Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Never say die

Newsweek magazine labelled Grand Rapids, Michigan a “dying city”. Naturally, the residents didn’t take too kindly to that designation, and this lip-dub video was their response.

Rob Bliss, the director and executive producer of the video, said in the YouTube description:
"The Grand Rapids LipDub Video was filmed May 22nd, with 5,000 people, and involved a major shutdown of downtown Grand Rapids, which was filled with marching bands, parades, weddings, motorcades, bridges on fire, and helicopter take offs. It is the largest and longest LipDub video, to date.
“This video was created as an official response to the Newsweek article calling Grand Rapids a ‘dying city.’ We disagreed strongly, and wanted to create a video that encompasses the passion and energy we all feel is growing exponentially, in this great city. We felt Don McLean's ‘American Pie,’ a song about death, was in the end, triumphant and filled to the brim with life and hope."
Whether you like the song or not, and whether or not you like lip-dub videos, you have to admit the production is pretty awesome. If they can harvest some of the spirit shown in the video, their city is unlikely to die.

There’s a short video on the making of the lip-dub, and another on rehearsals—as if we couldn’t guess that a lot of work goes into such things.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Funny numbers

I was on Twitter yesterday (of course…) and I saw that the National Party had re-tweeted someone from a radio station I’d never heard of. That last part isn’t that important, but it was part of my “huh?!” reaction.

The Tweet said that two recent polls found that, based on the polls, National would get 65 seats in Parliament—enough to govern alone. That’s true, but what the (apparent) fan of National didn’t note was that National’s support had dropped some two points since the budget was released.

On the other had, why would he mention that? Labour’s support was static, and the support for Labour Leader Phil Goff in the meaningless “preferred prime minister” poll had actually dropped. That’s not good news for those wanting to stop a National/Act government being elected in November.

The polls show that even though clear majorities oppose National’s plans to sell-off state-owned assets and to gut KiwiSaver, they nevertheless continue to think of that Nice Mr. Key™, and well, why not give that nice man another go? After all, we haven’t been screwed over personally yet…

Being roughly 20 points behind only six months out from the election doesn’t bode well for Labour—or New Zealand. Still, there are plenty more funny numbers to come, so, well, one lives in hope.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Weekend Diversion: The KLF

This week I picked a song that I actually didn’t know about until I moved to New Zealand: “Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMs)” by The KLF (also known as The JAMs, for Justified and Ancient of Mu Mu) from their album, The White Room. The history of the song is so convoluted that I won’t even try to summarise it here. Instead, check out the Wikipedia article on the song, and also the article on the band, which are both pretty good.

I heard the song because Nigel had it—on vinyl, I think. The song reached number one in New Zealand, number 2 in the UK, number three in Australia, number 8 in Canada and number 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100. So, it was reasonably popular, and I can certainly understand why: I thought it was trippy, campy, catchy and a whole lot of fun. The vocals by Tammy Wynette added the perfect touch.

When we made a trip to the US in 1997 or 99 (I forget which), we were browsing in a CD store and I found The White Room CD there, so we bought it.

The song has a link to two previous Weekend Distractions: Wax Trax! records, which I mentioned last week when I talked about Ministry, distributed songs by The KLF, just as they did with songs by Ministry and also by Laibach. Small world.

I still think this song is fun.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


The modern Republican Party always puts extremist ideology over sound public policy. Always. Virginia Foxx (pictured—on the right, of course) is a perfect example of that.

The far–right Republican US Representative from North Carolina is far from being a bright bulb on her best days, but she’s surpassed ever her usual brand of idiocy: She authored an amendment (later adopted by the Republican-controlled US House) to forbid teaching health centres from providing training in abortion techniques. To rigid theocratic ideologues like Virginia, it’s better that doctors be ignorant than be able to effectively treat female patients. Where does she get this lunacy?

The answer is that, like most Republican politicians, Virginia is determined to impose extremist religious views on everyone else. Far from being traditional conservatives, these modern Republicans want to use the power of government to tell people how to live every single detail of their lives.

The Republican Party has abandoned the idea of “small government”, except when it comes to protecting ordinary, mainstream Americans, of course—they get out of the way of the rich and the corporate elites. Instead, the Republican Party has become the party of Big Government Conservatives, trying to create a theocracy in which they can dictate to the majority of Americans.

Conventional wisdom has it that Republicans have over-reached. They were elected in 2010 to deal with jobs and the economy, but instead they’ve been using their power only to wage culture wars, destroy Medicaid and bust unions—none of which is what American voters wanted or thought they were getting.

If American voters want a poster child for everything that’s wrong with the Republican Party, Virginia is as good an example as any other, albeit one of the dumber ones. With luck, in November 2012 American voters will remember how awful the Republican Party has become. With politicians like Virginia providing typical examples of modern Republicans, it’ll be hard for them to forget.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Truth through humour

Laughter is often born of tears, and those who are subjected to pain are often the ones who are most likely to create humour. We’ve seen that again and again with comedians who are Jewish, African American, Hispanic and GLBT, all of whom are over-represented, statistically speaking.

GLBT people, like any oppressed minority, have turned to humour not only to ease the pain of oppression, but also to fight the oppressor with what is sometimes the only the only tool at hand: Humour. The fact that our enemies are usually too thick to see the jokes only makes them all the funnier.

So when politicians attack GLBT people, as they do so often in the US, humorous rejoinders are inevitable.

In the state of Tennessee, lawmakers—mostly Republican, but with some “Democrats” as well—passed a bill making it illegal to talk about homosexuality in school classrooms. The bill, which even its supporters called the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”, was easily approved and signed by the state’s Republican Governor.

The video above mocks the idiotic idea these bigots have that simply not saying the word “gay” will make it all go away (that’s what these morons really said they thought would happen). In the video below, George Takei mocks them by offering an alternative: “It’s okay to be Takei”.

I can remember watching an interview many years ago in which a Jewish comedian worried that as minorities became more assimilated, and oppression eased, the quality of humour and number of good comedians would drop. That’s a price I’m willing to pay if it means ending oppression and hatred, and permanently retiring redneck, bigoted politicians. Ending hatred and bigotry, like that of the Tennessee legislators and Governor, would bring permanent smiles, after all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

That nice Mr. Key

There’s long been a perception of Prime Minister John Key as “that nice Mr. Key”. He smiles in public, sometimes acts kind of goofy and seems so, well, nice.

But there’s another John Key, one who’s frequently on display in Parliament. Anyone who watches Question Time—and that’s hardly anyone at all—has seen this other John Key, and he’s frankly a bit of a jerk.

Question Time is all about partisan point-scoring, on behalf of one’s own party and especially against the others. It’s a game, filled with noise, distraction and little of substance. However, we can sometimes see another side of politicians, the side they don’t want voters to see.

One week earlier this year, the Speaker had to admonish Key for three days running because of Key’s bitchy, snarky comments that were clearly out of order. He does this quite often, actually—not that most people see that, since it doesn’t make the evening news.

But the distorted and, I would argue, wholly inaccurate image of John Key as “that nice Mr. Key” lets him get away with lying to the New Zealand public. Here are three examples:
  • Before the 2008 election, he said he wouldn’t raise GST. Then, in government, he did raise GST and claimed he never said he wouldn’t.
  • He said during the 2008 campaign and during government that there would be no sales of public assets until/unless National/Act were elected to a second term. But, it turns out that his government is already advertising for advisers to help with the asset sales.
  • Key said there would be no changes to KiwiSaver until after the election. But, in fact, the cuts to the government subsidy begin in July of THIS year, well before the election.
Key dismisses every criticism as a “smear” or “dirty campaign” from Labour, which figures—when cornered, politicians always lash out at their accusers. What’s incredible is that the mainstream media let him get away with it, thus reinforcing the myth of “that nice Mr. Key”.

If Key and what would be a hard-right National/Act government wins the next election, what they would do TO New Zealand and TO mainstream New Zealanders definitely would be even worse, with everyone seeing there’s no such thing as “that nice Mr. Key”. By then, though, it would be too late.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Well said

I don’t often praise the New Zealand Herald, for a variety of reasons. Among them, I just don’t mention good things; most of us talk about bad things, not good things, so this is probably natural.

At any rate, today the Herald did something so right, it begs to be praised. In an editorial titled “Pharmac more important than US deal” the paper makes an argument that I’ve been making: Our drug buying agency, Pharmac, is far more important to New Zealand than any trade agreement with the United States.

This is an issue because the pharmaceutical corporations have been lobbying the US government to make sure that any “free trade” agreement with New Zealand must ensure the destruction, or, at least, the emasculation of the agency. At the moment, there are negotiations to bring the US into the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and Chile.

But 28 US Senators sent President Obama a letter claiming that, in their opinion, "intellectual property" wasn’t protected in the trade agreement. This is bullshit, and everyone knows it: Those 28 Senators are lobbying only to protect the profits of the big pharmaceutical companies.

We know this because, as the Herald notes, if it was really about “intellectual property” that would be easily addressed through negotiation. We’ve seen that already when the government rolled over and gave the Americans nearly everything they wanted when it passed—under bloody urgency—the recent law dealing with copyright and file sharing.

The Herald also correctly points out that Pharmac doesn’t determine what drugs can be sold, and it doesn’t prevent people from buying prescription drugs at whatever prices the pharmaceutical companies demand. All Pharmac does is negotiate on behalf of the taxpayer to get the best possible price for drugs that are most commonly prescribed.

Pharmac provides excellent value; as the Herald put it, “a survey of 14 developed countries last year found New Zealand spent the least on medicines, at US$2510 ($3152) a person, and the United States spent the most, US$7290.” The Herald lays out what this all means:
“America has the world's most expensive health services and the developed world's poorest coverage. It is struggling to reform its health system while setting its plans firmly against a publicly funded single purchaser of services for those who cannot afford competitive private insurance. Until it solves the conundrum it has set for itself, it is in no position to insist that trade partners abandon a system that works well.”
And that’s really what it comes down to. We would never adopt the broken American system willingly, what makes them think they can coerce us into it? As the Herald sums up, “Pharmac must not be a bargaining chip in any trade negotiation. If the US is going to make it a deal-breaker, so be it.”

I couldn’t possibly agree more.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Oh, FFS!

Harold Camping, fresh from yet another failure to predict the “rapture”, now says it’ll be on October 21. Having to once again rationalise away his being wrong, he said that May 21 was "an invisible judgment day" in which Camping’s god supposedly made “spiritual judgment”, whatever that means.

There’s simply no end to the lengths these people will go to explain away being wrong. One of Camping’s disciples declared that their “prayers worked” and that their god “delayed judgment” so that more people could be “saved”. Others believed the delay was their god's way of separating true believers from those willing to doubt what they claimed were clear biblical warnings. Such people always have an explanation for being wrong, but never a good one.

Camping himself must not be a true believer: He’s not giving away his possessions before his next imaginary end of the world. He says he’ll need them before October 21 and after that it won’t matter. Or, maybe—having been spectacularly wrong twice now—he has a sensible portion of doubt.

Camping has pissed off even fellow fundamentalists. The more common belief among conservative Christians is that humans can’t know about “the end of the world,” and they’re right about that. The fundamentalists quote the bible, Matthew 24:36, "but about that day or hour no one knows". Rationalists and Christians who are not fundamentalists simply point out that science is incapable of saying when, precisely, the earth will “end”, though scientists do have theories.

Pretty much everyone who’s not a religious extremist agrees that Camping’s predictions are, and always have been, total nonsense. Why, then, is everyone afraid to call Camping what he is: A delusional old man who’s trying to hoodwink gullible people into sharing his delusion. I realise the media can’t put it so honestly, but come on, how much more absolute bullshit are we supposed to take from this whackadoodle? Do even rightwing Christians really believe that their god would entrust such an important message to a nutjob like Camping?

The media will probably make another circus out of this in October. I’ve had enough. So, I intend to completely ignore it. However, I do reserve the right to ridicule Camping again on October 22. If I’m not too busy in the reality-based world or can even be bothered, that is.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Weekend Diversion: Ministry

This week’s choice is one that could be outside the mainstream, but it isn’t. Ministry in early 1980s was a band that was sort of a New Wave synthpop blend, and then in the late 1980s/early 1990s morphed into an industrial thrash metal band. I only liked the early version.

I first encountered Ministry in the legendary Chicago record store, Wax Trax!, which was located at 2449 North Lincoln Avenue, north of Fullerton Avenue in the city’s DePaul Neighbourhood. It was the home of New Wave, punk rock and industrial metal—and a significant selection of dance music, too. The first commercial Ministry’s album, With Sympathy, was released in 1983.

Ministry released four 12” singles through Wax Trax!, which is where I found them. I used to listen to With Sympathy back in the day, and later got the 12” versions of "All Day" and "Every Day is Halloween". I never bought one of their metal albums.

Wax Trax!, meanwhile, was an institution. It had been founded as a record shop in 1974 in Denver by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, then sold in 1978. They opened a new store in Chicago in November of that year, and released its first record in 1980. Among the many records they released were 12 inch versions of Laibach’s Opus Dei, a song that was the Weekend Diversion last week.

The business went bankrupt in 1992 and was bought by TVT Records of New York. Jim Nash died from AIDS-related complications on October 10, 1995, but his life partner, Dannie Flesher, continued until 2001, when TVT closed the business and he retired from the music business. Flesher died of pneumonia on January 10, 2010.

Ministry continued until 2008, when the band’s founder, Al Jourgensen, retired the name. He reportedly hated With Sympathy, alleging it was the way it was because he’d lost creative control. I always thought his attitude was unfortunate. As the music review on iTunes aptly put it, “Al Jourgensen must be more insecure about his past than a superstar linebacker of childhood courses in ballet.”

This week’s song, then, is a sad selection: The band I liked changed completely, the place I bought it went out of business, its owners died, and the unique vibe created by that store is now part of Chicago’s—and my own—cultural history.

The video above is an audio-only recording of the extended mix of "Work for Love", from With Sympathy. There don’t seem to be any music videos of the song, so I thought I may as well use the extended version, because that’s exactly the sort of thing I went to Wax Trax! to buy.

A parable for Harold

Just like Linus, who wasted his time waiting for a mythological event that never happened, Harold Camping, or someone like him, will again predict the end of the world, and, like Linus, he’ll be wrong. Again.

There’s never a shortage of people trying to sell belief in imaginary nonsense like the Great Pumpkin. I’d hope that this was the last time “end of days” predictions are spread around by the newsmedia, but that’s unlikely (next year is 2012, after all). Maybe next time journalists could try remembering the old saying, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” before they jump on the lesser pumpkins’ bandwagons.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Apocalypse not

Harold Camping days before his "rapture" didn't happen.
It’s 11:59pm on Saturday, May 21, 2011—the last moment before it becomes Sunday, and the last timezone on earth enters Saturday. I thought I’d wait until the last possible moment to finally declare that Harold Camping was wrong—again. If it’s May 22 here, that means the “rapture” he predicted didn’t happen.

He said: "God has given sooo much information in the Bible about this, and so many proofs, and so many signs, that we know it is absolutely going to happen without any question at all.” Well, no, he was wrong. I bet he said something equally stupid before September 6, 1994—the last time he falsely predicted “the rapture”.

All of the folks who promoted this really ought to be apologising to the world for having bothered and annoyed us with their nonsense. But I’m sure right now they’re feeling mightily embarrassed, and probably disappointed, so I don’t expect to see those apologies any time soon. Oh well, maybe next time!

Yep, we’re still here…

It’s 6:01pm on Saturday, May 21, 2011. We’re still here, and so is everyone we know. There was no “rapture”, no “judgment day”, no massive earthquakes or hail of sulphur. I don’t think any of his “prophecies” are even biblical, actually, but I can’t be bothered looking it up.

Guess old Harold was wrong—again.

Auckland Skytower

 Today we went to Auckland’s Skytower to support our nephew (nephew-in-law?) and his brother, who were competing in the Firefighter Sky Tower Challenge 2011 to raise money for the Leukaemia and Blood Foundation. Since I don’t post photos of family members on this blog, I’ve instead posted a photo of the view from the Skytower’s Observation Deck (above). Nigel joked that if the rapture really happens, this is as close to heaven as we’ll get.

The photo below is looking up Skytower's skirts, so to speak.

Friday, May 20, 2011

This is HUGE

Every once in awhile there’s a day where everything changes. President Obama made today that sort of day.

In the (long) video above, President Obama talks about peace in the Middle East. It was remarkable for two things: First, it put the US—perhaps for the first time—squarely on the side of democracy in the region by supporting the pro-democracy movements in Libya, Syria and, especially, Bahrain.

The other part, getting all the attention, was the president saying out loud what has always been said quietly: There must be a Palestinian homeland, and the borders must be based on the pre-1967 borders (which excludes the Golan Heights and the West Bank, what Israel calls Judea and Sumaria). Of course, there’s nothing new in that—that was policy for both Clinton and Bush. What IS new is that he said it out loud.

Neither Israel nor the right-wing in the US are happy about this. As long as the policy remained unspoken, they didn’t have to actually do anything to make it reality. President Obama has put pressure on Israel to actually get serious in its negotiations. He did that simply by openly stating what has been US policy for a very long time.

A little honesty in the search for peace in the Middle East—imagine that!

And I feel fine

So, this is it, huh? The last day before “the rapture” and “judgment day”. Well, it may be the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine.

Yeah, that R.E.M. song (in the video above) has been stuck in my head for about a week—or the better part of one, anyway—as the media has paid more and more attention to a crackpot predicting the end of the world. Even TVNZ’s Close Up devoted segments on two consecutive nights to all this. Mind you, they also devoted a segment to the NZ release of KFC’s “Double Down,” an event that actually may be a sign of the apocalypse.

As I said the first time I talked bout this, I absolutely do NOT believe in “end times”, “the rapture” or “judgment day” (and I never have). But my contempt is reserved for the snake oil salesman like the crackpot behind all this, people who prey on the gullible and deeply religious for—well, what, exactly? I’m sure he’s made bucketloads of money out of this, but I’m guessing the real motivation was to be a worldwide phenomenon before he dies. Not many people who haven’t actually done anything get this much attention, and seldom is a lunatic idea treated with such seriousness by the mainstream newsmedia—well, not since that whole “birther” nonsense was in the US.

So today, May 20, is a day like any other. And so, too, will tomorrow be.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Budget nonsense

The budget just released by the National Party-led government is about as bad as expected: Put simply, it targets the vulnerable and penalises working people so the wealthy and corporate elites can have more money. Meanwhile, they begin the process of selling-off the peoples’ property in a boneheaded attempt to close the deficit, all while being utterly clueless about how to grow the economy, create jobs or increase standards of living for ordinary Kiwis.

There’s a lot of dishonesty in the budget. National talks about “partial privatisation” of state-owned assets—the people’s property—knowing full well that those shares will go to foreign investors immediately or soon after the share offering. So they’re not just selling off the people’s property, they’re selling it off to foreigners. They know that, but are lying about it (which is itself a more honest way of describing their partisan spin).

Once those assets are gone, they’re gone—at least until a Labour Government comes back into power and fixes everything that National screwed up. Again.

The main thing about the budget is that it shows how utterly clueless National and Act are about economics and how to run the country’s economy. Apart from doing everything they can to benefit their rich mates, they take little notice of how their policies affect ordinary New Zealanders, and then they spin things to try and hoodwink mainstream Kiwis into thinking there’s something in the budget—or National/Act government—for them.

If National/Act form the next government, they will do far more than what was in this budget because Don Brash and Act will demand it. As Deputy Prime Minister and/or Finance Minister, Brash will have a lot of say, dictating policy.

The only way to stop that is to change the government. Fortunately, both Labour and the Greens have been stellar in the lead-up to the budget announcement. The reaction of Labour (who created the graphic at the top of this post) is here.

The Greens have been calm and thoughtful in the run-up to the budget announcement. The Greens’ reaction is here. Among the leaders of the three major parties, Labour’s Phil Goff was as you’d expect him to be as Leader of the Opposition. National’s John Key was a buffoon, playing the arrogant—and bitchy—clown. The Greens’ Russel Norman, however, came across as the grown-up in the room: Calm, measured, no histrionics, and focused on the party’s alternative budget as much as what’s wrong with National’s. They have been very impressive in this whole process.

The election is now just a little over six months away. National/Act are confident that they’ll be able to form a very rightwing government after the election. But this could change if ordinary Kiwis vote to change the government. It is ordinary Kiwis, not National/Act, who will suffer under this budget and even more under a National government tied helplessly to a hard-right Act Party.

There will plenty more reasons to vote to change the government. This budget is just the biggest reason so far.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vision for Auckland

Auckland Council is the midst of a major consultative process, trying to forge the Auckland Plan, a 30-year vision and strategy for the city. The goals are for the plan to “be a combined agreement with the people of Auckland, business and government” and to “have clear investment priorities that work with the private and institutional investor; an investment prospectus that will guide public finances and allow assets to be used to secure investment.”

What all that means is working out where Auckland is going, and how we’re going to get there—together.

In the video above, Auckland Mayor Len Brown lays out his vision for the role of rail in the future of Auckland. It’s part of Brown’s ambitious goal is to make Auckland “the world's most liveable city.” It’s a big ask.

A unified vision, together with unified action, was one of the main reasons for the amalgamation that created the new Auckland. This video is part of the first part. It’ll be up to the politicians in Auckland and Parliament to make the second part happen. With a quarter of all New Zealanders living in Auckland—and with that population likely to double by mid-century—it’s vital that this process succeeds. Aucklanders especially must remember that when they vote for the new Parliament in November.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hategroup caught stealing

The anti-gay industry has been caught stealing: Anti-gay extremist organisation and SPLC-certified hate group, the National Organization for Man-Lady Only Marriage, lifted a video from gay blogger Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God. without permission or attribution, and posted it to their YouTube Channel as if it was their own video.

The technical term for NOM’s action is “copyright infringement”, but the more common term is “theft”. The common term implies criminality, however, when this is a civil matter.

NOM has other activities that actually are criminal: NOM has repeatedly been ordered by courts to turn over lists of their financiers, but they have refused to comply with any of the court orders—often simply ignoring them. That is a crime.

So, it’s no surprise that they’d steal someone else’s video and pass it off as their own. But as a group that likes to pretend it’s Christian, how do they justify their theft? If they answered that question, chances are it would violate another of the ten commandments. It’s just what they do.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Weekend Diversion: Laibach

This week’s Weekend Diversion is a little different. Last week I wrote:
“In the 1980s, I liked a lot of music that no one had heard of. It was mostly still pop music of one sort or another, with some exceptions, but some of it remained outside the mainstream.”
The song in the video above is one of the ones I was thinking of. It’s by Slovenian avant garde band Laibach (their name is the German name for Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana), who were an aesthetic grouping as much as a band. They were criticised for the appropriation of authoritarian imagery, either fascistic or Stalinist, depending on one’s ideology.

I admit they confused me at first. My boyfriend at the time introduced me to them after he’d heard their 1987 single, "Opus Dei" (the song in the video above), and bought the album of the same name. The label of the LP had hatchets lashed together at the handle to make a kind of swastika. I later found out that they also used Soviet imagery, but at the time—before I knew that—I was concerned they were some sort of neofascist group. Once I “got” them, it was kind of fun to see the same confusion on the faces of other people when we played the album for them.

Laibach excelled at de-constructing other people’s music and reinterpreting it an unusual—and often very unexpected ways. "Opus Dei" was a reimagining of a song called "Live is Life" by Austrian arena rock band Opus (which apparently inspired the song name). I’ve included a live version of the Opus song below to make it easier to see what Laibach did with it.

Actually, Laibach did two versions on their Opus Dei album: the title track and single, along with a German version called "Leben Heißt Leben", which opened the album. The Opus Dei video was played on MTV, though I don’t remember having seen it at the time.

The Opus Dei album also featured a reworking of Queen’s "One Vision", which Laibach did as "Geburt einer Nation" (“Birth of a Nation”).

The group’s music and aesthetic was an inspiration to German group Rammstein, and Laibach eventually covered a Rammstein song, kind of bringing it full circle. Laibach is still working, which is unusual in itself.

Opus Dei is about as far out of the mainstream as I went, which is a relief or disappointing, depending on your point of view. But it was a fun time.

‘Free trade’ is seldom either

I’m not a fan of free trade agreements generally, nor ones with the US specifically. The “compromise” involved in reaching them usually involves surrendering some sovereignty to the other partners in the treaty, with the smaller countries, in particular, being forced to give up more than the larger countries.

A case study in what’s wrong with the push to “free trade” with the US, in particular, was highlighted in today’s Sunday Star-Times. A lobbying firm working for the US pharmaceutical industry has attacked Pharmac, New Zealand’s central drug purchasing agency.

The industry lobbyists claim New Zealand doesn’t get access to new drugs, and that spending is low by OECD standards. However, this lack of budget growth is actually a measure of the success of Pharmac in keeping costs down.

As for funding new, rather than tried-and-tested, drugs, Pharmac spokeswoman Jude Ulrich pointed out: "If Pharmac had funded COX-2 inhibitors at the same rate as Australia, it would have had 330 – 1900 people die of heart attacks over a four-year period." The Star-Times reported that she said its decision not to do so had allowed funding for 18 other drugs, saving 487 statistical lives a year. Put another way, there’s a very sound argument to be made for Pharmac’s more cautious approach.

What’s really going on here is that US pharmaceutical companies want to be able to make unrestrained profits in New Zealand, just as they do in the US. But we have national healthcare in New Zealand, so an American style pharmaceutical “wild west” free-for-all can only exist if our system is ended—not coincidentally, something else US industry wants. Ain’t gonna happen.

New Zealand has to look closely at “free trade” deals to see what tangible things we gain, and ignore promises made—they can be broken. More often than not, such agreements end up coming at too high a cost for workers, for consumers and for the economic sovereignty of small nations.

There are examples of agreements that work, that actually do a decent job of balancing the interests of the parties in the treaty. The CER agreement between New Zealand and Australia is an example; it is without a doubt light years ahead of anything New Zealand could ever get with the US. The US pharmaceutical industry’s war on Pharmac hints at why that is the case.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jake and Sunny on Thursday

This, and the photo above, is what I was trying to post on Thursday evening:
I don’t feel like a normal post today, and, anyway, Blogger was down this evening when I was ready to post. So, here’s a photo of Sunny and Jake that I took this morning, when it was still cool in the house. I took the photo with my cellphone, which doesn’t have a flash, so I had to lighten the photo a lot so that Jake would even be visible!

Back to normal, so-called, tomorrow.
As it happens, of course, it was not “back to normal” the next day. I’d also worked a bit on a longer post on Thursday, one with more substance than the above, but I just wasn’t happy with it. Doesn’t matter; I wouldn’t have been able to post it, anyway.

There was also an incident during the Blogger blackout when I got caught-up in a discussion in the comments to a blog, taking a position that surprised even me. I wanted to post here about the whole thing. We’ll see.

Rudely interrupted

So, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?

There was a major disruption to this and countless other blogs the past couple days after Google-owned Blogger/Blogpspot, the host of this blog and tens of millions of other blogs, sorta blew up. They explained:
“Here’s what happened: during scheduled maintenance work Wednesday night [Thursday afternoon NZ time], we experienced some data corruption that impacted Blogger’s behavior. Since then, bloggers and readers may have experienced a variety of anomalies including intermittent outages, disappearing posts, and arriving at unintended blogs or error pages… [snip] Yesterday we returned Blogger to a pre-maintenance state and placed the service in read-only mode while we worked on restoring all content: that’s why you haven’t been able to publish. We rolled back to a version of Blogger as of Wednesday May 11th, so your posts since then were temporarily removed. Those are the posts that we’re in the progress of restoring.”
I realised something was wrong when I tried to post Thursday evening and couldn’t. I eventually just gave up. However, any post and comments added after 2:30am Thursday NZ time disappeared (I wasn’t affected by that because I couldn’t post at all). At the time I’m writing this, Blogger’s still trying to restore them all. At about 10:40am today, Blogger Tweeted: “Thanks for all the encouragement. We [heart emoticon] our users! Still working away at restoring you posts. We really appreciate your patience & support!”

For me, this was just a minor irritation. After all, I sometimes skip days (and even a couple weeks with my podcast), so NOT posting something isn’t really a big drama for me.

The one thing that I did find a little frustrating was Blogger’s lack of communication with users. At some points, their own maintenance blog was inaccessible, so they ended up posting updates to a Google forum. They Tweeted more frequently than they updated the forum/maintenance blog, but still not nearly often enough.

However, the bottom line for me is this: You get what you pay for. If I were paying for my blog’s hosting and maintenance, I’d have good reason to complain. But Blogger is free, so I have to take the bad with the good. Plus, this is the first big problem I’ve encountered in the 4 years, 8 months I’ve been doing this blog, which isn’t bad—and excellent when you consider what I pay for it!

The failure does raise serious questions about the wisdom of moving to “cloud computing”, something I’ve been sceptical about since I first heard Microsoft pushing a similar idea back in the 1990s. I’m even more sceptical now. But that’s a topic for another day.

Right now, I just want to get this posted—if I can!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Draggin’ the line

It’s not every day a country can say this: Later this year, Samoa will jump a day. On December 29, the Pacific Island nation will move to the west side of the International Date Line—well, IT won’t move, of course, it’ll just put the date line on the other side.

The reason is the same as why Samoa went the other way 119 years ago: Trade. Then, it was to facilitate trade with the US and Europe, now it’s to facilitate trade with Australia and New Zealand.

At the moment, Samoa is 21 hours behind Sydney. After the switch, it will be three hours ahead of Sydney and an hour ahead of New Zealand.

The BBC quoted
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi as saying: "In doing business with New Zealand and Australia, we're losing out on two working days a week. While it's Friday here, it's Saturday in New Zealand and when we're at church Sunday, they're already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane."

The map above (by TUBBS) shows Samoa’s location, about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. The map at left is of the International Date Line (click to embiggen).

Political icing

The video above is from Sean Avery, a hockey star with the New York Rangers, endorsing marriage equality. While many hockey fans don’t like him, or maybe just his antics on the ice, I read countless mainstream sports news sites, as well as blogs, where it was clear Avery had gone up in their estimation, and some people liked him a little bit more.

Well, not everyone, of course.

Todd Reynolds Tweeted for the official account of Uptown Sports, a Canadian sports management agency representing many pro ice hockey players. Said Todd: “Very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender ‘marriage’. Legal or not, it will always be wrong.” Pretty blunt, and he must’ve had some second thoughts because he then Tweeted, “To clarify. This is not hatred or bigotry towards gays. It is not intolerance in any way shape or form. I believe we are all equal...” Really, Todd? All equal except when it comes to legal equality, huh?

Todd’s final Tweet: “But I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. This is my personal viewpoint. I Do not hate anyone.”

The first thing that has to be said is, what the hell was he thinking?! His opinions on marriage equality have nothing to do with hockey, per se, but—more importantly for the company—could potentially call their clients into disrepute, especially if Todd goes on to say something really stupid about this (well, more stupid, obviously).

When told what Todd had said, his dad, Don Reynolds (the founder of the company), said:
“It’s sad. I mean, my personal position is that I do not support gay marriage, and I think it’s wrong, as well. It’s not politically correct to, I guess, give your opinion about a thing like that. It’s politically correct on the other side, for people to say, ‘sure, I support gay marriage.’ But the majority, I think, of Canadians would say that they don’t agree with gay marriage—that man and woman were created to be married, not man and man or man and horse, you know?”
At about this point, by head hit the desk. Really?! Did he REALLY drag out that same old bullshit about marrying animals? Is Don Reynolds Rick Santorum in ice hockey drag?

Todd then jumped back into the fray, playing the victim card, as the opponents of marriage equality always do when they get pushback:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Blogger’s ‘spinning issue’

Starting last night, I had what Blogger calls "the Spinning Issue": “This is where the Editor does not finish loading and you get a Spinning icon in the middle of the post.” The browser thinks the page is fully loaded, but the icon keeps going, making it impossible to post anything. This was true no matter what browser I used.

Blogger claimed to have released a fix, except it wasn’t fixed. I tried their suggestions, like clearing the history, and the spinning persisted. Then, almost as a last resort, I followed their suggestion to change back to the old editor* and that fixed it (I later switched back to the new editor and the problem returned, so I again switched back to the old editor). As it happens, I prefer the old editor, anyway; it's more streamlined and efficient (or maybe the new one is just bloated and creaky).

Anyway, I (obviously) can post again, so I thought I’d mention this in case any of my Blogger Buddies are having the same problem.

*Blogger says: “To revert back to the Old/New editor go to your Dashboard and click on Settings and then scroll down to the bottom of the page and select the Old/New editor.” Remember to click on “Save Settings” to make the switch.

Cloaking device

A couple days ago, I talked about how radical right christianists claiming to be “victims” of gay people is stupid and pathetic on its face: They don’t suffer the beatings, murders, arson and other violent crimes that gay people do every day—often in the name of someone’s religion. Nevertheless, the anti-gay industry is desperately trying to convince normal people that the lie of “victimhood” is true.

One of the largest, most-read far right christianist websites published the results of what they call a “scientific telephone survey”. The loaded questions of the extremely dodgy survey supposedly found that, “almost half of Americans believe that Christians in the United States are being persecuted by homosexual ‘marriage’ advocates….”

Scream, scream, scream! Run! Run and scream! Seriously, the poll is laughably silly to normal people, but religious extremists take it as—ahem!—gospel, precisely because it backs up their existing prejudices.

They also say that "more people than not” oppose DOMA repeal, a claim that cannot be supported by their results (again, given their dodgy question wording), Guess what? They also say there’s an ideological divide over whether people are born gay (as id we’d never have known otherwise).

Add it all up, and the truth and representativeness of their survey is extremely suspicious—doubtful, even. Still, there’s a reason they did a survey to get the results they wanted, something beyond merely reinforcing the prejudices of their millions of readers.

It may seem odd that people who don’t believe in evolution, who promote conspiracy theories and who say climate change is a hoax would turn to science to provide support for their far right religious ideology. But the entire purpose of the survey is to provide a cloak to hide their hatred, a veneer of respectability for their prejudice and bigotry, and a justification for their lies. The results of this survey will be repeated endlessly throughout the rightwing—and not just among the truly loony right, but also in the mainstream of conservatism—as “proof” of their self-proclaimed and entirely imaginary victimhood.

They are—as I have said and will say repeatedly—not victims of anything, except their own arrogance. The proof is overwhelming, and no matter how many bogus surveys they do, they can’t change that simple fact.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Weekend Diversion: Trio “Da, Da, Da”

In 1982, German band Trio released an eponymous album that contained a song called "Da Da Da I Don't Love You You Don't Love Me Aha Aha Aha", though it’s usually just called “Da Da Da”. It was their biggest German hit, and their only hit outside Germany (where it was called "Da da da, ich lieb dich nicht du liebst mich nicht aha aha aha"). The band had three more hits in Germany before breaking up in 1984.

Trio were practitioners of what they liked to call, Neue Deutsche Fröhlichkeit ("New German Cheerfulness"), music reduced to a simplistic structure. It was simple, unchallenging, and kinda catchy.

In the 1980s, I liked a lot of music that no one had heard of. It was mostly still pop music of one sort or another, with some exceptions, but some of it remained outside the mainstream. In this case, I had the American version of their album, Trio and Error, and, in fact, I still have it—it’s one of the albums I brought back from America. I’d pretty much forgotten about the song until it was used in a Sakata Rice Crackers commercial aired in New Zealand. That commercial reminded me about the album, which led me to bring it back to New Zealand with me—clearly advertising works in some ways, at least.

The version in the video above is from Britain’s Top of the Pops TV programme, and is best described by the person who posted it on YouTube:
“Trio mime their way through the English version of their classic hit. A golden moment in TV history—it has everything you'd expect of 1982: A Casio VL1, a chain smoking guitarist, a robotic dancer and an audience of teenagers who have quite clearly been cajoled into being a piece of kinetic performance art by a TV producer on zero budget…”
Ah, those were the days…

See also the Wikipedia entries on the band and also on the song.

No surrender

This morning I read of yet another anti-gay hate crime in the US—one of dozens of cases that make the news each year. Most however, do not.

It got me to thinking about how the anti-gay industry goes on endlessly about what “victims” they are, how the evil “gay agenda” is oppressing them. So, I thought I’d take a look at some of the anti-gay crimes so far this year. This is NOT a comprehensive list—it’s too small to be even a tiny sample:

Shreveport, Louisiana (January): A 52 year-old gay man received a broken jaw, a broken eye socket bone and other serious injuries after another patron beat him with a pool cue. The two men had not spoken, nor even made eye contact. He was attacked because he was gay. The attacker was arrested.

Clayton, North Carolina (February): The home of a gay couple, who had been victims of harassment for more than a year, was gutted in an arson attack. Neither the couple nor neighbours aware of the harassment wanted to be indentified by he newsmedia out of fear of reprisal attacks. The arsonists have not been caught.

Brooklyn, New York City (February): A 29 year old openly gay man was attacked and viciously beaten by six teenagers. His jaw was broken and he required three metal plates to reconstruct his face. He had no health insurance and faces medical bills of over $100,000. The attackers have not been caught.

Queens, New York City (March): Party crashers viciously beat an 18-year-old man to death while shouting anti-gay slurs. The killers, all 16 and 17 and gang members, crashed the party, making anti-gay slurs (the hosts were two openly gay men). The victim, however, was not gay. The killers have not been caught.

Upper Darby, Pennsylvania (March): A 70-year-old gay man was beaten to death with a sock filled with rocks, allegedly because he was gay. The 28-year-old murderer, who was also executor of the other man’s will, claimed he read in the Old Testament that gays should be stoned to death and also that he’d been told in his prayers to murder the older man. Covering all the bullshit defence bases, he also claimed the older man had made sexual advances. The killer was held on first-degree murder charges.

West Village, New York City (March): There was a sudden string of anti-gay attacks in the city’s West Village neighbourhood, long considered a relatively safe area for GLBT people. Most received little news coverage.

Austin, Texas (April): A 24-year-old lesbian and her 57 year-old mother were shot to death by a man who was angry that the younger woman was in a relationship with his daughter.

Rosedale, Maryland (April): A 22-year-old transwoman was attacked by two girls, 14 and 18, in a McDonald’s while staff watched, one recording video on his cellphone. An elderly woman who tried to intervene was punched by one of the assailants and knocked to the ground. The transwoman was allegedly attacked because she used the women’s toilets. The McDonald’s employee who shot the video but did nothing to help was fired. The attackers were arrested.

McConnelsville, Ohio (April): Eight horses, including a foal and a pregnant mare, were burned to death in an arson attack on a barn on a property owned by a gay man. "Fags are freaks" was painted onto the side of the barn. The arsonists have not been caught, but the insurance company has offered a reward to help catch them.

El Paso, Texas (May): A 22-year-old man was left in critical condition after being attacked outside a local gay bar as he was waiting for a ride. Six men attacked him, even using a baseball bat. A female friend of the victim tried to help, so the attackers smashed her windscreen with the baseball bat in an effort to prevent her from stopping them. The attackers have not been caught.

These are a handful of the reported cases of anti-GLBT violence and hate crimes so far this year. The vast majority either go unreported or the anti-gay motive doesn’t get reported in the news. This happens especially in small towns and rural areas where victims of anti-gay crimes know that reporting the crimes could open them up to even more abuse—and often from police and the courts, institutions that are supposed to stand for justice.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

How it works

You know how sometimes someone says something silly or wrong, and you want to reply? Whether we actually do or not depends on a number of things, like whether we know the person, how we heard the comment, etc.

Today I saw a comment on Twitter that I felt needed a reply. It also reminded me of attitudes I’d forgotten about.

Someone I follow Retweeted a comment from someone I don’t follow. It said: “Maybe if Labour spent less time trying to bash National and more time actually trying to campaign properly, they'd do better in polls.” This was so silly on the face of it that I wanted to reply, but I usually don’t respond to people I don’t follow. Because I don’t follow him, I initially didn’t see the follow-up Tweet that said, “Like seriously, Labour are at 33% in opinion polls. How sad is that”

Putting aside the lack of question mark ending the second Tweet, I wanted to educate this guy on how campaigns actually work. Parties try to lay out their platform, but most of a campaign is built on differentiating the party from the opposing party—usually negatively, though “bashing” is a loaded term.

Labour is certainly not “trying to bash National” exclusively, but the fact is that if the situations were reversed, National would be acting in exactly the same way, and that, too, wouldn’t mean trying to bash Labour exclusively. Still, trying to tear down the other party is part of what a campaign is.

There are number of factors that contribute to Labour’s poor polling, but it hammering the National Party isn’t one of them. Voters don’t seem to like Labour Leader Phil Goff, but they do like National Party Leader John Key. The irony is that they like Labour’s policies better than National’s.

I think the youth of the Tweeter—he’s 18—may be the cause of the naïveté in the Tweet: He would’ve been 15 at the last election, 11 the one before that. This suggests that he simply hasn’t experienced enough elections to get how campaigns work. And the use of the term “bash” suggests he may come from a family that supports the National Party—he could be biased, in other words.

When I was younger (and still in America), I wanted to teach government at what we call “community colleges”—two year tertiary institutions that award Associates Degrees, but which often lead on to a four-year university. At the time I felt that those folks—many 18 and 19—most needed to understand how the system works so they could be informed citizens or even effect change. My life went in a different direction and I never did teach government. Now, of course, I live in a different country with a completely different political system.

But it still bothers me that young people are badly educated about how the political system works. One day these people will make decisions that affect my life; I hope they become better informed before then.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Pro Miss Neh Zilland

The New Zealand accent is a topic of fun for Kiwis as much as it is for others (apart from Australians, probably, for whom it is a bigger source of amusement). In this video, a YouTube humorist who goes by plumedekiwi makes fun of the way Prime Minister John Key talks, and his impression is pitch-perfect.

In his other videos, plumedekiwi parodies John Key more generally, as well as providing tongue-firmly-in-cheek instructional videos on speaking like a Kiwi. The other videos, accessible on plumedekiwi’s YouTube Channel, are well worth a look. Right now, though, I need to go read up on the Rubber Wool Cup.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

One of the good things

This video is a commercial for Google Chrome and was shown during this week’s broadcast of Glee (in at least some US markets). Apart from being a very affecting commercial, it also shows, I think, how a company can advocate for the social good while still promoting its products or services. Heck, it made me want to switch to Chrome.

This also shows that if you make a video that’s good, one that’s done well, is affecting, passionate, spot-on and/or that promotes an idea that needs to be promoted, the Internet will beat a path to your door to help you spread that video far and wide—and some of those folks will be using Chrome (I, however, am not—but, then, I do already use a lot of Google products, including Blogger).

And one more thing: This also shows that even big companies can, at least sometimes, do good things.

One of the good guys

There are good people in this world, and some of them are even politicians. I think we need to be reminded of that sometimes. The video above shows one such politician, Minnesota State Rep. Steve Simon. From the description on YouTube:
Representative Steve Simon (DFL Hopkins/St. Louis Park) says a proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment is largely about religion. He says if sexual orientation is innate as science is showing us, and not a lifestyle choice, then God created gay people…
"How many more gay people does God have to create before we ask ourselves whether or not God actually wants them around?" See? Not all religious people are bigots. It’s nice to be able to post something positive about that, too.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A tornado nearby

A tornado touched down in Albany, less than 10km away from us. The video above was posted within minutes of the storm, and was the first I saw has been removed by the user. Weird.

The tornado, with winds estimated to be between 180 and 200 kph, caused extensive damage, several injuries and one death. At our house, we had nothing more than very heavy rain (with some sunshine, no less) and the power flicked for a moment (to be clear, we’re fine and had no damage).

Once again, I heard about this breaking news first on Twitter. Well, apart from the storm outside, of course.

Tornadoes are very unusual in New Zealand, and if they happen damage is usually pretty minor. We don’t get the big F4 tornadoes that my homeland does. Part of the reason, I’ve been told, is that New Zealand doesn’t have much land mass, and so, storms can’t intensify as they can when crossing a continent. However, rising ocean temperatures and increased moisture in the atmosphere due to climate change may make severe storms with tornadoes more likely. As this storm shows, even a small tornado can be dangerous, and even deadly.

This is a threat I can understand and relate to, having grown up in the Midwest of the US. If it had been me near that tornado, I wouldn’t have been filming it but looking for cover. You can take the boy out of the Midwest, but…

The video below is the second one I saw. There's also a somewhat more dramatic video elsewhere. Photos can be seen here.

Expected and prudent

This morning I received the following email from the US Consulate General in Auckland. I think it’s both expected and prudent, as well as offering practical advice:
The U.S. Department of State alerts U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad to the enhanced potential for anti-American violence following recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan. Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence are strongly urged to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations.

U.S. citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times. This Travel Alert expires August 1, 2011.

U.S. Embassy operations in affected areas will continue to the extent possible under the constraints of any evolving security situation. U.S. government facilities worldwide remain at a heightened state of alert. These facilities may temporarily close or periodically suspend public services to assess their security posture. In those instances, U.S. Embassies and Consulates will make every effort to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens abroad are urged to monitor the local news and maintain contact with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

Media coverage of local events may cause family and friends to become concerned for their loved ones traveling and residing abroad. We urge U.S. citizens to keep in regular contact with family and friends. U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad are encouraged to enroll in the Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), to receive the latest travel updates and information and to obtain updated information on travel and security issues. U.S. citizens without Internet access may register directly with the appropriate U.S. Embassy or Consulate. By enrolling, U.S. citizens make it easier for the U.S. Embassy or Consulate to contact them in case of emergency.

Travel information is also available at www.travel.state.gov. Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada or, for callers outside the United States and Canada, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.

For information on "What the Department of State Can and Can't Do in a Crisis," please visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs' website at www.travel.state.gov. For further information on specific countries, U.S. citizens should consult the Country Specific Information pages, Travel Alerts, and Travel Warnings at www.travel.state.gov as well as the Worldwide Caution. Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs' page on Facebook as well.
For the record, no, I’m not personally worried at all. New Zealand is one of the least likely places for foreign terrorists to strike, and Australia is only a little more likely. The citizens of these two countries are more likely to be in danger in other countries. This is nothing like September 2001, when there was fear even here because we simply didn’t know enough about the threat we faced.

Things have changed and we know so much more now—including that New Zealand wasn’t at any risk back in 2001. There’s no such thing as a total lack of risk anywhere in the world, but we, here, arguably fare better than most.

I don’t think anyone would begrudge me being thankful for that.

Update: Brian Edwards has an interesting take on the "recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan" and the reaction of those of us who, in Edwards' words, "have no qualms" about the events.

Sunday, May 01, 2011


When the power goes off, people act as if it hasn't, or as if the reality isn't real. We're no different.

Tonight our power went into a sort of "brown out" mode, something I've never seen in New Zealand. It was too weird, so at first we kinda acted as if it wasn't real. Then, we switched off the mains power, then switched off everything at the wall. We also rang the power company, but they're dealing with emergencies (due to high winds in the area) so it may be hours before they get here to check it out, assuming it's not up on the street or beyond.

So, I sit here and wait. Everyone else in the house is asleep. I suppose that if the workers find the problem elsewhere, I'll never know—well until morning, maybe. Meanwhile, bored, I tethered my iPad to my iPhone so I could post this, and keep sleep at bay for awhile longer.

My batteries on my phone and iPad should last a little while yet, so I should be able to act as if this isn't all happening for a little while yet. Well, apart from that whole staying up and waiting thing.

Update May 2: I went to bed at 12:30AM, with the workers never having showed up. We turned the power back on this morning and everything was fine. I haven't found out what the problem was. Also, the original part of this post has been slightly changed from the version I published last night; it's really not that easy to type on an iPad, it turns out, so I fixed a few things.