Tuesday, April 30, 2019

AmeriNZ Podcast episode 346 now available

AmeriNZ Podcast episode 346, “Busy April” is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast.

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

Making her bigotry an issue

I’d planned on trying to avoid posting much about individual Democratic presidential candidates because I’m neutral. However, today there was such vile bigotry directed at one candidate that it must be called out. Sadly, I’ve had to do that for decades. Worse still, I can see this won’t be the last time I’ll need to do.

Today MSNBC anchor Kendis Gibson hosted a discussion about Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s religion, and how that relates to religious conservatives (video above). The segment began well, with Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, who has long talked about Christianity and gay people (I featured a video of him on this blog back in 2012). He discussed how Mayor Pete’s religious views fit into certain Christian views, and how Frankie Graham’s recent loopy attacks on Mayor Pete shows Graham is desperately out of step with core Christian tenets, and how his rank hypocrisy about the current occupant undercuts all his arguments against Mayor Pete.

The next guest was a “conservative radio host” who is so unimportant that she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. She attacked Mayor Pete for “making his gayness an issue". And how did he do that? He dared to share a kiss with his husband when Pete announced his candidacy! Shock! Horror!

“Clearly Pete Buttigieg has made his gayness an issue in this campaign,” she educated us. “He’s brought his husband up on stage. They shared a kiss during his announcement.”

Gibson pushed back, pointing out that Mayor Pete didn’t make his gayness an issue any more than a straight person makes their straightness an issue, and that he barely mentioned that he’s a gay person in his announcement. The “conservative radio host” doubled down:
I think he made it a huge issue. He talked about his spouse, Chasten, and the fact that they were, um, you know, married. And let’s be real: This is not a typical candidate. We haven’t had had a gay presidential candidate ever in the history of the United States. And he made it an issue. He could have ignored it. He could have said nothing. And people would have speculated about it. But he made it an issue. So he wants that to be an identifier.
Gibson could be heard laughing with incredulity at the “conservative radio host”. Matthew Vines, meanwhile, could be seen in split-screen shots apparently trying to avoid smiling, much less laughing at the “conservative radio host” and her moronic statements. He succeeded, and only reacted at the very end when he nodded in agreement with Gibson’s pushback when he said that Mayor Pete “only did what many straight straight couples have done,” to which the “conservative radio host” responded, “Well they shared a kiss on stage, which is unusual.”

Here’s the thing. There are many Rightwingers in the USA who agree with her distaste for the very existence of openly gay people, and the older they are, the more likely they are to hold fast to such antique ideas: Younger people of whatever political leaning couldn’t possibly care less, and they don’t think a gay couple sharing a kiss is “unusual”. Maybe older Rightwingers just need to get out more.

What’s so deeply offensive about the comments from that “conservative radio host” is what she was really saying when she declared that Mayor Pete “could have ignored [the fact he’s gay]. He could have said nothing. And people would have speculated about it. But he made it an issue.” What she was really saying was that if he was deeply closeted, like many Republican politicians have been, it would have been different and somehow better. Seriouslly?!

How, precisely could he have “ignored it”? He’s married to a man, he’s a public figure who is already known as being a married gay man. Was he supposed to just pretend none of it’s true? That he’s really just a bachelor waiting for the right girl to come along? Because what she’s really saying is that he has to lie about himself in order to make her feel better. But if she’s threatened by a mere kiss, what does that say about how she feels about gay people in general?

We are well past the time when gay people have to lie about who they are in order for heterosexual snowflakes on the Right to feel comfortable in their safespace of ignorance. Gay people are as fully human and complex as heterosexuals are, and when someone objects to a gay person being fully human, they’re not being rational: They’re being bigots.

I’m so sick of having to call this shit out over and over again, as I’ve been doing for more than 35 years. Heterosexuals do not get to tell gay people how to be gay people. They do not get to object when a married gay couple shares a kiss just like a married heterosexual couple does. And they damn sure don’t get to complain about a gay person “making being gay an issue” just by being, you know, gay when it’s clearly the heterosexual who has made it “an issue”.

I don’t know who that “conservative radio host” is or why she’s used as a pundit, but based on her, um, "contribution" to that segment, I hope I never see her again. When I watch a political discussion, I want to hear the speakers on all sides of an issue, whether I agree or disagree with them, offer intelligent, reasoned, and rational commentary. Rank, bald bigotry is none of those things.

People can agree with Mayor Pete (or any of the other candidates) or not. They also don’t have to like any particular candidate, and that can even based on nothing more than feelings. But when talking about candidates, especially when criticising them, doing so based merely on who they are is never an acceptable line of attack. Ever. Things like race, gender, age, religious belief (or lack of), class, and sexuality are never acceptable lines of attack.

There are things I like and dislike about pretty much every Democratic candidate for president. In fact, if they could all be mixed together and extruded, the result would probably be pretty much perfect for me. But that’s not how it works: We take the candidates in their totality, look at the issues they talk about and the vision they offer for dealing with those issues, and we make our choice. Who they are, the bits and pieces of their identity, may be interesting, but they're  NOT what we’ll be electing: We’ll be electing a whole human being. Rational people understand that—it’s too bad that “conservative radio host” can’t.

So far, I’ve ignored the personal attacks on the Democratic candidates, most of which have been merely silly or childish. But today’s display of bald bigotry was so egregious that I had to respond. The worst thing, though, is that this won’t be the last time I’ll need to do that because the human capacity for bigotry, and people's need to express it, seems to be unlimited. And that means I'll have to talk about individual candidates more than I intended to.

Welcome to the 2020 US Presidential Election campaign.

If the video above doesn’t play, watch it on the MSNBC site.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The nice, long break

Today was the day a lot of New Zealanders went back to work and their normal schedules. The new school term began to day, so kids headed back to school after their break. It’s been a nice, long break for a lot of people, a rare coincidence that doesn’t often happen outside of the Christmas/New Year period, and it was very welcome.

This year had a coincidence of holidays that really benefitted most people: The two public holidays at Easter happened to fall close to Anzac Day, and, after adding in this past weekend, workers could take ten days off but only use three annual leave (vacation) days to do it. Add to that the fact that all this happened during school holidays, and there were some pretty happy families around. The weather was even pretty decent during the break.

Nigel’s Mum stayed with us a few days at the week before Easter, and that weekend we took her to Nigel’s sister’s house where she stayed a few more days. We even had a visit from other family members on Saturday when they stopped in for a little while.

We did very little the week after Easter—pretty much as little as possible, actually—and it was great. We rested, mucked around with little personal projects, and otherwise just enjoyed ourselves. Aside from the unfortunate incident on Thursday evening, the whole break was uneventful.

There was some rain, and the temperatures are definitely cooling, but we still have pretty good weather. It’s that odd time of year when it’s warm enough to open up the deck doors and the windows in daytime, but at night we either need to turn on the heat or maybe put another blanket on the bed. Then, the next day, we open up the house again. In a few short weeks, give or take, it’ll be too cold to open up the house, and the heat will be on all the time. Then, in about six months, in Spring, we’ll have the other, similar odd time of year. But the holiday the end of October, Labour Day, is one day, and part of a three-day weekend—there’ll be no long break to help us enjoy the mild weather.

The Easter Bunny visited our house again this year (photo above). He told me he didn’t bring any Cadbury products because he felt we Kiwis had suffered enough. The marshmallow eggs are by Rainbow Confectionary Company, a New Zealand owned and operated company founded in 1884 and based in “the coastal Steampunk capital of Oamaru”. Their eggs were ranked first on a list published by The Spinoff last month, following years of betrayals by Cadbury, especially its recent insult to the country’s love of marshmallow Easter eggs. The two hollow chocolate Kiwi from NZ company Whittakers are something we’ve actually had before, and they’re probably more appropriate than the Swiss company Lindt’s chocolate bunnies that we’ve had in previous years (like in 2010, then again (for sure—maybe there some unrecorded in between?) in 2015, and then again last year – and this is why I blog about everyday things: There’s no way I’d remember all that any other way). The little eggs were branded M&Ms, and included some other varieties in the mix.

It took us a week to get through all the chocolate. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, too fast or too slow.

Our next break is the three-day weekend of the Queen’s Birthday public holiday, which is June 3, five weeks from now. The next one after that, Labour Day in October 28 is exactly six months from today, and 21 weeks after Queen’s Birthday. And that’s why weather alone isn’t the only reason that I hate winter…

In any case, it was a nice, long break, and was very welcome.

NZ’s Census disaster

The 2018 New Zealand census was an utter disaster—there’s no other way to fairly describe it. From record-high non-response rates, a high rate of non-completion, and data of such poor quality that Statistics NZ (Stats NZ) has had to “fill in the gaps” from other sources. Some of the data will be released in September, but the rest, such as it is, won’t be released until mid-2020, more than two years after Census Day, and less than two years until the next one. What’s the point?

One in seven people failed to complete the 2018 NZ Census, a fact that had to be dragged out of Chief Government Statistician Liz Macpherson under a threat of being held in contempt of Parliament for her continual refusal to release the figure. About 700,000 people didn’t complete the census, of whom 240,000 people began the form and failed to complete it, and 480,000 people missed it entirely (we, of course, completed the census).

How did this happen? We don’t know yet. The answers will come from an independent review—which isn’t due until July. In the meantime, it’s widely believed by us ordinary people that two of the factors were that the 2018 Census was, first, that this was the first conducted entirely online—there was no mass distribution of paper forms this year. Second, the previous National Party-led government, which drew up the budget that funded the 2018 Census, underfunded the whole thing (they deny this, of course).

The implications of this are that much of the data will be of little or no value, and that could include answers on things like smoking and religious identity. Those sorts of things are valuable indicators of the social changes in New Zealand, and the sort of thing that people like me use to work out where New Zealand society is headed. For example, the fact that New Zealand was becoming more and more secular meant that it was unlikely there’ll be any strong religious objection to marriage equality, and, in fact, there wasn’t.

The only data we have is based on the 2013 Census with some extrapolations since, and it shows that New Zealand is 47% Christian, which means the percentage that call themselves that, regardless of whether they actually have any affiliation with or practice the religion. Combined with the roughly 6% who have a non-Christian religion, roughly 53% of New Zealanders say they have a religion. At the same time, 41.92% of New Zealanders say they have "No Religion", a figure that obviously includes atheists and agnostics, but that also includes people who are religious or spiritual, but who have no affiliation with any organised or obvious religion.

There’s been speculation for years that that at some point New Zealand will become majority “no religion”, and it was expected to be reported in 2013 (it wasn’t), and then maybe in the 2018 Census. Now we know that whatever is reported is unlikely to be reliable. So, we now have to wait for the 2023 Census, by which time New Zealand will probably be majority non-religious.

Here’s the big issue, though: How do we know for sure that any of the other data is accurate? In some cases Stats NZ basically “patched” the data with information from other government sources. Somehow that just doesn’t sound very reassuring.

The Census data is used to decide where government money should be spent, to evaluate how effective government programmes are, where new schools should go, and local governments use the data to work out things like where parks should go. The data is also used to determine how electorate boundaries are drawn, leading some to demand that the current boundaries be retained until after the 2023 Census when—we hope!—the data will be more robust and reliable. I don’t know that’s necessary, not if Stats NZ can assure us that data is sound, but that could be a big ask.

There’s one final aspect of this that’s slipped through the cracks: This disaster has shown that we’re nowhere near ready to go online-only for important things like the Census—or voting. I’ve become more and more pessimistic that an online voting system can ever be made safe from hacking, and this debacle shows that we can’t even be sure that it’s robust enough to ensure every vote—or, rather, every voter—is counted. In any case, there’s clearly a lot more work that has to be done before we can move to online voting.

For me, this disaster is mainly just a matter of frustration and disappointment, because it means we won’t have the useful data on society and population that we normally get from a census. For all of us, though, this disaster will have big implications because it will often leave government in the dark as they make decisions, and that’s bad for us all.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Weekend Diversion: ‘Mama’

The video above is the newest single from UK electronic music band Clean Bandit, “Mama”, from their second studio album, What Is Love? The first time I saw the video, I was surprised—not because of the song itself, but that the video hadn’t become the source of yet another of the USA’s frequent Rightwing meltdowns over something in pop culture. The reason it didn’t is probably that it and Clean Bandit aren’t well-known there. Maybe that’s a good thing?

The song itself features British singer Ellie Goulding. It’s about—and while this isn’t any sort of spoiler, this is a good point to watch the video before I talk about it—the song is about "a boy whose power was taken away from him as a child and he grew up determined to take that power back." It’s clear, however, what the video is about.

The video has been described as “mocking” the current occupant of the White House, but much of the imagery is drawn from what has been reported of his life and childhood to show would could happen to someone like him. There’s some imagination involved, but the video doesn’t seem mocking. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the kid in the video dealing with a terrible jerk of a father and a cold mother, something that’s been reported as being true about the real guy’s real life. This is something they explain in the “Making of” video they also posted (which is at the bottom of this post).

In any case, the point of the video can be seen in the very last scene.

The song hasn’t charted in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, but reached Number 98 in the UK, and Number 19 on the USA’s Dance and Electronic Music chart. The album What Is Love? reached Number 48 in Australia, 50 in Canada, 33 in New Zealand, 9 in the UK, and 141 on the USA’s Billboard 200.

I last featured a Clean Bandit video, “Symphony”, two years ago this month, and, like this one, I shared it alone. In both cases, it was to showcase the video, but in this case, it has a political aspect that may make putting it alongside another one somewhat problematic, so the “making of” is a better option.

Barking in heavy rotation

The video above is an ad that’s running in heavy rotation on New Zealand television. It’s only been running a couple months, but good grief it seems a lot longer! The reason isn’t the heavy rotation (with some brief breaks), it’s because it’s the first TV ad that’s ever made one of our dogs bark. In heavy rotation.

The ad is part of series of ads for the company using the theme of rhyming/repetition to drive home the name of the company or, in this case, what they’re offering (I shared their first ad like in the series back in September, 2015). Obviously, that’s not the problem, it’s the very start of the ad: The doorbell.

Every single time, without fail, that Leo hears the doorbell sound at the start of the ad, he starts barking. I know it’s literally every time because when I played the video above in order to check that it was the same as what’s played on TV, Leo started barking at the sound of the doorbell.

Leo does this because they had a doorbell at his first home. We don’t have one at the moment, and haven’t in all the time he’s lived with us, but he remembers the sound and it makes him nuts. Earlier this evening, the ad came on, Leo ran down to the front door barking, and stayed there making little “mffff” noises for quite awhile, even though I was sweetly calling him to come back upstairs, that everything was okay, the usual. He only came back up because he thought he might miss out on some treats he thought the other dogs were getting (they weren’t getting any, but he thought they were).

None of the many dogs we’ve shared our lives with over the years have ever done this, probably because we didn’t have doorbells then, either. That’s by coincidence, not design, but it did save me from dreading a commercial coming on.

So, when I turn on the TV for the evening news, I know this commercial will probably be shown and Leo will bark. And now I know that I have to be careful about even playing YouTube videos. It’s such a burden!!

Seriously, though, other people have problems with dogs getting into the rubbish, chewing up things in the house, digging holes in the yard, or escaping, and we have none of those problems (we had two beagles who used to escape all the time, which I can attest was a lot worse than a dog barking at a TV commercial…).

It’s actually kind of funny that he does that, and that he hasn’t worked out that there’s never anyone at the front door when he hears that sound. But I also think he’s a lot more entertaining than the commercial is. It’s in heavy rotation, after all.

Truth and meme-ing

Memes are clearly the most popular way to spread political propaganda, which makes sense, since they’re designed specifically for sharing on social media. Memes were one of the tools the Russian government used to steer the 2016 US presidential election, and they’re still beloved by activists on the Right and Left alike. They make short, punchy, shareable arguments about an issue without the person sharing having to back it with evidence or reason—perfect for the social media age, in other words. But they also seldom tell the truth, even when they’re factually accurate. Yesterday I saw a perfect example of that.

When I saw the meme above yesterday, I saw it for what it was—propaganda—and also knew that that it was factually true. However, something about it bothered me, though at the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It turns out, there’s a LOT that’s wrong with it.

The meme is made up of edited screenshots of two different Tweets: The top part of the meme is taken from a Tweet by the USA’s National Public Radio (stylised as “npr”), which refers people to an article on their site, “Democrats Consider: Is A White, Straight Man The Safe Bet Against Trump?”. The bottom part of the meme is taken from a Tweet by Oliver Willis, who describes himself as “Senior Writer at Shareblue”. Both Tweets are genuine, and the editing of the pictures didn’t alter their points.

The problem with the meme’s point—Willis’ Tweet—is that it’s a “gee whiz statistic”, something that sounds very profound and important—until you think about it and realise it says absolutely nothing, even though it’s factually true: Obama’s popular vote in 2008 was 69,498,516 (and it remains the highest popular vote that any presidential candidate has ever received). In second place was Obama in 2012 with 65,915,795, and then Hillary Clinton in 2016 with 65,853,514. However, in 2008 John McCain received just under 60 million votes, in 2012, Mitt Romney got just under 61 million, and in 2016 the Republican got just under 63 million. In full context of the elections, the 65 million plus votes the Democrats got is less astounding than it sounds, apart from 2008, which was an historic year with record levels of interest and engagement.

Also, the fact that the Democratic candidates have each won more than 65 million votes in each of the past three presidential elections isn’t the least bit surprising: The vote has been increasing as the population increases. It also doesn’t tell the whole story: The number of votes going to the Republican candidates has also been increasing, while Democrats’ vote totals have been decreasing.

Third, and most important of all, the popular vote is irrelevant: Americans don’t elect their president, they elect the people who elect their president through the Electoral College. And that is why this meme is so silly: While the point it makes is factually true, it’s also completely irrelevant.

To win a presidential election, a candidate need not receive the most popular votes—the current occupant of the White House didn’t, after all. Instead, they just need to win enough votes in the right states. Those states are called “swing states” because they can swing back and forth from supporting the Republican or Democratic candidate. They matter because both parties have states that are firmly supporting them, usually putting them beyond the reach of the other party, but neither candidate can win with their strong states alone—they need to win some of the swing states.

So, the only states that actually matter in a presidential election are the ones that up for grabs to some extent or other: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Those dozen or so states are the ones the candidates visit, and where they spend their money. The other 38 states just sit back and watch the show.

Among those swing states are six that are often crucial in presidential elections: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They were certainly important in all the presidential elections so far in the 21st Century.

Here are the popular vote percentages in those six states for the past three presidential elections:

Apart from the historic year of 2008, the state percentages track reasonably close to the nationwide percentages, though in all three elections both candidates outperformed the average in some states, underperformed in others.

However, when we look at the popular vote in those same states in 2016, something different emerges:

What this chart shows is that a shift of 77,774 votes in three states, with a combined total of 48 Electoral College votes, would have elected Hillary Clinton US President. This is because after the election was done, the Republican won office with 306 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232 (due to Faithless Electors, the final totals were reduced to 304 and 227, respectively). That means that if those three states alone had gone for Clinton, on Election Night she would have been elected president with 280 Electoral College votes. And that is why Swing States matter so much.

There are plenty of reasons why the 2016 election was so fraught, not the least that both the Republican and Democratic nominees were unpopular. The evidence for this isn’t voter turnout, which was pretty similar in both 2016 and 2012: 55.7% in 2016 and 54.9% in 2012 (both were significantly lower than the 58.2% turnout in 2008). Instead, the evidence comes from the performance of the two main minor party candidates, the Libertarians’ Gary Johnson and the Greens’ Jill Stein.

The votes for both Johnson and Stein skyrocketed in 2016 as compared to 2012: In 2016, Johnson’s nationwide vote total was up three and a half times what it was in 2012 (4,489,341 in 2016 v. 1,275,971 in 2012), and Stein’s was 3.1 times higher than in 2012 (1,457,218 v. 469,627 in 2012). While some centrists may have voted either way, it’s fair to assume that most of Johnson’s increase came from Republicans who couldn’t stomach their Party’s nominee. Similarly, Stein’s increase came from those who could not vote for either the Libertarian or Democratic nominees, but not all of them were necessarily Democrats: Her totals also included disaffected supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

This defection to minor parties is, ultimately, what cost the election for Clinton. Look again at the chart for the popular vote in 2016, and in two of those three states with Clinton’s smallest margin of loss, Clinton could have made up the deficit with votes from Stein alone, and Stein still would have performed better than in 2012. The one state where that wouldn’t have been true is Pennsylvania, where Stein’s votes could have erased Hillary’s deficit, however, the leftover would have been less than Stein received in 2012.

Here’s what all this tell us. First, Clinton ran a terrible campaign. Had she not been in such a week position going into the election, those three states wouldn’t have been lost, nor the election. To be sure, part of the reason she had so much trouble was because of eight years of intense efforts by the Republican Party to destroy her through persecution and inquisitions, and because the Russian government worked with the Republican campaign to ensure Clinton lost. But those factors alone were not enough, and focusing on them lets her campaign off the hook for having made some colossally stupid decisions in the final weeks, giving the Republicans nearly free reign in those three states. The result is history.

Now, look again at the percentages from 2008-16: We see that it’d steadily become harder for a Democrat to win. We know that part of the reason for that is that far too many Democratic voters simply stayed home in 2012 and 2016, so getting them to vote is crucial in 2020. But what else is hidden in plain view?

North Carolina is probably lost, unless the candidate has overwhelming support like Obama in 2008—and even then, an absolutely terrible candidate like the Republicans had in 2016 still did better than Obama did in 2008. Sure, it’s still possible for the Democrat to win the state, given the right candidate and the right issues, but resources may be better spent elsewhere.

Beyond that, the figures do NOT indicate what kind of candidate would be best. It’s easy to see why some Democrats want a centrist nominee because they’ll need to win the swing states, and, considering the Republican won them all in 2016 despite having such a terrible person as their candidate, it’s not crazy to conclude a moderate is more electable in those states, and so, to the presidency.

On the other hand, Democrats on the Left think that a more Left-leaning candidate would be better in order to provide a clearer alternative to the Republican and his regime. Their logic is supported by the enormous energy that propelled Obama to victory in 2008, something the Left believes could happen again, but only if the nominee is Left-leaning.

There are problems with the logic of both.

Overall, Conservatives outnumber Liberals 35% to 26%, according to a Gallup report back in January. At the same time, the gap between Conservatives and Liberals has narrowed from 19 points in 1992 to 9 points today. So, both sides are right.

More relevant to why, precisely, so many Democrats say they want a Left-leaning nominee is that now, for the first time, a bare majority—51%—of Democrats identify as Liberal. Moreover, the percentage of Democrats that identify as Liberal has been rising steadily since 1994, and faster in recent years. Republicans, meanwhile, have steadily become more conservative since 1994, which surprises no one: Nearly three-quarters now say they’re Conservative.

Buried in all this, and in the meme that began this discussion, is the belief that the Democratic nominee “must” be a woman or minority to win election, but that’s just an ideological position. Take women voters, for example: They’re pretty evenly distributed between Liberals, Moderates, and Conservatives. Black people tend to be Moderate (41%), then Liberal (31%), and then Conservative (22%). Which means that both women voters as a group and black voters as a group are more conservative than Democrats, but more Liberal than Republicans, and it's more than a little insulting to suggest that they'll put their own political leanings aside to vote someone just because the candidate is "like" them.

Based on ideology alone, and all other things being equal, it appears that a Centrist Democrat could have broader appeal than a Liberal—in the General Election. A Left-leaning candidate could do better in the primaries, where voters are more Liberal than the general population, but if they can’t credibly tilt back to the Centre after nomination, they could face a hard time in the General Election.

All of which means that the meme was factually correct, but it’s irrelevant because that’s not how presidents are elected. It’s real point, that a woman or minority can do well is also true, but ignores the fact that neither Obama nor Clinton ran as actual Liberals, but, rather, more of somewhat Left-of-Centre candidates, and the ideological make-up of the general electorate suggests that this mattered.

Have said all of that, there are any number of things could completely change the current dynamic. One candidate could pull well ahead of the others, some could start dropping out, or a new candidate could enter the race and electrify everyone. Anything’s possible, as 2016 proved.

Unfortunately, memes can’t adequately express variables, uncertainties, or nuance. It’s best to give meme’s a miss and stick with all the facts, messy as they can be, and not rely on some cartoonish reduction of them.

Additional references:

"List of United States presidential elections by popular vote margin"Wikipedia
"2008 United States presidential election"Wikipedia
"2012 United States presidential election"Wikipedia
"2016 United States presidential election"Wikipedia

Friday, April 26, 2019

Major kitchen failure

Not everything will go smoothly when we try to make major dietary changes, especially when that means going into unfamiliar territory. This could mean trying to make foods from another country or culture’s cuisine when we’re not from there or didn’t grow up with it, but it can also mean changes within one’s own cuisine, such as, adding vegetarian and vegan dishes to an otherwise omnivorous diet. Last night I had a major failure.

Back in February, I had what I called “A kitchen failure”, which was really about “user error”: I was unfamiliar with the product and used it incorrectly. Contrast that with the unqualified success I’ve had since I started using a meat-substitute product called “Minced”.

And then came last night.

Well, before that, it’s necessary to back up a bit further. A couple months ago, I ordered-in groceries and put Minced on the list, however, Countdown was out of it (only a few locaitons carry it, apparently) and substituted a mince substitute a product called Quorn. We made nachos using taco spice mix from Old El Paso, a product we used in the past with actual beef mince. The result was disappointing: Very weak flavour compared with beef. Still, the texture was good.

Last week I used it again in a Bolognese sauce, and it wasn’t nearly as nice as when I make it with Minced. Again, the product seems to suck-up or neutralise the flavours.

So, last night I tried making nachos with it again, this time with a New Zealand-made nacho spice from Farrah’s. It said “Mild” on the label, but I hoped it might be a bit stronger. It turned out to be not mild, nor medium, but hot, possibly because it has two types of chili in it, and that turned out to be too much. It was very unpleasant, and the Quorn was still tasteless.

But as unpleasant as that was, the worst was yet to come.

About an hour or so after I finished, I started feeling extremely unwell. This kept getting worse until I went to the toilet, leaned over and dry heaved, with all of my abdominal muscles, my diaphragm, and every other related muscle contracting violently. This was repeated twice more, and the last time, when the last of my dinner was finally gone, the sick feeling ended (though the sore abdomen lasted into today).

How could did this happen? I’d had Quorn twice before with no issues, so my first guess was that it was the spice mix, and there was some logic to this: It was a very hot mix, and so, had a lot of chili. The active ingredient in chili is Capsaicin, and too much of that “can produce nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain”, all of which I’d experienced. The problem is, it usually takes “large amounts” for that to happen, and while I definitely think the product had “large amounts” of chili, it’s doubtful that it actually did.

Which makes Quorn the suspect again. It’s made from mycoprotein, which is a form of fungus/mould. It can produce mycotoxin, which can produce allergic reactions including “abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting”. Again, that’s what I experienced.

Quorn insists reactions are extremely rare, and they apparently use varieties of mycoprotein that don’t produce mycotoxins, and that’s no doubt true—but does that mean it’s impossible? I don’t know.

So, the possible culprits are the chili in the spice mix, the mycoprotein in the Quorn product, or the combination. For all I know, maybe it was because I had the Quorn product once each in two consecutive weeks. All I know for certain is that my reaction had a sudden onset within an hour or so of dinner, and it ended as soon as my dinner was, um, evacuated. Clearly it was the dinner that made me sick, especially since I’ve been fine all day today.

So, I chalk this up as an epic failure, and the last time I’ll ever buy a Quorn product. Even if it was a fluke, it can’t be proven that it was, nor can it be proven whether or not my reaction was directly related to the product. Because there’s so much uncertainty, there’s no way I’ll risk that happening again, especially when I didn’t even like it all that much.

So, my beef mince substitute will remain, for now, Minced or nothing, even while other—much more cautious—experiments will continue. Once bitten, twice shy, and all that. No more mycoprotein for me, and extra-careful label reading will be my new norm.

And, I’ll be sure to check “no substitutes” whenever I place an online order for Minced from Countdown.

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.

Lock ‘em up – without votes?

There are a great many issues on which Americans are deeply divided, but one that isn’t talked about enough is punishment for crimes. This has roared into the news lately with proposals to allow convicted felons to vote, and the resulting discussion, such as it’s been, has been a lot of noise without much careful thought or reasoned argument. Pretty much like all political issues in the USA, in other words.

Sen. Bernie Sanders kicked off the talk saying that convicted felons, even terrorists, should be able to vote. This was a logical position for him to take, given that Vermont is one of the two states in which they can vote: “Once you start chipping away and you say, 'Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that. Not going to let that person vote,' you're running down a slippery slope."

Mayor Pete Buttigieg took a different position, consistent with existing law in many states, namely, that felons don’t get a vote when in prison, but their right to vote is restored once they’re released: “As you know, some states and communities do it, some don't. I think we'd be a better country if everybody did it.” He also pointed out why Republicans fight against allowing felons who have completed their sentences to vote: “Frankly, I think the motivations for preventing that kind of reenfranchisement, in some cases, have to do with one side of the aisle noticing that they politically benefit from that. And that's got some racial layers too.”

Among other Democrats, Sen. Kamala Harris also supported the status quo as Mayor Pete does, but dodged the question of whether prisoners serving time should be able to vote: “I think we should have that conversation.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren also supports voting rights for former convicts, and sees guaranteeing their rights as part of a larger effort to protect voting rights. She also said, much like Sen. Harris: “While they’re incarcerated, I think that’s something we can have more conversation about.”

Former US Rep Beto O’Rourke said that he supports in-prison voting rights for “non-violent” prisoners: “When you look at the population in prisons today, it is disproportionately comprised of people of color,” he said. “Far too many are there for nonviolent drug crimes. I want to make sure that time spent behind bars does not entail a stripping of your civic and constitutional rights.” He added, “For violent criminals, it’s much harder for me to reach that conclusion. I feel that, at that point, you have broken a bond and a compact with your fellow Americans, and there has to be a consequence in civil life to that as well.”

There’s been a concurrent push from some on the Left to restore voting rights to people serving time in prison, and the Tweet above (part of a longer thread on Twitter), which was turned into a meme, is an example of that. When I saw it, I didn’t find the argument persuasive.

The first problem with the Tweet is that it could be overstating the case, though I haven't checked the locations of ALL prisons, obviously. In the Twitter thread, he cited the case of Angola prison in Louisiana, which at 6,300 prisoners is the biggest maximum-security prison in the country. He acknowledges that’s too small to influence a Congressional election, however, the area where it’s located, West Feliciana Parish, had a population of a mere 15,625 in the 2010 census. That means that FORTY PERCENT of the population is prisoners, yet they can’t vote (the census counts prisoners in the place where a prison is located, just as it counts everyone where they’re located when the census is taken). That’s appalling and disgusting—but is it a case of special pleading?

The underlying issue here is that the US prison population is disproportionate: Black people make up only 13% of the population, but 40% of the prison population. White people, on the other hand, make up 64% of the US population but only 39% of the prison population. We know that black prisoners are far more likely to get a custodial sentence than a white person who has committed the same crime, and that their sentence is likely to be longer and/or harsher than a white person sentenced to prison. It’s impossible to conclude anything other than the fact that the US criminal justice system, from police through to prosecutors, has, shall we say, a racial bias, which results in a disproportionate number of black people being incarcerated.

All of which is an argument for reform of the criminal justice system, which Democrats at all levels of government have argued for. But, is it an argument to let prisoners vote while in prison?

Rational people (which leaves out many, or most, Republican politicians, apparently…) believe that prisoners ought to be able to vote once their prison sentence is completed. Believing that a person should lose nearly all their rights when serving their prison sentence isn’t unique, nor is it inherently racist—though it can be, of course. More often than not, it’s about people wanting to punish crimes, and the issue of how the person came to become a prisoner ought to be a separate matter.

So it’s fair, as Harris and Warren have said, that we should have a discussion about the subject. Mayor Pete is right to point out the racial factor involved here. Sanders says all prisoners should vote, and maybe they should, but maybe we ought to reach consensus on that first.

O’Rourke’s position looks, at face value, like an odd distinction. If someone loses their vote because they're imprisoned for a crime, what difference does it make if the crime was violent or not? Certainly, that was my own first reaction. However, just as black people are far more likely to be imprisoned than white people, so, too, are they far more likely to be imprisoned for non-violent offences, like possession of small amounts of drugs, for example, or even driving offences. If there are any prisoners who could be thought to deserve to vote while in prison, it would be non-violent prisoners. Perhaps we should have a discussion about that, too, even as we talk about whether any prisoners should be able to vote.

This is an issue here in New Zealand, too. In 2010, the previous National Party-led government enacted the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act, which took away the right to vote for all serving prisoners. Before then, only some prisoners were denied the right to vote: Those serving life sentences, preventive detention (which is, as the Department of Corrections puts it, is “An indeterminate prison sentence; prisoners may be released on parole but remain managed by Corrections for the rest of their life and can be recalled to prison at any time), or other jail terms of three years or more. In December of last year, the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that the ban was lawful. [See also "Prisoner voting" from the NZ Department of Corrections.]

My own feeling about this is evolving. Right now, I think that all prisoners should lose the right to vote while in prison, and it should be automatically restored upon their release. However, in many countries, including both the USA and New Zealand, among others, incarceration is disproportionately directed at people who aren’t white. But that’s an issue on its own, and not, by itself, a reason to let all prisoners vote. Or, maybe it should be? Maybe it could help restore justice to the criminal justice system by letting the victims of that system have a say. I don’t yet know what I think, but I’m listening. That’s the first thing needed to have a discussion, after all. If only we could do that on all political issues.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Twelfth Twitterversary

Today is my Twelfth Twitterversary: On April 24, 2007, Twitter became the second social media network I joined in an effort to promote my still-new podcast. MySpace was the first one I joined, because everyone was using it at the time, but while I never closed the account, I haven’t been to it in years. Has anyone? I’ve also neglected Twitter in recent years, and used Facebook a bit more. Things change.

Twitter has become unimportant to me (I never even made a tag for blog posts where I mention it, though I have one for Facebook). I seldom notice my anniversaries with it, and hardly talk about my own Twitter account (the last time I blogged about it was in 2017, on my 10th Twitterversary https://amerinz.blogspot.com/2017/04/tenth-twitterversary.html). I noticed it today because I was checking Twitter (because of the daily email digest I get) and a prompt from Twitter to use a pre-made Tweet was at the top of my feed. So, I did. And now I’m sharing it here, too.

I wonder if I’ll say anything about it next year. It’ll be a surprise for us all.

To ‘Shepard’ truth and facts

The video above is from Brian Tyler Cohen, an actor and producer who is the on-camera host, and former managing editor for, Occupy Democrats, a Leftist organisation mostly on Facebook. It’s often been called “unreliable”, for a lot of reasons, however, this particular video features Fox’s Shepard Smith talking about the First Son-in-Law’s appearance at the TIME 100 event, where he said, basically the Russian interference in the 2016 US elections was no big deal (just “a couple Facebook ads”, he said), but the Mueller investigation, well, that nearly destroyed America.

In the video’s first part, Smith, who is pretty much the only sane host the Fox network, explains why Jared was not only wrong about the facts, but also dishonest and flat-out un-American when he blithely dismissed the Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. That’s followed by Cohen’s commentary. The format of this video is pretty typical of what Occupy Democrats now posts to Facebook.

I don’t usually share Occupy Democrats’ Facebook videos, mainly because they’re always interrupted near the beginning with an ad, and the video resumes after the ad. I absolutely hate that, and won’t help spread it. Sharing any Facebook video or post here is more complicated than it needs to be, too. However, Cohen has his own YouTube Channel where he posts the same videos, and his version is what’s up top.

Some of these videos are quite good in whole or in part, and this one is about a serious subject and the commentary at the end is fact-based. It’s also a reasonably good example of what Occupy Democrats’ Facebook videos are like.

Calling out lies is always important, and when Fox does it, it’s even better.

I originally shared the Facebook version to the AmeriNZ Facebook Page. This post is a revised and extended version of that.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Always look for the offensive side of life

People are easily offended these days. This is true whether their spot on the political spectrum is on the Left, Right, or somewhere in the Centre. All sides, the two ends in particular, are prone to being easily offended (usually by different things) and demanding that whatever it is that’s offending them is banned, suppressed, or censored. People really need to chill out.

I was reminded of all this today by a post on a Facebook Page for the community we live in. It was very much off topic for the page, which rarely has discussions of things that aren’t specific to our community, or maybe the wider region if it affects our community. I saw a post someone made this morning, something that had nothing to do with our community:
I was shocked to see the cartoon drawing a parallel between the cross of Christ and the personalities involved with Capital Gains Tax. Such mockery of the core of the Christian faith is only possible because we live in a democratic country and there is no danger of a backlash from Christians. I pose the question: would the cartoonist portray any aspect of Islam in an equally demeaning way? I think not. Christ himself said while hanging on the cross, “Forgive them, Father for they know not what they do.” Be thankful that the basis of Christ’s teaching is forgiveness not reprisal.
My first reaction was an unkind, “WTF?!” The only comment at that point was along similar lines:
Well said… It's a shame people are all too ready to embrace Islam but laugh and mock people who are Christians. Let's accept and respect everyone's religious beliefs as I do as a Christian.
It seemed to me that the discussion was sitting on an edge between more or less rational comments and rank islamophobia, so I chimed in. Here’s my comment in full (slightly edited for clarity):
I haven’t seen what you’re referring to, so I have no idea whether I’d think it was making a good point or a bad one, or whether it was offensive or just naff (most political memes on all topics fall into the latter category).

But your point isn’t really about that particular image, it’s about your personal offence at people being what you personally consider to be disrespectful to your version of Christianity. You absolutely have every right to have that opinion and to express it, and good on you for doing so! But that doesn’t mean your views are immune from either criticism or exempt from people expressing opposing views. That is their right, too.

As you know, there are many flavours of Christianity, and not all of them share your feeling of being disrespected. The fact people use Christian imagery to make political points is mainly because it has “cultural currency”—people know what it refers to and what point they’re trying to make. In a sense, it’s a compliment to how pervasive Christianity is that people *can* use Christian imagery and references to make a point.

The reason that people don’t generally use anything from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of earth’s hundreds of other religions is precisely because hardly anyone would “get” it. So, it’s not that that they’re picking on Christianity, nor are they giving more respect to any of those hundreds of other religions, it’s merely because they want to make a point people will understand.

Also, very often people making these points using Christian references are themselves Christian—though probably of a different flavour than you are. That adds another layer to this.

Finally, there *ARE* uses of religious references that are deeply offensive, and I have seen some directed at Christianity. However, the vast majority of truly offensive religious-based memes on social media attack Islam, not Christianity. I’m sure we can all agree that it’s wrong to actually attack *any* religion, or atheism, agnosticism, nontheism, or even just those who have no religion. There’s a difference between criticising ideas and beliefs we don’t share and attacking them. The first is fair game, the latter isn’t.

But your argument wasn’t about attacks, it was about use of references to Christianity that you don’t like. What I’m saying is, first, not everyone, nor even every Christian, will share your view on that. Second, the use of such references is seldom an attack on Christianity, but, rather, an acknowledgement that Christianity is pervasive, and referring to other religions wouldn’t work because of that pervasiveness. And, also that the real social media attacks are mainly against other religions, not Christianity.

Despite all that, you’re right, people ought to be more respectful of others and their different beliefs (religion, politics, opinions on Cadbury chocolates, whatever). But people will keep doing things we don’t like and that we may even find offensive. That’s life. I think that when they do that, all we can do in response is to acknowledge we all have differing views, but still try to provide a better example. You never know who’s listening, and they might just learn to do better!
A few more comments followed, some veering close to being unkind and unhelpful, plus a couple in support. The person responded, “I was not being PC – simply expressing my feelings as a committed Christian,” which I have no doubt was a sincerely held belief, but conservatives never realise they’re “being PC” when they are because they truly believe only those on the Left can be “PC”.

By this point, I wanted to see what the person had been on about, so I looked up the cartoon, acting on a hunch that I knew where it came from. I then posted another comment this evening (again, edited for clarity and to add links):
Interesting discussion! I decided to look up the cartoon in question to see what this was all about. It turns out it was by the NZ Herald's Rod Emmerson and published April 20 (I posted the link to it in a reply to my comment in case anyone wanted to see it, but so that those offended by it might be able to avoid seeing it).

I can see why certain Christians might be offended because they mistakenly believe that it's mocking Christianity, but it's not. Instead, it's actually mocking the NZ First [Party] caucus [in Parliament] because they killed the Capital Gains Tax, and the visuals are based not on the Christian story at all, but on the 1979 film "Monty Python's Life of Brian" (which, of course, certain Christians tried to ban because they said it "mocked" their version of Christianity). Specifically, it's based on the crucifixion scene in that film, where Eric Idle leads everyone in a rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" [video above] as they all hang on their crosses.

Although I wasn't the least bit offended by the cartoon, I think it failed because it wasn't funny and/or didn't make an obvious point. Emmerson can be really, really good—and other times, well, less successful. In my opinion, this particular cartoon was weak and ineffectual, yes, but not offensive.

It's great that in a free society everyone is free to make their own decisions about what they believe, and also what they think is offensive. They can make those decisions ONLY for themselves, obviously, and if they want people to agree with them they need to make a better argument. This discussion has made clear that we all have our own opinions and beliefs, and we're all equally entitled to hold and express them.

Still, despite the strong feelings this subject can stir up, on the whole it's been a LOT more respectful than I see on most Facebook Pages, so there's that!
The discussion really was mostly civil, but I also don’t for one minute think that the conservative Christians were persuaded at all. As is so often the case, my comments were really directed at people reading the comments but not leaving a comment themselves.

In general, I don’t comment on social media posts unless I want to speak to the silent watchers of comments. My motivations are that I want to give comfort and support to those who agree with me but feel they can’t express their opinions. I also want to give people without firm opinions another way of looking at an issue, something other than what the conservatives are arguing. And, of course, it’s not a terrible idea to remind conservative people that not everyone agrees with their opinions or worldview.

All of which is, of course, why I’m blogging about this, too.

Some years ago I changed my social media commenting tactics. Rather than coming out with all barrels blazing, I instead try to phrase everything in respectful—but firm—tones so that the conservative must reply to the ideas, not the person. It’s surprising how many are incapable of doing that. Unable to avoid making it personal, they instead say nothing at all in reply. That’s fine with me—not only because such situations provide very little chance of finding common ground, but also because their silence actually strengthens my arguments by leaving them unchallenged.

In this particular case, I suspected that it was impossible to find common ground based on their initial comment, something that was confirmed hours later when they added, “To express an opinion is one thing, mockery is another,” indicating that they were insisting on defining both the limits of acceptable opinions and also what could be acceptable discussion.

Social media arguments are stupid, and discussions usually can’t really be called that because sooner or later people of differing views start arguing. All things considered, this was one of the rare exceptions to that.

People really do need to chill out, though. And they really should always look on the bright side of life. But that's a different topic.

Update – April 23, 2019: Today the same person took to our community Facebook page to complain about another NZ Herald editorial cartoon about the attack in Sri Lanka. They wrote:
Another offensive cartoon has appeared in today’s Herald, this time depicting the empty tomb and carrying the caption ‘A Resurrection’. The words appearing above the entrance to the tomb in the cartoon are ‘Sectarian Terrorism’. If this is a reference to the bombing of the churches in Sri Lanka what a dreadful parody of the resurrection of Christ. For Christians the empty tomb means that Christ has risen from the dead and is alive today. That is the central message of the gospel. The Apostle Paul said ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith.’ When is this trivialising of the Christian message going to stop?
This time, it didn't go well for them, and many people were quite unkind to her and really did mock her religiosity. It's fair to say that most of the negative reaction was because of how irrelevant her complaints were for that page, and I gave her several links for places she could complain to the newspaper directly. I ended up getting ad hominem attacks from someone who wanted to make it personal.

Like I said in the original post: People really do need to chill out.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Internet Wading for April 2019

President William Henry Harrison (ca 1841)
So, after an unplanned break, and some not-very-interesting technical problems, Internet Wading is back, and it’s a mixed bag, as usual. First up, some pop music.

A piece in The Guardian, “Giorgio Moroder – his 20 greatest songs, ranked” has pretty obvious subject. I don’t actually know a lot of the songs the article talks about, and I think that calling the soundtrack to Metropolis “overblown” is somewhat unfair, but “Arthur’s Law”, and all that.

Another article talking about music that was more peripheral for me was “Deciphering the Mystery of Joy Division” in The Atlantic. I had only one Joy Division song, on a compilation of songs from MTV’s 120 Minutes, which was one of my favourite TV shows back in the 1980s. The song was “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, which was released in June 1980. Wikipedia describes it very matter of factly: “Its lyrics were inspired by lead singer Ian Curtis's marriage problems and frame of mind before his suicide in May 1980.”

I was much more familiar with, and a fan of, Joy Division’s successor band, New Order. I bought several of their albums—and later re-bought them through iTunes.

Speaking of pop culture, and consumerism, I was intrigued by “Welcome to my high-fashion, trash shopping mall”, a story about “a stylish shopping mall in Sweden, where everything is second-hand.” That concept is intriguing—and a way to close the final loop in reusing stuff rather than burying it in a landfill. Here in New Zealand, we have much lower-key shops around the country located at a few tips (“dumps” in Americanese), and technically called “waste transfer stations”. One such example is “Tipping Point”, the shop at Waitakere (West Auckland). It was only re-named that last year, and is a pun. It’s also a good example of what can be done.

Language and food? Why not? “Foreign Foods You Might Be Pronouncing Wrong”. And, just by the way, mostly I’m not. Well, not the ones I know, anyway, but maybe a couple others that have different local pronunciation here.

Speaking of language, “Did German almost become America’s official language in 1795?” I couldn’t possibly spoil the story, but we all know what language “won”.

Speaking of US history, “’His Accidency’: The first president to die in office and the Constitutional confusion that followed” tells the story of President William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who died a month after his inauguration, and the man who succeed him,Vice President John Tyler. I grew up hearing my mother talking about their 1840 presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”, so I was pre-disposed to learn the story. These days I bet most Americans don’t know it.

And finally, a little science: “Snapshot of extinction: Fossils show day of killer asteroid”, though we all know that, er, um, certain people will dismiss this story out of hand. Doesn’t mean it’s not true, of course. And, sharing stuff that certain people will dismiss out of hand is just part of the service I provide. You're welcome.

That's enough wading for now. Water's getting cold.

The photo of President William Henry Harrison is by Albert Sands Southworth (American, 1811–1894) and Josiah Johnson Hawes (American, 1808–1901). Edited by: Fallschirmjäger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Just blog it

Many people wonder, or even ask, “Why bother blogging?” To some, blogs are relics, to others irrelevant indulgences, or maybe they think they’re just unreliable. But blogs are so much more than any of those things, and writing one is good for a lot of reasons.

This topic came up because I was chatting with my dear friend from my Chicago days, Linda, and realised that while I’ve talked about blogging, and how I do this blog, I’ve never put it it all together in one post for anyone who wants to start blogging, but doesn’t know how or where to start.

To break down the topic, I’ll use the Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How questions that are actually very useful when forming blog.

Why blog?

This is the first question a prospective blogger needs to answer, because it sets the direction for the answers to all the other questions. So, why do you want to blog? Is it to share your special expertise? Because you want to practice and improve your writing skills? Because you have a topic you feel strongly about and want to have your say? Because you want to make money from blogging?

To put it simply, I blog because I want to. I also enjoy the process, and even taking photos or making graphics to illustrate what I’m talking about (which, sadly, I don’t always have the time to do). There are things I want to say, and sometimes there are things I need to say. And, blogging an average of one post per day over a year has improved my writing through the constant practice. But all of that is secondary to the simple fact that I blog because I want to, and I enjoy doing that. When either changes, I’ll stop.

Who are you writing for?

Are you writing for yourself, your friends and family, or for people you don’t know? All are valid choices, but deciding who you’re talking to will help you focus your posts.

I address my posts to curious people, people who want to know about the things that capture my attention, or who are curious about the things I talk about. In general, and there are exceptions, I do my blog posts and my podcasts the same way: I imagine I’m talking with someone who’s an old friend, but maybe someone else is listening who may not know everything I’m talking about. I prefer a more casual, personal style, which, fortunately, suits a blog like this. A more formal and focused blog may require a more fomal approach.

What is your blog about?

Blogs don’t need to stick to one topic—this one doesn’t! This blog is a “personal journal blog”, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s about whatever I feel like writing about at the time. It could be something about me or my personal life, about politics, pop culture, science, history, whatever. I’m a “Magpie Blogger”, as is my friend Roger Green (https://www.rogerogreen.com/). In fact, all my favourite blogs are the same.

But, that’s just me: A single topic blog can be pretty awesome, too—if you’re interested in the topic, of course. When I started this blog I intended to write a lot about being an expat, and about living in New Zealand. As time passed, it evolved into what it is now (and, in fact, posts about New Zealand and being an expat are not necessarily the most-read posts). So, even if you think you want to blog about one single topic, you, and the blog, can always evolve.

Where will you keep your blog?

There are two dominant free sites for blogging: The one this blog is on is the Google-owned Blogspot (also known as Blogger), but there’s also a free version of WordPress. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose, and they both have their strengths and weaknesses. However, if you want to use a free site, I’d still recommend that you buy a custom domain and use that for your blog. The reason for that is that if you really like blogging and want to move it to a paid site, you can easily do so without losing readers: They can bookmark your domain rather than the Blogspot or WordPress address.

It’s worth noting that both sites allow you to restrict access to your blog, so if you want to entrust a few close friends or family members to help you fine tune your blog before you go public, or if it’s deeply personal, that’s always an option.

If you do want to pay to host your blog, WordPress is a great option, and it’s used by many well-known companies—and both my podcasts. But why not try the free versions first and see f you even like blogging?

How do you blog?

Every blogger has methods and techniques, and these are some of mine. I always write my posts on my computer using a word processing program (the specific program doesn’t matter). That allows me to edit and spellcheck, and to save a copy to my computer. Then I copy the text and paste it into Blogger’s “New Post” window. I paste into HTML to avoid extra charatcters and codes from the Word Processing files. If you want to see all the code that, say, Word puts into a text file, paste it into the “Compose” tab and then switch to HTML.

There are a lot of resources to help you figure out how to format your text, use photos, add links, etc., all of which is beyond the scope of this post. But I can say it’s very easy to pick it up, and you don’t need to learn HTML coding or any other thing—you can concentrate on your writing.

Whatever specific technique you choose, there is one thing I need to stress: Back-up your blog! Because my blog is on Blogger, I’m unlikely to lose it completely—but that’s not impossible. As I said, I keep copies of all my posts on my computer. From time to time I download my database to my computer so I have a complete backup.

How to choose what to write about can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. No matter your subject area, there will things you see that will make you think, “I’d like to do a blog post about that”. Do it! Sometimes it can be as unexpected as the chat with a friend that inspired this post, but it really can be almost anything.

Roger Green plans out specific posts for specific times of the year. I’m nowhere near that organised, particularly because I usually write a post just before I publish it—which is what happened with this post. Even so, I have some annual posts I do, like for my birthday, as well as for the many and varied anniversaries I have over a few months, wheich led me to jokingly call them part of my “Season of Anniversaries”.

There’s a real advantage to planning posts in advance: You can write them when you have time. If you also write some “evergreen” posts, that is, ones that aren’t time specific in any way, then you can publish them at times you’re too busy to write new posts. I’m much better at doing this than I used to be, and it’s incredibly useful. Takes away the stress of needing to do a post when you just don’t have the time.

There’s one last thing about the process of blogging that’s reputed to be very important: Predictability. If you want to blog every day, once a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, once a month, whatever, then stick to that schedule without fail. Everyone I’ve ever seen offer advice on how to be a successful blogger repeats this like a mantra. I don’t follow it, at all. When I have the time, I write a new blog post every day, when I don’t, I’ll skip one or more days, then catch up later with two or three posts in one day. But, as I said earlier, I blog because I want to, so I don’t mind breaking the rules.

And finally of all, I’ve never made any money whatsoever from blogging, nor have I ever been given free samples or anything else of value. That’s not why I blog. If you want to make money from blogging—and there are a lot of resources to help work out what to do—you’ll need to pay far more attention to the who, what, where, why, when and how of blogging than I do.

Good luck—and happy blogging!

See also: Roger Green frequently answers questions about blogging on Quora.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Dumping unkindness

We humans are good at a great many things, including a great many that aren’t objectively “good”. For example, people seem to need to dump on other people about everything from the TV shows they like (or don’t like) to the choices they make in food, politics, and even charity. We’ve seen that in abundance lately in response to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It hasn’t been our finest moment, even when critics have a point.

To oversimplify the criticism, the Left has been saying that the money pledged to rebuild the cathedral would have been better spent on any of the numerous problems facing the planet, from climate change, to abject poverty, to disease, to species extinction, to, well, anything, really. That view, while sincere, is also hopelessly naïve, both to reality and to what is even possible.

What most Americans apparently don’t know is that Notre Dame is owned by the French state, not the Catholic Church. That matters because the riches of the Catholic Church won’t be, and can’t be expected to be, used to rebuild the cathedral. So, that particular criticism is a non-starter.

The bigger and more relevant point is about French billionaires tripping all over themselves to donate to the rebuild. The suggestion that these billionaires could donate instead to make the world a better place is silly: When has the 1% ever cared about the needs of those at the bottom of society? When have they ever done anything to fix the problems of social and economic inequality? This matters because, sure, they could donate to fix social problems, but the record shows they never will.

That means that the bigger issue is, where they hell were they when they were needed before? “The billionaires’ donations will turn Notre Dame into a monument to hypocrisy”, according to Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian. He points out the numerous failures and self-interest of the richest of the rich, adding: “Keepers of the building had begged for more money, but neither the belt-tightening French government nor the wealthy grumbling about higher taxes gave enough.” And that is, of course, only the beginning of their sins (not generally reported is that French megarich donors can get a 60% rebate on their donations, which means French taxpayers could end up paying most of the “donation”.

So, criticism of French billionaires is fair, absolutely, as are demands that they seek no tax advantages for donating to the rebuild. After all, if they’re serious about the need to rebuild, and about the cultural significance of the cathedral, then donating to make the rebuild happen should be all the benefit they require.

However, much of the social media noise seems to be targeted at small donors—ordinary people—choosing to donate to the rebuild effort. Attacking them is pathetic. If people want to donate to the rebuild, that’s no one’s business but their own: Our opinion doesn’t matter in the least. Sure, I’m not donating to the rebuild, and yes, I don’t think ordinary people should, either, but, if they want to donate, they should go for it: It is their choice.

The thing I keep coming back to is how much the criticism is a failure of imagination, as if everything in life is nothing but a zero-sum game. We can rebuild Notre Dame AND solve the world’s problems. It’s not a lack of money that’s the problem, it’s a lack of imagination, and of resolve.

In my opinion, it’s obvious that the rich should be paying their fair share in taxes (for a change), which is also the only way to get them to spend any money on fixing the world’s problems. Ordinary people, who have far fewer choices about what charity they can spend their money on, should be free to spend their money on what they feel is important without any tut-tutting by those who are oh, so much more moral than the rest if us.

The world’s problems sometimes seem unsolvable. We actually may be able to agree about how many of them are more important than rebuilding Notre Dame, despite its historic and cultural significance to Western civilisation. But that does not mean that rebuilding the cathedral isn’t important, nor does it justify dumping on ordinary people who choose to make that rebuild one of their personal priorities. To each their own!

Instead of always dumping on others and tearing them down, maybe we should instead advocate for what we think is important. If our views and arguments are persuasive, others will agree with us. That’s the way it works in the real world. If we don’t like how others choose to allocate their donations, we need to shut up. We may be right, our criticism may have a good point, but we’ll never convince people of that by being a jerk about it.

We need to relax. Make our case, sure, but let people be. No matter how passionate we may feel, the fate of the world will not hinge on whether everyone else does as we think they should—and, by the may, people may not. Again, the best word is a simple one: Relax.


"Native American activists: The fire at Notre Dame is devastating. So is the destruction of our sacred lands."
"Black churches in Louisiana see $1.3 million surge in donations after fire at Notre Dame Cathedral"Vox
"Grieving for Notre Dame"The Nation

Advancing the better ideas

If the 2016 US presidential election taught us only one thing, it ought to be that almost nothing is as it seems in American politics. There are hidden agendas, secret motives, and fake players literally everywhere, and on all sides of the ideological spectrum—and non-ideological interference from hostile foreign governments, too. We need to be smart, and suspicious, whenever we see literally anything in the news, and this week provided a perfect example.

This past week, “protesters” showed up at campaign event for Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa. The protesters were dresses as “Satan”, “Jesus”, and one who was supposed to be Mayor Pete, apparently “whipping” the actor playing “Jesus” as the one playing “Satan” looked on and laughed. Street political theatre, and—on the surface—there are some things that make it seem legitimate.

Iowa has always had a politically active extremist “Christian” element, and anti-LGBT+ bigotry has been one of their mainstays. This has been true for probably a couple decades at least. Also, the night before, two “protesters” shouted at Mayor Pete, also in Iowa, about “Sodom and Gomorrah”, which biblical legend says were destroyed due to their inhospitality to strangers, but which “Christian” extremists persist in declaring were actually supposedly destroyed because of homosexuality (despite the fact that those biblical stories make absolutely clear that it was the sin of inhospitality).

Given all that, it’s understandable why some people might think the “protests” were both real and an expression of “Christian” extremism. But there’s plenty of reason to doubt that’s the case, and that’s why normal people must be careful to not overreact. As I said yesterday in a post on the AmeriNZ Facebook Page:
[The political street theatre shows a] brilliant, though evil, strategy: The “protestors” are anti-gay bigots, sure, but what they REALLY want is for normal people to over-react and come across as condemning Christianity so that the religious extremists can then use that as “proof” that those “evil libruls” and “homosekshuls” are “anti-Christian”. There will be more of these provocations, and they’ll become quite offensive to normal people, all in the hope it goads normal people into the overreaction the extremists are trying to get.
This isn’t new behaviour for the far right in the USA: They often take deliberate action to incite overreaction from mainstream Americans, or the Left specifically, so that they can use those overreactions as “proof” that they’re “victims”. I’ve talked about this very effective strategy many times on this blog.

I warned in that Facebook post:
Don’t fall into their trap! They’re victims of bad ideas, and that’s the only thing we know for sure. In real life, they might be good to their mothers and kind to animals, so treating them as if they’re evil isn’t rational or a good strategy. Stick only to calmly criticising their bad ideas, not them (maybe a critique of their acting technique is fair game, though?).
When dealing with religious extremists of any stripe, it’s tempting to retaliate against them personally, which only feeds their need to pretend to be “victims” of those mean Leftists. The people are not the actual problem—it’s their bad ideas, and this is where others come in:
Normal, rational people don’t behave like the extremists. Most conservative Christians wouldn’t behave so awfully, nor would mainstream Christians. Moderate and Progressive Christians have a special duty to counter the extremists’ bad theology, lack of any understanding about what the Gospels actually say, and their false narrative about homosexuality in particular, because this is really a family fight among Christians, one in which beating up gay people (so far, only rhetorically…) is a political tool, a provocation to get an overreaction so the extremists can advance their politically-motivated culture wars.

This isn’t turning the other cheek, it’s taking them on appropriately—countering their bad ideas, which takes away their power. Overreacting and lashing out at them is exactly what they want.
And that, in a nutshell, is what will be needed: It’s not about retaliating, it’s not even really about attacking their bad ideas, it’s about presenting better ideas. Instead of calling them and their ideas “stupid” (or worse), we need to point out why they’re wrong, sure, but more importantly, what the better ideas are. We won’t ever defeat those bad ideas by attacking the carriers of those ideas, not when our goal is really the same as the extremists: To win over bystanders watching the show and saying nothing. We need to present the truth and to show through example that better ideas should defeat bad ideas.

The implication of this is that when people DO scream against the “Christian” extremists, and they will, we’ll need to be prepared to call them out, too, because the goal here is to defeat the ideas. However, that’s not entirely the case. Those screaming insults at the “Christian” extremists have a use, though they’ll probably hate that fact: They make a more moderate response seem so much more reasonable and relatable by comparison.

I saw this play out many times when I was a LGBT+ activist in the 1980s and 1990s. The street radicals, people like Act-Up and Queer Nation, etc., were protesting in the streets, being confrontational and, yes, sometimes offensive. But because they were doing that, we “respectable” activists got access to elected officials to present our case—making the exact same demands we always had, and the same demands, in fact, as the street radicals, but we did it politely and in business attire, and we got results. This wasn’t because we were so utterly brilliant (although I was, obviously…), but because we seemed so “calm” and “reasonable” by comparison. In other words, the reason we were listened to and the reason we were as successful as we were came as a result of the pressure from the “unreasonable” activists on our own side.

None of that works, however, if there aren’t calm and moderate voices on the side of reason. And, it’s because this fight is really over different versions of Christian theology leaking into the political sphere that we need Moderate and Progressive Christians to lift their game to counter the “Christian” extremists.

The majority of us are probably best to stay out of the fight. While we may or may not be equipped to personally engage on theology, many of us will be dismissed out of hand because we’re not religious (or religious enough), because we’re Centrists or to the Left of Centre, or because we’re LGBT+. There’s one more reason to not engage, and it’s how I ended that Facebook post: “Besides, forgive your enemies—nothing pisses them off more!”

Politics, electoral politics in particular, is in part a great big public dance, and who ultimately wins is whoever calls the music. We must present the sweet music of reason, and counter the dissonance of the extremists with better music.

Let’s get warmed up. It’s going to be a long dance.