Sunday, July 30, 2017

A story that just wasn’t true

As children, we all learn stories that aren’t true, sometimes they’re intended as stories or fables, other times they’re presented as fact. And then there are the stories we take to be real, regardless of whether they were told to us that way, and when we learn they’re not actually true, it can be disorienting. One such non-truthful story, a bible story I learned as a kid, was back in front of me this week.

As a kid, I learned the bible story of the battle of Jericho from the Book of Joshua. Somewhere along the line I also learned the song “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho” (the verison above is by Mahalia Jackson). As a child, and for some time afterward, I believed the story. Even though there’s not a shred of evidence to support the biblical story.

These days I can see I may have been a bit gullible. The Wikipedia article has a good summary of the bible’s account:
Joshua sent spies to Jericho, the first city of Canaan to be taken, and discovered that the land was in fear of Israel and their God. The Israelites marched around the walls once every day for seven days with the priests and the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day they marched seven times around the walls, then the priests blew their ram's horns, the Israelites raised a great shout, and the walls of the city fell. Following God's law of herem the Israelites took no slaves or plunder but slaughtered every man, woman and child in Jericho, sparing only Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who had sheltered the spies, and her family.
There is SO much wrong with that story. The Israelites said they’d been promised the land of Canaan by their god, but ended up slaves in Egypt instead. After their release, they set about conquering and slaughtering the people living there.

Except, they didn’t in this case.

The account was written as much as two and a half millennia after the battle was supposed to have happened. Moreover, extensive archaeological work at Tell es-Sultan, as Jericho is now known, have proven that none of the wall structures date from the time of the supposed battle. For this and other reasons, scholars discount the Book of Joshua as an historic record, and instead suggest the story was written for political reasons.

We can also now prove that the Israelites did not, in fact, slaughter the Canaanites, as the story claimed, and they were a people the Book of Joshua had marked for extermination by the Israelites. An article published by New Scientist, “Bronze Age DNA helps unravel true fate of biblical Canaanites” says that the DNA of the Canaanites still exists in the region.

This story's not really important, nor is the fact that it's not true. The fact that fundamentalist religionists probably still believe the story is true as isn't all that important, either, except insofar as it's bad to reject fact and evidence in favour of believing a false story as if it was true. But there's nothing particularly unique about that, either, and it persists in cultures all around the world. And, in any case, for the religious, religious stories are more about adhering to their religion, and reasons/examples for doing so, than they are about any historic record, despite occasional claims to the contrary by those who have demonstrated a disregard (or, too often, contempt) for actual evidence.

This story is, however, an example of something else: The need for scepticism. When I was a child, I accepted all bible stories as unassailable fact, and it was only as an adult that I learned there was absolutely no supporting evidence for many of the stories I'd once held as factual, other stories (like that of the Battle of Jericho) had been proven untrue, and plenty more that had no conclusive supporting evidence.

Scepticism was a large factor in my development of religious doubt: If so much I had been taught wasn't true, was any of it true? I still haven't finished working through all that, but there was one more positive result of all this: I learned to be sceptical of whatever someone was trying to sell me—not just religion, but also politics, news, even products and services. It's simply not good enough for someone to claim something is true, they have to be able to prove it with fact-based evidence.

So, in this case, I was long ago taught the story of the Battle of Jericho, eventually learned it wasn't true, how they knew that, as well as theories about why the story was invented. And now I know what really happened to the Canaanites (who seem to have been hated by a lot of the peoples in the area). All of that is based on fact-based evidence that anyone can learn about.

Learning what happened to the Canaanites fascinated me this week and captured my attention. The memories of former beliefs, and that song, just came along for the ride.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The story so far this year

I’ve (finally) been able to blog more consistently the past couple months, after four in a row in which I fell short of my goal of an average of one post per day. June I was right on target, and this month I’m running a little ahead, so far. And there are reasons I’m bringing this up.

A good June and (so far) July don’t make up for those four months: At the moment, including this post, I’m 64 posts behind target for where I should be at this point, and that means I need an average of 1.4 posts per day from now until the end of the year in order to reach my annual goal. That’s a tall order.

I know the numbers because I decided to make a spreadsheet to track my progress, or lack of it, so I can better manage the chase. It turns our that I’m a bit too competitive to just give up and accept missing the goal, even though I’m only competing with myself.

However, obviously I can’t do 1.4 posts per day—that has to be an average, and it means some days I need to do multiple posts in order to make up for the days I do only one or even none. Because I’ve resumed recording my podcast, there should be an extra post once a week or so just to promote that, but obviously that alone won’t be enough.

So, that’s part of the reason for this little update: I’m providing fair warning that some days I’ll publish multiple posts. They’ll still mostly all have some sort of commentary by me, and most of them will probably be written not long before I publish them.

The other, bigger reason is more personal: Reaching this annual goal is clearly important to me, and while circumstances made it seem as if I couldn’t possibly achieve my goal this year, I organised the data to check that assumption, found it could be wrong, and saw a path forward toward achieving that goal. Sometimes, it seems, all it may take to achieve goals is organising and determination. In a few short months I’ll know if that’s true in this case.

At any rate, I know that some people couldn’t possibly care less about the mechanics of blogging, or details like I’m talking about here, but some are interested. There also may be other bloggers who run across this and realise they don’t have to give up just because they fell into a patch of low productivity or whatever.

There’s one final reason I’m posting this: I’ve come down with yet another winter plague, and I don’t know that I’ll feel well enough to blog this week. I’d already written this post for a time I might need it, so… here it is.

The truth about blogging, as with so many other avocations, is that if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. It just seems to me there’s no reason to kill the fun because of, in this case, falling behind in publishing posts, not when I could find a way forward. And, blogging is still fun for me; that’s the most important thing of all.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Countdown to exit?

There’s something seriously wrong with the current US president, and whatever it is it could be very dangerous for the country. It’s not just that his behaviour is abnormal for a president, though it undeniably is, it’s that his behaviour is abnormal for a well-adjusted adult male. There’s something seriously wrong with him—could it be his undoing?

To be clear, I have no idea what, precisely, is wrong with him, whether it’s mental illness or defect, dementia, severe narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathy, or any of the other explanations put forward to try to explain his abnormal and wildly inappropriate behaviour. But whatever is wrong with him, he clearly cannot control his impulses or temper, and that’s a very dangerous thing for anyone with their finger on the metaphoric nuclear button.

Last night, Don engaged in yet another of his bizarre Twitter temper tantrums, specifically claiming that he has “the complete power to pardon”, before changing subjects in the same Tweet. In fact, his current fureur quotidienne began with allegations that there had been “leaks” about Attorney General Sessions possibly having undisclosed discussions with the then Russian Ambassador during the campaign. The thing is, the revelation came about at a very convenient time for Don, who had just told the New York Times that had he known Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation, he’d never have appointed him, leading to the impression that Don wanted to fire Sessions so that a compliant attorney general would emasculate or fire the special investigator, Robert Mueller.

The clear reason for Don’s Tweets on the matter was to distract attention from his attacks on Sessions by blaming unknown others—who may not actually exist—for leaking the allegations, while at the same time engaging in a childish “yes, way!” response to those who say he cannot pardon himself.

Thing is, he can’t. As former US Representative Elizabeth Holzman, who took part in the US House’s investigations of Richard Nixon that would have led to impeachment, wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which she said that the vague wording in the US Constitution doesn’t mean that US presidents have unrestricted pardon power. She wrote: “Presidential self-pardoning would violate the basic structure of our Constitution, and the whole history of the pardon power strongly weighs against the concept.” She says the authors of the Constitution deliberately didn’t include a power to self-pardon, and their view must hold today:
A presidential self-pardoning power would seriously undermine the rule of law. If presidents could self-pardon, they could engage in monstrously wrongful and criminal conduct with impunity. That would utterly violate the framers’ belief in a limited presidency and in the idea that no president is above the law.
And, of course, no president—not even Richard Nixon—tried it. As Holzman says, such a self-pardon would be a tacit admission of guilt and would likely be invalidated by a court, meaning “presidents would have the worst of both worlds — they would be open to prosecution, and their guilt would be widely believed.”

One final point, too, is that if Don was involved in the collusion with the Russian effort to affect the outcome of the US elections, and he pardoned others who were, that itself is an impeachable offence. In fact, even he really wasn’t personally involved, pardoning those who were would be impeachable, too.

Ah, yes, impeachment—the one thing pundits assure us is impossible. But there’s evidence that Don could actually be impeached.

While Republicans have good reasons to ignore Don’s bizarre and inappropriate behavior, there’s evidence that they don’t trust him. Congress is currently working on a bi-partisan measure that will impose sanctions on Russia for it’s interference in the US election, the hacking in particular, and includes specific provisions for Congress—the majority and minority alike—to have oversight of Don’s treatment of sanctions. Not even Republicans trust Don to enforce sanctions against Russia, and they want a mechanism to ensure he does. This is a concrete example of how Congressional Republicans are moving to contain and restrict Don, even though they usually refuse to say a word about his many misdeeds and bizarre behaviour.

And, of course, Congress’ hand may be forced if Don himself is indicted. A Clinton-era memo that’s resurfaced makes clear a president CAN be indicted, and that could be what is prompting Don to claim he can pardon himself.

I can imagine two scenarios in which Don tries this out. First, if he thinks he or family members may be indicted, he’ll issue a preemptive pardon. Or, he might issue pardons to shut down the Russia investigation, particularly any investigation of his finances and business dealings (as Mueller has begun) without firing Mueller.

A third possibility is that if he thinks he might be impeached, he might try to pardon himself in advance, though that wouldn’t actually affect anything or stop the impeachment—if anything, it would probably make impeachment, conviction, and removal from office certain.

There’s one final pardon possibility: Don could resign after doing a deal with Mike Pence to pardon him. Mike would probably do it trying to evoke President Gerald Ford’s call to end the “national nightmare”, but without Ford’s decency, humanity—or a soul, of course. The only incentive for Mike to go along with this would be to get rid of Don before he destroys the Republican Party, but it would ensure he couldn’t be elected president on his own. On the other hand, it would avoid both a long impeachment process and the legal coup of the 25th Amendment, both of which would probably be very messy (just imagine the Twitter tirades Don would unleash!) and harm the chances of all elected Republicans.

So, the question now is, who will go next? Much speculation had been on Reince Prebus, who is supposedly despised by Don’s powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Don’s New York Times interview suggested that Sessions or Mueller could be next. Or, could it be Don himself?

This circus is far from the last act. All we know for certain is that there’s something seriously wrong with the current US president, and that could lead to his undoing.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

NZ political fun

The Tweet above features an altered campaign sign for the NZ National Party, the current party of government. Their slogan is among the most boring campaign slogans I’ve even seen, and people on social media are rightly mocking it.

We’ll see more mockery in the weeks ahead, probably directed at all parties, but National deserves it for this sign, not just because it’s so boring, but also, and especially, because it’s not truthful. New Zealand is going in completely the wrong direction under National, which has become tired and complacent after nine long years in government. It’s time to change the government. I'll be talking more about why that is over the coming weeks.

Here’s the original, unaltered sign:

Friday, July 21, 2017

The ol’ grey hair

We all face challenges as we get older, some bigger than others, and some entirely insignificant. How we choose to respond to the cosmetic challenges are entirely up to us, though others seem they think they have a right to judge. The thing is, we have so many more options now than we used to have, and in the future there will be even more options. I act on mine. This is a good thing.

A couple days ago, I dyed my beard and hair, as I have so many times before. In fact, I last did it two or three weeks earlier. But what makes all that different is that up until that time a few weeks ago, I’d decided it was time to stop dyeing my whiskers. Then, I changed my mind.

I’ve felt for a very long time that there will come a time when it’s more than a little ridiculous for me to continue dyeing my whiskers/hair. As the grey (well, mostly white these days…) hair resists colouring more and more, it seems like it’s becoming more trouble than it’s worth—so much so that I recently thought I reached the stopping point.

Part of what reinforced that for me was that Nigel said that what makes me look old is when I let my whiskers grow too long, not merely the fact they’re grey (well, white…). Only trouble with that was that I didn’t agree.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I resumed: I felt that I looked tired and older than I actually am with the un-coloured whiskers. My hair is mostly my natural colour, apart from a few odd patches, so my increasingly grey (well, white…) whiskers stood out by contrast. And, of course, they’re what I see first when I look in the mirror.

There was a time in which no man would admit to colouring his hair because that was something that only women did. Men were supposed to “grow old gracefully”, and they weren’t supposed to do anything to make themselves look younger.

That all started to change in the 1970s when men first started taking more care with their appearance (1970s fashion notwithstanding) and more male-oriented grooming productes emerged, as did “the dry look” for hair.

Over the intervening years, more and more products were introduced for the specific needs of men, not the least of which is seeming to be different from the exact same thing used by women. Hair dye is actually a good example: There’s really no difference in hair dye products, but labelling it “Just For Men” makes it seem very different—and, this works, because that’s the brand that I buy.

Men also have what are really cosmetics created and marketed to them, though they’re not called cosmetics, of course. This is a return to the past because centuries ago it was common for men to pay far more attention to their appearance.

Even so, if men are “too” open about what they’re doing, it’s often treated as a character flaw. “Why would you do that?”, they ask. “Just be yourself,” they add—even as they tell a woman who colours her hair how good she looks.

I colour my hair not for anyone else—I don’t care what they think—but for myself. As I’ve put it many times before, I don’t want to look dramatically older than I feel, and that’s all there is to it: It’s about what I see in the mirror.

There’s still one more thing that made me want to stop dyeing my whiskers. As I get closer to 60, and plan on talking about all that more, and I felt I needed to be more “authentic”. That is, I thought that up until I realised that wanting to look as old as I feel IS authentic for me, regardless of whatever anyone else may think. It’s also true for other middle aged men trying to find their way through a rapidly changing world. Being true to myself means, in this case, that I colour my hair.

And that brings me to the reason I’m bringing this up today: 18 months from today I turn 60. I can’t quite wrap my head around that fact, and I don’t know that I will even when the birthday arrives. But over the next year and a half, I’ll be trying to make sense of it all, including how I’ll dye my damn hair if I want to.

But the fact that I’m still here to talk about all this, when there was a good chance I may not have been, is the best thing of all. Put another way, like so many of my age-peers, I’m trying to figure this all out, and I get to do that. This, too, is a good thing.

But the old grey hair, it ain’t what it used to be. Either.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

When the news stirs up bad memories

Stories in the news can sometimes have indirect but important personal connections to us. When there’s a positive new devlopment in an old story, it can drag up those connections once again. Time moves on, circumstances, feelings, and attidtudes can all change, but memories? They have a habit of sticking around. Today I was reminded of a time that put my own life on pause.

Today (Wednesday US time), Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart announced that they had positively identified a previously un-named victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Jimmie Haakenson was 16 on August 6, 1976, the last time his family ever heard from him. It’s believed that Gacy murdered him that day or soon after.

Gacy, of course, is notorious for having murdered 33 young men, most of whom he buried in the crawlspace under his house. The state of Illinois executed him by lethal injection in 1994, which was far too kind to him.

The case was huge news in December 1978 when Gacy was arrested and charged and the bodies were found. But it was especially huge news in Illinois, where Gacy was from, where he hunted his victims, and where they all died. It was all—well, shocking is far too mild a word.

In December 1978, I was 19, a month short of turning 20—right in the age range of Gacy’s victims. I was also still closeted, though by that time I’d had a couple casual, short-term boyfriends. But this case, probably partly because it was so sensational, had a profound affect on me, and further delayed my coming out.

It wasn’t that I thought I could have been one of Gacy’s victims (that was pretty much impossible), but how could I know whether there were more killers like Gacy? And, if I didn’t know HOW to be gay, how could I protect myself from being a victim? I felt the only safe option was to supress everything, to just not think about being gay, about how to find a potential boyfriend or permanent partner, how I might build an authentic life. No, I thought it was best to just pretend none of it existed, to be asexual.

There was something else that had already led me to think there could be a real menacing danger lurking out there.

In March 1975, about six weeks after I turned 16, Joseph “Joey” Didier, a 15 year old paperboy in Rockford, Illinois, was abducted, raped, and murdered. The papers were filled with pretty lurid stories about the murder, and I was affected by them. His murderer was eventually caught, tried, and convicted, and died in prison in February of this year.

That sensational murder case was seared into my young brain, and so was the victim’s name, and I’ve remembered it all for 42 years. So, when the Gacy case hit the news some 2 years and 9 months later, it did so with the earlier case as a backdrop, especially because in 1975 I was also in the age range of Gacy’s victims.

What all this meant was that the message I got when I was a teenager and young man was the idea that it was dangerous—possibly even fatal—to be young and gay. I took that message because, even though most—or, for all I know, all—of the victims weren’t gay, they were preyed upon by men who got sexual gratification from victimising and murdering young men, guys who were the ages I was in those same years.

I have no way of knowing if I would have moved past that fear on my own, though I think I would have. Had I taken the same first steps toward being true to myself that I ultimately did in 1981, I would have found my through. But the catalyst for me to do so was the death of both of my parents when I was 20 and 21. After that, I felt life was too short to wait to be happy.

One could say that I was just lucky when I finally came out—I met good and caring people, and it kept me safe. But Southern Illinois wasn’t exactly a gay-friendly place in the late 1970s. In fact, even as late as 1988, only around six years after I left, 23 year old Michael Miley was murdered and his body decapitated, apparently by a man who made a sport out of harassing gay men in town.

By that time I was living in Chicago, and two years later, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for his heinous crimes. A friend of mine was particularly shaken by that case because he thought Dahmer was the sort of man he’d have gone home with, and, as far as we know, all those who did were murdered.

Things were very different for me by the late 1980s/early 1990s. By that time I’d spent several years as a grassroots activist working on gay rights. I’d had serious relationships, and I’d learned to be “streetwise”, to the extent anyone ever actually does. I heard about the Miley murder a year or two afterward, and in the context of my activism. It was impossible to miss the Dahmer story, but by then I was 32 and established in life.

Those sensational crimes in the 1970s definitely held me back out of fear that I could become a victim just like those other young men my age had been. But the other side of that is that there were no positive role models for young gay men when I was one. After all, Harvey Milk had been assassinated a few weeks before Gacy was arrested, and there were no famous openly gay people in pop culture, politics, or anywhere else to take positive messages from.

In the late 1970s, church and state alike wanted there to be hostility toward gay people in society, and society responded. At that time, it was difficult not to see the world as a hostile and possibly dangerous place for gay people.

So much has changed since those days. There are positive role models everywhere, and while violence and danger still exists, it’s something that most young gay men in our Western societies don’t need to worry about. If I was 16-19 now, things would be unimaginably different.

And yet, despite it all, I made it through those years, as did millions of others. Some of them would die in the plague years, but millions of us survived those years, too. The human spirit is often far stronger than people can imagine, and we transcend the challenges we face. Hopefully.

But even decades later, all the feelings and fears and memories can be dredged back up through the release of what is undeniably good news out of Cook County. How it feels now is different—time and distance matter—but the vivid memories still come to fore, because memories have a habit of sticking around. This time, they also allowed me to reflect on how I took my life out of pause, and how good things became because of that. There’s value in that—and in remembering.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trying the new naughty

Sometimes it seems it’s the supposedly “naughty” things that make life most worth living. Whether food or drink or sex or whatever, it’s possible to indulge in a way that’s responsible, if only barely so. Making chocolate eating responsible, however, may be among the most difficult things to do.

On Monday, I talked about the new premier chocolate range from New Zealand company Whittaker’s called Destinations. They were released in New Zealand that day, but originally available at New World supermarkets. As luck would have it, I had a meeting near our old neighbourhood yesterday evening, and there’s a New World nearby, so…

Yesterday evening I bought one of each of the Destinations (photo above) and I tried them then and today. Here’s what I thought:

1. Destination Nicaragua: Nicaraguan Heirloom 76% Dark Chocolate. It’s made from “Nicaraguan Heirloom cocoa beans”, whatever that is. The company says it has “hints of tart, red berries”, and it does, even though there apparently aren’t any berries in it. Dark chocolate isn’t usually very sweet, and this isn’t, but perhaps it’s a bit sweeter than my normal favourite, Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana. I liked it. I’d rank it second of the lot.

2. Destination India: Indian Cardamom & Apricots. They say of it: “The exotic citrusy taste of Indian cardomom perfectly matched with Indian apricots in smooth 33% Creamy Milk chocolate.” Not sure what’s so “Indian” about this, but still. I didn’t taste the cardomom, but I did taste the apricot. It was okay, but I’d probably rank it fourth of these four. It reminded me a bit of a chocolate that was in the variety box of American chocolates we had at Christmas every year when I was a kid, the one with the map in the lid. I didn’t like it then, though I didn’t hate it. I feel exactly the same about this—I wouldn’t mind not having it again, but I didn’t hate it.

3. Destination Italy: Italian Piedmont Hazelnut. This is made with 33% cocoa milk chocolate, and hazelnut paste and roasted Piedmont hazelnut pieces. Similar to the Indian one, this doesn’t seem particularly “Italian”, but it’s quite nice. I’ve never had Nutella, so, I have no idea if there’s any similarity, but as a chocolate bar, it was really nice. Sweeter than I normally have, yes, but not sickly sweet. I rank this one third.

4. Destination Canada: Pecans Waffle & Canadian Maple. The package says it has “caramelised pecans”, while the website says it’s “pan roasted pecans coated in Canadian maple syrup and crunchy waffle” with 33% cocoa milk chocolate. I don’t normally like maple chocolate or ice cream, though I love maple syrup on pancakes and waffles. This was the one that actually made me want to try the range, when I heard someone in the TV ad talking about how it was like having a waffle… something, something, whatever, I love waffles (and made some from scratch just the other day). So, I had both high expectations and high worry about this one, and I really liked it. It’s sweet, yes, but not in an obnoxious way, and the maple just works, especially combined with the crunchiness and the mild, smooth chocolate. This one is my favourite.

This little taste-test is a bit of a surprise for me: I wasn’t a big fan of the Artisan range, as I said on Monday, most of which I thought were too sweet, and I also thought the ones I tried had too little to balance the sweetness. This Destinations range is completely different: They’re sweet, to varying degrees, but none of them obnoxiously so. I prefer them to the Artisan range, but some of the ordinary products taste better to me than some of the premium ranges. And, the premium ranges ARE more expensive than the ordinary ones.

I applaud Whittaker’s experimentation with different combinations, and it’s important to note that no one can please everyone. This means, first, that having a wide variety means that they’re almost certain to have a product that will appeal to everyone who likes chocolate. However, it also means that any particular person may disagree with my opinions about this range (or the rest of their product range, for that matter). That’s fine. To each their own, but getting chocolate does seem to be important to humans. George Orwell included chocolate rations in his dystopian novel 1984, allowing his authoritarian “Big Brother” regime to include chocolate rations.

Two things I need to add. First, I tried one last night, the rest over the course of the entire day today, not all at once—all things in moderation, right? Second, and maybe most important, as I say with nearly everything, like what you like and forget about everyone else. But, don’t be afraid to try new things, either. Sometimes you will be sweetly surprised.

Full Disclosure: I received no compensation of any kind for this post, and as I said in the post, I bought the products at a retail store using my own money.

The timeline so far

I don’t usually share Keith Olbermann’s videos mostly because so many of them are pretty aggressive, and while he may be right and fair, they are nevertheless somewhat unhelpful for the larger goal of informing people people about the corruption and criminality of Don’s regime. Nevertheless, sometimes his videos are useful, and this is one of them.

In this video, Keith lays out the full timeline for Don's campaign's meeting with Russians that present prima facie evidence of collusion with a hostile foreign government. What struck me about the timeline is that is seems obvious that Don has been lying about when he first heard about this particular meeting, and also when he claimed for months that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russian government. It seems obvious now that he knew all along and has been trying to cover that up.

Another thing is something that I haven’t yet seen reported by any other media outlet, for lack of a better word, namely, that Don first mentioned the very specific number of supposedly missing Hillary Clinton emails, 33,000, on the very day that his son and son-in-law met with Russian government representatives. That, and Don hinting at information “to come”, is really strong evidence that Don was fully aware of the meeting and what it was all about.

Don and his entire family look corrupt, and if this evidence turns out to be what it looks like, they’re also guilty of treason. So, the title of Keith’s video could very well be proven to be apt. When the inevitable indictments of people close to Don are released, we’ll begin to find out how serious this all really is.

This much we do know: We’re a very long way from hearing the end of this story.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Chocolate ‘Destinations’

Yes, the video above is an ad, but I really like it and wanted to share it. It has no social message, no promotion of a cause, and no in-depth information on a subject we should all know more about. No, it’s just an ad for chocolate, and I really like it.

The ad is the 60-second version currently playing on New Zealand television, and, I presume, in other markets (the 15-second version is below). It features British cook and TV presenter Nigella Lawson, who is the “brand ambassador” for New Zealand chocolate makers Whittaker’s, especially their premier “Artisan” range, and now their new range, “Destinations”, which is available in New Zealand starting today.

I have to admit up front that I’m a fan of Nigella, and I love a lot of Whittaker’s chocolates: Their Fairtrade Certified Dark Ghana with 72% cocoa is a personal favourite, but I like many of their others, too. However, I’m not a fan of the “Artisan” range, which I find to be too sweet. I haven’t had the new “Destinations” range yet, but I may try some tomorrow.

So, my liking this commercial is mainly because they’re all pretty lighthearted and friendly ads, and this one features a couple more of my favourite Brits, Stephen Fry (who was the first celebrity to follow me back on Twitter…) and also Joanna Lumley.

Last night I saw the ad for the first time, and I really did—literally, even—laugh out loud when Stephen Fry was a the door. It’s been awhile since an ad made me laugh (not counting the ones I laugh AT, which is quite a different thing). I knew then that I’d share the ad here, and Whittaker’s uploaded the ad to YouTube earlier today, so, here we are.

I’ll share ads when I like them or think they’re well-made, think their content is good, etc., and I do so even knowing they help promote the company or product in the ad. I don’t mind that, especially when I like the company, as I do in this case. And, I am sharing this only because I like it—I haven’t been paid to promote the product or company, and I haven’t received any other compensation, like free samples, though I’m certainly not above accepting such things. I mention that because these days one is supposed to disclose any compensation, actual or potential, so pointing out there was none seems like a good idea, too. And, who knows? Some day I’ll say something like that, as I often do, and some company will decide to send me free samples (actually, a couple times companies have offered samples, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t take the emails seriously).

No, this post is just about sharing an ad I like for a company I like featuring people I like. And those are pretty good reasons to share anything, I think.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Weekend Diversion: The Erie Canal

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time in the USA when building a canal was a technological revolution, akin to railroads or even the Internet. On July 4, 1817, construction began on the Erie Canal, and that changed everything.

The video above, from CBS Sunday Morning, talks about the canal, its construction and what it meant at the time. The video begins with the song "Low Bridge, Everybody Down", which was written in 1905, nearly a century after construction had begun, and which, as the video explains, actually had little to do with the canal at the time the song was written. Nevertheless, the song is the main reason I know about the canal, because we were taught it in primary school and it’s stuck with me over all these decades.

The canal was built at all mainly because of DeWitt Clinton, a governor of New York (among other things), who was a passionate booster of the canal, leading opponents to call the canal “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Ditch”, among other things. It came it at $140 billion in today’s money.

Funding for the canal had been opposed by both Presidents Jefferson and Madison, but was found, anyway. Construction took about eight years, and once it was up and running cut transportation costs by about 95%. That’s because there were no railroads yet, nor any sailing route through the Great Lakes that didn’t require portage, so the main way of shipping was by pack animal, which was slow and expensive.

The canal led to a big increase in the population of Western New York State, as well as areas farther west, and helped boost the economy of the state and the United States generally, and helped turn New York City into a major world port. In short, it was a huge success.

The canal was expanded several times over the years, and is now largely redundant after the growth of railroads and also the construction of the New York State Barge Canal in 1918. What remains of the canal is mainly used by pleasure craft, though there’s still some commercial shipping.

Because the Erie Canal is largely relegated to the past, it would be easy to forget, and so, it’d be easy to forget how important it once was. I might never have learned about it in the first place if it wasn’t for that song, and the song also helped me remember.

Funny the things primary school helps us remember.

LISTEN: “Low Bridge” by Pete Seeger

The decline of American democracy won't be televised

This video from Vox describes the path the USA could take to the end of its democracy. This is based on classic political science theory on how democracies can die without violence or force. As Vox puts in the YouTube description:
We imagine democratic failure will start with a spectacular event: a military coup or the declaration of martial law. But in a country like the U.S., democratic backsliding will likely to start off looking a lot more normal – with slow, legal attacks on our democratic institutions. It's the kind of thing that won't generate many news headlines – at least not until it's too late.
The question here is obvious: It it already too late?

The current regime in the White House has demonstrated consistent and fervent devotion to distraction, lack of transparency, deception, misinformation, and outright lies. The fact that many of the regime’s lies are about things that don’t matter or are insignificant (like lying about how “large” the crowd was(n’t) at Don’s swearing in) misses the point: They lie so much and so often so that eventually no one will be able to tell what’s true and what isn’t. This is also what’s behind their constant use of the phrase “fake news” to describe everything that they don’t like or find uncomfortable or inconvenient—even when that news is actually fully verified, factual, and truthful, though unflattering to Don and his regime. They need to sow distrust and disbelief in journalism so that no criticism is effective or, ultimately, even possible.

The fact that Republicans are pressing ahead with Trumpcare, even though big majorities oppose it, shows they don’t have a commitment to democracy and that they don’t care about the will of the people (apart from the insanely rich ones, of course). This is not going to change unless the hardcore base of the party turns against Don, and that will almost certainly never happen. Indeed, it seems he has a hardcore of support among the general public: Frank Newport from Gallup pointed out recently that Don’s approval rating, though well below historical averages, “has not changed materially over the past four months”.

Democrats, meanwhile, are plagued by a fifth column within their ranks, people who claim to oppose Don and the Republicans but whose incessant attacks only serve to advance the extremist agenda of Don and the Republican Party. To be sure, the Democratic Party has many very real problems, but dealing with them is markedly more difficult when there are people who seem far more concerned with tearing down the only vehicle for opposition now, and for defeating the Republicans next year. Apparently both mainstream Democrats and their supposed opponents on the same side haven’t learned from the 2016 elections.

I think the next three months will be crucial. During that time, the case must not only be firmly made for removing Don from office, but the necessity for doing do so must be widely accepted. Only then will there be an imperative among voters for taking away political control from Republicans one year later. If we go much past that point without the tide having decidedly turned, it may be too late.

Can American democracy be saved? I think so, yes. But much needs to happen for that to be the case. If the effort fails, then it definitely won’t be televised. This is one good time to hope for wall-to-wall television coverage.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Frozen words

It’s winter, it gets cold. It also snows in places where it snows. And sometimes we have bad storms. It can happen any winter, or every winter, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to like it, and I don’t. This week’s winter storms have been especially unpleasant, and the fact it’s all so ordinary changes absolutely nothing. I hate being cold.

The problem for us was a weather system bringing up cold air from the Antarctic combined with plenty of moisture and strong winds. The specific weather varied widely form place to place—snow in the South Island, hurricane-strength winds in the Wellington region, and winds and rain here in Auckland. And, of course, very cold weather everywhere.

In our specific area, the temperatures were cold by Auckland standards, but not by the standards of places that get worse winters. Still, we don’t live in those other places—we live here, and this is the winter we know.

The coldest night, Wednesday, it dropped to 5 degrees (41F), and that’s pretty cold for Auckland (though not the coldest I’ve experienced even here). Thursday the high reached around 10 (50F), which it was today, too. These temperatures, thought they’re cold for Auckland, felt much colder because the air was damp from the rain and the winds were very strong.

Our heavy wooden gate across our driveway blew open when the force of the wind forced a loose screw out enough for the latch to ocme loose. It nearly happened another time, too, and would have had I not been out there and checked it yesterday evening. This evening when I went out to pick up takeaways, the screw was almost completely removed. The gate only remained closed because the wood had swelled with all the rain and it was basically stuck closed.

All of that was an inconvenience, but there was more.

Yesterday afternoon, the power went off at about 4:40pm. This was annoying, because I all out heating is electric, and so is our stove and hot water. The power went off just as I was about to make myself a cup of coffee—that was the annoyance.

I realised that without power, the temperature in the house would drop pretty fast. However, I’d taken banana bread out of the oven only a few minutes before, so I opened the oven door to let the heat out, and that really did help.

By this time, I pulled out my phone and checked the Facebook Group for our area (cellphone towers usually have independent power), and found out the power was out all over the area. And then someone asked if the water was out. I checked and ours was, and then I found out (also from that group) that the water to our area depends on local pumps, and without power, the pumps didn’t work, so we had no water.

So, without power, there was no heat or lights, no cooking facilities, and no water, either. This was a first for me.

When we lived on Auckland’s North Shore, the power went out a handful of times over those more than 17 years, usually because of an accident somewhere, like a car hitting a transformer, and not because of weather. Still, when it did happen, we never lost water. And, since we had a gas hob (cooktop), I could boil water for a coffee and could cook. This is why the power outage was so unusual.

The power came back on in about 25 minutes, and apart from clearing the air from the water lines and taps, there wasn’t much to do to put things back to normal. The result of this is that we need to revamp our emergency plans: We need to have a much larger supply of drinking water (we dumped everything we had at the old house, which was due to be replaced). This will mean we can raid the supplies for a brief outage without dipping into our Get Thru supplies. We also need to find our little butane camp stove so we have cooking facilities (in this case, we couldn't have used our BBQ, because the weather and winds were just too bad). The fatc is, you never know when it’ll happen again, or how long it will last if it does, so best to be prepared for even short events.

The loss of power and water was an unusual twist to this winter storm, but there was one other: It was far too cold in my office to spend any time there, so yesterday I never even turned my computer on. I was there for a little while today, really just to catch up on email, but I knew blogging was out of the question.

So, here I am at my Macbook upstairs in the warmth. I put some files in the cloud so if it’s still cold tomorrow, I’ll have easy access to the things I may want to blog about. Or, not.

The thing is, I may not feel like blogging if the weather hasn’t changed tomorrow. I hate being cold.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Safety dance

This morning, when I was walking up Queen Street in Auckland’s CBD, there was an incident. Relatively minor in the overall scheme of things, but it resulted in me taking action on the spur of the moment. And I’d do it again.

Here’s how I described it on my personal Facebook:
I think this was the right thing to do – judge for yourself.

I was in the Auckland CBD this morning walking along Queen Street for the first time in maybe a couple years. It was fun seeing all the changes, all the people walking up the street toward work, busy city-ness. It was great.

But then ahead of me I saw a drunk beggar approach a thin, pretty blonde young woman (probably mid to late 20s). Every time she moved to avoid him, he moved to block her. This happened a couple times, then she stopped, backed up a step and tried to pass and he blocked her again.

By this point I'd drawn even with them, slowed, and was about to pass when I saw her back-up. I stepped sideways to block him and said, "Look, she's really busy," which gave her the space and distraction she needed, and she passed us both behind me.

Once we were both clear, she smiled and thanked me, but I felt a little guilty for just intervening when she didn't ask, so I said to her, "Sorry for intervening, but he seemed a bit aggressive." She smiled and said, "That's okay. Happens to me all the time," which didn't surprise me. She thanked me again, I wished her a great day, and we parted.

I don't like assuming a woman "needs" my help, and this woman may have had a black belt in karate for all I knew. But the drunk, even though he was unsteady on his feet was quite bulky and COULD have hurt someone, drunk though he was (like I said, he seemed aggressive). But I towered over him and I think I had the advantage in bulk (and sobriety, of course), and I just acted on impulse and maybe instinct.

Maybe the woman could have taken care of herself far more effectively than I could have been helpful if it had come to physical force. And in the time since then I've thought of better things I could have said to the drunk man (as always happens...), but I couldn't just stand by and do nothing when someone may have been in difficulty or danger. Sooner or later that could get me in trouble, either by insulting someone who doesn't need my help or by intervening when someone really is dangerous.

But if I was in trouble, or someone I love was in danger, I'd hope that someone would help, even if it wasn't needed. That's why I have to be that someone for strangers. It's the human and humane thing – the right thing – to do, I think.

As I finish typing this on my phone, sipping my warming coffee (it's COLD today!), the music playing is Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance". Perfect: That's what I had this morning out on Queen Street in Auckland's CBD.

Have an awesome day!
Several of my Facebook friends commented, and I realised pretty much right away that I’d made a mistake in the first sentence. As I put it in a later comment:
I feel I should apologise, though, because I realise now that the way I started this made it sound like I was looking for validation, while what I was REALLY thinking at the time was "this is what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. Others may not approve, but I'd do it again."
That was why I’d explained in the original post how even though the woman didn’t ask for help, and she may have been better equipped to handle it than I was, I acted on instinct. To be completely honest, I don’t really care if someone didn’t approve of what I did: I still think it was the right thing to do at that time.

Other comments noted how women are often just tired of having to confront this sort of male behaviour, and what a bad thing that situation was. As I said to a friend:
And it makes me sad as a human being, and pretty damn pissed off as a man that other men make women feel like that. Those men have no excuse, and the rest of us men should never let them try to make one up. IMHO.
Here’s another truth in this for me: Men have to stand up to the bad behaviour of other men—it’s kind of our duty, I think, when it’s safe to do so. Of course, as I also commented, these situations are much safer in New Zealand than in the USA because no one will have a gun. That possibility in the USA would make me hesitate.

Still, this isn’t the first time I saw something I thought was wrong and acted on impulse. Last year, it involved me driving to check on a woman who I thought could be in danger. What I’ve found is that action makes more action easier.

Friends also commented about how support for the woman today was important, and how distraction is an important tool in a situation like this. All of that’s true, but in a sense, I was doing it wrong, which is what I was alluding to when I wrote: “…in the time since then I've thought of better things I could have said to the drunk man (as always happens...).” What I had in mind when I wrote that was a graphic I saw online last year:

While that graphic is about dealing with islamophobic harassment in particular, it’s obviously applicable to any sort of harassment. An important point in that graphic is that the intervener talks to the victim, not the aggressor. By not engaging with the aggressor at all, it helps avoid the risk of escalating the situation, and makes defusing more likely. At least, that’s what I read mental health professionals say at the time; I've never tried it.

So, in the aftermath, when I had some quiet time to reflect, I thought that maybe I could have talked to the woman instead, pretending that I knew her, and talking to her, while I escorted her away. The main risk is that she may not have clicked to what I was doing and may have acted as if I was mad, but if it had been a stronger harasser—someone who was not impaired or who was bigger than me—this may have been a better strategy. I’ll try to keep it in mind as a possible tool if there’s a next time.

The main thing for me, though, is something I keep repeating: Be the change you want to see. I want the world to be a better place, where we treat each other with dignity and respect and where we stand up for those who are in difficulty of whatever kind. It’s not easy for anyone, but if we try our best to be our best, maybe one day we won’t need strangers to engage in a safety dance with us.

We have to start some place. Dancing is optional, though.

Arthur’s day out

Today I had an impromptu time in Auckland’s CBD. By that I mean that it wasn’t planned at all, but it turned out to be a good adventure, one too long delayed. And, there are tales to tell.

Nigel had a meeting in the CBD after which he was coming back home, so he invited me to go with him and have a wander around the central city, then we’d have lunch and go home. It’s probably been a couple years since I did that, so it seemed like a good idea.

The traffic into the central city was quite good today, and we got there before 9am, much earlier than we’d expected. A lot of shops weren’t open yet, so I went for a walk down Queen Street, then back up, and then all around. There’s a tale that goes with that, which I’ll talk about in a different post [UPDATE: That other post is now published].

I had two places I wanted to visit. The first of those was the Farmer’s store in the former Whitcoulls building (I posted a photo of the former store in a post from November, 2009). I wanted to see how they’d re-done it, and, to be brutally honest, I didn’t think much of it. Whitcoulls had become rather shabby by the end, and had few books (most of their stores now focus far more on craft supplies, some office supplies, some gift-y stuff, and with only a few books), and I don’t think that Farmer’s really did very much. Sure, it looks better than at the end of the time that Whitcoulls was in it, but it was nothing special. And the men’s clothing section was a joke.

Interestingly, there’s a passage way off the second level/first floor called “Little High Street”, which has a few shopfronts on it, some empty. One of the occupied shops was a Whitcoulls, which, while tiny, ironically seemed to have more books in it than the former big store had at the end.

The other place I wanted to see is in the photo at the top of this post: The CAB in what they’re calling “the Civic Quarter”, though it’s adjacent to Aotea Square. It’s the residential redevelopment of an old Auckland local government office building. The work hasn’t begun yet, so the “model apartment” is on the ground floor and a kind of a mock-up, but they had large versions of the floor plans on display and very friendly staff, even when it was clear I wasn’t a potential buyer. By my count, they’d sold 32 apartments so far, which means they must be closing in on the halfway point. It looks like it'll be a great place when it's all done.

As I walked out of Aotea Square, I stopped and took a photo of the temporary skating rink there:

It certainly seemed cold enough for ice skating today, though in fact the truly cold temperatures in our current winter storm are hitting tonight. I went somewhere to warm up and wait for Nigel to finish his meeting.

Next, we had lunch at a teppanyaki place in the “Sky World Indoor Entertainment Centre” in Queen Street on the edge of Aotea Square. in Queen Street on the edge of Aotea Square. The centre used to be called “SkyCity Metro” (it’s partly in photos in a post from 2010, but it’s been redeveloped a bit. Lunch was awesome:

A post shared by arthur_amerinz (@arthur_amerinz) on

After that, we went home, arriving back here in the early afternoon. It’s true that I didn’t get done the things I'd planned, but I had a good day and got some bonus time with Nigel. I count today as a definite win.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

AmeriNZ Podcast 331 ‘Newsy Zealand' now available

A new AmeriNZ Podcast episode, “AmeriNZ 331 – Newsy Zealand” is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast. This one is about some big stories in the NZ news probably not covered overseas.

Monday, July 10, 2017

50 years of the NZ dollar

Fifty years ago today, on July 10, 1967, New Zealand made the switch from Pounds, Shillings, and Pence to Dollars and Cents. The video above is one of several commercials used to promote the change.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the change:
Prior to the introduction of the New Zealand dollar in 1967, the New Zealand pound was the currency of New Zealand, which had been distinct from the pound sterling since 1933. The pound used the £sd system, in which the pound was divided into 20 shillings and one shilling was divided into 12 pence, which by the 1950s was considered complicated and cumbersome.

Switching to decimal currency had been proposed in New Zealand since the 1930s, although only in the 1950s did any plans come to fruition. In 1957, a committee was set up by the Government to investigate decimal currency. The idea fell on fertile ground, and in 1963, the Government decided to decimalise New Zealand currency. The Decimal Currency Act was passed in 1964, setting the date of transition to 10 July 1967. Words such as "fern", "kiwi" and "zeal" were proposed to avoid confusion with the word "dollar", which many people at the time associated with the United States dollar. In the end, the word "dollar" was chosen anyway, and an anthropomorphic dollar note cartoon character called "Mr. Dollar" became the symbol of transition in a huge publicity campaign.

On Monday 10 July 1967 ("Decimal Currency Day"), the New Zealand dollar was introduced to replace the pound at a rate of two dollars to one pound (one dollar to ten shillings, ten cents to one shilling, 5⁄6 cent to a penny). Some 27 million new banknotes were printed and 165 million new coins were minted for the changeover.
The thing that strikes me about the old system is how complicated it was. I’m sure growing up with it made it easier, but I know I’d have struggled with that system if it had still been in place when I emigrated. In fact, I very nearly experienced that system before then.

In July of 1971, my parents took me with them on a trip to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The UK had decimalised in February 1971, and when we got there we found coins marked “New Pence”, something that wasn’t discontinued until 1981. However, the old coins were still in circulation, which made things a bit confusing—pounds, shillings and old pence alongside pounds, and New Pence. It helped that there were still signs in shops telling people how much their old coins were worth in the new coins.

What astounds me is that at the time New Zealand decimalised, there were people who actually argued that the new system would be “too complex” and would “confuse shoppers” and that shopkeepers would use the switch to secretly raise prices (according to a thorough look back in the Sunday Star-Times, via Stuff). Apparently, complainers have always been around and will complain about pretty much everything. Who knew?

The doomsayers and staunch imperialists lost, and New Zealand now has a thoroughly modern and useful currency system. Most recently, the new “Brighter Money” series of notes, which use better anti-counterfeiting measures as well as being literally brighter, entered circulation. That began in 2015 with the $5 and $10 notes, and finished in 2016 (the $20, $50, and $100 notes. Apparently, the $5 note won an award for best banknote of the year in 2015, after being chosen out of 40 designs from 20 countries. You go, Sir Ed!

Money isn’t really the root of all evil (that’d be the human carrying the money…), and even in this age of Internet Banking and debit cards, cash is still really useful. And I’m sooooooo glad I never had to learn pounds, shillings, and pence—one might need a little £sd to cope with learning it.

Happy birthday, New Zealand Dollar!

Here are some related videos, first up – “Mr. Dollar helps you shop with dollars and cents”:

Next is “Shopping with Decimal Currency”:

“Pictorial Parade No. 194 (1967)” describes the secret story behind Decimal Currency Day (first four minutes of the newsreel):

And finally in this tale of New Zealand money, “The life of a bank note”, which is about the Brighter Money and the life and "reincarnation" of New Zealand banknotes:

On more video for comparison: “Decimal Currency, 14 February 1966” which has TV ads for Australia’s decimalisation about 18 months before New Zealand’s. These ads and New Zealand’s are obviously basically prettyt much the same:

Friendly fire

The video above is from Chris Uhlmann, a journalist and television presenter with Australia’s ABC network. He calls himself a centrist, but he ran for office on a conservative anti-abortion ticket back in the last 1990s, and he frequently takes conservative positions. It’s noteworthy that he’s from one of the USA’s staunchest allies. All of which means that his perspective carries a bit more weight, perhaps, than if he was from the Left or a country hostile to the USA. When friends are worried, there’s a real problem.

Uhlmann, the ABC’s political editor, has won a Walkley award, his country’s highest journalism award, so he’s well-qualified to make an assessment based on what he witnessed—and he certainly did that. The Guardian provided a summary of what Uhlmann said, while the Daily Mail looked at the reaction on social media.

The were two points I thought was especially good. First, he pointed out that Don wasted the opportunity to get the G20 to jointly condemn the North Korean missile programme, which would have placed more pressure on Russia and China. Don didn’t even try to do that or to lead—though he did manage to have his daughter sit in for him in one session.

The other point was probably the most keen observation among many:
“Donald Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader. Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we’ll miss it when it’s gone — and that’s the biggest threat to the values of the West, which he claims to hold so dear.”
Polls throughout the world document this, as more and more countries look away from the USA when seeking global leadership. A recent global Ipsos MORI survey found that given a list of eleven countries, people found that only 40% of people thought the USA was a positive global influence, ranking the USA eighth, behind China, but ahead of Russia, Israel, and Iran. Canada was ranked first, with 81% saying it had a positive influence.

Polls and commentary from journalists in friendly countries are all well and good, but neither will influence Republicans to take any action against Don, for reasons I talked about yesterday. That’s because despite Don’s disastrous G20 trip, and no matter how much harm he does to the USA’s global standing or the probability he’ll bumble and stumble the USA into war, absolutely nothing matters to Republicans other than keeping themselves in power. One could be forgiven for concluding that if Don had stabbed the Pope, Republicans would have meekly said they were “concerned about his behaviour”, as they climbed into the limo taking them to their next mega-fundraiser. They don’t care, it seems clear, and it’s foolish to think they do.

Republicans can, of course, prove us all wrong by removing Don from office. They won’t, but if they did we’d know they don’t always put their party’s interests first, ahead of the country.

So, while this Australian journalist has gained worldwide attention for forcefully pointing out the emperor has no clothes, he absolutely won’t be the last to do so. Trouble is, Republicans just aren’t listening—is anyone else?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Shop 'til you don’t drop

The way people buy things has been changing over the past decade or so, and that’s made massive change in the retail industry. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the “de-malling” of the USA, a trend that will like spread to other countries. Shoppers still shop, of course, they just do it in a more modern way.

Earlier this week, Roger Green wrote about the closing of a Sears store and his connection to it. It’s part of a larger trend in the USA, in which the ailing Sears and Kmart are no different than any number of other retail chains that have disappeared in recent years.

The reasons that Sears and other stores are in decline or have closed are many, but one thing they do have in common is the rise of online shopping. Nearly every “bricks and mortar” store also has an online version, so why schlep all the way down to the store, find a parking place, and brave the weather and crowds when one can buy the same thing at home on a computer or smartphone?

I often use online stores to see what a store carries, but I still often got to a physical store to get the thing, mainly because I want it right away, not have to wait a couple days for it to show up. How much longer will that be the case?

Recently, I was doing this sort of thing—looking online to see what a store carried—and I noticed that they encouraged the use of a phone/tablet App to print out photos in their stores. A customer can pay to send the photo to be collected from any location of the chain, or they can pay to send the photo to a chain in the USA or one in the UK for someone else to collect—a friend or relative, for example. I thought this was a brilliant idea, not the least because people out and about with their mates might be tempted to pay to order a print of that blurry photo of them all having a session at their favourite pub. But that’s also why it’s so handy for most people: They usually have their phone with them, they can snap a photo and order a print.

I can order my groceries from my computer or on my phone, and have them delivered or I can pick them up in store. There are other Apps that could give me coupons (if I could be bothered…). And then there’s ordinary ordering products from my desk.

In New Zealand, this e-commerce thing has led the New Zealand Government to change the law so that overseas companies like Amazon and Apple must collect NZ Goods and Service Tax (GST – basically a sales tax). This was done because NZ-based retailers felt that overseas retailers had an unfair advantange in not having to pay GST when they did. Overseas retailers, they argued, got a 15% discount.

I has some sympathy for this position, but was nevertheless annoyed because price is not the only reason shop overseas—selection and availablity is an important issue, too (like me buying my underwear overseas). What this means is that we pay 15% higher prices for things we can’t get anywhere else. This made me a very unhappy shopper.

Still, the retail situation here is not nearly as dire as the USA, and while plenty of retail chains have gone bust over the past 10-15 years, malls are still around. Unlike the USA.

In the past, I’ve seen some of the YouYube series “Dead Malls” by Dan Bell, which he talks about in the TEDx talk video at the top of this post. In his videos, he explores dying and dead/abandoned malls, some of which look like a post-apocalyptic film set.

I came across that video by accident, because I watched another one that YouTube suggested I watch (why tonight, I have no idea; algorithms work in mysterious ways). That led me to another. Similar video, and the TEDx one.

The video suggested to me was this one from PBS NewsHour in November, 2014:

That led me watch the very similar video from CBS Sunday Morning in March of 2014:

The two videos make some very similar points, but with slightly different analysis. I thought they were both interesting in their own way. They, in turn, led me on to watch the TEDx video.

The reason I’m so fascinated by the topic of declining shopping malls is because in the mid-to-late 1970s, and off and on for years afterward, I visited malls a lot. In the 1970s, it was a place to hang out with friends, maybe see a movie, or have some lunch, but I don’t remember going there to actually shop very often. I did that mostly by myself.

So, I have sort of a wistful feeling about these malls, much as that Roger had for his Sears store. I was sad to learn that one mall (so far) that I went to has been torn down, and at least one other one has been converted to other uses. But, then, I wouldn’t recognise any of the places where the malls are or were—the area around them has changed, too.

Here in New Zealand, the malls are ticking along, though one that I went to near our previous house seems to be struggling a bit, and the smaller mall where I did a lot of our grocery shopping, and still sometimes visit when I’m in the area for a meeting, has been struggling for years. I’m a bit nostalgic about those malls, too, though probably less so than about those ones of my youth.

Much as I enjoy the convenience of shopping online, I can’t imagine ever feeling nostalgic about an online store closing. Maybe I will be, because change is inevitable and our reaction to it not always predictable. By that time, though, shopping behaviour will probably have changed yet again.

The thing is, despite the twinge of nostalgic melancholia over the loss of once very familiar places, nothing has changed my memories of them. I couldn’t visit to the physical places again because the ones I knew are no longer there—if they still exist, they’ve changed. But, so have I, and experiencing them again would be very different. My memories, then, are probably better, and certainly a surer bet, than the actual places.

And I think that’s just fine.

About the USA’s donnybrook

There’s something most people now realise: The USA has a deep and unbridgeable divide around one person: The titular 45th US President. That divide isn’t just about differing opinions and reactions to Don or his regime, but also about the divide itself, the people on the two sides. This political donnybrook is preventing either side from seeing reality, much less fixing the situation. This won’t change.

Don is a habitual and chronic liar, which is beyond dispute to Don’s opponents and any mainstream observer. Of course, Don’s fervent fans see things rather differently, choosing to believe that Don never lies, that when the newsmedia call him out on his lies and present the evidence that the lie is obvious, Don’s fervent fans declare it’s “fake news”, the rightwing’s current favourite banal phrase they use to dismiss anything they don’t like, disagree with, or find uncomfortable or inconvenient. This is a concrete example of how the two sides are mutually exclusive: There’s no way to make Don’s fervent fans accept truth, facts, and evidence, and there’s no way everyone else will abandon those three things. This sort of split is repeated constantly.

This situation is regrettable, but we can deal with it. The bigger problem, I think, is that so many of Don’s critics have become seriously deluded about what’s realistically possible, and that makes them avoid the things that must be done in favour of the easier default position of mere opposition.

To be sure, it’s the duty of every patriotic American to stand up for truth, facts, evidence, the rule of law, and the US Constitution, and all of that requires Americans to oppose Don and resist the agenda of Don, his regime, and Republicans in Congress and state legislatures. I say that first because the next part is going to piss-off Don’s avid opponents:

Don will not be deposed or removed from office, at least, not any time soon. Focusing on that isn’t going to make it happen, could actually make things worse, and runs the risk of handing Republicans the election in 2018. And yet, this can show a way forward.

The main reason Don won’t be deposed is that Republicans need him. Whenever Don engages in yet another of his embarrassing bullying Tweet storms, he distracts everyone from what his regime and Republicans are doing. Sure, people know that Republicans are trying to take away the healthcare of tens of millions of Americans, but what about everything else they’ve been up to? The average person couldn’t list any other important issue that Republicans are up to, apart, maybe, from trying to delay and block a proper investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election, and the extent to which any of Don’s campaign staff may have colluded with the Russians. No, most people don’t notice most of what Don is up to because they’re too busy laughing about Don, sharing memes mocking Don, or expressing outrage on social media about Don’s Tweets, usually with a call to get Don out of office.

And that’s precisely why Republicans want him there: He distracts the opposition from the things that matter. Opponents should be constantly in the streets, sure, but—far more importantly—they should be organising in all 50 US states to elect Democrats and defeat Republicans everywhere. So far, Don’s man-baby antics piss off Democrats (who’d never vote for him anyway), they concern some Independents, and they have very little affect on Republicans. And this is the other side of why Don is useful to Republicans.

Since the teabagger insurgency in 2010, the one thing Republican politicians fear most of all is facing a primary challenger from farther right—being “primaried”, it’s called. If Republican politicians piss off Don’s fervent base—and whatever one may think about them, they’re indisputably fervent—they may be defeated in their primary. In some places, that might help the Democrat, but in safe Republican districts, it would probably just mean that an ordinary rightwinger would be replaced by an extremist rightwinger (or, depending on the place or one’s ideology, an extremist rightwinger would be replaced by an even more extremist rightwinger).

If—and at this point it’s a HUGE if—polls of Republicans start swinging sharply against Don, then they’ll move to contain him, and they’ll remove him if they feel they need to for their political survival. But don’t expect that to happen.

The obvious question is, how can pandering to Don’s fervent fans help Republican politicians in the general election, where everyone votes? That question forgets one thing: Republicans know that Democrats are easy to distract and contain.

First, they just need to let Don be Don, and Democrats will flock to social media to vent about how awful Don is and how he must be deposed. Then, a few well-placed operatives talking on social about “corporate Democrats” or about “deluded Bernie supporters” and the two sides will be at each others’ throats in the ongoing internecine political war that both the Russians and Republicans exploited so well (with or without collusion…) in the 2016 election.

So, Republicans’ strategy is to keep their opponents distracted by keeping them outraged over Tweets, and also exploiting divisions within the opposition to ensure that Democrats neither unite nor form coherent strategies to oppose Republican policy. Don is very useful to them for both goals. At the same time, failing to oppose Don (which is, of course, not exactly the same thing as supporting him or being loyal to him) helps Republicans to avoid being primaried. From their perspective, Don is extremely useful for achieving their political goals.

At the same time, Democrats could use this to as a way forward by harnessing the outrage of the opposition to focus the energy on organising to elect Democrats. So far, however, the party has been unable to do so because of the distractions and that internecine war. Even so, there have been peaceful demonstrations, the best of which have included personal lobbying campaigns. Also, the folks who have demanded town hall meetings with their (usually Republican) representatives in Congress have been stellar—and creative—in focusing grassroots opposition and gaining attention. The problem is that MUCH more of that sort of personal, peaceful, lawful action needs to happen, but most of it so far has been outside of the Democratic Party, which is part of the problem here: It does nothing to organise for the 2018 elections.

But consider this: If the efforts to depose Don (probably through the 25th Amendment) were successful, then Mike Pence would become Acting President, and he’d be far worse than Don. Mike is smart, experienced in government, he knows how to manage, how to corral legislative support, he’s temperate in his words and actions, and is calm—everything Don isn’t, in other words. He’s also extremely ideological, he actually believes the political positions he takes, he’s ardently religious, and a true believer in far right Republican ideology—again, he’s everything Don isn’t. Put all that together, and he’d work hard to make the USA into a utopia for people like him and the rump of the Republican base, imposing Christian Sharia Law onto everyone, and oppressing the weak and powerless to give power and huge piles of money to the insanely rich, the oligarchs, the plutocrats, and far right religious extremists. In sum, he’d be effective and capable in every area where Don is useless and incompetent. Remove Don from office? Be careful what you wish for!

Despite all that, it’s encouraging that the majority of US states are refusing to cooperate with Don’s special panel working to suppress the votes of people who won’t vote Republican, and that’s mainly because that resistance is bipartisan and focused on the rule of law. It also encourages people to personal action. For example, in Colorado, hundreds of people have cancelled their voter registration because that state’s Republican Secretary of State will cooperate with Don’s panel to the full extent that Colorado law allows (maybe a bit more?). This is a concrete way in which ordinary people can help stop the agenda of Don, his regime, and the Republicans in Congress, even if they are, in fact, normal Republicans, not supporters of Don or the self-serving Republicans in Congress, let alone the Democratic Party. Opposing Don is and should be bipartisan.

So, Don won’t be going anywhere any time soon, not until and unless he causes political trouble for Republican politicians. At the moment, he’s far too useful to them. All of this could change, though that could actually make things worse in the short term (at least) by installing as Acting President an effective and capable true-believer in both far-right Republican ideology and Christian dominionism. And, if Don starts a war with North Korea, China, and/or Russia, all bets are off.

There’s no easy way forward, nor any likely end to the USA’s political donnybrook. That’s the bad news. The good news is that by organising NOW, it’s possible to throw all the bums out and to fix the broken system. Don’t agonise, organise.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

NZ begins to right a grievous wrong

Today the New Zealand Parliament took the first steps toward righting a very serious historic wrong by providing a way for gay men who were convicted for consensual adult sexual activity prior to 1986, when laws against it were finally repealed, to have that conviction expunged. Parliament also apologised to those gay men for those convictions and the serious wrong done to them. This is an important first step to righting a serious historic wrong.

Prior to enactment of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986, sex between males was illegal (sex between females was never illegal). As a result, many men—no one has any idea how many—were convicted for activity that would not be illegal today. This fact means that the convicted men would be obligated to reveal their conviction for any number of reasons, such as applying for some jobs or for visas to visit foreign countries. Having the law on the books also left gay men open to blackmail and extortion.

The bill, the Criminal Records (Expungement of Convictions for Historical Homosexual Offences) Bill, which passed its first reading today (video above), is long overdue. The government resisted action for years because they thought it was too difficult because the old law was over-broad and imprecise. In the days of the law, prosecutions almost never made a distinction between consensual sexual activity between adult men, which has been legal since 1986, and activity that would still be illegal, such as non-consensual sex (assault) and sex where one or both partner is below the legal age of consent (currently 16).

The government finally realised that the extreme injustice of the old law demanded remedy to erase the arrests, convictions, and imprisonments, and extreme pain and human damage that law was responsible for. So, men convicted for consensual sexual activity with another adult will be able to apply to have their convictions expunged. If the victim of the law has died, their partner or family can apply on their behalf. And, upon passage, the New Zealand Parliament will go on record as expressing its regret for all the harm the old law did.

Critics have said there should have been a blanket pardon, and it’s true that some men may have been convicted for activity that would still be a crime, however, there are documented cases where a white man was let off and his Māori partner was convicted of assault. Similarly, when both partners were under age, sometimes only one partner was prosecuted, with the white or higher class man escaping prosecution. So it’s not enough to just provide relief only to men convicted of consensual adult sexual activity. The process for judging applications for expungement must be flexible enough to right wrongful convictions that may seem, at first glance, to have been legitimate.

The other unresolved issue is compensation. A truly just end to this sorry story must mean that the surviving victims of the old law are compensated for their suffering and victimisation. Any such payment is by necessity a token, but it is a tangible symbol of the New Zealand Parliament expressing its regret for what happened, and it would give real strength to its much-delayed apology.

But even with those short-comings, this bill is an important and historic moment: It is a message from Parliament that New Zealand values LGBT people, that they are truly the equals of their heterosexual friends and family members. It is one of the last remaining legislative remedies needed to fulfill that promise. Better late than never.

One final note: Even as I say the bill needs to go farther than the government wants, I’m aware of how much farther this goes than some countries have been willing to go. For example, I don’t know that any US state has apologised for the harm done by their laws. In fact, some states still have such laws on their books, and that’s inexcusable. Far worse, in some counties gay men can STILL be put to death for being who they are.

Today was a very important day for New Zealand, and for LGBT people here and in the world. There’s so much more work needed around the world, absolutely, but here in New Zealand we’re working on finding a way forward. Well done to all those who helped move this forward.

The video above from the New Zealand Parliament is the entire debate on the First Reading. It’s just under an hour and a half, but it’s worth watching to see what it looks like when politicians speak on a matter relating to LGBT people without extremist politicians saying crazy things. American politicans could learn a LOT.