Sunday, January 30, 2011

Not so useless skills

Roger Green posted about useless skills in answer to the question, “What skills do you have that, because of change in technology, have become obsolete?” It’s an interesting question, and I thought I’d explore it a little because, really, are any skills ever truly obsolete? Or do many of them simply lead into new skills?

My dad used to talk about chasing the man driving a horse drawn wagon through the streets delivering ice, and I remember a man delivering milk to our house (in a truck, I should add). But people still make deliveries, so those “skills” simply changed. There must be some skills that really are obsolete, such as lighting gas streetlights (unless that became something in the modern world I don’t know about), but I have trouble thinking of many skills that haven’t evolved into other ones.

I’ve often said that most technological change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. What I mean is that the sudden quantum leap from nothing to something is pretty rare. For example, we went from earthbound to flight, and that was revolutionary, but all the changes since then—including spaceflight—have been evolutionary.

When I began my working life, I used a word processing program called Wordstar on computers running an operating system called CP/M. This required memorising a large number of commands to format the page since, in those days, there was no WYSIWYG so no way to see the result until the document was printed. One thing I remember in particular is using commands to bold type to make headlines for a newsletter I did. But I realised that if I also gave it the command to double-strike, the type actually looked bold.

All that Wordstar training came in handy when I moved into printing/publishing and had to learn phototypesetting using AM Varityper machines that, it turned out, also ran on CP/M. That meant learning the commands, as in Wordstar, to avoid wasting photographic paper that worked out to about a dollar a foot.

Like the rest of the graphics industry, the business eventually abandoned specialist typesetting equipment and switched to Apple Macintosh computers. Similarly, photostat cameras were replaced with flatbed scanners. I no longer needed the Wordstar or typesetting commands, but the base they provided made it easy for me to change technology.

Years later, when I started using the web, those old skills were useful again: HTML coding isn’t all that different, really, from using commands in Wordstar, so adapting wasn’t as difficult as it could’ve been.

It’s true that I probably wouldn’t be able to use Wordstar anymore (at least, not without a refresher), but those skills proved useful in allowing me to adapt to new technologies. The old skills didn’t die, they morphed and evolved and eventually became skills I still use today.

Seems to me that what we're really talking about are not skills that are lost in isolation, but the whole process of learning and growing. And that never becomes obsolete.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

I won’t marry Westfield

Today I got an email from Westfield, the Australian company that is by far the largest operator of shopping malls in New Zealand. The subject line of the email was, “Arthur, will you marry me?” I immediately unsubscribed from their email mailing list.

The email was promoting a competition in which people might win a billboard with their Valentine’s Day message of up to 20 words. The email advised recipients to “shout sweet nothings” and linked to a site that told visitors to “Write your poem, proposal or message here”.

I don’t have a problem with the competition, though personally I find it more silly than romantic. Nor do I have a problem with them emailing invitations to enter competitions. In fact, I ended up on their list in the first place because I entered a competition (knowing full well that would put me on their email list), and I just couldn’t be bothered to unsubscribe—until today.

It was that word “marry” that motivated me: Westfield used as a tagline something I cannot do in either in New Zealand or in my home state of Illinois (or most of the US, for that matter), that is, marry my partner. Both New Zealand and Illinois enacted separate and more-or-less-equal civil unions, but marriage itself is reserved for heterosexuals only.

Westfield wasn’t making a political statement of any kind, and they weren’t trying to be offensive. Instead, they were just using the normal heterosexual assumptions that virtually all marketers do, something gay people are used to filtering out. In fact, I wrote about exactly that a couple years ago.

I don’t need to be reminded of what I cannot do, and I don’t need to support such marketing, no matter how small that support might be, like receiving emails. So, Westfield’s email really just gave me the kick I needed to unsubscribe, finally, from their email list, something I should’ve done weeks ago simply because they really had no value to me.

This extremely minor incident highlights how assumptions made with no malice intended can still strike a sour note. It’s a minefield for marketers, and I don’t envy them. But I do wish they’d try just a little bit harder to not always make heterosexist assumptions. Oh, and they should stop marketing things to women by almost always using pink. That annoys me, too. Come to think of it, they really should just stop stupid marketing campaigns and get more clever, and that would fix most of this.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wilma is angry

Cyclone Wilma is beating up the upper North Island of New Zealand. The main system is due to hit New Zealand around midnight, which mostly means a lot of rain. It happens. This is a category 1 cyclone (“hurricane” in US terms), and the last prediction I heard is that it won’t lose strength until it hits Northland. Put another way, that means a lot of rain. Yay.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

First campaign speeches

Here are the two “State of the Nation” (just a title of convenience) speeches delivered this week. The first is by Phil Goff, Leader of the Opposition, and Leader of the NZ Labour Party in Parliament, who delivered his speech January 25. The second speech is by John Key, the Prime Minister and leader of the New Zealand National Party in Parliament, who delivered his speech the day after Phil Goff.

Neither speech has had many views as I post this, which is why I’m posting them here: More New Zealanders should be able to see them, and getting them posted in more places can only help. These are effectively the first campaign speeches by the two main parties as we head into the 2011 New Zealand General Election later this year. As such, they begin to sketch out what the two main parties will do should they have the opportunity to lead government, and that’s why they’re important.

National’s Party con job

The New Zealand National Party is preparing to try and con New Zealand voters. John Key, party leader and currently prime minister, has announced the beginning of “partial” asset sales. The right and "business communuty" have, predictably, cheered—and launched into full spin mode to promote the National Party’s agenda.

I said that National would definitely keep one of its 2008 promises and not try and sell-off all state-owned assets. With some 8 out of 10 Kiwis opposed to asset sales, they’d avoid promoting a policy that would cost them the election.

But don’t be fooled: National absolutely plans to sell off all state-owned assets completely; it’s been core party principle for some 20 years.

Key proposes to sell up to 49% of state-owned electricity companies Mighty River Power, Meridian and Genesis, along with coal company, Solid Energy. They will likely sell-down the government’s 75% stake in Air New Zealand, too. That’s only what they admit to.

Key recognises that New Zealanders want these assets in public hands, and last night on TVNZ’s Close Up programme he made bland, vague acknowledgement that “mistakes” had been made my the neo-conservatives’ fire-sale of assets in the 1980s and 1990s. He tried to suggest his government would be more sensible.

The New Zealand Herald's joyful editorial trumpeted the plan, pointing out that when electricity was sold off under the last National government, it was also floated in New Zealand so Kiwis could buy the shares, rather than sell them overseas. Let me put this plainly and bluntly: Big fucking deal.

Once the shares are publicly traded, anyone can buy them. Key, the Herald and the rest of the right says “mum and dad investors” are giddy with excitement at the prospect of having these shares to buy. They’re all liars. First, there’s no credible or independent evidence that this supposed demand actually exists, and believing it to be true doesn’t make it so.

But the biggest scam the right is foisting on us the “mum and dad investors” crap: They already own the state owned assets as citizens and taxpayers! The government isn’t some giant alien mollusc; it is all of us, combined. So we the people already own these assets.

But the right says that this will “free up capital” for the government and create “new opportunities for investors”. They’re lying about both of those, too.

Under a best-case scenario, the “partial” privatisation will yield the government at most a third of the money they plan on spending, meaning they’ll have to get the rest somewhere else. According to several estimates I’ve seen (here's one), the current yield from these assets is higher than the cost of borrowing a similar amount of money. What that means is that the government could borrow the same amount of money and still come out ahead!

Instead, Key wants to sell off the assets to make the government lose money. Why? Because of the big, bad scary monster of national debt. But that isn’t nearly what Key and the right claims.

New Zealand’s public debt (which is all government borrowings less repayments) is 25.5% of GDP (2010 estimate), which sounds scary until you realise that this ranks New Zealand 97th in the world (out of 131 countries); Canada is ranked 16th, the United Kingdom is ranked 21st, the US is ranked 36th, and Australia is better at 107th place.

Key suggested our debt situation is about as bad as four countries in the news, but it simply isn’t: Greece’s debt is 144% of GDP (ranked 5th), Ireland is 98.5% of GDP and ranked 11th, Portugal is 83.2% and ranked 15th and Spain is 63.4% and ranked 27th. Compared to them, New Zealand is doing really, really well.

But if Key succeeds, and the ownership is transferred to foreign owners, as is inevitable, it will make things worse for New Zealand because it will increase external debt, that is, the foreign currency liabilities of both the private and public sector that are financed out of foreign exchange earnings. This happens because the profits earned in New Zealand have to be shipped overseas, rather than staying here, as they do now.

So, National’s moves have nothing to do with economics, global or local, and have nothing to do with debt or even budget deficits. Instead, they’re all about plans to sell off everything that’s not nailed down, and to hoodwink Kiwi voters into thinking that it’s all necessary to “save” New Zealand.

If they were serious about improving the deficit, they’d tell us what government programmes they’ll cut, but Key is pretending that they haven’t talked about that at all. If they were honest, they’d admit that they plan to sell off state assets to make more money for the rich—they same people their tax cuts were geared toward. But they’re neither serious nor honest.

Finally, rightwingers have been touting the fact that Key’s not doing this to Kiwi Rail and Kiwibank as some sort of “proof” that National isn’t planning to completely sell off assets. The Nats aren’t partially privatising those because they plan to sell them off entirely, something that they couldn’t do if those pesky “mum and dad investors” had shares. The question is whether they’ll sell Kiwi Rail and Kiwibank, the question is, how soon? It’s either naive or wilfully deceptive to suggest otherwise.

There is nothing new in this: As a matter of principle, National, like Act, doesn’t believe the government should own anything. They will sell everything off, sooner or later. What they’re telling us is just one big con job. Again.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Happy Australia Day

Happy Australia Day to our cousins across the Tasman! Gotta hand it to them: No one does a national day quite like the Australians. Oh, and have I mentioned that their national anthem has my favourite line of any country's? "Our home is girthed by sea." How you can go past a line like that?!

But because a blog post like this should have SOME substance, here’s a blog post I prepared earlier.

Tangible evidence

This video shows how one business was able to launch, to hire contractors, to buy American-made equipment and to employ staff, all because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It’s tangible evidence of the success of the Act.

Republicans are fond of saying—as often as they possibly can—that “not one job” was created by the Act, even though statistics alone show that’s an outright lie. So it’s especially good to see a tangible reminder of how stimulus spending like this has a ripple effect through the economy, leading to direct and indirect employment and economic activity.

Put another way, despite Republicans’ deliberately false propaganda, the stimulus had a positive effect on the economy. This video shows how.

The proprietors will be guests at President Obama's State of the Union Address, which puts this video back in the news. I think that success of ordinary people is always worth celebrating.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The wheels on the bus: Auckland moving

This is an animated map of Auckland’s public transport system, created by Chris McDowall who has a Sciblog called “>seeing(data)”. It depicts a typical Monday beginning at 3:00am right up to midnight. The movement is all based on Google Transit Feed data published by Auckland Transport.

McDowall has more to say about the video what it represents on his site, so check the post for this map.

If we could visualise all data in an easy-to-grasp way like this, we’d all be a lot better off, I think.

A Tip o' the Hat to fellow American Expat in NZ, Dawn (who's also a friend, as in, IRL), for sending me the link.

Second Anniversary, squared

I like to say that today is the second anniversary of our second anniversary. I like the way that sounds, though it’s more accurate to say it’s the second of our other anniversary. See? That sounds much too mercantile.

Two years ago today, on a blisteringly hot Saturday afternoon, Nigel and I had our civil union ceremony and became, legally, a couple under New Zealand law—married in nearly every way but name. So, today is the second anniversary of our civil union.

However, we always used to celebrate November 2, the day I arrived in New Zealand to stay, as our anniversary, and we’d had 13 of them by the time we had our civil union. So, January 24, our civil union ceremony day, was sort of our “other anniversary”, or, a “second anniversary” which makes today our second anniversary of our second anniversary.

This sounds like a lot of words and a round about way to describe a very simple thing, doesn’t it? I agree: The New Zealand government should just allow same sex couples to be married like the opposite-sex couples among our friends and family members.

But today, we really are celebrating our Second Anniversary, squared. I mean, why not?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hate crime irony

It’d easy to point to any number of ways in which people who commit crimes based in hatred will be visited, inevitably, by irony. One such time is in the news right now.

As was first reported last Thursday on GayNZ.com, a lesbian couple in their 60s, who live about an hour north of Auckland, have had their property attacked in an apparent hate crime.

The end of the first week of January, the couple found that “Filthy Dikes [sic]” had been scrawled on the packing shed where they run their part-time business. “Dirty Dikes” had been scrawled on their house and “Dikes Trash” had been scrawled on their car. Police generally don’t pursue such property crimes and, the couple reported, didn’t seem very interested in this one.

The following week, however, the couple’s packing shed was so badly damaged in an arson fire that it must be torn down, making it impossible for them to run their seasonal business this year. Northland fire safety officer, Craig Bain, told the Sunday Star-Times, "There are definite signs that someone has broken into the place. It was deliberately lit. It's a real nasty, nasty crime." Police now say that the graffiti and arson are linked. Well, duh!

In my opinion, New Zealand Police don’t take relatively minor hate-related property crimes seriously enough: Very minor crimes like graffiti often lead to far more serious crimes. If the criminals aren’t caught now, one can imagine what his/her/their next crime could be.

One thing that's important to know is that this sort of thing is rare in New Zealand—so rare, in fact, that it makes the national news when it happens. As I've said repeatedly, Kiwis are generally a laid-back, accepting people and would never tolerate such crimes; an attack like this is really an attack on the entire community. Still, there are haters here, too, and mentally disturbed people, so even we aren't immune from hate-based crimes.

But there is a sweet irony in this disgusting attack. Most literate people, unlike the criminal(s), know that that the slang term for lesbian is “dyke”, with a “Y”. Dike? That’s the Greek goddess of moral justice. Hopefully, the criminal(s) will face that soon enough.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The annual increasing number

Stamvei 52

This year it rolled over to 52. I have no idea how it did that. Today my sister rang me for my birthday and asked, absent mindedly (she is older than me…), “So, how old are you now, 31?” I answered truthfully, then added: “But 31 works better for me.” And, it does.

This is nothing new: I’ve always had a disconnect between the age I am and the age I feel inside, moving from one direction to the other. When I was in high school, I felt much older and it frustrated me that adults treated me like just another teenager. Sometime not long after university, my real age caught up with my perceived age—but it kept on going and my perceived age didn’t.

I don’t know what age I now “feel”, apart from younger than I actually am. That could be a simple, “Wait, what? I can’t possibly be that old! Last thing I remember, I was celebrating my 30th!” And there’s truth in that.

But there’s also truth in my knees that are somewhat less reliable than at chronological 30, or my stamina, never great, that seems a shadow of what it was at 25. Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder who IS that old guy staring back at me? Some hair dye usually fixes that.

I became a “bottle baby” (old gay slang for a gay man who dyes his hair), originally, so I could better compete with the younger people in my industry and now I do it simply so my outside is a better match with my inside. I see no reason why I should look older than I feel when something so simple can help fix that. There will come a point, I know, when it’ll be more than faintly ridiculous to continue to present how old I feel rather than how old I am, but that day is not today.

I’m actually, in a weird way, looking forward to being to being the kindly and wise old guy who offers support and encouragement and continues to revel in the new. I’d love to be the nonagenarian so enraptured with new technology that the news puts him on as an item of curiosity. But that, too—fortunately—is not today.

Right now, I’m just 52, an age of no particular importance. Inside, well, I feel much younger. One day, the two will probably merge again. That’ll be when you can watch for me on the evening news as the old guy using and loving the latest cool technology. But you’ll have to wait some four decades for that. I’m fine with that.

For the record, I had a nice birthday: I relaxed during the day and then Nigel took me out for dinner. It was a very good day.

P!nk – F**kin' Perfect

I ran across this video at Joe.My.God., and as this is the uncensored version the language is probably NSFW for some. Also, there are violent images and some of self-harm. All of which adds up to a good video of a good song.

I noticed awhile back that every few years, or maybe once a decade, a song comes along that reminds youths that they’re okay—despite what their peers say, despite what society says, they’re really okay and they just need to hang on and things will get better. Some examples: “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” – Billy Joel (1985); “You Get What You Give” (aka, incorrectly, as “You’ve Got The Music In You”) – New Radicals (1998); “Beautiful” - Christina Aguilera (2002), and others.

To me, this song, from P!nk’s “Greatest Hits… So Far!!!” album, belongs in that company, even though it takes a somewhat different tack, is more rock than pop and uses language you’ll never hear on radio. I think it belongs because the core message is the same.

I’ve been a fan of P!nk for many, many years, but few of her songs bring tears to my eyes as this video did (admittedly, it was the music video medium in this case). But for me she’s a perfect blend of rock, pop and even dance. Add meaningful lyrics, as she so often does, and I’m there.

I’ve frequently promoted songs that try and get a positive message through to youth, especially when I actually like the song. In my opinion, this song is "Fucking Perfect". So much so, I bought the album.

Footnote: The title of this post is the title used on the YouTube video; I didn't and wouldn't censor it. I obviously have no problem with, or reluctance to use, the "F word" as some people like to call it.

Remembrance of presidents past

Today was still January 20 in the US, which means the anniversary of inauguration days. The US newmedia was talking about the mid-point of President Obama’s first term (and for a good take on that, check out Roger Green’s post) as well as the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

I can’t quite get my ahead around my thoughts on President Obama’s midpoint (another reason I’m glad Roger got his views out). Instead, I thought about past inaugurations and I realised that I have no idea which president was the first I actually watched being inaugurated. It was probably Nixon (more likely 1973 than 1969), but after that I think I watched at least part of most of them.

I remember a profound disappointment watching Reagan and Bush 2 sworn in (twice each), less so with Bush 1 and I’m sure I was thrilled about Nixon (I was a child Republican back then). I was happiest at Clinton’s first inauguration because he was the first president I voted for who actually won. I was, of course, also thrilled with President Obama’s inauguration.

Obviously we can’t know who will be inaugurated on January 20, 2013, but I’ll probably be watching. Whether I’m happy, profoundly disappointed or somewhere in between will depend a lot on what happens this year, because the next year, 2012, will be taken up entirely with the election. It’ll be an, um, interesting ride.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sleeping dogs (and cat)

Today, as I was doing some things in the house, I glanced over and saw Jake and Sunny sleeping in the doorway to the room. Fortunately, my camera was close at hand. They don’t often sleep so close together, but it’s not unusual.

The photo below is of Jake and Bella sleeping next to each other, taken about a week ago. It’s been quite awhile since I posted a photo of Bella so it was nice to have a chance to take one.

All of which are just excuses for me to post more photos.

Two spaces or not two spaces

In my previous post, “5 things to stop typing”, I listed five mistakes people make when typing documents. In that post, I said I was talking about documents intended for professional publishing, and I noted reasons for those recommendations.

In a comment to that post, Roger Green linked to a post by Mark Evanier who concluded: “I've decided not to try and break the habit and to go on inserting two spaces after a period when I type. If Farhad Manjoo doesn't like it, I don't care. He doesn't read this site.”

Evanier was referring to an article on Slate.com, “Space Invaders”, in which Manjoo makes some of the same points about two spaces after a fullstop that I did. Evanier, I think, completely misunderstood Manjoo, assigning to him some of the, uh, assertiveness of some typographers. That aside, Evanier’s follow up led me to the downright pissy post “everyone has a right to their beliefs” by someone Evanier calls Tom Lee (I can’t find authorship listed on the site, so I’ll just assume that Evanier is correct).

I have no interest in getting into an argument with either Evanier or Lee (or anyone else for that matter, like the commenters on Slate or Lee’s sites), but quite frankly some of the reaction has been appalling, falling squarely into the “someone is wrong on the internet!” category of gross over-reaction to a non-issue.

Here’s my position: If you love two spaces after a fullstop more than life itself, then use them. No one’s proposing the death penalty for you. However, be aware that you’re making extra work for someone else, and that will cost you money.

Professional page layout programs expand or contract space on a line to make it fill without ugly gaps between words or letters. When an extra space is added, it throws off that spacing—sometimes dramatically.

For this reason, all those extra spaces must be stripped-out before the document is placed into a professional page layout program. Over the course of a year, I spend about one full work-week’s worth of time (and others spend considerably more time) doing nothing but fixing the typing errors I mentioned, and the majority of that time is spent removing extra spaces. That’s empty, lost time I can’t use for anything else—but customers still pay for that time.

But hey, if you’re like Evanier and Lee and want to cling to your double spaces after a fullstop, go for it! And folks in my profession will happily charge you for removing them from your document.

NB: I originally wrote this post yesterday, but held back because I’m truly not interested in a fight about something so stupid. But I think it’s important to know that there’s a cost-benefit factor in using two spaces.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

5 things to stop typing

Over the years, I’ve taken thousands of documents people have typed up, usually using the ubiquitous Microsoft Word, and then spent countless hours fixing them. I’m not just talking about spelling and grammar mistakes (we all make them…), but typing errors—most of them holdovers from the days of typewriters.

If a document is for use within a company or organisation, those mistakes don’t matter much, but if the document will be used in something that’ll be professionally laid-out and printed—like newsletters, annual reports or brochures—then it does matter. Anything that takes extra time will probably cost more money, so it’s a good idea to avoid mistakes in typing.

Here are five common mistakes people make when typing a document:
  1. HEADLINES SHOULD NEVER BE IN ALL CAPS! Did you find that easy to read? That’s why newspapers and magazines don’t print headlines in all caps. That’s a holdover from typewriter days when there was one type size and weight. Instead, just make your headline bold and/or make it bigger.
  2. A tab is not something you pull. When indenting a line, use a tab, never spaces. Spaces get all messed up when the document is reformatted for publishing. There’s special formatting you can use, like hanging indents for lists, or maybe first line indents for paragraphs, but they’re not really necessary for a document that will be published professionally. But if you insist on indenting text, use a tab and never spaces.
  3. Deceptive appearances. Many people like to type with justified text, that is, where the left and right margins are all straight lines, like in a column of text in newspaper. If you use that, you won’t see any extra spaces you’ve accidentally put in. Also, these documents sometimes turn out really weird when placed in professional publishing software. Instead, let the right margin do as it pleases! Word calls this “Align Text Left,” other programs call it “Left Justified” (and typographers often call it “ragged right”). Whatever you call it, that’s what this blog post is. Also, keep in mind that if the recipient of your document doesn’t have the same fonts, it could look—and the layout could be—very different from what you see, so stick to basic, boring typefaces.
  4. Return to sender. Using the return (or enter) key is like slamming your hand down on your desk: It’s abrupt, it’s noisy and very jarring. That’s why it’s used ONLY at the end of a paragraph and NEVER at the end of a line, like folks used to do on typewriters. Computers automatically wrap the text onto the next line, so if you hit return at the end of each line, professional publishing software will see every line as a separate paragraph. That has to be fixed line-by-line, meaning hours of endless non-fun.
  5. One space only. The biggest, most common mistake people make when typing: NEVER put two spaces after a full stop (called a “period” the US and other places). This is another throwback to typewriters. In those days, every character got the same amount of space (this is called “monospacing” or “fixed width”). Adding an extra space after sentences made paragraphs easier to read. But when word processors came along, they introduced proportional spacing, that is, they give space to characters based on how big they are; for example, an uppercase “W” takes up more room than a lowercase “i”, or a fullstop, and the spacing is adjusted. They also automatically add extra space at the end of each sentence. So, when you put in two spaces, it’s actually the equivalent of adding many spaces. Professional publishing software often sees these as BIG spaces. So, publishers have to strip out extra spaces between sentences.
Keep in mind that a real-live person will have to spend real-live person time fixing all these typing errors, on top of routine editing, before they can turn your document into your lovely professionally printed and published masterpiece. That extra time could cost you more money, so it really is to your advantage to—ahem!—type right.

This post was inspired, in part, by a Tweet from my fellow American expat in New Zealand, @juliryan.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cold breakfast

Today marked the end to the holidays for many people as they headed back to work. Among them were the new hosts of TVNZ’s Breakfast. I watched most of it and while I certainly didn’t hate it, the programme left me somewhat cold.

New hosts Corin Dann and Petra Bagust replaced Paul Henry, who was forced to resign last year after making racist remarks, and Pippa Wetzell. Dann was formerly the reader of business news and Bagust is a veteran TV presenter, mostly of lifestyle programmes on TVNZ’s competitor, TV3.

The new hosts couldn’t be any more different from the former hosts if they tried: There was no real spark, no real energy; the whole thing was very low-key and, for lack of a better word, mellow. I don’t know (yet) if that’s good or bad, but it was certainly different.

What was troubling was that TVNZ used its own people as guests when those roles were formerly taken by outsiders. Gordon Harcourt of TVNZ’s Fair Go talked about a telecommunications company whose marketing efforts may have run afoul of the law. Or something (I was busy at the time). In the past, the interview subject for such a segment would be an outsider, like someone from Consumer NZ.

A new segment, “My Media”, will bring in “a well-known Kiwi to give us their take on news story that has caught their eye.” My first thought was, “okay… uh, why?” But that was partly because of their first guest: Kiel McNaughton, an actor who plays Scotty on TVNZ’s soap opera, Shortland Street; I didn’t know who he was because I don’t watch the show. Purely coincidentally, of course, Shortland Street resumes broadcasting tonight after its hiatus for the holidays. PURE coincidence.

My sarcasm is because last year TVNZ increasingly used news programmes—chiefly Close Up and the evening news, One News, to promote other TVNZ programmes. Close Up is sometimes little more than an extended commercial for TVNZ itself—infotainment. That’s bad enough for a programme that purports to be a current affairs show, but when the news programme does it, too, it cheapens the entire broadcast, making the whole thing inconsequential.

So it looks like Breakfast—which is mainly infotainment for 2½ hours each weekday—is just part of what TVNZ programmes now do regularly: Use TVNZ staff for cross promotion of other TVNZ programmes.

I don’t really care about who they have present Breakfast or any other show, but I’d prefer that whatever information or news they deliver wasn’t served with a large helping of cold self-promotion.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Centrist consensus

The US political powers-that-be seem to have agreed that America can’t have a debate about gun control. In effect, gun radicals are deciding for everyone else and rejecting the commonsense centrist consensus on guns held by folks in both parties, like George W. Bush and Barrack Obama, as spelled out in this video from the Rachel Maddow Show. That consensus holds that some restrictions on gun ownership are both sensible and necessary.

The basic proposals—including the banning of large capacity ammunition clips like that used in the Arizona shootings—are so non-controversial that reinstating a ban should be a no-brainer. The gun radicals have decreed otherwise, cutting off debate and arguing instead that, paradoxically and counter intuitively, the answer to gun violence is more guns with few or even no restrictions.

Some of these radicals also promote the truly bizarre idea that the purpose of the Second Amendment isn’t merely so that Americans can have guns for hunting and self-defence as mainstream conservatives have always said. Instead, they say that the purpose is so that citizens can overthrow the US Government. Put baldly, they seriously believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to enshrine treason as a right.

There is nothing in the text of the Second Amendment or the US Constitution generally that could possibly be interpreted as promoting that idea. Instead, the gun radicals turn to revisionist history and outright fantasy to try and reframe the debate as being about some sort of mythological right to overthrow the government.

As Rachel points out in the video, the logical conclusion of this belief is that they must also be able to have access to the same level of weaponry—including nuclear weapons. Otherwise, what’s the point? After all, Glocks, even with high-capacity ammunition clips, couldn’t make traitors’ success possible, nor would hunting rifles.

It’s time that the commonsense centrist consensus was restored and gun radicals stopped dictating to everyone else. That consensus is simple, straightforward and a middle ground supported by people in both parties. It’s also actually based on the Constitution and principles of Americans democracy. The gun radicals can’t make any of those claims. So: Who are elected representatives going to listen to?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sign of the times

It’s beginning to look like maybe US politicians simply aren’t interested in restoring civility to American politics. The fight over who’s really promoting violence continues, even as we see evidence that they reject opportunities to promote civility.

Mark DeMoss is an evangelical Christian and Republican who was once an aide to Jerry Falwell, and who served as an unpaid advisor to Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He and Lanny Davis, a Jewish Democrat, started the CivilityProject.org in January 2009, before President Obama was inaugurated, because of what DeMoss saw as an already vicious tone in American politics.

Yesterday, DeMoss announced he was shutting down the project. American politicians, it seems, weren’t interested in committing to civility.

The pledge he sent to all US Governors and Members of Congress—585 elected politicians—was simple:
  • I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
  • I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
  • I will stand against incivility when I see it.
In the two years since, only three politicians—all from the US Congress—signed the pledge (Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent from Connecticut, Representative Frank Wolfe, R-VA and Representative Sue Myrick, R-NC. Said DeMoss in his letter to the three: “I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar.”

It was a very low bar, deliberately, and the project was co-founded with Lanny Davis so that, DeMoss thought, neither Democrats nor Republicans would feel they were being lectured to by the other side. He hoped they’d be more successful with a bipartisan approach. That’s not how things turned out:
“Perhaps one of the most surprising results of this project has been the tone and language used by many of those posting comments on our website and following articles on various media websites about the project. Many of them could not be printed or spoken in public media due to vulgar language and vicious personal attacks. Sadly, a majority of these came from fellow conservatives.”
Talking with the New York Times, DeMoss elaborated:
“The worst e-mails I received about the civility project were from conservatives with just unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn’t use in this phone call. This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat. That would probably be true about some liberals going the other direction, but I didn’t hear from them.”
There are indeed some liberals who say similar things about all Republicans or all conservatives, though I haven’t personally seen the same level of aggressiveness or incivility among Democrats, nor had it thrust before me in the same way the other side’s has been.

All of that’s irrelevant. When kids argue, one of them often says, “He started it!” And then the adult will say, “I don’t care WHO started it, I’M stopping it!” What we need are some adults among the politicians (and also the opinion media, but that’s another thing altogether).

I just can’t see the adults taking charge of US politics and I think that things will get even worse in the lead up to the 2012 elections. Still, the choice, ultimately, is ours. Choose wisely—and with civility.

Politics in the brain

I’m rather interested in politics. I know that’s a shock to folks who maybe hadn’t noticed that more of my posts are tagged “US Politics” than anything else, or that at any given time, the top five most popular posts will include many about US Politics (at the time I’m writing this, three of the five are about US politics).

Apparently, I may come by this naturally—literally.

Despite the holidays, many folks on the Internet took note of a small study in Britain that found a significant correlation between brain structure and political leanings (liberal or conservative). In this case, “significant” means it’s more than chance would suggest, but something that would require further scientific research to prove or disprove.

The study came about when the actor Colin Firth was made Guest Editor for an episode of a BBC Radio programme (as they do the last week of the year). As Firth jokingly explained, “I just decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me, and see what scientists had to say about it, and they actually came up with something.” (In case an American conservative reads this post, Firth was joking; it’s British humour).

Still, much to everyone’s surprise, researchers found structural differences in the brains of self-described liberals and conservatives: Conservatives had a more pronounced amygdala—a primitive part of the brain associated with processing emotions. Liberals, on the other (left?) hand, had thicker anterior cingulated cortex, which is associated with, among other things, decision-making and empathy.

The study was too small to be conclusive, but it complemented behavioural research done a few years ago that found the brains of liberals and conservatives work differently.

Researchers determined liberals’ brains tended to tolerate conflict and ambiguity better than conservatives’ brains. Earlier studies found that liberals were more open to new experiences, while conservatives tended to be more structured and persistent in their judgments.

So, research suggests liberals are more willing to take on new information and to change their positions as they learn more. Conservatives tend to be more single-minded, ignoring outside influences. Some of my liberal friends may see that as a bad thing, but there are times when it could be a useful trait—like trying to accomplish a specific task, for example.

It’s important to note that this is all descriptive, not predictive: Political ideology is a spectrum, so it’s inappropriate to make blanket assumptions about those generally on the left or right. Similarly, research can’t predict the position someone will take on an issue. We also don’t know why these brain differences exist.

However, all this research suggests that there are real, structural differences in the way that liberals and conservatives see the world and react to it. That could explain why they find it so hard to find a middle ground and why they tend not to get along. And if political orientation has some physical components, and it clearly does, then other things—like sexual orientation—must do, too.

So, I write so much about politics from a liberal perspective because that’s the way I’m built. Or maybe vice versa.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sarah Palin must retire

The argument is still raging over the extent to which violent rhetoric and images from the right wing have contributed to the toxic, violent political climate in the US, and now the woman at the centre of it—the former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin—has stirred the pot. She must retire from public life.

The implicit violence in her rhetoric and images are indisputable to mainstream people. She should have been a statesperson and apologised, but she wouldn’t do that. She could have at least shown some empathy and said, “It’s absurd to say that images I posted or words that I said incited violence, but I’ve nevertheless decided to avoid them in the future.” But she couldn’t even manage that. No, instead, she went on the attack, denied everything, ducked responsibility and ended up looking like the worst kind of craven politician covering her butt.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

In her attack, Palin said her critics were engaged in a “blood libel” against her. That phrase has a horrible historic meaning: Christians claimed Jews used the blood of Christian babies and children to make matzos for Passover or for use in other religious ceremonies. The origins of the blood libel extend back to the Middle Ages, but some segments of Christianity still persist in the libel.

Either Sarah Palin didn’t know what that phrase means, in which case she’s an idiot, or she knew and used it anyway as a coded message to her supporters, in which case she’s far worse than merely an idiot.

No matter how you look at it, Sarah Palin has long since gone too far. It’s time for her to exit the public stage and leave politics to responsible people.

False equivalence

The rightwing in the US is continuing its desperate attempt to shirk responsibility for pushing violent rhetoric in political debate. Yesterday, one of the folks I follow on Twitter, Marnus3, tweeted some succinct reminders of why the right is uniquely culpable. Here are my favourites:
  • Was it both sides who wanted their constituents "armed and dangerous"?
  • Was it both sides suggested that if you lose at the ballot box you can have "second amendment remedies"?
  • Was it both sides who declared on national TV "Tiller, Tiller, the baby killer"?
  • Was it both sides who drew a map of cross hairs over the districts of incumbent representatives?
  • Was it both sides who told their followers to "reload"?
And here are a few “fun” items for sale on a “patriot” website:
The “spin” on the site is incredible. Of the “Liberal Hunting License” their sales blurb said, “Target them for defeat! Elect conservative majorities in Congress, and put a conservative in the White House by 2013!’ [emphasis added: “BY”? Not “in”?]. We’re supposed to ignore the bullet holes on the donkey (the animal is a symbol of the Democratic Party), and ignore the hunting terminology “No bag limit – no tagging required”! But, just in case, they added: “Disclaimer: For novelty purposes only.” That way they can feign shock and surprise that anyone took them literally. This item was still on sale yesterday, but has now been removed.

The middle image is more obscure, but I mentioned it in this post. Their sales blurb says that the Psalm says “May his days be few; and let another take his office”. That’s true, but they deliberately left out what follows: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.” This violent Psalm is no less than a wish for the death of the president, or even a wish/call for assassination. This is used by many of America’s rightwing (some of whom probably don’t know the rest of the text, never having read much of the bible). This is still on sale.

The site’s sales blurb claims that the image on the right is merely a play on the Obama slogan “Hope and Change”. “Our new sticker states it correctly,” it says. “Rope and Chains. Taxes, loss of freedoms, and Big Government sum the changes up pretty clearly.” Although that’s delusional in its own right, it could be tempting to take them at their word, were it not for one inconvenient detail: The sticker deliberately suggests images of lynching of African Americans.

Without a doubt, the most infamous modern day lynching occurred in Texas in June 1998 when James Byrd Jr. was beaten by white supremacists, then chained by his ankles to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged along a road for three miles, during which time Byrd was alive and conscious—until he was killed when his body hit a culvert, decapitating him and cutting off his right arm. Pieces of Byrd’s remains were found in 75 places. Let me put this so plainly that even the folks behind that nutjob site can understand it: Don’t dare try to tell me that they didn’t mean to conjure up images of lynching President Obama, not when they’re also praying for his death/assassination and urging people to shoot liberals, too.

This is the reality of the far right in America, urged on by their leaders in the media, Republican Party politics and the tea party movement. Until they end their poisonous violent rhetoric, they have no grounds nor right to criticise the left for the altogether different—and far milder—negative rhetoric they used during the Bush/Cheney regime.

There is no equivalence between what the right does and says now and what the left did and said in the Bush/Cheney years. None. It’s a lie and a smear—and cowardly excuse making—to suggest otherwise.

Update: On AlterNet, Melissa McEwan details other ways in which there is no equivalence.

About the McDonald’s ban

I haven’t chimed in on the controversy that began when it was revealed McDonald’s NZ was blocking non-adult gay sites from its recently-launched free WiFi service. But the controversy just isn’t going away, despite the company agreeing to “review” its policies.

McDonald’s NZ filtering isn’t homophobic, but it is IS stupid.

The service blocks even benign pages, like Wikipedia pages for certain body parts. It also blocks NZ dating sites which, of course, serve everyone. To be homophobic, it would have to single out GLBT sites or content, and it doesn’t.

But it’s incredibly stupid in 2011 to still be using broad-brush, completely unsophisticated web filters when much better, more precise filtering technology exists. Maybe it was a cost-related decision, or maybe it was made by an executive without any understanding of the implications of using bad, unsophisticated web filtering. But without any evidence to the contrary, their filtering is stupid, not evil.

McDonald’s statements have been unfortunate.

In defending their third-rate web filters, McDonald’s reiterated that it’s a family restaurant, and web pages must be suitable for children to view (they meant casually, like from another table or when walking by). No one would argue that it’s appropriate to look at pornography in a McDonald’s; in fact, I’d even say it’s creepy to do that. But porn wasn’t the issue here.

It came across as McDonald’s agreeing with our fundamentalist “Christian” friends that all (or nearly all) GLBT sites are by definition “adult-rated”. I think—or hope, anyway—that that’s NOT what McDonald’s meant.

I think part of the problem is that corporations like McDonald’s are far too cautious in deciding what’s truly “adult-rated”. I also think that perhaps they fall back on barely-acknowledged, even unconscious assumptions. It’s probabluy more sexist than homophobic that they’d have a problem with ads promoting travel to a resort on a gay site displaying ads with pictures of scantily clad nubile young men, but have no problem with “general audience” sites that display ads with photos of scantily-clad nubile young women. And if ads are their problem, why not block them?

The main problem with McDonald’s statements is the implication that GLBT people aren’t included in “family”, don’t have families and don’t have children. They implied GLBT people are on one side, families on the other (it’s important to note that not all corporate statements implied this). I don’t think—or I hope—that McDonald’s spokespeople didn’t mean to imply that, but it was nevertheless implicit in their suggesting that GLBT websites may not be appropriate for their “family friendly restaurants”.

This is one of the ways in which McDonald’s was being the most stupid: The company cannot survive if their only customers are parents/caregivers bringing along young children. They need single adults, teenagers and older folks. It makes no sense to imply that some of these customers aren’t valued or as important to the company, and it’s especially stupid to imply that the company accepts money from GLBT people, but doesn’t consider them to be real customers.

So, is McDonald’s NZ homophobic? No. Stupid? Absolutely, and they made it worse by their ham-fisted public relations efforts.

Update: GayNZ.com reports that McDonald's NZ has unlblocked Rainbow Youth and Agender, but is "struggling" with what to do about GayNZ.com itself "due to some of the site's advertisements, but has offered to meet with GayNZ.com to discuss possible ways forward, an offer GayNZ.com is taking up." In an article on Stuff, company spokesperson Christine Dennis said, "Some advertisements are sexually explicit and they do not meet our 'family or child friendly' criteria.'' Considering there’s no nudity in the ads, and no sex acts depicted, “sexually explicit” is a bit too strong; there are heterosexual equivalents of some of the ads on mainstream news sites, for example, sites McDonald’s does not block.

Meanwhile, back on GayNZ.com, Vaughan Meneses writes about what could and couldn't be accessed on the WiFi network, and concludes: "Obviously in a family friendly environment like McDonald's it is not OK to access counselling and support information that could save the lives of our kids. But it is OK for them to watch a rape, feed racism, and become a white supremacist." He provides examples of all of those, and shows just how silly McDonald’s filters really are.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

NZ journalists: Homophobic or lazy?

A recent controversy in New Zealand suggests New Zealand’s journalists are lazy, homophobic or both.

The controversy arose because McDonald’s restaurants in New Zealand blocked from its free WiFi service many New Zealand websites that it, in its sole opinion, deemed to be not “family friendly”. Predictably, that includes GLBT sites: GayNZ.com, New Zealand’s leading site for news and information for the GLBT communities, is blocked. Also blocked is Rainbow Youth, for GLBTQ youth, and Agender, the leading transgender information website, among others. GayNZ.com issued an open letter to McDonald’s and reported all of this on its website.

The New Zealand Herald, with the NZPA (basically, New Zealand’s wire service), and TV One News all reported this on their websites and included quotes from a press release from Bob McCoskrie, head of the rightwing extremist “Christian” organisation “Family” First. New Zealand journalists often turn to McCoskrie for comment on GLBT-related news, despite the fact that his group is rabidly anti-gay and pushing a fundamentalist “Christian” political agenda.

These facts are precisely why McCoskrie was unfit to turn to for reaction: His group will always have a position against gay people. Had the journalists covering this story provided this information to the reader, had readers been aware of the extreme religious bias of McCoskrie’s group, they could’ve put his comments in the proper context (well, put them in the rubbish bin, where they belong).

But New Zealand journalists never tell their readers/viewers about the nature of McCoskrie’s political group, so news consumers are left to assume his group’s just some sort of legitimate “family” organisation rather than the anti-gay, extremist religious political group that it really is.

McCoskrie, of course, was allowed to present his views entirely unchallenged, because apparently NZ journalists think that no one can possibly disagree with a fundamentalist Christian’s viewpoint. In fact, McCoskrie was dishonest: He claimed “The issue is not about the type of group,” when he knows damn well that’s exactly what it was about. He said “material which is adult-rated should be blocked in a public setting” without bothering to mention that to him and his group anything dealing positively with GLBT people or issues is automatically “adult-rated”, even if it's entirely non-sexual.

McCoskrie was also allowed to push his rightwing political agenda, specifically, calling for censorship “in schools and libraries”. He knows that in the US, internet filters used by such institutions have blocked legitimate informational websites, including those with information that could save the lives of GLBT youth.

What journalists should have done is approach experts in civil liberties: Do private businesses that provide a free and open internet connection still have a right to censor what sites users see? Or, they could’ve talked to experts in tech censorship issues, asking about the sorts of broad-brush filtering McDonald’s uses and what might be more appropriate for them. They could also have approached the children’s commissioner for comment. They should have contacted the office of the Chief Censor to find out what’s really “adult-rated” web content, not just accept what some religious extremist thinks it is.

I don’t believe that New Zealand journalists are necessarily homophobic, if by that one means deliberately anti-gay. However, I also believe that sometimes an anti-gay slant slips in, even unintentionally, because of personal assumptions, personal prejudices, etc., and that may lead journalists to, as in this case, pick inappropriate persons for comment on issues affecting GLBT people.

I think this incident shows that more often than not, they’re just being lazy—turning to opponents who show up at their door (or email inbox) rather than them doing real journalism and actually exploring an issue. What they did is quicker and easier in a newsroom with declining resources and falling numbers of journalists.

However, journalists must remember that balance doesn’t mean turning only to the opposite viewpoint (that’s lazy), nor does fairness mean giving “both sides” equal time (that’s sloppy as well as lazy), especially when one "side" is irrelevant to the story being discussed.

Lazy journalists turn to bigots to provide “balance” to gay stories because they seem to think we can’t have an intelligent discussion of issues affecting GLBT people without letting religious extremists have their say, too. I’ll keep harping on this unless and until journalists either stop this lazy and homophobic practice, or if they start turning to white supremacists when discussing issues of race.

Fair and balanced means always using bigots or never using them. It’s that simple.

The sweetness of irony

Glenn Beck, riding once again on the Mendacity Express, has been supposedly decrying violence (while also attacking liberals, as per usual). Today on his website, an image of his plea against violence ran right next to an image of him holding a handgun, finger on the trigger (screenshot above).

The image was placed there by a random image generator (which loads any one of many different images into that spot, meaning that different visitors to that or other pages may see different images). The screenshot above was posted on Twitter by StopBeck (who captured it personally). It isn’t photoshopped; sometimes the truth provides more than enough entertainment value.

Charles Johnson reported on Little Green Footballs that this particular background image has now been deleted from Beck’s site, which was the responsible thing to do. Funny, but responsible, nevertheless.

Ah irony, thy flavour is sweet…

Monday, January 10, 2011

A story about being QRANKy

I need a blogging break. The whole argument over political rhetoric has reminded me of why my political malaise arrived in the first place. So, a diversion is in order. This is a story I planned on posting over the weekend (it was going to be a Weekend Diversion) until events took over.

Last week I woke up and found Twitter and Facebook messages from folks commenting on a question I submitted to QRANK, a trivia game available on Facebook as well as for iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad. The photo with this post is a screenshot of that question and the five possible answers (click on it to embiggen).

Naturally, there’s a bit of a story behind this.

I started playing QRANK (pronounced “crank”) sometime last year and at first found it fun and even challenging. Then one day everyone on Twitter who played QRANK was on my game "friend” list, and the odds of me finishing a game in first place were reduced. Winning isn’t everything, but achieving it now and then keeps the game interesting. It frustrated me that almost no matter what kind of game I’d had—good, bad or indifferent—I was almost always in the middle of the pack.

As this went on, I became annoyed at the US-centric focus of the questions, often about things that someone outside the US has very little chance of knowing. Also, sports questions are often my weakest category, and they seemed to come up frequently (in fact, they don’t, maybe a few days a month).

One of my online buddies, Satyr69, kept telling me to submit questions (as he’s done). Finally, one day I played a game with questions that were especially heavily US-based AND had sports questions. So, that day I set out to write a question that Americans were unlikely to get right—yeah, a bit mean, but I was tired of being in the opposite situation.

At the same time, one other thing happened: I stopped caring where on the list I finished, or even if I played on a given day, and the game became fun again. I have to admit, though, that having my question used was a small thrill. I submitted two others and plan on submitting more.

And that’s the story of how I came to write that question. I guess you could say that in this case, being cranky was a good thing. Or is that QRANK-y?

By the way, the correct answer is India.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Moral culpability

America’s rightwing is in full froth mode, desperately trying to duck their moral culpability in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Part of their tactics have been to smear the left, as is their all-purpose response, but there’s a whiff of panic.

First, a bit of semantics. Without question, the responsibility for this crime lies entirely with the shooter. He must face the full force of law for what he did. Some say that the Teapublicans/tea party must share some of the blame for this crime because of their violent rhetoric and imagery. Personally, I don’t like using “responsibility” because it sounds like the shooter was somehow less responsible.

I prefer the term “culpable” because it means deserving blame. I say that Palin, Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh and their fellow extremists are morally culpable because they lit the spark and then fanned the embers. Could they have known that this particular guy(s) would take this particular action? No. Should they have known their rhetoric would encourage someone to do this sort of thing? Absolutely. THAT is why they’re morally culpable.

Remember that rightwing gunman who shot up a church in Knoxville, Tennessee because he hated liberals and gays? It was around 2½ years ago, so you may not. But you should keep it in mind: “Inside the [killer’s] house, officers found "Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder" by [far right and rabidly homophobic] radio talk show host Michael Savage, "Let Freedom Ring" by [Fox News] talk show host Sean Hannity, and "The O'Reilly Factor," by [Fox News] television talk show host Bill O'Reilly”.

So, violent rightwing rhetoric has incited violence in the past, and almost certainly has again. It’s time the rightwing stopped trying to spin their way out of this and owned up to their moral culpability.

Instead, the right claims the killer “must be” a “liberal” or “an extreme leftist”, and not a tea partier. Why? Because his reading list (posted to his YouTube Channel) includes Karl Marx. But they won’t tell you his entire list, so I will:
“I had favorite books: Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Wizard Of OZ, Aesop Fables, The Odyssey, Alice Adventures Into Wonderland, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, To Kill A Mockingbird, We The Living, Phantom Toll Booth, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pulp,Through The Looking Glass, The Communist Manifesto, Siddhartha, The Old Man And The Sea, Gulliver's Travels, Mein Kampf, The Republic, and Meno.”
To mainstream people, the list looks like it’s from someone of university age, which, just coincidentally, the shooter is. But to America’s right, the presence of one book means he “has to be” a liberal. Riiiiiiiiight.

The problem for the rightwing spin is that it’s based on nothing but hot air. If you look at the killer’s videos—and I watched them all when they'd had only about 300 views—he reveals himself to be in favour of the gold standard for currency, like Ron Paul and most of the tea partiers. He’s also a “Tenther”, meaning he thinks that the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution basically prevents the federal government from doing much of anything. He also railed against the government, like the tea partiers. This evidence is all there, had the right bothered to look before launching their smear attack on the left. [BoingBoing has posted all his videos along with transcripts]

Sarah Palin's not the issue here; whether the killer used her particular crosshairs graphic as inspiration is beside the point. Because such things have incited violence already, she should at least admit the crosshairs graphic and her violence-laden rhetoric were mistakes and she should apologise to America. The rightwing must also stop this NOW and prominent Republicans must denounce the rhetoric and anyone who continues to use it. It’s very clear and simple.

And finally, I’d like to make two further points. The right has long tried to draw a false equivalence between the tea party’s loonies and loonies on the left. But there are two important differences that show how absurd that is: Loonies on the left don’t go on killing rampages and, unlike the tea partiers, they’re not at the core of a major US political party. Our side has nothing to repudiate.

The other point is that this is NOT about the tea party followers. That disparate group has all sorts of people in it, from people with whom I merely disagree (albeit strongly) to folks who present a clear and present danger. The vast majority are law-abiding and non-violent people. They’re not the problem, it’s their leaders and elected officials who set the tone and frame the debates in violent terms. Some tea partiers get that, but the rightwingers who are perpetually mad on the Internet or TV simply don’t or, more likely, won’t.

This story is far from over, but one good thing has already come from it: The mainstream newsmedia has taken notice of the amount of violent rhetoric and imagery used by the right and is pushing back. How the right responds will speak volumes about its moral character; indeed, it’ll tell us if they even have any.

Words have consequences

News of the apparent attempted assassination of Democratic US Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona has spread rapidly through the blogosphere, including conflicting reports on her condition.

What is certain is this: Rep. Giffords was holding an event in Tucson, Arizona. A gunman ran up and opened fire, hitting Rep. Giffords in the head and wounding up to nine others. The gunman was tackled and taken into custody. All of that is known and certain. A couple hours before, she Tweeted from her verified account: “My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later.”

The gunman’s motive, however, is not yet been revealed. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots, however.

On March 26 of last year, I, like a lot of liberal/progressive bloggers, posted a graphic from Sarah Palin’s official site. That graphic, accompanying this post, featured gun sites over Demcoratic US Representatives that Palin was targeting for defeat. Her people wrote on her Facebook page for her, “We’ll aim for these races and many others. This is just the first salvo…”

Giffords is the fourth one down in the first column of that graphic. Only one other Demcorat on that hit list is still in Congress, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia. Giffords office was also vandalised after she voted for healthcare reform (the reason she and Rep. Rahall were on Palin's hit list).

About the same time, Palin posted on her Twitter account: "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead - 'RELOAD!'"..

The day before that post, I noted that a Virginia tea party activist* had posted what he thought was the home address of a Democratic US Representative (it was his brother’s house) and urged his fellow rightwing nutjobs to stop by and “express their thanks”. The man’s gas lines were cut by someone. The tea party leader thought his posting the wrong address was “collateral damage”.

Back then, I repeatedly warned of the consequences of violent rhetoric and images, saying at the end of the March 25 post:
Violence is wrong, violent intimidation is wrong, and violent rhetoric is wrong. If there are any rational, responsible people left in the right wing, they must speak up now, before it’s too late, before, with blood on their hands, they pretend they don’t understand how their rhetoric led to violence. They must do something to stop it now. [emphasis in original]
That didn’t happen, of course, and the violent rhetoric continued. Mainstream news media have already reported that Palin’s staff purged her website of the crosshairs pages and that Tweet with the violent rhetoric. Hey, Sarah: All great Neptune's ocean cannot wash this blood clean from your hands, or those of your fellow agitators.

*Update: Ben Smith at Politico reports that on January 10 (US time) the Virginia tea party activist I referred to in this post Tweeted: “Cutting that Gas line doesn't seem so bad now does it?...What?..... Too Soon?” They really, really don’t get it. At all.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Economic debate

This video, “Crises of Capitalism”, lays out a particular viewpoint on the reality of capitalism in the modern age. On this blog, I’ve often criticised what I call “the current business paradigm” and its emphasis on greed (checkout the tag “Corporate Greed”). This video talks about the heart of what I criticise.

The narrative comes from a more leftist perspective than I have, but since the rightwing dominates all discussions of economics and economic policy, this makes for a refreshing change, because what we need—at the very least—is an informed and passionate discussion of economics. It’s a tall order, I know (economics is often called “the dismal science”), but I have a particular interest in this; after all, the academic field I studied in university, political science, was once inextricably linked with economics.

What I really want to see is a debate about is this: What can we replace the current corporatist capitalist model with, something that’s sustainable, and something that rewards honest initiative instead of greed? To answer that question, we need to understand economics without partisan spin, but to do that, we need to seek out viewpoints we normally wouldn’t. This video is a step toward all that.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Australian floods: Fair and balanced coverage

This video is long, but it’s worth watching all (or most) of it. It does the best job I’ve yet seen of explaining both why the Australian floods are happening, and especially the larger issue of climate change: What it is, what it means, where the areas of disagreement are.

The remarkable thing about this video, I think, is that it doesn’t pander to climate change deniers (or the lunatic fringe) as American news media usually do. That means that they don’t present the discussion as one of “climate change is happening v. climate change is a hoax” like most US-based news media do. Instead, they take for granted that it’s happening—as the vast majority of real, credible scientists do—and seek to explain what climate scientists are actually discussing. That means in-depth talk about the value of differing climate models, what they could mean for weather, those sorts of things (which most of us have trouble understanding, partly because we’re seldom told about it by the news media).

The fact that this fair and balanced coverage should come from Al-Jazeera, which the Bush/Cheney regime seriously considered bombing in order to shut it down, is all the more ironic.

The US news media’s illusory obsession with “balance” does a massive disservice to news consumers because it leaves them spectacularly ill informed and believing that everything is a debate between two equal sides. I frequently criticise this new media obsession and will continue to do so.

Fairness in news reporting demands that varying—but not necessarily all—viewpoints are presented and discussed, as this video did. Fairness does not require that every viewpoint be given equal time. Al-Jazeera did a great job of showing how this can be done; the BBC often does that, lately CNN has been doing it more and Fox never does.

Obviously there’s room for political discussion on climate change that could include conservatives (religious or not). But the lazy approach of the US news media (and that of much of the West, actually) is to have all discussions on the topic centre on the legitimacy of climate change itself. That leaves news consumers with no idea of what climate change really is, what it could mean and what, if anything, can be done about it. That sort of discussion is a scientific debate, and it’s one that conservative political and religious activists simply aren’t qualified to be part of.

Democracy cannot function, or even survive, without an informed citizenry. The news media have an important role to play in that. They simply must do better.

A Tip o’ the Hat to Roger Green for pointing me to the video.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A bit rich

The political malaise that wrapped itself around me back in November hasn’t gone away, but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing gross hypocrisy and crass attempts to spin reality among the incoming Republican leadership of the US House of Representatives. Naturally, I won’t let that pass unchallenged.

Rational people all knew that Darrell Issa, the incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was a loose canon, but it turns out we were distracted by the venom he spewed toward President Obama. In the lead up to the November elections Issa pledged a flurry of subpoenas to “investigate” the Obama Administration for one imaginary thing after another. When Republicans won control of the US House, he seemed to back off that somewhat, unleashing the fury of the Teapublicans. So, he was soon back in full irrational flight.

Recently, he said that the Obama Administration was the “most corrupt” in US history. It turns out that his relentless attacks on the Obama administration were a smokescreen to allow him to pursue his real agenda: Advancing corporatism.

It turns out that Issa sent letters to industry and corporate lobbying associations to ask what regulations they wanted him to work to repeal first. The list isn’t surprising: Allow corporations to pollute more, and specifically to emit more toxic gases; also, weaken worker safety rules and remove protections so that Wall Street can again be as corrupt as it was before the crash.

So in Issa we see the hypocrisy typical of Republican Congressional leaders, and on two fronts: First, claiming that the Obama Administration is “corrupt” while turning a completely blind eye toward the actual crimes of the Bush/Cheney regime. Second, by pretending to be advancing a Teapublican agenda when he’s really all about doing the bidding of corporations.

Meanwhile, the new Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (who is truly vile for many reasons), declared that the Republicans’ top priority—a pointless vote to “repeal” healthcare reform—will be done because, as he put it, "This was litigated in the last election."

Cantor’s either delusional or a liar (or both) because that’s clearly utter nonsense. Exit polls showed without question or dispute that creating jobs and tackling the deficit were what voters were concerned about. On healthcare, polls show that a majority of voters actually support healthcare reform or even want to expand it! Only 37%—not “most people” as Cantor claimed—oppose healthcare reform because it’s “too liberal”. Put another way, Cantor is 100% wrong. Of course, that’s not the first time Cantot’s misrepresented the truth, but that’s another topic.

So, this new Republican leadership is actually the same as it’s always been: Hypocritical, dishonest and determined to ignore the needs of mainstream Americans in order to serve the needs of the cooperate elites. It’s more than a bit rich for them to claim to be anything other than that.

It’ll be an interesting two years.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

As promised

I finally have a new photo of Sunny and Jake. Today I was sitting on the sofa and Jake jumped up to have a nap next to me. Then Sunny jumped up, too, but since this was a 2-seater, she ended up lying mostly on top of Jake, who didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, they “posed” for several photos (I think that this one is the best) and only moved because I got up so we could put the sofa back where it belongs (we were rearranging a room, and I sat down to wait for Nigel to do something).

In related news, Jake’s medicine is already helping: He’s clearly not itchy anymore and is back to his old self already. Don’t worry, we’ll see out the prescription because we want him healed, not just relieved.

I won’t necessarily post every photo of Jake and Sunny (or Bella, for that matter) here on my blog (and I’m not saying I won’t…), but you can see photos on my Flicr account where I have a photoset I recently made just for photos of them.

5 Predictions for 2011

Many people wrap-up an old year looking back and reflecting on all that happened in the fading year. Some people also start the new year looking ahead to what’s going to happen. I’ve sometimes done the first, but I don’t think I’ve ever done the second. So, probably for the first time, five new year predictions:
  1. Republicans in the US Congress will say or do something really stupid/awful and the Democrats won’t know what to say or do in response. Republican/Fox spin will smooth it all over and Democrats will wonder how they missed another opportunity.
  2. Far right religious nutcases will continue to harass gay and lesbian people and will often succeed in enshrining their hatred in law. Mainstream political and religious leaders will continue to say and do little or nothing to stop them.
  3. In New Zealand, both the National Party and the Labour Party will say or do really stupid things and, when called on it, will blame the other party. It’s an election year; it’s what they do.
  4. Mainstream newsmedia will continue to fixate on the trivial, mundane and banal while deliberately ignoring the issues of substance that really matter to most people now, or that will matter in the years ahead. Most people will hardly even notice—as long as they get their reality show updates on the evening news.
  5. At some point in the year, someone somewhere will be wrong on the Internet and someone else somewhere else will make it his or her mission to correct/complain about/attack the first person. Words will be exchanged, blood pressures will rise and nothing will have changed when the dust settles.
Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Especially about that last one.

This prognosticating is tiring work, but at least I saved myself some effort at the end of the year: I now have to do a post reflecting on how accurate I was. Such is the responsibility one takes on when predicting the future.

Go ahead and make your own predictions in the comments if you want—serious or not.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Dog days

These aren’t quite the dog days (or, the hottest ones) of summer. Typically, those will be next month or later this month. Still, it’s been HOT around here lately, far more so than is normal. Today it hit 36 at our house (96.8F) when the “official” temperature was 24 (75.2F). If anyone really believes it was only 24 in Auckland today, perhaps they’d like to buy the Auckland Harbour Bridge from me…

These have been dog days for a more literal reason, of course, as we’ve been blending new furbaby Sunny into our menagerie. A few days after she came to live with us, we realised she had fleas. We bought flea treatment for all three kids, and I gave Sunny a bath to wash away some of the fleas before we treated her. Within a couple days, the fleas were gone.

However, Jake had never had fleas before and developed dermatitis from a reaction to them. A common enough ailment, but it was driving him batty; he pulled out his fur in the worst areas, which are inflamed and infected.

Today we took Jake to the vet and they gave him a shot of cortisone to ease the itching, plus some antibiotics to kill the infection and more cortisone pills. I also have some medicated shampoo to use on his nether regions (where fleas like to hang out) for the next few days. This will help heal his skin and reduce the itchiness, too.

Sunny, meanwhile, is fine and adjusting well. In fact, she’s adjusting far better than we ever expected. We’ve worked out that she’s actually 15 months younger than Jake, so she’ll turn 2 and a half this week (and Jake will be 3 years, nine months). This age difference is often quite evident, with Sunny still acting like a puppy much of the time. We think she’s maturing more slowly than Jake did.

In other ways, they’re very much alike: They both burp after their meals and sound the same when they do it. They both moan when they’re stretching in their sleep, making the same sounds as they do so. They also make the same adorable squeaks sometimes when they yawn. Their barks are at slightly different pitches, though.

The two dogs play with each other somewhat, though Jake’s been a bit subdued due to his affliction. Still, the other day I gave Jake a bath and he ran around like a crazy dog, as he always does, and Sunny joined him. It was really cute watching them take turns chasing each other around the house, running at break-neck speed.

They’ve also both coped well with being left alone for an hour or two, so they should be okay for longer stretches. When we took Jake to the vet today, Sunny was alone in the house for the first time, and she was fine.

Bella is also adjusting, and hangs out with the family again. Sunny sometimes gets a little too boisterous with Bella, though, probably because her former best friend was a cat. Sunny’s slowly learning not to harass Bella so much. We also made a bed for Bella on a dresser in the bedroom so she can feel safe at night while still sleeping in the same room as her whole family.

The only thing I haven’t done yet is take new photos of the kids. The reason for that’s in the first paragraph: It’s been too damn hot. And, right now, tending to Jake is more important. I’ll post new photos soon, but I didn’t want to wait for them to post an update about our progress blending Sunny into the family.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A question of blog ethics

Roger Green’s first blog post of the year involved another question, but his main focus was on handling blogroll links. This was in part an outgrowth of the discussion we all had on one of my earlier posts, but also a post on another blog Roger links to.

All of that got me to thinking about a larger question: Part of the attraction of blogging is that people can do as they please, but should there be standards? Obviously no one’s going to set up an enforceable Code of Practice over things like handling links, but should there be voluntary standards?

The question behind that is even bigger: Are there ethics to blogging? Should there be some sort of standard that bloggers are legally required to meet? Some New Zealand lawmakers think so, and want to include bloggers under the same rules that journalists face—presumably including, among other things, that readers could make complaints to the Press Council.

I have HUGE problems with this idea. First, most bloggers freely state that they’re not journalists—citizen, amateur or whatever. Suggesting that we should be held to the same standards as professional—that is, paid—journalists is absurd.

On the other hand, who protects the public from a blogger with an agenda that leads them to a reckless disregard for the truth? Is it enough to say that the cutting remark is an opinion honestly held, or does the fact that we publish our opinions on the web obligate us to follow the same standards as real journalists?

In my opinion, someone would have to be crazy to think anyone’s personal blog—including this one—presents impartial truth. We don’t deliver straightforward news, nor do most of us pretend to, but in any event, don’t news consumers have some responsibility for determining which is news and which is not?

I think it’s absurd to treat bloggers the same as professional journalists. Existing laws provide remedies in the event of defamation, so I can’t see how any new regulations would be helpful to anyone. And yet, could there be some middle ground in which we bloggers find a way to raise our game without the government intruding where it doesn’t belong?

Clearly I don’t have the answer, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I welcome anyone to chime in through the comments (or by email, if you prefer). Maybe I’ll be able to return to this topic one day with a more definitive opinion. For now, I’m just trying to do the best I can—and most of us are, too, in my opinion.