Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sleepy time

Being sick, I’ve been sleeping a LOT lately, so the video above, which has been making the rounds of social media this week, struck a chord with me. It discusses something that’s been a topic in our household: “How Much Sleep Do You Actually Need?” Spoiler alert: You already know the answer.

We’ve all been told that humans need roughly 8 hours of sleep each night. I say “roughly” because there’s a slight variation in the total needed, and because there are people who are genetically built to need far less sleep than the average person. Most of us aren’t gifted with those genes.

Not that many of us don’t pretend otherwise. I’ve tended to stay up late for about as long as I can remember, certainly going back to my teens. This would be fine if I also got up late, but I don’t: For some insane reason, the world likes to start early in the morning.

So, I have a conflict in that I’m often at my most creative at night, even late at night, but getting up early means I’m sleep deprived, as has been pointed out to me. So, some time ago I decided to try and get 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and have had more successes than not (there have still been nights, however, when I get enthralled by whatever I’m working on or learning about and, well, I get far less than 7 or 8 hours).

I know from my own subjective observations that 7.5 to 8.5 hours is the ideal for me. Any more and I feel half asleep all day (like my head is full of stuffing); any less and I probably feel tired (six or less and I’ll feel sleepy, too).

What I didn’t know until I watched the video is that research shows that getting too much sleep can cause many of the same health problems as sleeping too little. Not that there’s any danger of me getting too much sleep.

Like most people, I knew the substantive stuff in this video. Putting it into practice is the challenge for me. Right now, though, I’m off to look up a video on admitting other people were right about something…

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sick days

I have a bad winter cold that started the middle of last week. A lot of people have had it, or similar, and I’m not complaining. If anything, I’m fascinated by how it affects me.

I got the cold from Nigel, who had his for about a week starting the week before mine did. I know married couples are supposed to share their lives, but I could have done with a little less sharing in this case.

Colds hit me much harder than they used to. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s different viruses—there are at least a hundred different viruses that cause the common cold, so it’s entirely possible I’m encountering ones I never did while growing up and have no defence against them. Or, maybe these viruses are just stronger. Or, maybe it’s just age, after all.

In any case, the first thing that hits is fatigue. That started the middle of last week, and I tried to relax in case I was just over-tired. The next day, Thursday, I was too tired to do much of anything and I even napped, something I almost never do on a weekday.

On Friday, I tried mightily to get a few chores done, but it was very hard going. Again, I spent most of the day resting.

We were supposed to take the dogs and go to Hamilton to celebrate Nigel’s Mum’s birthday, but by Saturday morning it was clear to me I was too sick to go. The family (including me) joked about how I must be sick if I didn’t go to a family party, and that’s actually true: I really enjoy them, and the only things that would make me miss one is if I’m away, if I have something I can’t get out of (like work…), or if I’m too sick.

So, Nigel went by himself and the dogs stayed with me (a small consolation prize). I spent the day watching TV in my comfy chair. Later that night, I went to bed and watched TV for awhile.

I spent all day Sunday in bed, mostly playing games on my iPad because it’s all I could concentrate on. Lack of concentration/focus is what annoys me the most about these colds.

I didn’t blog over the past couple days because I simply couldn’t focus enough. The post I published on Friday I’d sketched out when I was more—what’s the word?—lucid, maybe. That was lucky. But I have another I could have finished reasonably easily, except I also lacked any energy, which is the other thing that most annoys me about these colds.

Of course the physical symptoms make me feel miserable, but if I could at least concentrate enough to read, or maybe write a blog post or whatever, it wouldn’t be as bad. As it is, all I can do is rest—I can’t even talk properly.

I talked about all this as being annoying because that’s all it is. I’m keenly aware that in a few days it’ll be as if I never had a cold, and I’ll forget all about this until the next cold settles in. It’s merely annoying because it’ll go away.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are fighting chronic or serious diseases (some of whom I know in real life), and some of those people won’t win their fight. Compared to them, it’s as if there’s nothing wrong me. That’s why I won’t complain—what, really, do I have to complain about?

And yet, I do feel miserable, and this cold keeps me from being able to read or write much, or even talk. It’s annoying, and that makes me grumpy. So I rest, take my paracetamol (called acetaminophen in the USA) and wait for the cold to pass, because I know it will.

All things considered, I’m lucky.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Schumer’s wrong – but close

US Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) set off a mini-firestorm early this week when he suggested a “Top-Two” primary system. I read many of those responses. Still, he was close.

A “Top-Two” primary is one in which Republican and Democratic candidates run in the same primary with the top two contenders facing a run-off in November. Schumer has some peculiar ideas about the merits of such a wacky system, especially that it will magically reduce “polarisation”. He’s wrong.

A growing body of evidence shows that voters who vote in partisan primaries are not more extreme than party voters generally. Self-described independents, who tend to me more centrist overall, are able to vote in partisan primaries in most states, contrary to what Schumer thinks; the issue is more about why they may not want to.

Schumer, who is strongly aligned to corporate interests (so much so that he’s often called “the Senator for Wall Street”), is proposing a system that actually helps corporate-aligned candidates by helping to shut out populist candidates. This makes the “Top-Two” system less democratic by narrowing choice as well as making it much harder for candidates who are aligned with ordinary people, not big corporations, to get elected.

Schumer asserts that his system “would prevent a hard-right or hard-left candidate from gaining office with the support of just a sliver of the voters of the vastly diminished primary electorate; to finish in the top two, candidates from either party would have to reach out to the broad middle.” That’s nonsense: His system doesn’t and can’t dictate an ideological litmus test to ensure that there would be ANY candidates from “the broad middle”. And, anyway, what’s so inherently virtuous about being in the middle? I’d prefer a principled left or right politician (who will comprise when needed—a critical caveat) to a wishy-washy “centrist” who sticks a finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. But, if the choice is between such a “centrist” and an intransigent ideologue (always the case with the hard right), then I suppose I could live with the candidate of the bland middle.

If Schumer is serious about reform, then he should back real, substantive electoral change: He should back the Alternative Vote (also known as “Instant Run-off Voting”, and it was called “Preferential Voting” when it was considered as a possible replacement for MMP in New Zealand back in 2011).

The Alternative Vote ensures that whoever is elected has majority support (which Schumer mistakenly thinks is a benefit of his “Top-Two” system). It also eliminates wasted votes and the spoiler effect, both of which are present in Schumer's wacky system. Alternative Vote also helps reduce extremism among candidates, which Schumer says is one of his goals. Seems to me, Alternative Vote meets Schumer’s criteria perfectly, without diminishing democracy (the exact opposite, if anything).

When I talked about Alternative Vote back during New Zealand’s 2011 Election Referendum campaign, I said:
“If the US were to switch to [Alternative Vote], it’s probable that over time small party candidates could be elected, and it’s also likely that even candidates of the two main parties would be more representative and would pander less to their party base (this is especially true for Republicans).”
I also said that since the US can never switch to a more democratic proportional system, then the Alternative Vote is a good alternative. It makes the final result fairer, ensures the winner has majority support and is inherently more democratic than the system in use in most places or the “Top-Two” scam that Schumer supports.

So, like I said: If Chuck Schumer is serious about backing reform, he should back the Alternative Vote.

The video below explains Alternative Vote in more detail.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Commonwealth Games

The 20th Commonwealth Games opened in Glasgow today, with what I thought was a pretty awesome opening ceremony. It’s a pity my American friends and family are unlikely to know about the Games, because they are what the Olympics should be.

The Commonwealth Games were “known as the British Empire Games from 1930–1950, the British Empire and Commonwealth Games from 1954–1966, and British Commonwealth Games from 1970–1974,” when the current name was adopted. The Games are held every four years, and were skipped only twice, both times for World War 2 (1942 and 1946)

Fifty-four nations are members of The Commonwealth, but 71 teams participate. That’s because dependencies of countries (like the Isle of Man, Jersey, etc.) participate under their own flags, as do the four Home Nations of the United Kingdom. Because the Commonwealth Games are less nationalistic than the Olympics, and because the Commonwealth is often referred to as a family, the Games are sometimes called “The Friendly Games”.

New Zealand is one of only six Commonwealth nations to have participated in all Commonwealth games. The other five are: Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, and Wales. New Zealand also hosted the games three times: 1950 and 1990 in Auckland, and 1974 in Christchurch. This means that New Zealand is tied for third place with Scotland among countries that hosted the games multiple times. First is Australia with five and Canada is second with four.

Auckland and Edinburgh are the only two cities that have hosted the Games twice. The 1950 Games in Auckland were the first after the interruption of World War 2.

The Games are unique in that in addition to sporting events found in the Olympic Summer Games, there are also games typically played in Commonwealth countries, such as bowls (also known as lawn bowls) and netball. Rugby Sevens is also an event; while rugby is played in many non-Commonwealth nations (like France, for example), it’s a particular passion among Commonwealth Countries. Curiously, there’s no version of cricket played at the Games.

Another unique aspect of the Games is that athletes with disabilities are included in their national teams, and their events are held alongside events for athletes without disabilities. So, the medal count includes all athletes. The Olympics, of course, host separate games for athletes with disabilities.

Add it all up, and the Commonwealth Games’ uniquely collegial atmosphere, its inclusiveness, and its inclusion of sports that don’t get much international attention, and these Games are unique and valuable. In fact, I prefer them to the Olympics. I just wish more Americans knew about them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Incremental change

Yesterday, President Obama signed an Executive Order (video above) forbidding federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. The rightwing meltdown was as predictable as it was boring, and also just plain stupid. It’s still a big deal, though.

Existing executive orders already prevented the US Federal Government from discriminating against gay employees, but President Obama extended that to include gender identity. Also, those same protections are now extended to contractors to the US Federal Government. This affects some 28 million workers, which is huge.

Writing on the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart gives the history of anti-discrimination executive orders, and adds:
“Obama’s executive order will apply to the 24,000 companies designated as federal contractors whose 28 million workers make up a fifth of the country’s workforce. One reason we haven’t heard any squawking from the business community is because most federal contractors are already protecting their LGBT employees. Among the data points in a “confidential memo” written by the Williams Institute and the Center for American Progress in 2012 for then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was this key statistic: 92 percent of employees of federal contractors in the Fortune 1000 are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy.” [link in original]
What’s significant in all this is that much of the executive order has been in force for over a decade and a half, and also that the vast majority of federal contractors already have these anti-discrimination provisions, so there’s no burden whatsoever.

So: What’s the radical right on about? The short answer is “nothing”, of course, but the longer answer is that a tiny, tiny minority of federal contractors might be forbidden to discriminate against LGBT employees. Um, too bad.

Two things. First, it seems beyond bizarre to me that the radical right would seriously try and argue that their supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs” boils down to the right to discriminate against LGBT employees. I don’t think their Jesus died for that, though they clearly disagree.

The second thing is this: LGBT Americans pay taxes just like everyone else does. Why should one cent of LGBT tax money go to aide and abet their own oppression? Why should LGBT taxpayers have to pay to be discriminated against? Just because some religious radical claims his supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs” entitles him to take federal tax money, yet discriminate against taxpayers, that doesn’t make it true or reasonable.

This executive order is an important step on the road to full equality. Some day we’ll look back at these days and wonder how we ever could have considered pandering to bigots. President Obama stood up for what is right, and he should be applauded for that (never mind how long it took to get there…).

One thing in particular struck me about the president’s remarks. He said:
“Many of us are only here because others fought to secure rights and opportunities for us. We’ve got a responsibility to do the same for future generations. We’ve got an obligation to make sure that the country we love remains a place that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from, or how you started out, or what your last name is, or who you love, no matter what, you can make it in this country.”
It’s been a torturous road to equality in the USA, and the country has a long way to go, but things like this executive order help push things along just a little bit further. Even though this change is only incremental, it’s significant—even with so much left to do.

Let’s celebrate what’s good. Tomorrow we can fight for what remains to be done.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Helping the regions

The images with this post are campaign graphics created by the New Zealand Labour Party to promote Labour's policies for regional New Zealand. I think they’re quite good, and help to summarise Labour’s positive policies.

The graphic up top is the one I shared on Facebook. I especially like that one because it highlights the importance of ensuring that there’s a future for young New Zealanders so that they don’t have to move overseas to find jobs to provide for their families. It’s also important for the regions to help create opportunities there so that there’s more work choices for all New Zealanders.

The image below is a perfectly sensible policy: Why shouldn’t government support New Zealand businesses? It helps all New Zealanders when they do.

And finally, the image at the bottom of this post is about Labour’s plans to invest in rural New Zealand. This is all about making things better for people living in the regions so that people can get good jobs so they and their families can have decent homes in strong, vibrant communities. It’s a positive programme for ordinary Kiwis.

The National Party’s plan for the regions? They want to have people complain about red tape on social media (seriously!) and that somehow might one day become some sort of action. Or something. That’s really their plan for helping the regions!

Like most people, I’d much rather back a party that has a positive plan for moving the country forward, a party that recognises that people matter most, and what helps them helps the entire country. That’s why I back Labour.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Weekend Diversion: Matt Fishel

Until yesterday, I’d never heard of Matt Fishel. I’m glad I did, because he’s the sort of independently-minded artist I admire, the kind who stay true to their artistic vision.

Matt is a gay artist who refused to make compromises to be “commercial”. According to Huffington Post, where I first hear about Matt, he was told he “had to stop writing songs about men” because “apparently being gay wasn't ‘radio-friendly.’"

Matt’s response, the video at the bottom of this post, is "Radio-Friendly Pop Song", a thoroughly catchy pop song like any that one might hear on, you know, the radio. I really like its positive “don’t take no bullshit” message.

The video at the top of this post is his newest single, a remake of CeCe Peniston’s “Finally”. I like all the positive imagery in the video as well as his version of the song. I placed it first because it's his newest single. Of course.

I like pop music. I like openly gay pop artists. I especially like openly gay pop artists who don’t compromise by changing pronouns. And yet I also tend to think how much difference such things would have made to me when I was a teenager. I hope having such artists with integrity it makes a difference to teens now.

But it’s pop music, after all, and it’s meant to be fun. Sometimes, that really is enough, but the fact that there are so many openly gay artists performing their songs honestly is really, really good to see. Finally.

An odd thing

Yesterday, there was a pro-Palestinian protest march in Auckland, which isn’t unusual—there have been several over recent years. But this time I received an official warning, something I thought was over the top.

This year’s protest march went to the US Consulate (in previous years they marched from the Consulate), and was attended by 500-1500 people—depending on who you believe; I wasn’t there, so I have no idea.

The US consulate warned me not to attend the march—seriously. Actually, they warned me twice, in two emails five hours apart. “Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence,” they told me. “You should avoid areas of demonstrations and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstration.”

I’ll be direct: My first reaction was, “are you frigging serious?!” This is New Zealand: Not only don’t protests in this country typically turn violent, but I’ve never—ever—felt threatened or intimidated on the streets as an American-born New Zealander. Actually, the truth is that the only times I’ve felt anti-American aggression from New Zealanders has been on social media (Twitter and Facebook), never in real life.

So, I thought the emailed warning to US citizens in New Zealand was over-the-top. I also thought the email itself was vaguely intimidating, perhaps of US citizens who might want to joint the march, when it said: “New Zealand Police are aware of the protest and are monitoring it.”

I suppose I should be grateful that the US Government is trying to keep US citizens safe by warning them of potential trouble. I should be grateful, maybe, but it’s hard for me when I find them to be, shall we say, rather culturally tone-deaf. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything like that about the US diplomatic mission in New Zealand. Maybe there really is a first time for everything.

New Zealand is a peaceful country, and one in which group violence is very rare—so much so, that I felt the US Consulate was warning me about another country entirely. If I’d been in the CBD yesterday, the only reason I would’ve avoided the area is because the streets were blocked, not because of concerns about my personal safety. As it happens, I had things scheduled here on the other side of the bridge, and so, wasn’t there. But the Consulate and its tone-deaf warning didn’t keep me away, not even almost. I know New Zealanders better than they do, it seems, and considering they’re supposed to be experts, that’s an odd thing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

My first political Public Meeting

Last night, I went to the first political Public Meeting I’ve ever been to. There’s no particular reason why I never attended one before, but I went to this one because it was for Richard Hills, the Labour candidate in our electorate.

When I moved to New Zealand, I saw that politicians—elected and campaigning—held something called a “public meeting”, and it confused me. Where I was from, officials conducted “public meetings” to inform people about some immediate issue or crisis, like a drought or something of public concern. In New Zealand, they were opportunities for people to hear about the issues of the day and to ask questions of candidates and officeholders.

The main reason I never attended such an event was that they’re usually held on weeknight evenings, and I don’t like doing things like that in the evenings (or on weekends), which are family time for me. This time, I was helping a bit with the event, and, anyway, I wanted to add numbers for Richard’s event.

Except in unusual circumstances, such events have relatively low turnout—maybe a couple dozen or so—because they’re held in specific local areas and are attended mainly by the people in those areas. Even so, we had a better than average turnout, though that’s only part of it: The flyers distributed in the area helped to get Richard’s name and the Labour Party presence out in the surrounding area, which is Labour-aligned but also historically has had low voter turnout. So, the flyers helped to create awareness and enthusiasm for Richard and Labour that the actual public meeting built on.

Several other Labour electorate candidates attended, including current Labour List MP, and Te Tai Torkerau candidate, Kelvin Davis, Hermann Retzlaff, Labour candidate for the newly-created Upper Harbour electorate, Greg Milner-White, Labour candidate for East Coast Bays electorate. Shanan Halbert, a Labour List candidate, was also there. They all said a few words, too.

The photo at top is from the Richard Hills for Northcote Facebook page (I forget who actually took it). Yes, I’m in the photo, but my face is obscured by someone’s hand. The photo was taken some time after the meeting ended, and cups of tea and coffee had been had, along with some wonderful baking. I took the photo below awhile before the meeting began.

All in all, it was a good night. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the people attending, and a strong commitment to turn out the vote for Labour and #ForABetterNZ. It warmed an otherwise cold night!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It STILL matters

We’ve heard this before: A famous person comes out, and people say they “don’t care”. They say “it shouldn’t matter”. They’re helping to prove why it matters, and why they should care.

Over the weekend, Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe came out as gay. Part of the immediate reaction was typical: Expressions of disinterest, sometimes well-meaning declarations that it shouldn’t matter, and, sadly, sometimes open hostility and even hatred. This is what happens whenever a famous person comes out.

However, this time there was a strong reaction in support.

Writing Sunday on Australian web-based news site, The New Daily, sports editor Patrick Smithers talked about Thorpe’s coming out as a lesson in why homophobia in sports is wrong—in particular, an on-air anti-gay slur used by a sports commentator. He said: “[the commentator’s] homophobic language gives further licence to the casual, exclusionist prejudice that isolates so many vulnerable young Australians.”

Exactly so. Dana Johannsen, a New Zealand Herald sport writer, also gets it. She said today: “Homophobia is still rife in the sporting world, and Thorpe's decision to come out is not as inconsequential as some of us tend to believe.” She also knows the folks to whom a high-profile person coming out matters most:
“There's another group of people who would have cared a great deal about Thorpe's announcement. For youths who may be questioning or struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, seeing Thorpe, fair dinkum Aussie sporting hero, tell the world he likes men can only be positive. You may or may not care to know, but having a sporting role model matters greatly to them.”
This is the point I keep making and, as it happens, yesterday Stuff’s “Rugby Heaven” provided a real-world example. New Zealand rugby player Jay Claydon, then 18, was asked to leave his Christchurch rugby club because he’s gay.

The next year, Claydon moved to Australia, where he “found homophobic slurs were an accepted part of sporting culture. At the clubs he played for in Perth and Sydney, he felt compelled to keep his sexuality secret for fear of being ostracised.”

In Thorpe’s interview, he said he felt ashamed that he didn’t have the courage to come out earlier, “as though this somehow reflects on him, not those judging him,” as Patrick Smithers put it so well. Homophobia kept Jay Claydon in the closet as it had Thorpe. It shouldn’t be this way!

Back in February, after some high-profile people came out, I published a sort of open letter to straight people on why coming out matters so much. What I said back then is still true:
“Every time a celebrity comes out publicly, they’re sending a message to some scared, lonely LGBT teen that there’s hope for a better life, that they, too, can be happy and find love. It also sends a message to that teen’s parents and friends and neighbours that gay people are GOOD people, damn it, and you must never—ever—hate people for being who they are—gay, straight, bi, pansexual, trans*, whatever. When someone does, they’re not hating “them”, they’re hating ALL OF US—every type of human.”
So, this is why Ian Thorpe coming out matters so much. The reason he denied his sexuality in the past is precisely what he’s now helping to fix: Homophobia kept Thorpe from being honest—he internalised anti-gay attitudes that left him fearing rejection by family, friends, fans and the general public, and he lied to himself and everyone else. Many LGBT people do the same thing before they find the courage and safety to live in freedom. This takes a terrible toll on people, and it’s so very unnecessary.

I personally know a lot of people who are helping to speed the day when coming out won’t be necessary because it truly won’t matter. But we’re a long, long way from that time. To help make it happen sooner, we all need to be ready for the inevitable “I don’t care” or “it shouldn’t matter” comments when a famous person comes out, and we should say something positive in reply: Actually, it matters a LOT to scared, closeted LGBT young people and their families.

Because, it STILL matters.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Alarming big picture

Yesterday, Gallup released a new poll that found that in the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling, approval of the US Supreme Court had plummeted among Democrats and soared among Republicans. There’s actually nothing new about that, but the big picture is alarming.

Overall, the percentage of Americans who approve of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job is pretty even—47% approve and 46% disapprove. This hasn’t really changed since last September, when the ratings were 46% approved and 45% disapproved.

However, when we look at partisan responses, there’s a much different picture: Republican approval has soared from 30% last September to 51% now. Among Democrats, approval plummeted from 58% to 44% (Independents didn’t change much at all). That’s kind of the headline story here, but it’s a little misleading.

In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time. After the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush as president in 2000, Republicans’ approval of the Court soared from 60% to 80% and Democrats’ plummeted from 70% to 42%. This same thing happens whenever the Court rules on an ideologically divisive issue: Those who agree express more approval—sometimes a LOT more approval—and those who disagree express less approval—again, often a LOT.

The bigger concern is the long-term trend. Gallup released a poll the end of June that showed that confidence in all three branches of the US Government as institutions has been in pretty steady decline for more than two decades (this is different from approval ratings, though surely people’s feelings about the incumbents must play a role in how confident they feel about the institution).

There have been some blips in the confidence levels for the presidency—after 9/11 and after Obama was first elected—but overall, the trend for all three branches is headed downward. Of course confidence in the US Congress has been in the toilet for years and is in danger of dropping below the margin of error.

While confidence in the Supreme Court and even the presidency remain more than four times higher than that of Congress, neither one enjoys the confidence of even a third of Americans. That’s an untenable situation.

Democracy cannot survive when the vast majority of the people have no confidence in their system of government, and sooner or later, something has to give. Since Americans overwhelmingly vote to re-elect the same people over and over, the break may come in some other way.

Radicals claim that revolution is the logical end, but that’s nonsense. Apart from the fact that it would be almost impossible to have a revolution in the modern USA, it’s not something that the majority—or even a large plurality—are ever likely to consider a good option.

Instead, there are three plausible options. First, voters could come to their senses and stop voting in losers. That won’t fix the Supreme Court right away, but this step would eventually fix that, too.

Second, dissolution: The USA could break up into smaller nations. There’s no appetite for this among anything more than a tiny minority, so this is hardly likely, either.

Gallup itself hints at a third possibility: “At this point, Americans place much greater faith in the military and the police than in any of the three branches of government.” Could a military coup and police state replace democracy? Also unlikely. If there was anything that could spark an armed revolt, that would be it.

However, this is very much a moving picture. Just because a thing is unthinkable now, doesn’t mean it always will be—but that includes the possibility of Americans actually “voting the bastards out”, which right now I think is the most plausible outcome.

Gallup says that these abysmal approval ratings “threatens and complicates the US system of government.” No single ideologically divisive Supreme Court ruling will change that for better or worse, or cause the eventual readjustment. Instead, the overall trend of rates of public approval for the Supreme Court are related to the major problems facing the US system of governance overall, and that’s what’s so alarming about the big picture.

The image of the US Supreme Court building at the top of this post a Creative Commons licensed photo by Wikiwopbop, published by Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Frown turned upside down

Okay, so yesterday was pretty awful: Constant rain, most of it heavy. It was a miserable winter day that made me grumpy, especially because it rained the whole way from Auckland to Hamilton, and well into that night.

Today, however, was a much better day.

Yesterday afternoon, we helped finish the move for my mother-in-law—in that rain—and then helped her get some things organised in the new place. That evening, we all assembled for dinner at my sister-in-law’s house in another part of Hamilton, which was nice. We were even in bed a little after ten—surprisingly early, really.

This morning was bright and sunny, and while it looked like raining a couple times, it never did (except a few times on the drive home…). Today’s mission was to take Nigel’s Mum shopping for a few things for her new place. After a finding many bargains, and as we were starting to head back to her new place, Nigel’s Mum said to Nigel and me, “So: When are you two moving to Hamilton?”

The short answer is, “who knows?”, but the longer answer isn’t much different: We have no idea when, or if, we’ll move there. Nigel’s always liked Hamilton, but I’ve never been keen on it, mainly because it can get bloody cold in the winter, and it’s often foggy on winter mornings—and the city just didn't seem to have much to offer, not as compared to Auckland, anyway.

However, we have several relatives living there now (along with around 148,200 or so other people), and Hamilton is slowly becoming more, um, cosmopolitan. It’s still very National Party there, in part because the area around the city is mostly farm country, but Labour has held electorate seats there and will eventually do so again. Party voting behaviour isn’t a perfect measure of a place, of course, and half of the city’s population is under 30, and, since younger people tend to be more progressive, this bodes well for the city’s future. Besides, where we live right now has been held by National for most the years I’ve been in New Zealand.

No, what I think is a better indicator of the place is all the construction: New houses are being built all over the city (and heating/air conditioning is now commonly included), and a lot of new shopping is going in, too. The shopping at The Base, including the mall Te Awa, which I wrote about last year, is getting better all the time—you can get nearly everything you need at that one place—or, if not there, nearby.

The New World supermarket at Te Rapa is the best grocery store I’ve been to in New Zealand—it may be the best I’ve been to, anywhere. Actually, New World Rototuna is pretty good, too.

State Highway One, the main road that runs the length of New Zealand, is the way to get from Auckland to Hamilton. Over the past ten years or so, a lot of work has been done to improve the highway, and much of it is now motorway. It’s not only reduced the amount of time it takes to drive between Auckland and Hamilton, it’s made it a much nicer—and safer—journey.

The point is, there’s a lot to like about Hamilton, even just for a visit. But move there? The jury’s still out on that. I guess it’ll take a few more visits.

Hopefully, it won’t be raining for our next visit.

Update 15 July: Above, I said that one reason I dislike Hamilton is that "it's often foggy on winter mornings." Well, Monday morning dawned foggy in Aucklandvery foggy. Today, Tuesday, the morning is clearer, but also cold, with temperatures around 6 degrees or so at our house (around 43F). The difference is, both are somewhat less common in Auckland than in Hamilton.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Grumpy Arthur is grumpy

Have I mentioned how much I dislike winter? It doesn't matter that we don't get snow, ice or bitter cold in Auckland, because I don't like ANY kind of winter. And we're not even at mid-winter yet.

So, I'm grumpy. It's rained at least part of every day for over a week, and we had strong winds from Tuesday until last night. Then, it started to rain - sometimes hard, but mostly just steadily. Constantly. Without a break.

And today we're helping my mother-in-law move into her new place. In the steady, constant rain.

Have I mentioned how much I dislike winter?

Friday, July 11, 2014

The end of ENDA

ENDA—the Employment Non-Discrimination Act—is dead for this session of the US Congress. That’s actually not news at all: Republicans declared the bill would never even come up for a vote in Committee, much less in the whole US House of Representatives. Even so, the bill’s finally dead because the good guys won’t play Republicans’ games any more.

ENDA would, if passed by Congress and signed by the President, provide protections for LGBT workers against discrimination in employment. That’s a very important goal considering how many US states offer NO employment or other civil rights protections for LGBT people. ENDA was first introduced 20 years ago, in 1994.

The version of ENDA passed by the US Senate in November of last year—with 10 Republican Senators voting for it—included a HUGE religious loophole, far bigger than applies to the protections contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead, it has the far broader religious loophole normally applied to specifically religious institutions (like a church) to allow them to discriminate based on their religion. To put it in perspective, organisations are not allowed to engage in racial discrimination because of their religious beliefs, but under the ENDA loophole, they could discriminate against LGBT people.

This has taken on a LOT more significance in the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling: For-profit corporations are demanding the same religious loopholes to laws that genuine religious organisations get, simply because their fundamentalist owners claim their companies have “sincerely held religious beliefs”. In the wake of the ruling, fundamentalist leaders have demanded a huge religious loophole in the Executive Order that President Obama will soon issue barring discrimination against LGBT employees by businesses contracted to do work for the US Government (federal contractors).

So, most major national LGBT organisations have now dropped their support for ENDA. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund announced it was ending its support for ENDA, and Executive Director Rea Carey wrote an OpEd further explaining their reasons for that. Later, the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights and Transgender Law Center, issued a joint statement announcing they were withdrawing support for ENDA [a PDF of the statement is available from the ACLU].

Among the few remaining supporters is the Human Rights Campaign, whose ways I have often found inscrutable. The National Center for Transgender Equality also still backs the bill, but will fight to narrow the religious loophole: “NCTE has long pressed to narrow ENDA's overbroad religious exemption, and will continue to vigorously oppose any attempt to cloak discrimination of any sort under the guise of faith. That is contrary America's values, including our tradition of religious freedom," as the organisation’s director of policy, Harper Jean Tobin, told Talking Points Memo.

Apart from HRC (whose motives for support I frankly don’t understand), the few organisations still supporting ENDA are apparently doing so only to use it as a lobbying and organising tool, which is fair enough. The bill can’t go anywhere in this Congress, so it makes sense for some of the good folks to use it as a way of building support for the new version that will be introduced in the new Congress next year. Chris Geidner of BuzzFeed suggests three reasons for the change in direction on ENDA, though he does get one thing wrong: It’s definitely not a “fight”, just differing tactical approaches.

The larger point here isn’t that ENDA has a religious exemption—all federal civil rights legislation does (whether or not I think that’s reasonable or rational is another matter entirely, and not relevant to this discussion). The issue here is simply that fundamentalists are demanding a religious exemption big enough to drive a truck through, and that’s unreasonable and unacceptable.

In the long run, the advancement of society will one day make this sort of legislation unnecessary. But just as the USA is decades away from becoming a truly “post-racial” society, so, too, it will be decades more before anti-gay prejudice goes away enough so that such laws aren’t needed. Until then, the USA needs to enact nationwide legislative protections, and ENDA—without the gaping fundamentalist religious loophole—is the best way of achieving that (although amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been suggested as another way). At the moment, however, it’s looking like it’ll become law after society has already moved on from its anti-gay prejudices, and that’s the real pity in this whole mess.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

‘Technology is awesome’

This video is sort of a sanity break, after a few serious posts. It’s “Kids React To Old Computers”, and watching how they relate to obsolete computers is—interesting.

Among the first computers I ever used was one similar to what they show (an Apple IIe, to be precise). It was primitive by modern standards. Which is the point, really.

Near the end of the video, a girl says, “Technology is awesome”, and it is. It’s also always evolving. The tech stuff we think is so cool and wonderful today will, in 30 or 40 years, look every bit as oddly antique as the computer in this video. And kids then won’t understand how we could have used our iPads, iPhones or Android tablets. It’s inevitable.

We have two choices, really: To try and stop, or slow down, and hope the world doesn’t zoom too far ahead of us, or, we can keep up with changes as they happen. Whether we evolve or not us our choice, and mine is obvious: I’ll always be adopting new technology as it comes out.

Because, technology really IS awesome.

Wall of separation

I’ve always been a firm secularist—always. My parents brought me up to value the separation of church and state, so it’s no surprise I want a mighty and impregnable wall of separation. In the USA, it seems, that wall is about to collapse.

I haven’t published a post about the Hobby Lobby decision, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t write anything, because I did. Several times. But each attempt devolved into an angry rant, and I’m trying really hard not to publish such posts any more.

Fortunately, Roger Green posted about the decision and said many of the temperate things I said in my attempts. But I was curious about Roger’s take, as a person of faith, on the ruling being bad for people of faith and even religion generally. Roger’s now published his answer, “Why the Hobby Lobby decision is bad for people of faith”, and I think he does a great job answering my question.

I asked about it because most of the discussion about the case and its implications have so far come from fundamentalist protestants or atheists, and I wanted to see a viewpoint form the religious mainstream—the sort of thing I’ve been calling for over the past several years, as Roger notes. He added:
“I dare say some of us feel like we’ve been screaming but not being heard, because much of the mainstream press still uses the shortcut of defining the more ‘conservative’ elements of the church as the totality of the church. They use language such as ‘faith-based Christians’ or ‘Bible-believing Christians’, as though only a certain segment of us have ‘real’ faith or are informed by The Word. Ticks me off.”
Roger’s right, of course: Liberal and Mainline Protestant Christians have been speaking out and presenting their views, which are often completely the opposite of what the newsmedia report as being “Christian”. However, it’s the loudest voices that get attention, and radical right religionists are nothing if not loud! But they also say extremely controversial things (like, that being gay should be a crime, or maybe that gay people should be stoned to death—all of which well-known fundamentalists have actually said). So, we have very loud people saying outrageous things against the more measured, reasonable and rational tones of mainstream Christianity—is it really any wonder that only the radicals get covered?

Because the voices of reason are seldom ever heard, people—including politicians—get the idea that ALL Christians are radicals and they respond accordingly. This has many implications.

For religion, it means that mainstream people tune out of religion altogether. I’m convinced that one of the main causes of the rise of the “Nones”—people who report that they have no religion—in the USA is the rightwing radicalisation of religion. As I often point out, the “Nones” aren’t necessarily atheists, but instead are often people who reject all organised religion. That’s the radicals’ fault.

At the same time, this situation also encourages politicians to pander to the most radical elements of religion, much to the detriment of the American Experiment. The radical right has been highly successful in chipping away at not just the separation of church and state, but also the very idea that there OUGHT to be such a separation.

The radical right has managed to frame the debate as one in which their “religious freedom” is denied unless they completely get their way. For the moment, they’re focusing their rhetoric only on their opposition to abortion and to LGBT legal equality, but they won’t stop there.

The game here isn’t really that fundamentalists want to have their cake and eat it too—to be totally exempt from all laws the don’t like while also being able to dictate to government that it does as the fundamentalists order. No, what’s really going on here is that the fundamentalists believe they should be calling all the shots all the time, and what we’ve seen so far is only their earliest successes in their ultimate goal: To transform the USA into a fundamentalist Christian version of Iran, a “Christian” theocracy.

Dominionism, as it’s known, is at the core of most fundamentalist Christianity in the USA today, but even the few that don’t openly promote theocracy nevertheless demand the right to impose their beliefs on everyone else. “Religious freedom” applies only to them, of course.

So, from my perspective, the real issue here isn’t that fundamentalists and corporations owned by them insist on being able to impose their beliefs on everyone else in a manner that would be illegal for a secular business, it’s that this is only the first step.

The day after the Hobby Lobby ruling, prominent fundamentalists sent a letter to the White House demanding that, in light of the ruling, there should be a huge religious exemption in the Executive Order that President Obama will soon issue, one that would bar discrimination against LGBT employees by federal contractors, that is, companies doing business with the US Government. What they’re demanding is the right to discriminate against LGBT employees as long as it’s because of their supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

After the ruling, some companies also announced that they’ll refuse to cover ANY birth control, again, because of their supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Another step on the road to their goal.

The Hobby Lobby ruling has set off a new war over religious freedom in the USA and what it means. Can that phrase mean only the right of fundamentalists to do as they please? Or, does it mean the freedom from religion, too?

In the USA, the trend is clearly toward imposing the most restrictive and conservative religious views as the only ones entitled to freedom, and that can’t end well. Still, I have hope. The more that mainstream religious people speak out against the tyranny of the religious right, as Roger does, the better the chance of stopping them. But it will take all people of good conscience, religious and not, to vote against the radicals who would turn the USA into a fundamentalist christianist theocracy.

There’s still time to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and what it stands for, against the radical onslaught, but time may be running out. The wall of separation between church and state is cracking and crumbling; whether it falls or not will depend entirely on what the mainstream does—or doesn’t do.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Alan J. Dixon and the letter

Former US Senator from Illinois, Alan J. Dixon (photo at right), died this week at the age of 86. Dixon was an old-school Illinois politician, part downstate, part Chicago Machine. His focus on getting the most for Illinois probably made him an effective US Senator, but it didn’t make him loved. He was, however, part of my own political activist history.

Like most liberals, I had conflicted feelings about Dixon, whose nickname was “Al the Pal”. When he was US Senator (1981-93), I thought of him as a conservative Democrat, by the standards of the day (though he’d probably be considered moderate now, or, at worst, a Blue Dog). He was from Belleville, near St. Louis, which made him what we called a “Downstate Democrat”, meaning, basically, anyone from outside “Chicagoland” (the greater Chicago metropolitan region, including the city, Cook County outside of Chicago, and most of the counties bordering Cook County). Downstate Democrats were usually more conservative than those from Chicago or the metro region. This wasn’t always a good indicator, of course. Some Chicago Democrats were actually pretty conservative, and US Representative Paul Simon (later a US Senator), who lived in Makanda in southern Illinois, was mostly liberal by the standards of the day.

Dixon had been a fixture of Illinois political life for much of my life in Illinois, but his career began before I was born: In 1951, he became a member of the Illinois House of Representatives in his mid-20s. His career is covered pretty well in the obituary I linked to above, and also in his Wikipedia article, which goes into some of the details of his career that the obituary doesn’t.

By the time he was elected US Senator in the 1980 election, I was moving toward becoming a Democrat, but I wasn’t fully there at that point. So, I have no idea whether I voted for him or the Republican nominee, then-Lieutenant Governor Dave O’Neal (who I’d briefly met when he made a campaign stop in Carbondale during the 1978 campaign to re-elect him and Governor James R. Thompson, who I campaigned for). I can’t be sure who I voted for, because while I wasn’t fully a Democrat in 1980, I also didn't particularly like O’Neil, either, who struck me as cold.

However, I know that I voted for Dixon in 1986 against a Republican who I thought was harshly conservative (as is so often the case with people from that era, by today’s standards she probably would be called a “moderate”).

About a year later, I began lobbying the Illinois delegation in the US Congress on LGBT issues. I was part of a statewide civil rights groups called the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force (IGLTF), which had always been focused on civil rights legislation in the state capital and in Chicago. The group later worked on AIDS-related legislative and policy issues. I started working on Congress because, frankly, no one else was doing it.

I started by working on opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court, which was a successful effort. That work brought me into contact with national LGBT organisations, and I started paying attention to what Congress was up to because of that.

By the summer of 1988, I’d compiled a rather long list of anti-gay votes that Dixon had cast, most of them in support of anti-gay amendments put forward by ragingly anti-gay bigot Jesse Helms, one of only a couple people whose death I’ve celebrated. I got angry and wrote a letter to Dixon, and his office responded by inviting us to a meeting with the Senator in his Washington, DC offices.

That meeting was held on September 14, 1988, and was attend by me, then-IGLTF Co-Chair Joanne Trapani and then-Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (no relation), Jeffrey Levi. A photo of that meeting is below. It was the first time LGBT activists had met with Dixon directly, and the first time Illinois LGBT activists had met directly with a US Senator from Illinois. That seems so quaint now.

At the meeting, left to right: Arthur Schenck, then-IGLTF Co-Chair Joanne Trapani, then-Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (no relation), Jeffrey Levi, US Senator Alan J. Dixon. Photo by Doug Hinkle for Windy City Times, and reprinted with permission in the IGLTF Bulletin newsletter (from which this copy is taken).
I remember Dixon as having a big grin and a firm handshake with what seemed like a mitt. I can’t be sure that was true, though, because I was nervous and much thinner than I am now. He began by saying, “I understand you take some exceptions with some of my votes…” and talked about listening to us. After he spoke for a bit, I said, “Senator, that’s in the past. We’re more interested in talking about things that are coming up.” He visibly brightened at that, knowing we weren’t there to berate him but, rather, to build a dialogue.

Monday, July 07, 2014

How To Speak British (and some Kiwi)

This video popped up in my social media over the past few days. It presents and explains some British colloquialisms. Because early New Zealand was overwhelmingly British, and that influence continued into modern times, some Kiwi slang is still closely related to what’s in this video. Up to a point.

At around 3:36, when she talks about “To Have A Butcher’s”, she talks about things that I’ve never heard before. It's coincidence that I've never heard of the rest.

On the other hand, she includes “Up The Wooden Hill To Bedfordshire”, and my mother used to say what must be a version: “Time to climb the wooden hill”. I have no idea whether her usage was descended from her English ancestors, or whether she, a keen Anglophile, read it somewhere.

This particular video is “Anglophenia Episode 7”, part of a series hosted by Siobhan Thompson for BBC America. I quite like the style and presentation, though I’d expect nothing less when it’s from a media organisation. I think she's quite engaging as a presenter.

The video below is Siobhan doing 17 British accents. I thought it was very entertaining, though I have no way of knowing how accurate she is.

At any rate, I do love videos like these: They’re like fast-paced mini-documentaries. That’s a good thing in my book

Friday, July 04, 2014

Fourth of July

Today is the fourth day of July in this part of the world. And we all know what THAT means: It falls between July 3 and July 5. No big deal whatsoever, in other words.

Nevertheless, and despite how busy I am with work, I was aware of the day, and I thought about it. Pleasantly.

I had to run some errands today, including a stop at Countdown, which, as luck would have it, added an American products section a few weeks ago. I’d never actually bought anything from that American products section before, and the photo above may, in fact, be the first things I’ve bought from it. You may very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

I also had a cheese burger (technically called “Beef and Cheese”…) for dinner (U-S-A! U-S-A!), and, um, we also had fish and chips (the proper kind, fresh snapper, none of that frozen shark). It came from what I think is among the best takeaway places there is, The Flaming Onion in Northcote.

So, yeah, kinda American-ish, really. But we’re all far too busy for one of my America-meets-NZ Fourth of July things this year. Maybe next year.

Even so, clearly, you take the boy out of the country (USA), but you can’t take the country (USA) out of the boy…

Happy birthday to my homeland!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Sunny’s six

It’s Sunny’s sixth birthday today! The time has sure flown.

Today Sunny got some extra cuddles and kisses and a lot of attention. She loves attention, and her frequently wagging tail lets us know that. She also got special dinner, too; although she enjoyed it, I’m sure she had no idea why she was getting it. She—and her tail—didn’t seem to care why.

Her dog brother Jake and cat sister Bella both were nice to her, too. Actually, they’re all nice to each other all the time, which is especially nice.

I was thinking today about all the positives furbabies give. People often say what good confidantes they are because they never betray secrets or interrupt you when you talk, and that’s true enough, but their inability to speak makes them a kind of imperfect confidantes, I think.

For me, it’s just their presence that’s enough, their undemanding love of their humans, their happiness at just being with their humans. I’ve always thought that’s not just calming, but also kind of centring in a way. I certainly have trouble dwelling on whatever concerns me the moment I watch them play, or maybe when I see them asleep and dreaming.

I don’t know anyone who’d be without their furbabies because of all those good things they bring to our lives.

So, happy sixth birthday, Sunny! We’re so glad you came to live with us some three and half years ago!

Related posts:
Sunny is five – Last year’s birthday post
Sunny is four
Sunny is three – Her first birthday with us
Sunny has arrived – When Sunny came to live with us
All posts mentioning Sunny

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Let New Zealand be New Zealand

Should countries change their laws to suit other countries? Does the consequent personal anguish of a few people mean a country should change its laws to help those few people? What about when the country demanding change is a fascist dictatorship?

Russia, under the rule of its virulently anti-gay regime, bans adoptions of Russian children by people who are from countries with marriage equality (apparently nothing demonstrates Christian love—or how anti-gay you are—quite like punishing children who have no hope of ever leaving an orphanage). This is nothing new, and when NZ enacted marriage equality there were stories back then about Kiwis who were suddenly forbidden to adopt Russian children.

Fast forward a year, and TVNZ’s Seven Sharp infotainment programme has suddenly discovered the issue (where have they been all this time?) and presented the genuinely sad story of a Kiwi couple who were in line to adopt a little Russian boy, only to lose out at the last minute because of New Zealand moving forward and Russia trying to punish countries that do so.

The couple’s story was truly heartbreaking—I could feel their pain through the TV. However, that terribly sad story doesn’t mean that New Zealand should bow and scrape before Russian dictator Putin and do as he orders us to do.

The report said that Spain, faced with a similar retributive ban, changed its law to accede to Russia’s orders, banning adoptions by LGBT people (the report didn’t specify what adoptions were banned—all, all overseas or only those from Russia). That’s utterly daft.

No country that New Zealand works with allows foreign adoptions by people in de facto relationships, civil unions or same-gender marriages. In this case, that means that since same-gender couples in Russia cannot adopt Russian children, gay New Zealanders can’t, either (oddly, this wasn't mentioned in the Seven Sharp report). So, changing New Zealand law to accommodate the demands of the Russian dictator wouldn’t change anything—the Russians are merely trying to dictate the domestic policies and laws of other countries.

And that’s the larger issue here: New Zealand law must never be up for political sale. We must never change our laws to suit the bigotry of a foreign country—it should be the other way around, if anything. I know this might cause pain to a few people here in New Zealand, but the issues here are huge, involving national sovereignty, independence and the very right of New Zealand to choose its own course in the world, even when other countries vehemently disapprove (nuclear-free New Zealand, anyone?).

I genuinely feel for the couple in the Seven Sharp story, and for the other person I’ve heard about. Their stories are truly heartbreaking. But the harsh reality is that the independence and national sovereignty of New Zealand are more important.

Let New Zealand be New Zealand. Other countries must choose their own paths, but also must never tell us what path we may choose, and they absolutely have no right to tell us what path we must choose. Some people will be hurt along the way, and that’s truly sad. But our very nationhood is far more important.