Saturday, January 31, 2015

Haunting video

The BBC video above, shot using a drone, shows the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp as it is today, 70 years after it was liberated by Soviet troops. I didn’t see it when it was first posted, but I’m sharing it now because I think it gives a good impression of the size of the place.

I wanted to post something to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the camp, but I frankly didn’t know what to say. What is there left to say that hasn’t already been said a million times? Videos like this one, I think, help offer witness to the scale of the horror.

One part of the video shows the courtyard between blocks 10 and 11 at Auschwitz I, but without any explanation. Executions took place between Block 10 and Block 11 and posts in the yard were used to string up prisoners by their wrists. The banner fluttering above the end of the courtyard has a triangle that is either (I can’t tell what colour the triangle is) red (for political prisoners) or pink (for homosexuals), and mounted on a banner made of the striped cloth of prison uniforms. It’s the only visual reminder I saw of the victims themselves (and I presume that the empty flagpoles usually have similar banners with other colours of triangles).

Remembrance of the Holocaust is always a good thing, but I think that it’s as hard to see it in new ways as it is to talk about it in new ways. That’s why this video struck me as so profound—it gave me a new way to look at the death camp. And that’s why I’m sharing it.

Remembering is the first step in ensuring that it never happens again.

Stop the presses

Newspapers are in business to make money, and they do it by trying to be first, but always by being fast. Old news is not news, after all. But Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian has proven slowing down a bit is a good thing.

Yesterday, Colleen McCullough, Australia’s best-selling author, died unexpectedly. While the paper apparently published some good coverage, for some utterly inexplicable reason, they ran a bizarre obituary that began with this paragraph:
COLLEEN McCullough, Australia’s best selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”
This obviously did not go down well. It led Aussies to take to Twitter writing similarly bizarre obituary lines under the hashtag #myozobituary. Some of them have been downright brilliant. The story went global, as news outlets reported on the obituary itself, along with samples of the sarcastic Tweets.

What the hell was WRONG with The Australian?! According to Crikey, the obituary was written many years ago by a man who is dead. Papers have long pre-written obituaries of famous people in case they’re needed in a hurry. In this case, the editors at the paper apparently didn’t see anything wrong with the opening paragraph. I wonder if the editor responsible for this worked on his C.V. today in anticipation of being fired?

The obituary was breathtaking for its sexism and misogyny, but it was also obvious that the unnamed journalist had a strong personal dislike of McCullough, and seemed to consider her fame undeserved. It was a very bad obituary.

However, the real issue here isn’t the awful writing in the obituary, it’s the crass sexism in it and the fact that the newspaper ran it despite all its many faults. Consider the contrast of the paper's obituary when Bryce Courtney died several years ago:
BRYCE Courtenay was one of Australia’s greatest storytellers, touching the hearts of millions of people around the world with 21 bestselling books including The Power of One.
Comparing and contrasting the two introductory paragraphs, Rebecca Shaw asks in her piece in The Guardian:
Now, what do we learn from this introduction? The fact that she was a best-selling author is quickly tossed aside in order to discuss her looks and her success with men. In the first paragraph. Of her obituary. Which is meant to sum up her entire life. McCullough was a woman who penned The Thorn Birds, still the highest-selling Australian book of all time.
I’d like to think The Australian will learn from their disgrace, but I doubt they will—it IS a Murdoch paper, after all. But maybe other papers will review their own practices for such things, and I bet there will be more careful scrutiny of pre-written obituaries in the future.

Nothing can make up for what The Australian did, though a front-page apology would help. But if editors do learn to be a little more careful, and to slow down just a little bit to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again, that will be a good result.

But The Australian really ought to apologise.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Love Letters to Richard Dawkins

This video—language NSFW—shows Richard Dawkins reading some more hate mail. It’s hilarious for how pathetically stupid his haters are, but I noticed how prominent viciously anti-gay hate speech was.

Rightwingers hate atheists and gay people almost equally, depending on the day, and these simple, stupid people often declare that all gay people are atheists and vice versa. Of course we all know that truth and facts are meaningless to the rightwing, but you would think that they would focus their hatred and bigotry just a little bit—sorry, that requires intelligence, which the far right entirely lacks, but strategically, it would make sense not to SOUND so stupid.

The political divide in the USA—and I’d bet money that most of the hate messages came from the USA—is so deep and severe that I wonder if any dialogue is even possible any more. No, I don’t wonder—dialogue is clearly impossible.

When people feel free to say such hate-filled things, and when they think that using anti-gay hate speech is making a valid political point, it seems to suggest that the two “sides” in the body politic are utterly irreconcilable, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy in the USA.

I wait for someone—anyone—to stake out a more cheerful and hopeful position. So far, I haven’t seen any. Actually, I could even say I dare them—because I really don’t think it’s possible.

Is America beyond all hope? Don’t just protest my cynicism, show me why it isn’t warranted.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Labour’s ‘State of the Nation’

Today Labour Party Leader Andrew Little delivered his State of the Nation speech outlining Labour’s vision for moving the country forward. The next Labour Government will be focused on jobs—and a rational approach to the economy.

I’ve read the speech, and it’s forward-looking and focused on solutions, rather than the current government’s tired, “everything’s fine, nothing to see here, move along” non-solutions to nagging economic problems and fast-increasing inequality. While John Key and National are content to pretend nothing’s wrong, Andrew Little and Labour are focused on once again making New Zealand a fair and decent society, one in which there are real opportunities and growing wealth.

Andre Little proposes to do this by utilising what has worked well in so many cases—partnerships between business and the workforce—to forge real solutions and real growth. In particular, Labour will harness that expertise to help small businesses, those with fewer than 20 employees, who already account for a third of New Zealand’s economy, and accounted for 41% of all the jobs created last year. This is a very smart thing to do.

The main difference between the two main parties is that Labour knows that the economy can never grow when workers are exploited and don’t share in the successes they help to generate. Labour knows that growing inequality is holding our country back, weakening society and communities, and even destroying our nation’s soul. Labour knows that the nation grows best when we work together, and if fails when whole segments of society are deliberately, and callously, cut off. And Labour also knows that New Zealand business is FAR more than only those on the NZSX 50.

In the months ahead, Andrew Little will be expanding on the themes he raised in this speech, providing the practical solutions that the next Labour Government will deliver. He’s already off to a good start.

Click on the image below to read the speech.

How to comment

From time to time some people will sometimes have some problems commenting on some posts on this blog. In other words, it’s erratic. I thought I’d mention how it should work so if it doesn’t, it’ll be easier to tell me what’s wrong.

This blog uses the Disqus commenting system, something I converted to almost two years ago to fight the epidemic of spam comments I faced every single day. It solved that problem completely.

However, nothing on the Internet is perfect, and sometimes Disqus, too, doesn’t work properly. Here’s what should happen.

There are several options available for commenting. As you can see in the example at left, someone who isn’t signed in to Disqus is greeted with the option of signing in with—left to right—Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or Google. Someone who doesn’t want to use any of those options can still comment.

Simply click on “Id rather post as a guest”, as in the image at right. Enter a name—any name, your real name or a nickname, it doesn’t matter—then enter an email address. According to Disqus, “Guest commenters are required to provide an email address for notifications and moderation purposes. However the email address will of course never be displayed and does not require verification.” Among other things, entering this helps prove you’re not a spambot.

Click on that white arrow in a gray box and your comment will instantly be posted—there’s no moderation before posting. That’s it.

I strongly recommend using one of the sign-in options for commenting, and for several reasons. First, it allows you to include a link to your profile to help people find your blog or site. Second, and particularly if you sign in with Disqus itself, you can look at your comments across all sites using Disqus, and can even have a digest of comments—yours and replies to you—emailed to you if you want. It’s a great way to put the “social” in social media.

All the sign-in methods are used all over the Internet, but I realise that some people are reluctant to sign in through Facebook. Others may not like using Twitter or Google, either. Disqus is a commenting system that’s widely used and it doesn’t link to your Facebook or other social media identities, so it seems to me it’s a good alternative to logging in through a social media account.

Whether you log-in to comment or comment as a guest, the system will probably work more often than not. If it doesn’t, it could be a temporary glitch, or you may have attempted to log-in rather than comment as a Guest.

But if you try to comment and have problems, I’d like to hear about it. You can send me an email by clicking on the email link in the right sidebar, under “Contact Me”.

Part of the fun of blogging is having a conversation with the blogger and other readers. Disqus is supposed to help facilitate that. Mostly, it does. I hope it works for you, too.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

C is for cricket

Cricket is a game played in many counties, though it’s especially popular in countries in The Commonwealth. This year, New Zealand and Australia will jointly host the ICC Cricket World Cup (http://www.icc-cricket.com/cricket-world-cup). In this part of the world, this is a big deal.

The ICC Cricket World Cup will be held 14 February to 29 March 2015, and will feature teams from 14 countries divided into two pools. Pool A is Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, England, New Zealand, Scotland, and Sri Lanka. Pool B is India, Ireland, Pakistan, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, West Indies, and Zimbabwe.

The game of cricket began in England in the 1600s, and in about two centuries became their national sport. It was carried to the far reaches of Empire, which is part of why it’s not as popular—or particularly well-known—in the USA.

The international governing body is the International Cricket Council (ICC). It sets the rules for the game and governs it. There are 106 members, of which 10 are Full Members (also known as Test Nations), 37 are Associate Members (which includes Canada and the USA), and 59 countries are Affiliate Members. The ICC is headquartered in Dubai in the UAE.

The reason the 10 Full Members are known as “Test Nations” is that they play the long form the game, known as Test Cricket. It takes up to five days, making it the only game in the world that takes five days and might still end in a draw. Players for both teams dress in white. The shorter version of the game, which is what will be played at the World Cup, is the One Day International (ODI), which is MUCH shorter and reminds me, as an American-born Kiwi, of baseball (particularly when watched in person).

So far, I’ve avoided talking about what the game is and how it’s played because I’ve always found it’s difficult to explain it. Fortunately for me, it turns out that Wikipedia has pretty good summary:
Cricket is a bat and ball game, played between two teams of eleven players each. One team bats, attempting to score runs, while the other bowls and fields the ball, attempting to restrict the scoring and dismiss the batsmen. The objective of the game is for a team to score more runs than its opponent. In some forms of cricket, it may also be necessary to dismiss the opposition in order to win the match, which would otherwise be drawn.
The rest of the information on Wikipedia fleshes out how the game is played. Fair warning: If you’re not into sports, and maybe even if you are, your eyes may glaze over if you read it. In that case, trust me, on this: The game is much more interesting to watch than it is to explain.

I’ve been to several ODI matches in Auckland, but I’ve never been to a Test Match, and I frankly think it’s unlikely that I’ll go to one any time soon (I don’t have that much stamina…). However, the first cricket match I ever saw played was between some university students in Ontario. I was about 11 at the time, and had NO idea what they were doing.

A cricket wicket.
When the bales won't move,
it's a "sticky wicket".
Nowadays, I enjoy watching at least part of some ODI matches, and I also like how gentlemanly it is: Sportsmanship is VERY important in the game, which by the 19th century led to the expression, “it’s just not cricket” to describe anything unfair or underhanded.

The game has actually given English several expressions. For example, “sticky wicket” describes a difficult situation. Someone who’s had a successful run—especially, someone who’s died after a long life—may be described as having “had a good innings”. To be shocked or taken aback may leave one “bowled over”. All these expressions are still commonly used in New Zealand, among other countries.

And that’s a look at Cricket. It’s big in New Zealand, though rugby is our national game. It’s Australia’s only truly national game, with rugby popular in some areas and Aussie Rules Football popular in other areas. Now, the two countries are hosting a sort of Australasian ICC Cricket World Cup.

Many people in the world won’t even know the cricket world cup going on. But for some countries, it’ll be important. I’ll be watching—some of it, anyway.

The image of a cricket pitch at the top of this post is by Nichalp, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. It is available through Wikimedia Commons. The image of cricket wickets, also with this post, is by §hep, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. It is also available through Wikimedia Commons.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

Monday, January 26, 2015


Today is Auckland Anniversary Day, its 175th birthday and a public holiday. But this weekend had another anniversary, one I didn’t have a chance to acknowledge on this blog. The first will return again next year, but the other one?

On Saturday, January 24, 2009, Nigel and I had our Civil Union ceremony and a party afterward. This year, the anniversary was also on a Saturday—six year to the very day. We weren’t in Auckland, however.

My brother-in-law, his partner and their kids moved to another house, and we went down to help, though nearly everything was done by the time we got there. Which was nice, to be honest. It was also incredibly hot, much as it was the Saturday six years earlier.

I wondered if the anniversary of our civil union might fade, now that we’re married. In 2009, the only way for us to have our relationship officially recognised was to have a civil union, so having one made practical sense. I think that the civil union anniversary will always matter because of that fact, but I think that in future it may not be a big focus—but, who knows? This year a niece is getting married on the same date we did—October 31—so we won’t be the only ones to whom that date is special.

But that’s really the larger point, isn’t it? Personal anniversaries are important to people precisely because they’re personal. Others may join in celebrating, or not, but that doesn’t change anything for the couple. So, our civil union anniversary will be important to us for what it meant, and so will our marriage anniversary, and partly because it completed what began that horribly hot January Saturday back in 2009.

We may not have celebrated our anniversary on Saturday this year, but that doesn’t mean it was forgotten. I doubt it ever will be, but, just in case, I’m including a list of all my previous posts about this anniversary.

Auckland Anniversary will definitely be back next year, though.

Posts from previous years

2009: Perfect Day – where it began
2010: One and Fifteen
2011: Second Anniversary, squared
2012: Three years ago today
2013: Fourth Anniversary
2014: An anniversary

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The future of computing?

Based only on what’s already happened, it seems to me that the future of computing is clearly interactive, and will quite probably involve greater immersion of the user in the experience. But will it require goggles?

Microsoft has announced HoloLens (promo video above), a stand-alone (wear-alone?) set of goggles, which, they say, “seamlessly blends high-definition holograms with your real world.” The video shows the basics of how they envision it working and how it might be used.

I think there’s definitely a place for technology like this. It looks like it would be particularly useful for industrial and architectural design, medical research, and for being able to more fully look at other planets without actually going there.

That’s what NASA thinks. They plan on using the technology to virtually explore Mars (see photo below). That seems to me like a particularly good use of the technology.

I’m less convinced that ordinary people will use it in their ordinary lives in the ways depicted in the promo—because people have to wear those goggles. Microsoft says, “Holograms will improve the way you do things every day, and enable you to do things you've never done before.” But, strictly speaking, they’re not actually holograms, but merely projections on the goggles’ screen that’s combined with movement-sensing technology to help users interact with those projections. That’s fine for playing games that combine real world and imaginary worlds, but for everyday use? I dunno, those goggles are kind of clunky…

Still, touchscreen computing has already become ubiquitous on pads, smart phones and even some desktop computers. It’s changed the way people interact with and use computers from keyboard and mouse-click to tap and swipe. It’s not hard to imagine that computing will evolve to include motion-sensing control of the computing device.

I’m sure that the goggles will improve over time, and one day there will probably be actual holograms and, if so, one day goggles won’t be needed. But all of that is a long way from now. HoloLens may be the first taste we’ll get of what future computing will be like. Or not. Technology doesn’t always work out when it’s first introduced (Apple Newton, for example).

Change is inevitable, and HoloLens seems to me to be a glimpse of where computing is headed. We’ll see—with or without goggles.

"New NASA software called OnSight will use holographic computing to overlay visual information and data from the agency's Mars Curiosity Rover into the user's field of view. Holographic computing blends a view of the physical world with computer-generated imagery to create a hybrid of real and virtual." Image and caption Credit: NASA.

Tip o’ the Hat to our nephew in the US who shared the C|Net article on Facebook.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Art of naming

The naming of kids is a difficult matter: Pick the wrong one, and the child could be scarred for life. Even a simple, non-controversial name can become a source of torment for a child when forged into a tool for ridicule. But, names can always be changed.

I’m named for both of my grandfathers and an uncle. That’s a lot of work for one name to do, so it remained at full strength—Arthur—up until junior high school (ages 12-13) when my science teacher (whose own name I’ve long since forgotten) suddenly decreed that I should be known as “Art”. I resisted at first, lamely—one simply didn’t argue with teachers about such things.

This had two main results. First, I immediately had to deal with other kids calling me “Art the Fart”, which I didn’t appreciate. Of course. The other result was that I was called Art for roughly the next 17 years, until I insisted people again call me Arthur. To this day, you can tell how long someone has known me by what they call me.

This comes up every year at my birthday when I get Facebook greetings from people calling me Art. They’re people who knew me prior to the late 1980s, like my family and oldest friends who still call me “Art”—as Jason did in a nice blog post on my birthday.

The people who have known me from the late 1980s onwards, including everyone I know in New Zealand, call me Arthur—as, indeed, I do. How did it come to be, this re-renaming of myself?

Part of the answer is that at some point in the late 1980s I simply got tired of a name I didn’t choose and never fully embraced. “Art’s the name of a plumber!” I declared, before quickly adding, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s just not me!” I’m not sure what, exactly, I meant by that, or what I was thinking (I never wrote anything down about it), but I was at the height of my political activism at the time and I think that I felt that Art just didn’t have the gravitas I was trying to project to elected politicians in my lobbying work.

The name also gave me problems at work. I noticed about this time that when I answered the phone, and people asked my name, I’d say “I’m Art” and the person would start calling me “Mark”. Going back to Arthur fixed such problems.

But, there was more going on.

It was also a period in which I was reinventing myself. An abusive relationship ended and I was beginning to reassert the ME who had been somewhat lost up until that point. Part of reclaiming my identity was reconnecting with what I perceived to be a more authentic self, and part of that meant using a name I chose rather than one imposed on me (although, logically, if I’d consciously chosen Art, it would have had the same effect).

It turns out, though, that I’ve been uncomfortable about hypocorism my whole life. When I was a very little boy, my parents nicknamed me Ace because they thought it was “cute” to have such a little guy called something so “big”. But one of my earliest memories was of the neighbourhood bullies, who I called my “eminies”, calling me “Ace From Outer Space”. I was furious and demanded that my parents stop calling me Ace, and they did. I wasn’t even in school yet.

Nowadays, I don’t really care what people call me, though I only use Arthur. I’ve revised (rather than reinvented) myself many times over the years, and have become more relaxed about a great many things, my name among them. Basically, I’ve decided what to call myself, and what others do is up to them.

Our names are the second thing that parents give us (after life itself), but if we don’t like it, we can change it (unlike our parents…). My name has now changed twice, but back to what my parents gave me in the first place, which is neither a deep nor inscrutable singular name.

With apologies to T.S. Eliott for the brazen theft in this post.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The annual increasing number: 56

When I talk about my birthday each year, I try and find something different to say. Understandably, this becomes more difficult over time: There are only so many ways to talk about the same thing, after all. But I persist because I like the topic so much.

I talked about that part a little in my ABC Wednesday post for this week, when I said about focusing on my birthday: “If that sounds a little self-centred and narcissistic, well, that’s the point! It’s the one day a year that I can be the centre of attention, be pampered and spoiled, and not feel in any way guilty about it.” And that’s certainly a major aspect of this annual reflection.

But I’ve also become increasingly aware as the years pile up of how important it is to record all sorts of things that mark progress through life. Memory isn’t anywhere near as reliable as many people assume, but it tends to become less reliable as the years pass. I sometimes joke that I’ve forgotten more than I knew as an 18 year old. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but maybe not as big a one as I might hope.

Narcissistic: The obligatory birthday selfie.
These annual posts—along with ordinary posts about ordinary things—serve as a sort of institutional memory, a kind of “Arthur Cloud”. But they also do more: These posts help me remember things I’ve forgotten, or they might inspire me to reflect on memories that maybe I hadn’t examined before. Those are good things, too.

For example, it was through writing these posts that I realised just how highly I regard my birthday, not merely for the celebration or being the centre of attention, much as I like both, but because birthdays symbolise for me a fresh start, a new beginning, with the promise of unexplored territory ahead, sometimes laying just at the horizon or maybe around a bend, but there all the same. Looking back, then, has reminded me how much I value looking forward, and moving ahead.

Which is not to suggest that everything is flowers and chocolate bars all the time—every life has good and bad all mashed together. But, for me, birthdays are the day I get to forget all the bad stuff, and instead think of the good: What I have (especially my Nigel, family and friends), as well as what may yet come my way. And if all that’s not worthy of a blog post, I don’t know what is.

So, happy birthday to me. With luck, there’ll be many happy returns of these posts, too.

The Illinois Route 56 sign is a public domain graphic available from Wikimedia Commons. I should probably note that as far as I can remember, I’ve never been on Illinois Route 56, but it’s in my home state and says “56”. That’s reason enough to include it, since I often use such signs as an illustration. The photo of me is my own. Duh. It’s the “photo for another post” I referred to in a post earlier today.

My Previous Birthday posts:
2014: The annual increasing number: 55
2013: The annual increasing number: 54
2012: The annual increasing number
2011: The annual increasing number
2010: The annual increasing number
2009: Happy Birthday to Me…
2008: Another Birthday

Gratuitous Bella photos

Today I was taking a photo for another post, and I looked over and saw that Bella was watching me. So, I snapped photos of her. But I couldn’t decide which one I liked best, so here are all four. Besides, she probably doesn’t get enough photos taken of her.

Yes, she’s posing next to a dead palm frond I haven’t cut off yet, but to me it just makes it look like she’s a model posing for a fashion shoot. I guess that means she’s ready for the catwalk.

You’re welcome.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

B is for Birthday – mine!

I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later: ABC Wednesday letter “B” happens to correspond with my birthday. So, what better topic?

Truthfully, there are probably many “better topics” for “B”, but my birthday is my favourite day of the year, so none of those other topics are quite as appealing at the moment. If that sounds a little self-centred and narcissistic, well, that’s the point! It’s the one day a year that I can be the centre of attention, be pampered and spoiled, and not feel in any way guilty about it.

I’ve felt this way pretty much my entire life, for as long as I can remember. When I was a little boy, my mother made sure to make a fuss of the birthday child: We got whatever we wanted for dinner, our choice of cake for our birthday cake, and, of course, presents. Sure, my parents no doubt gave a lot of attention to us all year round, but that one day a year we were the undisputed centre of attention in the family.

Fast forward many years, and I moved to New Zealand. I found that Kiwis weren’t all that big on greeting cards, even then, so I didn’t get many birthday cards in the mail (apart from my mother in law). Birthday cards, when they were given at all, were handed to the birthday person (with or without a gift). All of that is still pretty much the case.

Typically, birthdays of grownups are celebrated by going out to dinner with friends, or maybe having some people round for dinner or a barbecue. Some people do have birthday parties, but in my experience, they start to become less common as people get older. All of which is what I found in the US, too, as I got older.

What I found very different in New Zealand, though, was that at work people often brought in treats on their birthdays to share with co-workers in their department or team or whatever. In the US, it was rare that co-workers even acknowledged my birthday, but sometimes one might buy me a muffin or something.

At my Kiwi workplace, though, I found that it was common, though not required, to bring in treats on one’s birthday. Nothing elaborate—maybe some cookies, a cake, things like that. It was considered kind of bad form to eat treats brought in by a co-worker, but not bring in any on one’s own birthday. Not that anyone said anything—Kiwis are far too polite for that.

All of this wasn’t standard, however, and there were variations in what happened. For example, some people I worked with put on a morning tea (which is like a small meal, really). Most of us never did that! I also went out for lunch with some co-workers a couple years, and, typically, people pay for themselves when they do this, birthday person included.

When I was a kid, many of us had birthday parties (I wrote about one of my favourite birthday parties a few years ago). Kids in New Zealand, I’m told, also have parties. A relatively recent development is that kids attending other kids’ birthday parties are given a goodie bag to take home, which made me think that my mother was ahead of her time in wanting to have something for my guests to take home.

So, Wednesday is my birthday, and it’s time for ABC Wednesday’s letter “B” for this round. Perfect timing, really.

The photo up top is—quite literally—the first photo ever taken of me, on January 22, 1959, when I was one day old.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

Sharing and suprises

I’ve come to an understanding with Facebook: I kinda like it, and it kinda tolerates me. We get along now. I post some things there that never make it here, but other things become blog posts. It’s—interesting…

Most of the stuff I post only to Facebook includes things that would be of interest only to people who actually know me, more or less. I have, however, sometimes posted things to Facebook that became blog posts, and this is one of those times. Because I was surprised.

I posted the photo of a sign at my local countdown, and said of it:
I get that closing a grocery store to do a re-jig would lose them too much in profit, but based on what I saw & overheard today, they're losing customer good will. I'm curious what you all think: Do you think the possibility of losing customer support is a big risk? Or will customers just moan and keep coming back? Me, I can just go to New World, so it's no biggie, but some people get quite irate!
At another time, that might have been an angry rant of my own, but I’m a little more mellow these days, and I was more interested in the reactions of the customers in the store, and curious how my Facebook friends saw the situation.

As I wandered around the store, I saw several units with empty shelves (and noticed how dusty the shelves were behind the products we normally saw…). Small printed notices told customers where the missing products could be found, but I found the type on them too small to bother reading; from a distance, they looked more like notes to the people moving the stuff around.

I was able to find the stuff I wanted until I got to the toothpaste: Those shelves were behind a tape barrier, like those used to separate lines of people at a bank or whatever. This was because they were emptying some shelves about a metre or so further along. So, I walked around the barrier, got my toothpaste and left. None of the workers said a word to me or, truth be known, took any notice.

At the checkout I saw and heard a middle aged, middle class lady complaining to the checkout operator about it. I heard her say, “it’s so annoying!” and asking the operator, “so, have you been getting a lot of complaints?” The operator, whose English skills were sorely lacking, said something non-committal to the lady, but I wasn’t close enough to hear if she was being vague or if she didn’t understand what the lady was saying. It seemed to me that the operator just didn't want to engage—and why should she? She has nothing to do with the inconvenience.

When I shared the photo and my comment on Facebook, I quite frankly didn’t expect anyone to comment. For me, the things that are most likely to get a “Like” or a comment are things about me personally, Nigel, the two of us, or about our furbabies. When I share links to things that I find interesting, sometimes they seem to get no notice whatsoever (like links to some blog posts). So, I tend to share more real-life stuff about me and my family than I do things in the world.

Well, apparently this Facebook post hit a nerve—well, several nerves. People talked about Countdown’s bad business practices, about how New World wasn’t any better, or how they were all bad. Mostly, it was quite civil and all that, but it did veer pretty sharply from my original question. I hadn’t seen that coming.

One friend mentioned that when their local New World was done up, they had maps and posted a lot of signage. This is when it hit me that the Countdown had no actual signage, just those small notes with too-small type. I realised that if they’d put up better signs, customers wouldn’t have been nearly as grumpy.

I can easily stay away until the revamp is done—there are three other Countdowns nearby, in addition to the New World I now go to most of the time. And this particular Countdown could use a bit of a tart up—I don’t think they’ve had a big one for many years. I just hope they clean the shelves while they’re at it.

And the consensus was that customers will return. I’m sure I will, too.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Summer Sunday

Today was a beautiful, though hot, summer Sunday. There was no sign of yesterday’s sprinkles of rain (they may return tomorrow), and it got up to the mid to high 20s officially (upper 70s to low 80s Fahrenheit). At our house it was over 31 degrees (around 88F). And the sun was intense.

Since we were out and about, and noticed the air was crystal clear (probably after the rain), we stopped by Birkenheard Wharf, where I snapped some photos. Three of them are with this post.

The photo up top is of Auckland and the Harbour Bridge from the end of the wharf. It's my new cover photo on Facebook. I didn’t post the two that are below.

Heat aside, it was a lovely day.

Looking toward Little Shoal Bay form Birkenhead Wharf, January 18, 2015.

Looking toward Chelsea Sugar Refinery from vehicle area near Birkenhead Wharf, January 18, 2015.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday adventures

Today was a good day. We had food and adventures, and adventures with food. And we even had a little rain, for the first time in ages.

We went out for lunch with a couple friends, which was nice in itself, but it was also Japanese, my favourite. It was a great time.

Then, it was time for errands. There’s nothing unusual in that, but at one point we were at Pakuranga Plaza, a shopping centre I’ve never been to before. I thought it was quite nice—small, as malls go, but bigger than the local shopping centre I go to the most. I also noticed that the clientele there was far more ethnically diverse than any NZ mall or shopping centre I’ve visited. We may have stopped for an ice cream while there…

I mentioned to Nigel that I’d seen on Facebook that Martha’s Backyard had put a bunch of stuff on clearance to make room for a new container coming, and since it was on the way, we stopped in. The results are in the photo above.

It’s worth noting that Martha’s has a lot of non-food items, including US flags and bunting and such, but what’s always drawn me are the food products, junk food in particular. I can get substitutes for pretty much all the products I used to use in the US, sometimes better than what I liked, and increasingly I can get American products at my local grocery stores. Countdown, for example, has a section of American products, and New World sells Pop Tarts in boxes (Coundown sells packs of two, which, if I really thought about it, is a better option…).

Even so, Martha’s sells things I can’t get anywhere else, even if I can get others from the same manufacturer at my grocery store. Pop Tarts are a good example of this, actually: Martha’s has the unfrosted version, which I prefer, while the grocery stores sell only the frosted version. Sidenote: When the chocolate frosted ones came out when I was a kid, I tried one and I thought my teeth would fall out from the sugar in them. This is why I don’t like the frosted version: They’re far too sweet for me.

Most of the other stuff in the photo I’ve bought before, but some bear special mention. For example, the garlic salt is because Nigel was curious what it was like, as compared to our usual local brand (it’s small, so if we hate it we can throw it out without any real loss). The sauerkraut is because we like to make our own Reubens and sauerkraut isn’t necessarily always easy to find. The ranch dressing was on clearance (and, actually, cheaper than locally-made salad dressing, which is probably better for me, but we’ll just ignore that). The Chex Mix is the cereals aren’t easy to get here, so making it myself isn’t easy (it’s not bad, by the way).

But the special guest star this time is the German Chocolate cake mix, which I can’t buy in New Zealand (Betty Crocker cake mixes, along with Australasian brands, are on our shelves, but they’re pretty standard ones; I usually make cakes from scratch, but even there, the real ingredients aren't all that easy to find in NZ). This matters because that was may favourite cake when I was a kid, and it’s what I always got for my birthday cake—every single year. My birthday is Wednesday, so I decided I’ll make myself my favourite birthday cake that I couldn’t have otherwise. Maybe I’ll mention it again when I make it.

So, today was a day mostly about food: We had lunch with friends and had what is pretty much my favourite kind of non-European food. We had a snack at a mall I’ve never been to before, and I found that interesting. Then, for the first time in a couple years, I got some naughty American food products I can't otherwise get. But it was also about relaxed good times together for Nigel and me. What more could I ask?

Today was a good day.

History in the making

Today’s announcement that the US Supreme Court will hear appeals to the aberrant Sixth Circuit ruling upholding state bans of marriage equality is important. It may turn out to be historic, too, but the ruling certainly will be. It may be a landmark.

Obviously no one can say with certainty how the Court will rule, but people far smarter and more learned about these things than me can do a pretty good job of laying out the odds. Nevertheless, I want to say what I think will happen, and why, just so it’s “out there”.

If I had to bet, it would be that Court will issue a Loving v. Virginia-type ruling on marriage equality later this year, and that it will give the USA 50-state marriage equality. I personally don’t see any other viable option.

Thirty-six US states have marriage equality, and seventy percent of Americans live in those states. The present situation is untenable: People legally married in one state could lose all their legal rights and responsibilities simply by crossing state lines. If they have children, their parental rights could instantly change the minute they entered a “ban” state. All of which makes LGBT people second-class citizens who are not being treated equally under law as the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution requires.

If the Court upholds the decision of the Sixth Circuit, and agrees that states can ban same-gender marriage, then it will make the bad situation far worse. It would potentially throw the existing marriage laws in a couple dozen states up in the air—and creates the possibility that the currently-legal marriages of same-gender couples could be reversed (and we all know that many rightwingers in those states would try to do exactly that). So, we’d end up with a situation worse than now, but worse even than when there were fewer states because so many states with constitutional bans in place gained marriage equality through court rulings.

Historically, the Supreme Court has tended to favour the sameness of laws nationwide where rights of citizens are involved: They don’t like patchworks of differing rights from state to state. Moreover, the federal government recognises marriage equality for federal purposes, meaning that legally married same-gender couples in states without marriage equality are nevertheless seen as married for federal purposes (unless Republicans in Congress succeed in changing that, which looks pretty much impossible).

A lot has changed since the Court struck down Section 3 of the “Defense” of Marriage Act: Clear and overwhelming majorities of Americans support the freedom to marry, and that's in addition to the facts I mentioned earlier, that 36 states have marriage equality covering 70% of the American people.

Add all that up—we already have an untenable situation, one that would be made far worse if the Sixth Circuit ruling were upheld, the fact that marriage equality is already a fact for more than two-thirds of US states and the vast majority of the American people, and also that polls show the American people back marriage equality, and all that points to the Supreme Court striking down all the remaining bans on marriage equality—as it should do, of course.

Only the Supreme Court can bring this struggle to an end and ensure that all citizens—LGBT and heterosexual alike—are treated equally under law. I think they will, and what a wonderful day that will be!

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.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Word resurrection

Today I read an article about some academics trying to highlight “some of the English language's most expressive — yet regrettably neglected — words” so that they might be used more often. As is so often the case, more than a few people don’t quite get it.

The list of Wayne State University’s “Word Warriors' 2015 top 10” includes a few obscure words (such as, concinnity, opsimath, and others), along with a few that are in general use, like caterwaul, melange, and knavery. And that’s where the misunderstanding arose.

The Wayne State list is of words that “deserve to be used more often in conversation and prose,” not just ones that are “dead”. In the article, British author Mark Forsyth, a fan of reviving useful “dead” English words, pointed out, as I did, that some of the words are still in use, and then asked, “Are they really forgotten?”

Obviously not. Maybe he didn’t get a chance to read what the Wayne State academics actually said about the list, so he was instead reacting out of, let’s say, incomplete information, because at no point did the academics claim the words were “lost”.

Pop culture can revive words that are seldom used. For example, I’ve heard Monty Burns on The Simpsons use old words like flapdoodle (one of my personal favourites, by the way) and rapscallion, both of which are on the list. Repeated enough, such words can take off all over again.

But Forsyth is right about one thing: The “lost” words most worthy of revival are ones that have no modern equivalent. English is an incredibly expressive language, thanks to its mergers and acquisitions over the millennia. But having a few more precise words—neologisms or “lost” words—enter common use has got to be a good thing.

But who’s championing the case of the words we should lose?

The photo at top of this post is my own.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A is for Australasia

I live in Australasia. Some of you will have misread that, others will know it, and still others won’t know what it means. We’re used to all those reactions. But, for starters, it’s home.

Australasia is a sub-region of Oceania, a specific region in the South Pacific. The name “Australasia” is derived from the Latin for “south of Asia”, which it is, of course.

Time was, Australasia included New Zealand, Australia and the island of New Guinea. However, as the term became used quite commonly, it came to mean only New Zealand and Australia, and that’s what most people mean when they use the phrase today.

The similarities between the names Australia and Australasia are obvious, and it’s probably the main reason that New Zealanders don't use the name all that much (we tend to say the somewhat more clunky “New Zealand and Australia”). It may also be why Australians like the name—or maybe it’s just convenient for them?

In New Zealand, we’ve noticed that Australians particularly like to use the name “Australasian” when they want to claim a bit of the credit for a successful New Zealander. Many years ago, a book named Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mt Everest—and arguably the most famous New Zealander ever—as an “Australasian” mountaineer. More recently, they claimed Kiwi singer Lorde, too. We’re quite happy to let Australians have Russell Crowe, though (that’s a Kiwi joke, by the way).

Truthfully, we laugh at all such things, like the time back in 2010 when Australian news media referred to the New Zealand team in the FIFA World Cup as “Australasia”. However, it was a BIT weird when they referred to the two countries combined in the 2012 Summer Olympics as “Aus Zealand”. I’m still puzzled by that one.

We’re used to this mostly-friendly rivalry with Australia. After all, for years they’ve been claiming to have invented the pavlova, when it's clearly a New Zealand invention. These days, the rivalry is over the “flat white”, a type of coffee. It was recently introduced into the US mass market by Starbuck’s, but not without controversy, as the site Quartz pointed out.

The irony with the flat white is that it really is an Australasian invention. The Australians named the drink in the 1980s (probably in Sydney), and it was perfected and standardised in Wellington.

Which goes to show, I suppose, that that if you use a name like “Australasian” often enough, sooner or later it’ll be accurate.

Just don’t try to claim Sir Ed: He’s all ours.

The map up top of this post shows regions of Oceania, including Australasia. It is a public domain image available from Wikimedia Commons.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A better example of change

Yesterday, I saw on the US news that for the first time ever, Tiffany featured a gay male couple in an ad, and this was said to be a sign of changing times. A far better example of change, and more useful to help that change, is an ad for Lynx Hair, “Less effort, more style” (above). This ad is an example of the future.

The Tiffany print ad (at the bottom of this post) is important in the sense that it includes a gay couple (a real couple, by the way). Around 70% of Americans now live in states with marriage equality, so why not feature an ad catering to folks who can now marry?

Tiffany is a “luxury brand” (meaning, expensive) and it’s likely that this ad will appear in publications that cater for consumers of high-end products. Put another way, the ad, good thing though it is, will be seen by a subset of all consumers, and quite possibly people who already support marriage equality.

The Lynx Hair ad, on the other hand, is aimed at mass consumers, though skewed to young men, obviously. And, yes, young men are for more likely to support marriage equality, and in far higher percentages, than older men. The mass market presence of the ad, however, will reach people who are not in the target market, and probably even those who may not be quite there yet in acceptance of the equality of LGBT people.

The reason, of course, is in a montage that suggests what a man using their product might experience: “Now can be amazing,” they us, then at 0:29 they say, “Kiss the hottest girl – or the hottest boy.” The images of the kisses, shown cinema noir-style, are clear and obvious—and it’s what makes it more important than the Tiffany ad.

We first saw the ad during the 6pm news last night, and neither of us saw that moment coming. The ad was repeated during a popular programme around an hour later. That means that a lot of people may have seen the ad, and the matter-of-fact treatment of a male/male kiss. “It’s no big deal,” the ad is clearly saying. Because it’s not.

The video above is the “extended edition”, which is longer than the version we saw on TV last night. But the added bits are in keeping with the shorter version. The use of humour to convey the ad message helps reinforce the “no big deal” aspect of the kiss, I think, precisely because in context it’s clearly NOT a big deal. It also disarms people and makes them pay more attention.

The long battle for the equality of LGBT people will finally end when heterosexuals no longer think of us odd, weird or, worse, disgusting. When they see us as just another part of life, we’ll all be able to move on. The Tiffany ad is a part of that process, but ads like the one for Lynx Hair do more, I think, to reach average people, and to make being gay just seem like another thing. That’s why I think it matters more.

But I do like both.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The times we live in

Today I received an email from the US Consulate in Auckland. I’ve received dozens over the years, usually about consular visits to the NZ hinterlands to register births, process passports, that sort of thing. Sometimes, like today’s, they’re a little more serious.

Today’s email was headlined, “Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Worldwide Caution”, and it was probably the same message sent to US citizens throughout the world (outside the USA, of course). It said:
On January 10, 2015, the Department of State updated the Worldwide Caution to provide information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world. Recent terrorist attacks, whether by those affiliated with terrorist entities, copycats, or individual perpetrators, serve as a reminder that U.S. citizens need to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.

You can view the latest Worldwide Caution, either at: http://travel.state.gov/content/travel/english.html, or http://newzealand.usembassy.gov, the Embassy website.

We strongly recommend that U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in New Zealand enroll in the Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://step.state.gov/step. STEP enrollment gives you the latest security updates, and makes it easier for the U.S. embassy or nearest U.S. consulate to contact you in an emergency.
I think it’s a sad statement on the times we live in, with dangers that I just can’t see improving, let alone ending, any time soon. However, I need to once again re-state that I never feel unsafe in New Zealand. I’ve never bothered to enrol in the STEP programme, either, for that very reason. However, that feeling of safety may change in the future if New Zealand sends troops to Syria/Iraq, but right now, I feel perfectly safe.

Even so, we US citizens, even in safe countries, are told we “need to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase… security awareness,” which is probably prudent. But it’s still very sad.

Holiday’s end

Today marks the end of our summer holiday as we both resume more normal schedules. It’s been a good and relaxing time, but now it’s time to get back into the swing of things.

We watched movies, ate out a bit, got together with friends and family, and we may even have had the occasional nap. The furbabies were part of a lot of that, so today I’m planning on staying with them all day to ease their transition back to normal life. The errands can wait until tomorrow.

Being on holiday also meant a more relaxed blogging time. Most (though not all) of my posts during this time, especially since Christmas, have been what I consider “lighter”, that is, pretty much staying away from heavier, darker or maybe more contentious subjects. That, too, is ending, and yesterday’s post was actually the beginning of my return to more normal blogging.

Which is not say that it will now be “all gloom, all the time”; that’s just not me or my blogging style. However, it’s time to get back to work, and the posts will be what they will be.

Just as soon as I get myself out of “holiday mode”…

Sunday, January 11, 2015

All the little things

“I am 45 years old,” Panti Bliss begins, “and I have never once unselfconsciously held hands with a lover in public.” That sets the tone for Panti’s TEDx Dublin talk (video above) in which she describes “All The Little Things” that prove homophobia is alive and well—and incredibly pervasive.

I know exactly what Panti means because I, ten years older, have also never held a partner’s hand in public without instantly becoming acutely aware of everyone and everything around me: Will someone attack us? What are the escape routes if they do? Is there any help nearby? That happened every single time, which is why those times have been so rare.

I’ve had people—sympathetic people, mind you—tell me without any intentional irony that they “don’t like public displays of affection of any kind, gay or straight.” I’m sure those people really believe that they feel that way, but they’re deluding or lying to themselves. I say that because all straight people notice gay people who are affectionate in public, and nearly all of them—religious or not, and from all over the political spectrum—don’t like it, even when it’s merely a chaste kiss on the cheek or simply holding hands.

Sure, most heterosexuals don’t say or do anything to express their disapproval, but we LGBT people are quite adept at reading mood—we have to be in order to avoid danger. We can always—always—tell when people disapprove, even when they don’t say a word.

That’s our reality: Always being aware of our surroundings, always being on the lookout for danger, always on guard. There’s nothing straight people can do to fix this, apart from stopping being so uptight

But things are changing, of course. Younger straight people don’t carry the same hang-ups as their parents or grandparents. They have LGBT friends and cannot understand why anyone would think it was okay to treat their gay friends badly. They are the future.

However, even young straight people enjoy the same heterosexual privilege that their elders have: They never have to worry about getting disapproving stares merely for holding hands with their opposite-gender partner. They know that no one will bat an eye at them if they mention their opposite gender partner as their boyfriend or girlfriend, or as their husband or wife. They don’t have to contend with some bitter, twisted religionist constantly telling them they’re going to “hell” for falling in love with someone of the opposite gender, or desperately trying to pass laws to ban that love or prevent them from being full and equal citizens. No one will ever beat them or kill them solely because they love someone of the opposite gender.

I’m well aware that opposite gender couples can face other issues, such as, if they’re of different races or cultures, for example. But in such cases there are other issues at play than mere sexuality.

I wonder sometimes if it really is getting better for young LGBT people, despite having far more supportive friends and age-peers than existed in my day. A year ago, almost exactly, actually, Nigel and I stopped in our local mall’s The Warehouse, just looking around. We were in the men’s clothing section and as we walked through, I saw out of the corner of my eye, two young guys in the underwear aisle, which was perpendicular to us. I’d noticed that one, with his back to us, was holding up a pair on a hanger, and the other one was also looking at it. The lads were in their late teens/early 20s, maybe—I didn't really notice them well enough to be able to say.

That’s all I’d noticed, though, since we were walking past the aisle. Nigel then said to me, “they were holding hands.” I felt all warm and fuzzy at the thought of young love, and how nice it was that they felt free to hold hands in public.

We reached the end of the section and, since it was just a quick visit, we headed out of the store going back the way we’d come. I decided to pay more attention when we passed the two lads, and something distracted us right near where they were, which gave me a chance to actually look. “They’ve stopped holding hands,” I said to Nigel, who hadn’t looked.

I was really sad that they felt we were in any way intimidating, that maybe they felt uncomfortable. They abruptly left the area. “We should find what aisle they’re in and smooch in front of them,” I said to Nigel, as if that would somehow repair things. We didn’t do that, of course, but continued on out of the store.

I don’t know if those lads stopped holding hands because we were right there, or if they were about to, anyway, since they were heading to a different part of the store. But it seemed probable that it was because of us. Where I’d felt happy that they felt free to hold hands as any opposite-gender couple their age would, too, I then felt sad that they felt they needed to stop, and terrible at the thought that it could have been because of us.

I know some straight people will be able to identify with that feeling of sadness at having made a gay couple feel they had to hide their affection. But unlike straight people, I also keenly know what those lads may have felt.

Panti’s TEDx talk is similar to her earlier viral hit, A Noble Call, because it also explains what homophobia is like from a gay person’s perspective. We’re all tired of the right wing deciding it’s a good idea to make shit up about us. We’re tired of being lectured to and preached at and caricatured as nothing but walking sex acts. The lies have got to stop.

We need straight allies to stand up to homophobia, even the mild kind—perhaps their own?—when folks claim not to like “any” public displays of affection. But far more than that, we need to be free to hold hands with the person we love most in the world without the risk of violent attack for doing so.

And smile: A smile makes up for a lot of frowns and disapproving glowers.

Related: Writing on Huffington Post, Kevin Thornton expresses some similar attitudes.

Friday, January 09, 2015

British (etc.) sweets

There are times, frankly, when I’ve got nothing. I usually find something to blog about, but sometimes, well, not everything goes to plan. Like today. Then, the Internet delivers.

The video above is the latest Anglophenia video in which Siobhan talks about British sweets. Not at all surprisingly, many of the candy items she profiles are common in New Zealand—and many of them are thoroughly disgusting.

Chief among them is “Flake”, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the single most disgusting “chocolate” confection ever devised by the human mind. It’s like a sadistic torturer said, “I’ll tempt you with chocolate, only it won’t be real chocolate, it’ll be Flake—THAT will make you confess!!” Truly vile. Trust me, you’d denounce your god just to get away from the stuff.

What I thought was interesting, though, was her highlighting Blackjack gum. My father loved Blackjack gum.

Love them or loathe them—or, simply never heard of them—sweets are one way of understanding a culture. There are worse ways to learn…

Thursday, January 08, 2015

ABC Wednesday (again)

Back in 2012, I took part in ABC Wednesday, a project in which bloggers around the world post about a topic beginning with a letter of the alphabet, starting with A and going through to Z, one letter per week. These may be regular blog posts, a photo, a poem, etc.—whatever the person wants, as long as it starts with the letter for that week.

I dropped out in August 2012 because when it got to the letter D, I was too busy to post. No harm in that—there’s no penalty for skipping a week, and I skipped one week earlier in the year, in the previous round, for the same reason. But the following week in August I was still too busy, and the week after that, and, well, I just never returned. I hadn’t planned on stopping, I just did.

Be that as it may, and at the subtle urging of Roger Green, I’m going to participate again starting in the next round, Round 16. I have some topics already picked out and—gasp!—I plan on pre-writing at least some of them (finally following Roger’s example).

This round, I’m planning to focus on—well, you’ll just have to wait. But I do encourage anyone who’s interested in doing so to take part. It’s just meant as a bit of fun, and the guidelines are easy to follow. Give it a go!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

This time of year (still)

At the end of December, I wrote about how difficult it is to get things done this time of year. I was talking specifically about the time between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, but it turns out there’s been unexpected weirdness this week, too.

Last month, I said:
… 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).
On New Year’s Day evening, Nigel and I decided to get some takeaways for dinner for us and his mother, who was staying with us. However, everything was shut. We finally found a (mostly) Malaysian takeaways place that was open.

The photo above is the first photo of the year of Jake and Sunny as they and I waited in the car. I hadn’t intended on publishing it, or I would’ve taken a better one of Sunny, who was in the back seat.

The next day, all the places I mentioned last month were closed, as was the then-open bakery I mentioned. They remained closed over the weekend, but on Monday the local sushi shop was open (and the nearby takeaways opened again yesterday)—but none of the bakeries were. And when I say “none”, I mean NONE that we saw anywhere, from New Year's Day onward, until yesterday when we were in Albany and happened to see one open.

Bakeries are small shops that make things like bread, meat pies, filled rolls/sandwiches, cookies—those sorts of things. Nearly all of them are owned by Asians, usually Chinese people, and every single one was closed (apart from the one in Albany). I can’t remember this happening before, though it could be that I simply don’t remember.

Now, obviously, the fact that all the bakeries in our area have shut down for the week is weird, maybe a little inconvenient, but it’s absolutely not the end of the world. It was unexpected, however, and a little disappointing because since we’re on summer holiday, we don’t really want to cook and be brought back to real life. Not quite yet.

When one goes away on holiday, it’s not surprising that things are different than at home. Maybe it’s just as well when things are different for a holiday at home. Maybe it makes us appreciate both normality and the holiday just a little bit more.

But, a steak and cheese pie would have been nice…

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

In praise of Star Wars ‘Machete Order’

As part of our summer holiday, Nigel and I re-watched the Star Wars movies, but in Machete Order. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them in that order, making the story arc much better than what George Lucas intended. In fact, I highly recommend it.

Fair warning: Spoilers ahead (in the unlikely event you haven’t yet seen the Star Wars movies).

Machete Order was devised by Rod Hilton who wrote a VERY long post about it on his blog, Absolutely No Machete Juggling. He gave it its name “on the off chance that this catches on because I'm a vain asshole.” Well, I know nothing about him, but his viewing order is perfect.

I should start first by saying that when the original Star Wars came out (now called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), I was 18 and it was a very important film to me. To this day I can remember the opening sequence and when the Imperial Cruiser flies overhead and fills the screen, I was dumbfounded. I saw the film in the cinema many, many times.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strike Back was good—maybe not as good for my tastes, but still good. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was, for me as many others, by far the weakest of the original trilogy.

And then we come to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Let’s just pretend it never happened. Star Wars Episode II: The Clone War was much better (not hard to do, to be honest), and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was okay, too. Sort of. But I absolutely loathed Episode I, and still do.

Traditionally, most people would watch the films in release order, but I think that the original trilogy seems like a complete set, and the first three seem kind of out of place, as if slightly out of phase. Other people watch the films in episode order, but that has the unfortunate problem of beginning with Episode I.

Machete Order fixes all this by ordering the films this way: IV, V, II, III and VI—eliminating Episode 1 altogether. Hilton says:
Episode I is a failure on every possible level. The acting, writing, directing, and special effects are all atrocious, and the movie is just plain boring. Luckily, George Lucas has done everyone a favor by making the content of Episode I completely irrelevant to the rest of the series. Seriously, think about it for a minute. Name as many things as you can that happen in Episode I and actually help flesh out the story in any subsequent episode…
But Machete Order does so much more than merely remove Episode 1: It also puts the story emphasis back where it always should have been—on Luke—by providing clear motivation for Darth Vader's being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, his similarities with Luke, and it creates proper tension as to whether Luke will be seduced by the Dark Side, too—something entirely missing in the original Episode VI. In fact, this single benefit from watching the films in Machete Order makes Episode VI a much better movie than it had been.

In fact, the entire film series is more coherent, logical, and is so much more satisfying in Machete Order than in either release order or episode order. In addtion, most (but not all…) of the things that annoyed me in the various films are fixed by viewing in Machete Order.

There are so many good points that Hilton makes in his post—ones I completely agree with!—that I think anyone interested in the films should read the entire thing. Most of all, though, I strongly recommend Machete Order to anyone who thought Star Wars could have been better, and especially to anyone who’s never seen all the films. It's so, SO much better in Machete Order.

Go, watch. And may the Force be with you.

Tip o’ the Hat to my husband Nigel who suggested we do this and who shared Rod Hilton's post with me.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Looking for good news

When I’ve talked before about good news, it’s often been about the finding good news part of a negative story, or even good news that doesn’t get reported. Today I thought I’d see what would happen if I Googled “good news” and the result is above.

To be honest, I thought the top hits would be Christian sites, so I was kind of pleased when they weren’t. On the other hand, Google knows what I tend to search for, so my experience is perhaps not indicative.

Still, I had a look at the four top hits, and here they are:

Good News Network: The site was founded in 1997 by Geri Weis-Corbley as “an antidote to the barrage of negativity experienced in the mainstream media”. Many of the values expressed on the “About Us” page are fairly progressive (in the non-political sense) because it's focused on optimism. They urge people to take in negative news, too, because it’s important to be informed citizens.

Good News – Huffington Post: People seem to love or hate Huffington Post—or sometimes it’s “and”. Still, they’re a big site, though chiefly a “news aggregator”. That means they bring together things posted to sites all over the web. As such, it can be a good “one-stop-shop” for a quick fix of good news.

Sunny Skyz: The “About” page says “Sunny Skyz was launched in January of 2012 in order to promote positive stories and upbeat media.” Unlike Good News Network, Sunny Skyz’s founder, Christopher Filippou, doesn’t follow mainstream news: “If you ask me, I think you're crazy for listening to that garbage.” Not everything I saw on my visit was necessarily “good news” in the way that I mean the term, but some readers might find the items inspiring in some way.

Daily Good – News That Inspires: This is a volunteer-run site that began in 1998 when a student began sending daily inspirational quotes to six of his university classmates. Daily and weekly newsletters are still a main feature. As the subtitle suggests, the emphasis is on things that inspire, which isn’t a bad thing, just not, strictly speaking, a “good news” site. In that sense, it’s a bit like Sunny Skyz, but without dismissing mainstream news.

Those are just the first four sites that popped up when I Googled “good news”. Others may get different results, and mine might be different at another time. Such is the way with Internet searches. I’m also neither endorsing nor dismissing these sites—I’m merely listing them and what I thought when I visited them

However, I have a caution: Good news sites (these or others) can sometimes be a good antidote on those days where the news is filled with awful things, but they are NOT a substitute for mainstream news. I agree with Geri Weis-Corbley about the importance of being an informed citizen, so it concerns me that Christopher Filippou thinks that mainstream news is “garbage”.

An informed citizen is no use to anyone, though, if they're too discouraged to act, so that’s where good news sites—particularly those that specialise in inspiration—can be the most useful. From time to time we all need to hear something positive, or we need our faith in humanity restored, or maybe we just need a little encouragement to do something in our lives, like lose weight or even just get better organised. I’ve long turned to such sites for those sorts of things, but I never made the connection with “good news” before.

Finding the good aspect of an otherwise negative news story also carries a caution: We can end up spinning it as surely as those who focus only on the bad aspects, and, indeed, as politicians always spin news that doesn’t reflect favourably on them or their party by highlighting only the positive aspects.

We also don’t want to become Pollyanaish, ignoring sometimes harsh and painful aspects of real life in favour of news that only makes us feel good. We need the bitter with the sweet, I think, in order to be able to appreciate them both, yes, but also to be truly alive—present in the moment.

So, that’s a little of what I found when I went looking for “good news”, and what I thought of it all. The main lesson is that good news is always out there and it’s not hard to find. We just need to be wise enough to use it as an antidote to and inspiration for real life, and not as a replacement.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York and once a giant in the Democratic Party, died Thursday, January 1 (US time). In 1984, Cuomo gave the Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention (excerpt above), and I thought it was one of the most powerful speeches I’d ever heard.

In 1984, my transition from Republican to Democrat was pretty much complete, but there were still some residual feelings of loss and mourning—I’d been a Republican all my life up until 1980, after all. The powerful words of Cuomo, defending traditional Democratic Party values and liberalism itself inspired me and made me feel happy to me in my new partisan home.

In the decades since, there have been Democratic politicians who greatly disappointed me, politicians who seemed to be running away from traditional Party values. Others—especially in recent years—have embraced those values and liberalism itself. Few have been as passionate as Cuomo had been.

I knew very little about Cuomo as governor (I think that most Americans are pretty ignorant most of the time about what goes on in other states), so I think that Roger Green’s recollections as a resident of New York provide a good perspective. However, I did know that he was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and at a time when that was definitely not popular.

For the same reason that I didn’t know much about Cuomo as governor, it would’ve been the 1990s before I heard about the 1977 New York City mayoral campaign between Cuomo and Ed Koch. In particular, I heard about posters that started popping up urging, “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo”. Koch always blamed Cuomo and his son Andrew (now New York Governor, who was working on his father’s campaign at the time). Both Cuomos denied any involvement and, indeed, it seems rather inconsistent with Cuomo’s politics to engage in that sort of thing. In 2009, Mario Cuomo told the New York Times: "If anything, I thought it was done by someone who wanted to see me lose. I never did anything like that and it was a wrong thing to do, whoever did it; it was ugly and unfair.” Koch won the election.

Mario Cuomo also gave the speech nominating Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention (CSPAN has the video; they also have the full version of his 1984 speech). Taken together, the two convention speeches pretty much sum up why Democrats like me respected him and his words so much (his 1984 speech also presents many of the reasons I was such a fervent opponent of Ronald Reagan).

Clinton apparently wanted to nominate Cuomo to the US Supreme Court, which Cuomo declined. I think he would have been an outstanding Justice on the court—possibly one of the best ever (we’ll never know). However, as things turned out, it may be just as well: President Obama would now have to appoint a successor that might possibly get past the very rightwing new US Senate, and, assuming he eventually could find such a nominee, that person would be more conservative than any of the so-called liberals currently on the court, probably more conservative than Kennedy, even. Since we have NO idea how Cuomo would have been as a Justice, I have no trouble focusing only on the practical—the extreme difficulty in replacing him with a liberal.

To be honest, I’ve missed Cuomo’s passionate defence of liberalism and Democratic Party values for a very long time. After 1992, he began to fade from the national scene. Only President Obama has been as passionate in defending those values as Cuomo once was, but his time on the political stage will be over a little over two years from now. Who will take the lead then?

I hope we’ll see the likes of someone like Mario Cuomo again. American democracy desperately needs such a voice.