Saturday, January 31, 2009

Month’s end

This has been one of the busiest months of my life—and one of the best. Those two haven’t often gone together for me; usually a busy month is one I can’t wait to see the back of. Not this time.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever top this month, but it’s entirely possible that I’ll have a busier one in the future. While I’m glad to get a chance to rest, I’d be fine with it if January decided to stick around a little longer.

But time keeps moving on, so it’s on to a new month and the surprises it’ll bring. I look forward to the new adventures—but I’ll have a soft spot for this month for a long time to come.

Back in the saddle

It’s time to resume more normal blog posting, and there have been several things lately that deserve comment. So, here are a few brief shots on some of them:

H8ers fear their own hate?

A US District Court in California correctly rejected an attempt by the proponents of California’s Proposition 8, which re-banned same-sex marriage in that state, to keep their donors secret. “Project Marriage” claimed that their donors where “victims” of “harassment” and “intimidation”, but the judge noted that most the so-called “harassment” was, in fact, perfectly legal—things like consumer boycotts and picketing. The few incidents that may have crossed into illegality could easily be handled by law enforcement.

The far right has been claiming victimhood ever since they won the ballot measure, and this court found no substance to that absurd claim. Democracy demands openness and anyone who wants to contribute financially to a cause or candidate should expect that fact to be a matter of public record. What the proponents of Prop 8 never manage to mention is that those who contributed to stop Prop 8 also had their contributions publicly reported. I’m sure there were opponents of 8 who were victims of harassment, maybe even more severe than what the supporters of 8 claim they experienced, but our side doesn’t go around filing frivolous lawsuits over it.

About the stimulus

Republicans in Congress are playing a dangerous game in opposing the economic stimulus package. If the stimulus plan works, they’ll seem like they were being obstructionist and even downright ornery. I think the Republicans are wrong about this. I’d hoped they’d learned to stop playing games, but instead they’re still using lies and deception, this time about the President’s stimulus plan. Oh, well. I guess playing politics is all they really care about.

“Liberal Media” favours Republicans

Speaking of political games on the stimulus package, ThinkProgress reported (via Joe.My.God) reported that over the past week, the five US cable news networks—CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business and CNBC—have had twice as many Republican lawmakers on to discuss the plan as Democrats. Oddly, Fox Noise was more likely to have Democrats, but still had more Republicans and, in any case, their hosts usually spout Republican talking points on any given issue. So much for the right wing myth that the mainstream media is favouring Democrats.

Steele won’t help GOP elections

The Republican National Committee has selected their first African American chairman, rejecting both the Bush-backed incumbent and a gaggle of party hacks. Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is regarded as a “moderate” (whatever that means—is any Republican truly moderate by any objective standard?), which is the first strike against him. Most of the party apparatus is controlled by those on the far right, especially far right christianists, who don’t take kindly to “moderates” or compromise. Similarly, if the GOP thinks that all they have to do is pick an African American to woo Independents and Democrats to their side, then they’re pretty stupid—and insulting. Still, it’s progress of a sort, I suppose.

Good uncles

This past week, our young nieces stayed with us. It was the last week of the school holidays, with the new school year starting on Monday. We all had a good time.

It’s the second time they’ve stayed with us and, as with every time I’m around young children for a while, I ended up with a renewed respect for parents of young children. As uncles and temporary caregivers, we get the good bits—the fun times, the laughs, the right to spoil them endlessly—but parents also have the unrelenting responsibility for their children’s health and wellbeing, something we have only temporarily.

Every year, school-age children have far more time off school than parents have time off work. Even if parents take their annual leave at different times of the year, without childcare programmes or relatives who can look after children during some of the school holidays, I have no idea how most parents could cope. Fortunately, we have a very large extended family so finding available family members to serve as caregivers isn’t that hard.

Here are some things I learned as a temporary caregiver:

1. Their energy seems limitless, never exhausting them, but oddly zapping the energy of the adults watching over them. Perhaps they draw off adults’ energy?

2. They can consume far more food than would seem possible, given their small size. You have no idea how much I envy that.

3. Television is a great attention grabber and holder for young kids. It seems like they can watch it for hours, though it’s really only around an hour (see number one; time passes differently for adults).

Disney Channel was the favourite, but I was amazed at how shallow their live-acted shows are. More surprising to me was the extent to which pretty young kids were put into a more or less adult contexts in which they were dealing with relationships with kids of the opposite sex, even at ages that made that seem an unlikely preoccupation. I was also surprised at how many of Disney’s programmes were, at best, culturally insensitive and sometimes even kind of offensive. There were Asian kids in every programme I saw, usually African Americans, but not always Hispanic kids.

And finally about Disney, over the course of the week I came to believe that if there was a hell, then Miley Cyrus would be singing the soundtrack, probably with the entire cast of “High School Musical” (any version) providing backing vocals and all the dance moves. Good thing I don’t believe in hell—or is “Hannah Montana” it?

Fortunately, television was a minor diversion and other things were far more central—especially spoiling them with treats they don’t usually get (like McDonald’s) or new clothes. The Wii gave them hours of active entertainment, and they wore out poor Jake, running around and playing with him.

The truth is, they couldn’t possibly give us more happiness if they tried: They’re really good girls, fun and a joy to be around. But it’s great being uncles because after a week of spoiling our nieces we give them back to their parents to pick up the pieces. Hey, that rhymes—I guess I really did see too much children’s television.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Heating up

According to some weather reports, the official high temperature in Auckland tomorrow will be 28 (which has a nice mirror number in the US, 82F). The actual temperature is always several degrees warmer than the official temperature, so it could easily hit 30 (86F). This is very warm for us.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) is predicting average or above average temperatures across the country for the next three months. A contributing factor is that surface temperatures of the ocean surrounding the country are about 0.5 C above normal, and will probably remain at those levels through the rest of summer.

Here on the North Shore, cooler temperatures are predicted for tomorrow, but only by about 5 degrees (3 degrees F). We’ll see. Sometimes it’s been hotter on the shore than in Auckland City.

What's with Saturdays being so hot lately?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Perfect Day

We simply couldn’t have had a better day for our Civil Union than this past Saturday apart, maybe, from the heat—a little lower would definitely have been better. Still, everything went together pretty much as planned.

We started only about fifteen minutes late, which is great in itself. There was an umbrella set up on the deck for Nigel and me, the celebrant and our two witnesses. The shade was nice, but it was still hot. A couple other umbrellas, a gazebo-style tent and seating in the shade helped most of the roughly 30 guests stay as cool as possible.

The ceremony went as planned, even without any rehearsal, and was over before I knew it. We both briefly choked up during our vows, but apparently hankies got a workout among our guests. I was oblivious to that, being a bit preoccupied at the time.

Right after the toast, Nigel and I posed for the photo above (my sunglasses were in my pocket, which is why I’m squinting—the afternoon sun was intense). You can see Nigel’s ring, but mine isn’t visible because, of course, it’s on my left hand. That “pinky ring” isn’t that at all, by the way: It’s the ring that Nigel gave me to wear when I went back to the US in 1995 to pack up my life there in preparation for the move to live here; I used to wear it on my left hand, and it didn’t fit on my right hand’s ring finger. He wore my university ring on his right hand’s little finger.

We cut the cake (provided by our good friend Pauline) soon after the ceremony was over. The picture at right is of the cake while it was still in the box. She also provided my birthday cake (below, left) because, of course, the original plan was to hold my 50th birthday party that day. That white frosting is actually white chocolate.

Everyone seemed to have a good time, and we enjoyed their company.

By around midnight, it was over and we went to bed. I was tired the next day but the relatives staying with us left earlier than they planned and by around lunchtime we had the house to ourselves. Sleep was good that night.

Monday was a pubic holiday—Auckland Anniversary Day—so we got another day to relax and do a little more tidying up. There’s more to do, which I’ll take care of over this week.

So, it turned out to be a perfect day for us, and a great weekend. We couldn’t have asked for better.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Jake, by popular demand

Here’s a random Jake photo—I interrupted his nap to take it. Jake’s blood brother, Doyle, and his human family requested photos, and I’d been meaning to post some. So, the request was as good a reason as any to get on to it. There are a lot of photos of Doyle over on his blog. Good thing Jake doesn’t know how to use the computer (yet?), or he’d be jealous that there are so many more photos of his brother. That, and this blog might be all Jake, all the time. Mind you, sometimes that wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing…

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Do I have a lot to do? I do.

It hasn’t only been a big birthday that I’ve been preparing for: On Saturday, January 24, Nigel and I are having our Civil Union, and my birthday party after that. We wanted something simple and low-key, and since the family was coming to Auckland for my birthday, anyway, we decided to do our Civil Union at the same time.

While we’d talked about this before, it was only at Christmas that we decided to do it, but it was a holiday time so it was difficult to get anything finalised. After New Year’s, we arranged for a celebrant, got the licence (above) and started making arrangements.

It’s fair to say that there’s really no such thing as “simple and low-key” for an event like this, but we’ve done well, especially by having it at home. What we have suits us very well (but I’m not talking specifics until it’s over).

Civil Unions in New Zealand are essentially civil marriage, since they convey virtually all the same rights, privileges and responsibilities of marriage, and—unlike marriage itself—they’re open to same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples. Civil Unions came into being in early 2005 (the law was passed in December 2004 by the former Labour-led Government). It was a compromise way to give same-sex couples legal standing equivalent to marriage because denying them that legal standing violated the Human Rights Act’s guarantee of equality.

The interesting thing is that New Zealand society is clearly moving ahead of the law. No one we know is referring to this as a Civil Union: They’re referring to it as our wedding and say we’re getting married (even though, legally speaking, that’s not true). Because of that, I think that full marriage equality will come to New Zealand sooner rather than later.

Whatever, I’ve always said I don’t care what it’s called in New Zealand as long as it gives full legal equality, as Civil Unions do. Nigel and I have been together 13 years, and we were already covered by the Relationships (Property) Act, which gives a lot of legal protections for unmarried couples. But Civil Unions go farther, essentially making us—legally—family—we become each other’s next-of-kin which has many important aspects.

The social and legal equality we gain is the main reason we’re doing this. But standing in front of our family and friends and having our relationship affirmed and supported by them, and especially having it recognised under the laws of our country, is something even greater. Every human being should be free to experience that.

There are a lot of things to take care of at a time like this, which is why both my blogging and podcasting have been more sporadic than usual lately. I like this kind of “busy”, yes I do.

Sorry about the "redaction" of the licence, but a little caution on the Interwebs is usually a good idea.

A great day

Yesterday couldn’t have been a bad day for me, even if my birthday had been completely forgotten. Watching the inauguration of Barack Obama meant the day would be a great one, no matter what—even though it was a bit early in the morning for me!

The only truly petty thing I did was chuckle when I saw Cheney in a wheelchair from a back strain caused by moving boxes. Well, I did flush a toilet when Rick Warren was introduced, too. When the Chief Justice said, “Congratulations, Mr. President” I shouted “Bush is gone!!!” but that wasn’t petty—it was a heartfelt cry of joy that the eight-year nightmare was finally over.

That oath flub has caused the latest round of twitching on the far right. Over at Faux News, host and former journalist Chris Wallace opined that because the oath was flubbed, Obama might not really be president, and that it would certainly end up in the courts. Is Wallace is a moron? The 20th Amendment makes clear that the new presidential and vice presidential terms begin at noon on January 20, with or without the oath. If Wallace didn’t know that, he shouldn’t be commenting on Constitutional and presidential matters. But, because everyone knows how crazy the wingnuts are, they re-did the oath and, because the wingnuts won’t let go easily, remind them that Calvin Coolidge and Chester A. Arthur also re-did their oaths.

At one wingnut site, commentors seized on this not only to repeat Wallace’s nonsense claim, but also to declare it was all President Obama’s fault. Yeah, right. While some were a little more sensible (“Come on, let this one go. It makes us look like idiots. Roberts flubbed it… Jumping on Obama for this makes us look like fools”), the majority that I read (before my stomach got too sick) were intensely negative, and most were merely attacks on Obama, lacking even a passing acquaintance with reason or fact—as you’d expect.

Here are my brickbats and bouquets for the day, starting with the latter: Obama’s speech was very good. Keeping it short wins extra bonus points on such a cold day. ABC (US) News (via Sky News Australia) provided good shots, and ABC also had far better coverage of the parade. Fox’s (!) video quality was superb. The quality of commentating on CNN was high.

Now, the bad: Fox commentators (of course) were often shrill, bad tempered and highly partisan (in fairness at other times they were fair minded). BBC commentary was boring and there was way too much of it.

But the broadcaster with the worst possible coverage was our own TVNZ’s TV One: It could not possibly have been any worse. They had people talking about what was going on, giving their opinions, while a screen in the background was displaying what was really going on: They ignored the screen. This is every bit as bad as the “coverage” they did on America’s election night. Seriously, if TVNZ won’t spring for some real coverage—including, in this case, a reporter in Washington, DC—then they should give it up and show re-runs of Dad’s Army. Or, they could do what Sky News Australia did and just re-broadcast someone who can actually manage coverage. My sources say that TV3 was much better, but there were some complaints about the comments of the hosts.

Well, there you have it: My experience and impression of Inauguration Day. There’s already much to comment on, but those are for other posts.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me…

Today is my birthday—a sort of big birthday. I made the illustration for a potential cover for a birthday party invitation that I ended up not using. Seemed as good an illustration as any.

Update: Here's a photo of me around lunchtime today with today's paper and its front page story on today's other big news. Good to see that the New Zealand Herald got the oath right; pity about the Chief Justice… Anyway, we got up at 5:30 am to watch. It's been a very good day! That "50" button came from my sister-in-law and her daughter. Nice, eh?

Update 2: We went out to dinner tonight. Since the big party is on Saturday, we had a low-key night. But it was fun all the same. Nigel took the photo below about 6:30pm or so tonight as we waited for our meals.

I had a very good birthday, especially because I was able to celebrate a new president, too.

As a side note, I woke up with a very red eye (visible in my right eye). I have absolutely no idea what caused it—whether I bumped it, Jake accidentally hit my eye or something else. It doesn't hurt, and it looks far worse than it is. Hopefully it'll be gone by Saturday!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

History’s eve

Tomorrow, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the new President of the United States. There are times I thought we’d never see the end of the Bush-Cheney regime, and here it is.

It’s been a terrible eight years and I quite frankly can’t think of much of anything nice to say about the departing regime. In fact, to celebrate their exit, I was going to post a YouTube video called “Tanks In My Memory - Bye, George”, which contains some definitely not-nice words, but ones I’ve been thinking.

I was going to post that video, but I changed my mind. As glad as I am—ecstatic, even—to see the back of Bush-Cheney and the Republican Congress, I’m over them: I’m now looking forward to the promise of the new Administration and Congress.

I know for certain that there will be times I’m disappointed. There may be times when I’m angry at the Administration or Congress or both. But on their worst day, this Administration will be better than the best day of the outgoing regime.

This new Administration will restore the rule of law and the centrality of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights in American law. It will end torture. It will restore habeas corpus. And in doing all of that, it will begin to restore America to a position of respect in the world.

All too often, America has failed to live up to its creed by failing to ensure equality, freedom, liberty and justice. The past eight years have been a time of wholesale assault on those core principles of American democracy and now, finally, we are on the edge of having them restored.

So while there’s no such thing as a perfect president or administration, and even though I’m not expecting miracles from this new one, I’m nevertheless excited to see a restoration and renewal of true American values, the values that generations have fought to preserve.

Tomorrow we’ll see an African American sworn in as president for the first time: That’s truly historic, and something I never expected to see in my lifetime. It gives hope that maybe we really can be better than we have been and move forward together.

Democracy has brought us to this moment and it will carry us forward. That in itself is reason to be glad.

Tomorrow is also a big day for another reason, but that, as they say, is a topic for another day.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The way to fight back

The Florida chapter of the rabidly anti-gay (and utterly creepy) American “Family” Association has launched an attack against MTV-owned LOGO by going after the advertisers on one particular programme, Sordid Lives (via Joe.My.God and WickedGayBlog.com).

They use the usual far right christianist nonsense about the show being some sort of attack on “Christians”, and they, of course, use a lie to advance their cause. Bad move. One of the show’s stars, Jason Dottley, posted a response on YouTube (above). It’s a perfect example of how to take on the haters: When they lie, call them on it. When they stay stupid or hateful things, call them on it.

Well done, Jason! Anyone who wants to fight the right would do well to take note. The far right can only defeat us with our consent—if we take them on, we'll win.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Drink of the gods?

A news story today said:

“Those with a high caffeine intake are three times more likely to have heard a non-existent person's voice than those who drink one cup a day, said the research by psychologists at Durham University.”

And you know the first thing I thought about? How American fundamentalist Christian megachurches now often have coffee stores within them. Could explain a lot…

Leave it behind

Should immigrants be allowed to keep and promote the hatreds and prejudices of their homelands? It seems to me that question is at the heart of an incident at an Invercargill café.

Two Israeli sisters were visiting a local café (one lives in the area with her New Zealand husband and children, the other was visiting). They told the Southland Times (via Stuff) that the café owner overheard them speaking Hebrew, asked where they were from, and when they said “Israel”, he ordered them out.

The café owner, Mustafa Tekinkaya, a Turkish Muslim, told the Southland Times, "I have decided as a protest not to serve Israelis until the war stops." He claimed not to have anything against Israeli people, but he said he’d continue to tell them to leave. The owner of a nearby kebab shop said he was doing the same.

The problem, of course, is that the action is completely illegal under New Zealand law. The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of religion, ethnic or national origin, or political opinion, among other things. The Race Relations Commissioner, Joris de Bres, said it best: "Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation in Palestine, it is simply against the law for providers of goods and services in New Zealand to discriminate in this way."

Taking Mr. Tekinkaya at his word that he doesn’t hate Israelis, he should have known better than to break New Zealand law: All immigrants must obey the law. He could’ve lawfully put a protest sign in his window. He could have lawfully named a dish the “Israel out of Gaza” sandwich or something—as long as neither was an attempt to discriminate against anyone. But he cannot break New Zealand law and expect to face no consequence. I think that anyone who does this sort of thing should be prosecuted.

As an immigrant, I feel very strongly that no one has the right to bring the hatreds and prejudices of their homeland to this country—they should be left behind. If a person makes the decision to emigrate to New Zealand, then they also must accept all New Zealand laws and cultural norms. If they can’t or don’t want to for whatever reason, they should choose a different country more in line with their attitudes.

Ultimately, the issue here isn’t the political cause, and it doesn’t matter who discriminated against whom nor the ethnicities or religions of either side. Instead, it’s a simple matter of someone wilfully and deliberately violating the law. And that’s simply not acceptable, no matter how justified the person may feel.

Oh, and the ultimate irony? One of the sisters said she actually shared some of the same views as Mr. Tekinkaya. You set out to discriminate, and you will inevitably end up hurting those on your own side. That’s why discrimination isn’t just illegal, it’s also really, really stupid.

Update 16/01/09: There was a protest demonstration outside the café today. A person that TVNZ identified as a protest organiser said what I think is the main point; to paraphrase: "It's not about what's right or wrong in Gaza, it's about what's right or wrong in New Zealand." I couldn't agree more.

Update 2 (18/01/09): The café has experienced a "global backlash", according to the Sunday Star-Times (via Stuff). The paper reported, "People were leaving up to 25 messages a day on the couple's two business phones and were telephoning them at home and on their cellphones. They were also sending emails." Global backlash? Yes, well, the Star-Times is sometimes given to hyperbole. Turns out the story was posted on a US-based news site for Orthodox Jews, the paper reported, and that led subscribers (who are in several countries) to post the café's phone numbers (as if it would've been hard to find out a business phone number!). Apparently an offer of mediation has now arrived from the Human Rights Commission, and the café may apologise for taking the action they did.

Blago: Doubleplus trouble

The Illinois House of Representatives has voted to impeach Governor Rod Blagojevich—again. Last Friday, they voted 144-1-1 to impeach him, but a new General Assembly was sworn in, following the elections last November, so the House had to vote to impeach the governor all over again. So, right after being sworn in, they voted 117-1 to impeach.

The lone vote against impeachment came from newly-elected Democrat Deb Mell of Chicago, who is Blagojevich’s sister-in-law. Propriety and ethics would seem to suggest that she should’ve abstained, but that’s obviously not how she saw it. She refused to talk to reporters afterward, so we have no idea why she did it*. Whatever her reason, it’s not a good look.

In related news, I was glad to see the Roland Burris saga come to an end. While US Senate Democrats are right that the appointment of Burris is “tainted” because it came from Blogojevich, it was nevertheless perfectly legal and in accordance with the Illinois Constitution. The US Senate had no legal right to refuse to seat him in the first place.

My predictions: Blogojevich will be convicted in the Illinois Senate and then he’ll launch a futile legal challenge that will cost Illinois taxpayers even more money. Roland Burris will serve as a sort of “caretaker” Senator. If he runs for the office in 2010, he will lose in the Democratic Primary or—if he squeaks through—he'll lose in the General Election. Mind you, we’re talking about Illinois politics here—anything could happen.

*Update: Mell issued a statement saying she “could not in good conscience vote for [Blagojevich’s] impeachment.” She said that she’s known him for more than 20 years and that “charges in the impeachment were difficult to reconcile with the man and brother-in-law I know." She added, "I regard him as innocent until proven guilty and many of my constituents have expressed this view." Maybe so, but I still think that abstention was the proper thing to do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chicago Tribune’s death throes?

Ever since Sam Zell bought the Chicago Tribune, I was worried about whether the paper could survive. His heavily leveraged purchase put the company deeply in dept at a time of declining newspaper readership. Then the recession hit ad revenues, leading to even more financial pressures.

The cutbacks and layoffs at the Trib arguably led to a decline in journalistic standards, accompanied by a cheapening of the look of the paper and a bizarre move on their website to turn their most famous owner, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, into a cartoon buffoon. Go to a story on the Tribune website and you’re likely to see a box with “Col. Tribune Recommends” pointing you to other, unrelated stories. The cartoon colonel wears a hat made from a newspaper, and has his own Twitter profile, Facebook page and email address. Apparently they have meet-ups where people also wear newspaper hats.

Then comes the news that the Tribune is about to switch to tabloid format for casual copy sales. Subscribers will still get the broadsheet version, but the version sold in vending boxes and newsstands will be a tabloid. People buying the paper outside of the Chicago Region will get the broadsheet version, too. They promise the same articles in both versions, though the look may be different because of the different formats.

The Tribune has long had the largest circulation of Chicago’s two dailies, but according to the most recent circulation figures, the tabloid format Chicago Sun-Times sells 186,626 copies (60% of their total sales) versus 46,495 copies (9% of their total) of the Chicago Tribune. The Trib says consumers have long demanded a more public transit-friendly tabloid format, and that may very well be true. But tabloid formats are much cheaper to produce than broadsheet papers. It seems inevitable that all copies will eventually be in tabloid format.

By itself, changing to tabloid format means nothing: Format doesn’t indicate content, despite the bad reputation “tabloids” have. However, the cutbacks, the layoffs, the odd decisions about the way the information is packaged all suggest that the paper may be acting out of desperation.

I hope the Chicago Tribune survives. It’s my hometown newspaper, the one I grew up with, and I have tremendous sentimental attachment to it. It’s always sad to see a newspaper die, as so many have in recent decades. Maybe these moves are just odd enough to work. I hope it does.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Calling a spade a spade

There’s a common phrase used to describe blunt honesty, avoiding deference to others’ sensitivities: “Call a spade a spade”. The phrase entered English in 1542 when Nicolas Udall translated Erasmus’ mis-translation of Plutarch. Why am I telling you that? Because the phrase is now often avoided in the US because “spade” is a racial slur, even though there’s no connection whatsoever (the slur entered usage in 1928—nearly 400 years after the phrase entered English).

Time was, I’d gladly take on board all the guilt that goes with being a white liberal, and avoid even the most tangential or irrelevant possibility of saying or doing something that might possibly make me seem illiberal (like, for example, avoiding using that phrase). I was, to use the popular phrase, “politically correct”.

These days, I despise the phrase “politically correct” because it’s so meaningless and intellectually sloppy, especially for the right who use the phrase to brand anything and everything they don’t like, or they say it’s “PC madness” or “PC run amok”. They’re too lazy to think of an original way to criticise the ideas they don’t like, so they dismiss them out of hand in the same way christianist fundamentalists dismiss criticism of their agenda with the equally stupid and empty phrase, “Christian bashing”.

I’m every bit as committed to the liberal ideals of freedom, fairness, justice, tolerance and diversity as I was in my youth, but I’m no longer willing to sit by and let others on the centre-left say or do something daft just because they’re on the centre-left. That’s what’s been behind my recent posts in which I’ve openly criticised my fellow liberals.

If something’s stupid, it’s stupid, and it doesn’t really matter which end of the spectrum it comes from. Quite frankly, I expect stupidity from the right, but when they’re correct about something, I’m not afraid to say so. Similarly, I won’t pull my punches when the centre-left gets it wrong.

However, I’m primarily a pragmatist and there are times (like before elections) when it doesn’t make any tactical sense to be overly critical of my side nor too complimentary of the other side. Most of life happens away from elections, and that allows otherwise partisan people like me be a little freer in our critiques.

Any casual look at the political posts in my archives will show that, even away from elections, I’m far more likely to be critical rather than complimentary of the right, and the opposite for the centre-left. As much as my fellow liberals may annoy me sometimes, and although I may sometimes think they’re on the wrong side of an issue, I nevertheless think they’re correct more often than not—which is why I’m a liberal in the first place. But that doesn’t stop me from calling a spade a bloody shovel (a variant of the phrase recorded in 1919, by the way).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Meta Monday

This is the sort of thing only hardcore bloggers will care much about, but I just finished updating my blogrolls (“Bevy of Blogs” and “Parade of Podcasts”). Blogger provides a widget thingee to make that easy, but its functions are limited. Besides, I need to keep lists here and on my podcast site.

So, I typed up the lists and did the HTML coding (which isn’t nearly as clever as that sounds), and those lists are now on this blog. One advantage in doing this is that I was able to change the behaviour of the links. Using the Blogger widget thingee, the link would open in the same tab/window as my blog, replacing it. One doesn’t want to easily give up readers, so I added a target tag to make them open in new a tab/window. I could also add a title (what you see when the mouse hovers over the link, like for the link to my podcast under “Parade of Podcasts”), but decided against it in the end. Yes, I know all of that’s easy to do on WordPress, but this is a Blogger blog.

Speaking of tags and such, I posted about that back in November.

Anyway, This also means that I need maintain only one list for both sites. I like that.

I link to blogs and podcasts that link to me, or ones that don’t, but that I like anyway. If you link to me and you’re not listed, please let me know: Chances are good that either I don’t know about your link or I made a mistake typing up the list. If you don’t link to me, but would like to trade links, let me know; there aren’t many sites for which I wouldn’t go along with a link exchange.

And finally, just because this bugs me, I received an email from our ISP at 4:50pm today telling me there would be a “planned outage” between 7:30pm and 9:30pm today! Doesn’t sound like it was all that well “planned”, after all. So, no Internet (or phone) for us this evening—what will I do?!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Media owners attack freedom

New Zealand's new Copyright Law presumes 'Guilt Upon Accusation' and will Cut Off Internet Connections without a trial. CreativeFreedom.org.nz is against this unjust law - help usNew Zealand is about to experience a dramatic shift in power between media conglomerates and media consumers. Media corporations and music licensing groups will have unprecedented power over ordinary people—power that no government could wield.

At issue is Section 92A of the Copyright Act passed by the previous Labour-led Government, due to come into force on February 28. Under its provisions, Internet Service Providers will have to cut off the Internet connection of anyone who is accused of “repeatedly” illegally downloading copyrighted media files. The Act doesn’t require that any proof be provided, it doesn’t allow for any sort of due process. All that’s required is an accusation and the ISP must terminate their customer’s Internet connection. This is so heinous, so despicably anti-democratic that I would’ve sworn it came from Bush-Cheney, but no, it came from a supposedly centre-left government.

ISPs are concerned that they bear all the legal risk in enforcing the law—something private companies aren’t usually called upon to do—and yet have no protection from either their own customers or copyright holders. Damned no matter what they do, in other words. Not surprisingly, they call the law “deeply flawed”.

The Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ), which has been a forceful advocate for telecommunications consumers, and often a thorn in the side of the telecoms companies, fully agrees.

So, who wins in this stupid “solution”? Well, no one, really, but the only one claiming a benefit is the recording industry. Old media have been unwilling to seize the opportunities of new media and instead have tried to punish ordinary people. They cannot grasp that income models originating in past centuries are no longer workable and new solutions are needed. Apple’s iTunes Store is a perfect example of what works: It offers legal downloads of music for purchase and movies for purchase or hire. Other models work for other content.

A group of artists has formed a group called the Creative Freedom Foundation to fight 92A. Their “Not In My Name” campaign seeks to have artists join forces—even against their own industry—to push for fair copyright. They’re almost alone in pointing out plenty of flaws in 92A that could catch-out innocent people.

In my opinion, one of the best prospects for moving forward—especially for small, beginning or non-commercial content providers—is Creative Commons, which reserves copyright while allowing various types of licences for use of that content (both this blog and my podcast are covered by Creative Commons licenses).

The previous Labour-led government made a huge mistake in passing this terrible bill. But it doesn’t look like the new National-led Government will fix it. While admitting there are problems with the law, Steven Joyce, the new Minister for Communications and Information Technology, said "We're prepared to look at further changes if necessary."

That’s simply not good enough. If National is serious about personal freedom and all the other things it said it was for, then it must scrap Section 92A and start over. It’s the only sensible thing to do.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Another protest

Today, veteran activist John Minto led another anti-Israel protest in Auckland. At the US Consulate, protestors threw their shoes (something that’s already become a hackneyed protest tactic). Then, they marched up Queen Street for a rally at Aotea Square. By chance, I was in the area and snapped the photo of the rally (click on it to make it bigger). TVNZ's One News reported that there were “over a thousand” protestors, Stuff reported “around 500”, which in my opinion was far closer to the actual number.

The protestors were a mix of Palestinians, their supporters from throughout the Middle East and white liberals and leftists. The police reported that the crowd was “surprisingly well behaved”. The rally lasted around half an hour.

It struck me as ironic that so many people from the Middle East were exercising rights that would never be allowed in their home countries—in particular, women being allowed to speak at and lead the rally. I was also struck by the simplistic views of many of the leftist and liberal white folk.

Protestors say, correctly, that Israel is killing innocent women and children (as if killing innocent men doesn’t matter as much). But it’s also true that Hamas has deliberately launched attacks from, and stockpiled weapons in, residential areas. Is the fact that Israel is attacking them really so surprising?

Hamas is still committed to the destruction of Israel, and have attacked the country from Gaza. The Israelis haven’t hesitated to respond with all the force they can. Before the current conflict began, Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel, with no idea where they’d land, or what innocent person—or child—they might kill. Israel didn’t launch its current attack until after Hamas unilaterally declared the ceasefire was over.

So the situation is far more complicated than the activists or the media would have us believe. As I said in my post ten days ago, there are no saints in this conflict. However, like all nations, Israel has a right to defend itself, and Hamas attacked Israel. The question really is, was Israel’s response “disproportionate”? And that is where the debate is totally irresolvable.

The activists and supporters of Hamas say that Israel has gone too far. Israel’s supporters say the country responded as it needed to. Who’s right? I honestly don’t know.

But as I also said ten days ago, those who are suffering are the ordinary people on both sides, not the politicians or leaders. I believe that peace will be impossible while Hamas controls Gaza. They’ll never stop attacking Israel, and Israel will continue to respond. And the ordinary people will continue to suffer and die.

Rather than being so quick to only condemn Israel or the US or countries that don’t condemn Israel, activists would do well to condemn all aggression; I might have more respect for them if they at least admitted that Hamas isn’t pure and wholesome. The first step toward peace is for both sides to end their aggression against each other. But you can’t fit that on a protest sign.

Meanwhile, the ordinary people on both sides are still waiting for us get it right.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Australian crisis

New Zealanders and Australians love to mock each other. Sometimes I think it’s the leading trans-Tasman sport. From time to time, one or the other will make that mocking far too easy.

The Australian Opposition is attacking the Labor Government over Vegemite. The Opposition, together with the Australian Food and Grocery Council has said the Government’s proposed “fat tax” on unhealthy foods could force Vegemite off the shelves of grocery stores because of its high sodium content: "We are calling on the Labor government to rule out this absurdity, to make sure that Australian families won't have to pay a tax on Vegemite."

Earlier in the week, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who’s Acting Prime Minister while Kevin Rudd is away, said: "I am a very happy Vegemite eater and there is no way in the world that Vegemite would be banned in this country." Then, pandering as much as the Opposition just has, she added, "Vegemite is part of being Australian, part of our history, part of our future and I'll be continuing to wake up in the morning and having it on my toast."

Now, I’m sorry, but it’s more than a little ridiculous for the wheels of government to get mucked up with something so trivial, but the irony is that many years ago Vegemite was bought by American food conglomerate Kraft, so, strictly speaking, it’s not even Australian anymore. Also, that company said some time ago that production will eventually shift from Australia to Asia (we’ll see about that: I can’t imagine that Australian consumers or, apparently, their government, would allow that to happen).

Most Americans have no idea what Vegemite is (a yeast spread), and most who’ve tried it hate it. The problem, a Kiwi once told me, is that Americans spread it on their toast like peanut butter, which is colossally bad idea. The best way to use Vegemite is to put a bit on your knife and kind of wave it over the toast (joking, but the point is, use very little).

Personally, I prefer Marmite, and like a little bit on toast with sliced cheese on top. I’ve also used it to help thicken beef stews. However, yeast spreads can aggravate gout, so I can’t have it anymore. They are, by the way, apparently a good source of B vitamins.

In any case, you gotta love a country whose government becomes embroiled in fights over Vegemite. Good thing it wasn’t Pavlova, or they might have an international incident on their hands.

The Wikipedia photo with this post shows NZ Marmite (it’s originally British, where a different version is still made) and a NZ-made jar of Vegemite.


A couple days ago, I wrote about a questionable survey that supposedly found that Kiwis wanted their summer holidays moved to February because the weather is better. I said that while the survey itself was dubious, the news story was absurd.

However, there’s a basis in fact: The summer weather in New Zealand does get better as the season goes on. The early part of summer—December— can be cool and/or rainy (or not). January is usually very hot, but often with stormy periods. By February and March, the weather is usually pretty stable and a bit cooler (for my Northern Hemisphere friends, add six months to get the equivalent time of year up there).

Yesterday was a typical January day: Hot and sunny. In Canterbury, official temperatures hit 35.7 (or just over 96 US degrees Fahrenheit). But unofficially, the high was about 40 (104F). Here in Auckland, the official high was supposed to be about 26 (roughly 79F), but was measured hitting 28 (a bit over 82F), and probably higher in other places.

Why the discrepancy between official and actual high temperatures? Part of it has to do with natural variations in a region (micro-climates and all that). Part of it, though, is that often the official temperature is taken at a non-representative place. At one time—and still, for all I know—Auckland’s official temperature was measured at Albert Park—high on a hilltop in a shady, cool park. Go as little as a hundred metres away from the park and the temperature can be dramatically different. For Auckland, the official temperature is usually several degrees cooler than the temperature that typical Aucklanders are experiencing.

Which brings me back to the idea of moving summer holidays. There’s absolutely nothing that prevents workers from taking their holidays in February if they want to. However, school is in session at that time and there are important business deadlines (like year-end taxes) that have to be dealt with. “Moving the holidays” would mean changing all that, too.

The big churches liked the idea, saying it would make Christmas “sacred” again: Yeah, right, as if that’s all they’d need. For one thing, the public holidays around Christmastime would have to be trimmed back, kids would be in school, their parents at work. And February holidays would do nothing to remove the crass commercialism leading to Christmas.

The idea of moving the holidays is one of those things that comes up every year at this time when there’s very little real news—a mere meaningless distraction, in other words. Besides, it’s too hot to think about things like that right now.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I have questions

Here are some random questions I can’t answer. Maybe one of you can:

Why does the media always talk about “polygamy” when they really mean “polygyny” (a man having multiple wives)? This is what Mormons of old did and current-day fundamentalist Mormons in the linked story still do. The practice led to the amusing anti-Prop 8 signs carried by lesbians: “Joseph Smith had 33 wives. I only want one.” Anyway, a woman who has many husbands is never in the news (and that’s called “polyandry”, by the way). So why the generic term for people with multiple spouses when that’s never what they mean?

Why do liberals condemn (rightly, I might add) racism in all its forms, but turn a blind eye to homophobia? The condemnation of Rick Warren remained largely among GLBT people until it was revealed he was a cheerleader for the Syrian dictatorship; then heterosexual liberals talked about what a terrible person Rick Warren is. In a similar vein, they’d never, ever permit an avowed racist to deliver the invocation at any president’s inauguration, but a man who has consistently and repeatedly attacked the human rights and dignity of GLBT people is okay. Why is that, exactly? And why, exactly, are gay liberals like me supposed to shut-up and accept this mistake as an okay thing? Would you, Mr. or Ms. heterosexual liberal, say that if it was a KKK chaplain? No? Then why should I accept Rick Warren’s speaking as a “good” thing? The fact is, to many heterosexual liberal Democrats, a “fag” is a homosexual gentleman who has just left the room. We expect that of our enemies, but our friends?

Why does the mainstream media let the christianist right get away with promoting lies, distortions or just utter nonsense? The list is unimaginably long, but let’s take one recent example: The myth that African Americans passed Proposition 8. That myth was absurd when it was first promoted (and, sadly, too many gay people bought it). The christianist right has a lot to gain by causing division between the GLBT and African American communities (if we’re divided, they rule). The mainstream media lets them get away with it.

A study commissioned by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute (via Joe.My.God) has buried the myth once and for all. By looking at real, actual voting results (and not stupid exit polls), the study found that “party affiliation, political ideology, frequency of attending worship services and age were the driving forces behind the measure’s passage on Nov. 4. The study finds that after taking into account the effect of religious service attendance, support for Proposition 8 among African Americans and Latinos was not significantly different than other groups.” So there, wingnuts and your friends in the media. Can we now finally stop repeating the bullshit? (To download a copy of the study, click here for the PDF).

Finally, are there any liberal Christian preachers? I mean prominent, appear-on-TV-to-offer-commentary preachers, not some neighbourhood minister. On a recent podcast with my friend Jason, neither of us could name any, but we knew the names of plenty of far right preachers. The only prominent liberal Christian I can think of is retired Episcopal Bishop John Spong. Are there any liberal Christians left? Or are they all too frightened to take on the christianist right? Anyone?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Torture by America will end

Today Barack Obama followed through on one of the things that many of us voted for him to do: Restore the rule of law. Specifically, his appointment of senior Justice Department officials will see the end of torture by the US, as well as gthe end of warrantless spying and indefinite imprisonment of terrorist suspects without charge or trial.

Obama appointed Dawn Johnsen, a law professor at Indiana University, to run the Office of Legal Counsel—that’s the outfit that told Bush that he didn’t have to obey the law or US Constitution and could torture prisoners. She publicly criticised “Bush's corruption of our American ideals”, but her harshest criticism was for the lawyers in the office she will now head for daring to suggest “that in fighting the war on terror, [Bush] is not bound by the laws Congress has enacted.''

Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe said of the appointment, “One of the refreshing things about [it] is that she's almost a 180-degree shift from John Yoo and David Addington and Dick Cheney,'' all of whom were responsible for cooking up the framework to “justify” torture. Tribe’s understating it a bit, since the unravelling of America’s Constitution was designed mostly by those three.

After eight years of high crimes and misdemeanours by the Bush-Cheney regime, a time when the Justice Department seemed to exist only to promote and justify the political agenda of the regime, it’s refreshing to see a strong legal team emerge, one that will be once again committed to the rule of law and to the Constitution they’re sworn to preserve, protect and defend.

There’s been criticism of President-elect Obama in recent weeks, coming from the left as well as the predictable whiners on the right. But if either extreme wants to know why people like me voted for Obama-Biden, this was one of the biggest reasons.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Summer statistics

Half of all New Zealanders want Christmas moved! That’s nonsense, of course, but no less silly than a recent news story headlined*, “Half of Kiwis want summer break moved to February”.

In fact, the survey found “44 percent of the people believe that the summer holiday period should be moved from December to February, when the weather is warmer, compared to 51 percent, who would like to leave it as it is. Another 5 percent were undecided.” Okay, I admit mathematics wasn’t my strongest subject in school, but 44 percent is hardly “half” and 51 percent is more than half. Wouldn’t it be more accurate, especially adding the “undecideds”, to say “more than half of New Zealanders are happy with summer break where it is”?

I questioned the validity of a previous survey result from the survey outfit, Research New Zealand, and while I’m too lazy to dig deeper into this survey (it is summer break, after all), I tend to be suspicious of this one, too. Okay, here’s one raised eyebrow: The news story says the survey “was conducted by telephone between November 26 and December 3”, a period with some cool and rainy weather as we waited for warm summer to begin. We should expect the respondents to have been yearning for summer. The results might be more valid if the survey had been conducted in January.

However, the survey company isn’t the issue as much as that journalists seem incapable of looking at statistics with anything even close to a critical eye, much less a sceptical one. So much of modern policy is driven by opinion polls and other statistical research that journalists do a huge disservice to the public when they can’t seem to grasp statistics or polling data. And you don’t need a survey to tell you that.

*Update: Since I first read the online story linked to above, the headline has been changed to "February summer holiday idea finds favour" which is accurate. It turns out that website comments (which I seldom read) raised the same objection to the headline that I did.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Ban these words!

At the end of every year Lake Superior State University issues its “List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness”. As a list created by popular selection, it may not include the best choices, but they are probably the words that people are most sick of hearing. I’m sick of some of them, too, others, well, “not so much” (a phrase on the list).

However, the phrase I despise more than any other wasn’t on the list: “On the ground”. As opposed to what, exactly? In the air? Under water? Hovering gently like a balloon? The phrase is not just banal and meaningless, it’s way too cutesy for what are often serious subjects.

One of the early uses of the phrase was about troops: “Boots on the ground”. That’s now used in non-military contexts, and the simpler “on the ground” is used constantly, more often than not when a simple word like “there” would be enough.

I guess what annoys me so much about phrases like this is that it’s mere puffery, big phrases for things that don’t need or deserve it. Obviously, I sometimes use phrases like that, too; I’m not immune to popular culture influences.

Because the phrase wasn’t on the list, I nominated it. If there’s a word or phrase you’re sick of hearing, you can nominate it for next year’s list. And be sure to let me know what your choice is, too. If we all, um, ban together it could be a real “game changer”.

Lifeline threat?

Allowing trucks back onto the outer clip-on lanes of the Auckland Harbour Bridge may cause them to fail, even after a $45 million upgrade programme to prevent exactly that. The upgrade, once completed, was supposed to allow the lanes to carry traffic, including trucks, for 30 years.

But the report is saying that if trucks are allowed back on once the work is complete, the lanes will fail in as little as ten years, so trucks may need to be banned permanently (they’re banned until the work is complete). This new assessment came about after NZTA officials looked at the possibility of adding cycle/pedestrian lanes to the bridge, and found not only that the weight couldn’t be added, but that trucks will likely need to be banned permanently.

This all matters because the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which carries State Highway One, is the main north-south link. If it fails, it would create chaos for the economies of the Auckland region on northward.

The bridge was opened in 1959 with four traffic lanes, two in each direction. Within a few years, the bridge had reached capacity and more lanes were needed as the North Shore boomed. In 1969, a Japanese company added clip-on lanes on either side of the bridge, adding a total of four more lanes (two in each direction). The company chosen led to the nickname “Nippon Clip-ons” for the added lanes.

According to the New Zealand Herald, Transport Minister Steven Joyce will soon announce the acceleration of several roading projects, possibly including the Waterview connection to the motorway system, completing the western motorway bypass of Auckland. That would provide a second north-south motorway route. More controversially, plans to construct another Harbour crossing, probably a tunnel, may get a hurry-up from the Government despite the current projected cost guesstimate of $14 billion.

It’s important to note that NZTA, which is in charge of roading, is an independent agency and not a tool of the Government of the day. So, while the report on the bridge may give the Government justification for pushing through roading projects, that doesn’t mean the agency manufactures that justification. While engineers may—and probably will—disagree with all or parts of NZTA’s conclusions about the bridge, no one would suggest a political motivation for them.

It was certain that whichever party won the November election, they’d be facing the same issues after decades of chronic under-investment in infrastructure. The Labour Government made a start on reinvestment, and it’s now up to the National Government to carry on and expand that work. The current report shows the urgency of much of it.

The photo accompanying this post is of the underside of the bridge at Northcote Point (which I took at the same time as the ones I used in this post). The box running along the right side of the bridge contains steel beams that need to be reinforced. At the moment, the spot where this photo was taken is closed as work continues on the reinforcement programme.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year briefs

Just a few short news items this New Year's Day…

Citizenship’s birthday

Today is the 60th anniversary of New Zealand citizenship. On this date, the “British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948” took effect. Before then, the people of New Zealand were British Subjects.

In 1931, the UK Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster granting legislative independence to the self-governing Dominions (which included New Zealand). Technically, New Zealand remained a British possession (albeit a self-governing one) until the NZ Parliament adopted the Statute on November 25, 1947. At that point, the New Zealand Parliament became legally independent. The following year, under its new authority, New Zealand defined what its own citizenship was. In 2003, Parliament passed the Supreme Court Act, which abolished the right of appeal to the Privy Council in London (or, formally, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council), replacing it with a New Zealand Supreme Court. The last formal tie to Britain is that the Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II, is also the Queen of the United Kingdom. If New Zealand becomes a republic one day, as many people think it will, then the last tie to “the motherland” will be gone.

It could be argued that the establishment of New Zealand Citizenship 60 years ago today was one of New Zealand’s biggest moves toward complete independence. Sometimes moments like this, and their importance, get lost in the sweep of history. So, it’s worth acknowledging days like this when they come.

Slappy Holidays

A Wellington shop clerk was slapped by a “well-dressed woman” who shouted at the clerk, telling her it was illegal for the shop to be open on Christmas Day, one of 3½ days when there’s a “trading ban” in effect. However, the truth is that businesses deemed to be providing “essential services”, including obvious places like petrol stations, pharmacies and dairies (convenience stores, like 7-11 in the US or small, independent grocery stores). Actually, there are other exceptions, including video shops and even beauty parlours, providing they only rent things or provide services but don’t sell any products.

The woman left after slapping the clerk, tried to close the shop doors, shouting, “Keep it closed!” Understandably, the police want to talk with the woman. To me, it just goes to show what happens when someone acts on what they think the law says about something. Most people, like this woman, don’t have a clue about laws and obviously should have left enforcement to those who are paid to do that (though in this case the store was open legally).

Permanent holiday?

Speaking of Wellington, the New Zealand Parliament is on hiatus until February 10. I doubt very much that anyone’s noticed its absence. Any chance we could get Parliament to stay on holiday?

Happy New Year

Since we’re the first major country to see in each new day, let me be among the first to wish the world a Happy New Year. So far, 2009 has started out okay. Let’s make it a great year.