Monday, April 30, 2012

A chance to choose

The New Zealand Labour and Green parties are cooperating on an attempt to get a Citizen Initiated Referendum on the ballot to ask, “Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?” I think this is a great idea.

The current National Party-led Government has claimed they have a mandate to sell off state-owned assets because it was an election issue in the last general election, and they (barely) won that election. That’s nonsense for a lot of reasons, not least the fact that only about three-quarters of New Zealanders even bothered to vote.

But let’s suppose that National is right, and New Zealanders DO back the party’s plan to sell off those assets. A referendum would then prove they’re right. I suspect the real reason they don’t want to the public to have a say is they know they’d lose (polls consistently show that vast majorities do NOT want the assets sold).

This petition effort is important because it will give New Zealanders a chance to have their say on whether or not state-owned assets should be sold. However, it’s also possible that we’ll have an early election, which will also give voters another way to say what they want.

I learned through this process that anyone can circulate the petitions, but only registered voters can sign them. In my native Illinois, only registered voters circulated petitions (as well as signed them), so it’s quite different in New Zealand—not surprising in such an open country, but different. This means that energetic young people, too young to vote, can help circulate petitions. I like that!

The Labour Party is running a campaign website (where the accompanying graphic came from) called Not Yours To Sell which has downloadable petition forms.

To be clear, I heartily endorse this campaign.

Future sense

Today New Zealand Post and the Department of Internal Affairs announced they are working on developing an online service called “RealMe” which, they say, “will enable people to more easily interact with public and private sector organisations.” According to Peter MacKenzie, the Identity and Data Services General Manager at the Department of Internal Affairs, he service:
“Will let people access many services with a single logon and also prove who they are online when they need to. RealMe will give people control over their identity and other official information.”
The official site has some information about how it will work, but basically it’s a user-defined, government-controlled system for storing personal identity information. The user decides what information will be shared and with whom, but the idea is it will be a one-stop-shop for proving who a user is in order to access various public or private online services.

Various private companies have proposed similar-sounding schemes in the past, but the fact they were private companies meant that there was sometimes resistance from would-be users and companies that might use the service: Not everyone felt comfortable with the idea of giving their identity information to a for-profit business.

In New Zealand, we have very strong privacy laws, so much so that different branches of government can’t access someone’s information unless they give permission, and sharing is extremely limited and proscribed by law. They are, in other words, the most trustworthy to do such a thing in New Zealand.

I like the concept of this RealMe, and I’m excited to see what they come up with on launch. I have to admit, though, that the first use I thought of for a system of certified, verifiable online identification wasn’t some mundane government service or private business transaction, it was online voting. I don’t know if they’re even considering that as a possibility, but it certainly could be developed in that direction.

Naturally, I’ll be watching this as it develops. I hope it’s as good as it promises to be. This time, I think we might finally catch up with the future.

Good news for old place

Campbell Free Kindergarten in Victoria Park (Photo: Auckland Council)
When I first moved to Auckland and rode on the motorway over Victoria Park, I spied an old, seemingly derelict building. It was the Campbell Free Kindergarten in Victoria Park, unused since a few years before my arrival in New Zealand, but, by the look of it, a building that hadn’t been well-maintained for years before that.

It was built 1910 and named for the “father of Auckland”, John Logan Campbell. The Kindergarten Association gave the building to Auckland when they moved to Myers Park in the 1950s. The building is a registered heritage building of national, regional and local significance.

I thought the building should be saved. There are so few heritage buildings left in central Auckland that it seemed almost criminal to let the building be destroyed. But, could it be saved, and how?

Years passed, the building deteriorated even more. Taggers attacked the building, as did vandals. An arson attack damaged it in early 2000. It looked hopeless. Then, one government agency’s needs coincided with the desires of local government, and rescue was at hand.

The government decided to locate new northbound lanes of State Highway One in a tunnel underneath Victoria Park, right next to the existing viaduct (“flyover”, most of us call it, as in “Vic Park Flyover”). NZTA needed somewhere to locate emergency generators for the tunnel and other equipment, and Auckland City wanted the Campbell Free Kindergarten building restored, so, voila! a solution for both needs was born—a true win/win.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown will officially reopen the refurbished building on May 5, and Auckland Council is seeking community input for what the building will be used for. This is all very good news, indeed.

It’s of course not the most extreme heritage building work done as part of the tunnel project: NZTA moved the historic Rob Roy hotel (built 1885/86) 40 metres while they built the tunnel, then moved the hotel back to its original spot. This meant strengthening the building, which means its seismic resilience is greatly improved. Talk about an extreme makeover! Information for all the related heritage projects is on the NZTA site.

Campbell Free Kindergarten in Victoria Park before restoration. (Photo: NZTA)
The photos accompanying this post came from the government sites I linked to. I can’t believe I never took a photo of the “before”, and haven’t had a chance to take pictures of the after, either. At least now it looks like I’ll have plenty of time to take photos.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Presidential comedy show

The White House video above is of President Obama at the 2012 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, DC. This annual event is probably the only thing most Americans know about the White House Correspondents' Association, which is one of the criticisms of the dinner. The group was founded in 1914, the dinner started in 1920, and the first US President to attend the dinner was Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Nowadays, the dinner usually has had presidents taking a turn at being comedians. My personal favourites from President Obama’s routine were the jokes about contraception hearings, his cracks about the Huffington Post and the dog jokes (the latter because they were quite subtle).

This dinner isn’t really terribly important, and I think that the criticism of it as demonstrating the chumminess between the US newsmedia and the administration of the day are valid. Still, it is all in fun, and all of them deserve a night off once a year. The criticisms can wait until the next day.

The bird’s final journey

This NASA video shows the space shuttle Enterprise on its last flight on its way to be displayed at New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. While Enterprise was the first space shuttle, it never actually flew in space, but instead helped prove that shuttles could work.

I also remember the enormous pressure that fans of Star Trek (the original series, which was the only series at the time) put on NASA to name the shuttle Enterprise. I don’t think we, er, um, they realised the first shuttle would never go to space. Still, many years later this shuttle and Star Trek would continue their relationship: A model appeared in the ready room of Captain Picard on Star Trek: Next Generation, and actual shuttle film footage was used in the opening credits for Enterprise, the last Star Trek series.

Mostly, I just love anything to do with the space programme. I hope some day it continues.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

That’s more like it

Dave Strohmaier is a progressive Democrat who is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Montana. In this ad, titled “If you’re a Progressive, prove it!” he presents his commitment to fairness and equality for all people. It’s exactly the kind of ad I like to see: Ballsy, in-your-face about being progressive and an antidote to the mostly theocratic Republican Party (in the ad, he accurately says of his position, “it sure does annoy Republicans!”)

US citizens who want to contribute to Dave Strohmaier’s campaign, or anyone who just wants to know more about him, can visit his campaign website. He also has a Facebook page, of course.

I don’t know enough (well, much of anything really…) about Montana politics to know if he has a chance or not, though my guess would have been that it’s an uphill battle. Still, nothing surprises me anymore, and the state does have a long history of taking contrarian stands, so you just never know. I hope he does well.

Obviously, I strongly believe that we need more progressive Democrats elected to public office, and fewer “Republican Lite” Democrats. As the ad says, “If you are progressive, prove it.” I heartily approve THAT message!

(Via Joe.My.God.)

Friday, April 27, 2012


This video, directed by Mike Buonaiuto, is part of the multi-partisan, multi-faith effort to end marriage discrimination in the United Kingdom. I think it, and the message it carries, are great.

As I have repeatedly said—and will continue to say until there is no longer a need—there’s no rational, secular reason to oppose marriage equality: All opposition is based purely on religious belief, and no one has the right to impose his or her religious beliefs on everyone else, nor to deny the blessings of freedom and liberty to their fellow citizens based solely on religious prejudice. And so, if sometimes I sound like a one-note horn, tough: Try having your humanity denied and see how willing you are to keep quiet and go away.

This video is now my second-favourite marriage equality video, after the one from Australia last November. Still, considering how high my standards have become, second is damn good.

I wish I didn’t have to keep blogging about this, because I wish that gay couples were treated the same as straight couples. Until they are, I’ll keep posting videos, I’ll keep publishing posts, I’ll keep criticising and I’ll keep pushing until justice is delivered. There simply is no other choice.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Talk: “It Can’t Happen Here”

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

It’s been over four years since I last posted about a specific book. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read any books since then—I have—but it’s probably true that there have been many more that I never finished than those that I did.

So it’s kind of appropriate that the book that made me break the drought is It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel about a fascist takeover of America, which has been on my “to read” list for decades. The book’s plot hinges, appropriately enough, partly on the failure of people to read and learn (or to care), allowing fascism to come to the US.

The story is told primarily through Doremus Jessup, a small town Vermont newspaper editor, his family and friends, and the US presidential election campaign that elects Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip as president. Windrip is a charismatic populist who, once in power, immediately usurps the US Constitution and becomes a dictator.

The character of Buzz Windrip is said to be modelled on Louisiana’s infamous Huey Long, who planned to run for US president in 1936, and Lewis was determined to stop him. Long’s assassination in September 1935 put an end to the specific threat Lewis saw.

Because of all this, especially the examination of America embracing and suffering under fascism, the novel has long been discussed among students of politics. So, it became one of those books I “needed” to read, so I found a free ebook version (the illustration with this post is a public domain version of a poster for the play version that Lewis co-wrote, which was used as the cover art for the ebook).

To me, “must read” books are not necessarily the same as “good to read” ones, and this book wasn’t. I found most of the characters flat, their unusual names distracting and the dialogue downright weird. Did people really talk like that in 1930s Vermont? The action was also very slow.

I also found the long exposition leading up to the dictatorship, as well as its establishment, unbelievable. This was, to be fair, partly because we have no modern equivalents of Huey Long to compare Buzz Windrip to, but also because the immediate acts to establish the dictatorship were, to me, absurd, though the bedding in of it once established was believable.

Which is not to say there weren’t good parts: The part from Doremus’ arrest through to the concentration camp and beyond was fast-paced and interesting. Some of the observations were also spot-on, such as when Doremus thinks to himself, as the dictatorship becomes increasingly vicious and brutal:
"The tyranny of this dictatorship isn't primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It's the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.

"It's my sort, the Responsible Citizens who've felt ourselves superior because we've been well-to-do and what we thought was 'educated,' who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It's I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It's I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!

"Is it too late?"
On the whole, I found the book instructive. It was interesting to see one version of what fascism in the US would look like, and how it could arrive. However, Lewis was criticised for being too influenced by actual fascist regimes of the day in Europe. There’s something to that, but it’s a topic for another day (and another Book Talk, actually).

I’m not sure I’d recommend the book to anyone who’s not a student of politics, and possibly not even then. Other books by Lewis are, in my opinion, much better. Still, it’s always nice to get one off the “must read” list.

What I read: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. Page count not relevant, as it was an ebook, but it was 124,299 words. I obtained it free from feedbooks.com, which offers the book in many formats for countries where copyright is life of the author plus 50 years.

Alternatively for people in the USA, the Kindle edition of It Can't Happen Here (Annotated) can be purchased from Amazon, which also sells a paperback version.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

O is for Occident

Occident is an “O” word that not many people use any more, even if they use its cousin, Orient, a word I wish people would stop using or, at least, stop using its modern alternative. But that’s getting a bit ahead of the story.

The word orient is derived from Latin for place of rising, like the sun. That means, basically, the east. Occident, then, is the opposite, also derived from Latin and meaning the opposite. But east and west from what perspective? Europe’s, of course.

“The Orient” was originally the easternmost parts of the Roman Empire, from the Balkans east. This meaning lives on in the name “Oriental Rug” which is as likely to be Turkish, Iranian (Persian) or Arab as East or South Asian. Over time, the geographic perception of The Orient shifted eastward to East Asia.

The Occident, on the other hand, had no specific geographic location, and still doesn’t. Strangely, this makes sense: When people talk about “The West”, they don’t merely mean Western Europe, or that plus the Americas—the Western Hemisphere. Instead, they mean countries associated with or descended from Europe, and that includes Australia and New Zealand, both of which are in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Just as The Occident has all but disappeared from English, so, too, The Orient has faded, aided, in my opinion, by its often racist connotation. Nowadays, the term most likely to be used by newsmedia, for example, is “The Far East”. That phrase really annoys me.

New Zealand and Australia are closer, longitudinally speaking, to Japan and China than we are to London, and we’re part of “The West”. From our perspective, “The Far East” is more like “The Near West”, and that’s why the phrase annoys me so much: It’s London-centric (the BBC is one of the main users of the phrase “The Far East”), and to me it conjures up images of Kipling, Empire and “the white man’s burden”. That’s why I prefer “East Asia” to “The Far East”: It’s accurate, from our earthbound perspective, but it doesn’t suggest any one position on earth is inherently superior to another.

“Earthbound” is really the key to all this: There’s no “correct” way to view the earth from space: Up can be down and vice versa. So, in a sense, east and west are not just relative, they’re pretty meaningless.

Still, we live on this planet, and we perceive things in terms of east and west, north and south. Even so, it’s easy enough to be accurate, to refer to places relative to their place on the globe, not relative to the perspective of one particular place or region.

Using accurate geographic descriptors is no—ahem!—occident.


Among many other things, occidental can refer to Occidental, a “Belgian Beer Café” located in Vulcan Lane in Auckland, originally a hotel built in 1870 by an American sailor. Or, it could refer to The Occidental in Wellington, which bills itself as “Wellington's original Monteiths Craft Bar”.

The image at top is Ptolemy's World Map (1467), now in the public domain.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

Happy world

What makes the people of a country happy? What factors are common in creating happiness? What policies can public officials pursue to help their people be happy?

These are some of the questions examined in the first “World Happiness Report” from the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The report (download the PDF) was commissioned by the United Nations for its second United Nations Conference on Happiness. According to the press release, the report “reflects a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness and absence of misery as criteria for government policy.”

The media release also says:
The report shows that, where happiness is measured by how happy people are with their lives:
  • Happier countries tend to be richer countries. But more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom.
  • Over time as living standards have risen, happiness has increased in some countries, but not in others (like for example, the United States). On average, the world has become a little happier in the last 30 years (by 0.14 times the standard deviation of happiness around the world).
  • Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.
  • Behaving well makes people happier.
  • Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.
  • Stable family life and enduring marriages are important for the happiness of parents and children.
  • In advanced countries, women are happier than men, while the position in poorer countries is mixed.
  • Happiness is lowest in middle age.
There’s something in this report for everyone, regardless of the political spectrum, and much of the report cuts across traditional ideological divides (and I’m least happy about the last one…). This report, taken as a whole, could help people think differently, and not just reflexively according to their partisan assumptions.

Still, there’s much to reinforce what critics like me have been saying: The focus on growth in GDP alone is wrong and self-defeating. The United States has enjoyed big increases in both GDP and personal income over the decades, but the happiness of its people remains, stubbornly, almost unchanged. Similarly, New Zealand ranks higher than Australia, despite the Aussies enjoying incomes up to 30% higher than those received by similar workers in New Zealand.

This says to me that the current National Party-led Government’s single-minded focus on growing GDP alone, at the expense of social cohesion and community, is completely the wrong direction, and their continued single-minded pursuit of that goal almost certainly will, over time, greatly reduce the happiness of the New Zealand people. If they were right, New Zealand’s happiness score should be far below that of Australia. To real people, all that glitters is not gold; the National Party needs to learn that.

Still, it’s also clear that for people to be happy, they need some economic well-being. Finding the right balance between pursuit of economic growth and the happiness of the people is difficult; this report shows why it’s important to try.

The top ten happiest countries, based on aggregate rankings: 1. Denmark, 2. Finland, 3. Norway, 4.Netherlands, 5. Canada, 6. Switzerland, 7. Sweden, 8. New Zealand, 9. Australia, 10. Ireland. The United States is at 11 and the United Kingdom is at 18.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shear madness

Above is a photo I took this morning of our rather severely clipped Sunny and Jake. They look so tiny without their fur (as compared to a photo of Jake on his birthday on April 4).

I originally planned on taking them in to be groomed before Christmas, but they were all booked out. So, we made do with doing “maintenance clipping” ourselves, amid all the turmoil with the house marketing. I tried to arrange another clipping before Easter, but they, too, were all booked. This was the first chance I had to take them in.

I found out from the site of the second groomer how important it is to brush cavoodles like Jake and Sunny daily. Yeah, well, that didn’t happen, and that’s why it was necessary to clip them so short.

Fortunately, our house has central heating, so they’re kept warm—plus, there’s still warmth in the sunshine (obviously, judging by the photo). So, they hardly notice the missing fur—except for being a bit friskier than normal, maybe.

Still, it’ll all grow back, though I intend to be diligent about brushing them now. No, really! That and taking them for walks. That part, though, is really for me.

And just for good measure, at left is another photo I took of them on my phone, right after we got home. Also, check out their photo from June of last year for an idea of what they can also look like after a clipping.


Now that Mitt Romney is merely waiting for anointing, so to speak, as the official presidential candidate of the USA’s Republican Party, the punditocracy has turned its fevered attention to the person Romney will appoint as his vice presidential running mate. While his selection process will surely be more thorough and rigorous than was John McCain’s disastrous choice in 2008—and it certainly couldn’t be any worse—it will, of course, ultimately come down to who can help Romney the most. For that reason alone, I’m extremely doubtful that he will pick the current fave of the punditocracy, first-term US Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio. He simply has too many things going against him.

Rubio is often called the “crown prince” of the teabbagger movement. Indeed, it was his appeal to teabaggers that helped him push former frontrunner Charlie Crist from the Republican US Senate nomination campaign in 2010. This appeal was important in 2010, and is still important to Republicans, but to win in November, Romney needs to appeal to independents and even some Democrats, and those are not teabaggers. To forge a majority, Romney will need to pull back from the rightwing without totally alienating his rightwing Republican base. Appealing to teabaggers pleases the base, but would alienate the majority.

The one aspect of the Republican base Romney clearly has the most trouble with is the religious faction, all of whom are fundamentalist (whether catholic or protestant). Many rightwing protestants in particular distrust Romney specifically because he’s a Mormon. In fact, many in the majority do, too—it’s dishonest to say otherwise. Rubio’s family attended a Mormon church for three years during his childhood; even though he later had his catholic first communion and confirmation and was also married in the Roman church, for many fundamentalist protestants, this makes Rubio untrustworthy, too (not aided by the fact many of them aren’t too keen on Catholics, either).

Rubio’s record plays into the Republicans’ problem with women. Rubio sponsored an amendment to restrict health coverage of contraception based on religious or moral grounds of an employer/group provider. While his amendment didn’t pass, it’s nevertheless part of the Republicans’ “war on women”, a group that Romney is desperately behind with already.

Monday, April 23, 2012

In the heart of America

In a rather extraordinary move, today (Sunday US time) the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal published a front page editorial entitled: “OUR OPINION: We must stop bullying. It starts here. And it starts now.” A picture of that front page accompanies this post.

Kenneth Weishuhn of Sioux City was 14 when he killed himself last week. It came after relentless bullying after he came out as gay. Kenneth was reportedly “a kind-hearted, fun-loving teenage boy, always looking to make others smile,” but once he came out, former friends shunned him and students at his high school continued to bully and harass him until he felt death was his only way out.

This story happens throughout the US, of course, but few newspapers are willing to stand up for what’s right, to take on the anti-gay industry and the churches and demand an end to bullying. Actually, they don’t do it at all, let alone on the front page. That’s what makes this so unique—and worth mentioning.

Well done, Sioux City Journal!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

No dancing here

When a political adversary dies, should we pretend that it’s a sad thing when we don’t in any way think it is? And when talking about the US in particular, why should the centre and left be restrained in their reactions to such deaths while the right can be as gleeful as they want?

When a liberal or progressive—or even a conservative who’s not as conservative as those in today’s anti-gay and conservative industries—dies, the rightwing positively gloats, metaphorically dancing on the person’s grave. Yet if someone from the centre or left expresses even that they’re simply not sorry a wingnut has died, then our comments are used by the right to “prove” that the left is “intolerant” or that we are “bigots”. Precious petals, those rightwingers.

I was reminded of this yet again when convicted Nixon Administration felon and viciously anti-gay political organiser Chuck Colson died. Gay überblogger Joe.My.God. was compelled to add to his post, “NOTE: Please be aware that your comments on this post may be harvested for republication on anti-gay and Christian websites.” He knows this because it’s happened before.

Personally, I don’t delight in Colson’s death, even though I certainly don’t mourn him, either. I wish simply that he’d come to his senses and turned from his campaign of hatred. Or, I wish he’d just retired. The truth, however, is that his death changes nothing because there are plenty of anti-gay extremist wingnuts just like him waiting in line to take his place in spreading lies and hatred as part of a theocratic political agenda. What's to delight in about that?

So, unlike those on the right, and even some on the left, I won’t gloat about the passing of a political enemy—for that is what Chuck chose to become (and that description is especially appropriate for the man who wrote Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list”). I assume that he leaves behind people who loved him, people who are not responsible for the evil Chuck did in the name of his religion—even though they obviously know there were plenty of people who did not love him. That’s something positive.

So, I won't dance on Chuck's grave for all those reasons—the pointlessness of it, and the fact that he must have innocent survivors. Instead, I’ll say only this: If he has now found that there is a god and a Jesus, I hope they can forgive him for what he did in their name. There are plenty of people on earth who never will.

And that is as restrained as I can be, far more so than my adversaries could even imagine, and done without a single dance step taken or contemplated.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


As President Obama’s campaign Tweeted today, this chart shows “What three years of progress for the LGBT community looks like”. A copy of the chart can be downloaded—and is more legible—on the campaign website.

It would be nice if more people acknowledged that progress. None of it would have been possible under if Palin/McCain had won the election, and Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has pledged to make things worse for GLBT Americans. Seems to me the choice is pretty clear.

In the details

A new poll from Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has found that President Obama continues to have a lead over assumed Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Much of the coverage has been about the ranking of issues, as shown in the Pew chart accompanying this post. The really interesting stuff, I think, is in the details.

The left-hand side the chart lists the percentage of voters who rank an issue as “Very Important”. That’s then broken down to show which candidate those voters prefer and who has the advantage.

Not surprisingly, most US voters rated the economy and jobs highly. In this poll, 86% rated “The Economy” as “Very Important”, and 84% said that about jobs. But when we look further, we see that President Obama has a 4-point advantage in candidate preference among those rated the economy as a very important issue (48% v. 44%), while on jobs Romney had a 1 point advantage (Obama is at 47%, Romney at 48%, a virtual tie). To me, this indicates volatility among voters on economic issues.

Republicans have indicated that they plan to make healthcare—well, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act—as one of the main centrepieces of their campaign. Yet among the 74% who rated healthcare as “Very Important”, President Obama has a whopping 15-point advantage. It would seem Republicans don’t quite have the right angle on this issue.

Republicans have also pledged to roll back environmental protections, but President Obama has a gigantic 39-point lead over Romney among those who rate the Environment as “Very Important”The only issues where Romney has such big advantages on are things related to traditional Republican issues.

Look also at the bottom of the list, where “social issues” sit. On the face of it, it would seem Republicans are being stupid to focus so much on these issues when, clearly, they don’t ignite voters: Abortion was rated “Very Important” by only 39% of voters, Birth Control by 34% and Gay Marriage by a mere 28%. Here, too, the numbers are interesting: Those who think that Abortion and Gay Marriage are very important give the advantage to Romney (by a measly 2 points on abortion and strong 7 point on gay marriage). However, those who think that Birth Control is “very important” favour President Obama by a whopping 19 points. Clearly, the Republican Party’s war on women is benefitting President Obama.

This is backed up by the demographic data in which President Obama holds a commanding 13-point lead among all women over the ex-governor, who only leads by 6 points among all men. The president also leads in all age brackets apart from 65+. The president has dramatic lead among Black voters (95 to 2) and 2-to-1 lead among Hispanic voters, but trails by 15 points among white voters. Clearly, this is not “post-racial” America.

This is reinforced when one looks at white voters alone: The president leads only among young voters (18-29), and by only 2 points (young voters are the least likely to vote). The president also leads by one point among those with a university education or better.

Add all this up, and it seems to me that if these numbers were to hold through to November (and they won’t), it will take a coalition much like that of 2008 for the president to win re-election. Most pundits think the state of the economy in November will determine the election. While that will be important, I think the bigger issue is demographics: Republicans at the state level have been engaged in massive voter suppression efforts since 2010 to make it harder for young people and minorities to vote. Those voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, which is why the Republicans are trying to prevent them from voting.

So, while the state of the economy will be important for the outcome of the elections in November, ultimately the result is in the details, not any one issue. The Democrats have a lot of work ahead of them.

Related: I recently blogged about verifying information and also about assuming nothing about what others say or even what we know. In that spirit, I’d like to point out that by following the link to the poll, one can download a PDF of the poll and related materials. I encourage everyone to do so and to draw independent conclusions. I first saw this poll reported on another site, and that’s exactly what I did.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What we really know

My favourite YouTube explainer, CGPGrey, is back with another video, above. This one debunks five common misconceptions about history. I’m big fan of debunking assumed facts, whether contemporary or historic, so I like this video.

This is also related to my ABC Wednesday post yesterday, in which I talked about going back to original source material to uncover real facts. While the context of that was news, I also do it with historic events and facts.

Like a lot of people, there have been many things I thought I “knew”, but that turned out not to be true at all. Fortunately, most of them are minor—as, arguably, many of the things in the video above are. Still, this reality has led me to a sort of mantra I try to remember: Assume nothing.

That’s why I try to verify things in the news and, often, historic facts that I “know”. I do this not just because I want to be correct, and I do, but also because I feel an obligation to not lead anyone astray, or to reinforce faulty information.

I’m glad there are others with the same attitude. They help ensure that we really know what we think we know.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

N is for News

I’m a news junkie. Well, technically, I’m an information junkie who gets his initial fix through the news. Over the years, I’ve developed and refined an approach to news and information that has served me well. It has two parts: The filter and the digger.

The filter is fairly simple. I read a story on the site of a mainstream news organisation and ask myself, “does this story sound like it could be true or mostly true?” Most stories from the mainstream newsmedia pass this test. Next I ask, “Based on the preponderance of evidence, is this story likely to be true?” This is where many news stories fall, because the story doesn’t answer some key questions.

For example, if I read a story about a scientific study, I’ll ask myself, “who has something to gain?” If it looks to me as if a particular industry stands to gain by the study being believed, I assume there could be a P.R. angle at work.

When evaluating news, obviously no one can know everything about every subject. However, intelligence counts far more than specific knowledge. As I often say, these days no one needs to know anything—they can just Google it. The trick is knowing who and what information to trust.

What I do, especially for important stories, is I enter the digger phase: I trace everything back to the original source. For example, suppose I read a blog where someone comments on some figures in the news. I go to the news site they link to, and it’s an amalgamator site, that is, a site that reprints other people’s news. I see who the original source was, say, a major newspaper. I go there. That story mentions facts that came from a government study, so I Google the title of the study. THEN I can look at the real information, unfiltered by newsmedia or blogger bias.

This is WAY too much time and effort for most people, and even for me much of the time, which is why I only blog about a tiny fraction of the stuff that interests me—I just don’t have time to chase down the original sources. That’s a pity, really, because I think the world would be a better place if more people refused to take others’ interpretation of things as fact without checking the original source first.

All of us—me included—sometimes place too much reliance on information from sites we may be ideologically in tune with, more or less. The problem, of course, is that they have an agenda to promote. So, most of us have little choice, in our time-strapped lives, but to get our information first from the mainstream newsmedia.

While news can be informing, consuming it does not make us informed. Instead, we need to dig deeper: We need to find the news ourselves. If  more of us did, that would be news in itself.

Here’s one of my recent blog posts with a video showing how news coverage evolves these days.

The image accompanying this post has been released into the public domain.

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They teach me

Recently I turned off word verification for comments on this blog. Since then, a steady stream of spam comments have cluttered my email inbox, as I complained about last month. Mostly, all of this is annoying, but sometimes it’s funny:

“Friend sent me the link to your site, appearance nice, I added you to my favorites”. Nice of the friend. Wonder if s/he visits the same illicit sites you promote?

“I was curious if you ever considered changing the structure of your blog? Its [sic] very well written; I love what youve [sic] got to say. But maybe you could a little more [sic] in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve [sic] got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?” This was added to a post of 142 words. Apparently, “an awful lot of text” is highly subjective. Now I know.

“hi its [sic] my bro’s site just say paul [sic] told to ring and to look after you” What, precisely, is your “bro’s” site, who’s “paul” and why was he told to ring and look after me? Is he cute?

“Attention you room-mate [sic] object of your post. It helped me alot [sic] in completing my work.” I don’t have a “room-mate”, or a flatmate, as we say in New Zealand, I have a partner—a husband, even. He was not mentioned in the post at all, of course. But hey, if you found the post useful, well, good.

Why would I care about “mechanical bull riding,” and why would posting it to several posts over a few days make me think later attempts weren’t spam?

“A good friend asked me and my friends where exactly may easily procure [sic] premium quality [redacted] in [a place in an Eastern US state]? Soon after a great deal of exploration, I found the best [redacted] in [a different Eastern US state]. These products are fabricated out of material and booked in plenty of different kinds and lengths and widths.” Considering they appear to be talking about potentially lethal “party pills”, the “plenty of different kinds of lengths and widths” seems especially weird. So is their geography. Nevertheless, a version with slightly different wording was added to the spam queue the next day. It was to my same older post, but the “good friend” had become “an acquaintance”. I wonder what happened overnight?

I found these recent spam comments funny, but the majority pledge access to photos of nekkid famous people or are in Russian (one was in Italian). Blogger’s ardent and vigilant spam filters have caught them all, but I still need to delete them manually.

Perhaps this is for the best. You never know when a famous nekkid Russian-speaking party pill seeker in an eastern US state will have advice on how I should structure my blog. Because they’d know all about that, obviously.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


The USA’s modern Republican Party, and the conservative industry generally, are the absolute masters of propaganda. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been anyone better at. They’re experts at spinning every issue, framing every debate in their terms, and manufacturing consent or opposition, as their needs dictate. They are, in essence, master manipulators.

Among the many tactics used by the US’ rightwing, “fauxrage” is one of their most potent. They take something from the news (or make something up) and then every rightwing commentator trots out to express their “outrage” at what liberals/Democrats/sane people are doing or allegedly have done. Fox “News” performers use fauxrage as one of their standard tools.

More often than not, fauxrage is either completely manufactured or else so distorted that it may as well be made up. The fauxrage over Hilary Rosen’s comments on Ann Romney is the latest example of this phony, fake outrage. The video above shows the fauxrage in action (note the attempts to smear the Democratic National Committee and President Obama in the process, a sure indicator of fauxrage).

Writing for The Nation, Jessica Valenti argued in “Why Hilary Rosen is right” that “There’s no doubt that Rosen, a CNN contributor and Democratic political consultant, made a gaffe in providing such a juicy sound bite. But her message—in context—was right on.”

Ah, context—what politician or politically motivated commentator of whatever stripe ever cares about context when there are political points to be scored? Nevertheless, the context of the comment was that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said that he asks his wife for advice on what women really think on economic issues.

The fact is that Ann stayed home to raise their children, which is a fine and wonderful thing: Neither Rosen nor anyone else has ever said it isn’t, nor did she or anyone else say that raising children isn’t work. However, the equally important fact here is that the Romneys are obscenely wealthy and Ann is NOT the same as, say, a working-class stay-at-home mother. The Romneys have domestic staff to take care of the day-to-day running of their several houses, so all Mitt’s wife had to do was raise the children.

Given their immense wealth, there’s simply no way that Mitt’s wife has any understanding of what a working mother, a solo mother or a stay-at-home working class mother goes through, or what struggles she faces. NONE of this has ANYTHING to do with whether raising children is work or not—everyone agrees it is! The point was and is that rich elitists like the Romneys have zero understanding of the struggles that ordinary, mainstream people face every single day.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

M is for Maybe

There aren’t many more useful words in the English language than maybe. It means “perhaps, possibly,” but it implies so much more.

A child asks, “Can we go to the zoo?” and the parent answers, “Maybe.” In some families that may mean “possibly,” but in mine, and countless others it meant, if not “no”, then, “almost certainly no”. As I grew up, I noticed people answering something I’d said in debate with “maybe…” when what they probably meant was “that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Or, maybe I was just imagining that part.

The word’s etymology is surprisingly prosaic, apparently deriving from a late Middle English phrase, it may be (that). Disappointing, that, and maybe too obvious.

Still, the point is, few other words give us as much wiggle room as the humble word, maybe. When we want to be non-committal or if we’re unsure, a maybe will help keep us from over-committing ourselves, rhetorically at least.

Now at this point, you’re wondering, maybe, why I didn’t choose any of the many other words starting with M that would be consistent with my many ordinary blog topics, maybe even a controversial one. The truth is, I simply don’t have the time to do the sort of in-depth letter exploration that I would like to do. Maybe it’ll be better next week, maybe it won’t.

In the meantime, maybe it’s best to stop with saying that the video above is the song “Maybe” by New Zealand band Opshop. It was apparently the most played song on New Zealand Radio in 2007, and won the “Highest Radio Play” in the New Zealand Music Awards in 2008, It also reached #1 in New Zealand iTunes 2008, the year after I bought the single through iTunes. The song, written by lead singer Jason Kerrison, peaked at #3 on the New Zealand chart, and went gold. It was from the triple platinum album, Second Hand Planet. In 2011, Kerrison was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music, on the Queen's Birthday Honours list that year.

I missed last week because I was simply too busy to do a post. Maybe that’s for the best.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Water is thicker

Everyone knows the expression, “blood is thicker than water”. It’s meant to convey the solidity of family, and that sticking up for one’s family is one of the most important things in life. Sometimes, however, the opposite is the case, especially when it’s the watery sewage of political expediency that trumps family ties.

Tony Abbott is Australia’s conservative Leader of the Opposition, and the man who could become that country’s next prime minister. He’s also one of those particularly vile politicians who will sacrifice their own family in order to gain political advantage and power.

Abbott is poised to block marriage equality in Australia by insisting that every one of his Liberal Party Members of Parliament must vote against marriage equality, rather than allowing a conscience vote, as the currently ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) has decided to do. With the ALP currently ruling in coalition, Abbott’s position means that marriage equality will fail because conservative ALP MPs will also vote against it.

This is all the more disgusting because Abbott’s own sister is in a lesbian relationship, but he’d obviously prefer to have his own sister live her live as a second-class citizen rather than do the responsible thing, allow a conscience vote on the matter. Politics trumps family for Abbott, every time.

Abbott is a conservative catholic and I’ve read that this is behind his intransigence. To me, that makes things even worse because it means he wants to impose his personal, private religious beliefs onto the entire country, including the majority of Australians who disagree with him on this issue. That’s wrong.

Let me be clear: I don’t personally know what Abbott’s religious beliefs really are, and I absolutely don’t care—quite frankly, it’s none of our business. However, if his personal, private religious beliefs are driving his public political behaviour, they’re fair game for criticism and condemnation.

Still, I don’t think that Abbott’s personal, private religious beliefs are really driving his public political behaviour. Instead, I think his driver is pure politics. Just as Karl Rove was willing to use GLBT people as a wedge issue to elect George Bush 2 (and Republicans generally) despite his own father being gay, I believe that Abbott is perfectly willing to allow his own sister to suffer in order to promote his lust for power.

If his personal, private religious beliefs really are driving his behaviour, then the responsible thing would be to allow a conscience vote while proclaiming that his personal, private religious beliefs compel him to oppose marriage equality. His freedom to express his personal, private religious beliefs does not give him the right to suppress the liberty of other people in order to promote his personal, private religious beliefs.

Whatever he does, and I doubt he’ll change course and be responsible on this issue, Abbott will be choosing to victimise a member of his own family. Sometimes, water is thicker.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Creative response

From the YouTube description for the video above:
“In early March, the hashtag "#tomyunbornchild" became a worldwide trend on Twitter. By and large, these tweets were loving, hopeful messages to the next generation—but many people saw it as an opportunity to express hate speech towards LGBT children…

Reading their bile, the only thing I could think was: how would we feel if we heard actual parents saying this to actual children?

I got the idea on a Thursday. By Sunday, we—me, my boyfriend, and whatever friends we could find to help us—had it filmed.

It's easy to dehumanize hate speech online because we've gotten so used to seeing it. We tell ourselves that it's the product of trolls, of random, anonymous strangers.

Except they're not. They're real people. Many of them will be parents. And some of their children will be gay.

But what can we DO about it? I don't think there are any easy answers.

Whenever you believe life begins, I hope we can all agree: life is essential, and rare, and precious. We can't stop anyone from having kids. But we can resolve to stop this toxic cycle. We can wish better for our own children. And we can support the kids who weren't so lucky.”
It puts an entirely different level of disgustingness onto hate-filled comments to see real people actually speaking them. But that’s the thing about Internet hate speech: It’s anonymous, completely separated from the real people who spread real hatred and bigotry. Such unbridled—and often unhinged—anonymous hate speech is, in my opinion, the worst thing about the Internet.

Last year I posted a similar video in which some Australians performed actual anti-gay comments. It, too, put a human face on bigotry.

The problem isn’t just the hateful comments, bad as they can be, but also that it’s impossible to tell if they’re real or not. Some people think it’s fun to make such comments just to get a reaction. This sort of person is a “comment arsonist”, lighting a spark so they can gleefully watch the conflagration they caused.

Other times, people will make such comments to stir up trouble for their adversaries. For example, supporters of the anti-gay industry often go to GLBT blogs and make hate-filled comments, and even ones that advocate violence, so that they can they quote those comments as “evidence” of how hate-filled and pro-violence GLBT people are. Yes, this does really happen: I’ve seen it personally.

Both of these performances can be seen on sites like Twitter, where people set up fake accounts to play or to incite. It’s kind of sick and twisted, but it happens.

I’ve learned over the years to ignore comments on some blogs and, especially, on online news sites, and I seldom participate. When I do post a comment, it’s almost never in response to someone else (except on my own sites). This is merely self-preservation, of both sanity and blood pressure.

In a perfect world, people would comment and interact under their own names, and would never post comments just for the sake of causing trouble. As I put it on my “About stuff” page when talking about comments on this blog, “If it would be inappropriate to shout it through a megaphone in a crowded shopping area, then it's probably inappropriate here, too.”

I wish people would follow similar advice when commenting on the Internet. When people don’t, and hatred and bigotry rise to the top, then creative responses like this video, and that earlier Australian one, are probably the best way to respond.

That, or write a blog post about it. Obviously.

Tip o’ the Hat to Joe.My.God.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Jake turns 5

Today is our puppy Jake’s Fifth Birthday—it hardly seems possible! It was a very busy day around his house today, and he and Sunny and I had to clear out twice. He took it all in his stride, as he always does.

The photo above was taken just before we left the house for the second time today. That whirling mass of blonde fur at the bottom of the photo is Sunny. Jake’s eyes are there—it’s just that the photo was taken before his birthday hair trimming.

Today is also his blood brother Doyle’s birthday. Doyle took over his hooman’s email account to sent Jake birthday wishes; Jake just smiled and said, "Happy Birthday, Doyle!" Or, at least, I think that's what he said…

I know that animals are oblivious to birthdays as such, but they do notice when their people make a fuss over then and give them lots of attention, as we did—of course we did: Jake may have cat and dog sisters now, but he’s still our special boy, who came to live with us at a very sad time and then changed everything.

Happy Birthday, Jake!

Related posts:
Jake is four
Jake turns three
Jake’s Birthday 2-day
Jake is one year old!
A new arrival

Monday, April 02, 2012

How news coverage evolves

This video is an ad for the UK’s The Guardian newspaper. As they put it in their YouTube description:
“This advert for the Guardian's open journalism, screened for the first time on 29 February 2012, imagines how we might cover the story of the three little pigs in print and online. Follow the story from the paper's front page headline, through a social media discussion and finally to an unexpected conclusion.”
I thought it was interesting just taking it as an ad for The Guardian, but it’s also a window into how news evolves more generally now, including print, TV and also the web, including social media. Whether this is a good thing or not is another question entirely, the answer, in my opinion, being based on whether the news organisation is credible and balanced or not.

Whatever, it’s an interesting ad.

Tip o’ the Hat to my fellow American expat in NZ, Dawn, who shared the video on Facebook

Sunday, April 01, 2012

April Internet wading

Today is April first, and also a busy Sunday in a busy weekend, so why not look at what’s caught my eye this week? An April Fool’s joke from Air New Zealand is the perfect place to start off.

The image above is a screen grab from Air New Zealand’s prank, after their reveal. The original headline was that it was “Stand Up Fares”, and they, of course, played it completely straight, treating it as real. Their “Grab A Seat” site is a great way to book cheap Air New Zealand flights, and the prank was promoted on that site. Well, played.

Speaking of April Fools Day, I forgot to mention this before: The new give-way rules were originally scheduled to take effect today, but the government was worried that people would think it was an April Fool’s joke, so they moved it back one week. The change seems to have gone pretty well, actually.

New Zealand's clocks changed this morning: Back one hour. Sadly, that was no joke. The government's increase of the minimum wage, which took effect today, was not a joke, even if it seems like one. Low-wage workers will now receive a whopping 50 cents per hour more.

And speaking of government, today I saw one of the strongest critiques of the current National-led government yet. Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Bernard Hickey called John Key’s government “irresponsible” in its economic policies, and said that the borrowing of money from overseas, chiefly China, to fund income tax cuts for the wealthy was “an act of economic treason and generational selfishness”. WOW! And, of course, I couldn’t agree more.

Nevertheless, a new TVNZ/Colmar Brunton Poll showed the popularity of the National-led government growing—or, did it? As always, poor understanding of polls led the TVNZ journalists to report something that wasn’t exactly true. In fact, National’s support had increased only 1%—exactly the same increase enjoyed by both Labour and the Greens. Minor party support collapsed, their support going to the big three parties. The conclusion that National could govern alone could be true, but stating “National's popularity remains intact, despite the on-going ACC controversy” is utter bollocks: Polling was done around the time Nick Smith resigned his portfolios, but before the implications of other National Party MPs. This story is far from over.

It’s not only New Zealand politicians who are in trouble: It turns out that Mitt Romney took an especially circuitous route to secretly donate to the race-bating National Organization for “Marriage”, using his PAC’s Alabama branch, in a state with loose financial disclosure laws for political groups, to funnel money to NOM just before the 2008 election in which California’s Prop 8 took away marriage rights for gay couples. Perhaps he was concerned about a high profile Mormon giving money to a campaign that was closely identified at the time with the Mormon Church. Since he was already on record as opposing marriage equality, and for supporting Prop 8, it seems very peculiar to go to such lengths to hide his donation. One wonders what else he tried to hide between then and now.

Openly gay TVNZ presenter Tamati Coffey will be the host of New Zealand's Got Talent. I think he's a great choice. However, we'll have to wait until September, not to find out whether New Zealand does have talent, but, rather, whether this programme can showcase it or not. It has cringe-making potential, after all. At least they chose a good host.

One of the funniest things—“OMG” funny, not so much “ha ha” funny—was a look at “accidental racism on Facebook”. I spotted it in Roger Green’s “March Rambling” post, a regular feature of his blog which is similar, in some ways, to these Internet Wading posts of mine. Funny that.

That’s enough wading for now; my skin’s getting pruney.