Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hoodlum bedlam

In the video above, US Representative Bobby Rush (D-Illinois-1) tries to make a point about racial profiling, especially the tendency of police in many US jurisdictions to assume that a young Black man wearing a hoodie is automatically suspect, or even criminal. It’s part of what’s at the core of the debate around the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Daily Kos described the stunt this way:
“As Rush began speaking against racial profiling, he removed his suit jacket to reveal the hoodie underneath, flipped up the hood and donned a pair of dark sunglasses. Immediately, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), acting as speaker, repeatedly banged his gavel and called Rush out of order.

“But the congressman raised his voice and ignored the effort to silence him. He spoke in solidarity with ‘the young people all across the land who are making a statement about hoodies, about the real hoodlums in this nation, particularly those who tread on our laws wearing official or quasi-official clothes. Racial profiling has to stop. Mr. Speaker, just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.’ He then recited two Bible verses. He was still speaking as he was ushered away from the podium.”
Obviously, Rush knew something like this would happen: He’s been in the US House long enough (19 years) to know the rules and the consequences for breaking them, but he was trying to make a larger point. I say, good on him for trying, but think how much more effective it would have been if a rich white Republican had done it instead—would never happen, I know, but still.

Bobby Rush is an interesting fellow. A former Black Panther, he was present when Fred Hampton was shot and killed in a violent 1969 Chicago raid that is argued about to this day. Rush ended up an Alderman on Chicago’s City Council when Harold Washington was Mayor, later running for US Congress. In 2000, he defeated a then mostly unknown Barack Obama in the Democratic Primary and then won re-election. In this video, I thought Rush looked like he was getting quite old, though he’s only 65; not nearly as vibrant as I remember him from two decades ago. But, then, I’m probably not either.

The larger issue of racial and ethnic profiling is a big one for which no one has yet found an answer. The far right wants it used all of the time, the far left says it should never be used, and the vast majority in the middle are all over the ideological map. But Rush’s stunt may at least help get the debate going, which would be good. Discussion and debate are always good, even when it takes stunts to gain momentum.

Tip o’ the Hat to Roger Green, who sent me the Daily Kos link because knows I’m always on the lookout for stuff like this.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

K is for K-Pop

I’ll admit this right upfront: I first heard of K-Pop (which stands for Korean Pop Music) only about a year ago and, oddly, the context was New Zealand politics.

Back in April of last year, the New Zealand Parliament was debating the horrible “Copyright (Infringing File Content) Amendment Bill,” which the National Party-led government was pursuing at the behest of US media conglomerates. One National MP, Melissa Lee, said in Parliament, "Breaking a law, whether it is actually assault on a person or an assault on a copyright, should be punished, not actually excused."

The problem for Lee was that not 24 hours earlier, she Tweeted:
“Ok. Shower… Reading… And then bed! Listening to a compilation a friend did for me of K Pop. Fab. Thanks Jay.”
When her hypocrisy was pointed out to her, she declared the songs had been legally downloaded. Trouble is, it was legal for her friend, not her—not unless her friend got permission from all the companies involved, or unless the friend was a member of Lee’s household. Still, she was lucky: Since the law she argued for had not yet taken effect, she escaped a fine of up to $15,000.

As it happens, K-Pop is big business in South Korea, where Lee was born in 1966, and there’s even been some international interest in the, well, genre is the best word, I guess. But it’s not easy describing exactly what K-Pop is because there are different types.

Take the video above, for example. The song is called “So Cool” from a group called Sistar. It was the first song to be number one when Billboard began the “Korea K-Pop Hot 100”, on August 25, 2011. The video below is the current number one on the “Korea K-Pop Hot 100”. It’s by a group called 2AM and the song is “I Wonder If You Hurt Like Me”. It’s quite different—but not so very different from boybands in other countries.

And for a final bit of over-the-top K-Pop intensity, there’s “Boyfriend” by the boyband of the same name. The group is part of a sort of sub-genre called “idol group”, as in “teen idol,” apparently. Who knew that pop music could be so complicated? Anyway, it was their first single, released in May of last year and reaching 7 on the Korean chart. It is SO over-the-top that I have to include it, too. The single also starred Bora, of Sistar, where this journey through K-Pop began.

Time for another admission: I don’t actually “get” K-Pop, which is fine, since it’s not intended for me, anyway. Some of the boys in these groups, well, let’s just get it out there: They kinda look like girls to me. That’s neither good nor bad, just a fact that I notice with many of these groups. Also, the songs seem way over-produced, even for over-the-top teen-oriented pop. Still, it’s been a few years since I was in the target age group, so maybe I’m just an old fogey.

Having said all that, and having heaped my all-too-grown-up and English language-centric scorn on these songs, let me add one more admission: Despite it all, I find many of these K-Pop songs kinda, well, fun. And isn’t that really the point of pop music, wherever it comes from?

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Some changes

I’ve made a couple changes to the blog that I wanted to take a minute to note. First, I’ve deleted the Auckland weather widget because it was taking too long to load. I have no alternative, so, for the moment, I’ll do without. But I’ll come up with something else later on—once I find an alternative. Hopefully deleting this widget will speed up the pageload; if not, I may bring it back.

Second, at the request of some of my fellow ABC Wednesday folks, I’ve turned off word verification for comments. This is inherently risky, since it’s the last line of defence against spam comments. To help alleviate that, I’ve turned on comment moderation for comments older than a certain period of time. That’s because old blog posts very seldom get new comments except from comment spammers. Still, I’ll get an email notice if any real person leaves a comment on an old post, so they won’t be lost.

However, Blogger now also sends me an email notice every time a spam email is added to the spam queue (it never used to do that). This is becoming VERY annoying: So far, only 5.36% of the email notifications have been for real comments—94.64% of the comments left have been spam. Mind you, we’re talking about some 56 comments (not including my own), but this morning alone I received 28 email alerts about spam comments.

I never used to receive any email alerts about spam comments; Blogger just quietly filed them in my spam queue using whatever filter they have, and left them sitting there until I reviewed them; there were very few. With word verification turned off, the number of spam comments has skyrocketed, even though only one of those many spam comments was actually posted to the blog (before I deleted it).

Blogger’s current word verification is crap, no doubt about it, but I really hate all this spam. I’m torn between wanting to make it easier for real people to leave comments, and spare myself the hassle of all those spam comments—and the emails I receive because of them.

Still, I’ll keep word verification turned off for at least a little while longer. No promises long term, though.

More practice to deceive

Yesterday’s revelation that the National Organization for “Marriage” (NOM) schemed to use Black and Hispanic people to attack same sex marriage as a wedge to divide them from GLBT people wasn’t much of a surprise—only their putting it on paper was (as I said in my post yesterday, I realised what the anti-gay industry was doing three years ago). But what is increasingly clear to me is that this was actually only the hidden tip of an equally hidden iceberg: Their rabidly rightwing agenda.

The inherent racism of NOM is sickening: They have never once stood up for African American issues or for Black people, and yet they planned on using Black people to not only “get” gays, but also as bait to drive a wedge between Blacks, gays and white liberal Democrats. They wanted to do that so it would cause the base of the Democratic Party to dissolve into bitter infighting, thereby making it easier to defeat President Obama (and, of course, to elect Republicans to the US Congress and state legislatures). That raises the term “cynical manipulation” to new heights—or lows, actually.

Their racism and anglo-centric condescension toward Latinos is no less sickening. NOM saw Latinos as stupid, non-thinking consumers of pop culture, who could be swayed by images of beautiful Latinos, and who’s ethnic pride could be exploited by NOM by framing opposition to marriage equality as a way to avoid assimilation into the dominant anglo culture.

Put all of this together—their racist manipulation of Blacks and Latinos, their determination to defeat President Obama (and Democrats generally)—and one can see that perhaps their biggest deception of all is their claim that preventing marriage equality is their “only” issue. Their behaviour indicates that they’re really a typical far-right Republican group that happens to use marriage equality as their wedge issue for their larger goal of a Republican theocracy.

Further evidence for that aspect is their fevered attempts to hide the names of their donors. These documents came to light because NOM broke Maine state law on campaign disclosure and these documents were part of the resulting court proceedings. NOM has always defied campaign disclosure laws, throwing up a smokescreen claim that there would be violent reprisals against their donors if the names were revealed publicly. Well-meaning people often gave them the benefit of the doubt, even though there’s never been a single documented case of any such violence ever occurring—EVER. It’s merely NOM’s fevered fantasy, nothing more than their typical demonising of GLBT people to further NOM’s own radical agenda.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which placed NOM on its list of anti-gay hate groups precisely because of NOM’s lies and distortions, now points out that NOM also promotes the lie that gay men are more likely to be child molesters than heterosexual men. They do this somewhat indirectly, as SPLC documents. This tactic allows NOM to have a kind of “plausible deniability”, something the ex-head of the group tried to promote in an essay she called “A Link Is Not An Endorsement.” Uh huh, sure.

The fact is, despite their lies, distortions, duplicity, defamation and cynical manipulation of minorities, NOM is losing. They can try to spin things, they can pretend they’re some sort of “victim”, but they’re losing, and they know it. Polls of Americans now show that majorities—sometimes small, but clear majorities nonetheless—now support marriage equality. These percentages will only continue to grow, and NOM knows that as well as everyone else.

So, the real question is this: If they were this bad over the past four years when they were still winning battles, how much worse will they become as their losses mount and their desperation grows? As the SPLC observes, “it remains to be seen whether NOM can avoid following other religious-right groups into a world of untrammeled hate.”

Personally, I don’t think they can; they’ve already had a lot of practice.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The smoking NOM

Like many others, I’ve long said that our opponents in the anti-gay industry are unscrupulous, amoral liars, willing to stoop to any low to achieve their far right agenda. There is no tactic beneath them, nor anything so crass and craven that they wouldn’t do it. We’ve all known that, but we couldn’t prove it.

Until now.

The Human Rights Campaign has published documents recently unsealed in Maine. Those documents were part of that state’s investigation into the National Organization for “Marriage” and its spending on the campaign to repeal marriage equality in that state. The documents make sobering reading.

In a confidential memo to the board of NOM:
“The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots…”
NOM cynically and calculatingly used black people to incite racist reactions in white GLBT activists in order to create antagonism between the two groups: Divide and conquer.

After California’s infamous Proposition 8 was passed, proponents kept touting the fact that African Americans had “overwhelmingly” voted in favour of repealing marriage equality in California; that seemed to be a curious thing to harp on since they were a minority of the votes overall. But I saw what they were up to more than three years ago, and while I don’t want to say I told you so, well, I friggin’ told you so!

The documents also reveal that NOM planned to target Hispanics, whom they assumed were all socially conservative and religiously conservative. Apparently they don’t know very many Hispanic politicians, who are overwhelmingly NOT far rightwing (a few notable nutjobs notwithstanding).

They also planned to find and develop “aspirational” role models, people that other people wanted to be like, to counter the overwhelming number of pro-equality celebrities. That would have been a clever strategy if they hadn’t immediately seized Carrie “Lady Fingers” Prejean as a conservative role model. Oops.

Of all the tactics they outlined, the ones that have worked the best for them have been driving that wedge between GLBT and African American communities, and also demonising both GLBT people as people, and homosexuality in general.

As Good As You has documented, NOM’s most favoured tactic of all has been race-baiting. Even so, I don’t expect to see any Republican politicians publicly distancing themselves from NOM—even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’ve well and truly earned their SPLC designation as a hate group.

As truly awful as NOM and its cynical campaign of manipulation are, there’s one thing that to me is even worse: The documents clearly show that they intended to take their hate campaign global. They specifically mentioned the UK, which leads me to wonder if they’re behind stories of supposed “Christians” being supposedly “victimised”, supposedly because of their religious beliefs. That sort of tactic is mentioned in their documents. Even if they’re not behind that, who the hell do they think they are, exporting their bigotry and hatred around the world?

I would like to think that this would be the beginning of the end for NOM, but it won’t be: Hatred and bigotry are strong forces. But just maybe a more rational conservative will hear about all this and steer clear of NOM, maybe they even might begin questioning everything the anti-gay industry says and does. If so, then NOM’s evil may ultimately have a redeeming quality after all.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rainbow’s End

Today we went to the Rainbow’s End theme park in Manukau, Auckland, to help our niece celebrate her tenth birthday. I’ve lived in New Zealand for 16 and a half years, most of that in Auckland, but somehow never visited the park before. It was a nice day.

The park opened in 1982 and sits on around 9 hectares (about 22 US acres), which makes it bigger than the theme park outside of Chicago that I worked at in high school (it was only 6ha, or16 US acres, though it seemed much bigger)*. By comparison, the public areas of Disneyland occupy some 34ha (85 US acres). Rainbow's End is open every day except Christmas Day.

The park bills itself as “NZ’s Premier Theme Park,” but, frankly, if there are any other true theme parks in New Zealand, I’ve never heard of them. So, the question to my mind was, how “premier” was it?

The first surprise was the admission: Like other major theme parks, there’s one admission fee that covers all rides. That fee is $49 per adult (today, about US$40.13), but—and this was the surprise—they also offered an $18 “Spectator Pass” (US$14.74) for folks not riding the rides. I never saw that at an American park, though maybe they’re doing that now, too (I haven’t been to a US theme park in more than a dozen years).

This Spectator Pass suited me perfectly, since I wasn’t going to go on any rides. I’m getting over a gout attack, so not getting around all that well at the moment. However, I’m actually leery of rides altogether because a dozen years ago I had an inner ear infection with vertigo; ever since I’ve avoided anything that might make me even a little dizzy (the effects of the infection lasted two years, so it’s kind of hard to forget). In any case, the real point was to be there for our niece.

So, I spent my time experimenting with using my iPhone to take photos and videos of the kids on the rides. The results were okay (and only for family, which is why none are with this post—plus, it was a dark, overcast day, so I didn't even bother trying to take any general photos). The photos I take with the phone are certainly good enough to post to this blog (and I already have, after a little enhancement in Photoshop, as they tend to be too dark). I realised that once I upgrade to a newer model, with its higher-spec camera, I won’t need to carry a digital camera and video camera for family events and such.

My second surprise came when we ate lunch: The food was surprisingly good and fairly reasonably priced. Coffee and ice cream were also good. Some beverages were a little pricey, compared to shops outside the park, but not obscenely so. But did I mention how surprisingly good it was? I don’t think I’ve had theme park food anywhere that was as nice, actually.

The park itself was in good condition, clean and seemingly well-maintained. I saw park employees frequently, including sweeping up, and that speak well for them, too. The park is smoke-free, apart from designated areas.

All in all, it was a nice place, and we had a great day. Fans of theme parks, or simply New Zealanders like me who haven’t been there before, should definitely go. I honestly don’t know if I’ll have any reason to go back, but I’m really glad I’ve now been there. It’s one more thing I can check off my “to do” list.

*Correction: The entire theme park is now 123 hectares, or 304 US acres; a waterpark is 6ha, or 16 US acres; no wonder "it seemed much bigger"—it was. So, in fact, it is much larger than Rainbow's End. I wrote that post at the end of a tiring day, just before going to bed, so I blame fatigue. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Good prescription

The USA’s Affordable Care Act is now two years old. The graphic accompanying this post from ThinkProgress shows some of the notable benefits that have come from this legislation, a cornerstone of President Obama’s first term.

The rightwing immediately dubbed the law “Obamacare” as a way to demonise it and to try and frame it as some sort of universal healthcare, which it emphatically is not. ThinkProgess noted that Republicans have voted 25 times to roll back the legislation or defund it. ALL the candidates for the Republcian presidential nomination have promised to repeal the law. ThinkProgress says of the Republican assault:
“Should they succeed, millions of Americans would become uninsured, seniors would pay more for prescription drug coverage, and the insurance industry would once again be able to deny coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions and impose annual and lifetime limits on coverage.”
This act is an important first step in healthcare reform and was, in my opinion, probably the best that could be obtained in the bitterly partisan US Congress—which is even more divided now. Still, it’s not nearly as good as what so many other countries—including New Zealand—have; the US isn’t likely to see anything like that for decades to come.

But let’s not lose sight of how important this legislation is to the people already befitting, and the people who will benefit as the rest of the law comes into force. This is one of many achievements of this administration that we simply cannot allow to be undone by those promoting only the interests of the rich and corporate elites—and insurance industry. America needs to move forward, not back. This law was an important step in that journey forward.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sketching Romney’s serial lying

There are two things that are most striking about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and neither is his religion. The first and most important is simply that he’s a liar. He lies regularly, baldly and recklessly. His lies can be checked—we have Google nowadays and his continuing to lie anyway is reckless. If he lies so easily and carelessly now, how much more would he lie if he became president, and about what?

In this video above, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow takes Romney apart, using his campaign’s “Etch-A-Sketch Gaffe” as the starting point. While it’s irritating, even angering, how much Romney lies, it’s also incredibly sad that the Republican Party as decayed so much that their likely nominee is so awful.

I mentioned two things about Romney that are most striking. Aside from being a serial liar, the other is that he’s never met a position on an issue that he doesn’t like. But that’s really just a way of saying that he lies about his own positions on issues, too. Actually, it also means he’ll lie to anyone about anything—including his own past—if it helps him gain power.

Add it all up, and a man like Romney isn’t just wrong, and he isn’t just bad: He’s dangerous. Liars can never be trusted, and Romney is the living embodiment of someone who simply can’t be trusted—ever. Not even shaking his campaign Etch-A-Sketch can change that.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A win for the good guys

Today the House of Representatives in the US State of New Hampshire’s legislature defeated a bill that would have repealed that state’s 2-year-old marriage equality law, and replace the right to marry with civil unions for same-sex couples. While it was a Republican measure, and some Republicans made typically bigoted pleas for the bill’s passage, some Republicans also stood up for equality.

The House also defeated an attempt to put an advisory referendum on marriage equality on the New Hampshire ballot, handing a second defeat to the anti-gay industry. Too bad, so sad.

Co-chair of Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, Craig Stowell, said, “Today is a banner day for the freedom to marry." Stowell, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran, and a self-described conservative Republican, was energised to fight because his brother is gay. Craig is the epitome of human and humane values (and, I could add, traditional Republican values): Standing up for, and fighting for, family members. He can be seen in the video accompanying this post from December last year. There’s also a YouTube video of him testifying against repeal.

Meanwhile, the spokesbigot for the out-of-state SPLC-listed anti-gay hate group, National Organisation for Man-Lady Only Marriage, said it was “a sad day for New Hampshire families”. Seems to me that the Stowell family, among hundreds of others, kind of proves how out-of-touch that spokesbigot and his group are.

New Hampshire’s law survived in part because of time: It has been in place for two years and repealing it to take rights away from gay people who had had those rights for two years was going too far for many legislators, including some Republicans.

Also, all this advancing success in the fight for marriage equality is inevitable because of another time-related fact: Younger people overwhelmingly support it. As younger people move into positions of power, the rate of support for marriage equality increases, too.

This a battle with an inevitable end: Liberty and justice for all. Clearly the pace of progress in achieving that liberty has picked up speed, one of the few times in my life that I’ve actually seen the tide of public opinion turn. With the bipartisan support like that we saw in New Hampshire appearing in states all over the US, that’s not really a surprise at all. Today was the latest in a series of wins for the good guys. It won’t be the last.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

J is for Justify

There are several words in English that have totally different meanings depending on context. For me, the word “justify” is one such word, which you could say I use both professionally and recreationally.

For most of us, one of the main meanings of “justify” is to provide a reason for something. This is the way I’m most likely to use the word recreationally: On this blog I write a lot about politics and I often either justify my own beliefs and positions, or I try to undermine the justification my adversaries use. Still, at some point we all need to provide evidence for something we believe, though not necessarily to justify our belief as much as to justify someone else in believing us.

Another important sense of the word is to prove someone’s faith in us. Personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t care whether or not they disappoint certain people in their lives—partners, parents, whatever. It may not be our driving force in life, but it is important.

Perhaps the most common use for me is among the least common for most people: I use it to refer to the alignment of type on a page. When I was just starting in the printing/publishing industries, we used to speak of “justified text” as aligning on both the left and right margins, like most newspapers. If aligned only on the left, we said it was “ragged right” (or sometimes “rag right”), meaning the text aligned perfectly on the lefthand side, but was uneven on the right, much as someone would have if using an old fashioned typewriter. The opposite was, of course, “ragged left” (or “rag left”), but this was far less commonly used, and then, mostly for effect (like in ads).

Times changed, and the birth of desktop publishing changed everything. With ordinary people able to make their own page layouts, the terminology needed to be simplified. So, at first, it became justified left, justified right and fully justified. But this was still too confusing, so it became aligned left, aligned right and justified, and this or similar is what most people use today—even professionals.

As a related aside, at the same time the word for the distance between lines of type was changed from “leading” (rhymes with “bedding”) to “linespacing”. All of the terms that once referred to the heritage of typography and page layout changed to accommodate modern technology and users.

There are plenty of people who could justify this change in terminology based on making things easier for the average user, and there are certainly some curmudgeons who cling to the old terminology as a way to justify charging high fees for graphic arts services when, in my view, the work itself should be all the justification needed.

And let’s face it: Picking a word starting with a particular letter is all the justification we need for an ABC Wednesday blog post, whether the text itself is justified or not.

Justification can also refer to a central tenet of the Lutheran faith I was brought up in, which is usually referred to as “justification by faith”: Lutherans believe that people receive salvation through faith alone. I may be a non-theist, but I remember where I came from—wait, am I just trying to justify talking about my religious heritage?

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Distinguished gentleman

I will admit this up front: At the time he became US President, I didn’t much like Jimmy Carter. The 1976 election was before I was old enough to vote, but I worked for President Gerald R. Ford and in 1980 I voted for John Anderson (though I now regret that). In the years since I’ve developed a tremendous respect for the former president, and today I saw another example of why that is.

Carter was interviewed by the Huffington Post’s Senior Religion Editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, because of Carter’s new book, NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter. Carter said:
Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things—he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies

I draw the line, maybe arbitrarily, in requiring by law that churches must marry people. I’m a Baptist, and I believe that each congregation is autonomous and can govern its own affairs. So if a local Baptist church wants to accept gay members on an equal basis, which my church does by the way, then that is fine. If a church decides not to, then government laws shouldn’t require them to.
He’s absolutely right, and says what I’ve always said. It’s a well-reasoned, theologically sound position from a very religious person. In that interview, he also talks about his break with the Southern Baptist Convention over their “discriminatory attitude,” as he put it, toward women, an attitude that I recently criticised.

Given all this, it’s kind of clear how a non-theist like me can respect the religious positions of a person like Jimmy Carter. That’s ironic, actually, because my initial suspicion of him was over his overt religiosity (and that was in 1976, well before the “Reagan Revolution” filled the halls of US power with far right religious zealots).

What first turned my opinion of Carter was that upon leaving office, he set about doing good works, including building homes for the poor through Habitat for Humanity. Other ex-presidents played golf. I took to calling Carter probably America’s best ex-president.

In the years since, Carter has worked tirelessly for peace and justice through his Carter Center, and that’s to be admired in itself. To this day, the rightwing still hates him, which to me is just another reason to like him. Personally, I wish all ex-presidents could be as distinguished and positive as Carter has proven to be—and I wish I’d voted for him in 1980.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to give way

The video above was produced because on Sunday New Zealand is changing two of its give way rules (translation for Americans: Two of the rules on who a driver yields to are changing). While one could argue that the new rules make more sense, particularly since New Zealand is apparently one of only two countries to do things the way we do now, it will nevertheless be difficult for some New Zealanders to adjust to because a huge percentage have been driving according to the old rules their whole driving lives.

Foreigners learning to drive in New Zealand, especially those from right-side-of-the-road countries like the US, often found the old rules confusing. Personally, I used to silently repeat a mantra of “give way to all traffic coming from my right”. That rule’s actually still the case for many situations (like in roundabouts, for example). But the two new rules, which seem to deviate from that simple mantra, at least make sense.

Naturally, some folks are predicting mayhem on the roads when the new rules take effect, an attitude I’ve mocked (in part because the change takes effect at 5am on Sunday, a time when few people are out driving around). I think any problems will be among those who hate change or who refuse to take responsibility for ensuring they’re up with all the road rules. Still, I think a longer ad campaign would have been helpful.

Things could have been worse: Originally, the change was to happen a week later, but that was April 1. Apparently the government was worried too many people would think it was a joke. The fact that they think so little of New Zealanders’ intelligence probably says a lot about this government, but that's another topic altogether.

At any rate, Kiwis tend to obey the rules, so I think everything will be fine. I certainly don’t expect to be posting anything about someone hitting me because they didn’t follow the new road rules. At least, I hope not.

Non-local government

The new Minister of Local Government, Nick Smith, has issued a report on local government in New Zealand that has sharply divided people along partisan and ideological divides. That was inevitable, given the staunch conservatism of Smith as well as his National Party acquiescing to the insignificant, and essentially non-existent, Act Party. They will nevertheless win their fight, setting the stage for the next Labour-led government to fix the problems National-Act (or, N’Act, as they’re often known) will create.

The report is the result of a promise that the ruling National Party made to the rightwing Act Party as part of their confidence and supply agreement. National had no reason to promise anything: The one and only “Act Party” MP is a former National Party cabinet minister who is a dyed-in-the wool Tory for whom not supporting a National-led government is biologically impossible, no matter what. National agreed to Act’s demands because they want to blame someone else for the unpopular things they wanted to do, anyway.

They frame it as a way of reigning in both expenditure and debt of local councils, both of which are worthy goals that people of all political stripes support. As always, the devil is in the details.

N’Act will begin by fundamentally altering the mission of local government. The Local Government Act of 2002 (LGA) gives councils responsibility for “social, economic, cultural, environment well-being” of their people because they’re closer to the people than Parliament is, so ought to know better what’s needed. Smith says this created “unrealistic expectations” and then trots out a list of red herrings to prove how this has led to “bad” things: “The problem is illustrated by councils setting targets for NCEA pass rates, greenhouse gas emission reductions and reduced child abuse in their communities. These are very real and important issues but are not the responsibility of councils.”

In the larger sense, he’s right—about those red herrings—but central government refuses to act, leaving local councils to fill the void. Also, having an aspirational vision for the future of a city isn’t by itself a bad—or costly—thing. One would have thought that the democratically elected representatives of the people ought to be able to set a direction for their council, a vision of what sort of city people will be living in.

An Aussie Voice

An Australian version of the television talent show The Voice will soon begin on Nine Network. I have no idea whether it will be shown in New Zealand or not.

I heard about this indirectly through a Tweet from Darren Hayes, half of 1990s pop group Savage Garden, who is now a solo artist. He’s a mentor on the show, working with judge, and fellow Aussie, Deltra Goodrum (the other judges are Kiwi-born Aussie Keith Urban, American Joel Madden of Good Charlotte and the UK’s Seal).

The Voice is a multinational singing competition television franchise, which started in 2010 as “The Voice of Holland”. The American version began last year, and aired in New Zealand (only a few weeks behind the US…). The current US season has not begun airing here.

Personally, I generally liked the US version of The Voice better than American Idol, which it’s probably most similar to. I’d like to see the Australian version, too. At this point I don’t know if I’ll get the chance, since TVNZ hasn’t even announced plans to air season two of the American version. This really is a case of “we’ll see”.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Business ethics

It’s no secret that I don’t trust big corporations in general, even if in the specific I think some are okay. The problem is that the ones that are bad are so very bad that they taint all big business. Take a look at my posts tagged “Corporate Greed” for what most annoys me.

The modern business paradigm rewards greed, and that, in turn, encourages behaviours that are unethical, immoral and even illegal—as long as profit is maximised and you don’t get caught, anything goes. There are, of course, businesses big and small that take a different approach, trying to act with integrity and solid ethics. Some even do a pretty good job of meeting such positive goals.

How can the rest of us tell? Third parties can help.

There are many different rankings of businesses based on various criteria, and I was reminded of that yesterday when I saw a story saying that the world’s “most ethical businesses” had been “revealed”. It turns out it’s from a New York City-based outfit called “Ethisphere” which, quite frankly, I’d never heard of (even though they’ve produced rankings dating back to 2007).

I never take assertions like a ranking of the “world’s best” anything without checking out the details. Not only are the rankings legit, to my mind they make excellent benchmarks for investors and would-be employees.

They ranked 145 companies throughout the world with 43 based outside the US (there were only two Australasian companies, both Australian banks: Westpac and National Australia Bank, which owns the Bank of New Zealand; ANZ dropped off the rankings this year). Companies are ranked using a series of multiple choice questions built on five main categories, which are weighted (the questionnaire is available online).

Two of the categories caught my eye: “Corporate Citizenship and Responsibility” (25% of the score) and “Culture of Ethics” (20% of the score). While all of the criteria are related to good, transparent and sustainable business practices, these two categories highlighted what to me is the very opposite of what I so often criticise in businesses.

But there are other considerations that people often make. For example, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest GLBT political organisation in the US, produces a “Corporate Equality Index” every Northern Hemisphere autumn. In their current Index, they introduced more stringent criteria regarding transgender health benefits, and yet 189 companies still achieved a perfect 100% score, including ten of the top 20 Fortune 500 corporations. When the Index began ten years ago, most companies were listed in the middle rankings, but now the majority of companies have a score above 80%.

So, what use are such rankings? They provide a useful tool for people looking for companies that aren’t evil, whether to invest in or to work for or to patronise. For example, Exxon-Mobil has a negative 25 ranking on the HRC index, so I won’t buy petrol (or anything else) at Mobil stations in New Zealand so that none of the money I spend in this country makes it back into the USA and the greedy mitts of Exxon-Mobil.

Ultimately, knowledge really is power, and the more information we have about big business (or governments…), the better. These rankings show that behaving ethically is good for business. It’s up to all of us to ensure they don’t forget that.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wading in the Internet

I thought I would follow the lead of my Blogging Buddy Roger Green and share some of what I’ve been taken with on the web. There’s no theme to this, by the way—these are just things I thought were interesting.

First up, only because it was posted today (and I Tweeted it twice), is a piece on SciBlogs “Molecular Matters”. But it’s not about science (which the site does very well, by the way), it’s about marriage equality. “Stupid Arguments against Same-Sex Marriage” lists and scores points against the stupid arguments against marriage equality. He also does so far better than I could (I tend to get a wee bit too intense…).

Meanwhile, and sort of related, at Scoop’s Werewolf online magazine, Alison McCulloch looks at the polls put out by the far right New Zealand christianist group “Family” First to see how they manage to get their polls reported on so uncritically by the NZ news media. It’s a wide-ranging look at private polling and how easily the findings get reported as fact, even when the group draws an unsupported conclusion from the results, or when the questions themselves are flawed. It’s a great analysis

Life is not all politics and advocacy, of course, and I was taken aback when I saw the trailer for the new Dark Shadows movie. I’m sorry, I really like Johnny Depp and all, but they made it a friggin’ comedy!! That’s just wrong. I grew up with the original TV soap opera, rushing home from school to see it. When the movie House of Dark Shadows was released, my friends and I went to see that, too. I even had a Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows game, though I seem to remember getting gum stuck onto the glow-in-the-dark fangs that came with it. So, messing with Dark Shadows, they’re messing with my childhood (a bit like when the Thunderbirds movie was done as a kids’ movie). Actually, speaking of Johnny Depp and messing with things, I’m not sure that making a 21 Jump Street movie as a comedy is a good idea, either.

Back home in New Zealand, the “talkerati” have been frothing over the speeches this week by current Prime Minister and leader of the conservative National Party, John Key, and Opposition Leader, and head of the Labour Party, David Shearer. While Key was dismissed by everyone (what did he say again?) the argument has been whether David Shearer is selling out the base of Labour Party. Rightie John Armstrong thinks Shearer is moving Labour right, while Lefty Matt McCarten sees him as playing a longer endgame. Personally, I think McCarten is closer to being accurate, but we’ll see.

These are only a few things that caught my eye the past couple days. Imagine if I paid attention over a week—why, I might give Roger a run for his money! Or, not.

I was right about Google

Last month, I wrote about a concern over a change Google made to its Blogger blogging platform (which powers this blog). Instead of the ordinary URL—such as, amerinz.blogspot.com—the URL is changed to the viewer’s home country TLD or, in the case of this blog for readers in New Zealand (including me), amerinz.blogspot.co.nz.

I thought this was weird, couldn’t find any announcement or explanation of why it was happening, so I asked: “What's the point of this if not to enable country-specific censorship?”

It turns out, I was right. Says Google:
"We are doing this to provide more support for managing content locally. If we receive a removal request that violates local law, that content may no longer be available to readers on local domains where those laws apply. This update is in line with our approach to free expression and controversial content, which hasn’t changed."
Personally, I see this as a logical approach because it allows Google to censor content within only some places, but not globally. So, if one country orders content removed, Google can make sure it’s only removed within that one country.

Google is going farther:
"When content is removed from a blog for any reason, readers attempting to access it will see a message indicating that the content has been removed. A copy of every removal notice we receive relating to Blogger is sent to Chilling Effects for publication on their web site. In addition, we disclose the number and nature of government requests for content removal biannually in our Transparency Report."
In this way, Google is effectively naming and shaming governments that order censorship of blog content. That’s a good thing, because there can’t be many instances when such censorship can be morally justified.

Also, a person can temporarily get around this by adding “ncr” (for “no country re-direct) after the URL So, for my blog, people outside the USA could enter “amerinz.blogspot.com/ncr” to ensure they’re getting everything. I should note that this does nothing about other content restrictions, like YouTube or other videos that can’t be played in all countries for whatever silly reason the restriction is in place. To get around that, you’ll need to anonymise your surfing or mask it as being from another country (there are plenty of resources and instructions for doing that).

This whole thing raises some anomalies. First, people who use custom domains (rather than blogspot) aren’t affected. Also, this messes up search engine ranking, though Google says “We are making every effort to minimize any negative consequences”. Also, third-party plug-ins for comments on blogs presently work only in the dot com domain and no comments show up in country-specific domains.

But the weirdest part of all to me is that the person outside the US who posts something their country orders taken down can post it, but not read it directly.

For New Zealanders, I suspect that this is most likely to involve court suppression orders, which prevent the details about a criminal defendant from being published in New Zealand. Doing so is a crime, but until now there’s been no easy way to block such content within New Zealand. A blogger who posts such information in violation of a suppression order could still be prosecuted for doing so, even if the content isn’t technically visible in New Zealand, and even though Blogger itself isn’t located in New Zealand. A prominent rightwing blogger affiliated with the NZ National Party found this out to his detriment.

What concerns me more is what we can’t know. For example, Gerry Brownlee was given near dictatorial powers for the Canterbury recovery; he could theoretically order suppression of content that isn’t flattering to him. Why he’d be bothered to do that with a single blog post that probably isn’t widely read anyway is beside the point: We should always be wary of making it too easy for governments to hide what they’re doing, let alone taking away people’s freedom of expression.

Still, Google seems to have struck as good a balance between individual liberty and government power as it could. It’s not perfect, it’s a pain for blog readers (and blog owners), but at least it places a small, limited check on the power of governments to censor things. That’s something.

Tip o’ the Hat to Joe.My.God., a site where I haven’t been able to read comments ever since Google started this. To be honest, sometimes that’s not entirely a bad thing for my blood pressure, but it’s also been a lot less fun.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Road We've Traveled

I tend to be sceptical about both advertising and politics, and even more so for political advertising. While I may be more critical of the advertising of my adversaries than I am my allies, I nevertheless tend to be scepctical to some degree of all political advertising.

So, it’s not surprising that when I watched the Obama film The Road We’ve Traveled (above), I began watching with all my filters up and charged. Things quickly changed.

The one thing that can get through my filters and lower my barriers is advertising that appeals both to my head and my heart. It’s not enough to talk about facts and figures, nor is enough to make me feel something, but ads that do both get my full attention. This video does that for me.

Obviously this video is designed to portray President Obama in the best possible light, but they’re right to crow about these particular things. All of the things they talk about are, in my opinion, successes they should be proud of.

My criticism is that they didn’t go far enough. For example, healthcare reform: Rather than having a “public option” that was jettisoned in the quixotic attempt at “bipartisanship” that was never going to happen, they should have tried for universal healthcare and, if necessary, settled for the public option. Fortune favours the bold, and all that. Still, the reform that was achieved, incomplete thought it may be, is more than any other president has been able to do.

While there are many promises to GLBT Americans that the president hasn’t fulfilled, the repeal of DADT is a pretty big one kept. If only he’d just evolve already and back marriage equality, as everyone—friend and foe alike—expects him to do eventually.

No one ever gets all they want from a politician. Ever. The question is, on balance, are things better than they would be otherwise? Absolutely—that’s a complete no-brainer. John McCain and Palin would have been a disaster for all Americans, including GLBT people. But all of the current Republican candidates would be even worse than the Republican Gruesome Twosome of 2008.

So, on balance, this presidency has been pretty good, all things considered. If President Obama wins a second term, particularly one with a Democratic Congress, there’s much more he can do.

I think that’s a road we should travel in 2012. Re-electing President Obama and electing a Democratic-controlled Congress are vital to moving the country forward. The alternative would mean leaving the road and driving off a cliff. Personally, I think moving forward is always the better option.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I is for Indecision

The times we live in favour decisiveness: Choose something quickly and stick with it. I don’t think that’s always a good thing and, in fact, it can be a bad thing. Some of the most interesting things happen to those who don’t choose quickly: Indecision can be a friend to creative people.

Decisiveness can be a very good thing, of course: Driving up to a red light, it’s good practice to stop, not weigh the options of stopping, driving through the light, coasting, etc. It also allows us to get things done more quickly.

On the other hand, when we’re not faced with obeying a law and when we don’t have others depending on our decision, sometimes indecision allows us to step back, consider more alternatives and even pick an option we might not have otherwise.

Most bloggers have days in which they’re not quite sure what topic they want to write about. Okay, that’s not true—I have no idea what “most bloggers” do or don’t do, but I certainly have days like that. More commonly these days, the indecision is about what angle I should take, how forceful I should be in my language, those sorts of things. Sometimes this leads me to abandon posts altogether, but other times it allows me to write a post that even I think is reasonably okay, one that’s moved in a direction I couldn’t have imagined when I started.

Sometimes, that sort of indecision can lead me to think about things in new ways, or to think about things I never have before. Thinking about what to write for “I” for ABC Wednesday is a perfect example: I had two or three topics I considered, couldn’t decide among them and ultimately realised that indecision itself is a topic—starting with “I”! And no, I won’t say what the other topics were; if I continue with this blog storm (as I call it), I may use one of those topics the next time “I” rolls around.

So, I think indecision, in the right place and time, isn’t always a bad thing. This time, the indecision on whether I should post this was resolved—ironically, that means that while this post may be about indecision, it’s not an example of it. Well, yes, no, or maybe.

Indecision is also the name for a political humour site run by Comedy Central.

The public domain photo accompanying this post is “Unclothed woman behind '?' sign. Woman holding sign reading "?" stands on wooden deck in front of wooden fence. Washington, D.C., 1922.” Taken July 28, 1922 by an un-named photographer working for the National Photo Company. It is available from Wikimedia Commons.

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Our enemies' obsession

Two weeks ago I wrote about the landmark 1965 US Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, which first asserted the existence of a constitutionally protected right to privacy. In that post, I mentioned other cases that reaffirmed and expanded the right to privacy, and how all that will lead inevitably to the US Supreme Court one day ruling on marriage equality:
“The issues raised in all these cases will again come before the Supreme Court, and it could be a case relating to any number of social issues. However, to me it seems most likely that the case will involve the right of same-sex couples to marry, either relating to California’s Proposition 8 or the federal ‘Defense of Marriage Act’.

“When that ruling happens, it will be based, directly or indirectly, on all the cases I’ve mentioned…”
One of those other cases was Eisenstadt v. Baird. On March 22, 1972, the US Supreme Court ruled that unmarried people had the same right to contraception as married people, which is what Griswold was limited to. The Eisenstadt ruling furthered the right to privacy and was based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under law.

Well, guess what? The radical right sees that as a turning point that, as blogger Joe.My.God. mockingly put it, “started America down the slut-strewn road to gay marriage.” The “Family” Research Council, designated by the SPLC as an anti-gay hate group, plans to hold an event crying about Eisenstadt. Said the bigots* at the “F”RC:
“On March 22nd, 1972, the Supreme Court undermined the boundaries and benefits of marriage. In the decision Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Court struck down a Massachusetts law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people, and implicitly sanctioned unmarried non-procreative sexual intimacy.

While the decision may seem archaic and insignificant by modern sexual standards, Eisenstadt v. Baird dealt a decisive blow to the legal and cultural norm that marriage was the institution for the full expression of the sexual relationship between man and woman. The decision and its legal consequences affect us today. Forty years ago, the Court ruled that unmarried couples could not be denied their birth control. Today, the Federal government is forcing us to share the cost, for said contraception and some states are giving marital status to homosexual relationships. [emphasis added]
Radical right religionists believe the only acceptable form of sexual expression is between a man and woman who are married to each other, and then ideally only to make babies. This is why the catholic church used to say that celibate gay people were okay, just not the ones who lived normal gay lives. Nowadays they draw little distinction, and most fundamentalist protestants have always said being gay itself was “sinful”, celibacy or no. Actually, radical right religionists are far more obsessed with sex than normal people are.

That antique point of view, no matter how sincerely held, is a tough sell in an age in which premarital sex is common and no one seriously expects gay people to live their lives in celibacy. Even the bigots at “F”RC know that.

So, true to form, the bigots throw in some lies: “The Federal government is forcing us to share the cost, for said contraception” is a lie. The issue is whether private employer-provided health insurance will be required to offer contraception, just as nearly all health plans currently pay for Viagra. The cost will be paid by employers/employees, the same as ANY other benefit in employees’ health insurance plans. The bigots’ wording deliberately implies that taxpayers will pay for this (they won’t), and that’s a deception in the nature of a lie. And anyway, if sluts are the problem, why don’t they demand that health insurance not be allowed to cover Viagra? Hypocrisy is the first reason that springs to mind.

I think it’s curious that the bigots at “F”RC choose to pin their blame on Eisenstadt when Griswold started it all rolling. However, since Griswold applied only to married couples, maybe they think that’s okay?

At any rate, Eisenstadt alone was not the basis for any court ruling in favour of marriage equality—it’s only one among that bunch of rulings I noted in my earlier post. Also, since the majority of US states with marriage equality enacted it through their legislatures, all the Supreme Court cases are completely irrelevant. The bigots at “F”RC know all that, of course.

The “F”RC, like their radical right comrades throughout the anti-gay industry, yearn for a society in which men are in full control, women know their place (under their men, literally and figuratively) and gay people don’t exist. Reality, common sense, morality and liberty are what prevents them from forcing their radical theocracy on everyone. Their latest hypocritical bearing of false witness about Eisenstadt is merely part of their ongoing efforts to hoodwink ordinary, mainstream people into being caught in their web.

Fortunately for us all, normal people are far too intelligent to be taken in by the radical extremists of the “F”RC.

*Bigots are people who are actively and obstinately intolerant towards people different from themselves, and who put that animosity into action. Bigots don’t merely hold “differing beliefs”, they put their prejudice into action with the intention of denying freedom and liberty to those they are prejudiced against. Just so we’re clear.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Names and perception

A few weeks ago, I read a news story about the USA’s Southern Baptist Convention looking at possibly changing its name. Church leaders apparently thought that the name is “too regional” and is holding the church back.

I instantly read between the lines and thought that in the minds of Northerners—or anyone not in the South of the US—it conjured images of backward, intolerant hicks. That perception was reinforced in an unattributed and un-sourced line in the article published by the Associated Press: “Others outside of church leadership say the name has become a liability because it is too often associated with divisive, partisan politics.”

Yes, exactly. My own perception is of an intolerant, rigidly orthodox fundamentalist (they prefer “evangelical”) church that has often been my adversary. Like many Northerners, I also perceive it as inherently racist owing to the fact it was created by Southerners before the Civil War because they were unhappy with the Baptist church of the day being “neutral” on slavery.

It turns out, in 1995 the church adopted a resolution condemning its own racist past and apologising for having supported slavery. As a result, perhaps, membership among minorities, including African Americans, increased. However, total church membership in recent years has been declining, and that’s clearly the reason for the move to rebrand the church.

The church’s racist roots are not the only reason I didn’t like it: Their theology—and the political positions they took based on it—are diametrically opposed to my own. They are, of course, opposed to marriage equality and, further, believe that gay people can never be accepted. This is to be expected in a fundamentalist church. But they also reserve all leadership positions requiring ordination—especially minsters and deacons—for men only.

So, to me, they’re racist, sexist and homophobic. If all of that were contained within their church, I wouldn’t care very much; sure, I’d still think they were wrong, that their theology was deeply flawed and even stupid, but it would be none of my concern. However, their political activism changes the equation entirely.

Once any church crosses into the public sphere, they surrender their right to remain above criticism. If they’re free to state that their theology leads them to oppose marriage equality, for example, I’m equally entitled to say I think they’re wrong and that their theology is deeply flawed. If a church goes farther and argues for the revocation of all civil and human rights recognition for GLBT people, I will oppose them and call them what they are: Bigots.

Many rightwing Christians are now branding themselves as self-described victims, not because they are—they most emphatically are not—but because someone has dared to challenge them in the public square. To these people, any pushback, any criticism and any use of plain descriptive language is automatically an attack not on their political activism, but on their religious beliefs. They really need to get over themselves.

There’s a profound difference between holding/preaching a particular religious belief and trying to force obedience to that religious belief onto everyone else. They don’t get a free pass to try and suppress human and civil rights just because they say doing so represents their religious beliefs.

What this all boils down to is names and perception. The Southern Baptists believe—rightly—that what one is called helps to shape how one is viewed. That perception, in turn, then helps determine the success of one’s agenda, religious or political. Re-branding alone isn’t enough, nor is claiming victimhood where it doesn’t exist. Names may start perception but, ultimately, actions flesh them out. And that’s where the debate ought to be centred.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

H is for Houses

How convenient: The letter H rolls around for ABC Wednesday just when I’m ready to talk about what I’ve been up to for the past couple months, the thing that’s kept me from having time for blogging or, especially, podcasting. We are house hunting.

Overall, houses in New Zealand aren’t all that different from my native Illinois, but they are different in some significant ways. Most noticeable for me, Kiwi houses traditionally had the toilet in its own little room (more like a closet), separate from the bathroom. Sometimes the room—called a toilet—also has a little sink, and when they do, it’s often a ridiculous little thing with separate hot and cold taps no adult could ever get their hands under. All that’s beginning to change as houses get smaller or devote more space to other rooms, so the toilet is now often found in the bathroom.

Indoor/outdoor flow is important to Kiwis, as is offstreet parking and garaging, especially in places like Auckland. While sections (what we called "lots" in Illinois) used to be a quarter acre (a little over a thousand square metres), they're now usually much smaller in urban areas.

Auckland houses built before the 1980s often had little or no insulation because it wasn’t required. Gradually, the minimum amount of insulation required has been increased, and the government has a programme to help owners of older houses insulate. Modern houses are well-insulated.

Related to that, central heating is rare in New Zealand, and air conditioning only took off in the past decade (we’ve put it in every house we’ve owned together, four so far, the latest a whole-house ducted system). Most Kiwis heat their houses with woodfires, oil-column radiators or LPG (aka propane) gas heaters (New Zealand is one of only two countries in the world that allows un-flued LPG heaters in a house; the other is Italy). An increasing number of Kiwis are now installing heat pumps in one or more rooms.

Finding and buying a house is also very different from Illinois. There, a person sees a house they want to look at and they contact any realtor who arranges a viewing. This works because of the “multiple listing service” that realtors belong to. We have nothing like that in New Zealand. If a person likes a house, they ring up the agent listed in the ad or on the sign or, at the very least, an office of the realty firm selling the property; they are the only ones who can show the property. If buyers want to see a house from another firm, they ring up that firm, and so on. Realtors also usually hold one or more “open homes” on a weekend, usually around a half hour for any interested person to view the property (the owners leave during that time).

A relatively new phenomenon in New Zealand is the “buyer’s agent”, basically a specialist negotiator to whom buyers give limited power to act on their behalf. The agent will, for a fee, do basic research on the property to arrive at a fair asking price, place the offer and conduct any follow-up negotiations, all under the buyers’ instructions. One of the advantages of this is that it makes it impossible for a real estate agent to pressure buyers because they deal only with the buyers’ agent. It’s also especially useful when buyers have no idea what a fair price would be.

So, a house is found, an offer is placed, and the parties have agreed on a price. Buyers’ offers are usually conditional, which means that certain things need to happen before the sale is finalised. The typical ones are that the buyer obtains finance, second, and related, that they have the property valued by a registered valuer (this is for the mortgage—is the property worth enough to justify the price/mortgage?). Next, most buyers will require a builder’s report, basically an inspection as to the structural integrity of the building. These three conditions are usually required to be completed within ten business days. Finally, the other most-common condition is sale of the buyer’s own home, and the time allowed for that is negotiable, maybe 30 days to three months.

The buyers’ solicitor (lawyer) also does a title search to make sure there are no legal encumbrances (like liens); if there are any problems, that could kill the deal. If buyers want out of a sale, they will often invoke the finance clause, saying they didn’t obtain suitable finance.

When all the conditions have been met—finance obtained, a valuation high enough for the mortgage, the building is sound and buyers’ own house has sold—the deal is considered unconditional. At this point, it’s pretty much impossible to get out of the deal, though obviously lawyers have a few tricks up their sleeves.

At this point the clock starts ticking toward what’s called the settlement date. In Illinois, we called this “closing”, and the buyers and sellers and their lawyers met in one of the banks’ meeting rooms to sign all the paperwork and, once done, the keys were handed over to the buyer.

In New Zealand, the buyers and sellers meet with their solicitor privately to sign all the documentation for the property and the mortgage. This is done in the time between the offer going unconditional and the settlement date. On settlement date, the buyers’ solicitor authorises money to be moved around and, once the sellers’ solicitor receives confirmation that the sale is complete, they authorise that the keys be handed over. Typically, the buyer picks up the keys from the sellers’ realtor (or sometimes solicitor), and that’s it. It’s possible for all this to happen without the buyers and sellers ever actually meeting in real life.

The selling side is mostly the other side of the equation above, but begins when the sellers sign a sales agreement. This is usually a sole agency agreement—only that real estate firm can sell it—but sometimes sellers will use “multiple agency”, meaning they authorise more than one firm to sell their property. My own feeling is that this is a bad idea as no one agent has an incentive to work to sell the property, so it won’t be the first one they mention when presenting similar properties to prospective buyers. These listing agreements typically last three months.

In February, the average time it took to clear the inventory of unsold houses in New Zealand was 36 weeks, down slightly on January and down 26% on the previous year. This refers to clearing the stock of unsold houses, not necessarily how long a typical property takes to sell, which in Auckland is less than a month.

Overall, sales are up 25% as demand remains strong and the number of listings slowly grows. Asking prices in February were up 2%, which may seem small, but it was a new high national average of $426,575 (roughly US$350,000). Higher asking prices means, of course, higher sales prices.

According to QV, the average national sale price over the past three months was $396,958 (roughly US$325,000), up 2.7% over the past 12 months. Average prices in Auckland are significantly higher than the national average, at $527,617 (roughly US$432,000), up 5%. In North Shore, where we live, the average sale price in the past three months was $579,246 (roughly US$475,000), up 4.1%.

And that’s a bit about houses and the house selling/buying process in New Zealand. The photo at the top of this post is one I took before our house was listed (to show a potential private sale). It shows part of the deck we had extended last year. I like it because it’s from up high, like professional real estate photographers do. This raises a related issue: I haven’t decided whether I’ll post links to the listing for our house or not. On the one hand, the more exposure, the more potential buyers who will see it. On the other hand, let’s face it: It IS a bit stalkerish to allow random readers of my blog to see our house.

Any questions about New Zealand houses or the real estate market, fire away in the comments. Oh, and would you post a link to your house’s real estate listing?

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

Friday, March 02, 2012

Only the start

Much of what I write about GLBT people here is about the present, and sometimes the past. This video hints at the future.

The USA's first full-service centre for GLBT seniors has opened in New York City. Care of GLBT seniors will become a major issue in the years ahead—it could make the marriage debate seem trivial, not the least because caring for GLBT seniors starts from the obvious point that they are good and wonderful as they are.

Here in New Zealand, I’ve heard anecdotal stories of “rest homes” allowing for female prostitutes servicing elderly men. How will they cope with out and proud elderly gay men—will they be as accommodating, or will they dig in some sort of Victorian heel and treat the gay resident as a child, seeking to discipline him and make him pretend he is other than who he is?

As I get older, I assume that I’ll be advocating for GLBT seniors well before I get there. If it’s not a better world than the one in which we now live, it will be a tragedy. If the world I find myself in when I am a senior is not in every way better than the current world, then I will consider my entire life a failure. I do not intend to fail.

Well done, New York City! New Zealand will, one day, be even better. Ultimately, progress depends on all of us, because this is only the start.