Monday, February 29, 2016

Ordinary again

Sometimes, very ordinary things can help tell a bigger story. Other times, maybe most of the time, they’re just the ordinary things we don’t take much notice of. Today provided a bit of both.

Just over a month ago, I wrote about how our windows had condensation on the outside because of a storm system that made the outside air hot and humid. I did so to reiterate a point I was making that week, namely, that Auckland is hotter in summer than some people seem to think. I also used it as a reference point to talk about air conditioning and how that’s become more common in New Zealand in the years that I’ve lived here.

A lot of my posts begin with something like that—a photo or video—that I then use as a starting point for a discussion. Today’s photos aren’t that at all: They’re just my morning view.

Sure, they show that this summer is still hot and often humid; at about 9:30 this morning, it was 21.7 at our house (71F), which isn’t all that warm, but the humidity was 99%, which made it feel like 28 (82.4F)—at 9:30am. Our house at that time was still cool from the night, 19.3 (66.74), and so the condensation was bound to happen.

There was more than I’ve ever seen this morning, and on windows I haven’t seen it on. When mixed with the sometimes heavy rain out there, it made the house particularly dark and gloomy for morning time. The condensation also lasted pretty much all morning, until the outside and inside temperatures alike rose and the window glass became warmer.

Still, I think that as long as it’s short-lived, the condensation on the windows is kind of nice—the water on the glass, the blurring of the view beyond. Maybe it’s just that it’s so different from normal.

What we had this morning wasn’t exactly ordinary (I can’t remember a summer where that’s happened twice; I’m not actually sure I can remember a summer where it’s happened at all), and yet there’s also nothing that exactly spectacular about it, either.

I’m sharing this because it caught my attention for awhile, and in a week in which I’m swamped with work and have little space in my head to plan deep and meaningful blog posts (which could happen—there’s a first time for everything…), this is about all I can manage. When I’ve been similarly busy with work at other times, I’ve posted photos of the furbabies, and I wouldn't rule out that or other photos happening this week, either.

The photos of the condensation today actually tell a bigger story, too: I may be too busy to think about and research in-depth topics for posts, but I’m not too busy to notice ordinary things as I go through my day. I count that as a win.

Besides, today is Leap Year Day—how ordinary can anything today really be?

The photo above is from the same window as January’s post, just closer to the glass. The bottom one is the view from my office window.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Photo challenge Day 7 of 7: ‘That's A Wrap’

The seventh and final photo in this series, "That's A Wrap", is as ordinary as the first one—no special techniques, just a phone and a search for just the right angle. Which is not to say there weren’t some special challenges for me.

When I posted it, I said:
"That's A Wrap". The final photo is of a mobile made of old cutlery that's hanging over our deck, kind of off to the side. We bought the mobile from the artist at Thames Markets, and have it off to the side of the dining area. I noticed it was wrapped in web, but didn't clean it because the occupant is eating bugs (like flies). This photo bookends this series nicely, I think, because, like the first photo on Day 1, it shows nature persevering in a world altered by humans, and surviving. Ultimately, that's been my real theme in the photos I shared this week. Thanks for indulging me!
The main challenge in taking this photo was an entirely personal one: I hate spiders. In fact, big ugly spiders scare and repulse me, and if I’d seen the occupant in the photo crawling across the floor, it would have met an immediate end. Now, I could zoom in a bit, but to get the photo framed just right, I needed to get closer than I was actually comfortable being.

So, my eyes darted between the subject and the image on my phone’s screen. Had that spider moved even a little bit, I would have been gone and photo shoot concluded.
The wrapped cutlery mobile.

As it happens, the only movement was the next obstacle: The mobile was slowly rotating in the breeze, first one way, then it slowed and stopped, rotated the other, slowed and stopped, and so on. I had to time each shot until the rotation was in just the right spot.

I had several where the occupant was clearly visible, and some people are terrified of even photos of spiders, so I considered whether the one I liked the best—with a clear portrait—would be okay to post to social media. My decision came as the result of another challenge.

When I was working with the photo for Day 5, “Within”, I had a problem when not all the photos I was reviewing on my Mac were available on my phone. This time, it was the other way around: I waited for the photos to be available to my Mac through iCloud, but not all of them were on my Mac.

So, exactly the opposite of Day 5, when I went to my phone to select the final photo, I found the one above, and knew instantly that was The One. In fact, in some ways, it’s my favourite of the entire series, which figures: It was a happy accident.

The challenge for this series was to take one photo per day for seven days on the general theme of “nature”. That’s a really broad subject areas, so I decided to make it more interesting and challenging for me by limiting it to photos I took with my phone, and only around the house.

It turned out that the first two or three I knew in advance, but after that, I didn’t have advance idea. However, each time I saw something and knew it would be the photo. It really is true that if you take a lot of photos, you start to see things differently.

I inadvertently gave myself another challenge by giving each photo a one-word title. Day 1 wasn’t actually intentionally one word, but I mirrored that on Day 2, and then I felt I needed to for the rest. But I also wanted to break that with the final photo, so instead of merely “Wrapped”, which it almost was, I picked the less serious title, “That's A Wrap”, because it is, in every sense.

I should add that I accidentally posted these the day after I shared them on social media. I say “accidentally” because I simply forgot to share the first one on Sunday, when I shot and shared the photo, so I posted it on Monday, instead, and then continued that every day. So, the photo up top was taken and shared yesterday. I should add, if it isn’t obvious, each photo was taken on the day it was originally shared—I didn't take any in advance.

I think that the Day 7 photo bookends this series nicely, because, like the first photo on Day 1, it shows nature persevering in a world altered by humans, and surviving. Ultimately, that's been my real theme in the photos I shared this week. Some were obvious about that, others less so, like the two I shot from our deck: The taro is there because the house was built and it changed the environment, and the cabbage trees were planted—and, they’re thriving.

Even the photo for Day 6, “Detritus”, keeps the theme. I talked about it a little bit when I said in it “debris from nature and humans all meet in one place”.

So, that’s the series, all the obvious and more subtle themes, as well as the techniques I used to take the photos, and any other backstory to them. It really was a challenge, but fun, too—but I doubt I’ll do another one like it. I should, however, be better about posting photos of my Auckland more regularly, like as a regular feature, or something. That’d probably be more interesting to more people than just photos of spiders’ work.

And, that really is a wrap.

The posts/photos in this series:

Photo challenge – Day 1 of 7: “Persistence”
Photo challenge – Day 2 of 7: “Evicted”
Photo challenge – Day 3 of 7: “Under”
Photo challenge – Day 4 of 7: “Above”
Photo challenge – Day 5 of 7: “Within”
Photo challenge – Day 6 of 7: “Detritus”
Photo challenge – Day 7 of 7: “That’s A Wrap” (that’s this one…)

Vote for Change

The video above, “A flag by New Zealand, for New Zealand” is the long version ad made by Change The Flag NZ, which is, as far as I know, the only campaign in favour of changing the New Zealand flag in next month’s referendum. Neither it nor the shorter versions have been on TV yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be.

The ad features some well-known New Zealanders from various walks of life, including journalists, two former Prime Ministers (from the National Party), two Mayors of Wellington, the former Mayor of Christchurch, former All Black Dan Carter, among others. A much shortened television-friendly 15-second version, "Vote For Change", is below, and another 15-second version is on their Facebook Page, but not on YouTube yet.

As such commercials go, I think these are pretty good, though this sort of thing doesn’t usually persuade anyone. Instead, they tend to rally people who already feel inclined to do the thing asked, in this case, voting for change. Even so, there’s value in that.

The mockery of the new flag and those who support change has been pretty relentless on social media, so ads like this may help rally some of the pro-change vote, something that almost certainly will be higher than polls indicate at the moment. Right now, polls are showing the existing flag with overwhelming support, but much of that looks to be soft support from people who intend to use the referendum to “send a message to John Key” (more about that tomorrow).

I’m voting for change, of course, but if the pro-existing flag side makes ads, I’ll share them, too, if possible. That figures, of course: I’m a political junkie and politics nerd WAY more than I’m a partisan in elections or referenda. Even so, because we’ll only have about three weeks of campaigning, there aren’t likely to be a lot of ads for either side.

There’s one thing I do agree with the majority about, though: Whatever happens, I’ll be glad when this is all over.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Photo challenge Day 6 of 7: ‘Detritus’

The sixth photo in this series, "Detritus", tells a story, as all the photos do. When I posted it, I wrote:
“Detritus". The penultimate photo in this series shows debris: A broken deck share next to a derelict BBQ (complete with cover!) waiting to go wherever such things go, some branches I trimmed off our neighbours trees that were hanging over the fence, some dead sticks that fell from the tree are on the ground, and in the shadows a black plastic rubbish sack I use to collect weeds and leaves for composting (it's where those dead leaves on those branches are headed next). So, debris from nature and humans all meet in one place.
I didn’t pose the photo—that’s the way it actually was. Bella likes to sleep on the BBQ, since it’s warm and safe within the completely fenced space next to our garage. That same area is where I hang the washing to dry on sunny days, and where I’ve shot many photos over the years—including “Evicted” on Day 2 of this series.

While I didn’t pose the photo, I did use some of my tricks to improve the lighting. I wanted to brighten some of the shadow areas, and with a stronger light than natural light alone. I also wanted it a bit harsher. So, just as I did with “Under” on Day 3, is used the scrap flooring underlay positioned in the full sun, but this time I used the silvery side to reflect a harsher light.

This is most obvious on the twigs in the foreground, and it’s a bit gentler under the chair (compare it with the photo below, which has no additional lighting, reflected or otherwise). Interestingly, it also actually increased the shadow in areas I didn’t want to highlight, something I hadn’t planned on, but was happy about. If I had more experience, maybe I wouldn’t have known that would happen, but I didn’t.

The only other special thing I did was tilt my phone slightly to straighten the shot a bit—it’s actually on a slope (which is why that paver is under the wheel of the BBQ). Rotating my phone slightly made the fence boards appear to lean (they’re actually vertical, as would be expected). I thought this helped make it a little unsettling in a very subtle way, since we expect fences to be vertical: What’s actually leaning? Our eyes would assume the BBQ is normal, but then there’s that fence, so…

All of that's probably too subtle, but it was part of what I was trying to do. The juxtaposition of human-made and nature debris (and a combination of the two) was the overall point of this photo, of course, and that’s in keeping with one of my themes in this series.

The one thing I didn’t say anywhere, though, is the simple reason why the branches were lying there in the first place: I wanted them dried out. Most of the stuff I put in that black sack is weeds I’ve pulled up or cut down, and they need to be mixed with dry matter to compost properly. Leaving the cut branches to dry meant I could have some dry matter for composting, and it would make the remaining sticks easier to get rid of than full leafy branches.

And that’s the back-story for this photo.

The final post in this series is tomorrow.

Another photo in the series I took to get the one I used, but taken without any reflected light.

AmeriNZ Podcast 317 now available

A new AmeriNZ Podcast episode, “AmeriNZ 317 – Progress-ish” is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Photo challenge: Day 5 of 7

This photo series has been about meeting a challenge, of course, but it’s also been about experimenting and trying techniques to see what happens. The photo above is another example of that.

I said when I posted it:
"Within". This photo was taken within the tops of the cabbage trees (Cordyline australis) next to our house, above the taro plants in yesterday's photo. This part of the trees is a good two storeys up from the ground, so it's not something you normally can see in larger cabbage trees. Even though our deck is high up at this location, the treetops are still higher.
I wanted to take a photo in a spot one normally wouldn’t see, but it had to be manageable, too. So, I decided to use my monopod again, but unlike the photo called “Above”, I used it to move my phone up and into the cabbage trees’ tops. Also just like “Above”, I used the phone’s timer function because I wouldn’t be able to reach the shutter button.

The results were mixed. The photo I used was not the one I originally wanted to use (that photo is below). I wanted a photo that was more visibly "within", but I ran into a sort of technical problem.

I’ve posted the photos first to Instagram, which shares the photos with my personal Facebook and Flickr. However, in this case, I’d manually transferred the photos to my Mac so I could see them better and pick the one I liked the best, which is what I’ve done with every photo. However, this time, for some reason, my phone couldn’t see all the photos, even though it shares with my Mac. And, since I can only post to Instagram through a device, I couldn’t post the photo I originally intended. Yeah, yeah, such trauma.

Anyway, it wasn’t all bad: The one I used does look a bit more exotic, even if it’s a bit less “within” than I wanted. It also does show what would normally be difficult to see—the view at the top of a larger cabbage tree.

I also tried some “within” shots in other plants in our garden, but I didn’t like them as much. Besides, I like showing off plants that are typical of New Zealand. So, still a win of sorts, I suppose.

This photo, then, didn’t use any new techniques that I haven’t already used in this series; basically it was the same as I’d used on the previous day’s photo, just in the other direction.

Only two more days to go before this series finally ends.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

My dad would be 100

My father would have been 100 today, which is hard to get my head around. He’s been gone for so very long now—more than a third of that time—that him being 100 seems impossible because he seems forever locked at the age I last saw him. Still, it’s one of those anniversaries that must be commemorated, surreal though it may feel.

When I was a kid, I always had trouble remembering when my dad’s birthday was. “It’s just like Christmas, but in February,” my mother told me when I was a teenager. I never forgot the date again, but it turned out that by that point I had very few birthdays to remember while he was alive. Still, I haven’t forgotten it even in all the years since he died.

Even so, I’ve never done a blog post for my father’s birthday, as I have for my mother’s, though I’ve talked about him in several posts (a few are listed at the end of this post). There are reasons I haven’t blogged about his birthdays, but the main one doesn’t speak particularly well of me.

Mainly, I’ve tended to forget to write a post about my dad’s birthday because nearly all my blog posts are written just before they’re published. That meant that if I didn’t remember it at the time, I didn’t write about it all. My dad’s birthday was one of those things I always forgot to write about until it had passed (in my defence, there have been other topics, too—actually, I guess that’s not much of a defence after all).

However, another reason, as I’ve mentioned many times before, is that my mother was a bigger influence on my life, especially until I was a teenager. It’s probably the reason I remember her birthday and forget his: He just wasn’t at the centre of things when I was growing up because he was always so busy. I just accepted things as being as they were and certainly didn’t resent his absence—how could I resent not having something I never had in the first place? Also, most of my friends’ dads were similarly busy, so I thought it was normal.

I remember him most as being a minister, and in my mind’s eye, he looks a bit like the photo above, though I think it may have been taken before I was born. He retired early in the mid-1970s for health reasons, and ended up working part-time to help make ends meet. He did a variety of jobs, some of which he must secretly have hated, but he remained positive about them when talking with me. I was in high school and university in those years.

As a church pastor, my dad had a lot of things to tend to. Being a pastor is like being the CEO of a company, and my dad’s “company” was fairly large when I was a kid, and it faced the same problems and challenges as a for-profit company, such as, balancing budgets, staffing, maintenance of buildings and infrastructure. Money for many churches was in short supply, and this was a major worry for my dad.

But he also had to tend to the congregation, visiting people in hospitals, or in their homes, performing baptisms, weddings, and funerals, leading two (or more) services every Sunday, teaching older kids to prepare them for Confirmation. And, he had to be available to counsel anyone at a moment’s notice.

There was the time a man was suicidal, so my dad took his shotgun away from him and stored it at our house. I know this because my mother told me about many years later, and because I found the shotgun in my dad’s closet one year when I was snooping for Christmas presents (I was smart enough to know that it was real and not to fool around with it; I never said a word about that).

Obviously, it wasn’t all dour or dire. For example, one time a couple was at the church, wedding about to begin, and my dad checked their license. It was issued in Cook County. “We were shopping in Chicago one day and decided to get it,” they told my dad. This was a problem: The church was located in a different county and the license wasn’t valid (a stupid system, but I digress).

So, my dad phoned a parishioner who lived in Cook County, which was nearby. “Are you busy at the moment?” he asked the woman. “Oh, just vacuuming,” she said. “Okay—would you mind if we had a wedding in your living room?” And that’s what they did: Held the church wedding as planned, then dashed off to the lady’s house for a quick official ceremony, and the couple could then get back to their reception.

My dad loved telling stories like that, and always said he was going to write a book about his experiences, though he never did. He loved telling jokes, too, and some of them may have been a bit racy, a few I now know were racist, but most were just kind of silly. My dad loved to laugh, and he was really good at telling stories, so jokes were a natural combination for him.

The fact he could laugh was a bit of a surprise.

My dad was the youngest of four children, and the son of a Lutheran minister. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was quite small. His dad (my grandfather) used to take him and his three siblings to play on the lawn of the TB sanatorium so that their mother could watch them through the windows. I never knew what, if anything, he remembered from that time.

His dad remarried, and his stepmother was a fairly stern, sometimes dour lady—but who also liked to laugh. I had a lot of sympathy for her, not just because she was taking on four kids and a preacher husband, but mostly because when they were married, my grandfather said to her, “I’ll marry you, but I’ll always love” his first wife. My mother told me that, too, because my dad didn’t talk about any of that with me.

His stepmother had some odd traits. Quite short, she sawed off the legs of their antique furniture so they fit her frame better. She forbade the reading of the “funny papers” (newspaper comics) on Sundays. When my dad went away to university, she moved his bedroom up into the attic so she could use his room. He claimed he loved it, more privacy or something, but my mother—who told me this story, too—never really believed him. Still, he may have been sincere: His stepmother was probably the only mother he ever knew.

That’s my dad. That’s the man I knew and think of all the time. But, like everyone else, he was so much more—and less—than that: He was human. I long ago forgave his faults, and also learned to appreciate his good points, and what I got from him.

For example, he was absolutely the best preacher I’ve ever heard in my life. In fact, I’ve never heard any preacher who could hold a candle to him: No matter how famous they were or how much money they made from preaching, my dad was better than them all. I modelled my own meagre efforts at public speaking on what I heard him do, and to this day at least some of my efforts in podcasting and video narration are directly attributable to him and what I absorbed from listening to him. I just wish his sermons had been recorded.

He had a keen and analytical mind, and was unafraid to examine his own assumptions, especially in later years. He could be moved in his opinions, and this is what I remember most: Toward the end of his life, we had full and frank discussions, even if we didn’t always share the same viewpoint. I still try to be like that, and sometimes I even succeed.

And yet, I wonder sometimes what life might have been like if the dad I had for the last five years of his life had been there throughout my life. We started to become friends in those final years—would an earlier start to that have mattered? Unlike my parents, I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I’ll never know. This life, as far as we can tell, is all we get.

So, I’m glad for what I got from my dad, the lessons learned, the values instilled. I am who I am, in part, because of my dad. It’s not just the genes, important as they were for creating me. What matters is that he was a good man who did his best and mostly succeeded. I never for one second doubted that he loved me, and he told me often in his final years. I hope I told him enough. Imperfect though he was, and even though he was a work in progress that was never completed, I owe him more than I can say or ever repay.

I loved my dad, respected him, and admired so much about him. I miss him terribly, even after all these years, and I know I always will. But it also makes me smile how he still just sort of “pops out” from time to time: It could be I find myself standing in a pose like he used to do, or maybe I say something he would have said, or maybe I repeat one of his silly jokes, whatever it is, it always makes me smile.

The tragedy in all this is that the story never got to the point where I wouldn’t ever forget to do a stupid blog post on his birthday. Maybe a few more years would have been enough—but we never get enough time, do we?

Happy 100th birthday, Dad. And, thanks.


Sunday Quiet (2009) – What Sundays were like when I was a kid
Like father, like son (2009) – A reflective post about sons imitating their dads and the freedom my dad gave me
Easter (2009) – Where I talk about my dad’s stage management
Good Friday Flashback (2011) – More about his stage management, with a photo
Arthur Answers Again, Part Two – Religion questions (2013) – I talk about being a preacher’s kid
AAA-14 Answer 7 – Loss and memes (2014) – I talk about the death of my parents
New Year’s Eve 2014 – In which I talk about one of my favourite memories of my dad

Photo challenge: Day 4 of 7

The photo above required a different sort of technique than the others so far. This is the fourth of seven daily “nature” photographs, and I said about it:
"Above". This photo is of taro plants that are growing wild next to our house. They're actually a weed, but I like their tropical look. The corms are edible, though I don't like it. The plants are growing about a storey below the level of our deck, so shooting from above was the best option.
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) grows wild in much of New Zealand, the northern parts in particular, and these plants arrived all on their own—somehow. They especially like damp soil, like around streams and rivers, and where they’re growing is near a partly natural drain (that leads to a creek, and, eventually, to the sea), so the soil is often damp. But they’re hardier than that.

Taro’s corms (thickened underground stems), leaves, and petioles (leaf stems) are all edible, but the leaves must be prepared properly or they can be toxic (due to high oxalic acid in them). Apparently eating foods high in calcium at the same time helps prevent any damage (like kidney stones…). In 2003-2010, taro was the ninth most common plant about which people rang the poison hotline in New Zealand (the things the Internet tell us!). Despite the apparent risks, taro is thought to be among the earliest cultivate plants.

Yeah, not the sort of thing I’d eat, though I did try a Fijian dish made with taro once and didn’t like it at all. I just like the tropical look of it, and it helps suppress other weeds, which is good, since the place they’re growing at our house is hard to get to.

As I said when I posted this photo, the deck is about two storeys up at the point. So, I needed a little ingenuity to get this shot.

First, I took the phone holder off my selfie stick. It has a universal camera mount, which means I can attach it to a tripod or, in this case, my monopod (basically, a telescoping stick with a camera mount at one end and used to steady a camera for quick shots. Mine is fairly low end, but it’s been very handy.

To take the photo, I needed to use the timer: I put the phone in the selfie-stick holder on my monopod, hit the “shutter” button with a 10-second timer, and lowered it down to above the plants, and waited to hear the shutter sound. As usual, I did this several times to get a photo I liked.

So, basically, I used a pole to extend my reach and also the timer to take the photo so I had time to lower my phone down to take the shot.

All of the “techniques” I’ve used on these photos so far are really common, which figures: I’m just an amateur photographer, so I make do with what I have available. I’m sure a professional photographer with better equipment, or just more experience, could take some amazing photos, even with a phone. I’m just happy to have a little fun and to try and meet a challenge.

Mostly, though, it’s about having a bit of creative fun. I suppose in this case, I was kind of playing with food, though.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Photo challenge: Day 3 of 7

The photo above is the third of seven daily “nature” photographs. I said of it:
"Under". This is the underside of an agave in our front garden. More diligent gardeners remove the dead stuff, but I'm not diligent, which is fortunate, because it gave me a photo. See? They were wrong: Sometimes laziness pays off!
Agave grows really well in Auckland, and there are several around our house and our neighbours’ houses. This specific variety is Agave attenuata, and it can get pretty big. The photo below is a long shot, showing the site of the photo in its context.

For this photo, I needed to increase the lighting a bit, but I didn’t want to use the flash because of its harsh and unnatural light. So, I rolled out some scrap flooring underlay I had, which is white on one side and silvery on the other. The silvery side is kind of harshly reflective, but the white side gives a softer reflected light, and that that’s the side I used.

I positioned it so the sun would shine on it to maximise the reflected light, and then I took the photo with no additional lighting. In the photo below, taken at roughly the same time of day as the photo up top, it’s possible to see how dark the underside of the agave would have been otherwise.

I’ve often used white paper to reflect light for close-ups of things I was photographing for this blog, of when I’ve been copying photographs (which is literally taking a photo of a photo). However, reflected light like this is usually quite soft, and it doesn’t work for everything. For example, some close-ups and even portraits may require a stronger light (there are plenty of ways to do that, but they’re not relevant to these photos, though this may come up again another time).

The larger point here is there are ways to improve photos that don’t require using Photoshop or other image manipulation software (though sometimes that’s needed, too). As always, it’s a bit of trial and error, and, as usual, I took several different photos and used the one I liked best.

I guess you could say agave this photo a little more effort. You’re welcome.

‪What makes a good life‬

If you ask people “‪What makes a good life‬‬?”, the answers will be varied. There will be differences based on all sorts of things, like age, class, race, religious views, political ideology—the list is endless. But if we put all those particular viewpoints to one side, we all know what the correct answer is.

The video above (shared on Facebook yesterday by an old friend) is of a TEDx Talk given by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, who’s the director of the longest longitudinal life study ever done. For 75 years, Harvard has studied the adult development of men (and, later, women). All those decades of data have given them a unique opportunity to work out what it takes to have a fulfilling and long life.

This isn’t a spoiler, because we all know the answer: Relationships.

The study found that loneliness is toxic, producing worse outcomes and shorter lives. On the other hand, those who have good relationships with other people—family and community—are those who do the best for the longest.

This has been solid advice for millennia, and it’s something we all know to be true without even having to think about it. So, it’s kind of astounding that we need a Harvard psychiatrist to point out the obvious. But, as he says in the talk, we all want a quick fix to make us happy, and relationships are both time consuming and a lot of work.

Clearly, they’re worth it.

This has implications for making the world a better place, as most of us want to do. It begins with recognising we’re all connected, one way or another, and that even our adversaries should never be dehumanised: That road leads to fights and wars, and serves no one well, least of all ourselves. Relationships are just as critical for moving society forward to one that’s more just and fair as they are for our own wellbeing.

Harvey Milk used to talk of the “us-es”, and he was right. When we treat those we disagree with as being just “them” or “those people” human connection and relationship is impossible. As I often say, hatred is easy in the third person, much harder in the second, and almost impossible in the first.

What makes a good life‬? We all do—together.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Photo challenge: Day 2 of 7

The photo above, like the one I posted yesterday, is one I planned to take. I have one more planned photo, and then—I have no idea. Yet. That’s part of why it’s called a challenge.

When I posted this photo, I said:
This photo is called "Evicted". It's a paper wasp nest that was occupied until Friday, when a wasp stung me. I retaliated. There were no survivors. I left the nest there to make sure they were all gone, and they are, so now I can remove the nest, too. Small victories.
The story behind it is that the nest was built by Asian paper wasps, an introduced species of “social wasps”, which the Department of Conservation considers pests. I’d agree with them on that.

In the past, I’ve generally left the nests alone and the wasps leave at the end of summer. I hadn’t realised they were such a pest, and in the future I’ll get rid of nests when they first appear (when there are fewer of the little bastards to deal with…).

I killed the wasps only after I was stung—the first time, as far as I can remember, that I’ve ever been stung by anything. I was home alone, and because it was a first, I was briefly concerned about whether I might be allergic to the wasp’s venom; I’m not, it turned out, but it still hurt.

The nest was a little smaller than they can get, but was teeming with wasps when I retaliated, so my chosen method of annihilation—ordinary fly spray—was certainly not the best choice or idea. But their insect eyes couldn’t see me as well as I could dodge them, and the force of the spray leaving the can disrupted their attempts at flight. Nevertheless, I beat a hasty retreat.

I returned a little while later, found a few on the ground in their death throes and, um, euthanised them before spraying the nest again to get rid of the few survivors. Nothing moved around the nest since then except for ants who, I presume, were trying to get into the nest to eat the wasp eggs. Hey, it IS a nature photo!

The nest is now gone and that particular story is now over.

This photo is an example of how I approach taking these photos: I try to take them from an interesting angle, not just straight on. The photo I posted yesterday was a low angle, basically level with the plant, and the one up top was taken from above. I wanted to show how the nest was attached to the fence post because to me it looks like tree roots.

For each photo—and this is true generally, not just for this challenge—I take several photos from different angles, and sometimes different times of the day (for different lighting), and then I pick the one I like best. With digital cameras, there’s no reason NOT to experiment!

I’m also enjoying using my phone to practice taking photos. I always have it with me, and it’s a really easy to use and unobtrusive way to take photos. I have better cameras for higher-end photos and video, but I actually love using just my phone and trying to get the best possible photo. That’s not just practice—it’s a challenge in itself.

So far, the experimenting has been fun—for me, anyway. The wasps may beg to differ.

Small parts of the stories

Just as I share things I run across that don’t make it to their own blog posts, sometimes I also post small updates to various things I’ve talked about. And, just as with the “Internet Wading” posts, these small updates are about things I might not mention otherwise, even if they can be necessary to fill the gaps in ongoing stories.

Repair Shop II

Yesterday I went to the dentist to have a small chip repaired in a front tooth. As I said after my last visit to the dentist, the chip was very old—easily 50 years, give or take. The results were good, and makes the gap and dropped tooth look not quite as bad; I think that’s because the chip made the space look even larger. At any rate, it’s a small step in this whole “Tooth Tales” journey, but still important. And, the whole appointment was about 20 minutes, most of which was spent waiting for the anaesthetic to take effect.

Living and dyeing

I’ve long said that there will come a time when colouring my hair will be “more than faintly ridiculous”; I may be reaching that point. I always thought it would be changes to my skin tone as I got older, but it turns out to be my hair itself.

Grey hair is coarser than normal hair and, apparently, more resistant to colouring. My head hair accepts dye, more or less, but my beard, which is where most of my grey hair is at the moment—is resisting. Beard hair is coarser than head hair already, of course, so the resistance of the grey hairs is understandable.

When I first noticed that some of the grey wasn’t being coloured as well, I switched to a lighter dye colour, reasoning that the poor coverage may not be as noticeable against a lighter colour. It turns out, I was wrong: The areas that still have colour take the dye well, the areas that are mostly grey, don’t, leaving me a bit two-toned-ish. There are scary-sounding methods for softening stubborn hair involving peroxide developers (not going to happen…) among other things, but the simplest solution long term may just be to stop.

• • •

Those are just a couple small updates to things I’ve talked about in the past, and will talk about again, no doubt. If I hadn’t done this update, I’m sure down the road I’d have thought I talked about them, anyway. At least now I actually have.

Monday, February 22, 2016

A photo challenge

Aside from memes, social media is also awash in challenges of one sort or another. Some are serious, and maybe even useful (like some sort of fitness challenge), others are just for fun. I’m taking part in one of the "just for fun" ones.

A friend “nominated” me on Facebook to do a photo challenge in which the object is to post one nature-related photo every day for seven days. To make it more interesting and challenging for me, I decided to limit it to only photos I take with my phone, and also only things around my house. The first part is easy, the second, maybe not as much.

I post the photos on my Instagram, and from there the photos are shared to my personal Facebook and to my Flickr photostream. However, I thought I’d go one step further and share the photos here, too, and tell the story behind them—similar to what I do with my YouTube videos.

I took the photo up top yesterday. I called it “Persistence” because it depicts weeds pushing up through the boards in our deck (which itself has been in two of my YouTube videos so far). I have no idea what it is, exactly, but it doesn’t really matter: A weed is any plant growing where it’s not wanted. “A rose is a weed in a tomato patch,” my mother often said, sometimes changing the flower or vegetable.

This particular weed, whatever it is, is itself a persistent thing, and is always popping up. It’s difficult to pull out even when it’s accessible (the leaves strip off, while the stem and roots resist being pulled out), but when it grows up between the deck boards like this, as it does every year somewhere in the decked area, it’s especially frustrating.

Weedkiller would work, but I don’t use that where the furbabies hang around. So, I pull out what I can, then pour boiling water on what's left. That usually works if the plant is small, but if it isn’t, it just sends up a new stem. Like I said: It’s persistent.

Still, I’ll eventually get the thing, one way or another, and this photo will be the only record that it was ever there. Which is kind of the whole point of photos, and challenges like this one, after all.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Internet Wading for February 21

Statue of Julian of Norwich
There are a lot of things I see on the Internet that interest me, but that I don’t write about on this blog, for whatever reason. Once a month, I gather together some of those things that I thought were interesting, but that never became blog posts. So, let’s get started with this month’s typically varied collection—some history, some graphic arts and creativity, pop culture—but no politics, oddly enough.

First up this month, for no particular reason, Atlas Obscura told the story of “The Rebel Virgins And Desert Mothers Who Have Been Written Out Of Christianity's Early History”. It’s a long piece about early Christian women who were both as odd as some of the early Christian men, but also oddly fascinating. For me, it’s always fun learning about forgotten history.

In December, they also published a story about a medieval “anchorite”, a female Christian mystic, who was known as Julian of Norwich (pictured), though her real name has been lost. Walled up in a church, as was a fad at the time, this 14th century mystic wrote what is believed to be the first book in English attributed to a female author, Revelations of Divine Love, about her visions.

Speaking of writing, Charles O’Meara published “I’m old but I can write” on Medium, and takes younger writers—and their readers—to task for, well, a lot of things, actually. But, points to Medium for publishing a piece critical of itself.

Also on writing, something relevant to anyone writing online, including bloggers: “No one cares if I write,” Jennifer Garam begins in a piece on her personal site. In the piece, “How To Keep Writing When No One Gives A Shit”, she lays out the struggles a lot of writers face in an online world dominated by all sorts of information gathering about readers and their habits. She concludes with a sentiment I share:
When you write something, you never know who it is going to affect, or how it could help someone who’s struggling and feeling alone, or how in a low moment in their life, desperately searching on Google for answers, they will come upon your words when they need them most. And despite what our culture will have us believe—that metrics and stats matter above all else, that the number of clicks tells the whole story—somehow, in some calculation, impacting one human being has got to be worth more than all the unique page views and Shares and Likes in the world.
And speaking of social media metrics, MIT Technology Review published “The Social-Network Illusion That Tricks Your Mind”, in which, as they put it, “Network scientists have discovered how social networks can create the illusion that something is common when it is actually rare.” It explains a lot about why it sometimes SEEMS like everyone feels a certain way about something when it’s not actually true. This is something political activists in particular should heed (our nephew shared this one online—one of the few things I’m including this month where I know how I found it).

And a merger of social media and graphics things was in something I rediscovered recently: “Idiotic Hipsters Complain About The Font Of ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Protest Shirts”. Because, Comic Sans. Look, I know it’s not a pretty font, but I simply can’t understand why some designers seem to hate it with unbridled passion. Seems like a monumental waste of energy and passion to me (and entirely beside the point of the shirts, of course, and that’s as close to political as I get in this post).

More humorously I ran across, “Logo Design Gone Wrong: 10 Offbeat Examples” and (even though both have some of the same images) “15 Images That Show Why Letter-Spacing Is Important”. Both show things far funnier than the temerity of those using Comic Sans.

Roger Green (from whom I stole borrowed the idea for these amalgamation posts) has been writing about “The Black Comic Book” (part one is here, and part two is here). The comics are parodies of well-known comics using black people in place of the familiar white characters. It’s not just parody and satire, though—it’s also social commentary, and Roger’s comments clarify them and their place in history from today’s perspective.

“What if Tim Burton directed all Disney classic movies?” That’s the premise of a project by Russian-born, Los Angeles-based artist and animator, Andrew Tarusov, who imagines Disney movies as if they were directed by Tim Burton.

And in music: “ELO's Jeff Lynne: My Life in 15 Songs” in which Electric Light Orchestra's frontman talks about the songs he wrote for ELO and others, including George Harrison and Roy Orbison, and a bit about the studio work behind them.

‪That’s enough for this month. I’ve been wading so long my skin’s getting pruney.

The photo above, “Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC” is by rocketjohn [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The disappointing clown leaves

Today, after a dismal showing in South Carolina, former Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush dropped out of the campaign for the Republican nomination for president. With the way the campaign played out, this was no surprise, but seven or eight months ago, most would never have seen this coming.

Bush entered the race in June with a massive lead in fundraising, and immediately chose to be called just “Jeb!”. Like a lot of people, I mocked him for that, referring to him later on as “Jeb! (just don’t say) Bush”. Back in June, I highlighted why he might want to run away from the name Bush, but to the Republicans who still get misty-eyed over the Bush-Cheney regime, it must’ve seemed like an insult.

But his silly campaign name isn’t the only thing that did him in (though it's a symbol).

First, and most obviously, none of the pundits picked up on the rabid anti-Washington mood among the Republican Party’s most frothing base. Bush, for all his many, many faults, simply isn’t as nasty as either Cruz or Trump, nor unquestionably a religiously extremist like Cruz, Rubio, and Carson. What did he have to offer the Republican base?

His best hope was selling himself to younger Republicans, who are not extremists or theocrats like their elders. But, as I also pointed out last June, “Voters who turn 18 by election Day 2016 were four years old the last time Jeb (just don’t say) Bush ran for anything.” This gets to the core of his second problem: His own campaign was incompetent, unable to organise a piss-up in a brewery, as Kiwis put it.

Bush, despite his huge advantage in money at the beginning, steadily lost the ability to raise big bucks—so much so, that if he’d kept going, he’d eventually run out of money completely. Well, at least his massive (but pointless) campaign spending helped fuel the economies of some states.

The Bush campaign reinforced the shallowness of the USA’s political punditocracy—empty-headed puffed-up ideologues who proclaim things to be true simply because they want them to be so. Pundits aligned with both parties once proclaimed that Bush and Clinton were shoe-ins for the their parties’ nominations. The Republican pundits went on to declare that Bush would win the November contest they predicted, and the Democratic pundits obviously saw such that match-up rather differently.

Things look very different now. The Republican contest has come down to Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, all of whom are flat-out nuts. Pundits are now saying that with Bush out of the race, the Republican elites and establishment will coalesce around Rubio, since they deeply despise both Cruz and Trump. However, the pundits’ track record on predicting anything correctly has been terrible this year, so there’s no reason to think they’re right. John Kasich may pick up Bush’s small support, which would lift him all the way up to fourth place! Ironically, he’s probably the only candidate who might have a shot of doing well in November, but he’s unlikely to make it that far.

We know for certain that Trump, Cruz, and Rubio will battle it out for weeks to come, and that if Kasich does pick up Bush’s support, he could hang on, too. However, the end of Ben Carson’s campaign can’t be far away.

This also ends the Bush Dynasty for now. Jeb’s kids (or, maybe just the one without the legal problems) may end up running for higher office one day, but by then no one will remember the dynasty or its players. I’m not even sure their family connections will matter very much by then.

And so ends the campaign of Jeb! (just don’t say) Bush, one of the biggest clowns candidates to tumble off the Republican Clown Bus. He turned out to be a huge disappointment to the elites and establishment of the Republican Party, who are now desperate for a candidate who can appeal to mainstream voters in November. However, their biggest disappointment will come when the party actually has its nominee. The Republican Party has no one to blame for that disaster but itself.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The forgotten clown has quit

A week ago, the former governor of Virginia, James Stuart "Jim" Gilmore III, quit the race for the Republican presidential nomination. As he stumbled off the Republican Clown Bus, he was greeted by a chorus of… silence.

I have absolutely no idea why Gilmore ever entered the race in the first place. As the 17th and final clown candidate, he had no shot at getting any of the money, staff, or endorsements that had already been soaked up. He was never even a long shot, something that was evident to me from the very beginning.

In fact, every time I’ve mentioned him it’s been a mixture of mocking condescension and amusement (like in a post from December), because I never took him seriously. At all.

The day before he dropped out, I wrote about the results of the New Hampshire Primary:
[Ben] Carson’s 2.3% places him so low that the other candidates will have to be careful they don’t trip over him lying on the floor. But—what about Jim Gilmore?! He was bunched with all the other nobodies still in the race, all of whom had dropped out or are truly fringe candidates, collectively getting an embarrassing 1.8% of the vote. So, what’s HE waiting for? Carson may be hoping for a divine miracle to save his campaign, but Gilmore? I doubt even that would be enough.
Clearly there was no divine intervention. His departure was so unnoticed that the Washington Post articled linked to above was written, not by the paper’s political reporters covering the Republican campaign, but by their local politics reporter. Ouch. Even in his departure he couldn’t get taken seriously as a candidate.

The only thing I got wrong about Gilmore’s campaign is that I said I thought he’d drop out before the first votes were cast—or did he? Gilmore got a mere 12 votes in the Iowa caucuses and 133 in the New Hampshire primary—fewer votes than were won by some candidates who had publicly dropped out.

I saw the news that Gilmore had quit the day after it was announced, and only in passing, because that was also the day that it was announced that Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was dead. So, on the day I might have written this post, he was upstaged yet again.

I almost feel sorry for Jim Gilmore—he never had even the remotest chance of winning the nomination, and his inglorious departure was inevitable. Yet, as I said way back in August, he was “just another radical right fundamentalist Christian—as if there weren’t already enough of them running for the Republican nomination…” And that’s why I don’t actually feel sorry for him—at all.

But, at least there’s one less Republican clown to keep track of. That’s a good thing.

Sick politics

Workers in the USA, like those in much of the developed world, don’t have an easy time of it. Economic issues, such as slow wage growth, and the growing gap between those paid the most and those paid the least, get most of the attention. But the USA has other shortcomings, as Vermont has just reminded everyone.

The graphic above was shared on Facebook by ThinkProgress, celebrating that the State of Vermont had just passed legislation giving most workers three days of sick leave—THREE DAYS!—beginning in 2017 and 2018, and going up to five days three years later. “It's a good day to be a Vermonter,” they said.


According to ThinkProgress, the bill covers all employers, but “exempts employees who work less than 18 hours a week or 21 weeks a year, those under the age of 18, and some classes such as seasonal workers and substitute teachers.” In other words, some of the most vulnerable workers will still have no paid sick leave and will have to come into work while they’re sick, or stay home and go without any pay.

The Vermont law, despite the slow implementation and bad carve-outs, is still better than nothing, which is what 40% of American workers have, according to a paper published this month by the Institute for Women's Policy Research:
…40 percent, or over 51 million workers, lack access to paid sick days in their current job. Across racial and ethnic groups, Hispanic workers are much less likely to have paid sick days than non-Hispanic white, Asian, or black workers. Less than half of Hispanic workers (46 percent) in the United States have access to paid sick days… compared with 60 percent of workers overall. Hispanic workers tend to be overrepresented in occupations with low paid sick days access, such as in the service sector.
Vermont is only the fifth state to enact a statewide sick leave entitlement, and the 29th jurisdiction overall (most of the laws are at the city level), as shown in the ThinkProgress graphic below (click to enlarge). Until 2006, there were NO laws in the USA mandating sick leave for workers!

In New Zealand, most workers are entitled to five days sick leave after six months of employment, with an additional five added every 12 months. Unused days carry over to the next year, up to a maximum of 20 days (though individual employment agreements can specify more days per year and higher accumulation limit). Employers are allowed to request proof of illness/injury, but if it’s within the first three days, they must pay the reasonable expenses in getting that proof (this could mean paying the consultation fee of the worker’s doctor, or sending them to a doctor paid by the company).

Employers in the USA sometimes think of providing sick leave as an unnecessary cost, particularly when it’s applied to low-wage workers. If such employers offer the benefit at all, it’s sometimes just to higher-wage workers, especially those considered more critical to the business, or as a means of attracting top talent. Whether this is sort-sighted or good management is a debatable point, but it’s clearly in society’s interest to have mandatory sick leave entitlement for the lowest paid workers. As ThinkProgress put it in their commentary on the IWPR report:
…those who make the lowest incomes and are therefore the least able to take an unpaid day off when they get sick are the least likely to get paid sick leave. Many workers whose professions put them in direct contact with the public, such as personal care providers and food service workers, are also among the least likely to be able to stay home when they’re sick.
Because of this, when there’s an outbreak of a communicable disease in the USA, otherwise healthy members of the general public are put at risk of infection merely because sick low-paid workers can’t afford to take a day off to get better. Add to that the high risk to vulnerable people—children and the elderly in particular—and the lack of mandatory sick leave may be deadly for far more people than just those who lack the entitlement.

Vermont’s law is an important step in the right direction, but it’s only a step. Congress should follow the other countries in the OECD and pass mandatory requirements for sick leave, as well as annual leave including public holidays. That can’t happen in the current Congress, of course, but the need is still there.

The fact that this STILL needs to be acted on in the USA—in the 21st century!—is enough to make anyone feel sick.

Credit: Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Illinois Primary

The Illinois Primary will be held on March 15, and this year it might actually matter, which is the point of the video above. The primary will be just two weeks after “Super Tuesday”, and if the race remains tight, Illinois may see some campaigning. That’s good news.

Illinois will select 156 committed delegates on March 15, and when combined with the other states selecting delegates that day (Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio), a total of 691 pledged delegates will be selected. That works out to about 17% of all the pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

On Super Tuesday, Democrats will select 812 pledged delegates, or around 20% of all the delegates—not all that far ahead of “Little Super Tuesday”, as we could call March 15. A further 319 pledged delegates will be selected between March 1 and March 15, meaning 1822 pledged delegates will be selected in the first two weeks of March, or about 45% of all the delegates. March is clearly an important month.

A couple points about those numbers: They refer only to delegates committed to a candidate, and doesn’t include officially uncommitted delegates, usually so-called “Super Delegates”. In addition, I couldn’t find any specific delegate counts by date, and had to add them up myself from numbers listed on the Wikipedia article, “Democratic Party presidential primaries, 2016”. However, arithmetic is NOT my strong suit, so if you happen to double check me and find an error, please feel free to let me know in the comments.

Illinois is generally classed as an open primary, because voters can vote in any party primary being held on the day. In Illinois, unlike some other states, voters don’t declare a party preference when registering to vote. However, voters do need to publicly request the ballot of a party, so I’d call Illinois’ a “mostly open” primary.

The way the primary is conducted is stupid. Voters choose who they want to be their party’s nominee in what is derisively called a “beauty contest”. That’s because it’s nothing but a taxpayer-funded opinion poll of those voting in the primary—good for PR value, probably, maybe it’s even a psychological boost, but nothing else. Instead, voters vote for committed delegates running in their Congressional District.

In my Congressional District, there are 7 delegates to be selected, but candidates can slate more than seven (Sanders has 8). However, not all candidates, especially minor candidates, are able to mount a full slate of delegate candidates in all Congressional Districts. For example, in my Congressional District Martin O’Malley has only one delegate candidate (he withdrew too late to be removed from the ballot). So, it’s possible for a candidate to win the “beauty contest”, but come in way behind in delegates elected. This is just plain nuts and should be changed (and reform is a topic in itself).

I personally know two of the delegate candidates—one for Clinton and one for Sanders. I like them both, too. I’ve at least heard of two more of Clinton’s delegate candidates, and none of Sanders’. However, most people vote for all of the delegates committed to their preferred candidate, and don’t pay attention to who, specifically, is running. I’m still undecided about who I’ll vote for in the “beauty contest”, and so, their delegates, but I may vote for one delegate for whoever the other candidate ends up being, just because I know him. I know, I know: I’m such a rebel.

Putting the silliness of the way in which the Illinois Primary is held aside, the fact that its results may actually matter is good news for the state and region (since Missouri and Ohio are the same day). Sure, there’s the attention the state gets, and some media dollars and other campaign expenditures thrown its way, but the real benefit is that Illinois voters will be able to evaluate candidates more closely than they usually get to do. That’s why all this is a good thing.

The video up top features Dr. John S. Jackson, Visiting Professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Dr. Jackson was one of my political science professors when I was an undergraduate at SIU, and one of the best I had. He later became the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, which is the last time I saw him, and a few other positions before becoming the 17th Chancellor of SIU later still. He’s obviously much older than my mental image, but it was great to see he’s still working in the field.

Now, all I have to do is make up my mind and vote.

The video above is from WSIL-TV in Southern Illinois 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

AmeriNZ Podcast 316 now available

A new AmeriNZ Podcast episode, “AmeriNZ 316 – Vampires” is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast.

Needed to go

This week has had a great start: Faced some fears, took care of some business, and even had a chance to make some (literal) toilet humour jokes. Who could ask for more? A warning, though: This post will contain some words that may bother more sensitive readers.

I went to the doctor Monday, the first time in nearly two years. Part of that meant getting a full range of bloodtests, so after fasting all night, yesterday I went to the phlebotomist—such a lovely job title! I call them vampires, since they take your blood.

As she was drawing the blood, she asked if I had a urine sample for her—it was the first I’d heard of it (the doctor didn’t mention it). The phlebotomist asked if I could leave on then, but my first thought, as I said on Facebook, was, “after fasting like 13 hours, how, exactly was THAT going to happen?” She basically said as much just then, in answer to her own question.

So, she gave me a kit to do the collection at home, and it came complete with a rubber-topped vial for the sample, a square tray sort of thing to collect the sample, and a sturdy plastic zip-top bag emblazoned with “Biohazzard” and the symbol.

There was also a slip of paper telling me how to label the tube, and I found it very hard to do: The vial is curved, of course, and the space is extremely small, and what I wrote ended up looing like I was in my late 80s. Or, so I imagined.

But it was the actual instructions on how to collect the sample that gave me pause. They were incredibly silly, and clearly needed a sensible re-write. There were sections with instructions for females, pregnant women (not pregnant females?), males, and “small children”. I didn’t read the instructions for ladies (that’d be rude!), or anything else that didn’t apply to me.

Here are the instructions verbatim, along with my snarky reactions, starting with the three general instructions up top of the sheet:

1. Ensure full first name and last names and date of birth are clearly written on the specimen tube ¬– okay, not much room on that tiny label, but…

2. Ensure date and time of collection is written on the form and collection tube –the separate piece of paper didn’t mention the form, just the tube, which is where I wrote the info; there was way too little room to write all that “legibly”.

3. It is important to take your urine sample to the nearest Labtests collection centre as soon as possible (within 2 hours); if there is a delay, please keep the urine in the fridge – wait, what?! Never saw that, either, but I got it there in like 15 minutes; had I seen that instruction, I’d have had it there in five.

Then, the main instructions for us boys:
  1. Wash hands – Shouldn’t this also be number 10?!
  2. Pull foreskin back (if applicable) – If not applicable, there’s nothing to pull back…
  3. Have urine container ready – Wouldn’t all this be pointless if it wasn’t?
  4. Pass a small amount of urine into toilet and do not collect any of the first part of the urine – Okay…
  5. Pass a small part of the urine into the container (so the middle part if urine is collected) – How, exactly, is one to determine when the “middle part” is happening?
  6. Pass remaining urine into toilet – As opposed to where, precisely?
  7. Put foreskin back in place – It must be “put back”? Sheesh, I never knew the extra work I don’t have to do!
  8. Pull top off urine tube – Um, can’t pour it in otherwise?
  9. Pour urine from plastic container into tube and replace top – You mean, we don’t want it to leak out all over?
Now, I realise I’m being overly pedantic, but it just struck me as simplistic where it didn’t need to be, and vague where it shouldn’t have been. But, bigger labels would’ve been nice!

Anyway, I got the specimen returned, so I should be all set. When I was about to go, so to speak, I posted on Facebook: “Now I have to do the ‘collecting’ and take it back within the hour. No pressure!” I then asked, “once I drop it off, does that make the place a ‘pee lab’?” That pun may be too NZ-specific; in the USA such things are usually called “meth labs”, but, as I said to a friend of mine, “in the USA… my pun would be flushed away.”

That was all just a start. I added a comment when I was back home:
Since I'm sure everyone was worried: Everything came out okay. So to speak. And, I realised after I posted the above I had TWO hours, not one, which took the performance pressure away. Still, the fact I was ready to go, and didn't piss away my time, meant that I was able to drop the sample off just before that hour's courier arrived, so the sample's not far behind the blood sample in the testing pipeline.

And, believe it or not, I think I'm out of toilet humour
Sadly, some of my Facebook friends didn’t believe me. I’m hurt. Well, secretly pleased, but hurt, too. No, really. So much so, I had to make a few more toilet-related puns on Facebook.

And that was my visit to the vampires. I just needed to go.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Flag Referendum 2: First ad – ‘It’s Time to Decide’

Above is first TV ad for the second (and final) NZ Flag Referendum. “The people of New Zealand have a unique opportunity to decide the future of our flag,” it says. The new ad is very similar to the ad for the first referendum, but, obviously, with only the two final designs and different narration.

I saw the ad on TV about a week ago, but it wasn’t posted on YouTube until February 10, and I didn't see that until this weekend—but then I forgot to share it here. There’s been a lot going on!

When I first saw the ad, I was a little disappointed. I don’t what I expected, but something different. Since then, however, I’ve thought about it and realised that keeping the ads similar is the best way to stay neutral, as this ad should be.

Still to come will be ads from the Electoral Commission promoting “register to vote” (I’m assuming they’ll run those), plus ads telling people how to vote, what the deadlines are, and so on. Basically, the same as for the first referendum, but updated.

I have no idea whether there will be any independent campaign ads; certainly I haven't head that any groups are saying they plan to advertise, but that doesn’t mean that none will, of course. With the current flag well out in front in the polls, I doubt that opponents of change will see any need to advertise. I also don't know that anyone feels strongly enough about changing the flag to organise—and pay for—an ad campaign. Maybe there will be newspaper ads, though I’m unlikely to see them unless someone shares them on social media.

Voting in the final Flag Referendum will be by postal ballot and conducted March 3 to 24.

I’m voting for change.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Don’t tell me not to be glad

Society tells us it’s impolite to celebrate someone’s death. No matter how bitter the enmity, and no matter how strong the adversarial relationship, we are to say only nice things, or, if we can’t manage that, remain completely silent. Screw that!

US Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died, and I won’t pretend to be the least bit sorry he’s gone from the court he polluted for three long decades. I would have been perfectly happy for him to simply retire, but he was never going to do that, so this was the only possible way to see him leave the court.

So—to be abundantly clear about this—I’m not actually celebrating his death, because that's something about which I couldn’t possibly care less. Instead, I’m celebrating the fact that he’s gone from the Supreme Court, because that I care very much about.

Scalia was the scourge of all fair-minded Americans. He was focused on imposing his personal views of what the eighteenth century authors of the US Constitution meant when they wrote it—even though he was often demonstrably wrong (like about the Second Amendment, for example, about which he flip-flopped). But that wasn’t all he cared about: He sought to impose his extremist rightwing religious views onto everyone, too.

As a rightwing Roman Catholic, Scalia was fervently anti-abortion. He believed that not only did women not have the constitutional right to abortion as affirmed in Roe v. Wade, he thought no government could grant that right.

Scalia was also rabidly anti-gay. He wrote angry, bitter, and even vicious dissents attacking the human and civil rights of gay Americans, and he often used deeply bigoted language to mount such attacks. He also compared being gay to murder because he believed both are “immoral”. What his votes on the Supreme Court mean is that he believed gay people should be put in prison for having sex, and same-gender couples should not have the exact same legal rights and protections that their married heterosexual friends and family members take for granted as a birthright.

So, I completely disagreed with Scalia’s politics: He was wrong on abortion, he was wrong on the Second Amendment (after he flip-flopped), he was wrong on gay people’s right to privacy, and he was wrong about marriage equality.

I also utterly reject the nonsense that he was a “brilliant”: The man promoted a weird view of the Constitution, one that was forever entombed in a time when black people were mere property, women had no rights whatsoever, and gay people belonged in prison or being executed. That bizarre way of thinking can be called many things, but “brilliant” is absolutely not one of them.

Practically before Scalia’s body was even cold, Republicans announced that they plan to play their typical partisan games, blocking any nominee put forward by President Obama. That would be an utter abdication of their duty under the Constitution, and incredibly stupid politics: It would ensure Democrats re-take the US Senate.

What annoys me most about the Republicans’ partisan political games is this: Do Republicans seriously expect us to believe that blocking any nominee, no matter how qualified or good, thereby refusing to do their duty, would be about ANYTHING other than purely partisan politics?! Do they seriously expect us to think their partisan political games are reasonable? REALLY?!

So, if this had happened in George W. Bush’s last year, Republicans would have been completely okay if Democrats had done what Republicans now plan to do? Because we all know damn well that if the roles were reversed, Republicans would NEVER agree to wait for the next president. Mitch McConnell and his cabal clearly think we’re all far too stupid to see what they’re up to: The same old stupid partisan political games they always play.

If Republicans’ games succeed, there could be a 4-4 split in Supreme Court decisions, which would mean that the lower court decision would stand, but no precedent would be set. It would be as if the Court had never even considered the cases [for more about cases this could affect, both Think Progress and also Vox have listed cases and what could happen].

So, I’m not the least bit sorry that Scalia is gone from the Supreme Court, even though it took his death to happen. After all, he could have chosen to leave by retiring, but he didn’t. The fact that he’s gone from the court is the only thing that matters.

There’s been some moralising on the centre and left, tut-tutting those of us who are glad Scalia’s gone. They scold us for an imagined lack of grace, and for being inhuman. Putting aside that Scalia himself was inhuman toward LGBT people like me, I think this sort of self-righteous preaching is na├»ve.

The very moment that news of Scalia’s death was announced, the rightwing went into overdrive promoting the virtual sainthood of Scalia, as if everything he did and said was nearly divine, beyond reproach or dissent. Put another way, the rightwing immediately set about the task of shaping and forming public discourse about Scalia, and what his image and legacy would be. By remaining silent, those of us who were adversaries and critics during his lifetime would be contributing to the political canonisation of a man who was, to us, the very opposite of a saint.

Scalia’s family knows all this, and they’re well used to it: As a public figure, Scalia constantly faced criticism, so it’s absurd to suggest that critics should now suddenly remain silent—at the very moment the rightwing is asserting theirs as the only correct opinion and view of the man and is career. It is our duty to proclaim our dissent and repeat out criticism.

So, don’t anyone dare to tell me not to be glad Scalia’s gone from the Court, because I am glad. It’s his death itself that I couldn’t possibly care less about.

Update: Writing on The Advocate, Neal Broverman says "Dear Straight People: We're Entitled to Our Feelings on Scalia". I concur.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The thing not mentioned

We all do things that we don’t bother to tell others about, things that seem unimportant or uninteresting, things that are personal, maybe even things we’re embarrassed about. But sometimes we don’t talk about things we’ve been doing, and we have no idea why we haven’t. Today’s is that sort of story.

On Monday, I mentioned that “I had some developments of my own—not news, exactly, except maybe to me. The thing is, if it was something I’d blog about, but never did, did that thing ever actually happen?” I was joking because I think it’s so funny that I didn’t mention it at all.

The end of March last year, I was elected (unopposed) the secretary of our local Labour Party committee, called a “Labour Electorate Committee” or LEC. The LECs exist to organise the Labour Party in electorates in preparation for the triennial nationwide elections. I remember debating with myself at the time about whether I should mention in on my blog or Facebook, and I decided not to so as not to give people the opportunity to assume that my opinions were party positions (they’re not necessarily, of course).

I don’t remember specifically what was going on at the time, but the urge to self-censorship won. Part of the reason for that is that, as is so often the case, once the topic cooled off, I lost interest in writing about it at all, so I never did.

The development is that on Monday I emailed the rest of the officers and most active volunteers to tell them that I wouldn’t stand again (for any position) at the LEC’s Annual General Meeting next month. I’d already told my closest friend in the group, and the chair, so this was making the news more widely known before I discussed it publicly.

Then—that was it. There was no response to the email from my colleagues, which, while not at all unusual, nevertheless reinforced for me that I’d made the right decision.

I decided to leave for one reason and one reason only: Party activity was taking up WAY too much of my time, energy and attention. Regular readers of this blog know how much I struggled to keep up with posts last year, and this is one of the reasons why that was. I want to blog regularly; I also want to podcast on a regular schedule, and this past year once a quarter was the best I could manage, once a month an impossible goal, and once a week? Heh.

And then along came my renewed interest in YouTube videos, and the constant conflicts for my time. When I get busy, I cut YouTube, then my podcast, then this blog. And it happened FAR too often.

The connection with Labour Party work is that I ended up with tasks and work to do simply because no one else stepped up to the plate. They’re all busy people, and have much to do, but I saw things that needed to be done, knew that if I didn’t do them nothing would happen, and I took on far more than I could safely handle. That’s my fault, and no one else’s: If I’m right that had I not done things nothing would have been done—and I am—then I should have allowed that to happen, whatever the consequence. But, I just couldn't do that.

What this means is that my problem was taking on too much, and that was frankly made worse by the poor organisation from head office in Wellington. On the whole, I have no problem with the party or its leadership: It’s the people they hired to do the work that have caused me problems.

My greatest trigger for gout attacks is stress, and because of all this stress from my political activity, I’ve had gout attacks of one sort or another for months—so much so that I haven’t even been able to deliver flyers that I normally would deliver (because I couldn’t walk).

So, when I can’t do the stuff I mentioned—blogging, podcasting, and videos—and when the thing blocking that also has caused me health problems, the only logical solution is to cut out that problem. And, I have.

I’ll say again for any mischief makers that this has NOTHING do to with the leadership of the party or its political direction, and has everything to do with my own inability to say no, to care less or not at all. I can’t fix everything, or even much, necessarily, so I’m simply removing myself from the stressful situation that’s, at least in part, of my own making.

And that’s the news I never mentioned, that had a development this week, and that remains something I’m not really comfortable talking about publicly even now. Still, I made the right decision, one that will help my health as well as my personal goals. That alone is proof that I was right.