 29% of Conservatives (36% would vote for a gay candidate). Overall, the results are worse for both Atheists and gays than in Gallup’s 1999 poll. It’s probably worth noting that in 1937, when Gallup began asking such questions, only 60% of Americans said they’d vote for a Catholic.

The 2007 study found, as so many others have, that education is the key to tolerance and acceptance, with university educated people being more willing to support “non traditional” candidates than those with high school education or less. Not surprisingly, the Pew study also found that better-educated people knew more about religion.

This suggests that intolerance, like lack of knowledge about religion, has more to do with poor education than an innate lack of curiosity. That’s important because it means improving education right through to high school graduation could be a tool for encouraging more intellectual curiosity, and that would lead to a better-informed, more tolerant citizenry.

After decades of chronic underinvestment in education, I don’t see this situation getting better any time soon. However, change for the better is possible—if we want it.

You can take a 15-question short version of the quiz, as I did. I got 14 out of 15 (93%) correct which means, they tell me, that I did better than 97% of Americans and only 1% scored better than me. I later looked at the entire questionnaire and I believe I would’ve gotten 30/32 correct, which is the same percentage.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Giving way

Learning to drive on the left side of the road, from the right side of the car, was bad enough: Learning New Zealand’s give way rules was harder (starting with learning to say “give way” instead of “yield”). The rules are about to change.

The current rules, introduced in 1977, basically say that cars turning right always have right of way. The illustrations above, used to teach people the Road Code, illustrate the current rules.

In the left illustration, the two vehicles are both turning into the same lane. Under current rules, the red truck has right of way, and the blue car must give way. The new rules will reverse that and the red truck would have to wait.

The illustration at right shows the rules for a T intersection. Again, the red truck has right of way. Under the new rules, the truck will give way to the blue car, which is on the through-road.

New Zealand is the only country in the world with these rules. The government plans on implementing the changes before the Rugby World Cup in 2011, thereby making it easier, they think, for foreigners coming here for that event.

Meanwhile, the Automobile Association says that confusion over the rules leads to 2560 intersection crashes each year, one or two of which will be fatal. I have no idea what percentage of these crashes involve the manoeuvres illustrated above.

North Americans and Europeans struggling to get their heads around these rules may want to hold up a mirror to their screen—just remember if you drive here, you can’t do that. But you will need to learn to give way—how and when.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I’ve frequently criticised the newsmedia for their shallow reporting on scientific studies (including social science) as well as statistics generally. Today I read “This is a news website article about a scientific paper” on The Guardian’s site. It’s by Martin Robbins for his “The Lay Scientist” blog (header shown above), and he skilfully skewers journalists using exactly the same techniques that I’ve criticised them for using.

And, as a bonus, it’s great to see someone use real satire, and not just snarkiness. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in science reporting in the mainstream media.

Update: The bad link has now been fixed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Not any different

The Republican Party nearly drove America off a cliff when it last controlled Congress, but now they have a “pledge” to America—a pledge because, unlike a promise, it doesn’t have to be kept.

Good thing, too.

This Democratic Party video shows how the Republicans broke their own pledge to America within hours of making it. But John “of Orange” Boehner made it easy for Americans to understand Republicans' plans by summing up the entire Republican “pledge” in 12 words: “We are not going to be any different than what we’ve been.”

America, the Republicans have warned you. Will you be fooled again?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nearly there, there

Aotea Square is nearly finished—again. After more than a year, strengthening the carpark under the square and completely redeveloping the square on top of it all, work is nearly complete.

Yesterday, I was in the Auckland CBD and stopped by to have a look. The photo above, taken at the pointy end of the Auckland Town Hall, looks toward the spire of St. Matthew in the City, across the chain link fences that hem in the empty, nearly complete redevelopment. Out of shot to the left, workers were unrolling grass. (click on the photo for a clearer view; I don't have the new Blogger editing tools worked out yet).

At the right edge of the photo, seen edge on, is the restored wooden archway that frankly had become ugly before the restoration. Out of shot at right is the statue of Auckland Mayor Dove-Myers Robinson (“Robbie”), who opened the original Aotea Square in 1979 (and was one of the city’s most popular mayors). That statue was wrapped up in blue plastic, since the Square isn’t open yet.

Still, a lot of public access has been restored: It’s possible to walk the entire perimeter of the Square again, and at the right side of the photo you can see people sitting on benches in front of the SkyCity Metro complex.

By way of comparison, I took the photo below in October of last year, on another day I visited the CBD. It looks in basically the same direction as yesterday’s photo.

Soon the Square will be officially re-opened, right before the current Auckland City is subsumed into the new Auckland “super city”. The new Aotea Square should become a vibrant centre for the new, merged city. I’ll go back this summer to take some more photos of the finished—and occupied—Square.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reason One: Health Reform

The video above is from the new special section of the White House’s website, “50 States / 50 Stories”. It tells the stories of ordinary Americans who will benefit from the Affordable Care Act, which began the process of reforming America’s broken healthcare system.

The bill starts taking effect tomorrow. It will bring real, tangible and critically needed improvements that will make life better for millions of Americans. It:
  • Bans discrimination against kids with pre-existing conditions.
  • Allows young adults to remain on their parents’ plan until their 26th birthday.
  • Prohibits insurance companies from cutting off your coverage when you’re sick if you made a mistake on your application.
  • Prohibits insurance companies from putting a lifetime limit on the amount of coverage you may receive, and restricts the use of annual limits until they are banned completely in 2014.
  • And if you join a new plan, you have the right to choose your own doctor in your insurer network; Your insurer is banned from charging more for emergency services obtained outside of their network; You will be guaranteed the right to appeal insurance company decisions to an independent third party; You will receive recommended preventive care with no out-of-pocket cost. Services like mammograms, colonoscopies, immunizations, pre-natal and new baby care will be covered, and insurance companies will be prohibited from charging deductibles, co-payments or co-insurance.

And there’s more to come.

But Republicans have pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act if they regain control of Congress. They want to take away these hard-won benefits that millions of ordinary Americans will start to receive tomorrow. They want to make life worse for ordinary Americans to make things better for the corporate elites and the obscenely wealthy.

If you’re a Democrat and can’t think of a reason to bother voting this year, explain that to Gail and Matt. If you just can’t get enthused about making sure that Democrats win the November elections, Gail might like to know why not.

The point here is simple: Democrats staying home instead of voting are electing Republicans, and that party has pledged to repeal healthcare reform, and more. Democrats who don’t bother to vote in November are endorsing the Republican/Teapublican agenda.

Gail and Matt have provided one good reason to vote Democratic in November: Keeping healthcare reform. There are plenty of other good reasons.

Moving forward

Yesterday, I wrote about moving forward. Today I’ll expand on that a bit more.

Politics is the art of the possible, as Otto Von Bismark famously said. Perfection, demanded by the ideologues at the ends of the spectrum, is seldom achievable, but “good” is usually possible. All too often we passionate progressives will allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good, flushing all chance at incremental progress in order to hold out for unattainable perfection.

I have yet to see a perfect politician. I’m not even sure one exists. But I’ve met and worked with plenty of politicians who were perfect for the task at hand—moving the agenda along. In my activist career, I worked with conservatives and even sometimes Republicans to keep things moving forward because some progress is always better than none at all. We don’t stop with partial victories, but instead we build on that for bigger victories.

Politicians are inherently timid and reluctant even to do what they know is the right thing. We have to make it easy for them by, for example, working to provide a politician with political cover—an excuse to do what you want them to do. That requires hard work.

At the same time, we need to elect more true progressives to office, and that means even harder work: Overcoming some thirty years of rightwing lies and smears about progressives and progressive policies. It means we stop running away from the New Deal and from Democratic ideals and that we take on the rightwing. It’s a battle we can win—if we want to badly enough.

So, what I’m saying is that to move forward, we first need to play the hand we’re dealt, moving the agenda forward as best we can given the tools and politicians we have to work with. Then, we need to re-assert progressive politics and ideology and bring our side back into the public square; we must stop conceding battles to the rightwing without even putting up a fight.

All of this requires a lot of very hard work, not mere rallies, online petitions or blog rants, satisfying as those are to us personally. It means we put aside our own egos, always keeping our eyes firmly on the prize. And it means we never rest, but always keep moving forward.

The question is, are progressive Democrats up to the challenge?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

‘Culture Wars’ are back

In this video, Rachel Maddow lays out how the current crop of Teapublican candidates are not new at all: Republicans are simply re-tooling their “Culture Wars” of the 1980s and 90s. Worst, they’re trying to hide their true agenda. Americans should watch this video to be informed, but anti-nausea pills are advised.

Political failings

It’s easy to say now, but I expected failure of the effort to repeal the US’ infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy which bars openly-gay military personnel. It wasn’t out of pessimism, but simple reality.

Before I get too far into that, I do need to say first that there’s absolutely no excuse for all the Republicans in the US Senate (along with two supposed Democrats) preventing the majority in the Senate from doing its job. It’s immoral to put pure politics ahead of everything and everyone else. Republicans have defined themselves as the “Party of No”, always looking for ways to gain political advantage. John McCain in particular deserves to be singled-out for being especially reprehensible and disgusting; America dodged a bullet when that man lost the presidential election.

Some Republicans are, of course, religious extremists who will go to any length to oppress gay and lesbian Americans, and nothing—including military needs— will deter them from their theocratic agenda. But most Republicans in Congress are devoid of any true ideology or any agenda other than scoring points against Democrats for purely partisan political reasons.

Democrats are very different, and this gets to the core of why I wasn’t surprised.

During the Bush/Cheney regime, Democrats in the Senate would mount a filibuster in an attempt to slow down the Republican agenda but, in the end, they always stopped. Republicans, unwilling to consider compromise, threatened “the nuclear option” to make it impossible for the minority Democrats to slow down the Republican juggernaut.

Democrats took over Congress and promptly carried on business as before: They did nothing to reform the Senate rules so that majority will rule, and they persisted in acting as if Republicans had any intention of ever negotiating in good faith or that they’d ever compromise.

Democrats refused to see the reality of the fact that the Republicans in Congress had an absolute and uniform rock-solid intransigence. No amount of “negotiating” would ever change that, and no “compromise” was ever possible. The Democrats never did anything to push the Republicans out of the way, and all the Democratic failings of this US Senate can be traced to that fact.

While the Republicans are wrong, and sometimes evil, they know exactly what they’re doing. Democrats are something worse: They’re insane, as in the most famous definition of insanity—doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Because of all that, the repeal of DADT was doomed from the start: Republicans would never, ever vote for it no matter how it was worded, no matter how much Democrats gave up in a pointless attempt to come to a compromise.

Some of my fellow self-appointed gay pundits in the blogosphere have been quick to dump all over Democrats. Some are calling for a total boycott of Democrats because, ultimately, the failure of DADT repeal—and the lack of any action on other pro-GLBT laws—is their fault. But I think those people are being stupid and childish.

Sure I blame Democrats, since there was never any hope of Republican support, but what, precisely, is the alternative? Not voting? That’ll guarantee a Republican/Teapublican takeover of Congress. Vote for a third party? Same result. The only way to stop the Republican/Teapublican/Christofascist agenda is to vote Democratic.

Tell me any scenario—any scenario—in which not voting for Democrats will be good for GLBT people. Mad at Democrats? I get that. But “punishing” them means punishing us, all and we’ve suffered enough already, thank you. After all, no one can be sure that the political centre can regain power once it’s lost.

What I argue for instead is that liberals/progressives reassert themselves, run candidates and win elections to take over in the same way the radical right Republicans did. This means we stop apologising and we stop treating the other side’s lies as valid viewpoints.

But here’s a larger point: There’s the old saying that “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.” It means we expect total perfection from our candidates and the first time they disappoint us, we bail. Republicans on the other hand rarely abandon a Republican (apart from a handful of Teapublican victories in primaries). Many of our politicians aren’t good enough, but only a handful can rightly be called “Republican Lite”. Most we can work with, a few we can follow—if we want to do the hard work and build for the future.

I’m arguing that the choice before us is simple: We can embrace our future, build our future, and move on, or we can continue to fight defensive moves against our opponents, certain to lose every time, beating up our allies along the way.

I choose to move forward. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how we can do that.

A very offensive thing

I have to say this: One thing that has offended me the most deeply about the Republican and christianist crusade against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the unmitigated arrogance, the disgusting temerity in the way they say that allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly will in some way weaken US military forces. That’s a lie, slander and smear.

Many countries around the world—including New Zealand—have fully integrated military forces, and our soldiers fight and die alongside Americans. So I say a shouted “fuck you” to Republicans and christianists who insinuate that the integrated fighting forces of America’s allies are inadequate.

But as a member of a military family, I am disgusted by Republicans and christianists suggesting that US soldiers are so weak and so fragile and delicate that they must be protected from doing their jobs. These Republican and christianist weirdoes are suggesting that US soldiers cannot do their sworn duty, they cannot live up to their honour, if gay and lesbian soldiers are allowed to serve openly.

So the Republicans and christianists crusading against DADT are not just wrong, they’re vile and disgusting—and offensive, too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Takedown of NOM's misleading Iowa ad

About 2½ weeks ago I posted another video from Stop8.org taking on the lies and distortions expressed by the National Organization for Man-Lady Only Marriage in an ad slamming San Francisco. At the time, I said that NOM:

“…has never, as far as I can tell, ever told a single complete truth. It’s one thing to argue with opponents who operate in the reality-based world, and another thing entirely to deal with hate groups who traffic only in lies to further their extremist right wing agenda. This video helps to explode NOM’s lies and distortions. We need more truth-tellers in this world.”

In this video, Matt Baume from Stop8.org again takes on a lying and deceptive ad from NOM, this one in Iowa. They’re attempting to retaliate on judges doing their jobs in order to impose their political agenda on Iowa.

I post these videos in the hope that a few more people may be exposed to reality and truth, and I’m glad they’re being made. I just wish the mainstream newsmedia would do their jobs so alternative and new media wouldn’t have to do it for them.

I found this video, like the original, at Joe.My.God., though I've now subscribed to their YouTube Channel.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Discerning democracy

There’s a saying about politics in New Zealand: Local government is for the politicians who aren’t smart enough for Parliament. Personally, I think MPs came up with that because some of them are demonstrably dumber than some local politicians, and local politics often attracts failed/defeated national politicians. Not much difference, in other words.

Personally, I think another description of local politicians is more apt: Mad, sad and unemployed. There are, of course, many who are none of those things, but then there are, well, those who are all three. No, I won’t say who are which.

But I was reminded of this today when our voting papers arrived for the Auckland Council (aka “Supercity”) elections. I read through the booklet containing candidate information and there were quite a few who qualified for one or more of the trio.

How is an ordinary person to decide among the contenders? The last time I counted, when the deadline closed, we had “102 people to choose among for 24 positions” (a few may have dropped out, and some are running for more than one position). How to choose among them?

Party isn’t a big help. Many conservative candidates are running under the National Party’s local affiliate, Citizens & Ratepayers (C&R), while some left-leaning candidates are running as City Vision (CV, and including the Labour Party, the Alliance and the Green Party). But CV isn’t on the North Shore, C&R is barely here and in disarray everywhere.

Instead, the Shore—which is arguably more conservative than the other side of the bridge—has a conservative grouping known as “North Now” that includes folks from the Act Party, an outspoken opponent of MMP and a former high-profile public servant who ran a failed parliamentary campaign on a Christian party ticket, among others. Centre and (barely) centre-left candidates are mainly in Shore Voice. Many more candidates—on both sides of the bridge, and all over the political spectrum—are running as independents. This is true of both Auckland Council and Local Board candidates, while the credible mayoral candidates are all running as some sort of independent.

So, the next step is to seek out the websites of the candidates or parties to find out what their positions are. Quite frankly, most of those sites are pretty bland and not very informative—and the rest are truly bad. Still, those sites, and the official information booklets will be all that most voters ever see.

Personally, I still hope to go to a candidates meeting, but there hasn’t yet been one held at a time I could attend. We’ll see. In the meantime, and maybe exclusively, I’ll use the meagre resources I have to try and make the most informed decision I can.

Worst-case scenario, we’re only stuck with them for three years.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

David Garrett should resign

If David Garrett had a shred of integrity, a grain of honour, he would immediately resign from the New Zealand Parliament. He doesn’t, and he won’t.

The Act Party MP has frequently brought the entire Parliament into disrepute through his antics, but he became the butt of jokes when it was revealed that the Party’s “law and order” spokesperson had a conviction for assault in Tonga. He claims it was based on perjured evidence; apparently Garrett’s unaware that prisons are filled with “innocent” convicts—at least, that’s what they claim, too.

But it wasn’t turning his party from joke to utter farce that sealed his political doom, nor the irony of him advocating a “three strikes” law against serious offenders when he himself had undisclosed “strikes”. Today’s revelations are far more serious.

The Act Party’s “law and order” spokesperson created a false identity in the 1980s using the name of a dead child to illegally obtain a false passport. He referred to it in Parliament as “a harmless prank”, but it’s generally known by its more technical name: Passport fraud.

He was arrested and charged after police investigated the Israeli spy agency Mosad obtaining false New Zealand passports also using the names of dead children. Garrett was discharged without conviction in 2005 and given permanent name suppression—especially ironic, given his party’s crusade against name suppression.

The following year, Tim Selwyn was convicted of the same crime and was sentenced to seventeen months in jail for that and other charges. David Garrett got nothing—it’s good to be a rich white man.

Act Party leader Rodney Hide knew about Garrett’s assault conviction and his passport fraud, but said nothing. Indeed, he encouraged Garrett to run in 2008, anyway. By failing to disclose the crimes, Garrett and Hide are guilty of deceiving the New Zealand electorate.

Garrett also deliberately lied to New Zealand yesterday. Asked point blank about any other convictions, Garrett mentioned only speeding offences. Tonight Hide tried to deflect criticism of Act by admitting on TVNZ’s “Close Up” programme that he, too had a conviction: For public drunkenness—because being drunk is clearly the same as stealing an identity.

At least Garrett’s rightwing buddy Garth McVicar of the “Sensible” Sentencing Trust thinks it’s all okay. He said Garret should be given a second change—ironic, since McVicar often says giving ordinary criminals a second chance is “PC gone mad”. Act, of course, campaigns for a “zero tolerance” policy for crime—unless it’s committed by a rich, white, male Act Party member, of course.

Garrett is a disgrace to the New Zealand Parliament and he should resign, but he won’t. However, if he stays, he’ll help ensure that the Act Party is gone from Parliament after the next election, and that would be the best possible result.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Another first (for me)

Last week I was so busy that I didn’t have a chance to write about some of my recent adventures. But it was precisely because I was so busy that I experienced one of those: Last week I bought groceries online.

I logged on to foodtown.co.nz and registered, which was pretty straightforward. I also entered the number for my Onecard, that company’s loyalty card programme. Once you do that, you can use your purchase history to do a quick shop.

Let me back up a minute: All loyalty programmes like this record your purchase history, which is how they offer customised coupons and promotions. There’s nothing new about that: In Chicago in the early 1990s, I used my “Preferred Card” to get in-store discounts and custom coupons right at the till. The Onecard programme is similar in that it gives in-store discounts, but one accumulates points for money spent. Once a quarter they mail me a couple coupons along with a cash store voucher based on the number of “points” I’ve accumulated. Coupons, I should add, are rarely used in New Zealand.

This ability to select from your purchase history is really useful because most people buy certain products/brands all the time, so this is a really quick way to select your basics. It’s still possible to “shop the aisles” too, of course, for anything not on your list.

For those who don’t want to link their Onecard, it’s possible to set-up online shopping lists that work the same way, but you don’t get the discounts or rewards.

The prices online reflect specials and discounts, like in the store, and also items where you get “Bonus Points”. So, customers don’t miss out on specials or promotions by buying online. The fee varies and actually goes down the more you buy; in my case, it was $13 for the order to be pulled, packed and delivered. To be honest, I feel my time is worth more than that, so it struck me as a bargain.

I paid by credit card, but it’s possible to set-up a direct-credit payment. You can also use a Visa debit card instead of a credit card. They don’t have mobile EFTPOS, which is something they should offer.

After I placed my order, a woman phoned to confirm—basically, to make sure the order was legit; I don’t know if they always do that or if it was because it was my first order.

I was late ordering, so the scheduled delivery was between 6pm and 8pm that day. It actually arrived at 5:37pm. I ordered things from various departments, including some wine, and everything arrived intact; the frozen was still frozen, the chilled still chilled. A friendly, helpful (and very tall) young man carried the plastic crates into the house so I could unpack them (everything was in bags), but they take the crates away (unlike what the TV commercial implies).

In sum, it was a good experience. The website was reasonably fast, the process reasonably painless, the delivery on time (early, actually) and efficient. I’d definitely use the service again.

However, the website could be easier to navigate, they should offer mobile EFTPOS and they could have more and narrower delivery bands (mine was scheduled for nearly six hours or more after I placed the order). I also wouldn’t buy fresh fruits and vegetables or meat online because I like to evaluate the options before I selecting; others might not be so picky.

Still, I’ll be doing some grocery shopping the old fashioned way this evening: At the store.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fourth blogoversary

Today is the fourth anniversary of my blog—my blogoversary. I published my first post, “I live in a land downunder. No, the other one…” on September 13, 2006.

People have different reasons for starting blogging, and some of us have many different reasons. My blog grew out of emails I sent to friends and family back in the US. In addition to the usual updates about what we were up to, I also sometimes told them about things going on in the news and what life is like in New Zealand.

Sometime in 2005, Nigel urged me to start a blog. He could see that writing those emails was important to me, and he thought a blog would be a good way to have a writing outlet. I was intrigued, but didn’t act on it right then because I thought, wrongly, that it cost money to blog.

Time passed and we started organising our move back to Auckland, then settling in. The specific motivator for me to finally start a blog was that my friend Jason was about to come to visit us in New Zealand. He talked about emailing photos to friends and family and I suggested that he start a blog and post the photos there instead so his friends and family could check them out and read about his adventures. That became the specific motivator for me, too. Jason started his blog a little over a week before I did, but both of us have continued ever since.

My podcast started about six months later and I originally saw that as an extension of my blog. It evolved in its own direction over time, and another podcast split off from that—one I do with Jason, kind of bringing it all full circle.

This blog has always been a mixed bag, as shown in my tags (“Labels”). It’s about what interests me at the moment, like many blogs are. There’s a lot about New Zealand, the US and things having little or nothing to do with either.

I’ve written a lot about politics, which figures, since that’s what my degree is in. On this blog, and in my visits to those of others, I’ve been criticised by the left and the right (sometimes strongly). Some think that’s a sign of getting the balance right, but I don’t. Instead, it just means that sometimes I say things that stir up people further along toward one end or the other of the political spectrum than I am, and that’s fine. Personally, I respect reasoned passion, regardless of which end of the spectrum it’s at—but I can’t stand un-reasoned and irrational beliefs, no matter how passionately held and regardless of which end of the spectrum it’s coming from.

So, that’s basically the story of this blog, now four years old. As I said in that first post, “So pour yourself a cuppa, relax, and let’s see where this leads.”

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Where it began

September 12 is one of my anniversaries—a minor one, maybe, but important nevertheless. On September 12, 1995, I arrived in New Zealand as a tourist. During that trip, Nigel and I decided that we definitely wanted to be together, so I found a job and we met with an immigration consultant.

The date mattered legally because it was the starting point that the immigration service used to calculate the amount of time I’d been in New Zealand. That mattered because in order to gain permanent residence, one had to be legally resident in New Zealand for a certain period of time. So, this date is really where my New Zealand adventure began—even though I didn’t arrive in the country to stay until November 2, 1995.

Of course September 12 has another significance: It was the date in New Zealand that in the US was September 11. By that infamous September day in 2001, I’d been a permanent resident of New Zealand for over two years, so the date I arrived in New Zealand as a tourist no longer mattered, and I’d forgotten it. In any case, the date it was in the US became the focus of observances, not the date it was here in New Zealand. September 12 is again just one of my days.

We tend to lose track of the minor anniversaries in our lives—the small dates that lead, ultimately, to the bigger dates we do remember. Mentioning such a date here is my small way of remembering what became life-changing, a series of events that began, really, on September 12, 1995.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Opening the door

This AFSCME commercial pretty well sums up the choice in the upcoming US midterm elections, at least when it comes to economic policy. In the current Congress, Republicans have consistently voted against and blocked anything that helps American workers as part of their “Party of No” strategy (opposing absolutely everything that President Obama and the Democrats propose).

Republicans have steadfastly refused to say what they’d do if they take control of Congress, apart from cutting the taxes of the rich and super-rich. However, we know that they adamantly opposed any and all regulation of the pirates and gamblers on Wall Street, so we know they’ll continue to help and promote the interests of the same people who caused the global financial crisis.

The Republicans’ behaviour demonstrates that they favour the corporate elites over ordinary Americans. The question is, are American voters on the side of Republicans and the corporate elites, or are they on the side of the American people?

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

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Katrina Effect

One good thing that came from the Bush/Cheney regime’s failure after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans is that other countries have learned how not to respond to disaster. But it also makes some newsmedia hypercritical.

A few hours after the earthquake hit Christchurch, Prime Minister John Key was in the city, seeing the damage first-hand. His role is, of course, largely symbolic, pledging government help and showing solidarity with the victims. It was a good start.

The county’s biggest paper, New Zealand Herald, didn’t see things that way, of course. In a typically curmudgeonly editorial, the Herald said Government ministers’ initial response “could have been an episode of Dad's Army,” and declared, “Yesterday, the authorities didn't lead—they followed.”

The Herald, which always has a massive chip on its shoulder, it seems (though not usually about anything National does), was being stunningly unfair. It’s easy for them to sit in their offices in Albert Street in Auckland and pontificate that things weren’t done well enough, but things never go well enough in a big natural disaster, especially one that strikes late at night/early morning. The government response was moving within hours, not days as with Katrina, and that response grew over time as the scale of the disaster became clearer.

Mind you, the Herald has issues, maybe overcompensating for its pronounced Auckland bias. The Sunday Herald was headlined “DOOMSDAY”, despite no loss of life or more than a couple injured people. What would their headline be if there had been wide scale death and injury? A story began, "Kiwis are coming to terms with the devastation of one of their proudest cities," leading commentator Russell Brown to ask on Twitter, “Seriously, who wrote this stuff?”

Christchurch is hurting. According to the Council’s own website, as of 6AM this morning, they determined that “More than 500 buildings in the city are damaged—more than 90 of those in the central city area,” though some of that would be relatively minor. “Water supply has resumed for all but 15-20% of the city,” the Council reported. All things considered, that’s pretty remarkable progress—on top of the truly amazing fact that there don’t appear to have been any deaths from the earthquake or more numerous injuries. Still, the threat isn’t over: The city has endured some 30 aftershocks and a severe storm is heading toward them.

The situation is bad enough, without the Herald resorting to overwrought, emotive prose or being quick to pass judgement for what they—world experts in disaster response—see as failures in government. Rather than faux solidarity with Christchurch or rash criticism, the Herald should stick to reporting the facts as well as reminding people in other parts of the country what they need to be prepared for.

As bad as this earthquake was, everyone agrees it could have been much worse—if it had occurred in the daytime, when the city was filled with people, for example. It should serve as a warning to others. Still, I bet the officials in Canterbury will provide an example of how to respond to a major natural disaster, no thanks to the New Zealand Herald.

Update 06 September 2010: Today on Twitter Russell Brown asked the Herald's Jonathan Milne, "Aren't you even a little bit embarrassed about that DOOMSDAY front page?" He replied, "No, Russell, I'm massively proud of our team's job, especially given many had their own homes and families to worry about." Later, after Brown persisted and singled out not just what he called (rightly) the "inappropriate" cover, but also that the first word in their story was "Looting", Milne echoed the swipe at other media in the paper's editorial: "Our key role is to accurately report what's happening on the ground, incl extensive and previously largely unreported looting… Not to adopt a 'tone' to make a couple of Auckland bloggers feel warm and fuzzy and at one with the world."

The problem is still that cover and the emphasis on "looting." As Brown pointed out in a Tweet, the Herald story referred to "several" incidents, which is hardly "extensive". Brown linked to a Scoop story reporting that “Christchurch police [said] that there was one incidence of looting ,” and ended: "According to Police, the two men were caught in the act and arrested and that since then there have been no other incidences of looting."

So, the Herald was tabloidising the news with its screaming front page AND failing to "accurately report" what was happening by focusing first on looting, which was not, in fact, "extensive" at all.

To see the Twitter exchanges yourself, you can look at Russell Brown's Twitter Feed or Jonathan Milne's Twitter Feed. The photo of the front page in question can be found here (via Spatula Forum).

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Neither stirred nor shaken

First things first: We’re all fine, but it seems this may not have been the best Saturday morning to sleep-in.

At 4:35am this morning, a 7.1 earthquake hit about 30kms west of Christchurch at a depth of about 10km. My “e-friends” heard about the earthquake and were worried about us, particularly since I was unusually late entering the e-world today.

We never felt a thing because we were asleep when the earthquake hit, and it struck a very long way away from us. So, we were completely unaware anything had happened.

We got up late and after breakfast and a few other things I needed to do I finally turned on the computer, around 11am. I checked my email and saw one from the US Consulate with the subject: “FW: Earthquake in Christchurch, Saturday Morning, 4 September 2010: Public Announcement from U.S. Consulate”. Ironically, it was the first I heard about it.

Then I noticed I had some direct messages on Twitter asking if we were okay. I looked at the widget I put at the lower right part of my blog that displays NZ earthquakes and it was showing, it turned out, an aftershock of 4.2. I thought “no big deal, really.” Then, I checked out the NZ Herald website and found the whole thing was covered with earthquake stories (screenshot above). Turns out, it was a very big deal.

So I logged onto Twitter, replied to the direct messages, then posted a general message: “Morning everyone—just turned on the computer. The earthquake was over 760 km (470 US miles) from us, so we're fine. Never knew it happened.” A bit basic, but it got the point across (in 140 characters). I posted to Buzz and updated my status on Facebook and replied to emails. Later, my sister rang. So, I had pretty much all the electronic forms of communication covered there—and now, a blog post, too.

It’s times like these when social media are strongest, because it’s probably the best way not only to share information, but also, as in this case, to let a large number of people know all at once that one is safe. That’s a good thing.

This isn’t the first time e-friends have contacted me about earthquakes in New Zealand or the South Pacific, but this is the biggest so far. About a year ago I posted about an earthquake in Fiordland, because folks overseas had contacted me. In December 2007, I similarly posted about another earthquake because I knew that friends and family in America would probably hear about it. And in February 2007, I posted about a quake we did feel in Auckland.

There’s nothing unusual about earthquakes in New Zealand. There are between 10,000 and 15,000 quakes every year in New Zealand, but only 100-150 are strong enough to be felt. Little wonder this country is sometimes called “The Shaky Isles”.

Sooner or later, there will be a big earthquake that we do feel, possibly in or near Auckland. But at least thanks to social media, I have ways of letting people know as quickly as possible that we’re okay.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Takedown of NOM's Lies About Prop 8

A few days ago, I posted the video of Sean Chapin responding to the lying liars of the National Organization for Man-Lady Only Marriage (or whatever). He was responding as a native San Franciscan.

Here’s a video from Stop8.org that calls out the specific lies of NOM, an organisation that has never, as far as I can tell, ever told a single complete truth. It’s one thing to argue with opponents who operate in the reality-based world, and another thing entirely to deal with hate groups who traffic only in lies to further their extremist right wing agenda. This video helps to explode NOM’s lies and distortions. We need more truth-tellers in this world.

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

Auckland carmageddon?

This weekend, Auckland is due for the worst traffic chaos ever and, as Mike Hosking said on TVNZ’s “Close Up” this evening, that’s saying something. Worst of all, it was planned.

There’s one main north/south route through Auckland, and that passes over Newmarket using the Newmarket Viaduct. When I say “’over”, I’m not kidding: It’s waaaaaaay up in the air—up to 20 metres (nearly 67 US feet) in places. Built in 1966, the viaduct is now at the end of its usable life (plus, it's not earthquake-ready…).

So for months work has been under way to build new southbound lanes, and that work is complete. Now, they need to move the cranes to the old southbound lanes so they can demolish them in order to build new northbound lanes.

Simple, right? Well, it apparently takes 36 hours to move the cranes. So, they’re closing the southbound lanes from 5pm tomorrow, Saturday, until 5am Monday. Aucklanders are being urged to stay home.

Even so, there’s horseracing on at the track nearest the viaduct. There’s a rugby match on. And, it’s Father’s Day weekend in New Zealand. And yet the main southbound link through Auckland will be closed. Chaos is predicted. Fortunately we have no plans that will require us to deal with that.

I have no idea who created the image above: It was re-Tweeted dozens of times (but I’ll certainly give credit if I ever find out). In a few short hours, we’ll see how prescient that map is.

Update 06 September 2010: "Aucklanders applauded for avoiding motorway", leading credence to the theory that all the scary words and dire predictions were intended to frighten Aucklanders off the roads. If so, it worked.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Apostrophe Song

This video is right up my alley: At various jobs, I used to refer to myself as the “head of the apostrophe posse” because I hated the misuse of the little smudges of type. To be honest, I have no idea why.

However, in the years since, I’ve been cheered to find a lot of other people who share my apostrophe fanaticism. It's largely a secret war, and we have a few guerilla tactics we can use. For example, I’ve been known to erase errant apostrophes on chalkboards outside caf├ęs or fruit and vege shops.

Mostly, though, I think that standing up for the poor apostrophe is a losing battle: I fully expect that one day it will be perfectly acceptable to use an apostrophe to make a word plural, and “it’s” may not necessarily mean “it is”.

And when that happens, and my bones are laid to rest, my epitaph with probably read: “He fought for the apostrophe’s”.

Tip o’ the Hat to Stephen Fry who Tweeted the link.

Sunny Spring start

Anyone who knows me also knows how much I loathe winter. Mostly, I hate being cold—and I really hate being really cold.

So today always cheers me because September 1 is regarded the first day of Spring—and, before anyone corrects me, I’m well aware that the Spring Equinox in the Southern Hemisphere is at 3:09pm on Thursday, September 23 New Zealand time (3:09am September 23 UTC).

There have been signs of spring for a couple weeks or so: Trees are blossoming, the daytime temperature is rising and Bella is dropping some fur. But it’s also still been wintry-rainy and cold at night.

Today was a glorious sunny day, cold at first, but by the afternoon it was warm enough that I opened up the house to air it out, the first time in weeks (well, months) it’s been warm enough to do that.

So, it was a good start to Spring.

These people could win

The video above, from New Left Media, is a series of interviews with attendees at Glenn Beck’s event this past weekend. I’ve posted two of NLM’s previous videos at similar events: A “Tax Day” protest earlier this year and also a Sarah Palin book signing in November last year. How he manages to refrain from throttling them, I just don’t know, but I realise that just letting them talk is damage enough.

The problem with these people—apart from their gross ignorance and their inability to say anything that’s not a Fox Noise/Beck talking point—is that they vote. Congressional midterm elections historically have a low voter turnout: While some 80% of Americans may be registered to vote, this year, fewer than half of that—if we’re lucky—will actually vote. That means that whoever is elected (from whichever party) in these elections will have the support of 20% of the people, give or take.

This is a particular worry for Democrats. While they have more registered voters than Republicans, Republicans are twice as likely to call themselves “very” enthusiastic about voting (75% vs. 25%), according to a recent Gallup Poll. In a tight race with a low turnout, that would be enough to easily overcome their lower registration and swing the election to Republicans and Teapublicans. As if to underscore that, the same Gallup Poll found that the split between “generic Republicans” and “generic Democrats” is now an unprecedented 10 points (51% back the Republicans, 41% the Democrats); that’s the biggest gap since Gallup began this polling in 1942.

The consequences of this would be catastrophic. Republicans are already promising that if they re-take one or both houses of Congress, they’ll “do nothing” for two years—nothing apart from harassing President Obama by, among other things, “investigating” what have been proven to be phony “scandals”. This is the same party, remember, that wasted millions of dollars and took 140 HOURS of testimony on President Clinton’s supposed (and imaginary) misuse of the White House Christmas Card list.

But fiddling while the American economy burns isn’t the only thing the party would do: They have some seriously radical tea party rightwing candidates running on their ticket. The video below from the Democratic Party shows just a few of the right wing nutjobs and extremists the party now proudly promotes. These radicals, together with other Republican politicians who may not be as radical but who see political opportunity in co-opting radical “movements” like the teabaggers can do some real and terrible damage to the country.

Consider this a warning for my fellow Democrats—and all rational American voters, for that matter. We musn’t allow the extremists to take over America because if they win, we all lose.