Saturday, August 31, 2019

Cuomo fact-checks Trump's claims of genius

In the video above, CNN's Chris Cuomo takes on the current occupant of the White House’s claims of genius and him saying that he knows more than anyone on numerous subjects. And yet, the current occupant is a genius on one thing, the same thing that makes him so awful: His ability “to bring out the devil in us all”.

With the current regime doing so many terrible and even illegal things so fast, it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with them all. Every day I see at least a dozen different political things I want to comment on, stuff the regime has done, or that the current occupant has said, but there’s just not enough time to do that, especially when I’m doing this for free, as a hobby.

So, I’ve decided to share more videos like this one (not necessarily with much comment from me) in an effort to help keep issues in our minds, and also to ensure the regime doesn’t get away with sending it’s misdeeds down the memory hole. Some videos will be challenging, some may be very hard-nosed, or they may put things more stridently than I might, but I’ll nevertheless share the things I do for one reason: Before we can erase this stain of this regime from our minds, we’ll need to clean up all of the mess they’ve created. To do that, we’ll first need to remember everything the regime has done so that we can be sure to repair and heal the USA. This is just one way to help us all to remember how bad it really is right now.

The old ‘away’ returned

Soft plastic recycling restarted in Auckland back in May, which is a good thing for Aucklanders: It provides a way to get rid of soft plastics that would otherwise have to be thrown away in the general rubbish. But its resumption happened shortly before New Zealand’s ban on single-use plastic bags took effect. That created some issues, but for us it meant better solutions.

After the end of the original soft package recycling programme, I routinely threw our soft plastics away in the ordinary rubbish, as everyone else did, too. But by then I was also trying to reduce the amount of soft plastics we had to get rid of.

My first move was to buy some mesh bags to put fresh fruits and vegetables into rather than the plastic ones that were still in the grocery store (because I use them exclusively, I actually don’t know what grocery stores have now, but they kept using them for a very long time). I also stopped buying fruits and vegetables—apples, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, that sort of thing—in prepackaged plastic bags (this had the additional benefit of reducing waste: I now buy only what we need, so nothing has a chance to rot). But meats are still packed using plastic wrap, even if the trays are usually recyclable, as I talked about way back in 2016.

So, the soft package recycling scheme restarted, but we had less soft plastics to be recycled. What we did have, however, no longer included plastic shopping bags that stores used to give out, and that meant I needed a new solution for packing up the plastics.

The photo above is my solution: Bread bags. Some time ago, I realised the bread bags would be useful for bagging “icky” things. It was a natural choice for bagging the soft plastics.

It turned out to be the ideal choice because the bags are small, and even if overstuffed, they fit into the collection barrels without any problem because their diameter is smaller that the diameter of the barrel opening. Since then, I’ve also used a plastic bag that some sort of electronic thing was put into before being boxed. The bag had holes punched in it (probably so the ting could "breathe"), so it wasn’t useful for anything that might leak; this was a good and useful way to get rid of that bag.

Now that the scheme has been running for several months, I know for sure that we have far less soft plastics to get rid of than we did when the original scheme was running. That’s good in itself.

This is just a part of our efforts to tread more lightly on the planet by, in this case, reducing waste. Because the reality is that there’s no such thing as an “away” to throw things to. Still, at least we now have less to send to the mythical “away”.

Small steps.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Good 2020 ads

Amy McGrath is running for the Democratic nomination to take on long-time US Senator Mitch McConnell, who was first elected to the seat from Kentucky in 1984, 35 years ago. She has produced some very good ads as she ramps up her campaign to win the nomination, though the ads are clearly aimed mostly at the General Election. Here are two of them.

The ad up top is her latest, “10 Hour Bus Ride”. It’s about former coal miners with black lung disease who road on a bus for ten hours to meet with Mitch McConnell, who only gave them one minute of his time. In so doing, it shows that the current Senator has ignored coal miners, an important constituency in the commonwealth. The ad does a good job underscoring the consequences of McConnell ignoring key constituencies, but it’s also good for letting ordinary people do the talking, telling their story and why it matters to them that McConnell ignores them.

The other ad, below, is called “The Letter” and focuses on the essence of democracy, serving the people. It’s theme is summed up in the tagline at the end: “Defeat Mitch. Defend Democracy.”

Both ads are good, but the strategy is also good: Get Democratic voters to see Amy McGrath as the challenger to McConnell. While the effort may be a long shot, she probably has the best chance of any Democrat.

Talking about this race in early July, Geoffrey Skelley wrote on FiveThirtyEight that literally any Democrat is up against it in deep red Kentucky. However, McConnell is among the most unpopular US Senators in any state, with a 36% approval rate and a 50% disapproval rate, according to Morning Consult. The means that Mitch is even less popular than the current occupant of the White House is nationwide. Worse for him, though, Mitch is far less popular than the current occupant is in Kentucky, where the current occupant had 55% approval rating (and 40% disapproval rating) at the beginning of July, also according to Morning Consult. Put another way, their poll standings are pretty much the exact opposite of each other.

So, Mitch’s weakness provides an opening for a strong Democrat, like Amy McGrath, to defeat him. Skelley correctly spelled out the challenges any Democrat might face in doing so, no matter how strong a candidate they are, but Mitch’s unpopularity could cancel all that out.

The polling so far also suggests that whoever the Democratic nominee is, they’ll have to run against Mitch, and not the current occupant of the White House (assuming, of course, that his popularity in Kentucky doesn’t do a huge nosedive, which is possible, but not probable). In other states, a Democratic candidate tying an incumbent Republican US Senator to the current occupant might help, but it appears that, for now, anyway, it wouldn’t help in Kentucky.

Another unknown is how the Democratic presidential nominee will affect the race. If the nominee is unpopular in solidly red states, it could encourage Republicans to go to the polls to vote against that candidate, and in Kentucky they may go farther and hold their noses and vote for Mitch. They might split their ballot, of course, but in the deeply polarised politics of the USA, that seems far less likely to happen now than it did in the past. In any case, because of Kentucky’s partisan makeup, motivated Republican voters would probably be a bigger force than motivated Democrats and Independents.

Still, it’s early days yet. The Kentucky Primary Election isn’t until May 29, 2020, and no one can possibly predict what might happen between now and then. Mitch won’t give up without a fight, obviously, but if this turns out to be an election cycle that favours Democrats, that will make his challenge much harder.

In the meantime, these ads are example of what can be done, especially in red states: Appeal to real people and highlight real issues. Voters respond strongly to authenticity, and that, combined with some good luck and a strong tail wind, could just be what’s needed topple Mitch.

Let us all hope so.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The ever-changing story

The 2020 race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination is ever-changing, with people entering and leaving, debates that produce good moments for pretty much all the candidates, and some candidates fretting over who is excluded from the debates, and what that may mean for them and their campaigns. All up, it’s been unusually entertaining for politics junkies. But, is it a good process?

The chart above was published today by Statista, and it was out of date not long after it was posted, when US Sentor Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) dropped out of the race. At the same time, three candidates came close to making the third debate, but failed to do so. This left Democrats with a field of ten candidates for the third debate, meaning the debate will be only one night.

In the earlier debates, candidates needed to hit targets for either fundraising or polling. For the next debate, they needed to both hit a minimum of 2% in four approved nationwide polls, and they also needed to raise 130,000 unique donations from 400 different donors in at least 20 states. As that chart above shows, three candidates—Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, and Marianne Williamson—met the fundraising targets, but they failed to hit the polling threshold. Of the three, Steyer came closest, meeting the target in three polls.

The ten candidates who qualified are Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Juli├ín Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. This will be the first debate with Biden and Warren on the same stage.

Candidates who missed out were, not surprisingly, upset about the rising standards for participation. The Democratic Party is clearly trying to winnow down the field by the end of the year, and that makes sense to focus voter attention. The polling requirements have been criticised because they’re nationwide, when the primaries/caucuses are state-by-state. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism: Whoever the nominee is will need to have broad appeal, and not just appeal to people in regions. Having said that, though, the nationwide popular vote doesn’t matter. Maybe a better idea would be to make candidates hit a certain threshold in the “battleground states”?

The departure of Kirsten Gillibrand came as no surprise. She never really connected in a crowded field. Writing about her departure, Li Zhou observed on Vox:
Her campaign attributed her stalling with donors to a couple of factors, including blowback from members of the Democratic establishment over her decision to call for the resignation of then-Sen. Al Franken after he faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Gillibrand, who’s long been an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement in Congress, stood by her decision and argued that she couldn’t hold Franken to a different standard than others who have been accused of such behavior.
While I definitely think the Franken business was a factor, it’s rather disingenuous to attack “members of the Democratic establishment”. While we don’t know precisely what that’s supposed to mean, these days it’s usually used to refer to people who run the Democratic Party. However, many ordinary Democratic voters were uncomfortable with her actions. Was her campaign trying to dismiss all those Democrats as “establishment” in order to dismiss them like those on the Leftward Side of Left always do? [See also: "Did Gillibrand’s push for Al Franken’s resignation doom her 2020 White House run?" by Casey Quinlan on ThinkProgress]

For people on the Left and Centre (and probably the Right…) of the Democratic Party, one other factor played an even bigger role, in my opinion: Her change in positions. As the Vox piece put it:
Critics questioned Gillibrand, too, over her ideological evolution on issues like immigration and gun control, policy areas where she’s significantly shifted her stance after taking over her Senate seat.
I definitely agree with that. Prior to becoming a US Senator, Gillibrand’s positions on a number of issues was often quite conservative. At the time, I didn’t consider her an ally of the LGBT+ communities, not the least because she supported separate and somewhat equal civil unions for same-gender couples, not marriage. One could say she evolved—after all, at that same time (prior to 2009), Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all opposed marriage equality. I’d be prepared to accept that—progressive evolution on issues is an inherently good thing, in my opinion. However, she “evolved” on that (and other issues) only after she became a Senator. So, I asked myself, was she being opportunistic as a US Representative or as a US Senator? And that, far more than her crusade on Sen. Franken, is what made me distrust her.

And now, it seems obvious to me, she’s trying to position herself to be selected as the vice presidential nominee. Who knows? If Biden is the nominee, maybe she’d be a good choice? If she is the vice presidential nominee, obviously I’ll vote for her since the presidential nominee and vice presidential nominee run as a team, and I’ve already committed to vote for the Democratic nominee, no matter who she or he may be. That doesn’t mean my unease will suddenly go away. I could be sarcastic/cynical and say that maybe that unease would go away if I became a US Senator, but I’m far too nice to say that.

So, here we are, only a couple weeks out from the third Democratic presidential debate, ten candidates on one night. Since it’s possible (or probable) that there will be more candidates for the fourth debate, maybe this debate could have been five candidates each on two nights? I’d like to hear what the candidates actually have to say, rather than their 30-second soundbite approach to answering questions. I think we’ll have to wait quite awhile for that to happen, though.

The 2020 race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination is ever-changing. But at least it’s been unusually entertaining for politics junkies. That’s a good thing for us, at least.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A danger for democracy

Last night, TVNZ’s Q+A programme posted the above report on how the New Zealand National Party has suddenly changed its online advertising to something much more aggressive, and highly targeted. Much of it is also very misleading. This same problem is happening in democracies throughout the developed world, and it poses a serious threat to democracy itself.

We all know how the Russian government used propaganda and deliberately deceptive messaging to help elected their chosen candidate, who went on to become the current occupant of the White House. While the 2018 Midterm Elections saw less of that, we can expect to see it return in force in 2020, especially if it looks like the Republican candidate is heading for defeat.

As it happens, the next New Zealand general election is also in later 2020, most likely a few days after the US election. Because New Zealand elections are every three years, this will be the first time the two countries’ elections have happened in the same month/week since 2008 (the US election was November 4, and the NZ election was held the following Saturday, November 8). Both countries' fair and free elections are at risk.

The problem is that ordinary people will have a hard time telling if some political messaging that they see on social media is true or not, especially if the message is steered to them because the person has been targeted. In a fast-paced campaign, deliberate disinformation can take hold—and sway elections.

We’ve seen in the past how this worked in New Zealand, because the NZ National Party has used deceptive techniques before. Investigative journalist Nicky Hager detailed the party’s deeds in the 2005 NZ elections in his book Hollow Men, and he wrote about the secret tactics (allegedly coordinated with the party) used as far back as the 2011 election. That book, Dirty Politics was released on August 13, 2014, about five weeks before that year’s general election. National won re-election in 2014 despite the book, though then Prime Minister John Key’s integrity was called into question, and he never really recovered from that. [Full disclosure: I bought and read both books when they were released.]

This time, it looks like National intends to be more open about its deception. Its ads so far have copied successful ads used by Australia’s rightwing Liberal Party, among others, which wouldn’t be of much interest if so much of their messaging wasn’t deliberately deceptive.

And that’s the bottom line: The issue isn’t that rightwing political parties (or leftwing ones, for that matter) might copy ads used by counterparts in other parts of the world. Instead, the issue is that they’re cynically using messaging—propaganda—to deceive and mislead voters without them having much hope of knowing it’s happening. Just like the USA in 2016.

It seems that much of electoral politics in Western Democracies, especially the marketing tactics used by the Right, has now become about deception and manipulation. That can’t be a good thing for a healthy, functioning democracy, but is there anything we can do about it? With the public having so much distrust of the newsmedia, deliberately curated by those who stand to gain the most from that distrust, who will be able to expose deceptive messaging and tactics? And if there is no one, what hope do we have of countering it?

Right now, we have only one option: To learn to recognise attempts at manipulation. The video above is part of that effort here in New Zealand. We need more of that everywhere, and often. It may be our only hope.

Guarding what, precisely?

Are the USA’s border guards there to protect the USA’s borders, or are they there to protect the current occupant of the White House? There’s growing evidence that it’s becoming the latter, and whether it’s individual initiative or official policy only matters because of the degree—the offence is the same. It sends a chilling message to foreigners and US citizens alike, journalists in particular, and it also inevitably will put lives at risk.

The latest evidence that border guards are acting inappropriately came a few days ago when James Dyer, a journalist with Empire Magazine (a British film magazine published by a division of German international multimedia conglomerate Bauer Media Group) posted the above Twitter thread (which are also readable on Crooks and Liars). His next three Tweets tell the gist of the story:
He wanted to know if I’d ever worked for CNN or MSNBC or other outlets that are “spreading lies to the American people.” He aggressively told me that journalists are liars and are attacking their democracy.
James Dyer @jamescdyer August 22, 2019

Apparently the only truth now comes from YouTube and the president. All this said under a CBP sign that says “we are the face of our nation.” And with a framed picture of 45 staring down. In fucking California!!! Welcome to Trump’s America!
James Dyer @jamescdyer August 22, 2019

He let me go after I said that I was just here to write about Star Wars, and would keep the fake news about that to a bare minimum. Thankfully the statute of limitations has expired on @ChrisHewitt’s 5 star review of Attack Of The Clones...
James Dyer @jamescdyer August 22, 2019
Dyer goes on to make clear that he was not detained: “He made no attempt to physically detain me beyond the questions (and lecture),” he Tweeted. He added, “Questions at customs are to be expected while fingerprinting etc is going on. It’s just the fake news/MSM diatribe that was surprising and inappropriate.” He didn’t get the agent’s name, nor make a complaint, at least in part because he wasn’t mistreated or detained.

There’s nothing new about harassment of journalists at the border. Back in March, it was reported that under the current regime the US Government was engaged in surveillance of journalists, lawyers, and immigration/migrant activists. The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that the regime’s behaviour is unconstitutional—as if the regime would care about that.

In Dyer’s case, however, this wasn’t part of official harassment, and this appears to have been the actions of a CBP agent who supports the current occupant of the White House and took it upon himself to be political police by aping the current occupant’s lies and smears about the newsmedia. Dyer subsequently Tweeted that CBP contacted him to apologise and to assure him that “they’ve identified the agent concerned and are taking appropriate action to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” That’s good news.

The problem here is that the agent implied that supporting the current regime and not critiquing it, its actions, or its Dear Leader is a perquisite for a foreign journalist to enter to the USA. That one agent did a lot of damage to the USA’s image overseas, but the big question we can’t answer is, how many other journalists has this happened to without being reported anywhere? How common is this?

Other presidents have hated the newsmedia—hell, Nixon's infamous “enemies list” included a few journalists. What makes this current regime different from all the previous presidential administrations is that the current occupant of the White House is promoting hatred of the newsmedia in general, and journalists and particular media outlets in particular. That’s unprecedented and incredibly dangerous.

This should even need to be said, but in the modern USA, apparently it does: A free and unfettered press is a necessary prerequisite to a functioning democracy. Once cannot exist without the other. In the USA, the ability of journalists to do their important work is becoming harder and harder—which pretty much seems to be the point of the current regime’s harassment of journalists.

So, sure, this incident seems to be the action of one fervent frothing fan of the current occupant of the White House taking it upon himself to act on the words of the current occupant—you know, like the El Paso shooter did. Or the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter did. Or as the guy who sent pipe bombs to critics of the current regime, including media organisations and journalists. There is a link, a clear and direct line from the words spewed out by the current occupant of the White House and the decision of individuals to act on those words.

This time the incident was gross, disgusting, and illegal, but next time? There’s clearly no limit to how far the fervent frothing fans of the current occupant of the White House will go to act on the messages from that man.

Harassment of journalists isn’t the only thing going on here, and they’re not the only ones in danger from those fervent frothing fans. How can we be sure one of them won’t choose a weapon rather than mere haranguing?

The rhetoric of the current occupant of the White House inevitably puts lives at risk. This is how it starts.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Quislings and traitors?

The “gay” Republican group Log Cabin Republicans recently announced they were endorsing the current occupant of the White House in the 2020 elections. As a result, they were called quislings, traitors to the LGBTQ community, and far worse things. Was the criticism justified? Of course it was. They really are quislings and traitors.

The first issue is the endorsement itself. Their whole thing reads like a love letter to their hero, as if none of the horrible things he’s done—not just his racism, his anti-semitism, his cryptofascism and cult of personality, no, they also excuse the current regime’s war on LGBT+ Americans (the only thing it can be called). Their lame, pathetic statement, “While we do not agree with every policy or platform position presented by the White House or the Republican Party…”, it’s immediately undone when they declare how they actually do agree because of ideology they admit they share with the party that is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the current occupant of the White House.

They never directly mention the current regime’s war on trans* people, not even when they declare, “we are committed to letting all qualified Americans serve in the military”. We know that doesn’t apply to trans* people because they then talked about how they supported an end to the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that expelled LGBT+ people from the USA’s military. That was nice back then, but why are they such doormats now?

The group also highlights the current regime’s entirely fake “initiative to end the criminalization of homosexuality” in the 72 countries where it’s illegal. That was obviously a political stunt, and the current regime never had any intention whatsoever of doing anything even remotely similar to that. When the fake story broke, I pointed out the cynicism of the move, and I could have added that it was fake because the opposition of his fervent christofascist fans—and the current vice president—meant that there was no way this fake ”initiative” was ever going to happen.

The group swayed with ecstasy in declaring that the 2016 Republican Convention was so wonderful, and seeing their hero take the stage was “like a dream fulfilled” for “gay” Republicans. Pity they forgot their group’s own past about that very convention.

The group’s then-president sent an email to supporters telling them that their party had just “passed the most anti-LGBT Platform in the Party’s 162-year history,” and also, “This isn’t my GOP, and I know it’s not yours either.” But all that’s apparently forgiven by the current leaders of the group—including by that guy, actually.

Their current betrayal is also in stark contrast to the principled stand the group took in 2004 when it refused to endorse Bush the Second for election to a second term because of his support for a constitutional amendment to forever ban the freedom to marry. What happened to that kind of Log Cabin “gay” Republicans? When did they make betraying the LGBT+ community central to their idendentity?

All of that is the reason that the Log Cabin “gay” Republicans are rightly called quislings, a term for both a collaborator and a traitor. They’re giving cover to the current regime, “pinkwashing” it so it can pretend it gives a shit about LGBT+ people when they absolutely do not. The current occupant of the White House declared he was “very honored to receive [the endorsement]”, before adding, “I’ve done very well with that community. Some of my biggest supporters are of that community, and I think they—and I talk to them a lot about it. I think I’ve done really very well with that community.”

What they actual hell was that man talking about?!

The facts prove that the current occupant of the White House couldn’t possibly care less about the LGBT+ community, nor does it bother him at all that his regime is waging a Holy War against the community. It’s also fact that he did NOT win the vote of LGBT+ people.

So, when the “gay” Republicans pretend that this regime is so wonderful, it’s little wonder they’re called quislings—collaborators and traitors to the LGBT+ communities. Because, you know, well, they are.

One will want to suppose that the folks on that group’s Board of Directors aren’t really as stupid a their actions seem, nor that they’re as delusional as they sound, and if so, then something else must be going on. Naturally, I have some theories.

The group may be driven by their affinity for the current occupant himself: They support him because he’s one of them, that is, rich, classist, elitist, and even racist. People like the “gay” Republicans have always assumed their money and connections would protect them from any oppression faced by us mere peasants, and for a time, it does. But, sooner or later all authoritarian regimes turn on their rich, connected, elite, “gay” supporters. Always.

Evidence for their affinity for the current occupant is the leaders’ idiotic assertion:
The president’s tax cuts have benefited LGBTQ families and helped put food on their tables. His opportunity zones have helped create new LGBTQ-founded small businesses. The administration’s aggressive negotiations on trade deals have preserved LGBTQ jobs. His hard line on foreign policy has protected LGBTQ lives. What benefits all Americans benefits the LGBTQ community, as we cross every racial, socioeconomic, religious and cultural divide.
All of which is demonstrably false here in the reality-based world. We know that the regime’s tax cuts for the wealthy primarily benefitted corporations, the rich, the obscenely rich and, especially, the OMFG they’re rich. Any “benefits” that ordinary people got were temporary—only the rich elites will benefit long term. Aslo, the deficit is skyrocketing because of it, which isn’t a very Republican thing to do. Well, in the old days, when there were still real Republicans, back then it wasn’t okay.

Beyond that, there’s no specific evidence that the regime’s policies have “helped create” any LGBT+ small businesses, and it is a flat out lie that the regime’s trade wars have “preserved LGBTQ jobs”. To be fair, though, that may be true among the elites and trust fund babies the “gay” Republican group represents. The bit about foreign policy is also an outright lie.

The absolute ONLY thing in their entire fanboi letter that actually was unequivocally true is “What benefits all Americans benefits the LGBTQ community, as we cross every racial, socioeconomic, religious and cultural divide.” But the “gay” Republicans clearly have absolutely zero understanding of anyone not like them. That’s the only logical conclusion from reading their screed that ignores the very real issues faced by LGBT+ people who are black, Hispanic, trans*, poor, or just not rich enough, all in order to praise the man and regime who are the cause of so much suffering of, and growing oppression of, LGBT+ people.

As a result of the Log Cabin “gay” Republicans’ betrayal of LGBT+ Americans (LGBT+ Republicans in particular), the group is losing its supporters. One of them gave the best possible reaction to this.

Jennifer Horn, who resigned from the board of the “gay” Republican group, deserves the final word on this. She wrote, “There is no world where I can sit down at the dining room table and explain to my children that I just endorsed [the current occupant of the White House] for president. It is contrary to everything that I have ever taught them about what it means to be a good, decent, principled member of society.”


See also: “‘He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term” — Washington Post One of the things the current occupant “gets”, apparently, is that the rights of LGBT+ people must be rolled back

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Weekend Diversion: Jonas Brothers

Back in the Weekend Diversion post on June 16, I shared a video of the song “Cake By The Ocean” by DNCE (at the top of that post). The lead singer was Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, though I didn’t realise that at first. Once I did, I knew I’d end up sharing new Jonas Brothers videos, since they re-formed earlier this year and their videos were playing on our now defunct free-to-air music video channel. And so, here we are.

I have to say first that I was never a fan. Part of that has to do that they began as a Disney product and focused on teen-oriented music at first. I just never paid attention to them, but I certainly knew who they were. I was only vaguely aware that they broke up in 2011. However, I saw youngest brother Nick on the American TV series Empire where he played a closeted young gay man.

Then came this year, and the release of their fifth studio album, Happiness Begins.

The video up top is for “Sucker”, the first single from their new album, and released March 1, 2019. I liked the sound of the song from the first, though I wasn’t watching the video the first time I heard the song. When I paid attention to the video, I realised who it was, and I was surprised. I hadn’t particularly followed their careers, obviously, so I wasn’t aware they were reuniting.

“Sucker” hit Number One in Australia (3x Platinum), Canada (2x Platinum), New Zealand (Platinum), Number 4 in the UK (Platinum), and Number One in the USA’s Billboard Hot 100—where it debuted at Number One. It also went Platinum in the USA. In New Zealand, it didn’t drop out of the NZ Top 40 until the first week of August.

Next up, their second single, released the following month, on April 5, “Cool”:

It’s fair to say that “Sucker” made me pay attention to the Jonas Brothers, and so I recognised it was them in “Cool” from my first hearing of it—and I liked it, too. I thought the video was fun, with its homages to earlier videos and a Miami Vice kind of vibe. I also thought that when combined with the lyrics, it showed the brothers poking some fun at themselves.

“Cool” wasn’t as successful as “Sucker” had been, hitting only Number 54 in Australia, 34 in Canada (Gold), 6 in New Zealand, 39 in the UK, and 27 in the USA’s. I agree that “Cool” wasn’t as good a song as “Sucker”, however, it was still fun. For me, that’s often enough.

The third song from their album was “Only Human”, officially released July 2 (though it first charted in New Zealand the week before):

I heard this song when it was on the NZ Top 40 chart, but i didn’t particularly connect with it. I thought the reggae influence was interesting, and combined with a bit of EDM, it pointed to something interesting that I’d like to see them and other artists play with some more. I never saw the video above until today because it was only released on YouTube on August 13, well after the music video channel was off air. Actually, the video was released well after it dropped off the NZ Top 40, which it did the third week of July.

Speaking of charts, “Only Human” was even less successful that “Cool”, hitting Number 57 in Australia, 52 in Canada, 36 in New Zealand, 64 in the UK, and 53 in the USA.

Even so, the album Happiness Begins was successful: So far, it’s hit Number 3 in Australia, Number 1 in Canada (Gold), 5 in New Zealand, 2 in the UK, and Number One in the USA.

I still couldn’t say that I’m a fan of the Jonas Brothers, but I do like some of their songs. I’ll also pay more attention when they release new songs. That’s actually a pretty good result.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Water and not

It’s been raining a lot in Auckland this month. Actually, over the past six weeks, more or less, the days that have been sunny have been few and far between. At best, we get a bit of sunshine in a day, but not even much of that. This is common enough in winter, and normally that fact makes it bearable, but this year all this rain carries a sting: There hasn’t been nearly enough of it.

As of this past Sunday, Auckland’s reservoirs together are only about 73% full. In winter. When it rains. A lot. Historically, they’d be about 89% full. Still, a few weeks ago, when they asked us to conserve water, and before this rainy season kicked in, they were only around 65% full, so, yay?

The reason for this problem is that we had a dry autumn with very little rain, so winter had a lot oc catching up to do. Problem is, winter started dry, too. So far this month, the dams have had a combined total rainfall of around 150mm of rain (about a third of that in the previous 7 days; it’ll be interesting to see if this week there’s been a higher rainfall, as it seemed). The average historical monthly total is around 180mm, so we’re a long way off of that—after dry periods preceding it.

The problem with this is that if our reservoirs are so low in winter, Aucklanders will need to prepare for water restrictions in the dry weeks of this coming summer. Saving water isn’t a long-term solution, though, and it’ll take a multifaceted approach to deal with inevitable droughts we’ll experience more frequently in the future.

Right now, there are too many barriers and costs associated with installing rainwater tanks for urban houses. Auckland Council will need to change that. There will probably need to be some sort of financial incentive to get people to install the tanks, and to upgrade their homes to be more efficient in water use.

Meanwhile, all this rain has definitely been miserable, with large ponds—almost small lakes—in farmers' fields throughout the area. Today I took the photo on the right side of this post. It's shows some minor flooding along our fenceline (the same fence that’s given us quite a few problems to deal with, most recently in May of this year). The flooding isn’t bad, obviously, but the thing about it is that in the two and a half years we’ve lived in this house, it’s never flooded there. I have no idea why it did now, but the ground is absolutely saturated (walking on it sounds like walking on a very wet sponge).

Still, even though it’s been raining a lot in Auckland this month, there hasn’t been nearly enough of it. That’s winter, 2019.

See also: “Auckland's dam levels”, which Watercare updates ever week.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Commercials that travel well

The ad above is for House of Travel, which bills itself as “New Zealand’s biggest locally owned and operated travel company.” In this era of Internet travel arranging, this may sound like a quaint, sort or retro kind of thing, but there’s clearly still a need for such services, which is what their television ads are attempting to tap into. For a variety of reasons, these ads all work, even the one that’s annoying.

These ads are part of a series of ads under the theme, “Let’s make holidays better, together”, and all say they’re based on true stories, and all the versions here are the longer versions of the ads.

The ad up top is my favourite of the three, and was actually the second in the series of ads, posted the beginning of March. The main reason is the actor who plays the wife. In her consultation with House of Travel’s “Lucy”, she says her lifelong dream is “silly, really”, and it’s not hard to believe a person might really say that, resigned to never fulfilling that dream, at least, not really. At the end of the ad she wordlessly depicts what to me looks like happiness, wonder, and even sheer joy. It’s very well done.

This ad tries to convey caring, a commitment to the customer, and willingness to go farther than expected, as shown in the ad next ad (third in the series), which they posted at the end of March:

The main point of this ad is that the company will go beyond the call of duty for their customers, and that they’re essentially friends. People really do forget their passport, and even though I’d be unlikely to do so (I compulsively check constantly to make sure I know where it is before we ever leave the house, and then again on the way to the airport), I can imagine this sort of thing happening. This ad seems to have been intended to be humorous, as the first ad in the series (below) was, but I would have liked the couple to be a bit more desperate to be more believable. Even so, it’s an okay ad.

The first ad in the series, posted in February, was also supposed to be humorous, but I find it annoying, for probably obvious reasons:

What I do think is funny about the ad is that many people really do think that travel agencies aren’t needed any more. It’s that guy that annoys me. Of course—he’s clearly meant to.

The story arc of the three ads has a narrative beyond the theme of the campaign. The first ad aired, the scene with the guy in the bar, establishes that travel agents still exist, and that they can save customers money over what they would have spent on their own, using the Internet. The second ad establishes that travel agents will go beyond the call of duty, and suggests they’re our friends, and the third ad suggests they care about us, not just our business. So, they save us money, look after us, and even help fulfill dreams. That’s a lot of work for some three minutes of television advertising to accomplish.

I think this TV ad campaign works precisely because it makes travel agents human, but it does so in such a good natured way, with a healthy dose of humour. It means we can get the message without feeling lectured. Of course, it helps that “Lucy” is so darn likeable, too.

As I often say, to be effective TV advertising has to capture people’s attention, first, then it has to stick in the mind somehow, and there are a lot of ways to do both. Story, music, imagery, the acting—all those are the sorts of things that make ads work and be memorable, and it why these ads work.

There’s one more critical piece to make TV ads effective: We mustn’t start to get annoyed when the ad comes on again. I’ve included the ads in order (top to bottom), from my favourite to my least favourite. I’m not tired of the top ad yet, a little tired of the middle ad, and the last one is starting to annoy me. Of course, this is entirely subjective, and other people may have completely different reactions. These are merely mine.

I may not personally have used a travel agent for decades, but it’s kind of nice to know that they’re still there, if for no other reason than that we might need them. This ad series shows my why I might need them, so, for me, the ads worked.

But I do especially like the woman’s reaction at the end of the ad at the top of this post.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Taught by ‘Ugly Gerry’

A couple weeks ago there was a bit of social media buzz about a font* called “Ugly Gerry” (the image up top is a screenshot of the font). It was a simple 26-letter alphabet made up of oddly shaped US Congressional Districts. The districts chosen are supposedly particularly bad examples of gerrymandering, but are they really? Things are seldom as simple as political arguments try to suggest.

I downloaded the font two weeks ago today because, like so many other people, I saw an article about it shared on social media. I grabbed the font because I thought the idea was funny, and because I’ve been a critic of gerrymandering my entire adult life. I thought, what wasn’t to love about a font that points out the absurdity of gerrymandering? Nothing—if you put aside the fact that it’s not quite that simple or even necessarily very fair.

I discovered that four of the letters—some 15%—were made from Illinois Congressional Districts. I realised how implausible it was that Illinois has among the worst gerrymandered districts, so I looked at them more closely and discovered how misleading those choices—and even the idea that they’re gerrymandered—actually is.

The original "Gerry-Mander".
The fact that districts could be branded “gerrymandered” when they’re not necessarily so isn’t surprising. The word comes from the name of Elbridge Gerry**, who was Governor of Massachusetts 1810-12. During his second term, his party re-drew electoral district boundaries to benefit their own party—which is the very definition of gerrymandering. The irony is that Gerry himself didn’t like the highly partisan map, but signed it anyway, and so, got the blame for the next two centuries (although there were other reasons that Gerry came to be disliked).

The original intent behind the term gerrymander was to describe electoral districts that have been drawn to advantage one party over others, or especially ones drawn to disadvantage the party out of power. That was the case in Gerry’s time, and it continues right up to ours, though now it's also often done to dilute the power of minorities. However, that’s that not the only way that districts get odd boundaries.

Congressional Districts, and most legislative districts within states, are supposed to have roughly equal populations. That’s the starting point. There’s also usually a desire to avoid splitting communities, wherever possible, but the first demand sometimes makes the second impossible to achieve, especially in states with large rural areas and a few small pockets of urban areas, like Illinois has (Chicago, and even the six counties surrounding it, are unlike most of the state in that they’re far more urbanised than most of the state is, geographically speaking). This makes a third goal, making a district relatively geographically compact, very difficult to achieve in real life.

What this means is that even when electoral district boundaries are drawn with no regard for political party, there will still be some odd shapes in order to keep the populations roughly equal; it’s pretty much unavoidable, at least some of the time.

An additional factor in Illinois is that much of the state, aside from Chicago and Cook County and some other urban areas, is pretty Republican—there just aren’t as many people in the rest of the state, with Democrats concentrated in its northeast, and in some Democratic pockets in other parts of the state. Because it’s hard to avoid dissolving Democratic votes into Republican districts, it’s not uncommon for Illinois’ Congressional maps in particular to advantage Republicans in the majority of the state (again, geographically speaking), because the more urban and more Democratic areas outside the Chicago area have to be shared among mostly rural and mostly Republican districts just to keep the populations roughly equal.

This whole process becomes harder after every US Census, because Illinois has been losing one or two Congressional Districts each time. Between 1973 and 1982, the period in which I first became intensely interested in electoral politics, Illinois had 24 Congressional Districts, and it now has only 18.

All of which means that many oddly shaped Illinois districts don’t fit the usual definition of gerrymandering, and that’s probably true for other states, too.

Here’s a look at the four Illinois Districts included in the font (all pictures are from the Ugly Gerry website), listed in Congressional District order:

 Illinois Fourth Congressional District (the letter “V”): Anyone looking at this would conclude it’s gerrymandered, but even this weirdly shaped district isn’t really. First, rotate the picture 90 degrees to the right. The district was created in this shape after federal courts ordered Illinois to create a majority-Hispanic district in the Chicago area. The resulting district combines two heavily Hispanic areas into one district, a mostly Puerto Rican area in the North, and a mostly Mexican-American one in the South. The funny strip on the left (Western) edge of the district (when rotated to its proper orientation) is Interstate 294, where there are no residents, but which served as a convenient way to link the two areas. Not surprisingly for a Chicago Congressional District, the district has a Democratic lean of 33 points. So, this weird district wasn’t drawn this way for partisan reasons, but to obey a court order. Which doesn’t mean it’s not dumb—it is—but gerrymandered?

Illinois Eleventh Congressional District (the letter “N”): This one has to be rotated 90 degrees to the left, which doesn’t make it any less oddly shaped. The area is mixed politically, but being closer to the Chicago metropolitan region means that the area is more Democratic than Republican, and it generally has Democratic lean of about 8 points. This is one of the districts I was talking about, one that tries to balance population by mixing rural and more urban areas. Despite its odd shape, it’s nevertheless relatively compact, unlike Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, above.

Illinois Twelfth Congressional District (the letter “Y”): This one doesn’t have to be rotated. The squiggly line on the left (Western) edge of the district is the Mississippi River. This district is pretty geographically compact, and doesn’t actually look gerrymandered district, especially when viewed in the context of other Illinois Congressional Districts. In fact, the district is a little more competitive than other Downstate districts, in part because it includes urban areas and more heavily Democratic university towns. Most of this district was once part of a district that was represented by US Rep. (later US Senator) Paul Simon, a Democrat, and it’s where the university I attended is located. It now generally has a Republican lean of about 5 points.

Illinois Eighteenth Congressional District (the letter “J”): This one is presented on an angle to make it look kinda like the letter “J”; in reality, it runs East-West, and the squiggly line on the bottom of the “J” is actually the Mississippi River. As a Central Illinois district, it’s more heavily Republican: It generally has Republican lean of about 15 points. In fact, I don’t remember a Democrat representing that area, though that may have happened at some point in my life.

This experience has shown me that gerrymandering isn’t the same as drawing oddly shaped districts, even though some people treat it as the same thing. I think we need to be pedantic about what a gerrymandered district actually is because the real thing—trying to advantage one political party over others and to dilute minority representation—is an affront to democracy. In contrast to that, most of Illinois’ “oddly” shaped districts (and probably many in other states, too) are the result of trying to balance conflicting goals in trying to ensure fair representation, and less about trying to advantage one political party over another.

Which means that as fun and funny as this font is, it may not necessarily be fair, and it definitely isn’t a good guide to what gerrymandered districts are (this exercise made me wonder about whether the districts included from other states are actually gerrymandered). Until now, I never really appreciated that there are a lot reasons why district boundaries can be drawn with odd shapes, and it’s not always as “bad” as it may look.

The lesson I take away from this is to always look more deeply into a political argument and try to determine if it’s fair and accurate. This takes a lot of time to do, which is why most of us don’t do it, or don’t do it enough. Even so, it’s important to verify claims made—even when it’s just a novelty font doing it.

Things are seldom as simple as political arguments try to suggest.


*There's a difference between font and typeface, one that Fast Company described this way: “The difference between a font and a typeface is the same as that between songs and an album. The former makes up the latter. Remember that and you’re good to go.”

**Since these footnotes are being pedantic, gerrmander is properly pronounced like “Gary-mander”, not “Jerry-mander” because Elbridge Gerry pronounced his surname “Gary”. While pronouncing gerrymander incorrectly is common, it’s also adding another layer of insult—but good luck convincing anyone to say it any other way than “jerry-mander” (in fact, I pronounce it incorrectly most o the time). Fun fact: Gerry, who died while serving as Vice President to President James Madison, is buried in Washington, DC, and is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be buried in the capital of the nation he helped to form.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

When it all ends

It seems obvious that the existence Hong Kong has known is about to end. Whether it’s a brutal crackdown by Hong Kong police or invasion by China, either way the movement demanding democracy will be crushed. It’s not a question of if, but when.

A couple days ago, I posted this on my personal Facebook:
I don't know how many of my FB friends are following what's happening in Hong Kong, but I've said from the beginning that China will inevitably intervene to put down the protests. I think that time is approaching rapidly—mere days, maybe even hours.

When the suppression begins, it will most likely end Hong Kong's special relationship, and China will fully incorporate the city into China. When it does, no country, including the USA, will be able to do anything to stop them. Maybe this is the reason China has waited so long to intervene? To wait until the protests became so "bad" that they had "no choice"? We all know that a lot of countries will buy that excuse, not the least because they want to.

In any case, it seems obvious to me that the people of Hong Kong will soon lose all democratic rights, especially the ones they're exercising so exuberantly at the moment, like free speech and the right to protest. The question is merely how soon will that happen?
The inevitable repression will likely come soon, possibly this weekend, with more protests planned. The Chinese army has been training riot suppression techniques all month, and video of some of their training included signs partly in English, probably for the world’s newsmedia. They’ve also been photographed training with a giant—2 and a half metre—electrified “devil fork” crowd control weapon. They mean business.

In her Washington Post column, Anne Applebaum writes, “Hong Kong and Russia protesters fight for democracy. The West should listen and learn.”. Yes, it should. But it won’t—least of all the supposedly democratic Western countries that have lost their way.

Also writing in the Post, Keith B. Richburg, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, tells us why “The Hong Kong protests are the inevitable effect of an impossible system”, and how the “one country, two systems” idea was never going to work. In other words, this day was inevitable.

But at least the current occupant of the White House offered words of wisdom: , "I hope nobody gets hurt, I hope nobody gets killed," he said. Yippee. So comforting.

Meanwhile, a boycott of Disney’s new live-action remake of Mulan is being urged after its star expressed her support for Hong Kong police. Action movie star, Jackie Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, has also drawn criticism for his backing of China. That’s show the Chinese government! As if.

This cannot end well. The only thing holding the Chinese back is that they realised that this could look like a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where the Chinese Government put down protests demanding change. Back then, protesters had a 10 metre tall statue, Goddess of Democracy a statue that was strongly reminiscent of the USA’s Statue of Liberty. Now, protesters are using American flags.

The reality is that there’s not a lot the world can do to stop China’s inevitable crackdown and repression. The world certainly can’t intervene militarily, but it could at least make clear whose side it’s on. Just as the “one country, two systems” was always going to fail, its collapse may provide a blueprint for China’s invasion and subjugation of Taiwan. The only thing that might make them hold their fire—literally—is if the world makes it unmistakable that doing so would have severe consequences. But the head of the USA’s government can’t be bothered to speak up in defence of democracy and freedom—perhaps because he doesn’t value them?—so the message China is receiving is that they just have to make their excuses for invading defensible by milquetoast Western politicians. That was the whole point of all the military training, and their signs in English, and—allegedly—various other tactics like—allegedly—infiltrating the protest movement to instigate violence to help give China a pretext for invasion.

When it all ends, Hong King will be under China’s authoritarian rule. And the world could be one day closer to what may end up being a war with China. Who would be there to stand up for our freedom and democracy? As unstable as the world and its political leaders are at the moment, would any of us survive?

We know how this chapter will end. But we don’t yet know how the story will end. It’s up to us to write it, and so far we’ve been pretty illiterate.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Delivering mistakes

The USA is poised to withdraw from an international treaty that could make life more difficult for citizens who live overseas temporarily or permanently. This could affect a great many things, including voting by overseas US citizens, but the reason behind the change seems to be about money—and mistakes.

The (US) National Association of Counties (stylised as NACo) reported on its blog yesterday that the USA is about to withdraw from the United Nations’ Universal Postal Union (UPU). The UPU is a 142-year-old treaty, which the UPU describes this way:
With its 192 member countries, the UPU is the primary forum for cooperation between postal sector players. It helps to ensure a truly universal network of up-to-date products and services.

In this way, the organization fulfils an advisory, mediating and liaison role, and provides technical assistance where needed. It sets the rules for international mail exchanges and makes recommendations to stimulate growth in mail, parcel and financial services volumes and improve quality of service for customers.
Back on October 18, 2018, the White House announced (copy and paste this link to get to the White House Press Statement: http://bit.ly/33znhi6) that it was withdrawing from the UPU. That process is due to be completed on October 19, 2019—just a few short months before the 2020 presidential primary voting is due to begin.

According to estimates by the Federal Voting Assistance Programme (FVAP), and shared by NACo in the link above, there are approximately a million active duty service members and three million other US citizens living in 170 countries that are eligible to vote in federal elections, and all of them will rely, at least in part, on postal delivery. No one knows how the US withdrawal from the UPU will affect those voters.

We could find out soon. There are some state and local elections in November of this year, and some ballots will be sent out in September. That means that the withdrawal from the UPU will happen right in the middle of the 2019 voting programme, and no one knows what that will mean for returning ballots on time this year. Tt may out to be a test for what could happen in 2020.

It’s tempting for some to think that this is part of a plan to deny the vote to US citizens living overseas, but while that’s without basis, it’s definitely understandable. As everyone knows, the USA has long been notorious for its efforts to make voting harder, whether through gerrymandering districts, actively suppressing the votes of minorities or supporters of the other political party, or refusing to allow former prison inmates to vote—the list is practically endless. However, not only is there no evidence suggesting vote suppression is the reason for this, the evidence suggest that it’s merely a consequence.

First, there’s no solid data on how overseas US citizens vote. That means there’s no way of knowing which party would be most affected by the change, so targeting overseas voters could be self-defeating for the current regime, particularly since no one knows if it will affect voters at all. Second, and regardless of party preference, there just aren’t enough overseas votes to sway a statewide election, like for US Senator or US President in a state, and that means overseas voters are highly unlikely to influence what candidate gets a state’s Electoral College Votes (the only total that actually matters). That said, those votes might, at least theoretically, help determine small elections, like for US Representative. Maybe.

The real issue is that withdrawal from the UPU is that it will affect far more than just voting: Potentially, all letters, cards, small packages, etc., sent through postal services could be affected, with higher costs and potential delays. Even NACo, which is interested in the move because counties are usually responsible for sending out and receiving elections material, noted that the current regime “cited concerns over terminal due rates as the primary reason for the withdrawal and hopes to establish self-declared rates for small packages to ensure American businesses remain competitive in the e-commerce marketplace.” In other words, it’s all about money. It’s not hard to imagine the leader of the current regime calling the UPU arrangements “very unfair”. Probably in a Tweet. Well, maybe if he understood it.

The best and most likely explanation, then, is that this is all about money, as such things usually are. It seems unlikely that withdrawal from the UPU will accomplish what the current regime thinks it will, of course, which, of course, isn’t unusual for them. Based on the evidence, I think the move is absolutely ideological, but only because it’s all about money for corporations. It’s also probably about the current regime’s general, ordinary incompetence.

I’m certainly open to evidence that I’m wrong—about the regime’s motives or even its incompetence. But absent that, this seems to be one of those times that the simplest explanation is the best.

US citizens living overseas could, potentially, have a harder time voting, yes. But they also could have a harder time sending a birthday card to Great Aunt Agnes, or a Christmas present to their parents. And this could result in higher costs for e-commerce companies, including ones shipping TO the USA. Time will tell if these are a problems or not, but, for now, there’s no evidence that the regime is intending to make life harder for US citizens living overseas, even though it could very well do so. The really sad part of all of this, though, is that saying the current regime doesn’t appear to be trying to make people’s lives harder intentionally is unusually high praise of them.

The photo at the top of this post is from a 2016 Instagram Post that I also shared in a blog post called, “I Voted, 2016 edition”. It’s my own photo. And my hand, for that matter.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

When you visit

The video above is a new TV commercial from Immigration New Zealand (INZ) talking about the NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority), something that all foreign visitors will need to get before travelling to New Zealand, beginning on 1 October 2019. Many countries, including the USA, already have a similar requirement, so, in that sense, New Zealand is just joining in. What these programmes all have in common is that they provide an easy way to exclude someone before they get on the plane—and, potentially, having to be deported. It’s good to see INZ promoting awareness of this here in New Zealand, since many of us have family and friends overseas, but it’s important that they promote it overseas, too.

This new programme applies to people from “visa waiver countries”, that is, countries whose citizens can travel without first needing to apply for and obtain a vistor’s permit/visa. The agreements are usually reciprocal, but not always. Some countries are more welcoming than others, too: The USA allows people from 38 countries to enter the USA without first obtaining a visitor’s permit/visa, and New Zealand permits people from 60 countries.

The US programme has several requirements. A traveller to the USA must:
  • Have a biometric passport (most are nowadays)
  • Have an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), which is like New Zealand’s NZeTA.
  • The passport must be valid for six months beyond the expected date of departure (this is also pretty standard)
  • A ticket on a commercial carrier, either to return home or to travel onwards, before the time limit for a tourist ends. This, too, is a common requirement in some form or other.
What all this means is that New Zealand followed all the same procedures apart from the NZeTA, and now it will have that, too. Naturally, there’s a cost to that, and, naturally, that’s not the only new cost for visitors.

The NZeTA will cost NZ$9 if purchased using the free App, or NZ$12 if purchased online (today, that’s about $US5.82 and US$7.76, respectively). The USA’s ESTA costs US$14 (today, about NZ$21.64). Both countries say to allow 72 hours for approval, though it's usually faster. Australian citizens don’t need an NZeTA, nor do we need their Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) to visit their country, due to specific bilateral agreements.

New Zealand has also enacted an International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy, which is intended to raise funds to maintain infrastructure and the natural environment put under strain by the growing numbers of tourists from overseas. The fee for that is NZ$35 (today, US$24.62). The fee is paid when someone applies for their NZeTA (or their visa, if they’re not from a visa waiver country).

As I noted in a recent AmeriNZ Podcast episode, this is the first time in more than two decades that I’ve actually seen a concrete benefit from being a dual national. Because I’m a US citizen, I don’t need the ESTA, and because I’m a NZ citizen, I don’t need an NZeTA. There’s actually a third benefit: Because I’m a NZ citizen, I don’t need an ETA to visit Australia, but I would if I was just a US citizen. Sadly, I don’t actually get much benefit from this reality because I don’t travel overseas very much at all.

International travel is becoming much more complicated all the time. While at least some of that was probably inevitable, it would be nice if countries figured out a way to streamline these requirements to make it easier for travellers. At least New Zealand allows people to pay for their NZeTA and the IVL at the same time. I guess.

Because I talk about this sort of stuff on this blog and on my podcast, I’m probably a bit more aware of these changes than most people are. That’s why I think it’s good to see INZ promoting awareness of the NZeTA here in New Zealand. But it’s also important that they promote it overseas, too. I hope they do, but maybe these days travellers just need to expect to do more research about travel requirements.

That, and remember to not pack too much and make their suitcases too heavy.

A trick for (living with) dogs

For quite a while now, there’s been a popular subject on the Internet called “lifehacks”. There are all sorts of memes, blog posts, articles, YouTube videos and probably more devoted to what are really nothing more than helpful hints. Some people loathe the term for the implication that it’s about “cheats”, but that’s not actually possible. Instead, it’s really just about finding shortcuts through daily life, better and more efficient ways doing things, and there are plenty of them. Like how to deal with dog registration tags.

New Zealand recently went through the annual dog registration process, and part of that involves putting a tag or strip on the dog’s colour, both as proof of registration, and to make it easier to locate the dog’s family if it gets lost. Since July 1, 2006, all dogs newly registered in New Zealand (except for working farm dogs) have had to be microchipped. Dog Control officers often have a microchip reader, but chips do fail, and ordinary people won’t have one. So, the tag is manual back-up (as well as a visual sign to others that the dog is registered).

Most (maybe all) local governments in New Zealand offer a choice between a plastic tag and a plastic strap. We’ve used both over the years, but I prefer the tag. One of the main reasons for that is that I can reuse it as part of a key chain. For example, I have an old one on my house keys—yellow so I’m more likely to see it if I drop the keys on the ground, especially if it’s in the grass. I also put them on spare keys that we might give to a guest. It’s at least theoretically possible that if I lost my keys they might be able to find me though the dog registration number on the tag—although, so far I’ve never lost my keys (still, I’m only 60½, so there’s still time…).

The problem with this is that the tag and its little metal ring arrive taped together onto the letter acknowledging the registration—but the rings and tags are separate from the each other. So, first the tag has to go onto the metal ring, and then that has to go onto the ring on the dog’s collar. Neither task is easy.

In the past, I always tried to open the rings using my fingernails, often breaking my nails. Then I found a lifehack that said to use an ordinary staple lifter to pinch open a ring like that. It worked—and my fingernails now remain intact. Even so, it’s not easy to open those little rings—it’s just that it’s definitely easier with the staple lifter.

One problem with the plastic tags is that they often have little nubs on them left from the manufacturing process. Because the tags are made from a hard plastic, those little numbs can be quite strong, and can easily scratch. I don’t want to be scratched when I’m giving my dog a scratch, so the first thing I do is cut off those nubs using an ordinary fingernail clipper (funny how often fingernails enter into this process…). After that, I swing out the little nail file to make sure the edge where the nub was is smooth.

Then I put the tag onto the little ring, which sometimes takes a little manoeuvring. When I put them onto the much bigger ring on the dog’s collar, I have to open the little ring the tag is on much wider—in fact, it’s more open than the staple lifter can manage. So, my solution is to insert the file from those fingernail clippers (again with the fingernails!) to keep the ring open to I can gradually slide the staple lifter along as I slide it over the ring on the dog’s collar. Eventually I get the little ring completely onto the dog’s collar.

I don’t always succeed in my first attempt: The ring the tags are on is quite small, which makes the whole process very fiddly. I once tried using a larger metal ring, one from a previous year’s tag, but it turned out it the hole on the new tag was too small (or the ring was too thick, depending on your perspective). Personally, I think that if the metal ring merely had a wider diameter it would be so much easier to work with.

Despite some quibbles with the size of the ring, this process nevertheless allows me to eventually succeed, while keeping my fingernails intact (again!). And it just goes to show that not every blog post has to be about a serious or important topic.

Though keeping nice fingernails obviously is.

The photo above is of this year’s tag before the lifehack was applied.

Footnote: I originally intended this post to be for last week, since I knew I’d be too busy with work to create new posts, but I ran out of time to finish it. I was trying to pre-plan posts, like Roger Green does so well, and I, um, I don’t (except for our trip to Australia in 2017, when I wrote and set-up several blog posts to publish automatically). Best laid plans, and all that. Still, if I’m now free to resume blogging, why not start with a lighter topic? So, that done, I now need to go trim my fingernails.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Second Democratic Debate

The second Democratic Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, was terrible. That wasn’t the fault of the candidates, at least, not exclusively. Instead, it was CNN that ran an absolutely awful show. It was silly, pandering, and often seeming like it was little more than “Survivor: Democrats”, with the show attempting to manufacture conflict where there really wasn’t any, and to ignore those who weren’t singled out for attention. Americans and Democrats alike deserved better, and CNN failed utterly.

We could see early on how awful coverage would be. Both nights, the coverage began with a long verbal introduction of the candidates for the night, a commercial break, then back to the broadcast beginning with yet another introduction of the candidates in the debate. Then a long flag ceremony, an interpretation of the US national anthem, and, finally, a dozen minutes or so into the broadcast, they got ready to begin the actual debate.

Night One was the Bernie and Elizabeth Show, and Night Two was the Joe and Kamala show. Other candidates occasionally got to say a few things, but the questions and follow-up questions were mainly directed at the two candidates who were the focus of the night.

We can see this in the amount of speaking time given to the candidates:

On Night One, Elizabeth Warren got 18:33, and Bernie Sanders got 17:45. The candidate with the third-most amount of time was Buttigieg, who got 14:07. The next four were all similar: Bullock 10:59, O’Rourke 10:58, Klobuchar 10:49, and Delaney 10:31. The small amount of time given to Delaney will surprise some people on Twitter, since they complained abut how much he was talking. Ryan was next at 9:47, followed by the bottom two, Williamson on 8:52 and Hickenlooper on 8:49.

On Night Two, Joe Biden got 21 minutes, and Kamala Harris got 17:18. Booker was this on 13:05 and Gillibrand was fourth on 11:25. The next four were all similar: Inslee 10:48, Tulsi Gabbard 10:47, Bennet 10:25, followed by de Blasio with 9:17 and Yang on 8:53.

Commentators on the night and since seemed unimpressed with Night One, and CNN’s use of Delaney, and to some degree Hickenlooper, to attack Sanders and Warren without giving much else. Vox’s Ezra Klein Tweeted: “Seriously? More time for Delaney in the hopes he'll attack Warren's wealth tax? But...why?” At the time, I wondered if it was just for the fireworks. Williamson was lauded for some of her statements, especially on contaminated water for Michigan, but at the time it didn’t impress me because the same point had been made many times before by others. Her comments on race and reparations, however, were better than most of the others—but despite that, I still think she’s a flake. I also thought that Mayor Pete got in some of the best comments of the night. A transcript of Night One was posted by The Washington Post, saving us all the burden of having to watch it all.

I still followed Twitter on Night Two, but I actually didn’t listen as closely as I did on Night One—I was already over the whole thing by then. I rolled my eyes when de Blasio used his opening statement to attack Biden and Harris, because it seemed like little more than a desperate play for attention. It also set the stage for the tone of the night, mostly a fight between Biden and Harris, as it was in their match-up in the First Debate. This time, though, Harris seemed far less able than she did in the First Debate. Instead, Booker did the main job of attacking Biden—at the very least, he was generally more effectively than Harris was. Castro, like Harris, also wasn’t nearly as impressive as in the First Debate. Yang got a lot of positive talk after the debate, but he didn’t impress me, either. The last thing the USA needs, in my opinion, is another president who was a businessman who thinks he has all the answers.

As it did for Night One, The Washington Post posted a transcript of Night Two.

NBC’s coverage of the First Democratic Debate may have suffered from technical glitches, but CNN’s suffered from something far worse: Bad choices. From wasting viewers’ time at the start of each night, through to giving Warren and Sanders too much speaking time on Night One and doing the same for Biden and Harris on Night Two, CNN made too many dumb choices for the debate to be of any use to anyone, especially undecided voters.

Actually, it wasn’t terribly attractive even for politics junkies like me. Roger Green, who is a political science major like me, didn’t watch either debate, but nevertheless had some good observations on the candidates and how they did. The two nights certainly didn’t persuade me to back any candidate, nor did I become opposed to any—or, to put it more accurately, nothing changed my opinions of the candidates.

The second Democratic Presidential Debate was terrible. Americans and Democrats alike deserved better, and hopefully they’ll get it in the debate next month. I’m just not sure I’ll want to watch it.

CNN Was Ill-Equipped for This
by Megan Garber, The Atlantic

What a real president says

Former President Barack Obama issued a statement from him and Michelle on the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings in the USA:
Michelle and I grieve with all the families in El Paso and Dayton who endured these latest mass shootings. Even if details are still emerging, there are a few things we already know to be true.

First, no other nation on Earth comes close to experiencing the frequency of mass shootings that we see in the United States. No other developed nation tolerates the levels of gun violence that we do. Every time this happens, we're told that tougher gun laws won't stop all murders; that they won't stop every deranged individual from getting a weapon and shooting innocent people in public places. But the evidence shows that they can stop some killings. They can save some families from heartbreak. We are not helpless here. And until all of us stand up and insist on holding public officials accountable for changing our gun laws, these tragedies will keep happening.

Second, while the motivations behind these shootings may not yet be fully known, there are indications that the El Paso shooting follows a dangerous trend: troubled individuals who embrace racist ideologies and see themselves obligated to act violently to preserve white supremacy. Like the followers of ISIS and other foreign terrorist organizations, these individuals may act alone, but they've been radicalized by white nationalist websites that proliferate on the internet. That means that both law enforcement agencies and internet platforms need to come up with better strategies to reduce the influence of these hate groups.

But just as important, all of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy. We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don't look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people. Such language isn't new – it's been at the root of most human tragedy throughout history, here in America and around the world. It is at the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it's time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much – clearly and unequivocally.
This is what a real president says, down to getting the names of both cities right. Even two years after leaving office, he’s still demonstrating what acting like a US President means, how it should be done.

Obama later Tweeted a link to an article from Vox, “Democrats have been discussing the same ideas on guns for 25 years. It’s time to change that.”, in which German Lopez argues that "There should be a Medicare-for-all or Green New Deal for ending gun violence." His article is as much a review of how the USA’s politics on guns became so skewed to the Right as it is a call for Democrats to begin a bigger conversation rather than advocating the same minor changes over and over. While some of the proposals talked about in the article go far beyond what Democrats have called for in the past, they’re also common-sense, tried and true measures that work. We should at least talk about these solutions.

And, the USA should have a president who understands that promoting racism and intolerance is never, ever, acceptable. The USA needs a president who will stand up to the forces of hatred, call it by its proper name, and do everything feasible to end it. In 2020, the country will get the chance to make sure that happens, to make sure it gets a real president again.

Update – Tuesday, August 6 (US time, August 7 NZ time): A White House spindoctor has attacked President Obama for his remarks. Deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told Fox "News" (of course): "For [President Obama] to interject himself into this conversation, this debate, at this point, it’s his right to do it. But the fact is Donald Trump is the president of all Americans. He’s trying to move this country forward, and comments like that take us backwards and take us to a dark place that we never want to be and we never want to visit again.” Hogan clearly mixed up the presidents he was talking about…