Sunday, August 28, 2016

Political Notebook 3: The lesser of four evils

The US presidential campaign this year has been filled the bizarre, the unusual, and even the downright shocking. There hasn’t been a campaign like this in living memory—and there’s still about two and half months to go. But with the two main party candidates both carrying such high negatives, will it come down to a choice among the lesser of four evils?

I’ve always thought that the “voting for the lesser evil” phrase is one of the silliest political expressions. It’s VERY rare that the two candidates are truly equally bad, and no major party candidate has been literally evil. Hillary Clinton is nowhere even remotely as bad as Donald on any issue, despite all the propaganda to the contrary from some on the leftward side of Left. She’s also not “evil” (Donald probably isn’t evil either, though the jury may still out on that one…).

However, with both candidates deeply unpopular, that encourages the “lesser evils” hyperbole and exaggeration more than in most presidential campaigns. The reality is that both the minor party “alternative” candidates have views that will repel some voters.

According to the current (as of today) Real Clear Politics polling average, in a four-way contest Hillary Clinton is at 42% to Donald’s 38%—a four point lead. Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is in an extremely distant third place at 8.1%, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein is at an irrelevant 3.3%. Remove Stein from the race, and things are better for ALL the candidates: Hillary Clinton is at 42.6% to Donald’s 38.1% and Johnson brings up the rear at a better, but still distant, 8.7%. In this scenario, Hillary’s lead actually rises to 4.5%.

There are a lot of reasons for the terrible performance of Johnson and Stein, especially the fact that that Donald scares the hell out of rational voters and they know that Hillary Clinton is the only one who can stop him. But the supposed “alternative” candidates have their own baggage repelling voters.

Jill Stein has framed her campaign primarily as an ultra-leftist crusade against Hillary Clinton, often repeating the canard that there’s no difference between the two main party candidates. But, then, like Ralph Nader before her, she needs to stick to that line. It’s her other positions that are a concern.

The leftward side of Left can be every bit as irrational and anti-science as the far right is, just on different issues. For example, “Jill Stein Continues Pandering to Anti-Vaxxers”, something one would think a competent medical doctor wouldn’t do—unless politics demands abandoning reason, apparently. She’s been called “The liberal pseudo scientific demagogue”, though she might bristle most at being called a mere Liberal. Stein hailing Julian Assange as “a hero” after it was revealed he’d outed gay men and named male rape victims in brutally repressive Saudi Arabia, endangering their lives, also calls her judgment into question.

Johnson, meanwhile, has his own problems. He’s been both lauded and vilified by self-proclaimed libertarians, which isn’t surprising: As Rolling Stone noted recently, “voters of all political persuasions will find something objectionable” in Johnson’s positions, which are all over the map, ideologically speaking.

However, Johnson’s sampler-plate ideology is probably the best explanation for his staying power: Disaffected Republicans and even some Democrats can focus on only the things they like or don’t care about, ignoring the things they don’t like. And, he’s not as scary as Donald, of course.

My punditry

Given the negatives of all four candidates, Stein is and will remain a fringe candidate only for the most leftward side of Left. She doesn’t appeal to mainstream Democrats, and never has. At best, she might capture votes from the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, assuming they can be bothered to vote, but they’re a small number nationwide, and insignificant at the state level. Still, she might be extremely lucky and end the election with 1% or so of the popular vote. [Update: Stein received 1,457,216 votes, which represents 1.07%, so my prediction was pretty much spot-on]

Johnson, on the other hand, is still polling around 9%, and historically, support for third-party candidates doesn’t usually fall off dramatically from this point in the election campaign, as Five Thirty Eight pointed out. That means that, based on current polling, Johnson could end up with around 7% of the nationwide vote, which would be considered successful if most of it wasn’t just “anti” one candidate or the other. [Update: Johnson received 4,489,221 votes, which represents 3.28%, far less than polls suggested he might get]

The bottom line

Nothing has changed: The next US President will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald—neither Johnson nor Stein can win. At this point, it seems certain that Stein will again be irrelevant, and it’s unlikely that Johnson will “spoil” the outcome, though more polling will be needed to be certain about that last point.

But the biggest caveat in all of this is even truer this year than in any other: Everything will depend entirely on who bothers to vote. I’ll vote, of course.

Full Disclosure: I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton for US President.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A little good news

There’s always good news about, though we often miss it. From time to time it’s a good idea to take a moment and look for it, but sometimes, it comes to us.

The video above is one of the most recent in the Vlog Brothers series by John Green. It was posted last Wednesday (NZ time), while I was in hospital. So, I missed it and the time, or I’d have shared it then. At any rate, it’s a lot of good news worth sharing (John lists his sources in the YouTube description).

Being a week or so old when I saw it, I might not have shared that video, but then some other recent good news stories I read made me realise they’d all be good to share.

A couple days ago, I read, “A gay couple in Natick [Massachusetts] was targeted. Here’s how the neighborhood responded.” The two things I found remarkable was that an entire neighbourhood rallied around their lesbian neighbours, yes, but more how UN-remarkable is was that they did so. 2016, folks: We ARE making progress.

Then there was the story I read this morning: “Orlando Health, Florida Hospital won't bill Pulse shooting victims”. Orlando Health President and CEO David Strong said:
"The pulse shooting was a horrendous tragedy for the victims, their families and our entire community. During this very trying time, many organizations, individuals and charities have reached out to Orlando Health to show their support. This is simply our way of paying that kindness forward."
This is pretty astounding, but even more so is the hospital’s pledge to help the victims who will need further surgeries.

And if all of that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is.

One week later

One week ago yesterday, I left the hospital, so that means that today marks one full week since that adventure. On the whole, it’s been a good week, and even the bits that weren’t ended up being good, too.

I’ve felt good ever since the procedure, with no angina or any other problems. The side effects of my new medication have mostly gone away, so, I’d be good to go.

The complicating factor has been the gout attack that began, really, a week ago today. It wasn’t too bad at first, became very bad on Saturday, good again on Sunday, bad on Monday, good Tuesday—and, to mix things up a bit—stayed good until Thursday.

Friday I went to see my doctor primarily to see if there’s a stronger pain reliever I could take, and there isn’t. NSAIDS like ibuprofen, which was part of my usual treatment for a gout attack, conflicts with my statin. Worse, anything else could cause bleeding, since I’m on blood thinners for six months or so. That means that paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) is all I can take.

The worst part of a gout attack for me isn’t just the pain, it’s that just before a big attack, and at the earliest stages, I feel like I’ve got the flu—feverish (even if I don’t have a fever), general achiness and feeling yucky (that’s a technical term). It’s very unpleasant.

Because of all that, the gout attack has forced me to rest, which is probably a good thing. Much as I’m keen to get on with things like exercise, if I didn’t have the gout attack, I may very well have tried to do too much. So, the gout attack, unpleasant as it has been, is actually a good thing because it slowed me down a bit to give my body a chance to recover from the previous week, and even to heal from the condition that’s been fixed.

The doctor wrote a repeat prescription for my new blood pressure medication, keeping the dosage where it is for a month. My reading was much lower than when I saw her the week before, though part of the reason for the higher reading back then may have been stress-related. At any rate, it’s on the right track.

Meanwhile, I’ve lost about 3kg (the better part of 7 pounds) since all this began, which is a good start. I’ve also found some Apps to help me track and monitor my exercise, but, obviously, I haven’t been able to start using them yet. When I do, I’ll talk about them in more detail, along with another App that is supposed to help people make healthier choices at the grocery store.

So, all in all, I’m making progress and I feel good. Naturally, even though the gout attack has been oddly helpful, I’ll still be glad when it’s over.

And that’s where I am one week later.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

AmeriNZ Podcast 321 is now available

A new AmeriNZ Podcast episode, “AmeriNZ 321 – Seasons” is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast.

This episode was recorded on Tuesday, but I couldn't post it until today due to major problems with the podcast site. The problems were kind of complicated, though ultimately simple to fix, but it took me two days to figure it out. And I think I have.

This is now the tenth season of the AmeriNZ Podcast, but that's not the only reason this episode is called "Seasons".

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

We just get better

The photo above is of me holding a copy of the bill I received when I left the hospital last week. The joke is that the paper is blank. The reason it’s a joke is that we don’t get a bill. Instead, we just get better.

Like most developed countries, New Zealand has a single-payer healthcare system, perhaps better known in the USA has “socialised medicine”. So, when we leave hospital, we get instructions, maybe some prescriptions, and that’s it: We do not get a bill, and we have nothing to pay for our hospital stay.

This is not to say that it’s “free”, however, because we pay for our healthcare through our taxes. We’re all well aware of this fact, and we all support this arrangement. Most New Zealanders don’t have any form of private health insurance mainly because we don’t need it.

Some Americans like to declare that a national healthcare system like New Zealand’s are “bad” because they “ration” healthcare. That’s utter nonsense, and I’m a typical example of why that is.

They say that because things like surgery are done according to need, that is, the sickest are treated first. That’s not a radical concept, and it’s one we support. But even most elective, non-urgent surgery gets done in a reasonably timely manner.

What happened to me is typical. I was seen by a doctor who determined there was a problem, then I was sent to the hospital where I was evaluated and treated and sent home all within four days. And, my case wasn’t urgent in the same sense as someone who had just had a heart attack. If the sort of “rationing” that American commentators claim exists actually existed, I’d have been sent home to wait for the procedures that, in fact, I received promptly. Our reality beats their fantasy every time.

I did some rough calculations of the costs my procedures in the USA. This was difficult to do because everything is listed as ranges. Moreover, it’s difficult to work out what “extras” might be charged for, like drugs dispensed, consumables uses in my angiogram, three consultations with cardiologists, two with cardiology staff, two with pharmacists, and one with a nurse who deals with after care.

Nevertheless, looking at what I could work out and using only the non-insured rates (since they more accurately reflected the costs), by a VERY conservative estimate I’d have had a bill for $US18,370, though it could easily have been five or more times that amount depending on things like location. At today’s exchange rates, that works out to NZ $25,130.16 at a bare minimum. Instead, I paid nothing directly.

There were charges that I do pay. First, I’ll be billed for the trip in the ambulance, which I believe is now about $100 (it’s going up and I don’t know the new price). If we’d made a family donation to St John, the ride would have been free. I also had to pay for the doctor’s visit (which is subsidised by the government) and also $30 (today about US$22) for the ECG performed there, though had it not been urgent, I could have had that done for free elsewhere, too.

My prescriptions were harder still to compare. Based on what I found on prescription price comparison sites, I worked out what seemed to be typical prices. They all added up to about US$83, which today would be about NZ$113. I actually paid $25 (today, a bit over US$18).

Many Americans have prescription plans in their health insurance, and we have something like that: A government agency, Pharmac, buys our most common prescriptions in bulk, negotiating the best price. The most important drugs are fully subsidised (also called "fully funded"), meaning there’s no direct cost to patients, and some are partly-subsidised, meaning there is a charge for the drug to cover the difference between the manufacturer’s price and the Pharmac partial subsidy.

In my case, all the drugs were fully subsidised, however, the chemist (pharmacy) charges $5 per drug processing fee. This fee, set by the Ministry of Health, is the same regardless of whether the prescription is for three months or one month, which is why most people get a three-month prescription at a time—it makes the cost of the medicine negligible.

So, I had extensive hospital treatment for which I received no bill, the ambulance is run by a charity and I will pay about $100 for that, and I had to pay some routine expenses at the doctor plus a dispensing fee at the chemist. All up, I’ll be out of pocket maybe a couple hundred dollars for what would cost—at a bare minimum—over $18,000 in the USA.

I know that many Americans would argue that because they have health insurance, they don’t pay the full amount. The truth, though, is that they do pay for healthcare through their insurance premiums, and their taxes also go to the healthcare industries one way or another, in addition to whatever they pay out of their own pockets. The difference is that in countries like New Zealand, it’s simpler, more direct, fairer, and you don’t have businesses doing nothing more that clipping the ticket as patients are being treated. By that measure, our healthcare system is vastly superior to that of the USA: It’s virtually impossible for a New Zealander to go bankrupt because they get sick or are injured.

As I think I’ve made abundantly clear, the quality of the care I received was outstanding. I cannot possibly compare it to the USA (or any other country) because I haven’t experienced healthcare in any other country in decades, nor hospital care since I was a child, and things have changed a fair bit since then. So when I talk about how great the healthcare I received was, it's a declarative, not comparative, statement. Even so, I bet it was at least the equal of anywhere in the USA.

We don’t have “free” healthcare in New Zealand—in fact no one does. But the way we pay for healthcare through our taxes, and the fact we don’t get a hospital bill, makes ours a fantastic system. I simply can’t imagine living any other way.

We don’t get a bill, we just get better.

Update: The bill for the ambulance arrived.

No one owns blue

A Phil Goff for Mayor sign on Waiheke [Facebook]
The USA isn’t the only country with people who do silly political things based on their political ideology, naiveté, or lack of information or clarity of thought. New Zealand has them, too, of course, but complaining about the colour used in political advertising is probably among the oddest examples of this.

A person filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over a billboard for Phil Goff, a candidate for Mayor of Auckland example above. The person wrote:
“I am complaining about the content of Phil Goff’s election billboard content, namely the use of blue to fill the billboards. To me this is passing off and trying to mislead voters who associate blue with national [sic].”
The Chair of the ASA, Heather Roy, a former MP for the rightwing Act Party, “acknowledged the Complainant’s view the use of the colour blue on an Auckland mayoral candidate’s billboard was misleading as it was associated with the National Party.”

After a convoluted review process that considered the rules, ethics, and the requirement in legislation to give political speech as much leeway as possible, Roy finally concluded, “the use of the colour blue in the advertisement before her was unlikely to mislead or deceive voters and the advertisement had been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility.”

Accordingly, the ASA ruled—correctly—that the signs were NOT in breach of the rules and there were no grounds to proceed.

As a graphic arts professional, I can’t help but look at the larger issue here: NO ONE owns the colour blue!

It was absurd in the extreme for the complainant to argue that the use of blue was “passing off and trying to mislead voters who associate blue with national [sic]”. Blue is a colour commonly used in advertising, and is meant to convey feelings of safety, intelligence, reassurance, and trust, among other things, which is why political parties, banks, financial and medical institutions all love using the colour so much. But the complainant’s assertion here was really that in New Zealand politics blue is associated with the National Party alone. Bollocks.

Parties contesting elections for the NZ Parliament do, indeed, have particular colours associated with them, but National isn't the only party to use blue. For example, the Colin Craig Conservative Party also used a lighter tint of blue. Others have used a shade or tint of blue, too, though not always as a dominant colour. It has frequently been used in campaigns for local government politicians of all political stripes.

Similarly, the blue that Goff is using is nowhere near the same shade of blue as National uses, so what the complainant was really suggesting was that all shades and tints of blue are the exclusive identity of the NZ National Party. Yet, I’ve already shown how that’s not true, that blue is used in political campaigns all the time.

The complainant’s suggestion that Goff’s use of blue was “trying to mislead voters who associate blue with national [sic]” is just plain stupid for another reason: Phil Goff was Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party 2008-11, and before that he served held various portfolios as a senior Minister in the Labour-led Government from 1999 to 2008. He’s been a Labour Party MP for all but three years from 1981 to the present. In sum, there is no way on earth that any New Zealander could ever in any way even remotely imaginable be “misled” into thinking Goff was anything other than Labour.

Roy correctly noted how unlikely it was that anyone could be confused about Goff's use of blue. She also noted that “the colour blue was strongly associated with Auckland City,” and she’s absolutely right about that, too: Shades and tints of blue have been part of Auckland signage, logos, and printed materials for decades, and are part of Auckland Council now.

I have no idea why the silly complaint was made—was it partisan pique? Political mischief? Sincere but woefully ill-informed opinion? It doesn’t matter. Whatever the motivation, the complaint was rejected, as it should have been. However, by making a complaint that was doomed to fail, and using specious arguments in the process, the complainant does look awfully silly.

Sometimes, complaints to the ASA are useful, particularly when companies make misleading claims about their products and services. This, however, was not one of those times, and it also won’t be the last such unhelpful complaint we’ll see.

We have plenty of people who will make even sillier and more pointless complaints.

Related: A PDF of the complaint is available from the ASA website [click to open the PDF]

Full disclosure: I support Phil Goff for Mayor of Auckland.

Photo credit: The photo above was posted to Phil Goff’s Facebook Page and is an example of the election signs he uses.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Internet Wading for August 2016

This month’s collection is about language and pop culture, two of my favourite things that aren’t politics. At least, not usually. As usual, a little history, science and creativity makes the mix, too.

When we talk about the evolution of the English language, Latin is an important part of the story. The video above tells us “What Latin Sounded Like – and how we know”. Decoding the evolution of languages is always a bit of a detective story, and the story in this video is no different.

“Proportional Pie Chart of the World’s Most Spoken Languages” tells us a bit about the state of languages on the planet, while “20 misused English words that make smart people look silly” shows that even native speakers can mess up (fewer v. less is one of my own pet peeves). And, while we’re trying to fix that, “Can’t quit saying ‘um’ and ‘ah’? Just learn how to use them better”. Sounds reasonable.

Speaking of Rome, “Pompeii: Incredible images, unprecedented detail laying bare their bones and have perfect teeth” tells us about discoveries made in examining the remains of some of the victims. The story includes this:
“So far, only around 100 of the victims have been captured in plaster. The total number of bodies to be found is approximately 1,150, and that’s with a third of the city left untouched by archaeologists.”
Also from the distant past, “10 Insane Stories That Didn’t Make It Into The Bible” shares stories that I’d mostly heard. Mind you, many of the stories that did make it into the bible are pretty “insane”…

Not related, exactly, “21 Signs That Story You're About To Share Is Secretly B.S.” can help people avoid sharing so much nonsense on social media—and what a wonderful thing that would be.

“Jack Davis, 'MAD' Magazine Cartoonist, Dies at 91”. Davis, who died July 27, was one of my favourite artists at MAD. Roger Green included him in one of his July “Rambling” posts, which are remarkably similar to these Internet Wading posts, almost as if I stole borrowed the idea or something.

Speaking of Roger Green, he wrote about visiting the Lucy Desi Museum in Jamestown, New York. He and the family did not, however, get to visit the statue of “Scary Lucy”. And, of course, “Lucille Ball's 'Scary Lucy' replacement statue unveiled”. And in the comments people criticised the new statue, too. Of course.

And finally this month, for no particular reason except it’s related to my profession, “7 Graphic Design Documentary You Should Be Watching”. Even I haven’t gotten through all of them yet.
• • •

That’s some of what caught my eye over the past month, things that didn’t make it into blog posts—and most wouldn’t have, of course. But that doesn’t make them any less interesting to me.

We all make plans

"But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep."
We  all make plans—long term, very long term, much shorter term, and sometimes much more immediate plans, like for later in the day. Sometimes all of those plans can be totally disrupted by good or bad things, and sometimes the disruption is both good and bad.

I was in hospital most of the past week due to a chain of events that ultimately saved my life. It meant I didn’t have the week I’d planned, but because of it all, I’ll have weeks yet to plan.

This all started, really, in February when I saw my doctor for a relatively routine check-up. She ordered routine blood tests, which showed somewhat high cholesterol, but not scarily high levels. But I also had high blood pressure, so she doctor put me on medication.

What followed was several weeks of feeling bad, profound fatigue and, later, angina, though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time—I just thought the pills were giving me indigestion. I complained to the doctor I saw (my usual doctor was on annual leave), and he said that I was a “naïve patient” because I’d never been on that class of drugs before, so it might take many weeks to settle down. It got mostly better eventually.

A couple months later, the doctor I saw (a third one) increased my dosage, since my BP still wasn’t low enough, and all the bad feelings I’d had returned. I gave it a month, but it just never got better.

So, feeling worse than I can ever remember feeling, I made an appointment with my actual doctor to see if maybe I could change to a different drug. That was this past Monday morning. I explained everything I’d been feeling, she listened, and—suspicious—ordered an ECG. Next thing I knew, I was in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

At this point, I still thought it was a bit over-the-top for dealing with a reaction to a prescription, but the Emergency Department doctor was concerned. He wanted me to have a treadmill stress test, but the earliest appointment was Thursday and, he said, “I don’t want to wait that long to get you tested.” So, he admitted me to hospital.

I had my test the following morning, and they stopped it only a few minutes in because of an abnormal reading in the ECG. After that, the cardiologist decided I needed an angiogram, which I’d have the next day.

The hospital performs around 20 angiograms a day, using two teams and two labs. Even so, there was no guarantee of when I’d been seen because someone in a more critical condition might come to hospital. The next morning, Wednesday, they told me it would be around 12:30pm.

At 10am, the nurse from the unit came to get me because they had an opening. It was a bit of a panic, but I got ready and off we went.

The procedure itself was not painful at all, apart from the needle they used to inject the local anaesthetic in my right wrist. My arm got a bit hot as they injected the dye, but that wasn’t horrible, either.

There were only two freaky parts. First, I could occasionally feel something moving around inside my upper arm and into my armpit. The other was that I could sometimes see the monitor they were looking at, and I could see my dyed arteries dancing around on the screen. That was surreal because I knew it was my heart, and yet, it was on a screen—it could also be a video.

They found a blockage, and placed a stent to open it and reinforce the walls of that artery. I was told it was a “significant blockage”, but the next day I found out it was 90% blocked. I’d had absolutely no idea.

What this means is that if my doctor hadn’t started everything in motion, it’s possible that sooner rather than later the artery would have blocked and I would’ve had a heart attack, and it could very well have been fatal. Again, I’d had absolutely no idea that was the case.

I’m now well on the mend, with new medication, some instructions for diet and exercise, and a new lease on life—kind of literally, really.

All of this came about because my doctor listened to me and investigated my complaints, but the reason I complained was because Nigel both nagged me and coached me. Without his support, I may not have pursued this, and there’s no way of knowing whether I’d have had another chance.

Already, only four days after the procedure, I can say that the profound fatigue I’d been experiencing for a very long time has gone. I haven’t yet experienced any more angina, and they said I may not, but they gave me medicine for that specifically. I feel pretty great, really, and have slept well and become more rested than in a very long time.

The main lesson I take from this story is to listen to one’s body, talk to the doctor about any concerns, and insist, if need be, on being listed to. Then, to be sure to follow doctors’ instructions. The other lessons, such as not taking life for granted, are ones we all know but sometimes need to be reminded of.

This all explains why I often struggled to blog regularly, or podcast more often, or continue making videos: Sometimes I was just too tired/drained to do any of that, and it had a cause. As I return to full strength, I expect to be better about all those things.

So, all my plans were disrupted and the cause was a bad thing. But it led to a very good thing—living. I’d much rather not have gone through all that, of course, but the end result was a good one.

We all make plans. Because of the disruption to my own plans, I’ll now have the chance to continue to make plans. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.

The photo up top is one I took of Hubbard Road in Paeroa in 2005. I used it in a post back in 2010. The caption is from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Settling a dietary question – maybe

I seem to have settled a dietary question: I really can't have mushrooms. That’s a pity, because I like them, but at least I can be pretty sure I’m doing the right thing in avoiding them.

I've avoided mushrooms for years because they're supposed to be a trigger for gout. For the same reason, I've avoided beans, pulses and legumes. But over the past year or so, I began to wonder how true those old admonitions are. In November last year, I posted “Information contraindication”, in which I talked about the huge confusion over what is and isn’t good for people with gout.

The reason this has remained unsettled for me is that, unfortunately, the only way to find out for sure is to try some of the “forbidden” food and see what happens. That means courting a gout attack, which isn’t an easy thing to contemplate.

This past Friday, we had pizza for our takeaway night, and one of them had mushrooms, which I deliberately ignored. As is my custom, I had the leftover pizza for breakfast yesterday morning. This morning I woke up with gout pain in my foot that wasn’t severe, but bad enough that I needed to take pain relief.

Last week I’d had a mild attack in a different joint in the same foot, an attack that was pretty much done by yesterday. As I mentioned in passing in a post in May of last year, having something gout-related going on seems to make it easier to get another gout attack in that area of the body. In May of last year, I’d had aches in a joint that might have made me more prone to an attack when I injured the joint. This time, I was getting over a mild attack when I ate the mushrooms, so maybe they wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t already been dealing with a mild attack. Still, I can’t always know the extent to which I might be vulnerable, so it appears to make sense to avoid mushrooms at all times. However, all those equivocations are why I can only say I’m “pretty sure” I’m doing the right thing in avoiding mushrooms.

Which still leaves questions about beans and the like. I still think that a largely vegetarian diet might be beneficial for me, but I’m even more reluctant to find out now than I was before. Still, when I get past this mild attack, and am less likely to be scared of causing pain, I may try it and see what happens.

Right now, though, getting past this attack is my only goal. Making myself the subject of my own medical experimentation can definitely wait.

Photo above is a detail from a photo by Max Straeten provided and licensed by Morguefile.

Endorsing around

Most of the time, it seems, we only get to vote for a political candidate who’s merely “okay”, or maybe just “not as bad” as the other one. But, if we’re lucky, sometimes we get to support a candidate enthusiastically. Most of the time, that’s probably from a distance, a politician we don’t actually know. This year, I get the chance to support people I actually know and can enthusiastically support.

Nominations for our local government elections closed on Friday, and among the candidates running for Auckland Council from our ward is my good friend, Richard Hills, who I’ve mentioned a few times in the past. Here’s what I said on Facebook:
I've known Richard for several years now, and I can honestly say he's the Real Deal: Honest, hard working, committed to and passionate about making things better for our communities, and he's relentlessly positive. Those may be rare things in many politicians, but they all describe Richard. I've worked with him on political campaigns and projects in our local community, so I've personally seen all this in action. I'm honoured to count him as a friend, and I couldn't possibly be more enthusiastic about endorsing him for Council.

I hope everyone in North Shore Ward will join in me in helping to elect Richard Hills to Council!
I shared a post Richard had made on Facebook that included the graphic above. He wrote:
Big news. After a lot of discussions and encouragement from across our community, I have decided to stand for the North Shore Ward. I love this place and I want to be a part of positive change for our region, I will continue to advocate for more efficient and affordable public transport, walking and cycling initiatives and Rail to the Shore, parks, sports field and reserve upgrades, and making sure young people have just as much say as everyone else in the decisions for our future. I am excited but I do need your help. Please like my page https://www.facebook.com/RichardHillsCouncil/ and please donate here, anything big or little will make a huge difference. Each billboard costs $40 and $30 is 1000 pamphlets. I would appreciate your support.
I’ve taken part in political campaigns for 40 years this year, and I supported candidates even before that. But most of the times I’ve been able to cast a vote for a friend, it’s been here in New Zealand.

Richard’s also seeking re-election to the Kaipātiki Local Board (campaign graphic at right), a position he’ll have to forfeit if he is elected to Council, and two of his running mates on the Kaipātiki Voice ticket this year (Ann Hartley and Lindsay Waugh) are also friends I can enthusiastically support, so I’m really lucky. I said on Facebook about them: “The entire team has done a great job, and I'm sure the five of them will do even more great things for the Kaipātiki community in the next term,” though, as I said, if Richard is elected to Council, he can’t serve on the Local Board, so there will be four of them.

Here in New Zealand, with politics that are far less detached and formal than in the USA, it’s not hard for someone to get to know a politician personally, or to become friends with them—even politicians with a national profile. It’s one of the things I truly love about this country.

And so, because of the informal nature of New Zealand politics, when I used the word “endorsing” in my Facebook post, I was really being a bit playful, not just because ordinary people like me making “endorsements” is kind of unimportant, but especially because that’s not really a thing in New Zealand. In the USA, who does (or does not) endorse a candidate is treated like news, with journalists turning in numerous stories about politicians not endorsing other politicians, or not rescinding such endorsements when they’re provoked.

In the USA, it’s expected that high-profile politicians will receive endorsements from politicians and famous people, including celebrities, all of whom may be transferring some of their aura onto their chosen candidate—though some clearly want to get some of the politician’s. We just don’t have that in New Zealand.

In this country, newspapers don’t make political endorsements, and it’s a given that national politicians support others of their party (or remain silent) because of party discipline central to the Westminster-style system of parliamentary democracy. In local races, where the national parties barely compete (if at all), prominent members of a community will sometimes band together as supporters of a candidate, but even that’s pretty rare.

In New Zealand, politics on the local level is mainly personal—who voters know or, at the very least, have heard of. Personal recommendations can matter, but real endorsements of the type Americans are so familiar with are pretty rare.

So, by using an unusual word, I was kind of hoping to subtly underscore my message. Because this year, I get the chance to support folks I actually know and can enthusiastically support. I hope my fellow voters will join me in voting for my friends, because they truly deserve our votes.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Cold again—again

This has seemed an unusual winter, a bit wetter and a bit colder than in other years. All of this is relative, of course, relying on memory and perception isn’t, well, reliable. Even when they're accurate, winter here is still mild compared to winters where I grew up. All of which changes nothing about how it all seems. Of course.

The photo at left is a screenshot of the phone App for our weather station taken this morning. 1.6 degrees is 34.88 in Fahrenheit temperature, which is pretty cold by Auckland standards. It was cold enough for ice to form on car windows, so I was glad I didn’t have to drive anywhere this morning.

Cold as it was this morning, it was considerably colder last month. However, thanks in part to this blog, I also know that a cold snap in July of last year was warmer than this morning was. So, my perception that this winter is colder isn’t merely perception, after all. I knew this blog would come in handy for something.

The cold snap came after a blizzard struck parts of the country including eastern parts of the North Island, and that means that colder weather was over much of the country.

This evening was considerably warmer than it was yesterday evening, so this cold snap appears to have been very brief. That’s the best thing about it, as far as I’m concerned.

The main thing about this, though, is it goes to show once again that Auckland’s weather can be colder (and hotter…) than many people realise. Sure, it’s milder than NE Illinois where I grew up and lived before I moved to New Zealand, but this is where I live now, and the way weather feels to me now is what matters to me, not what it was like where I’m from. I suppose if I were to move back there, it would all change again; it’s just the way we humans seem to work.

I’m so very ready for Spring…

Monday, August 08, 2016

Bright spot

I’m a big believer in at least trying to find something positive at a time that otherwise may not be, though I’m the first to admit that I frequently fail in the effort. This photo is an example, something that brightened days that were otherwise dark, literally and figuratively.

Last Tuesday, the sun was shining (shocking, I know), so I went outside and snapped the photo above. It’s of a tree that blooms like that in late winter. I have no idea what it is, though a neighbour said it was some sort of wild cherry. I do know that it was “planted” by the birds, and at the moment we have two others on our property.

Most of the year, these trees are pretty ugly: Darkish green leaves, tall trunks, mostly straight, so no particular interest to the tree. They lose all their leaves in autumn, and remains bare sticks until the flowers appear, an explosion of colour that almost makes it possible to forget how forgettable the tree is the rest of the year.

But what makes the tree even better—the best of all, in fact—is that they attract tui (rosthemadera novaeseelandiae) to to our garden. The birds are well-known for their love of the colour red, in all its shades, so much so that I’ve seen advice in newspapers to put out some food for them in a red bowl at the height of winter to encourage the birds into your yard. I’ve never done that, and because of these trees, I don’t need to.

As they feed, the tui squawk and squeak and chirp and whistle and click, filling the whole area with their song (more about that another day, but the link above has sound files). I think it’s one of the most magical sounds in New Zealand. So, even though the weather has been awful for weeks, and we’re still coming to terms with a very sick cat, this was a little spot of brightness, and it certainly lifted my mood.

Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to find something positive at a time that otherwise may not be. This was one of those times.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Weekend Diversion: Old Auckland

Auckland has been obsessed with the problems of growth for years, and that’s grown more intense as its population has increased, traffic has become more congested, and the price of housing has soared. Much of this hand-wringing has been boring, even for Aucklanders, especially the battle over the Unitary Plan (something that’s boring for nearly everyone). But dealing with growth is nothing new for Auckland, as these 1960s videos from Archives New Zealand show.

I started this because I was watching TVNZ’s “Q+A” programme last weekend, and at the end they showed archival footage of how Auckland was dealing with growth in the 1960s. So, I went to the Archives NZ YouTube Channel, and while it took awhile, I found the video the footage had come from. That’s the first video, up top.

The YouTube description for the video, “Pictorial Parade No. 98 (1960)”, sums it up the video well: “'Expanding Auckland' shows the tremendous development and expansion in Auckland as the city prepares to become the home of half a million New Zealanders by 1965.”

This video was followed up in the second video today, “Pictorial Parade No. 154 (1964)”. In this video, Auckland was celebrating hitting half a million people. Today, Auckland’s population is nearly three times that—and still growing. The city is expected to hit 2 million before 2040—probably before 2030.

The final video is “This Auckland (1967)”, which, according to the YouTube description is “An impression of Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, and its subtropical summers; its streets and traffic, gardens, harbour, and people.” This one is so very much of its time, including the groovy music soundtrack and camera work. To be honest, I’m including it mainly because I think it’s kind of funny by today’s standards of video production.

These films began in 1942 as a way for the New Zealand government to share information of the war effort, though they had made some earlier. The National Film Unit, as it was called, produced a series of films called Weekly Review, later becoming Pictorial Parade. A short history of what happened to the National Film Unit is provided by Archives New Zealand:
Production of the Weekly Review ceased in August 1950 after allegations that it was politically biased. Four hundred and sixty episodes in all were produced. In 1952 a monthly magazine film entitled Pictorial Parade was first screened and this became the Unit’s main output until production ceased in 1971. The Unit also made documentaries at the request of government departments, films for national organisations, as well as many important films on its own initiative.
And that’s why the videos I’ve shared have been pretty old. The need for a filmed review diminished with the rise of television, and then the increase in the number of TV channels. When the government sold the National Film Unit in 1990, all short documentaries were then privately produced, and not all of those are available to the public or free for re-use. Someday, maybe.

Meanwhile, these old videos are a valuable resource for understanding what New Zealand used to be like. And that’s precisely why I share them.

That’s it for this video collection.

Friday, August 05, 2016

No religion

Australia is about to conduct its latest census, and the topic of religion has become an issue. The question for them is whether people should choose “no religion” as a designation. On this side of the Tasman, Australians’ dilemma seems odd.

The graphic at left [SOURCE] is a plea from the Atheist Foundation of Australia to choose “no religion” rather than “Jedi”. They say that if people choose Jedi, it’s classified as a “Not Defined” religion instead of “No Religion,” and that matters because it makes Australia seem more religious than it actually is, and would encourage the government to give more money to religious-based organisations than they otherwise would.

At the moment, some 61.1% of Australians chose some sort of Christianity, and a mere 22.3% chose “no religion”.

The problem here is that “no religion” doesn’t necessarily mean literally no religion: It often simply means no particular religion. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) doesn’t offer an option for atheist or agnostic, and instead tells people to write it in under “Other” in the religious belief section (scroll to the bottom), essentially making atheism a religion, which is absurd. To make matters even more confusing, the ABS directs, “If a person identifies with no religion at all, mark the 'No religion' box.” All atheists would say they identify with no religion, so why wouldn’t they choose that option? This is why atheists are urging people to choose “no religion” and avoid giving a higher count to those with “religious” beliefs.

However, it’s not only atheists who have been lobbying people on how to answer the religion census question.

Some people are using email and social media to spread the fear that marking “no religion” could lead to Australia being declared a “Muslim country”. This is probably being done by far right bigots, because Muslims make up such a tiny part of Australia (2.2%) that it’s flat out impossible for it to be declared the largest single religion. Unfortunately, this demonstrates that Australia has its very own tinfoil hat brigade spreading utter nonsense, just like the USA has.

And, it turns out there are other, more basic concerns over data changes the ABS has made this year, especially privacy concerns. Participation is mandatory, but the religion question is optional.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Tasman, things are quite different.

In the 2013 NZ Census, Christianity (of all sorts) was chosen by around 48% of respondents, and “no religion” was second with 41.92%. The largest denominations in New Zealand were: Catholic at 12.61%, Anglican at 11.79% and Presbyterian at 8.47%. The largest non-Christian religion was Hinduism at a mere 2.11% (the complete census results can be downloaded as a spreadsheet from Statistics New Zealand). The “Jedi Phenomenon” is also much less in New Zealand than Australia.

What’s interesting in that is this: Collectively, Christianity was chosen by the largest plurality of New Zealanders, however, “no religion” is BY FAR the biggest single choice of them all: 42% choosing “no religion” is more than three times the largest Christian denomination.

Does that matter? Somewhat. Most Christian denominations have little in common with each other, so lumping them together doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about the state of religious belief, while seeing each choice compared to the choice of “no religion” tends to reveal how weak specific religious affiliation really is in New Zealand. Most people (including me) expect that the 2018 NZ Census will be the first in which New Zealand is majority “no religion”, but if not then, it’ll be 2023—it’s inevitable. This little factoid is part of the reason why that is.

The decline of religious affiliation is a phenomenon seen throughout the western world, apart from fundamentalist religions, Christianity in particular. That, and the strength of other fundamentalist religions in developing countries, means that religious conflicts won’t be ending any time soon. What people choose on their census form won’t be enough to change that—yet.

Related: Census Night – my post about the 2013 NZ Census and my participation.

Tip o’ the Hat to Roger Green who sent me the link to the i09 piece (second link in this post) because he knew I’d be interested. That meant I also needed to know more about it all, and that meant this blog post was born, so thanks to him for that, too.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Political Notebook 2: What the…

Every single day—EVERY day—there’s something else that happens in the US presidential campaign that makes normal people think, “what the…?!” Donald himself is at the very centre of most of those moments, of course, and we all know there will be many more to come. It’s now so bad that nothing’s shocking any more—and yet…

Is Donald insane?

For as long as I can remember, people have said that the candidate they don’t like is “crazy”, and whether that’s an acceptable word or not, it was seldom meant literally—until this year. Now, for the first time, a growing number of mainstream people are openly wondering whether Donald’s erratic behaviour means he’s suffering from actual mental illness. Naturally, in a situation like this, not everyone agrees with long distance diagnosis, and one observer wonders about Donald’s supporters. Disability rights activists are understandably uncomfortable with this discussion because it could stigmatise ordinary people who have mental illness, so we must be careful when talking about Donald’s possible mental illness, however, if he wins the election, the man would get the nuclear codes, and we MUST know if he’s mentally stable or not—especially when he asked why the USA CAN’T use nuclear weapons!

At the very least, Donald clearly has a very real problem with letting go of what he perceives to be slights. Instead of walking away, he continues to attack, even when it harms him to do so.

Why this matters: First and foremost, the world cannot risk a mentally unstable person having access to the USA’s nuclear arsenal—this is obvious—so the world has a right to know whether someone who might become president is mentally unstable. Second, it has profound implications for what Donald could do TO the USA. This is a question that won’t go away—and it shouldn’t.

Will Donald quit?

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl set off a frenzy with an article titled, “Senior GOP Officials Exploring Options If Trump Drops Out”. The article talks only about unnamed Republicans looking at what would happen if they had to replace Donald, but it’s being reported elsewhere as if they’re actually planning to remove him, something Karl’s article doesn’t actually claim. Indeed, as Snopes pointed out, Karl doesn’t even quote any Republican officials.

Still, it’s possible that Donald might drop out, and that the reason he’s talking up his mythological “rigged election” is to give him cover for quitting when he sees he’ll lose, perhaps badly—and to a woman, no less. While that’s certainly possible, it doesn’t seem very Donald-like. On the other hand, as Jay Michaelson points out on The Daily Beast, “The RNC Can Legally Dump Donald Trump but It Has to Act Fast”. Would they do this? Well, Donald “Is Now Attacking His Own Party” as Kevin Drum put it on Mother Jones, by refusing to endorse prominent Republicans—including the Speaker of the House of Representatives! This could be just the provocation the Republican National Committee needs to dump Donald. Or, maybe it’s too late, and the Republican Party has lost to Donald. Vox lists seven options for the Republican Party, none of them good.

Why this matters: Donald is dragging the entire Republican Party down with him, and may cause several vulnerable Republicans to lose their seats—people like John McCain. The party has to do something, but has very few options, and none of them are very palatable. Quick prediction: If Donald is gone from the ticket, the RNC will replace him with Paul Ryan because he doesn’t have the same problems with severe negative poll ratings that other prominent Republicans do.

Donald’s campaign is off the rails

Regardless of whether Donald has mental illness or is at war with his own party, it’s clear his campaign is utterly off the rails: “GOP, Trump Go From 'Unraveling' to 'Break Glass' Mode”, and that means that “Donald Trump’s Campaign Might Actually Implode”. Donald bragged recently that his July fundraising was “unheard of for Republicans”, and he was right: It’s unheard of for it to be so awful. His fundraising was dwarfed by Hillary’s (See: “Hillary Is Smashing Poor Little Rich Trump in Fundraising”).

Why this matters: Donald’s convention was an utter disaster because of its terrible organisation, and now his campaign seems to be even worse, and it’s clearly Donald’s own fault. With a badly run campaign, poor fundraising, and little advertising reserved so far, Donald may be defeating himself, and taking down ballot Republicans with him. They can’t stand by and let that happen if they want their party to survive.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

NZ local elections coming up soon

New Zealand’s local government elections—Local Body elections, we call them—are coming up soon. The video above is a TV commercial currently running and is intended to remind Kiwis to register to vote before August 12. There will be more commercials about the elections in the weeks ahead.

August 12 actually has two events. The first is that nominations for candidates running for office in local government close at 12 noon. The other is that the electoral rolls close and voter enrolment ends.

Any eligible voter who hasn’t enrolled by August 12, or whose details are wrong, will have to cast as “special vote”, but they can vote.

The Local Body elections are held by postal ballot, and voting documents will be delivered to households between September 16 and 24. October 8 is designed as Polling Day, and all ballots must be received by the local council by 12 noon that day. In most cases, prelimary results should be released as soon as possible after that time, though some elections, particularly those using STV, may take longer to be counted. Official results, which includes ordinary and special votes, will be released sometime between October 13 and 19—and sometimes it’s not known until then who’s actually been elected.

All New Zealand citizens and permanent residents are eligible to vote. In addition, people who own property in one council area, but who live in another, can also vote in the council where they own property. However, they cast only ONE vote (no matter how many people own the property together), not one vote per owner as in the council area they actually live in. This is to ensure that all property owners have some say in how their rates (property taxes) are spent.

There will probably be some TV ads from candidates for mayor, and I may share some of them, too. But if the past is any indicator, there will be too many candidates to talk in depth about all of them.

But soon, it’s all on once again as election time begins.

My campaign survival plan

The USA’s presidential campaign has already been the most bizarre ever, something that belongs in a badly written novel, not real life. It promises to become even more bizarre as it rolls on, accompanied by unprecedented levels of ugliness and vitriol spewed out, especially on social media. I have a plan to try and survive it all.

The screenshot at left* shows my first line of defence: Whenever someone posts some political nonsense on their own Facebook, I click the little arrow thingee in the upper righthand corner of the post, and select “Hide post”. That means that the post will no longer show up in my timeline when someone posts a comment—and people sometimes post a lot of comments on election-related Facebook posts.

Similarly, if a friend comments on a post promoting nonsense, I can do the same thing and it won’t appear in my timeline again, no matter what friend comments later. This also works with “Sponsored” posts, though you have to give Facebook a reason for why you don’t want to see it.

If the Facebook friend posts a lot of political nonsense, it may be more practical to go to their page, click on the “Following” tab and choose “Unfollow”. You’ll still be friends with the person, but you won’t see what they post unless you make the effort to go to their page. Then, when the campaign nightmare ends, you can always go back and choose “Follow” again (or, not…). Obviously, this is for people you want to remain Facebook Friends with for whatever reason, because otherwise a better option might be to “unfriend” them.

This is only about not having to look at silly, ill-informed, or even delusional stuff on Facebook, and nothing more. It’s absolutely not about avoiding viewpoints one disagrees with—not even almost—because that’s a very bad idea. Entertaining viewpoints we disagree with challenges us, forces us to examine our beliefs and assumptions, it expands our understanding of how other people think, and it sharpens our own arguments simply by having them challenged. All of those things are good, so exposing ourselves to fact-based opinions we don’t agree with is a good thing.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to find and evaluate a wide range of news and views outside of Facebook without entertaining the silly, absurd, and annoyingly wrong. I actively search out resources that rely on facts, not feelings, and evidence, not personal hunches, grudges, or delusions, and those fact-based sources come from all over the political spectrum.

So, my social media strategy is merely about pain avoidance: Sometimes I’m merely annoyed when someone shares or comments on a post that promotes utter nonsense, while other times I’m saddened that people would fall for shear stupidity. In either case, social media’s toxic climate surrounding the US election campaign means I just can’t see anything good that can come from me joining in one Internet fight after another. Neither is there anything to be gained by seeing utter nonsense promoted again and again. The most sensible course of action is to simply look away, and this post has been about how I do that.

I have one other Facebook strategy: I no longer post anything political to my personal Facebook. In the past, I’ve been shocked by reactions to posts I made that I didn’t consider remotely political, so there’s no way I’d want to share anything that really was political. Besides, I have this blog and my AmeriNZ Facebook Page to share that sort of stuff.

For decades, I thought elections were fun, and I enjoyed the rough and tumble of honest and civil debate. But US politics have become so polarised, and social media is so toxic, that politics is no longer fun—it’s become the opposite, in many ways.

This election will eventually pass, but the silliness won’t end then, of course. I use this strategy a lot more during election campaigns, but the truth is that it comes in handy all the time. Sadly.

*I picked the screenshot up top because it’s totally non-political and non-partisan, it’s not from the USA, and I also wouldn’t “Hide” one of The Spinoff’s posts. So, it was a neutral example. That particular Facebook Post actually relates to a blog post I published in the middle of July. That post was going to be about something somewhat different than it ended up being about, largely because of The Spinoff’s post. It happens.