Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year’s Eve 2014

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m the only one in the house that’s still up. That’s not unusual, actually, and I don’t mind in the least: I have a tradition—a need, really—to see in the New Year, no matter what. Some years I’m by myself, other years I’m not, but it’s the fact I’M here that matters to me for this event.

Tradition means a lot to me, especially when it’s MY traditions we’re talking about. Still, I have some childhood memories of the night. Like, for example, what I wrote back in 2012:
I have no traditions for New Years. I do remember, however, that my mother used to have us take a lit candle to every corner of the house. It was a Pennsylvania Dutch (German) tradition, she said. Nowadays, I think that it was a remarkably unusual thing for a preacher's wife to do. No wonder I'M so unusual...
One other thing from my childhood I don’t seem to have mentioned before: When I was a little boy, we lived right next door to the church where my dad was the pastor. I can remember that on New Year’s Eve, my dad brought me with him to the church just before midnight. We made our way to the church organ, and right at midnight, he let me flick the switch that made the bell ring. I suppose he counted to 12, but I know he told me when to switch it off. I felt honoured and excited to take part in that, but I also felt really special that my dad let me do that.

All these years later, and whether spent alone or with mobs of people, nothing has surpassed going to the church with my dad, who let me ring the bell to signal the New Year.

Happy New Year to you all, and I hope that you have—or will make—memories that are every bit as indelible.

This is my 365th post for this year: My annual average has been achieved, and I can now relax—indeed, so can you all, secure in the knowledge that if I now die before making another post, my goal for 2014 has been achieved. (yes, I know one shouldn’t joke about such things, but, as I said a couple years ago, I AM unusual…)

AAA-14 Answer 8 – Last ones this year

This is the last “Ask Arthur” answer for this year. The final question comes from my friend Jason (and 2014 marked 45 years of us being friends…). I think it’s a great way to end this year’s series!

So, Jason asks:

What thing from the U.S. do you still miss after all these years? Also, if you had to leave New Zealand and come back to the U.S., what would you most miss? This could be a food or a store or the way things are done, like the way an election is run, or buying house—something like that.

The funny thing is that I’m often asked what I miss and, well, that’s not the funny thing, it’s that my answer often changes. Mostly, though, it’s food, though not exclusively: It takes a distant back seat to the people who are not here.

One thing I think most people know (or have worked out) is my favourite food on this planet is American-style pizza. That doesn’t exist in New Zealand, so I spend time looking for something that’s good—while not being precisely what I want. Which is NOT to say that NZ pizza is bad—it isn’t—just that it’s not American style. And I can eat a LOT of pizza, so this is a kind of big deal, or would be, if I didn’t find pizza I like.

A lot of the other things I miss are food related, especially (of course?) fast food. But a lot of the grocery products I once missed are now available in New Zealand, either in our grocery stores or from the American products store. We also have several US fast food chains, of course, but nothing like the local places I enjoyed in Chicago (I miss Polish Sausages!).

I also miss things that are nowhere near the same: Marshall Field’s is gone, as are so many of the places I enjoyed. Two of the apartments I lived in are now gut-rehab condos, not necessarily well done, either. Such things are inevitable with having been gone so long.

But the larger truth is that I’ve built a life here that in many ways has replaced what I left behind. Over all those years, I found substitutes, got the same thing here or otherwise moved on. It happens, again, after so long.

Which actually gets to the second part of the question. There are a great many things I’d miss if I had to move to the USA. I would indeed miss the way elections are done and the way houses are bought and sold, and even grocery stores (ours have far more real food than US grocery stores, and far fewer ready-to-microwave meals).

But if I’m brutally honest—and why stop now?—I’d miss the open, honest, far less prejudiced and secular society I now live in. That’s not something one can shop for in stores, or come up with an acceptable substitute for. Though I’d certainly try my best.

The truth is, I don’t know that I could even survive in the US now, because so much has changed—the country, me, every person and place I knew. The good news, though, is that I’m okay with that. It took me years to get to this space, but it’s where I’m at, and I kinda like it.

That’s it for this year! Thanks to everyone who asked questions—Jacquie, Roger, and Jason. I’ll probably do this again next year, but anyone can ask questions at any time: Simply leave a question as a comment to any post or email me. I’m always open to questions!

Thanks again—see you next year?

Looks like I’ll make it

Barring disaster—personal, natural, or global—it looks like I will make my goal of an annual average of one post per day. Thank you all for your patience as I fought to meet my goal, and special thanks to my Facebook friends for enduring the barrage of Networked Blogs autoposts.

Thanks for your patience!
My marathon effort to meet that goal by posting a LOT this month was possible at all only because I had a big month in May, thanks to my series of posts for New Zealand Music Month, making May the month with the second-highest number of posts since I began this blog. Of course, this month’s blogging marathon would never have been necessary if I’d blogged more during the year.

Earlier this month, I talked about this goal, and the deadline today, and I said “for a number of reasons, I’ve really struggled to publish posts this year…” but I didn’t name any of those reasons. Well, now I will.

First, there was the standard: Lack of time. When I get busy, I have to cut things, and the first to go is podcasting (and my podcast has suffered far more than this blog has), and then I cut out blogging, too. I’ve never been able to get as disciplined and organised as Roger Green, who prepares posts in advance, so when I get busy, I have nothing to fall back on.

All that aside, there was one HUGE reason I didn’t blog as much this year: The New Zealand Election. June, July, August and September were the most active months of the campaign, and they were also among my least productive for blogging. I talked a bit about that at the end of September:
For all of April onwards, I was involved in this year’s failed Labour campaign. During that time, I mostly avoided saying what I really thought about a great many political things because I didn’t want to say anything that ran counter to the campaign narrative or that undermined it. Sure, I was also very busy during that time, too, but the main reason for my withdrawal from commentary on political issues was self-censorship.
There was one more factor that led me to pull back: The Labour Party slogan, “Vote Positive”. I noticed that every time a Labour supporter criticised the National Party or John Key—however mildly it might be—some Tory inevitably responded with “So! Where’s your ‘Vote Positive’ NOW, hm?!” and I frankly got sick of it. The fact is, National Party activists wanted exactly what they got—Labour supports not criticising National or Key—because they didn’t want their many negatives to be highlighted.

It was only after the election that I realised I’d fallen for a Tory campaign tactic by refraining from criticism. I wish I’d remembered that there’s actually a difference between honest criticism and mindless partisan attack. Moreover, such criticism doesn't have to be negative, and it’s not automatically negative merely because it’s criticism.

For example, in one post I mentioned how rude and boorish National’s Jonathan Coleman was in candidate meetings. There were plenty of other things he did that merely reinforced how awful he was acting, and yet I never mentioned them because of my self-censorship. I could also have criticised National Party spokespeople and their spin, but I never did.

Instead, I talked about Labour policy in the hope that would somehow show by comparison how bad National was. Trouble is, nobody but political hacks actually read party policies, so not contrasting them with National was a dumb idea. Live and learn.

So, my lack of posts this year was partly due to a lack of time, but also due to a big dose of self-censorship. Next year should be far more normal.

This month is on track, then, to save my annual average. It’s already the month with the most blog posts (so far). The most-blogged record used to be held by December 2009; December is a big month for me in most years, actually.

But the effort this month was also a lot of work: Every post on the blog this month (and nearly all posts in the entire blog, actually) was finished just before I clicked “Publish”. I sometimes start them days before I publish, but the form that appears on this blog is always finished just before it’s published.

I mention that only because, as I said in that post earlier this month, I feel like it could look like I was padding out posts to meet my average, but there was really a bit more work involved than mere padding. Well, mostly…

In any event, I’m almost certain to make my annual average. To me, that’s a very good thing.

There’s STILL always good news

Back in January, I wrote about good news, how it’s always there and usually ignored. I posted two videos that made that point. The video above from Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield is another example of good news we ignore.

The video talks about all the good things going on in the world, and, yes, it clearly promotes the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So what? They’re trying to make the world a better place, and that’s really the point Hadfield is trying to make: DO something!

He world is a far better place than we humans like to admit. I talked about that back in January, and that led me to try An Experiment, publishing posts looking at unreported and under reported good news stories, along with the good news aspect of an otherwise negative story. I did that on Mondays (because it’s often a very depressing day by itself), and next month I plan to try the experiment again.

We all get dragged down by the tragedies we see in life—accidents, disease, armed conflict and war, social unrest—it can be overwhelming. Which is exactly why I think we need some good news, too, as a sort of antidote.

But I also think something Hank Green said in his “The Golden Gate Bridge Didn't Collapse!!” video I posted back in that January post is important. He said: “I’ve got nothing against caution, we should be cautious, but we should also not be pessimistic, because that’s just going hold us back.” He’s right, but there’s something more: Pessimism makes us give up, withdraw, opt out and tune out at a time the world needs us to engage.

I’m a big advocate of voting, that the main way, in my view, to make our societies more just, fair, and equal is to participate in the political process. But there’s so much more beyond mere politics, plenty of things for non-political (and even anti-political) people to choose from.

That was the main point in Chris Hadfield’s video. Everyone can do something to help—we just need to choose to be positive, because we have so much reason to be positive.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

AAA-14 Answer 7 – Loss and memes

Today’s “Ask Arthur” answer will take on two un-related questions from Roger Green. The first is serious, the second one isn’t. I wanted to lighten things up a bit after a couple days of heavy topics.

This year’s series finishes tomorrow, with a late-arriving question.

Roger’s first question is:

Thinking of my friend Steve Bissette, whose father died in late October and his mother in the last couple days: who was the greatest personal loss you've experienced? From the receiving end, what are best, and worst, things one can say to one who is grieving?

I think my answer to the first part is probably obvious from previous posts: My parents. Although my mother was probably the bigger influence on my life, I don’t know that her death was necessarily a bigger loss than my dad's was, possibly because they died only about half a year apart.

I was home from university at Thanksgiving. My mother was in the hospital, having just been diagnosed with cancer. My dad wasn’t coping well—he wasn’t eating right or taking care of himself, and he died suddenly one night soon after I got home—in the early hours of Thanksgiving morning. I’m the one who found him, and had to figure out what to do. I was 20.

My mother left the hospital, continuing treatment as an outpatient for a while, but she declined steadily. Eventually, she became bedridden and slept almost all the time. I was her primary caregiver until she died. I was 21.

My father’s death was a huge shock, my mother’s was expected, but there’s one thing more than maybe only those who have been a caregiver for a loved one with a terminal illness can understand: Her death came as a relief. By that time, I was emotionally numb, so maybe I just didn’t feel it as keenly as I would have had she gone first, or years later. I don’t know, I can’t really imagine, and I won’t try: Those wounds have closed, but even now can be opened up again.

It was all so very long ago, and I was numb at the time of both funerals, but from what I can remember, the things that helped—or, at least, didn’t cause any harm—were the simple statements of support. I don’t just mean the “if you need anything, give me a call,” type of thing, but people offering specific help, or just being there for me, like at the wake, for example. Bringing food is good, too.

To me, saying things like, “I was so sorry to hear” or “I’m so sorry for your loss” are good things to say. So is asking how the mourner is doing, as long as it’s said with genuine concern.

However, again just for me, the absolute worst thing anyone can say to someone mourning a loss is, “it’s all part of god’s plan” or some such thing. Even back when my parents died, a time when I was still a Christian, I would’ve been sorely tempted to punch anyone who said that to me (I don’t think anyone did). It’s rude, condescending, incredibly annoying, and doesn’t help in any way whatsoever (apart, just maybe, from making their god seem like a bit of a jerk…). I never believed that sort of “plan” thing.

Nowadays, with the benefit of time and having left organised religion behind, I think saying anything religious to a person is a really bad idea unless both belong to the same congregation, but even then, it’s probably not a good idea. Atheists, agnostics, non-theists, and the non-religious of any kind could be annoyed by what we might see as someone intruding themselves and their beliefs into our mourning. Personally, since I don’t believe in an afterlife, it sounds a bit silly to me when people say, “you’ll be together again some day.”

The reason I say it can be risky to use religious language with someone we believe to be religious is that we can’t know where they’re at in the moment. It’s not uncommon for people to “lose their faith” after a major personal loss, or they may feel temporary anger toward their god. Accidentally riling them up is bad and serves no good purpose.

So, I think that people should begin using the human supportive language I mentioned first, then take their cue from the grieving person. If they speak in religious terms, then it’s safe to respond in kind. If they don’t, stick to the personal. What matters the very most at a time of loss, I think, is our connection to other people, and that’s true for the religious and non-religious alike. That’s what we should focus on, I think.

As an aside, but related to this general topic, a few months after my mother died, I began the coming out process. I thought to myself at the time that if any of my dad’s parishioners found out, they’d assume it was “because” I’d lost both my parents so close to each other, and with me still so young. To them, I thought, I’d have an “excuse”. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t possibly have cared less what they—or anyone else—thought about me. I think that the fact I even thought in those terms shows how fragile my emotions were for some months after my parents died.

Roger’s other question for today is completely unrelated:

If there is an Internet quiz on your Facebook feed, what kind of quizzes are you likely to participate in, if any? Do you play any games such as Candy Crush?

I tend to do quizzes that are about things that interest me—pop music, TV shows, science, grammar, etc. I also tend to do quizzes that flatter me, like, “Which totally awesome person from history are you?” (as far as I know, that’s not an actual quiz…). When I do one of those quizzes, I never share the results like they ask me to, but I sometimes mention the results in a comment for whoever shared the quiz on Facebook. I don’t mind the fun and social aspects of those quizzes, but I won’t bother anyone by sharing the quiz with friends on Facebook.

I used to play Candy Crush, but I disconnected it from Facebook (like all the games I’ll mention, I played it on my iPad more than online) because I got sick of it always harassing me to send lives and stuff to my Facebook friends, a list that I realised included folks who don’t actually play the game. I also got frustrated with it, so I rarely play it anymore.

I played some other King games—Farm Heroes Saga, Bubble Witch 2, for example—but never linked them with Facebook.

Games I play that are still linked to Facebook are: Solitaire Blitz (which I play with family members), Words With Friends (ditto), Bejewelled Blitz (I play against FB friends), and Bubble Blitz (none of my Facebook Friends play that game anymore). I recently linked Simpsons: Tapped Out to Facebook because doing so means I can get stuff faster.

All of those games are fairly mindless, apart from Words, which is probably why I like them. But the only games I link to Facebook are one I actually play against FB friends.

Big thanks to Roger for his questions! And be sure to check out Roger's blog.

Tomorrow is the final in this "Ask Arthur" series, in which I take on questions from a new questioner.

Remembering my mother

Today would have been my mother’s 98th birthday. Well, technically, it still is, since birthdays are anniversaries of birth, but when someone dies, we tend to speak of everything about them in the past tense. Or, maybe that’s just me.

I think of my mother every year at this time, and primarily because of the way she felt about her birthday. I talked about that back in 2008:
My mother always complained about having a birthday so close to Christmas. When she was a little girl, her relatives would say to her, “Instead of getting you two small presents, we’ll get you one big one.” She thought that was a fraud. “I knew that if my birthday was any other time of the year, I’d get TWO big presents,” she told me. Even as a kid, with no money of my own, I tried to make sure I got her two presents.
She was a tremendous influence on my life, as I talked about last year. And yet, it’s been so long since she died that I can go for a long time without ever thinking about her or my father, who died a few months before her.

Well, that always used to be the case.

As I get older, I find that that I think of them more often. Sometimes it’s when I speak and hear my dad, or maybe I suddenly remember a phrase my mother used. Often, it’s nothing in particular.

I suppose that some of this is could be part of a nostalgia I feel as I grow older. In recent years I’ve reconnected on Facebook with friends from high school and from my activist years in Chicago. So, it’d be natural to think of my parents, too.

But it is the way my mother felt about her birthday that is mainly what keeps the date in my mind. Adults can never know which of the things they say to children will become firmly planted, and long remembered, but, for me, this was one such thing my mother managed to lodge in my brain.

The photo with this post is of my mother, one of the last I ever took of her. I took it in late 1979 or early 1980, a few months before she died. She’d finished her radiation therapy and I’d taken her to the hairdresser so she would feel better about herself. This photo is a copy of an enlargement I had made after she died. I took the original with an Instamatic camera, and made the copy with a modern digital camera—bridging the decades, in a way.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Tears of a clown
– one of my favourite posts about my mother

Previous years’ birthday posts:
Mom’s birthday (2013)
Mom’s treasure (2012)
Remembering birthdays (2011)
That time of year (2009)
Memories and words (2008)

Smartphone Photography

I believe that one of the best ways to learn photography is to simply take photos. But rather than investing in expensive equipment, I think that one of the best tools to learn how to take good photos is a smartphone.

The video above, “7 Smartphone Photography Tips & Tricks”, teaches some things one can do with a smartphone. Some are more advanced than others, but none of them require any special tools or equipment, which is the point.

Years ago, after my mother died, I bought a fancy 35mm SLR film camera and experimented with taking photos. I enjoyed it, and took a few good ones (amid a lot of rubbish ones). That camera was stolen a few years later, and I just never got back into it—until recently, and it was mainly with my phone.

For the past year or so, most of the photos I’ve posted on this blog have been taken with my iPhone. That won’t necessarily be as true next year, since I’m determined to learn how to use our fancy digital camera that, so far, I’ve used mainly for copying old family photographs that don’t have any negatives.

But the camera itself isn’t the issue as much as learning what makes a good photo. In general, I’ve been pretty happy with the photos I’ve published here. I guess that’s obvious: Who would share a photo they hated? But the truth is, I like some of the photos I’ve taken, and that makes me want to take more.

Using a smartphone has some distinct advantages. Most people have a phone with them all the time, they’re discreet and they’re easy to use. The camera lenses included with phones are getting better all the time, but they’re all fine for learning.

The flash on a smartphone isn’t very strong or precise, and the light responsiveness isn’t great. But these restrictions aren’t important when the goal is learning how to take good photos, and they can actually force one to be more creative. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, well, chalk it up as a “learning experience”.

These days, with decent cameras on smart phones, some time, some patience, and all the free tips and tricks available, anyone can learn to take decent photographs. That’s all I want.

My phone just makes learning to take better photos much easier.

Maya Angelou's ‘Harlem Hopscotch’ Music Video

Somehow I missed the news that one of Maya Angelou’s last projects before her death in May was to collaborate on a hip hop album, but I would have been interested. The official music video for “Harlem Hopscotch”, above, has certainly caught my attention.

The album, Caged Bird Songs, is a collaboration between Angelou and producers RoccStar and Shawn Rivera, blending Angelou's words and vocal performances with hip-hop beats. Some of the vocal tracks were previously recorded, but others were made specifically for this album. The album gets its name from Angelou’s 1969 classic, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Back in September, Colin A. Johnson, Angelou’s grandson, told Billboard of Angelou’s attitude to the project: "Grandma loved it from the beginning." He also went on to explain the connection between Angelou and the hip hop artists: “These guys were inspired by grandma's work, which many people are, and felt like giving it a different medium of delivery to make it more obtainable to a larger group of people."

Angelou collaborated on musical projects in the past, and won three Grammys for her spoken word recordings. Johnson said his grandmother “saw (hip-hop) as this generation's way of speaking and conveying a message." I think it is, too.

To me, much of hip hop, and rap in particular, is basically spoken word poetry with a beat (though it’s not really as simple as that). And I love everything to do with spoken word, and Angelou is one of my favourite poets, and her work often had what her grandson called “street-wise commentary”, so this project sounds promising to me.

I think that the video itself is visually stunning, too. The YouTube description says of the video:
The song is about encouraging everyone, especially young people to persevere through life despite any obstacles! The game of hopscotch is symbolic of the difficulties of life and the obstacles that some face, whether they be wealthy or poor.
The description also notes that the video has “choreography from Emmy award-winning duo Tabitha and Napoleon Dumo, a/k/a NappyTabs, best known for their work on the hit television series So You Think You Can Dance.”

I love seeing artists branch out in new and sometimes unexpected ways. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s never fault in the trying.

And, it’s great to hear one last project from Maya Angelou.

Ursula Le Guin on the future of literature

Last month, science fiction and fantasy write Ursula Le Guin received the USA’s National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The video above is her acceptance speech, and it’s pretty awesome.

She made a strong defence of science fiction and fantasy writers, and all writers and artists, and their role:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.
All of which is very true. Artists can imagine a better world than we now have, and can help us make sense of the world we’re in now. But one of the potential barriers is capitalism itself. Le Guin again:
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.
The business model for publishers is increasingly focused only what will sell big, with dwindling space on their lists for smaller or riskier books. The answer for some has been self-publishing through various e-book platforms, which can be a very good option—for some.

But not all authors are capable of doing what is still the more or less specialised work of producing e-books and, much harder, effectively marketing them. Even so, I believe that the future of publishing is digital, and that in the future niche authors will be able to find a market though that medium.

Which is not to say that printed books are going away, because they’re not—at least, not for a very long time. But we’re already thinking more broadly about what the word book means, and we’re becoming far less judgemental about the source—a publishing company or self-published. This has profound implications for the wide availability of varied voices and viewpoints, and I think that’s a good thing.

The future doesn’t have to be a dark and scary place. The artists will help us find our way.

Tip o' the Hat to BillMoyers.com. A complete transcript is also available from Parker Higgins.

Monday, December 29, 2014

AAA-14 Answer 6 – Serious subjects

Today’s “Ask Arthur” answer is two related questions from Roger Green that are quite serious. There’s one more serious question tomorrow, then things turn lighter to end the series.

Roger’s first question is:

"From your far-away vantage, what do you think of the Ferguson, MO shooting of Michael Brown, the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, et al, unarmed young black men (or boys in a couple cases), killed by police. What do you think of the protests, and do you think they could lead to fundamental changes in 1) the discussion of race in America and 2) police behavior? Is this a passing phase or is this a sea change?"

It’s actually quite difficult for me to answer that without being angry and negative. But I’ll try.

The fact is, I’ve never felt more disconnected from my homeland than on this particular subject. I’ve seen good, decent people trying to defend the indefensible, or seemingly completely unable to even see that there’s a problem.

First things first: The killings of the unarmed black men and boys shouldn’t have happened, and I would hope that everyone could agree on that point at the very least. So what bothered me the most were all the people (mostly white) trying to justify the killings. It was impossible for me to look at such responses as anything but racist, or, as one person put it on Twitter: “Racism doesn't usually look like someone shouting slurs, it's looks like people eagerly looking for a reason why a black kid deserved to die.”

Because of all that, I don’t think these events will bring about any changes in the discussion of race. If anything, the discussion so far has become more polarised and there is far too much point-scoring going on, and that includes about the protests, too.

The only way this can get better is if people want it to. That will require something more than mere protests in the street: It will require organised political action, to throw out those who won’t make the necessary changes and to hold politicians to account.

If that happens, then there’s a real possibility of changes to police behaviour and procedures. That’s because politicians are answerable to voters and if the demand is strong enough, there will be change.

So, I don’t think that the protests themselves will cause a sea change, and whether there is that sort of change will depend on what happens next. I hope it’s not a passing fad, but at the moment I think it could easily go either way.

Roger’s other question for today is related: "Do you think there is white privilege in the US? In NZ? How would you describe it in a way that won't tick off most white people?"

Yes, white privilege exists in both the USA and New Zealand. The situation in New Zealand is different than the USA, though, because NZ doesn’t have the same vein of racism that the USA still has. For more about that, Bill Moyers interview with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (watch on YouTube) explains the historic context in the USA pretty well.

The larger point here is that every majority has privilege that minorities do not have. Some examples: In a majority white society, white people can do things that racial minorities can’t. Similarly, society favours men, so males have privilege that females do not. Heterosexuals have privilege that LGBT people do not. The list goes on and on.

We don’t choose the condition of our birth, and we don’t choose to be born with privilege or without it. There’s no shame in any of that. What matters is our character: What do we do with the privilege we have to make things better for those without it?

Explaining privilege is very hard, and I don’t have a simple solution—at least, not yet. I rely on a 1988 essay by Peggy McIntosh, which includes a list of things that privilege delivers, and understanding those can help people to come to terms with what white privilege is. Last year I blogged about “Religious Privilege”, and included a cartoon that explains how white privilege works. I think it’s quite good.

There are also lots of other resources, including:

“Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person”
“What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege”
“Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”

Each of those essays attempts to deal with explaining privilege without "ticking off most white people".

There’s no simple solution to any of these issues or problems. But we need to try, and we need to start.

My missing explainer

For some reason—well, no reason, actually—I haven't posted a video from one of my favourite YouTube explainers, CGP Grey, in a long time. In fact, the last one was back in August. So, here are his two most recent videos.

First up is the video above, “The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained”. It was posted a couple weeks ago, about the time that the last “Hobbit” movie was released. That might seem to make it timely, but this video really lays out the background that ultimately led to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that followed on from The Hobbit.

Still, it’s interesting.

Finally, is “Quick and Easy Voting for Normal People”, which is actually more about how to make a group decision than it is about voting as such. CGP Grey has made several videos about voting systems, a number of which I’ve posted here in the past. Those are useful, but this one may be more useful in practical sense. I certainly plan on trying it from time to time.

There: Now we’re up to date with CGP Grey videos. Whew!

It was hot today

Summer has definitely arrived. Finally. But now we see the odd thing about this time of year: Knowing what temperature it is. Is it the temperature reported by the media, usually from some weather service, or is it more accurate at people’s houses? How can we be sure either way?

The photo up top is of our weather station device, and it shows the temperature at our house this afternoon: 30.7C (87.26F). The photo below is a screen grab of the reported temperature, 24C (75.2F). There’s clearly a big difference between the two, and there are reasons for that.

In many cases, official temperatures are taken at non-representative spots, and so those temperatures may be warmer or cooler than that recorded elsewhere in the same area. It’s also true that some local spots may be hotter or cooler than others. And, it’s impossible to know without proper checking how accurate a thermometer is.

What all this means is that some variation ought to be expected. If our thermometer is off, it could account for some of the discrepancy today. But it’s also possible that it’s just significantly hotter at our house than elsewhere in the area, including wherever the reported temperature is taken.

All of which means that the likelihood is that, at least sometimes, temperatures can be higher than is official reported.

In any case, it was hot today.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

AAA-14 - Answer 5 – Threat Level

Up until now, the questions for this year’s “Ask Arthur” series have been light, even light-hearted, and my answers have been, too. Today I have a more serious question from Roger Green.

Today’s question is: Given the hostage situation in Australia: what is your sense of the safety from terrorism in New Zealand?

What Roger is referring to is when a deranged religious fanatic took a bunch of people hostage, ultimately killing two. The killer was either an islamist fanatic or, more likely, a sociopath who was using religion as an excuse for his sociopathic behaviour.

It really doesn’t matter if he was insane or a sane man doing insane things, though, because either way, two people died, many people were terrorised, and a particular religion was demonised. And it shocked everyone.

The Australian government claims to have intercepted and prevented a few supposed “terror plots”, though all the federal and state agencies completely missed this guy. I have no way to evaluate the truthfulness of the Australian government, or whether they’re saying things merely for political purposes, but it’s pretty indisputable that Australia is in the sights of global islamist terrorism.

Australia under rightwing Prime Minister John Howard joined the Bush/Cheney “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq, and has been part of the US-led military action against ISIS/ISIL under current rightwing Prime Minister Tony Abbott. That group has urged Muslims to kill as many people in such countries as possible, and some violent fanatics will do exactly that. Regardless of whether the lack of real terrorist attacks in Australia so far is because of luck or the government, it’s certain there will be a real successful attack eventually (and the Sydney Siege was NOT such an attack).

To specifically answer Roger’s question, I’ve never felt unsafe in New Zealand, except in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the US Embassy warned Americans in New Zealand to keep a low profile. However, about a year later a friend sent me some t-shirts that said “USA” on them, and I didn’t feel comfortable wearing them. In fact, I’ve never worn them.

The thing is, I’ve only ever felt unsafe as an American living in New Zealand. I often felt prudence was wise, not because of NZ-born New Zealanders, but because of persons from immigrant populations who may not particularly like Americans. I’ve found that Kiwis who are real leftists—the only Kiwis likely to be anti-American—are more verbally than physically threatening, but, even so, I don't go around announcing my American-ness.

All of that was pretty mild, actually, and I often forgot all about. I never felt unsafe as a New Zealander—until recently.

Our current conservative Prime Minister, John Key, is planning on sending NZ troops to fight in the US military action against ISIS/ISIL, and that will, for the first time, put New Zealand in the sights of islamist extremists. That does worry me.

Even so, and despite all that, I’ve never—ever—felt unsafe in New Zealand, and even the awareness that terrorist attacks could happen in this country in the future because of the current government’s policies is something that’s merely in the back of my mind, never a preoccupation.

New Zealand is an isolated island nation, safe from foreign threats, and most domestic ones. The extent to which we must sacrifice essential liberty to obtain some temporary safety is at the heart of our current political debate, and that’s why I’m more worried about what John Key is doing to New Zealand freedom and liberty than I am about terrorism.

Despite everything, including our Prime Minister, New Zealand is a safe place.

Things you find

So, I was looking around on YouTube, as one does, and I found something that taught me something new—as one does. The video above is from Archives New Zealand, and within it is something I’d never heard of before. And how many times has THAT happened?

Beginning at about 2:16, the video talks about a meeting in Wellington by the Colombo Plan, and I immediately thought, “wait, what?!” I’d never heard of it.

It turns out, the Colombo Plan was conceived in 1949/50 among nations in The Commonwealth as way to combat the rise of communism in Southeast Asia. It focused solely on economic development, ignoring the social and economic inequality that communists exploited. However, this was central to conservative thinking, then as now, that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, so if the economy does well, everyone in it does, too. That’s nonsense, of course, but in the 1950s, it didn’t seem so (and it still doesn’t to those of antique beliefs…).

The conference in Wellington was held in May, 1956. The Prime Minister at the time would have been Sidney Holland. He stepped down and resigned due to ill health the following year. The video mentions “the Legislative Chamber” which then was the chamber of New Zealand’s former upper house, the Legislative Council, which was abolished in 1950. Their chamber has been used for special and state occasions ever since—and it’s actually quite small.

The Colombo Plan—named for the city in Sri Lanka where it was formed—still exists, though its mandate has extended into the Pacific. Founding members Canada and the United Kingdom both left, in 1992 and 1991, respectively. Vietnam technically left in 1975 when South Vietnam was defeated, then the current Vietnam was a member until 1976, and is now again a member. For some reason I cannot begin to guess, Saudi Arabia became a member in 2012.

So, here I am, a reasonably well-educated person, someone who studied not just political science but also international relations, and yet I was completely unaware of the Colombo Plan until tonight. And that meant only one thing: I had to share it in case others didn’t know about it, either. Secretly, I’m hoping others haven’t…

The things you find on the Internet can be very enlightening.

This time of year

This time of year, and especially the week between Christmas and New Year, it’s often difficult to get things done. Shopping is easy (apart from finding a place to park), but most everything else requires some planning.

The issue is that some businesses operate on reduced hours during this week in particular, bookended by two four-day weekends. Obviously retail is open to take advantage of a lot of people off work and, maybe, with little to do. But other businesses take a more varied approach.

Arthur got his new Rego JUST in time…
For example, I needed to renew the registration on my car. It expired on December 27, and the first chance I had to take care of it was that day. If I hadn’t, and had been caught, there would have been fines and, worse, had I been in an accident, the insurance probably wouldn’t pay. Serious stuff.

I went to the VTNZ in Glenfield, where I also take it to get a Warrant of Fitness every six months, but I first checked their hours online. Turns out, they were on slightly reduced (very slightly) hours through New Year’s, but I still had plenty of time. When I got there, it wasn’t very busy.

As a side note, car registration fees are being reduced as of July 1, so the smart thing to do was to renew the registration for only 7 months, so it expires after the rates go down. That way, I can renew in July at the new, lower rates. I don’t know how much we’ll save, but owners of petrol-powered vehicles will save between $42 and $132 a year (the ACC levy on petrol is also going down by three cents a litre on July 1, too).

After I took care of the registration, I had to pick up a few things, and found the stores all had pretty long queues (though at the small, local shopping centre I was at, parking was plentiful). It’s necessary to just deal with it.

On the other hand, finding a food place that’s open is kind of hit and miss. Yesterday I picked up some lunch at one of our local bakeries, and on the way home I noticed that the other local bakery was closed and so was the nearby sushi shop, both of which are normally open on Saturdays. Several local takeaway shops close until after New Year’s, and one local cafĂ© always used to close until the second week of January (they’ve since cut that back a bit).

All of which can sometimes be a bit of an inconvenience for those of us who have stayed in town, but not a huge one: Most things are open normal hours, except maybe on the actual public holidays, and those that aren’t have competitors who are open.

It’s just the way it is this time of year.

Get up, stand up

The video above is the most recent from ASAP Science, and it talks about something I’ve been reading about for a while now: People sit too much. I mentioned that to a healthcare professional a couple years back who dismissed it out of hand. I wish I’d had this video to show her.

Humans aren’t designed to sit for hours on end, and most of us know this pretty instinctively. But there’s also a growing body of evidence as to why this is the case, and what health effects too much sitting can have on us and our bodies. This video highlights some of that.

Fortunately, there are simple solutions to help. I looked into getting a standing desk or, more accurately, one that can be used seated or standing, but they’re very expensive. So, I came up with some simpler (and cheaper) ideas, like, for example, I now stand up when I’m folding the washing.

In the video below, the guys offer nine tips to get us to stand more (and to “Save Your Life”). That video is from their other channel, ASAP Thought. The point is, there are things everyone can do, regardless of budget.

And that health professional? Well, I tuned out everything she said after she was dismissive of standing, but I’ve come to think maybe she was just having a bad day, since she’s been okay since then (although, I’ve also never mentioned standing to her again).

I guess it’s a work in progress for all of us.

Astute folks will realise that the title of this post is taken from a Bob Marley song.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

AAA-14 - Answer 4 – The tooth is

Now that the Christmas holidays are over, it’s time to resume the answers to this year’s “Ask Arthur” series. Today’s question from Roger Green relates to a series of my posts this year:

"What is the root of your aversion to dentists? Did you have a bad experience as a kid? Were your parents or dentists vigilant about telling you about brushing and flossing?"

My aversion to dental work is simple: I hate pain, both physical and emotional. The physical is usually taken care of by a few well-placed injections, the emotional is a little harder: I hate being told off for not being diligent enough with my own routine care.

Which is not to suggest that I ignore such care completely, because I don’t. However, I’m hopeless at flossing, so have been given teeny, tiny brushes to use instead. They’re called “inter-spatial” or “inter-dental”, but it’s the same thing. I have much more success with those than I ever had with flossing.

The truth is, flossing freaks me the f*ck out: Some of my teeth are very tight, and floss always gets stuck between them. It’s a feeling I can’t stand, and it’s that feeling that gets me. Some people are driven round the bend by squeaky noises, or nails on a blackboard, but for me it's floss getting stuck. I’ve never had that problem with those little brushes.

I didn't have a particularly bad experience with dentists in childhood, apart from the fact they never used anaesthetic and I always had cavities. I don’t think I ever had anaesthetic until I was a teenager, actually—for that matter, I don’t remember flossing ever being mentioned to me until I was an adult.

My parents weren’t particularly diligent about dental care. I was required to bush every night before going to bed, but that was about it. That’s part of the reason things got bad—I simply had no personal history of dental diligence.

However, when I put my mind to it, I can plough through things I hate, fear, or that make me uncomfortable, and my recent dental work is a good example of that. The old “feel the fear and do it anyway” thing.

So, in general, things are much better with the dental stuff than they have been in years—decades, really—but it’s still a battle for me. Nowadays, though, the battle is more with my bad memory than fear. One enemy under control, one to go.

Knights and daze

Here’s a quiz for you: Last week, Sir Elton John married his partner of 21 years, David Furnish. So, now that David is married to a knight, what’s his title? Easy: Mr. Furnish.

While knighthoods themselves are an anachronism, the way honorary titles are handled is even sillier. Such titles, also known as courtesy titles, are used for the female spouse(s) of a male knight, but male spouse(s) of a female knight have no courtesy title, and this is why the male spouse of a male knight has no title: They never invented one.

When a man in New Zealand is knighted, his female spouse becomes “Lady” and the last name of the knight. So, Sir John Smith’s wife Mary would be known as Mary, Lady Smith. The reason for that is that “Lady Mary Smith” would make her sound like a peer (New Zealand doesn’t have a peerage—just knighthoods). Mary, Lady Smith would keep that title even if her husband dies or they’re divorced; it would only end of she changed her name. So, if a knight were to marry many women (sequentially, of course…) there could be several “Lady Smith” women around. Also, it doesn't matter if the male knight had been with his spouse 21 years or 21 hours—the woman still gets the title.

Because there’s no title for a man married to a female knight (called a Dame, by the way, where a male Knight is called Sir), there’s also no title for a man married to a male knight—it’s the gender of the spouse that matters. However, this is also why a wife of a female knight wouldn’t be “Lady Smith” (assuming they had the same last name): There’s no title allocated for the spouse of a Dame.

Last year, the British Parliament (unsuccessfully) considered a bill, The Equality (Titles) Bill 2013, which said in Clause 10:
“Any person who is, or who has been at any time . . . the civil partner of any man or woman who holds a title as a peer, baronet, baronetess, knight or dame shall be entitled to use the courtesy title 
”The Honourable”’.
I think this is a step in the right direction, but not good enough since apparently it’s still only a woman married to a male knight gets an honorary title. I think the ideal would be a title applicable to a spouse of either gender married to a knight of either gender. I bet heraldic scholars could come up with a better title, one that has some historic connection.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, they’ve banned men from becoming Queen or Princess of Wales (even if they are—get it? Even they’re, oh, never mind…). Up until now, a woman married to the reigning king is called Queen, but a man married to the reigning queen is not called King (so as to not confuse that person with the reigning monarch). That’s why the current Queen’s spouse is titled “Prince”. Personally, I think that’s the sensible answer: The spouse of the reigning monarch (male or female) could be called “Prince Consort” or “Princess Consort”, or, those titles could be used for the spouse of the Prince of Wales, and some other title could be used for the monarch’s spouse.

The point is, this whole business is needlessly complicated, and makes heraldic titles, which already seem incredibly old fashioned, downright silly. What the UK does about titles in the monarchy has nothing to do with me (they won’t consult Kiwis, after all…), but the honorary titles for New Zealand knighthoods do.

I didn’t approve of John Key restoring knighthoods in 2009, but they’re here, and I think he has an obligation, since he brought them back, to modernise them. He can’t make knighthoods themselves any less anachronistic, but at least he could make the honorary titles a bit less stuck in the past. With the New Year's Honours List coming out soon, this may be an issue in NZ this year, but even if not, sooner or later it will be.

Sir Elton John and Mr. David Furnish probably don’t really care, but fixing the titles is the right thing to do.

Related: A few years ago, I talked about ways that New Zealand’s knighthood system could be vastly improved. I’m still not a fan of knighthoods, but some reforms and changes could at least make them better.

Teaching our dogs old tricks

We’re re-educating our dogs, teaching them old tricks. They already know what we want from them, and how to do it, so this is really more about giving them confidence. And we have no idea why it’s even necessary.

Yesterday, we replaced the dog door that all three furbabies use to go outside and come back in. The old one, which we’d put in not long after we moved in more than 8 years ago, finally broke. So, we bought a new one (on Christmas Eve, oddly enough) and installed it not long after we got home yesterday.

The dogs wouldn’t use it.

We slowly managed to coax them to go outside through the new dog door, but then had work just as hard to coax them back inside through it. This continued most of the day and evening, and then into this morning. Even now, they’re reluctant to use it. We have no idea why this is happening.

The new door is the same brand, look, size and everything as the old door—it’s just new. We thought that newness could part of the explanation: It doesn’t have their smell on it, it’s not scratched from years of dogs going in and out, and the plastic isn’t dulled with age. But the cat uses the new door all the time and without hesitation.

This morning, I thought maybe Jake had worked out that if he hesitated he’d be offered a treat to use the door, but Sunny is even more treat-oriented than Jake, and she’s far more reluctant to use the new door (and she’s also the “rough” one normally—barging through the door without a care). So, I’m not sure that treats are all that relevant.

Still, treats—and vocal praise—are part of the effort to get the dogs to use the new door, just as if we were training them for the very first time. Only, they already know how to use a dog door. For some reason, they just lack confidence.

I think we’d better wait awhile before we straighten the other dog door on the side door (it’s slipped and is now a bit crooked). Training them on one door is hard—and weird—enough.

The ‘lonely’ expat?

Yesterday, my friend and fellow expat Dawn posted an interesting piece on the expat experience. We’ve had many similar expat experiences, but do I agree with her that, “the word I associate most with being an expat is 'lonely'"?

My experience began quite differently from that of Dawn and her husband: When I arrived in New Zealand in 1995, I arrived alone. I knew no one apart from Nigel, and I had no friends or family here—again, apart from Nigel, of course; I didn’t yet really know his family. Worse, the Internet was just taking off, which meant that many of my friends and family had no email, and things like Facebook and Skype were years away from being invented: Facebook didn’t begin until 2004, and wasn’t opened to the public until 2006; Skype began in 2003, but it was a couple years before it started to be widely used.

Until Internet technology grew enough, expats like me had only three options for staying in touch with friends and family in our birth countries: Trips back (expensive and time consuming), phone calls (expensive), and letters/cards (inexpensive, but very slow to reach the USA or vice versa). The Internet changed everything—around a decade after I first arrived!

So, while I agree with Dawn that Internet solutions are no substitute for the real thing (getting together in person), from my perspective, they’re pretty damn close. For me, the development of Internet technology made a huge difference in my life, and definitely for the better: It meant going from having practically zero contact with people who had been important to me to being in contact again.

However, this all happened roughly a decade after I arrived. Arriving alone meant I had to forge a life here, and, after ten years, that’s exactly what I had—a life. So, for me, the Internet technology was more about re-connecting because by then my old life was lit in the soft glow of memory and wrapped in a fluffy blanket of nostalgia. Which means, while it was (and is) important, it no longer carries the day-to-day significance it once could have—we’ve all moved on in our lives.

Also unlike Dawn, I haven’t made a lot of friends in New Zealand, but for me that’s mainly due to me being older and fairly shy. Most non-family friends are our friends, which isn't that unusual for couples. I’ve made some friends through work or politics, some of them quite good friends, but Nigel and I spend the vast majority of our social time with family; I don’t have a problem with that, though I wish that some of my blood family could be in the mix, but unless they suddenly invent teleportation, I can’t see that happening in my lifetime.

Over time, things get better and easier in the new land. I’ve been in New Zealand so long now that I have shared memories and history with the people in my life here, and I’m as connected to them as I was to many (though certainly not all) of the folks I left behind. The longer one lives in a new country, the more that becomes true.

So, do I agree with Dawn that “the word I associate most with being an expat is "lonely"? For a new expat, I absolutely do. In fact, it's something I warn every would-be expat about before they take the leap. However, for me personally, no—I long ago built an entirely new and different life in my new homeland, and due to the circumstances I faced, that new life was largely without regular contact with the friends and family I left behind.

There’s no such thing as a single way of being an expat: Our experiences are as unique as we are. So, some people will be crushingly lonely, while others won’t be at all; probably most of us are somewhere between those two points. Dawn and I are at different points on that continuum, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The important point, I think, is to be aware that loneliness is a real possibility for any expat, and to try to minimise it. Dawn is exactly right about the importance of making friends in the new land, and I think it’s important to make maximum use of technology to help stay in touch. I also think new expats should plan frequent trips back at first—like every 2 or 3 years—then less frequently (definitely don’t depend on others coming to visit).

Having said all that, and having compared and contrasted my experience with Dawn’s, I’d add one further thing: Anyone who can’t abide the thought of being separated for months or years from close friends or family members ought to think hard about whether moving permanently to a country far away is a good idea for them. Not everyone’s cut out to be an expat; loneliness isn’t only reason why that’s true, but for some people it may be the biggest one.

For most expats, those who stay in their new homeland long-term, the benefits clearly outweigh the bad times or moments or whatever. We humans are good at adapting, even to things like some loneliness.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Day of boxes

The banoffi pie.
Today is Boxing Day, a day important to New Zealanders for one of two things: The sales that all the big—and most small—retailers have beginning today. It’s also a day on which many people travel, either heading out for a holiday somewhere, or heading home after having had Christmas elsewhere. That was us.

This year we went to Nigel’s brother’s house near Hamilton for Christmas Day. We got there about lunchtime and other family members arrived over the course of the afternoon. It was a nice day.

I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a “typical” Christmas dinner in New Zealand, but they tend to fall into two broad categories: A roast dinner or a BBQ dinner, and each of them have variations.

Roast dinners might be ham or turkey or chicken or—it varies. So do the side dishes. But we don’t do roast dinners on Christmas—it’s too hot!—so I can only go by what other people tell me they do.

We always have a BBQ Christmas dinner, which this year included chip and dip, cheese and crackers, and prawns for starters. The main course included steak, sausages, lamb chops, chicken kebabs, cold ham and lots of salads. We had an equally big spread for dessert, featuring the traditional Kiwi classic, a pavlova, of course, but also a banoffi pie (pictured above because it was closest to me—no, really!), which isn’t necessarily “traditional”, but it was nice. So was the fresh fruit salad. Others probably different things—like I said, there’s a lot of variation.

Jake's snooze interrupted.
As always, our dogs were very well behaved. There were five dogs, all up, and ours were the mid-sized version. All the dogs got along just fine. When Jake decided he’d had enough of people, he’d go off and hop in the camper and have a snooze. Sunny, on the other hand, was right in the middle of things.

Sunny at play.
There were also some nine kids there, ranging in age from infant right up to teenager, including our grand nieces and nephews. The kids seemed to have have fun, too.

We went to bed surprisingly early—around 10:30pm, I think—which meant an early start to today. Leftovers were heated up on the BBQ for breakfast, and then we left for home late morning.

Both the trip down on Christmas Day and the trip home today were uneventful—good traffic flows, but never particularly heavy. The dogs slept most of each trip, so were no trouble at all.

Once home, we had some lunch, unpacked the car, and then settled in to a nice quiet day at home, mainly just playing around. It IS a public holiday, after all.

Bella washing.
Bella was clearly pleased to see us back home. She hung around us, and purred the moment we started patting her. I took a photo of her having a wash this afternoon. It’s blurry, but I wanted her to have some equal time with the dogs.

And that was our Christmas holiday for this year.

Click on any photo to see a bigger version.

The Queen’s 2014 Broadcast

The video above is the annual Christmas Broadcast from Her Majesty, the Queen of New Zealand (and other countries), something I've also posted in previous years. This year she speaks about “reconciliation and forgiveness”, using the Christmas truce if 1914 as a focus.

Because I come from a republic, I’ve always been fascinated by the Queen’s annual broadcast. I know several of my fellow Americans who are, too. Ironically, though, I’m pretty much the only one in my NZ family who is.

Be that as it may, this year I didn’t see any of the broadcast on television; in most years I see at least part of it. Not that it matters, really, when it’s available online—lucky for me.

And that’s another Christmas tradition now on the “done” list.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Above is the Christmas charity single from Out of the Blue (OOTB), Oxford Univerity's all-male a cappella group. Sales of the single will benefit Helen & Douglas House, a children’s hospice that “provides much needed palliative, respite, end-of-life and bereavement care to life-limited children and young adults, and their families.”

The group reminds me a bit of the Warblers from the TV show Glee, except these guys are older than the TV characters were. And they're real people. And, OOTB sings a cappella, of course. I’ve seen a few of their videos now, and I think they’re entertaining. They also appear to be having fun.

So, fun, a good cause, and Christmas singing—a nice thing to post for today.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

AAA-14: Answer 3 – Working it

Today’s question from Roger Green is timely, since there are four public holidays this week and next. Roger said:
"It occurs to me: I don't REALLY know what you do. I DO know you have deadlines with weeks that are really busy, and weeks that are more normal.

Could you make this American cry by listing off all the holidays on the NZ calendar, including the weird rules that if, say, Easter Monday falls on a special day, you get ANOTHER day off. Is there a move afoot to cut back on these, in order to make Kiwis more 'productive'?"
First, about me: I’ve been working in the printing and publishing industries for the better part of 30 years. I started by working in a quick print shop in Chicago, got myself a part-time job at a gay newspaper publisher, all of which got me a job with a printer/publisher here in New Zealand.

As I think I’ve said before, my first job in New Zealand made me a sort of “indentured servant” because my whole ability to stay in New Zealand was because of that job. So, when the company ceased trading, it could have meant I’d have to leave the country.

Instead, I got a tourist visa for a few months until I qualified for permanent residence as Nigel’s partner. Permanent residence meant I could work anywhere. So, I got a job at a newspaper publishing company. Nowadays, I do part-time work for a much smaller operation providing specialty publishing services. Each month I have a particular publishing project to do, which keeps me very busy for a little over a week.

Now, about workers in general: New Zealand is pretty generous with time off for workers. For starters, full-time workers get a minimum of four weeks annual leave, though it’s common for some workers, senior managers in particular, to get five weeks of annual leave, the additional week being a benefit.

NZ workers also get 9½ public holidays observed nationwide, plus one additional public holiday called “Anniversary Day”, which corresponds, roughly, to the date their 19th Century province was founded (New Zealand no longer has provinces). So, the date varies by region (ours in the upper North Island, including Auckland and Waikato, is the fourth Monday in January, so January 26 in 2015).

New Zealand’s nationwide public holidays are:
  • New Year’s Day and Day After (January 1 and 2)
  • Waitangi Day (February 6)
  • Good Friday and Easter Monday (dates vary)
  • Anzac Day morning (April 25 – that’s the half day)
  • Queen’s Birthday (first Monday in June)
  • Labour Day (fourth Monday in October,
  • Christmas Day and Boxing Day (December 25 and 26)
Queen’s Birthday and Labour Day are fully Mondayised, that is, they’re always on a Monday. Also, Good Friday is always a Friday (of course) and Easter Monday is always a Monday (ditto), so Easter Weekend is always a four-day weekend, no matter what the exact dates are.

What Roger’s thinking of are the other holidays, which have special characteristics. If New Years Day, the day after New Year’s Day, Waitangi Day, Anzac Day morning, Christmas Day or Boxing Day fall on a weekend, then the observation of that holiday is moved to the following Monday. If they fall on a weekday, then they’re observed on that weekday, not on a Monday.

Here’s an example of how that works: Christmas day in 2015 will fall on a Friday, and Boxing Day falls on Saturday. So, we’ll have a public holiday for Boxing Day on Monday, December 28, 2015. The next year, 2016, is a Leap Year, so Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, and Boxing Day on Monday, and that means we’ll get a public holiday on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 to compensate. In 2018, Christmas is on a Tuesday and Boxing Day is on a Wednesday, and that’s when the public holidays will be, too.

I said that Anzac Day morning is the public holiday, and it is, but most workers get the whole day off. Treating it and Waitangi Day like, say, Christmas, means that Monday through Friday workers won’t lose any public holidays.

Also, of those public holidays, 3½ have “trading bans” which means, basically, most businesses have to close on those days (and no TV commercials are allowed, either, apart from promos for the broadcaster’s shows). There are exceptions and odd rules, but that’s the gist of it. Those days are: Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Anzac Day morning and Christmas Day.

If a worker is required to work on a public holiday, they’re entitled to at least time and a half. Also, if they’re normally rostered to work on a day that’s also a public holiday, then they also get a paid day off at another time (we call this “a day in lieu”).

I’m not aware of anyone arguing for a cutback to public holiday or annual leave entitlements, even if the business sector sometimes complains about productivity. The thing is, no one would sensibly suggest cutting public holidays as a way to boost productivity because New Zealand workers would never stand for it.

In fact, the current conservative, pro-business government led by the NZ National Party is the one that made Waitangi Day and Anzac Day be treated like Christmas and other special non-Mondayised public holidays. The did, however, change the law to allow full-time workers to “sell” one of their four weeks of annual leave to their employers, something business lobbyists wanted. The entitlement to four weeks remains, but one week can be taken as cash instead of time off. There's sometimes talk of ending the trading ban, but both major parties are steadfastly opposed to that.

So, full-time workers in New Zealand get 10½ public holidays, plus 20 days of annual leave, for a total of 30½ paid days off each year (typically, it's 31 because most workers are off all day on Anzac Day). And, most years we have three four-day weekends. Pretty sweet, really.

Are you crying yet?

It’s not too late to ask a question! Leave a comment to this post, or send an email to me (click the link in the right hand sidebar).

As for example

This morning I saw the video above on Joe.My.God. and I thought I’d share it here. But then that fact-checking thing I was talking about yesterday reared its head, and this post was delayed. I just can’t help myself.

I think the commercial is interesting not just because it has a gay couple, but because them being gay is beside the point: The exact same commercial would work the same if they were two females or a male and female. In short, the commercial has a couple. This time, it just happens to be a gay male couple.

I knew that Procter & Gamble, the makers of Tide, have been reasonably pro-LGBT for awhile now: They adopted a non-discrimination policy back in 1992, partnership benefits in 2001 and transition benefits for transgender employees in 2010. I also knew that just last month the company endorsed marriage equality.

However, I knew, too, that the company had been put under attack by a particularly crackpot far right “Christian” preacher who claimed the Proctor & Gamble “Man in the Moon” logo was “satanic”. The company caved in 1985 and removed the logo. The myth kept being revived for a variety of reasons for years.

So, given their past problems with religious nutjobs, I wondered if they’d really risk taking them on by making an ad that would make the nutjobs’ heads explode.

So, I set out to try and find it at an official site, with no luck. I knew it was Canadian because of the “tide.ca” at the end of the ad, so I looked on the Tide Canada YouTube Channel, but it wasn’t there. It also wasn’t on the main Tide YouTube Channel.

A little more searching and I found several articles talking about the ad, like the one on Logo TV’s "NewNextNow". So, it was real, after all—whew!

But I also found out that they’d done an ambiguous one early last year (below) with a modern Dad who might be gay, or he might be a stay-at-home heterosexual dad, or he might be a single dad—it’s never discussed. In fact, it clearly doesn’t even matter, just as it doesn’t matter that the couple in the Canadian ad is gay.

Jezebel headlined their article about the “princess dress” ad, appropriately, “Refreshing Tide Commercial Manages Not to Rely on Goon-Dad Caricature for a Change”, while Psychology Today’s “The Media Zone” headlined their story, a little more boldly, “How A Laundry Detergent Commercial Saved the World”. I think both articles make valid points.

I said yesterday, when I posted another ad that presents varied views of families:
Advertising is an imperfect way to transmit cultural values; more often than not, it lags well behind changes in culture rather than leading them. But consumer advertising is also uniquely placed to help foster awareness of changes in culture because it’s everywhere.
What all three ads have in common—apart from trying to sell stuff—is that they take modern family structures for granted: They don’t just use traditional images of families to promote their products. In the case of the ad yesterday, they were trying to make a point about how families matter most, and those families are varied. That’s one approach. The other, as in the two Tide ads, is to just present people as people, no big deal.

I also said yesterday, “it's important to show some of diversity among familes so that kids can learn that there are many different kinds of people and families, and—especially—more kinds of families can see their lives and realities reflected in popular media and culture.” When I was growing up it was simply unthinkable that gay people would be included in advertising (or that P&G would ever endorse marriage equality!). To see oneself reflected back in TV commercials, and in a matter-of-fact way, matters a lot and will help change the world for the better far more than any angry rant on a blog.

Yes, they’re trying to sell stuff. But by including the variety of humanity in their advertising they’re also selling us a brighter future, and that’s important. And that’s why I keep sharing these ads.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

AAA-14 - Answer 2 – The places I’ve been

Today’s question is from Roger Green, who said: “OK, for starters, I want you to do the map thing I just did.”

This is actually something I took a stab nearly two years ago, but this version (map above – click to embiggen) is more detailed and precise than the old one was and so, I think, more accurate.

There are two versions of the map available, one for the USA only and another version for the USA and Canada. You generate the map after you colour the states and provinces according to these criteria:

  • red for states where you've not spent much time or seen very much.
  • amber for states where you've at least slept and seen some sights.
  • blue for states you've spent a lot of time in or seen a fair amount of.
  • green for states you've spent a great deal of time in on multiple visits.

This was actually harder to do than it might seem, especially trying to determine which colour is most appropriate. For example, I think I’ve sent the night in Indiana, but I’m not sure. However, I went to Indianapolis for meetings several times when I was an activist, and I’ve driven through it many times to get to other states. So, even if I haven’t spent the night there, I’ve visited the state enough that it ought to be “amber”, anyway, I think.

Similarly, I’ve only visited San Francisco/Napa Valley and Los Angeles in California, but they were over two trips, each of which were several days long. So, I gave it blue. I also spent several nights near Atlanta, Georgia, on a single trip, but didn’t actually see that much of the state or city, so, on balance I left it amber.

South Dakota is blue thanks to a family trip in 1968, which took in the Black Hills and the Badlands, and points near each, before heading south to Denver to visit family. I think we may have stopped for the night at a campground in Kansas or Nebraska that trip, too, but I’m not sure.

The other blue states: We camped in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when I was a kid, and friends and I stayed in St. Joseph when we were in university. I’ve also driven through it with my family to get to Ontario in 1970. New York was only New York City, but was two trips each lasting several days (and there’s a fair bit to see and do in New York City…). Pennsylvania was visiting family on multiple trips (Virginia was one trip visiting family and other, briefer trips), as well as some sightseeing on other parts of the state.

Ohio was an interesting state for me. I visited Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati when I was an activist, and stayed in each city (the Cincinnati trip I stayed across the river in Kentucky). An ex boyfriend was from the Toledo area, so we visited there several times. And, my parents and I had stopped for the night at a motel in Montpelier, Ohio, right near the Interstate, on August 8, 1974—the night Richard Nixon announced he was resigning the presidency.

The green states are obvious: Illinois, where I was born, grew up and lived until I left for New Zealand. My family and I went camping in Wisconsin many times over many years, and I’ve stayed in Milwaukee and Door County. An ex boyfriend was from Kenosha, so we spent several nights there (including some I alluded to yesterday), and they kindly showed me the sights in the area, including the outside of the Johnson Wax Headquarters building in nearby Racine, Wisconsin.

As for Canada, my family and I visited lower Ontario in the summer of 1970, over about a week, maybe. The only place I’ve been to in Quebec is Montreal, and for a weekend, but I saw the sights. Of the two, Ontario might arguably be blue, but I didn't colour it that way because I’ve only been to lower Ontario.

And those are the places I’ve been, USA/Canada version.

It’s not too late to ask a question! Leave a comment to this post, or send an email to me (click the link in the right hand sidebar).

Virally mucked-up

Viral videos, by definition, get shared all over the place, and most of the time it’s innocent. Whether informative, inspiring or just funny, such videos make their way around even when it’s hard to see why, or when what they seem to show isn’t reality.

Here’s the story of a supposed 3 News “thug life” reporter, and how it's not as it seems.

The video above (language NSFW for some people) has been getting a lot of attention for showing what seems to be a news reporter responding in kind to a sort of heckler.

However, it’s not quite what it seems.

In fact, the video is a scene from a comedy video posted last August by the Auckland Law Revue, and called: “The Campaign [Revue Plot Parody] ‘The Law Society Campaign’" (below). The YouTube description says, “WARNING: contains offensive content and explicit language.” The clip is about 1:10 into the video.

This is another in a series of ads the law students have made, and I’ve posted two of them (most recently, only a few days before this video was posted). They’re all a bit of stroppy fun, and since we don’t have any New Zealand sketch comedy shows on television, these are especially entertaining.

So, how did a clip from a four-month-old comedy video suddenly re-emerge as a supposed news reporter going “thug”? As Stuff reported yesterday, the clip was posted to Facebook two days ago by Brisbane-based rapper, Fortafy. As of this evening, it’s been seen more than 1.975 million times, and has been shared more than 22,000 times. The YouTube version above, on the other hand, was posted two days earlier and has been seen not quite 273,000 times. The number of views of the "thug" clip are dramatically higher than the 6,724 views the original comedy video has had so far.

So, most of the people who watched the video almost certainly had no idea who Patrick Gower is, or, if they did, they didn’t know the context. I bet most Kiwis didn’t know the context, either. So, people could easily assume it’s real, rather than just a snippet from a comedy skit.

And that’s the trouble with things shared on the Internet: It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. I fact-check things that I post, as I said earlier today, but increasingly I also fact check things posted by others. When I do, it’s either just for me or because I may want to do a post about it (like this one). I seldom publicly fact-check others (though the other day I debunked an “historic photo” posted on Twitter).

Seriously, fact-checking and debunking things shared on the Internet could be a full-time job—for many, many people. And that’s the f*ckin’ truth.

It takes time

The main reason that I’ve struggled with blogging this year was that I had a lack of time. Unfortunately, I often made that lack of time worse. Even so, that’s not something I plan on trying to “fix” because it turns out it’s a good thing.

Nearly every post I write has some fact contained in it, and that means fact-checking. In the past, I’ve said things that I’d always thought were true, only to find out later that I was wrong. I hate when that happens. So, I check out any fact I mention, almost always linking to a source. The exception to those links are primarily when a fact is so ubiquitous that it seems unnecessary, or when it has something to do with my family or my personal history, in which case a link is impossible. However, with my personal history posts, I sometimes find a way around the lack of anything to link to, like the 2012 post I wrote about Robert Bork, where I used a footnote to cite the source.

There have been a few times when I’ve been extremely busy and started a post that required links to sources. But, since I didn’t have time to collect all those links, I’ve just killed the post I was working on rather than complete it and post it without sources or—even worse—fact-checking myself.

One of the reasons that this fact-checking has become a problem is something that I actually can control: Information death spirals. Say I check a particular fact and in the process find out a further fact I didn’t know about. I then research that. It, in turn, leads to another fact, and so on, until a very long time has passed.

If I stopped that, “hm, that’s interesting…” link-following, I could probably get a few more posts written and published. However, sometimes those tangents have led me on to interesting subjects that themselves became posts. So, that time-suck isn’t ALL bad.

I’ve often said that the credibility of news reports can collapse if they get too many things factually wrong, or even one big enough thing wrong. We bloggers start out with the presumption that we play fast and loose with truth and facts, so I make a point of checking out what I say. I obviously can’t control what other bloggers do, and I can’t raise the standard for fact-based blogging, but those aren’t my goals. Instead, I’m merely trying to make what I say as factual and credible as I can.

So, blog posts take me longer than maybe they “should”, but I think that’s okay. At least I can be confident that most of what I say here is verifiably true, and that’s important to me.

Still, it’s a good thing I’m not as obsessive about fixing spelling or grammatical mistakes, or even simple typos, because otherwise I’d probably end up publishing almost nothing. No, I’m not going to fact check that.