Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Sometimes a photo's just a photo

Sometimes a photo can be just a photo, and this photo is an example. As I said in the Instagram caption, “This photo doesn’t ‘mean’ anything”, and it doesn’t—it’s just a photo of something that caught my eye.

I shared the photo because I like to encourage others to do the same thing. It begins with looking at ordinary things that can turn out to be unordinary, whether because of lighting, or composition, anything really. Then, take a photo and share it. It doesn’t have to be great art or anything, just something that catches our eye at the time.

I think that matters because it can encourage us to look at the world around us—to really look at it. If we do, we might actually make some great art. Or not. Either way, the practice is good.

So, I grabbed my cellphone, and shot several photos to get it just right—something that digital photography makes very easy to do, and smartphones make easier still. I don’t share all the photos I take, but every once in awhile, I do, even when it doesn’t “mean” anything.

Sometimes a photo can be just a photo.

Much damage done

When the news broke that actor Jussie Smollett was accused of staging a racist and homophobic attack on himself, resulting in charges being filed against him over the false police report about it, the reactions were mostly what one would expect. The worst reactions were the partisan attacks, because they contributed nothing to the discussion and just added more pain. A lot of people were hurt by his actions, but the damage probably won’t be long-term, nor what most pundits suppose.

The fact that Smollett brought supporters of the current occupant of the White House into his scheme resulted in the inevitable verbal attacks from them. Them doing that was understandable, since they’d been blamed for something that never happened. But I saw many instances of them taking that complaint too far, turning it into a general attack on “liberals” for every grievance, real or imagined, since their guy took power.

The worst thing that Smollett did was to create doubt in people’s minds about the legitimacy of every accusation of hate crimes, including those including, but not limited to, Rightwingers as the perpetrators. Most such accusations will be real, something we know because the percentage of accusations that are hoaxes is astonishingly small. For that reason, experts believe that this particular false case won’t cause most people to disbelieve future accusations. After all, they point out, who now remembers the Tawana Brawley false rape allegations, or the Ashley Todd mugging hoax?

That’s the optimistic view. However, there’s the risk that the cumulative effect of high-profile hoaxes can undermine ordinary people’s ability to believe new accusations, even ordinary ones. Basically, the more high-profile, sensationalistic hoaxes happen, the less people will believe “ordinary” hate crime accusations.

Similarly, high-profile hoaxes like this can, over time, make ordinary people less likely to believe accusations of racist or homophobic attacks. They can even make people already inclined toward prejudice to reflexively disbelieve real victims who are black, gay, etc. Would that be a large percentage? We don’t know. But even a small number still undermines progress made over the years, and that’s never good.

On the positive side, experts say “Don’t expect the Jussie Smollett case to affect rates of reporting”, and that’s probably true: The likelihood that people will report is already low, so this sort of thing is unlikely to have much effect.

The USA has a big problem even recording hate crimes, as ProPublica pointed out in “Why America Fails at Gathering Hate Crime Statistics”, published in December 2017. The fact that victims may not bother reporting crimes and, if they do, the crimes may not be recorded as such, is a bigger problem, one that high-profile hoaxes are unlikely to affect very much.

So, Smollett’s alleged hoax (“alleged” because, of course, he has not yet been convicted of anything) is a bad thing because of its potential for negatively affecting perceptions of real victims. But it’s also very sad because obviously something went wrong with Smollett for him to EVER think this was in any way a good idea. Allegedly. I hope he gets the help he’ll need, especially since this will almost certainly destroy his career.

In a few months, this won’t be as big a deal as it seems at the moment, though the fervent fans of the current occupant of the White House will keep dragging it up. But the reality remains that a lot of people were hurt by Jussie Smollett’s actions, and that includes Smollett himself. There’s plenty of damage done, and a lot of healing needed. I hope that healing gets to happen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A tricky chat to encourage change

The video above, “A Tricky Chat”, is a TV ad for BCITO, a provider of training for the building and construction industries in New Zealand and is part of a larger campaign called “Tradeup”. Using coming out imagery, the ad promotes the notion that parents can help or hinder their kids in their choice to become tradies (people working in the building and construction trades). It’s a good ad campaign, and a necessary thing to do.

There’s a critical skills shortage in New Zealand for people trained in building and construction trades, meaning that the Government must allow large numbers of foreign workers into New Zealand to meet demand. There’s also a problem that a low birthrate sixteen years ago means there’s a shortage of young people to enter training programmes. The ad campaign hopes to change that.

Studies have found that parents and teachers play a large role in steering kids in career directions, and with the age-old prejudice against the trades, kids are often dissuaded. And yet the first two years of training is free, so the young person can end their training with skills—and no debt.

In recent decades trades fell out of favour as something for kids from lower classes, and many of them were seen as not being bright enough for university. That classism and narrow mindedness is another factor that’s led to the skills shortage.

The irony is that anyone who’s ever needed a tradie—as we often have—can find it very difficult to find one who is free to do the job in a reasonable amount of time. So, they’re valuable not just for industry, but for ordinary people, too, and that means that increasing the number of tradies is a very good idea. I hope the ad campaign helps with that.

There are shorter versions of the ad, too. First a 30-second version:

A 15 second version also includes a bit not in the longer versions:

A different 15 second ad highlights education:

Making changes to Facebook that makes more change

Plenty of people complain about Facebook, how it treats its users, how it influences society at large, it’s loose tax-paying habits, any number of things. Those are all beyond our individual control, but the other thing that people also complain about—our personal experience of it—can be modified a lot, and doing so can produce unexpected results, something I recently found out for myself.

About a week ago I got an alert from Facebook at the top of newsfeed. It invited me to take part in a survey of Facebook users. So, I did. And, I wasn’t particularly kind, especially about their trustworthiness, whether they cared about their users, those sorts of things. I bet they were all pretty common responses.

However, it also asked what they could change about the user experience (though I don’t think they called it that), and I answered that they should stop showing me old posts from the same people rather than new posts from other people. I knew they’d ignore it, just as they’ve ignored me telling them repeatedly to allow users to permanently change the newsfeed to “Most Recent” rather than “Top Stories”.

Naturally, there was no direct reply, however, a few days later there was another alert at the top of my newsfeed telling me I could prioritise who to see first. Users can select people and the pages they’ve “Liked” to appear in their newsfeed literally first. So, I selected numerous news sites whose pages used to be in my newsfeed all the time before some “upgrade” that Facebook did. I often got blog post ideas from the things those sites posted to Facebook.

As a result of the change, those news sites are all back. There are so many now that it’s almost too much to take in. The same people I interacted with the most were still in the mix, but, as before, none of the Facebook friends that I seldom interacted with were in my newsfeed.

One unexpected result was that with all those news sites in my newsfeed, I suddenly didn’t mind Facebook nearly as much. I still see posts from the people whose posts I want to see, but I’ve found it’s suddenly much easier to ignore posts that annoy me or that I might have been tempted to comment on, later realising the post was a day or more old (see complaint above).

Moreover, I also eventually didn’t care about skipping those posts, and, over a few days, I moved to not caring about checking Facebook at all. Instead of checking it several times a day, I might now check a couple times a day. On my first visit, in the morning, I click on story links I want to read, a bit like reading a newspaper—and that’s about it. I can imagine that there will be days I don’t check it at all.

Similarly, I don’t feel any need to post anything to my personal Facebook, which I think is because I don’t feel like visiting Facebook as much or spending a lot of time on it.

This may or may not turn out to be a permanent change, but it’s interesting to me that it happened at all. It’s not just how unexpected it was, but also that there was no self-control, self-restraint, or deliberate change in behaviour that was required. It all sort of just happened. I doubt Facebook will be happy this simple setting change has had this result.

In any event, I think it’s easiest to make the changes on the desktop rather than using an App (where it’s all buried in Settings and Newsfeed settings). On the desktop web page, click on the three dots next to “Newsfeed”, choose “Edit Preferences, then choose who you want to “See First”. It may take some trial and error (I don’t know that my settings are quite right yet), but they’re easy enough to change.

I’ll see where this goes. So far, so good.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Mayor Pete surprised me

I was surprised by Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend Indiana, three times. The first was when he announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for US president. The second was when I took the “I Side With” quiz and found he came out as my most-compatible choice. The third was when I started looking into who he is and what he says. It turns out, he’s impressive.

When I saw the news that he was running for president, my first reaction was, ”Who?!” When he topped my quiz list, my reaction was ”WTF?!”. I decided I better find out more about him.

The video up top is the first one I’d heard of was his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I liked what I heard, not just that he used the expression “the current occupant of the White House”, though that got extra points from me. It was the substance of what he said, how he put it, his poise, and confidence.

The second video I watched was a segment of MSNBC’s Morning Joe (which actually aired first, but I saw it second). He used some of the same talking points, which suggests he’s fully absorbed the points he wants to make, and can use them—and adapt them—as needed. He

I wanted to see the ABC This Week segment that Roger Green mentioned in a recent comment, but it’s not on YouTube. Instead, I watched a segment from CBS This Morning that aired before either of the other two:

Finally, I took a look at his first campaign video (below), because it’s good to see the way he presents his own message.

So, Mayor Pete surprised me three times. First when he announced, then when he topped a list of candidates compatible with my views, and again when I watched these videos. It turns out, he’s impressive. I don’t know where this campaign will go—and it’s far too early to focus on it—but right now, impressive is enough.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Internet Wading: Mind things

Much Internet has been waded since the last Internet Wading post in November. I skipped December because of Christmas, mainly, and January because of my birthday. I was busy a busy boy around those times. Even so, I still ran across interesting things. A couple of them are even in this Internet Wading post.

First up, Mockingbird Lane is a site at which 3D designer Marina Coates produces 3D versions of famous TV sitcom homes, replacing the fourth wall with an actual wall so they’re like real houses. She also often imagines what they might look like if they’d been remodelled. However, with the Brady Bunch house (video above), she realised that the exterior doesn’t make sense for the interior shown on the show. Still, making something more or less real out of something fake is interesting in itself.

Speaking of creative work, “Photographer Tracks Down People He Snapped In His Hometown Almost 40 Years Ago To Recreate The Remarkable Images”. Many of the images really are pretty remarkable.

A professional photographer tells us “Why I Deleted All of My Social Media and 60,000 Followers”. It’s got to do with the creative process itself. Does that means those with low engagement on social media are more authentic in what they create? Asking for a friend.

Which is a good point to talk about technology, starting with an easy one: “230 New Emojis in Final List for 2019”. I’m a big fan of emojis, actually. Emojipedia made a video about them, too:

Speaking of technology, “While we rage against the evils of media, Silicon Valley’s titans pollute our lives”. It offers some strategies (and reasons) for stepping back from social media.

But it’s not that easy for most people to quit social media. The folks at Digg put together, “The Bad Tech Companies We're Quitting In 2019 — And The Ones We Can't”. Quitting all tech companies/social media really isn’t an option for everyone.

Because we can’t resist all social media or tech companies, maybe it’s true that, “We need an ‘AI sidekick’ to fight malicious AI”.

Speaking of things most of us can’t do: “Don’t Reply to Your Emails”. Okay, than.

Back in things human, it turns out that “A Leaky Memory May Be a Good Thing”. However, there are memories we want to keep—or restore. A study has found that “Memories of music cannot be lost to Alzheimer's and dementia”. It says that, “The part of your brain responsible for ASMR catalogs music, and appears to be a stronghold against Alzheimer's and dementia.” It’s not a new article, but it’s interesting all the same.

Speaking of brains that don’t work correctly, a study has found a “Link between brain damage and religious fundamentalism established by scientists”. It’s safe to say that to some of us that may seem rather self-evident.

A more political story actually may be related: “Virginia Study Finds Increased School Bullying In Areas That Voted For Trump”. This is also not surprising. But maybe something else political is: “Eight Marxist Claims That May Surprise You”.

A local issue, though the article isn’t about New Zealand, looks at a question that sometimes comes up about this country is, why people choose to live near active volcanoes. Only a few volcanoes erupt at any time, and a volcano that’s technically active may by dormant for hundreds or thousands of years. Besides, as the article points out, referring to remarks from Jenni Barclay, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, “that the question of why people live near volcanoes could just as easily be posed to city dwellers, who face more crime and often, worse pollution. In both cases, residents are likely to respond that the benefits outweigh the risks.”

That’s it for this Wading in the Internet. Safer than volcanoes, it was.

Deciding on how to decide

The process we go through to make our own personal choices on the person we will support for US president is entirely, well, personal. It may be based on following the news, or maybe reading policy papers put out by a candidates, or maybe it’ll be listening to what other people have to say. However we get there, sooner or later we will get there.

For the 2020 election, Democrats have awesome choices, and we don’t actually HAVE to choose yet, of course. But I’ve started to form the process for how I’ll eventually choose by picking a few basic rules I’ll follow. It may or may not be useful to anyone else, but, naturally, I’ll share the rules anyway.

I made the graphic along the right side of this post from screen shots of my visit to the “2020 presidential quiz” on I Side With. Such things are always, um, interesting, but mostly just for entertainment, because I haven’t seen any evidence that their quiz produces accurate or valid results (or at least accurate or valid enough).

When I took the quiz, I always chose to answer more questions (more data increases the accuracy of the results—theoretically, anyway). I tried to be as honest as I could be, though there were times I was keenly aware of wanting to answer the exact opposite of the position the current occupant of the White House would espouse. Fortunately for me, this was my position on most issues, anyway.

I took the quiz mainly for fun, but also out of curiosity: What would the results show? Any surprises? Well, no, not really. I may not currently rank the candidates in just that order, but then, maybe I would? It’s far too early to tell.

Like Roger Green said in his post today, I can’t be too concerned about the candidates at the moment. However, there’s one thing that concerns me a LOT, and it’s that we’re being played already.

Some of what we’re seeing is the usual internal stuff, the fights that Democrats often get into with each other. I agree with Roger:
But too much of the rhetoric I’m seeing seems to tear down people before the race has even started. By this standard, NO ONE is qualified to be the nominee. One can write off everyone who’s running, or thinking about it, as too old, too shrill, too corporate, too Harold Stassen, throws things, is wrong on one issue or the other. Trump wins in 2020 against a fractured Democratic party.
That was the point of the two videos I shared yesterday, that we have to be better and do better this time. But, as we all know, and just like 2016, it won’t be just us trying to destroy Democratic candidates.

Today Politico reported that a “‘Sustained and ongoing’ disinformation assault targets Dem presidential candidates”. They reported that experts have seen “a recent surge in false narratives or negative memes against 2020 candidates,” adding:
A recent analysis from the social media intelligence firm Storyful detected spikes in misinformation activity over social media platforms and online comment boards in the days after each of the 2020 candidates launched their presidential bids, beginning with Warren’s announcement on Dec. 31.
They also report that in addition to attacks from foreign countries—especially, Russia, North Korea, and Iran—there are also disinformation and smear campaigns being organised on 4Chan and 8Chan:
Kelly Jones, a researcher with Storyful who tracked suspicious activity in the three days after the campaign announcements of [Sen. Kamala] Harris [D-CA], [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren {D-MA], Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), said she’s seen a concerted push over separate online message boards to build false or derogatory narratives.
Both Twitter and Facebook have promised that this time they’ll crack down on disinformation campaigns, especially from foreign countries. Can we trust them to do that? Of course not. Both companies rely on ad revenue that comes from eyes on the screen, and they have a strong incentive to ignore disinformation campaigns as long as possible, basically, until the mainstream newsmedia starts breathing down their necks.

The federal government is similarly of no help. In most states, the election system is still wide open to cyberattacks by foreign governments because the current occupant of the White House cannot fight it without implicitly admitting it happened in 2016, something he continues to deny. This is mainly because he benefitted from the foreign disinformation campaigns in 2016, something he also denies ever happened. He lies constantly about the extent to which his own campaign participated in those foreign disinformation campaigns, so that’s why he can’t do anything to protect the USA’s election system from foreign attacks, because, in his mind, it would be providing a tacit admission that the disinformation campaign happened, too.

Worse still, the evidence is that campaigns don’t yet understand that they’re engaged in global cyberwarfare in which they’re the targets and victims. Their own efforts so far have been limited to promoting a positive message, which, while vital, does nothing to stop the attacks nor to prevent the cancer of disinformation from being distributed widely.

In recent months I’ve become convinced that there’s a broader disinformation campaign going on against the Left. For example, there have been numerous attacks on the leadership of the Women’s March, alleging all sorts of bad beliefs and positions held by the leaders. But who benefits from dividing the movement? It’s not the supporters of the movement, clearly, nor opponents of the current regime generally. It looks like we’re all being played by supporters of the current regime—foreign and/or domestic—who have as their goal dividing the Left by trying to open up the very real fracture lines on the Left.

Dividing one’s enemy is one of the oldest political tactics in the book, and social media makes it easy to do that, and all without leaving any clear evidence that the other side is behind it in order to sow political discord among their adversaries. The Left makes it too easy for them by rising to the bait nearly every single time.

So, here are my personal rules for navigating this new political terrain:
  1. Assume that everyone is lying. Whenever we see something bad said about a candidate, especially Democrats, assume it’s all lies until and unless you can prove otherwise. Don’t share articles, memes, or rumours unless you’ve had a chance to verify the content is actually true. Because this takes time and effort, the short version is simple: Don’t share memes and links. Even if true, a negative meme/story may not advance the debate at all.
  2. Who stands to win? Whenever there’s a news report about a candidate or their policy proposals, even in the mainstream news, ask yourself who stands to benefit if the story is true? This is related to Rule 1, but it includes seemingly positive news stories, too—spin works in both directions, after all.
  3. Avoid social media. Obviously, using social media for personal stuff is different, but don’t share attacking memes or links (bears repeating), and don’t ever read and definitely never comment on things posted on Facebook by mainstream media sites (there be trolls and disinformation soldiers there). Those comments are left so the false narratives become more likely to spread by making the post look more “popular” than it actually is—using Facebook’s own algorithms to spread the fake news and disinformation (same thing happens on Twitter, but it’s often bots doing the dirty work). I’d add, think twice before commenting on anything about candidates that a Facebook Friend posts, too.
  4. Stick to discussing policy differences only. As Roger was saying up above, there are always personal things about a candidate that someone will be concerned about. However, dwelling on those aspects tears down a candidate without ever debating the issues. Stick to the facts and the policies. As the campaign goes on, we may come to sincerely believe that a candidate’s personal qualities or characteristics are very important, but that has to exist only within the wider context of whether that candidate would be a good president, whether their policies are good, those sorts of things.
  5. We’re going to elect a president, not a saint. Whoever gets the Democratic nomination will not tick all the boxes you’d like them to (look at my graphic again—no one matches me 100%). There may be things about the nominee you truly dislike, or that just make you uncomfortable. Get over it. There is no more important single duty of any American citizen than ensuring the defeat of the current regime in 2020. None. If you want to ensure the candidate who’s the best match for you wins the nomination, then get involved early: Give money, volunteer, register to vote—and be sure you’re eligible to vote in the Democratic Primary in your state (or participate in the Democratic Caucus). States have different rules, and it’s your job to learn what they are so you can take part. But whoever the nominee is, pledge you will vote for the Democrat no matter what. This Rule trumps, so to speak, all the others.
To sum up the rules: Distrust and Verify, Ask Questions About Every News Story, Opt Out of Social Media, Stick to Policy Only, and Pledge to vote for the Democratic Nominee, no matter what.

This is going to be a long campaign. The only upside I can see at this early point is that the more attention Democrats are getting, the less the current occupant of the White House will get, and that’s an absolutely good thing (and his inevitable Twitter Tantrums about Democrats will help motivate people to vote for change). We each need to find our own way to decide on a candidate to support, and to get through the disinformation campaigns. My real message here is, find the way that works best for you.

That, and vote Democratic as if your life depends on it, because it every well could.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Choosing the next president

Choosing the person to be the Democratic nominee for US President will take up more and more of the attention of the news media in the weeks and months ahead, which is a good thing. But it’s also important to win in November next year to make sure the current regime is replaced. There are some things that need to happen in order to win, and these videos are about two different aspects.

The video above from Robert Reich makes the case that the Democratic nominee doesn’t have to do what the media pundits say is the “only” way to defeat the current occupant of the White House. In fact, the nominee who will win shouldn’t do those things, he says.

I think Reich is on to something, because what he’s talking about are the forces that propelled the current occupant into office by winning just enough votes in just the right states. A Democratic nominee who ignores conventional wisdom to organise and motivate the people victimised by the Republican Party and the USA’s political elites—including the current regime—could indeed create a movement large enough and strong enough to end the USA’s national nightmare.

The second video, below, is from Bill Maher and, digressions notwithstanding, he makes a different, but equally important point about the Democrats running for president: “This time, let’s give them a chance. Let’s not eat our own.” This isn’t just good advice, it’s vital to defeating the current regime.

There’s an old saying about US politics that I’ve frequently quoted: Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. What that means is that unless Democrats “fall in love” with their candidate, they may not even be bothered to turn out to vote. But Republicans will vote for their candidates, no mater what. Obviously there are sometimes exceptions to that “rule”, but the Democratic side of it has usually proven to be completely true. This time it’s vital to break the “rule” and pledge to vote for the Democratic nominee, no matter who it may be. I will.

This time, things must be different than in 2016. These two videos talk about different aspects of this new reality that are closely related. I hope Democrats listen, whether they love their nominee or not.

A kitchen failure

Everyone who’s ever cooked or baked has had something that didn’t turn out. Sometimes the results are unpalatable or even inedible, but whatever they end up being, we try to learn and not repeat the experience. So it is, too, when we try a new product that we haven’t used before, and I recently had a kitchen failure with such a product, “Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken” (photo upper left), a vegan substitute for chicken made here in New Zealand.

First, though, a bit of background. I’ve been cutting back on red meat as part of doctors’ advice to eat the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet. It’s low in red meat, relatively low in poultry and dairy products, and with some fish, and a lot of plant-based foods. Obviously the easiest way to do that would be to adopt a vegetarian diet, but I like the meat-based dishes I’ve had my whole life, and there are still some questions about how safe a vegetarian diet is for someone with gout. Despite that, I’ve been looking for healthier versions of meals, like using Funky Felds Minced instead of beef mince (“ground beef” in the USA), something I wrote about back in December. We’re still using Minced and still enjoy it.

In that December post I also mentioned the chicken substitute, but it took me a little while to find because I didn’t realise it was frozen. Oops. When I did buy it, I brought it home and put it in the freezer, where it stayed. The truth is, I was leery of it. That’s not about the chicken substitute: I felt the same way before I used Minced for the first time, unsure of whether it would work in the recipe, what it would taste like, those sorts of things. In the case of Minced, it all worked out really well, but in the case of the chicken substitute, well, not so much.

I decided I’d use it to make a curry I usually make with chicken, using a commercial korma paste as the spice, along with coconut milk. A couple weeks ago, finally did that.

Inside the box.
I began by trying to cut the chicken substitute into smaller, more bite-sized pieces, as I would with chicken, but it was very difficult to cut while frozen. I found I could break it into chunks with my hands, and this is what I did. I didn’t thaw it first because the package instructions said it could be cooked from frozen.

The instructions also said to brown it first, much like the Minced package said, so I did that while I prepared the sauce part (the chicken goes in last for the real version, too). I put the chicken in, cooked it for a couple minutes before adding some water and the coconut milk, all according the recipe. With chicken, I would leave it to simmer until the chicken was fully cooked, then serve over some Basmati rice. This is where it all went wrong.

The dish absorbed all the liquid, making it dry and paste-like. It also didn’t smell of the korma paste. So, I added some coconut cream (rather than coconut milk) to try and increase the liquid without making it runny (coconut cream is thicker than coconut milk). The chicken substitute then broke up and became something like shredded chicken.

In the end, it had almost no flavour whatsoever—not korma taste, no coconut taste, not much of anything except a taste of yellow peas, which is what the chicken substitute is made from. On the other hand, the texture really was like chicken, as everyone I’d heard had said—shredded chicken, sure, but chicken nonetheless.

The experiment was a total fail. There are things I could—and, I now think, should—have done differently: I could have put the browned chicken substitute in and just warmed it through in the sauce just before serving (probably having thawed it before browning it). That never occurred to me because with real chicken part of the goal is to infuse it with all the lovely flavours, and also because simmering the Minced product in the tomato pasta sauce enhanced the flavour of the dish. I assumed, wrongly, as it turned out, that using the chicken substitute would be similar to using Minced.

Another option would be to use the chicken substitute in a dish in which shredded chicken is called for, and there are several of them. I have another packet in the freezer, so I’ll have to think about it some more. But I certainly won’t do the same thing the same way again.

I’ve had a lot of successes with meat-free dishes using alternatives to meat, and this is my first actual failure—a pretty good average, really. I’m not done experimenting yet, but I have to admit to being a little reluctant at the moment, even though it’s probably fair to chalk this failure up mostly to user error: There could have been a note on the package informing consumers that prolonged simmering in a sauce would cause the chicken substitute to break up.

The goal of all these recipe experiments has been to reduce the amount of meat we consume, not to replace it entirely. On Tuesday night last week I made the recipe again using real chicken, and it was lovely, as it always had been. It helped to erase the memory of the recipe fail from my mind and tastebuds.

I’ll be doing more recipe experiments in the months ahead, and I’ll talk about them too. When I eventually use that other package of the chicken substitute, I’ll add an update to this post with the link to the new one. For now, though, this is the only time I’ve used it.

Right now, though, it’s time to get back to my food lab.

The products listed and their names are all registered trademarks, and are used here for purposes of description and clarity. No person, company, or entity provided any support or payment for this blog post, and all products were purchased by me at normal retail prices. So, the opinions I expressed are my own genuinely held opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the manufacturers, any retailer, or any known human being, alive or dead, real or corporate. Just so we’re clear.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

AmeriNZ Podcast episode 342 now available

AmeriNZ Podcast episode 342, “Year’s mixed start” is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast. Who knows? There may be more episodes soon.

The five most recent episodes of the podcast are listed on the sidebar on the right side of this blog.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A rainbow in an email

Anyone with an email address probably gets marketing emails, at least some of which are from companies with whom we do business. We may or may not pay attention to them, but every once in awhile one stands out and practically forces us to pay attention. Yesterday I got one of that kind of marketing email.

Yesterday, I received an email from Animates, the pet store chain where I get the dogs’ food, and owners of the chain of vet clinics where we took the animals. There was nothing unusual about it, then I looked closer at the main image (photo up top). There was nothing particularly unsual about it: A large photo with a cute furbaby, this time with people, too. Toward the end of last year, they’d changed the format of their marketing emails (I’m a graphics and publishing professional—that’s the sort of thing I notice) to have a large header at the top with their headline, sometimes with graphics, other times a photo. So, it looked ordinary—and then looked more closely and I went, “hm…”

The lads seemed friendly, with the dog, yes, but also with each other. Were they just friends, or… Or maybe it was just intended as an inclusive marketing image for which everyone could write their own stories.

I also thought it might have something to do with Pride celebrations, since TVNZ changed their logo to one with Rainbow colours for the week. Turns out, is was promoting something very specific.

Animates had received Rainbow Tick Certification, which is “designed to make an organisation a safe, welcoming and inclusive place for people of diverse gender identity and sexual orientation.” They “sensitively evaluate your organisation’s level of LGBTTI inclusion in these five areas: Policy, Staff Training, Staff Engagement and Organisational Support, External Engagement, and Monitoring. If a business id found to meet the criteria in all those areas after a Diversity & Inclusion Audit, they can attain Rainbow Tick Certification. If not, they can take advantage of the organisation’s training programmes to help them pass the audit.

This graphic was near the bottom of the Animates email:

That graphic lead to a statement on their website:
We’re proud to announce that Animates is now Rainbow Tick accredited.

This is a significant milestone for the company demonstrating to our customers, the wider community and our team members, that Animates is an inclusive and welcoming organisation for people of diverse sexuality and gender identities.

The Rainbow Tick celebrates and recognises our commitment to ensuring our team members, customers, suppliers, and anyone interacting with the company can safely express their individuality; allowing them to be their authentic self, confirming our core value of authenticity.

Animates is proud to join the wonderful New Zealand businesses who are Rainbow Tick certified and encourage others to start the accreditation process.
So, an otherwise ordinary email marketing message made me stop for a moment to pay attention to it because of the choice of photo (always a good tactic, by the way—there’s some free processional advice for you), and when I then actually read the email I saw that the photo probably was related to me and my life as I’d wondered. Or, maybe it really was just intended as an inclusive marketing image for which everyone could write their own stories. Either way, it was good news to share—and their marketing worked because it grabbed my attention and got me pay attention to it.

Every once in awhile an email marketing message stands out and practically forces us to pay attention. This was one of those times, one of that kind of email. Well done, to them all, for getting the messaging right, and especially for the Rainbow Tick Accreditation.

Footnote: Because of the sad events of Thursday, I just didn’t have it in me to publish any posts yesterday. I originally planned a post for Wednesday night, but it needed some finishing touches, and I ran out of time to do it because I went to bed early (for me…) that night. I didn’t feel like finishing it the next day, or yesterday. But when I saw the email I mentioned in this post, I thought it would by a nice positive way to get back to blogging again. Because life goes on, doesn’t it? And, for me, that includes blogging.

And, no, I was not paid or compensated in any way to promote Animates or Rainbow Tick. I just wanted a nice story to return with.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Bella’s journey ends

Bella c2006–2019
Today Bella’s journey ended. What at first seemed like an improbable life together turned out to be a joy, and she became a treasured member of the family. But everything ends, and today Bella’s journey did, too.

It wasn’t easy when Bella first chose to live with us back in 2010. She used to bite and scratch me without any real warning. She’d jump up into my lap, lie down to sleep, and then suddenly get a crazed look in her eyes and chomp! For a time it was so bad that I thought we might have to send her away—I had scratches up and down my hands and arms all the time. She attacked Nigel, too, but I seemed to bear the brunt of it, probably because I spent more time with her.

Some time later, possibly after Sunny arrived to live with us eight months after Bella, Nigel changed our routine. Instead of just giving the furbabies a treat when he got home, as we’ve always done, he fed Bella her treats out of his hand, one at a time. That was when everything changed. Almost overnight, or so it seemed, Bella stopped attacking me.

She gradually became a more or less normal-acting cat, though with a few toothy lapses every now and then, but that was all over by the time she became sick. Over the past two and a half years, she’s been like any other elderly cat, fine at first, then sometimes having brief setbacks, then rallying. But the decline continued steadily, if slowly.

In recent months she pretty much stopped grooming. She also sometimes had difficulty walking. She struggled to jump up onto anything, like our laps, and if she did try to jump up, she sometimes couldn’t hold on and fell back onto the floor. Every now and then she also seemed to have trouble merely standing. All of that became worse as time went on.

A few nights ago, I found her down in the rumpus room by the dog door, which is normally covered by a baby gate to keep the dogs inside. She didn’t often go down there by herself, and certainly not at night. She was lying facing it the door, looking at as if she wanted to go out. It crossed my mind that she might be wanting to go find somewhere to hide so she could close her eyes for the last time.

I carried her upstairs and put her in her cat box (which was in the bath to protect it from the dogs – a long story) because I thought maybe she realised she couldn’t jump into the bath and wanted to go outside to go to the toilet. In recent weeks, I’d increasingly often heard her struggle to jump into and back out of the bath. In any case, when she was done that night, she waited for me to lift her out again. Afterward, she ate a little bit, but not much.

Over the past few days she was eating less than normal, though still drinking about much as water as always. Last night, she didn’t eat at all, and this morning she ate only when we soaked her food in water, telling us her tooth was bothering her again. When she was done eating and drinking some water, she walked over to the walk-in wardrobe and peed (which, of course, I cleaned up immediately with the special pet wet-vac).

And this is how we came to realise she was struggling more than living. She had trouble eating with the bad tooth that can’t be fixed (because she wouldn’t have survived the anaesthetic), and even if that got better as it did last time, it’d obviously return, maybe worse. She had trouble walking, she couldn’t jump any more—in short, she just no longer seemed like she could enjoy life, apart from when she was sleeping out on the deck in the sun. She rarely purred anymore, either, or, at least, not loudly, like she used to.

Because of all that, late this morning, I made that phone call to the vet to schedule that visit. I fucking hate doing that.

Bella put up no struggle when I put her in the cage, though she looked a little confused. We let the dogs sniff her in the cage, and we left.

We arrived there right on time for our 4pm appointment. We had a very kind and caring vet who checked her and said her kidneys had atrophied to maybe less than a quarter of their normal size, and she could smell the toxins on Bella’s breath—not just the bad tooth. The vet made sure we wanted to proceed, we signed the paperwork, and while the vet went to get a nurse to help her with the prep work, Nigel went to pay so that we could just leave afterward, when we’d be distressed.

I stayed with Bella and waited with her, petting her fur, talking softly to her, until the vet returned and gave her a sedative. Looking at her, I realised how tired she looked, and weak. It almost seemed as if she was ready to give up the fight, if cats thought like that. By the time Nigel got back a moment later, she was just beginning to get a bit dopey. She was relaxed and a bit high.

The nurse joined us and they shaved Bella’s front leg to insert the line. The vet explained that sometimes the veins of cats with kidney disease “burst”, as she put it, due to weakness of the vein walls. Bella never fought them during this, because she was doped up. The vet administered the fatal overdose of sedative, Bella stopped breathing, and her tail stopped moving. The vet waited a moment or two, got the stethoscope, listened in several places, and confirmed that Bella had died. She was peaceful, quiet, and really did seem as if she’d just gone to sleep. It was maybe 4:30pm, I'd guess (i didn't look at my watch until were leaving).

The vet left us alone for a few minutes. We shed our tears, petted Bella for the last time, and talked to her a bit. Then, when we were ready, we left. Nigel opened the door to the inner part of the clinic to let them know we were leaving, and we left through the the exam room’s other door, which led out of the clinic. I was last to leave, and I turned around, gave Bella one last pet, and as I was about to close the door behind me, I said “we love you, Bella”, which is what I always said to her when we were leaving the house and she was there watching. It seemed appropriate. We were very sad.

By this time, traffic was kind of heavy, so we stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things. We thought it would be a good idea to do something ordinary, and it was. While we were subdued and, obviously, still sad, it was a good distraction—or, it was until we turned into another aisle and were faced with all the cat food and treats (something we hadn’t been able to buy for two and a half years). Without saying a word, be both looked away. We passed that, literally and figuratively.

Once home, Nigel brought the empty cage back into the house and let the dogs sniff it again. They would have smelled Bella, seen that she wasn’t there, and they may have wondered about that. But I doubt they understood any more than that. We knew; that was enough.

Nigel picked up Bella’s food plate and the container we kept her food in so we wouldn’t have to look at it. I’ll take her cat box outside tomorrow and bury the contents (it’d be quite heavy for the rubbish). And then the house will be catless (she never liked cat toys, so we didn’t have any). I can’t imagine how that will feel, but I think there will be tears.

Today I wore a dark polo shirt. I felt I needed a dark colour because I was already sad, but I chose that one in particular because when Bella was somewhat younger and healthier she’d climb onto my lap and her claws got caught in the fabric and pulled threads out. In recent years, I’ve only worn the shirt around the house (because of those pulls), and every time I’ve put the shirt on, I’ve thought of Bella and those better times. Today, I wanted that, and even now, I still do. It’s kind of like a hug.

Bella lived long enough to live in this house and explore the lawns (something our former house didn't have), lie on the cement driveway, and also lie out on the second storey deck. As she grew sicker, that deck was one of her favourite spots, especially in summer. In the colder months, she slept in the sun against the sliding doors leading out to the deck.

Last night, Bella slept next to me all night long, which was unusual for her to do (she usually moved at some point during the night). I slept very poorly last night, partly because I was worried about her. When I got up this morning, I sat in my chair and Bella jumped up—or, rather, had me lift her up—into my lap. She slept there for quite awhile as I dozed off and on. Bella spent the rest of the day sleeping out on the deck, much of it in the sun. I’m so happy that she spent her last day doing things she loved doing.

Bella was different in so many ways from other cats we've both had over the years. A real lap cat, uninterested in hunting anything, playful with the dogs (up to a point…), totally unconcerned about a houseful of visitors, and she always seemed to be paying attention to me when I talked to her. She also talked to me. Until all that started to slowly fade.

She was very small and thin by the end, and we saw less of her than we had when she was healthy. And yet she filled the house so much that we definitely feel her absence, and no doubt will for quite awhile. But the dogs are still asking for attention, and giving it, and they deserve to have us carry on as before. But we’ll carry Bella in our hearts.

Despite the improbability that our life together would turn out to be a joy, it did. She became a treasured member of the family, and we will miss her so very much.

Bella’s journey
Bella’s condition
Bella’s new normal
Better Bella
Is this it?
Bella’s own plans
All posts about Bella are tagged “Bella”

I took the photo of Bella up top last July, the week of the second anniversary of her diagnosis. It’s one of my favourite of the most recent photos of her. Over the past six months, she started to look worse as time wore on. I prefer to remember her when she was still at her best. The photo montage of Bella at the bottom of this port is from January 2015. It’s always been one of my favourites of her.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The good night

Sometimes, life just is. There aren’t any special events or special meanings, just life. Sometimes that’s the best thing, and last night was like that.

The caption to my Instagram photo above is pretty self explanatory, but, as is so often the case, there’s more to it. It came at the end of a day in which I was tired, not from doing all the much, really but tired nonetheless. I’d done some research for a blog post I was going to work on that evening, but, as with the night before, I was just too tired when evening came round. So, I gave it a miss.

I needed to hang up the shirts that were sitting in the washing machine, and that’s why everything I talked about in the photo caption happened. Once I was back upstairs, and Leo had trotted off to bed, I finished up some chores, like washing some dishes, before I headed off to bed, too. A perfectly ordinary night.

But sometimes, especially when I’m tired, a quiet, ordinary night is just what I need: No demands, no deadlines, no pressure, not burdens, just life. That actually happens far more often than not, of course, but sometimes typical nights are especially welcome.

Sometimes, life just is. There aren’t any special events or special meanings, just life. Sometimes that’s the best thing, and last night was like that.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sunday morning break

Sometimes the things we do a lot become the things we seldom do. We may intend for that to happen, but other times it just happens. The photo above is really about the latter, about realising a change had happened, and about changing that for one day.

As I said in the Instagram caption, we used to got our to breakfast or lunch (or a combination) fairly frequently. And then, we didn’t. It wasn’t on purpose or planned, it just happened. Or, it didn’t happen. Either way, this isn’t a return to our former ways, unless it turns out to be, of course. That’s the thing about this sort of situation: If we didn’t plan to end it, we don’t necessarily plan to resume the things we did before.

One reason I think today’s outing may not mean a resumption of weekend meals out is that it’s more involved now than it used to be. At our previous house, we had dozens of cafes with a few minutes' drive of our house. At our current house, we have four within 15 minutes. Add another ten minutes and the number jumps pretty dramatically, but that would be a bigger trip: We’re unlikely to make a 50-minute (give or take) round trip just for a meal. We might, but it’s more likely we’d do that only if we’re going shopping or something.

This means that over the past two years, our lack of a trips out just for breakfast/lunch is mostly because it’s not a simple thing anymore. On the other hand, when we do make one of these quick(er) trips, we’re supporting truly local businesses, and that’s a good thing.

Obviously, whether we go out for a meal or not isn’t important. At all. The world will neither thrive nor perish because of that, though local businesses might benefit a little if we go out. The point here is merely that there are times when the things we do a lot become the things we seldom do. Most of the time, we’re not aware of that, but sometimes, like I did today, we suddenly realise it.

And it really was a nice rural view we had today, on a warm, but not hot, brilliant summer day. That’s something I'll (probably?) never stop enjoying.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

The end of Google Plus

At a time when many people are talking about leaving some social media company or other, we’re seeing one begin the process of leaving us. Google+, the social network set up by Google to take on Facebook, is shutting down for ordinary people on April 2, and some of it is already gone. This isn’t the first time a social network has ended (it’s not even the first time for Google), and it won’t be the last. But this one has more repercussions than most of the others.

Google+ had people who used it all the time, but not many: “Low usage” was the reason Google gave for closing it down. However, it was used by people to log-in sites and it was integrated with other Google products, like Blogger. To me, it seems likely that the loss of those additional things will probably affect far more people than the demise of Google+ itself will.

The sign-ins will be a tricky thing. Google allowed people to use Google+ to sign into certain sites the same way people can use Facebook. Those sign-in buttons will be disappearing in the weeks ahead, though some sites may allow people to use their ordinary Google account to sign in. Google hasn’t said how many people will be affected. I don’t think I’ll be one of them; as far as I can remember, I haven’t used Google+ to sign into anything. But, I’ll find out soon, I guess.

A bigger deal will be the end of Google+ integration with Blogger. For example, Google allowed Blogger users to use Google+ comments instead of Blogger’s built-in commenting system (just as some sites allow the use of Facebook comments). The problem is that Google+ shut it down for Blogger on February 4, with Blogger reverting to the built-in system. Google said that the comments couldn’t be migrated to Blogger, so the legacy comments will be lost (though they can be downloaded with other account data before April 2). This doesn’t affect me because I never used that (instead, I use Disqus, which is independent of Google).

There were other, simpler things that do affect me. I realised there’d been a sudden change when I published a post on February 6 (February 5 in the USA) and got this alert above after I did (click to enlarge):

What affected me in this is the +1 button (similar to Facebook’s thumbs up or Twitter’s heart). I very seldom got a +1 on a post, so this wasn’t a big deal. However, the widget that showed people who followed the Blog on Google+ suddenly disappeared and was replaced with a simpler (and uglier) button that I assume will be removed on April 2 (for now, it provides a handy shortcut to the blog’s Google+ page). Still, not a drama.

It used to be that when I published a post I got a pop-up box allowing me to share the post to a Google+ page, and I did, copying the first paragraph and pasting in quote marks. I’d then copy and past that to use when I shared the post to the AmeriNZ Facebook Page. That’s now gone, though I can post manually by going to the Google+ page, and I’m doing that for now.

This gets at one of the really, really good things about Google+ that Facebook still lacks: The ability to format text in a post.

Google+ allowed uses to edit their posts from the beginning, and Facebook didn’t allow that until quite some time later. At the time, the only way to fix a typo on Facebook was to delete the post or comment and re-do it, which was really annoying. But Google + also allowed the use of italic and bold type within a post, something that Facebook STILL doesn’t allow, except in their little-used “Notes” function, something I guess they intended to be more of a blog-like thing than ordinary posts, which they want to be short and simple.

To see how this worked in real life, compare the shares of one of my recent posts on both Google+ and Facebook (click to enlarge):

Obviously, the graphics/publishing professional in me wants more control over the appearance of the type I use in my posts, and the pedant in me wants to be able to italicise things like titles. Maybe someday I’ll get to do that.

One thing I learned from my use of Google+ was that I should have set up single “AmeriNZ” page, rather than one for my blog, one for my podcast, plus the one Google set up automatically for my YouTube Channel (something I’ve never actually used). When it came time to set up a Facebook Page I set up one single page for, as I often put it, “all things AmeriNZ”—blog, podcast, and videos, even though at the moment only one of those three is an active endeavour. It’s much simpler and easier to maintain and update.

Overall, Facebook has always been easier to use than Google+, something that became more pronounced after a major overhaul of Google+ maybe a couple years ago. In fact, Google+ was so confusing after that overhaul that I pretty much stopped ever going to it there. Maybe it was similar for other users? If so, that would mean that Google wrecked its own product.

So, the loss of Google+ isn’t much more than a minor annoyance for me, fortunately, but I think it underscores an important point: We should never put all our online eggs in a single basket. We can’t do anything about it if Facebook or Twitter closes, but we can control the repercussions by having back up plans in place, and by using other services to help share the load, where possible, like using an independent commenting system, for example, or using a feed supplier in case I have to move my podcast in a hurry, for another example. If I got enough warning, I could easily adapt to any of my providers, paid or free, closing down. Technically, the end of Google+ is like that, too—I can adapt.

I hope the end of Google+ isn’t bad for many people, and I hope they headed the warnings and took steps long ago. This is really a warning to us all.

Friday, February 08, 2019

‘Let’s talk’

The video above, “Let’s Talk”, is an ad for OUTline, a phone support service for those dealing with LGBT+ issues, whether for themselves, a family member, or a friend. It was made by Spark New Zealand, a telecommunications company that is a sponsor of OUTline, and their ad agency, Colenso BBDO. It’s a very good ad.

There was an open casting call for the commercial last month, and it was scheduled for shooting on on January 23. They specifically said that they would love to include trans and non-binary people, and they did. All of which is the reason for the authenticity in the ad.

One of the things that makes the ad so strong, beyond its authenticity, is that it points out that sometimes the families and friends of LGBT+ people need support, and that OUTline can help provide that. This is particularly important since many people don’t know where to turn. Thanks to the ad, more will.

The ad comes not long after TVNZ finished screening the 3-part British TV series Butterfly, a show about an 11-year-old boy who decides to transition into a girl before any male development takes place. It received generally favourable reviews in the UK. Here in New Zealand, there didn’t seem to be a lot of noise about it. What this means is that maybe the ad won’t be as “controversial” as it otherwise may have been.

In fact, I only saw one negative comment about the programme, and that was on TVNZ 1’s Facebook Page when they shared the promo for the series. One person, who may or may not be a real person, scrawled in reply to a comment, “Trans and homosexuality [sic] is a mental problem, NO ONE is born this [sic].” As near as I can tell, that was it. Even New Zealand’s far-right “Christian” activist, who I frequently tussled with during NZ’s marriage equality debate, didn’t say anything about the show, as far as I can tell, even though he campaigns against trans people’s rights all the time.

When Spark posted the ad on their own Facebook Page, there were negative reactions, mostly religious-based, not surprisingly. Spark’s moderators delete hate speech, and while some of the negative comments were strident, and some were clearly bigoted, they weren’t hate-filled. Moderation of comments has that effect.

So, while things may be better here than in the past, and better than in many other countries today, that doesn’t mean everyone’s come along for the ride—yet. The show Butterfly didn’t really challenge people—they could always watch something else if they wanted to. This ad’s been shared online, but I’ve only seen it on broadcast TV once (and it was the short version), though that was on top-rated 6pm news show, TVNZ’s One News.

A realistic hope is that it may help people get used to the idea that trans people exist, and that they’re part of families. When that happens, when they see trans people as human beings, antipathy toward them will slowly begin to diminish. That’s too much to ask of one ad, but it’s a good place to start because its actual purpose is to help people dealing with LGBT+ issues to know they have a place to talk. I hope they do.