Wednesday, February 28, 2007

No Spam Spam Spam Spam

New Zealand is the latest country to ban spam, which in this case means unsolicited email and text messages.

The Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act, passed last night, bans unwanted messages and requires senders of commercial messages to include accurate sender information and an unsubscribe option, neither of which seems unreasonable.

The right wing Act Party claimed the Act will accomplish nothing to end spam and it will place a burden on business (somehow). Its two MPs were the only two to vote against it.

The not-quite-as right wing National Party voted in favour of it, but said it would achieve very little.

As usual, the Opposition is missing the point.

By outlawing spam, there are now laws to go after anyone who sets up a spam operation in this country. As more counties outlaw spam, more spammers will attempt to operate from countries without such laws.

David Cunliffe, Communications Minister, said:

This law is another important step towards greater internet security. It will clamp down on spam of a domestic origin and provide a platform for seeking an international agreement to fight spam world-wide.

At the moment, 80-95 percent of all email is spam. Clearly something needs to change.

Someday, maybe, there’ll be a way to stamp out this plague once and for all. Until then, we have to do what we can country by country.

BlogsNow not now

Blog link tracking site BlogsNow has stopped in its tracks. The site’s creator, Andreas Wacker, says:
BlogsNow has been turned off. Recently the ratio of spam- vs. real blogs has shifted even further. In order for BlogsNow to continue to create meaningful results I would have to add signifcantly more code for spam detection. I decided not to do this right now. Sorry.
This is a real shame as it often turned up interesting linked-to things that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. AmeriNZ ended up listed a few times, including, memorably, this time.

There are other ways of seeing what’s popular among bloggers. Technorati is among the best known of these, but it’s tracking of links isn’t perfect. Nothing is, I suppose. Still, I liked BlogsNow’s straightforward, simple approach and I hope one day it will be back.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Crime changes things

My friend Jason wrote a great post commemorating the tenth anniversary of being mugged in Washington, DC. On the surface, that might sound like something best forgotten. I disagree.

The post recounts the details, which in itself I find fascinating, since I’ve never experienced anything like it. But what I found most moving was his take on the effects of the crime:

From time to time I still get nervous around groups of [young] African-American men. I try not to let it bother me but it still does. And it bothers me that this still bothers me. I’ve always tried to judge people on who they are not what they are.

I’ve known Jason since we were nine or ten years old, and I can attest that he’s about the least racist person I know. “It bothers me that this still bothers me.” I know it does.

But the other thing that fascinates me is the larger things the crime set in motion. It forced him to move, as it would many people. This eventually led him to buy his first house. He concludes…

So it is strange how one very, very bad event changed my life. And not all of those changes were bad.

That struck me because it’s so often true: Even bad things can cause good results. That doesn’t make the bad things better, but maybe it means there really are good things that come out of every bad things, like we’ve so often been told.And to extrapolate (in a way that even Jason may appreciate) maybe that means America will emerge better after the nightmare of the Bush/Cheney years. The ability to hope, I think, may be the greatest talent humans have.

Flat Earthers

When former US Vice President Al Gore’s environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Greenpeace (New Zealand), predictably, was happy. Others, less so.

New Zealand radio station NewstalkZB reported:

A critic of the climate change debate suggests Mr Gore’s Oscar makes a mockery of the awards. Meteorologist Augie Auer is a staunch critic of Mr Gore's views and believes the documentary is full of errors and is not relevant. He does not believe the documentary has the level of following the award would suggest.
The debate on global warming is over. Auer’s side lost. By continuing on, they’re sounding more and more like people standing at the end of an airport runway screaming that heavier-then-air flight is impossible as a roaring jet taking off provides evidence to the contrary.

While I’ve criticised Auer’s group before, I actually doubt that the opinions of a retired New Zealand meteorologist will have any real influence here or anywhere else. But what I personally find cringe-making is the fact that Auer is an expat American. We Americans already have a world-wide reputation as climate change deniers, and Auer just reinforces it. However, his odd opinions are not shared by all Americans, expat or not, and that, too, is an established fact.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Carbon neutral electricity

New Zealand’s state-owned power generation company, Meridian Energy, has had its power generation certified carbon neutral, according to an NZPA story. The company’s wind and hydro plants produce thirty percent of New Zealand’s electricity.

In 2004, the company announced it would focus on renewable energy. Since then, the report says, the company has accurately measured its carbon emissions, taken steps to reduce them and purchased carbon credits to offset any remaining carbon emissions.

It’s another step toward fulfilling the Labour Government’s goal of making New Zealand a carbon neutral, sustainable nation.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hero Parade is back

The Hero Parade, Auckland’s gay and lesbian nighttime parade, is probably going to return next year after several year's absence, the Herald on Sunday says. The parade stopped in 2001 after financial problems.

The new parade is expected to be sponsored by New Zealand-based vodka maker 42 Below, which is a strong supporter of gay events as part of their marketing toward the GLBT community (their support works: Every few years when I buy a bottle of vodka, 42 Below is the only brand I’ll buy. There you have my first-ever direct product endorsement, and without being paid for it—though I’m open to sponsorship …).

Since 2001, the other big event in the Hero Festival has been the Hero Party, a big dance party. This year’s Hero Party was last night. Big dance parties are definitely not my thing, and anyway, we had a family party to go to last night.

I hope the parade does return, because we used to enjoy going, as did a hundred thousand or so other people who turned out the watch the parade. It was always a fun and entertaining time.

More entertainment will play out over the coming months in the Letters to the Editor section of the New Zealand Herald. The parade intends to seek support from the Auckland City Council, so the right-whingers will be frothing in print and on talk-back radio. Some of the best comedy around comes from these people. They won’t be at the parade, however: It takes place way past their bedtime.

Still, most people love a parade, and we’re in the majority.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Cheney Joke

The current vice president is also the moaner-in-chief, always complaining about the critics of his Bush’s administration. There’s not a day that goes by, it seems, when he’s not attacking an opponent. It’s been getting so absurd that it’s as if he’s going for the title of joker-in-chief.

Lately, one of his favourite targets has been US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In
Japan and Australia Cheney questioned Pelosi’s patriotism. He, of course, doesn’t admit that. He told ABC News…

I'm not sure what part of it is that Nancy disagreed with. She accused me of questioning her patriotism. I didn't question her patriotism. I questioned her judgment.

How often did Cheney refer to the former Republican Speaker of the House as “Dennis”? I’d bet that he referred to him as “the Speaker”, or maybe as “Congressman Hastert”. After all, he never refers to Bush as “George” or to the Secretary of State as “Condi”.

I doubt very much that this was an accident.

Cheney has long used language to express his contempt for his many (many, many) critics. His use of the Speaker’s first name implies he was trying to lower her status. But he also uses language to try and shift the focus off the Cheney Bush Administration’s failure in

Chief among this is his tiresome, constant drone of complaint that opposition to the Bush war provides support to terrorists. In
Australia, he added a new twist to his grumpy rhetoric, claiming terrorists planned to establish

A caliphate covering a region from Spain, across North Africa, through the Middle East and South Asia, all the way to Indonesia—and it wouldn't stop there.

That language is reminiscent of what was once used to justify the Crusades which, not coincidentally, is what Islamists accuse the Bush Administration of waging. Cheney’s words would seem to justify their concern.

Or maybe Cheney’s just having a big laugh at our expense. Maybe he’s some sort of comic genius, playing his jokes totally straight, as if he really believes what he’s saying. I know—that’s just wishful thinking. Either way, the joke’s on all of us.

January 20, 2009—the end of their reign—can’t come soon enough. And that’s no joke.

Sickening statistic

America’s “ABC World News Tonight” broadcast a story about paid sick leave in America with a statistic that can only be called sickening. According to the story, 48 percent—nearly half of all American workers—receive no paid sick leave.

Not surprisingly, many of these workers are in low-paid positions and in fields where we least want sick people working: Child care, food service, elder care and retail. By effectively being forced to work no matter how sick they are, these workers may spread disease far, wide and fast. Want to see how an influenza epidemic could spread quickly? Start here.

There are proposals to make
America join the 145 nations (including New Zealand) that require basic paid sick leave. Business lobbyists, predictably, are opposed to it. They say, according to the ABC report, that if sick leave is mandated, someone will have to pay for it:

“Now, whether that's the employee, forgoing other benefits they currently have, [or] whether that's the consumer because the cost has to be passed on, businesses are not just going to absorb it,” said Barbara Lang, president of the Washington, D.C., chamber of commerce.

She would say that. In an era of runaway corporate greed, no company is going to put the good of us all ahead of maximum profits for shareholders. It’s in everyone’s interest—including shareholders—to see sick workers stay home. Veiled threats of retaliation should be ignored and the
US should do the responsible thing and mandate a national minimum paid sick leave.

I was lucky in America, and worked mostly for responsible employers who offered paid sick leave. Nevertheless, I was surprised when I moved to New Zealand and found that things are very different here. According to the New Zealand Department of Labour

For most employees there is a minimum provision of five days' paid sick leave a year after the first six months of continuous employment and an additional five days' paid sick leave after each subsequent 12 month period.

If it isn’t used, this sick leave carries over into the next year

Businesses in
New Zealand have managed to make this work. Does American business seriously expect us to believe that they can’t do what businesses in 145 nations have done? If they can’t do it, then there’s a lot more to worry about that just the health of workers.

Friday, February 23, 2007

One Billion Bulbs

On Tuesday, I wrote about how Australia is planning on phasing out incandescent lightbulbs in favour of compact fluorescents and similar more energy-efficient models. Some time back I’d heard about a group called “One Billion Bulbs” (rediscovered via This Boy Elroy). They want to replace one billion old fashioned lightbulbs with compact fluorescents. They ask us to “Imagine the possibilities”:
Imagine if people all over the world mobilized to replace one billion standard incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs. What would that mean? It would mean that those people would save money each month on their electricity bill. It would mean they would save enough energy to light tens of millions of homes for a year. It would mean the prevention of greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of millions of cars.
Even the world’s largest retailer, America’s Wal-Mart, is getting in on the act promoting compact fluorescents and other “green” initiatives. One Billion Bulbs gives ordinary people throughout the world the chance to participate in this by recording every old fashioned bulb they replace with compact fluorescents.

The group is currently in Phase 2, trying to reach 50,000 bulbs replaced. New Zealand is currently at 116.63% of its Phase 2 goal, which makes us one of the green countries on their world map. Australia is at 40.32 percent, needing 95 more bulbs changed to reach their Phase 2 goal.

I’ve added a chart at the bottom of the right side of this blog which both details the progress so far, and provides a link to participate. One person can’t save the world, but one person taking a simple act—like switching to energy efficient lighting—can help. Check it out for yourself.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


There’s that old saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” The Bush Administration is now furiously making a batch.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, under fire at home and soon to leave office, has announced a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops form Iraq. Other members of the Bush coalition are, or are said to be considering, withdrawing their troops.

While Bush’s staunch friend, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, has pledged not to withdraw his country’s troops, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd has pledged a phased withdrawal should his Australian Labor Party win the upcoming Australian election. So Bush’s escalation many need several thousand more American troops.

What’s Bush to do? Politically isolated at home, with a majority of the American people opposed to his war, and now allies pulling out their troops or possibly doing so in the near future, he has only one option: Make lemonade! A Reuters story shows this in action:

“President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with the sectarian violence in Baghdad,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

“Success,” yeah that’s a good word. How witty and clever of them to use it to mean the opposite of what’s really going on. Actually, there’s a word for that, too: Spin.

No one’s fooled by Bush or his failed policies, no matter how sweet he tries to make his lemonade.

All Shook Up

To hear the news media tell it, you’d think mass panic broke out in Auckland following three small earthquakes last night. “Three quakes have Aucklanders running into streets,” screemed the Stuff website. The New Zealand Herald’s website had a more sedate headline, “Earthquakes shake Auckland region”.

It’s important to remember that earthquakes are rare in Auckland, unlike other parts of the country. RONZers (Rest Of New Zealand) in those more active regions are probably aching with laughter to read reports implying that minor tremors caused panic in Auckland. Wellington, for example, is waiting for “The Big One” and has far more geologic activity than Auckland does.

The news media have probably exaggerated the response among Aucklanders. Still, the 4.5 tremor at 9pm last night was, according to One News, the strongest in Auckland in 116 years. It’d be natural for people unaccustomed to earthquakes to be a little freaked.

Auckland sits on top of a volcanic field, and the eruption of a new volcano (or several at once) is generally thought to be the main threat facing the city. The last major eruption was some 700 or so years ago when Rangitoto emerged from the Hauraki Gulf.

As long as people have their emergency kits ready, they’re as prepared for disaster as they can be. If so, there’s little reason to get worried about something that may never happen. Without the prudent preparations, however, a real disaster just may send people running into the streets. We won’t be among them.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tonight, an earthquake

Tonight we had an earthquake.

It wasn’t the first earthquake I’d felt in
New Zealand, but it was first I’d felt in Auckland. It also felt the strongest.

The first earthquake I felt was on July 19, 2004 (I wrote it down) when we were living in Paeroa. There was a swarm of earthquakes in the Bay of Plenty region. They were generally at a shallow depth and mostly too gentle for humans to feel. One shock, however, was 5.4 on the Richter Scale, and about 5km underground. It was strong enough for us to feel something like 60km away. I felt like a leaf floating in a pond when a pebble is thrown in—a gentle wave rolled me slightly.

This time, there were two earthquakes closer to us. The first was at 8.24pm. It was 3.7 in magnitude, about 6km in depth, and centred 30km east of Orewa, a resort town about 30 minutes or so north of us. We didn’t feel this quake.

The second quake, at 9:00pm, was different. It was 4.5, 15km deep and in roughly the same location as the 8.24 quake. This one was a sudden jolt that rattled the entire house and sent our dog running to see what was up. We felt this one. It felt like a big truck had driven past the house, just missing it. It felt bigger than the 2004 one mostly because this time we were closer to it.

Earthquakes in NZ aren’t unusual, of course. The country is sometimes called “the shaky isles” due to the large number of earthquakes reported. Up to and including the 9pm quake, there were four recorded today on the GeoNet site listing recent NZ earthquakes. Some days there are more, and some days they may be less.

We’re constantly reminded to be prepared, as I’m sure people in Hawaii and California are. Many of us don’t think about it—until we get a gentle reminder, like tonight. Where are the torches? Do we have extra batteries? Do we have emergency water? How’s our supply of emergency food?

It surprised me a bit that I lived in New Zealand for nearly nine years before I felt my first earthquake. The second was two and a half years later, not that it means anything (totally different regions and epicentres).

Nevertheless, one day there will be a huge event in New Zealand—an earthquake or volcanic eruption. Although the odds of either happening in my lifetime aren’t great, they could happen at any time. Tomorrow I’m going to make sure we’re prepared, though I know we mostly are. One of these days, there could be a much bigger event.

The star on the map at top shows the epicentre of tonight's earthquakes. Below is the wave from the second one. Both are from GeoNet and can be seen here.

As it happens, this is my 200th post since I began this blog last September. I didn't realise it this would be such an earth shattering thing.

Update: There was another earthquake at 11.23pm. Same location, magnitude 3.8, depth 7km. I didn't feel this one at all. The NZ Herald website has published reader reactions here. According to Stuff, the runways at Auckland airport were checked for damage (there was none, of course). Right: three eartquakes at roughly the same place over three hours seems a little weird to me.

Where credit’s due

Maybe it’s human nature to complain rather than compliment. It’d be easy to get that impression readings blogs, some of which seem to exist for little else. But I believe in giving credit where credit’s due, so I thought I’d present some bouquets.

From waist to waste

I enjoy some reality programmes. Some of them, however, are of seriously questionable merit. In the “good” category is a new reality series, Wa$ted, on TV3.

The premise is similar to a series they ran last year in which they went into a person’s home, fixed their diets, added exercise, and watched the particpant’s weight go down. That kind of show always makes me uncomfortable because of the unintentional messages they send that thinness is all that matters.

The new show is way different. They look at a family’s home and way of living, including how much rubbish they throw away, and how much of that could be recycled. They also examine how much energy they waste. The show’s experts provide solutions, ranging from switching to compact florescent lighbulbs, adding insulation, using cloth nappies (diapers) instead of disposables or getting a worm farm to compost food scraps.

Near the end of the episode, they calculate how much money the family will save over a year as a result of the changes and then give the difference to the family as a prize. Potentially, it can be several thousand dollars. Much better that fostering questionable body image.

Sky TV gets it right (when prompted)

Let’s begin this compliment with a brickbat: Sky TV did a really dumb thing.

Beginning March 1, they’re rearranging the channel numbers on their digital satellite service to make room for more channels, they say. However, they offered only two ways to find out the new channel numbers: A flyer with the monthly bill or in their programme magazine, Sky Watch.

Trouble is, customers who don’t order pay-per-view don’t get a monthly bill; they get one only when there’s an increase in the monthly fees, so they get a statement only a few times a year. Sky Watch is optional, and costs extra. Without either of those, there’s no way to find out the new channel numbers since there’s nothing on the Sky TV website.

So, I emailed them to find out how I could see the new channel numbers. They responded that they’d send me a free copy of Sky Watch. That arrived yesterday.

Now, this is a bit of a back-handed compliment, I realise, but these days it’s rare for a commercial company’s customer service to agree to do anything for a customer, let alone actually do it (for example, read my friend Jason troubles with DirecTV). So I think they should be publicly applauded for taking care of this customer’s needs.

Still, none of it would’ve been necessary if they’d published the new channel line-up on their website. A little more pro-active customer-centred service would be nice.

The New Zealand Black Caps

This is a cricket compliment, so mystified Americans or grieving Australians may want to skip over it.

New Zealand’s national cricket team, the Black Caps, yesterday completed a clean sweep against Australia in the Chappell-Hadlee One Day International series. In the process, New Zealand helped Australia to five consecutive One Day International (ODI) defeats.

I didn’t see yesterday’s match, but Monday’s was brilliant for both sides—it’s just that New Zealand was a little more brilliant. Monday's match required a huge run-chase for New Zealand, but yesterday's had the second-highest run chase in ODI history.

Now, Australia’s media is “roasting” their team. This happened to New Zealand as well after a lacklustre performance in the Tri-Series in Australia against the Aussies and England. It seems to me that the criticism for both countries is a bit over-the-top. An excellent critique of the anti-Black Caps media hysteria is available from Radio New Zealand National, the Mediawatch programme for 18 February (available as an MP3 download or podcast).

So, two compliments here: Well done to the Black Caps! Also, well done to Mediawatch for their fine, as always, analysis of media coverage.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bye, bye bulbs?

The Australian government plans to ban incandescent lightbulbs in three years to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The bulbs, which were introduced more than a century ago, are terribly inefficient, with about 95% of the energy they consume lost as heat. The Australian government will promote compact florescent bulbs (CFBs) and other more energy-efficient types, like halogen. Lawmakers in Britain and the US State of California are looking at the similar bans.

Sounds like a bloody good idea to me. Australia and the United States refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gasses, and both countries are among the world’s biggest producers of these gasses per capita. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has long resisted any efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions, but the issue is increasingly important as the next elections approach.

At our house, we changed to CFBs for our table lamps many years ago. Our current house has 31 ceiling fixtures, all of which had 75 or 100 watt (mostly the latter) incandescent bulbs in them when we moved in last year. We’ve been replacing these bulbs with CFBs over time, starting with the most frequently used ones (the photo above is of the first eleven surplus working bulbs; another one was burned-out).

Part of the delay is that it wasn’t cheap to replace 31 bulbs when quality CFBs cost around $5 each (around US$3.50). The other reason, frankly, is that I didn’t want to just throw away working lightbulbs, so the surplus bulbs are piling up in a box. Maybe I could give them to charity or something.

Apparently, we have it easy in New Zealand: According to the Sydney Morning Herald article, across the Tasman CFBs cost around A$10 (NZ$11) each—easily double what we pay. I have no idea why theirs cost so much more.

However, CFBs use about a fifth of the power that incandescent bulbs do. In our experience, the bulbs we put in paid for themselves in less than a year. But since CFBs last for several years (which is especially handy for bulbs in ceiling fixtures), the savings add up. Moreover, if enough of us make the switch, we can reduce the need for new power plants. That would be good news for New Zealand, in particular.

So, despite the initial expense of buying CFBs, in the not-so-long long run we save money and ease our burden on the earth. Sounds like a good plan.

Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day in America, the familiar name for the Washington’s Birthday federal holiday, commemorating the birthday of America’s first president and Revolutionary War leader. It was always celebrated on February 22 until 1971 when the holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February.

The term “Presidents Day” was promoted by businesses as a way of promoting sales, using images of Washington and Abraham Lincoln (born February 12). Around a dozen states have since renamed their Washington’s Birthday holiday “Presidents Day”, but the federal government hasn’t.

The federal government is closed on federal holidays like today. This means no mail delivery and government offices, Congress and federally chartered banks are all closed—and that’s about it. States and localities and individual businesses are free to do what they want. Many businesses don’t close on the day.

Presidents Day is one of what I call America’s “non-holiday public holidays”: Days that are public holidays, but on which people have to work anyway, as I always did. This list also included Columbus Day and Veterans Day.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that America has public holidays on which, probably, most people have to work. It’s a country where three weeks annual leave is considered a lot, two weeks more common, and other people (including many who work anything less than full-time—even if only by one hour a week) may get none at all.

To me, it’s doubly weird seeing a holiday like this from the other side of the world. Public holidays here are public holidays (except often for retail and food service workers); I’ve certainly never worked on any NZ public holiday. The other reason it’s weird is that US presidents have very little relevance here, as would be expected.

Many bloggers are using Presidents Day to write about George Bush being seen as the worst president ever. As might be expected, the centre and left says he is, the right says he isn’t. Personally, I think he’ll certainly be among the worst, but his sins, sadly, aren’t unique.

GayProf at Center of Gravitas has written an excellent post looking at some of the other contenders for worst president ever, pointing out “these are the folk that Bush now jockeys against for his position in history: A drunken idiot, a vain coward, and a racist maniac.” Great company, to be sure.

GayProf, “a queer assistant professor of Latino Studies,” writes one of the blogs on my must-read list. Calling on his background as an historian, he often talks about historical things in a thoroughly entertaining way (trust me: history can be entertaining). I highly recommend it.

Is George Bush is the worst president ever? If not, it may be only because he has two more years to go as president. Plenty of time to clinch the title.

The image accompanying this post is a Public Domain image from Wikipedia. You can see it, or download your own copy, here.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The numbers game

To some extent, all politics is a numbers game: People running for office need the highest number of votes, and once in government they need the highest number of seats to enact their legislative programme.

So maybe it makes sense that the news media are fixated on numbers, too. The polling season has now begun for the year.

Yesterday, the Sunday Star-Times published the results of the first Colmar-Brunton poll for TV One News. It was headlined “Key’s big leap in PM poll,” but an NZPA version published online today (on both Stuff and the NZ Herald websites) was headlined differently: “Labour gains support but trailing Nats”.

The difference is telling. The Star-Times story began “Just three months after taking the helm of the National Party, John Key has leapt to within a few percentage points of Helen Clark as preferred prime minister.” While Key more than doubled his polling (from 11% in October to 27% now) Key is still well behind Prime Minister Helen Clark (32%, down 1). In fact, he’s still behind the highest poll position of his predecessor, Don Brash (31%). The “Preferred Prime Minister” poll is actually pretty meaningless, little more than a “beauty contest,” since we don’t elect prime ministers, just their parties.

The Star-Times story then reported the current poll numbers for National and Labour, but didn't make clear that National is down 3 points and Labour is up 3 points. These are the numbers that matter because the make-up of Parliament is determined by the percentage of the popular vote each party gets.

After giving only the poll totals and their 6-point gap between National and Labour, the Star-Times claimed “If the poll was translated into an election result, National could easily lead a government unless Labour signed up the Greens and another minor party to give a majority in the house.”

Well, no, it doesn’t mean that at all. Today’s NZPA story correctly said, “If the results were translated into an election with United Future, the Maori Party, Act and the Progressives holding on to their electorate seats both National and Labour would need the support of the Maori Party to govern.” Given the poll results, this is the most likely outcome. The article also begins with the real focus, the relative change in party support.

In the last election, the Colmar-Brunton poll was the least accurate of the main polls, when compared to the actual results. They also completely missed the
impending victory of one candidate (Rodney Hide) because of flawed questioning.

By contrast, the TNS Poll conducted for TV3 News was credited as the most accurate overall. They released a poll around two weeks ago that showed only a 3 point gap between Labour and National, as well as slightly more support for the Greens and less support for the Maori Party.

Taken together, these polls tell us—well, very little, really. All polls are nothing more than snapshots, and like a photo of a moving object, they’re a bit blurry is places. At the moment the public and the media are having a love affair with John Key, but as that wanes his personal poll numbers will settle.

The more important number—the relative positions of the various parties—will be changing constantly between now and the election next year. But the truth is, at the moment the polls show that very little has really changed. It’s all in the numbers.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Another kind of winter

Auckland in late summer: The cicadas are singing (loudly!) and the sun is still hot. Warm, lazy afternoons are still possible. But autumn starts soon, so winter is only a few months away. By my Illinois-born standards, winter in Auckland is positively tropical.

The recent winter storms in
America provided a glimpse of what I left behind. That made me think that maybe friends and family in this part of the world might like to get a better idea of what a Chicago winter is really like. My sister who lives outside of the city and a friend who lives in the heart of it sent me their observations, which I’m sharing here.

First, from my sister:

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Stop!!!

Even though you know that a storm is coming, no one is never really prepared. No one, that is, except school-aged children. I am sure that their minds, and maybe prayers, were focused on schools closing. In actuality, my guess is that teachers were hoping the same thing.

Sub-zero temperatures (minus 18C and below) felt even colder with strong winds blowing. Breathing the frigid air stung the nose and gave one a burning sensation in the lungs. Many of us breathed through a scarf that was wrapped securely around the neck.

Country road driving was treacherous as snow falling from the sky, coupled with snow from the ground being whisked up and blown about like powdered sugar, created hazardous conditions. Most drivers were cautious, but there's always the "clown" who thinks he has super powers and can maneuver his vehicle as though he were driving on dry pavement. And then he curses the storm when he spins out and lands in a ditch. Go figure! Journeys made by the sensible driver took anywhere from
to three hours for a customary 45 minute drive. Weather conditions were bad enough with all those clowns turning the trek into a three ring circus.

Driving in town was no better. The snowplow vehicles apparently could not keep up with the rapidly falling snow and blowing winds. Salt that had been sprinkled on streets prior to the storm offered little help. Stopping on even the slightest incline was dangerous as was turning corners. Anti-lock brakes were pumping away, but even they could not keep a car from sliding. More salt was spread. So much so that not only did the coated streets look white, so did every vehicle traveling on them. Imagine. Everywhere you look is a white vehicle!

In this weather, one must start the car and let it stay parked as it warms up. Fluids thicken in cold weather and need time to become the right consistency. Water from melting snow must be wiped from the windshield and the wipers because in no time at all the wipers can freeze to the windshield. After warming up the car and driving home, I went inside the house for five minutes. When I returned to the car, the wipers were frozen to the glass of the windshield. So before venturing out, it's imperative to free the wipers as they may be needed when you drive.

Cold temperatures do no favors to the homes, either. Every once in awhile a big popping sound can be heard. It is a board responding to the expansion/contraction process. Heating bills are outrageous. A simple 1500–2000 square foot (roughly 160 to 225 square metres) home saw gas bills from $300 to $400 (NZ$415–NZ$570)! Admittedly, it depends on the construction of the house—the amount of insulation, the heating system/vents, as well as drafts, opening and closing of doors. And flat roofs are no picnic, either. Snow falls and stays put, adding weight to the structure. It is a common sight to see a person on top of the house shoveling off the snow.

That's a brief picture of a Chicagoland winter storm. We may not like it, but we expect it.

And as for the schools…they stayed open and it was “business as usual”.


My friend Tim had a slightly different perspective:

The press reports have overdone [the] snowstorm. I think we got about 8 or 10 inches (20-25cm) during the day. It was a heavy, wet snow. [
Chicago’s Department of] Streets & Sanitation seems to have kept up with it—after all, we have a mayoral election in two weeks. I'm not necessarily a good judge on this. I've noticed since moving downtown that the city services are dramatically better when one lives in the Loop (area of downtown Chicago).

There was one odd thing about yesterday’s storm though: It came off the
Lake [Michigan]. The usual winter pattern is winds from the west, picking up moisture as they pass over the Lake, and then dropping tons of snow on NW Indiana and SW Michigan. Yesterday, the wind came from the east, and dropped the snow on Chicago.

Regardless, not that big of a deal, even though it was our first significant snowfall in quite some time.

The real story of this winter is that we are just coming off of an incredible two week period of ridiculously low temperatures, routinely below zero—not below freezing (32F, 0C) but actually below zero F (minus 17.7C).

I've been entertaining and playing tour guide for a penpal from
Bangkok who is currently in Chicago taking an advanced term at the University of Chicago. He thought Bangkok had “bad” winters, in the 60sF (mid- to upper-teens C). To say the least, he freaked when the windchill hit 40 below last week [“windchill” refers to what the temperature feels like on exposed skin, due to cold air temperatures and wind. In this case, both Fahrenheit and Celsius are -40]. He loves the snow, however. He'll get over it.


And there you have it: Winter in
Chicago. Snow happens, cold weather happens, but not always so severely nor so close to being simultaneous. Even so, these accounts show why I prefer Auckland’s winters, where it doesn’t snow and even frosts are rare.

Right now, though, I think I’ll just keep enjoying the summer.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Big Queen Arrives

The largest cruise ship ever to visit Auckland, the Queen Mary 2, arrived early this morning as part of its 80-day round the world maiden cruise. It’s huge—the world’s longest cruise liner, second-biggest overall and weighing around 114,000 tonnes. It’s too tall to fit under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and too long to dock at the international cruise liner terminal at Princes Wharf. Instead, it docked at the container terminal, with passengers taken into town by bus. The ship's captain is a Kiwi.

Thousands of people went to watch the ship arrive around dawn this morning. I wasn’t one of them—it was a bit too early for me. My man went to see it arrive and took these photos.

The New Zealand Herald had writer John Roughan aboard the ship and writing a daily blog (see the blog here). The paper also published a story on a 20-year-old NZ-born cadet who was on watch as the ship arrived.

The Queen Mary 2 leaves tonight, sent on its way with a fireworks display.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Gay Athletes

In thinking about that American ex-basketball creep who openly expressed his proud homophobia, I realised that I wasn’t aware of any professional New Zealand athletes who’d ever come out.

As it happens, very few American professional sports people have ever come out, and all of them have been after they retired. Professional sports in
America is a bastion of heterosexist macho bullshit, and they’re actually quite proud of that.

New Zealand, the civil and human rights of gay people are fully protected. For the most part, the fact that someone is gay or lesbian is simply a non-issue. So, the fact that there are no openly gay professional sports people in New Zealand could simply show that it’s just not an issue here. Also, New Zealand is a very small country, so the odds of a professional athlete being gay are much smaller than in America.

All of which is true. But I’d still like to see some out gay professional athletes in this country. I’m not talking about political stances, or someone flogging their autobiography after they retire. What I want are role models.

Despite its progress,
New Zealand, like America, still has a large number of people for whom professional sports are important. So for some gay and lesbian teens, struggling to adjust to the reality of their sexuality, seeing an out and proud athlete has got to be a good thing. Suicide is the leading cause of death for lesbian and gay young people, and New Zealand has a high youth suicide rate. I believe that out and proud role models can help save some of those kids.

I understand and support the right of every person to make up their own minds about where, when and under what circumstances they come out—or even if they do. After all, I haven’t exactly gone around
New Zealand wearing a t-shirt emblazoned “Big Fag”. So I’m not saying that gay professional athletes must come out, just that I wish someone would.

Media Laziness

Last week, the American media was in a frenzy reporting that Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi had requested a big expensive government plane to fly her home to California. Trouble is, it was all a lie. The House Sergeant-at-Arms requested the plane for security reasons and said so in a statement February 8. The media got it wrong, apparently sucked in by someone who leaked the story for political reasons (for more on this, go here, which I arrived at via TPM/The Horse’s Mouth).

The same media laziness happens in New Zealand.

Last week, the Opposition claimed there were thousands (the exact number kept changing) of Kiwi children going to school hungry each day. The news media reported the claims without really investigating them or considering that as Leader of the Opposition, John Key just might, maybe, quite possibly, have political motivations for presenting information that seems to make the government look bad. For Key, such information doesn’t have to be true, it just has to sound true. The news media should have been more forceful in examining the claims.

This week there was a report that 17 students at an Auckland secondary school didn’t have their exams marked. Immediately it was claimed that the body responsible for the exams, NCEA, is in “crisis”. The National Party attacks the NCEA during nearly every Question Time in Parliament. And the news media never digs deeper.

Thousands and thousands of exam papers are marked each year, yet 17 get missed. Instead of a “crisis”, isn’t it equally plausible that this represents, you know, human error? Actual human beings mark the exams and, last time I checked, there was no such thing as a perfect human being. Mistakes happen, no matter how much we try to minimise them. What’s needed is a little perspective.

What’s also needed is a bit of scepticism. The National Party champions privatisation of education. Isn’t it at least possible that National’s attacks on NCEA have more to do with their overall goal than with NCEA itself? They also clearly have something to gain by making the government’s education policies look bad.

I’d like to see journalists ask more questions, dig a little deeper and look for connections. I’d also like them to consider what agenda their source is promoting—there will almost always be one lurking under the surface.

A free society depends on the free flow of information to function. But lazy, sloppy journalism doesn’t address that need. Journalists and their editors need to do better. I’m afraid I’m not too optimistic that they will.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

First Frozen Lamb

125 years ago today, New Zealand sent its first shipload of frozen lamb to Britain. William Davidson and Thomas Brydone were responsible for that first shipment, which left Port Chalmers aboard the SS Dunedin on February 15, 1882. 98 days later, 5,000 sheep carcasses arrived in London, reportedly in good condition.

This may seem like mere historical trivia, but New Zealand was developed through agriculture and the ability to ship products to Britain and Europe created new opportunities. New Zealand's growth increased. Today, meat exports are worth about $5 billion a year.

When I was growing up, my mother cooked lamb frequently and I assumed most people had it, too. After I moved to New Zealand, I was told that most Americans have never even tasted lamb. It’s a shame, really, because lamb—and New Zealand lamb in particular—is really quite nice.

Nevertheless, we ended up having chicken on National Lamb Day.

Georgina Beyer Leaves

Georgina Beyer, the former mayor of Carterton and the world’s first transgendered MP, made her final speech to Parliament yesterday. She has said she’s particularly proud of her role in securing passage of prostitution legalisation and the Civil Union Act.

When she entered Parliament, she described herself as “a stallion who became a gelding then a mare” (in the New Zealand accent, “mare” and “mayor” sound the same). In her final speech to Parliament, she said “While I have relished the opportunity of being a member in this house, I am glad I don't possess one."

Beyer was always frank and direct, which is a refreshing quality in a politician. She never hesitated to take on the religious right and challenge them on their lies, something no other politician was willing to do.

More importantly, her presence in Parliament proved not only the Labour Party’s commitment to diversity, but also the commitment of the country. I simply can’t imagine a transgendered politician in America being treated with respect, let alone as an important legislator, as Georgina Beyer was here. But this is all part of what makes New Zealand unique.

There are plenty of people, even non-Labour supporters, who may not admit it but who nevertheless like being part of a country in which a transgendered MP is simply a non-issue. I do, too.

Mainstream media reports:

Dominion Post: Georgina takes a bow

New Zealand Herald: Parliament farewells first transsexual MP

TVNZ One News video: Transexual MP calls it a day (1:51)Videos tend not to stay posted very long; if it's gone, try the archives

Update 18/2/07: The full-text of Georgina's valedictory speech has been posted at GayNZ.com.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine’s Day

I’ve never understood all the fuss over Valentine’s Day. Why focus on romance just one day of the year? And why spend money to prove love?

I blame primary school for my attitude.

In my earliest years in school, every February we were required to bring in brown paper bags. We’d decorate them with hearts clumsily cut out of red paper, some pasted first onto white lace doily things, then onto the bags. A few scribbles from crayons, and we were set.

The teacher put the bags up at kid-height with thumbtacks (we weren’t allowed access to sharp things) to serve as a sort of letterbox. Our parents bought us boxes of kid valentines made out of cardboard and saying all sorts of inane things. We were required to fill out and deliver a valentine to each and every kid in the class, even the ones who were completely outcast.

I remember two things about all this. First, the globby, funny-smelling paste we used to stick the decorations onto our bags. Legend always had it that some kids ate the paste, but I never knew any who actually did. It was the first time I felt fascination and revulsion combined together.

The other thing I remember is how stressful delivering valentines was. It was important to avoid giving one that was too friendly to a girl, but it was even more important to avoid giving one that was too personal or, well, nice to an outcast kid. It was intensely embarrassing to put a valentine into outcast kids’ bags, even though we all had to do it, because we didn’t want to be seen doing it. Most importantly, we didn’t want the outcasts to see which valentine was ours.

Kids are cruel creatures. I have absolutely no idea why some kids were outcasts. At such a young age it couldn’t possibly have been anything they did or said, but just some social judgement, a group-think. The teachers were, I imagine, trying to teach us some proper egalitarian values, that we should treat everyone with respect and dignity, whether we liked them or not. But the message we really got was that it was better to be in the group than out of it, and that meant conforming to social norms of irrational exclusion and victimisation.

So, I never developed positive feelings for Valentine’s Day. Back then, it meant spending money to express false emotions. I did like decorating those bags, though.

When I grew up and began having relationships, I was briefly a fan of the day. This had to do with the novelty of being able to experience love and romance with another man, something I never expressed openly until university. That wore off.

Now, I’m back where I started, not getting anything out of the day. My man and I don’t express our love on only one day a year, and we also don’t need to buy anything to prove our devotion.

There are plenty of people who feel differently. Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in the amount of money spent on gifts. Little wonder with all the advertising urging us to spend up large on the one we love.

Still, there are plenty of people who don’t like the day. Some actually loathe it. Singles, for example, sometimes feel left out of a day devoted to couplehood. It’s just another way pop culture and society remind them of what they don’t have—even if they don’t want it.

I don’t loathe the day. I’m just not a fan of it. If people want to spend money on baubles or whatever, that’s their choice, and I respect it. I just expect the same respect for my decision to opt out. We’re not in primary school anymore, after all.

Snow way

There's one thing I emphatically do not miss about Chicago: Snow. At the moment, Chicago is getting a lot of it, with near blizzard conditions expected. Even at its worst, winter in Auckland is nothing like that—it’s more like a cool autumn day by comparison.

The photo below is from Road Trip, my post of October 22, 2006. That little patch of white to the left of the roadway is snow—the only snow I’ve been close to in New Zealand. Mt Ruapehu is in the background.

Open door evenings

We had some hot and sticky days recently, with the humid warmth continuing into the evening. We don’t have air conditioning yet, so we open doors and windows to let the (warm, humid) air move. When there’s a breeze, this can provide some relief. When there isn’t, fans help. Neither removes humidity from the air, of course.

This can be noisy as neighbours and their dogs make ordinary living noises. Nothing to complain about, nor to take much notice of, because we make noise, too.

But leaving the doors open into the evening also means Saibh (our dog) wanders in and out. One night last week, she wandered outside around 10pm or so. Neighbourhood cats (not including ours) had gathered nearby, and their discussions were starting to get loud and heated. Saibh started barking, so I went out to get her. She was stubborn. So, I picked her up to carry her into the house.

On the way back, I looked up: The skies were ablaze with stars. It amazed me the first time I saw so many stars in Auckland’s night skies. In Chicago, stars were always invisible, due to light pollution. The stars are even more amazing out in the New Zealand countryside, but to me, even Auckland’s clear night displays are breathtaking.

I scanned the skies, as I always do, looking for the Southern Hemisphere’s Southern Cross constellation. It’s depicted on a number of national flags, including both Australia and New Zealand. The Aussie flag has a more accurate depiction, though neither flag has all the stars: It’s now known to have eight, only about five of which people can see.

It’s nice to know that with political fights, wars, and so much more going on, something as simple as a star-filled night sky can stop me in my tracks. I wish others could experience the same. Sometimes it’s the ordinary that’s truly extraordinary.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

It’s Naptime

Time was, I wore out co-workers joking far too often that I was wondering where the company nap lounge was. I got over repeating the joke, but not the wish for the odd nap.

Well, the CBS Evening News reported that US companies are beginning to promote naps during working time. For example, according to CBS, 15 percent of 24-hour
US companies encourage naps (see the video here).

Putting aside jokes, like how some employers can’t tell now if employees are awake or not, I actually think the idea of work-time naps is a good idea. After all, as the report points out, many companies permit smoking breaks, so why not nap breaks?

Nevertheless, I don’t expect to be seeing nap lounges in mainstream companies anytime soon. It doesn’t really matter, though: I’ve long since developed new jokes.

Howard the idiot?

Is John Howard an idiot, or just plain stubborn? I really can’t tell. But Howard’s attack on US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and Democrats generally, leads one to question Howard’s intelligence.

By suggesting that the US Democratic Party is favoured by terrorists, Howard could harden that party’s attitude toward an
Australia led by him. The Democratic Party controls the US Congress and may control the White House after the 2008 election. He has put US-Australian relations at risk. Howard doesn’t see it that way:

“I would say the greatest current threat to the quality of the alliance would be a sense in the
United States that Australia had deserted her in her hour of need.

Howard says his contribution of 1400 mostly non-combatant troops is “very significant and appropriate”. Maybe so, but withdrawing them would hardly amount to abandoning America, especially since Americans overwhelmingly oppose Bush’s Iraq war.

As a politician, Howard ought to know that no country wants a foreigner telling them what to do. Americans are offended that Howard stuck his nose where it doesn’t belong as demonstrated by American politicians from all over the political spectrum, Republicans and Democrats alike, telling Howard to stay out of US elections.

Still, if Howard really thinks Obama’s position is wrong, he could hardly have done more to advance it than attack Obama and the Democrats, as The Guardian noted:

Mr Howard’s intervention helps Mr Obama by highlighting his opposition to the war, in contrast to Mrs Clinton, who voted for it in the Senate in 2002 but now distances herself from it. Democratic activists are strongly opposed to the war. Mr Obama, 45, will also be helped by American irritation that a foreign leader should intervene in their election.

Howard defended himself by suggesting that Labor politicians attacked Bush’s policies, conveniently ignoring the fact that Bush was president and his policies were open to criticism, especially as Howard was so eager to align
Australia with them.

Howard now has two choices: First, he can put Australian lives where his mouth is and send 20,000 Australian combat troops to
Iraq. He supports his good buddy George W. Bush’s war? Fine: Let the sons and daughters of Australia provide that support. Howard won’t and can’t do that, of course, because—rightly—the people of Australia would never stand for it.

So, the second option is the better one: He should immediately stop and—perhaps for the first time in his political career—admit he made a mistake. He should apologise unreservedly for his remarks and the offence they’ve caused. Then, he should butt out. If he doesn’t do this, then he really is an idiot.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Raise a glass

And now some wine instead of whine…

TVNZ's Midday News reported today that
New Zealand wine exports enjoyed another record year, up 30 percent and earning $611 million. Exports to the UK were up 25 percent, up 22 percent to the US and up 50 percent to Australia.

The leading export variety is Sauvignon Blanc, but Pinot Noir volume was up 25 percent on last year. Cheers!

Shut Up, John

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who once famously described his country as America’s “deputy sheriff”, is facing strong criticism after attacking US Democractic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Using language similar to that of his good friend George W. Bush, he said:

If I were running al-Qaida in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats.

Bush himself used the same tactic to try and interfere with Australian domestic politics when he used the same sort of rhetoric to suggest that victory by the Austrlian Labor Party in the last Aussie election would benefit terrorists.

Obama responded forcefully, saying that if Howard was so keen to promote Bush’s Iraq war policies, perhaps he should send 20,000 Australian troops to Iraq. “Otherwise, it’s just empty rhetoric,” he said.

At present, Australia has about 1,400 mostly non-combatant troops in Iraq, as compared to more that 140,000 US troops. To date, more than twice as many Americans have been killed in the war as Australia currently has stationed there.

Howard continued the argument he started by claiming Obama hadn’t addressed the “substance” of his criticism. Australian Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, slammed Howard, saying that Howard went too far and should not be taking sides in America’s domestic policies. Polls show that Rudd is now the preferred prime minister, and his party leads Howard’s conservative coalition government in the run-up to the next Australian election.

What I see is that John Howard is interfering in American domestic politics in the same way his friend George W. Bush interfered in the last Australian election. It was wrong for Bush to do so then and it’s equally wrong for Howard to do so now. Howard should shut up before he causes any more trouble.

Update 5:04 pm: At the moment, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd is ripping John Howard to shreds during Question Time in the Australian Parliament. Rudd called Howard's remarks "reckless" and "irresponsible". He also suggested that Howard's remarks damaged Australia's interests because he clearly suggested that the US Democratic Party, which controls the US Congress and may control the White House after the 2008 elections, is "the party of choice for terrorists". Rudd has demanded that Howard withdraw his remarks and apologise. The Opposition has introduced a motion to censure Howard.