Thursday, December 14, 2017

No sinning today

There are some days that temptation just presents itself like being smacked upside the head with a shovel. If we’re good, clever, or just very lucky, we can dodge the temptation and go about our business. Virtue may be its own reward, but getting things done sweetens the pot.

I had some errands to run today, and I needed lunch. For reasons that are not at all interesting, I chose Carl’s Jr., the New Zealand implementation of the American fast food chain. As I was sitting there munching a dreadful chicken burger, I noticed an ad on the serviette holder (photo above). My sarcasm then took over (I was particularly proud of my hashtags, I must say).

There was actually no chance that I’d have one of those ice cream delights (I’m not a big sweets eater, fortunately), but pretending I was tempted was more fun than the truth. In fact, I was headed to the vampires for my latest round of routine blood tests. That’s not at all exciting, but the phlebotomist told me something I thought was very interesting, that they stopped telling people to close their arms after blood is drawn because they discovered that the cells that promote healing—clotting, maybe?—don’t work right unless the arm is extended. The more you know.

At any rate, I had important stuff to pick up: A new garden hose and attachments, some herb plants to put in some pots we bought for them, and similar bits and pieces, plus a visit to the grocery store. Who has time for an ice cream delight with all THAT to do?!

Still, it wasn’t all play, oh, no! I had time for some sarcasm along the way. I stopped for petrol on the way to my errands, and posted this to my personal Facebook:
Filled up the car with petrol today. It’s UNCANNY the way [the] price of petrol rises every year around Christmas. You’d think it was deliberate! But OBVIOUSLY it’s just increased demand for the summer, nothing more. I mean, it’s not like they could possibly anticipate increased demand in summer just because it happens every single year. No, I’m sure that’d be impossible, and they’re just responding to the market—right? /sarcasm
And, it was just sarcasm—while expressing and often-observed truth about life in New Zealand: Petrol companies all rip us off, especially around holidays, and very especially around Christmas. We’re used to it, and the only surprise is that the petrol companies bother to deny what they’re up to: We all know better.

This evening I used the new trigger-sprayer on the old hose and watered my tomatoes and capsicum plants. I also potted up the herbs I bought today. It was a very productive evening. Actually, it was a very productive day. With no sinning involved.

Packing for Christmas travel

The video above isn’t an ad, exactly, but a sort of instructional video for people flying with Air New Zealand this Christmas. It’s useful enough, but it’s also clearly a follow on from their “Mirry Christmus” TV ad. And, maybe because of that, it just works.

I got a YouTube alert about this video today, and I wasn’t going to watch it. After all, I’m not travelling anywhere this year (fortunately!!), so I didn’t really need to know whatever they were saying. However, having seen their ad, this was more appealing to me than it otherwise would have been.

Having said all that, it’s confusing as hell. For example, where, precisely are batteries/battery packs supposed to be packed? When we left New Zealand, the airline had a video playing in the “self-check-in” area that showed batteries and battery packes being put into checked luggage. Same for umbrellas. Yet elsewhere we saw umbrellas being allowed on the flight to New Zealand (this didn’t matter, it’s just the confusion of it all).

So, I think the idea of this video is really good—cute, even. But such things need to be painfully obvious to avoid confusing the travelling public. Travel is stressful enough, as I was saying the other day, and airlines really should be doing everying they can to reduce stress and confusion. This video, cute though it is, doesn’t meet that high standard, in my opinion.

But it IS kinda Christmasy…

About Alabama

A lot has been written and said about the results of the special election to fill Alabama’s US Senate seat vacated when Jeff Sessions became US Attorney General. While some of the punditry has been spot on, other punditry has been silly. It’s worth forcusing on what was right.

Democrats had a good candidate.

Alabama is a Deep Red state—so red that the last time they sent a Democrat to the US Senate was 1986 when Richard Shelby won the seat. But in 1994, in the wake of the Republican resurgence in the midetern elections, Shelby became a Republican. He still serves in the Senate at age 83. His current term expires, if he doesn’t first, in 2022.

What this means is that the chances of Democrat winning under normal circumstances were remote—slim to none, in fact. Very often no quality Democratic candidate will run in a hopeless race (in fact, Jeff Sessions was unoposed in his relection bid in 2014, apart from a write-in campaign that could never win).

So, fortunately for everyone, when Republicans nominated a crackpot accused child molester as their candidate, Democrats had a good, solid candidate ready to go and to take advantage of the opportunity handed to them. This MUST serve as an example to Democrats: They must nominate quality candidates for all federal offices because you never know what hand fate may deal. To put it the other way round, had Demcrats NOT had a good candidate this year, then a crackpot accused child molester would be about to be sworn in as a US Senator.

Alabama is still very red.

Just because Democrat Doug Jones beat the Republican’s crackpot accused child molester candidate doesn’t suddenly mean that they’ve seen the light—just look at the vote margin for proof of that. Assuming Republicans nonimate someone electable in 2020, it’s likely Jones will be defeated.

On the other hand, his presence will help Democrats stall and even stop Republicans’ radical agenda now, and makes the Democrats’ chances of taking control of the US Senate in 2018 much better. These are good things all on their own, regardless of what happens in 2020. And, who knows? Jones may win over Alabama. After the presidential election last year and the fact that Republicans nominated a crackpot accused child molester as their Alabama US Senate candidate this year, clearly nothing is impossible.

Democrats still benefit from the support of African Americans.

African Americans have been a core part of the Democratic Coalition for decades, and they turned out in force to vote for Doug Jones. This was despite all the laws that Alabama Republicans passed specifically to make it harder for African Americans to vote, and all the shenanigans they pulled to try and further suppress the vote of African Americans. This tells us that when motivated, African American voters can supply the margin of victory in many races, and also that Democrats must never take them for granted.

Republicans got a black eye.

There’s no other way to put this: Republicans seriously fucked up. By failing to clearly and unequivocally reject their crackpot accused child molester candidate, Republicans AT BEST look like craven, power-obsessed, amoral, bastards. At worst, they look like craven, power-obsessed, amoral, bastards. In other words, their failure to act morally stained their party in the eyes of Independent voter they’ll need in 2018 and beyond.

The current occupant of the White House also has the distinction of having backed the loser TWICE. Heckuva job. And the Republican leadership in Congress looked like they were licking the boots of the current occupant of the White House, all for nothing. No one likes losers, especially craven, power-obsessed, amoral, bastards who fail to express disgust and rejection of their crackpot accused child molester candidate. Republicans, too, need to nominate only credible candidates, and never allow crackpot accused child molesters to become their party’s standard bearer for any race.

• • • • •

2018 is still the most critical race in modern US history, and if Democrats don’t win control of Congress, the republic may not endure. What happened in Alabama will help in Democrats’ efforts to right the ship of state and quarrantine the current occupant of the White House in preparation for getting him out of there, BUT: it is only help, and a start. There is MUCH work to be done.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Arthur Answers 2017, Part Two: Addiction and song

I don’t expect to publish an answer for this year’s Ask Arthur series every day, but sometimes, like today, they will be on consecutive days. Both of today’s questions come from people I know in real life, and the first is from my good friend Linda who asked:

So here's my question for you. This article (“The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and
It Is Not What You Think”), and its premise, does it have any validity?

Linda knows me very well, probably because of the many great discussions we had at work back in the day. She also knows that I have opinions about a great many things, including some I probably shouldn't have or express. Although, as she also knows, that fact has never stopped me.

So, I should state upfront that I’m absolutely NOT an expert on addiction or psychology or pharmacology or medicine or any other field related to this topic. Also, while I’ve known plenty of alcoholics in my life, I’ve never known someone who was addicted to hard drugs. But this topic touches on so many of the things I DO study, especially as it relates to politics and public policy, that I have an interest in it (as well as pretty much everything to do with science).

The basic premise of the article (and, I presume, the book, though I haven’t read it yet) is that what we call addiction is for most people a coping mechanism for people who are in some way cut off, isolated, and without control. On an intuitive level, this makes a lot of sense.

The author, Johann Hari, cites the example of the Vietnam war. Around 20% of US soldiers were addicted to heroin, yet when they returned home to their lives and safety in the USA, most stopped the drug completely. Why?

He also cites rat studies in which rates were given water laced with cocaine or heroin, and they would drink more and more of the water until they died. But researchers realised there was a problem with the study: The rats were all alone in a boring, sterile cage.

So, researchers built a “rat park”, filled with other rats, plenty of interesting things to see and do, plenty of food and opportunities to play and have sex and all the other things rats do, AND they were offered the drug laced water. But the rats didn’t want it. Why?

The theory is that the rats in the first cage, like those Vietnam soldiers, were reacting to the cage they found themselves in. If rats—or people—find themselves in a better cage, that is, a more interesting, fulfilling life, fewer will choose to abuse drugs.

One of the reasons this interests me is the politics of it. As Hari says in the video interview accompanying the piece, this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of the Right—addiction is a moral failure—and of the Left—addicts are victims of chemicals over which they have no control. If Hari is correct, then the actual problem is that when people feel helpless, hopeless, and in danger, they’re far more likely to abuse drugs, and that means that if we improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society, drug abuse and all the social problems that go with it will decline.

This is just slightly beyond the growing consensus on the Left, among some Centrists, and even some sensible Conservatives, that drug abuse is NOT a law enforcement problem, it’s a healthcare problem. Hari’s views don’t contradict that growing consensus, they build on it by saying, yes, it’s a healthcare problem, but that’s mainly because it’s a social problem first.

As a student of public policy solutions, and how they can exist within political realities, I find Hari’s ideas refreshing and the policy implications exciting—especially if evidence continues to show that the new approaches really do work better than the old “lock ‘em up” mentality ever did.

The bottom line for me is that, as I said, these ideas make intuitive sense. But we know that the “war on drugs” has been a total failure and that we need radical new approaches, so we must be open to ideas that are challenging and maybe even a bit scary. If this proves to work, then we will help so many people who aren’t being helped now, reduce the harm of drug use, save lots of money now spent on law enforcement, courts, and prisons, and have a happier and healthier population. It seems to me that this is well worth exploring further.

The next question is completely different, but it also comes from someone I’ve known a very long time—my entire life, in fact. This question is from my sister who asked:

Do people go Christmas caroling over there?

The short answer is, I have no idea. The longer answer is that I’ve seen people dressed in Dickensian clothes doing carolling as part of a shopping promotion for a business association or whatever, but I don’t know if ordinary people ever do it. I’ve certainly never seen it anywhere, but it could be something that’s done in some places—I honestly have no idea. I should note that I never saw people carolling in all the years I lived in Chicago, either. On the other hand, it IS summer here, and some days it’s just too hot to even think about carolling, so that may be a factor.

One thing that does happen is that, as I mentioned in passing in yesterday’s post, many local councils will have some sort of “carolling in the parks” family event, which is often a sort of sing-a-long. I’m not sure if that counts, exactly, but it does show that singing Christmas carols happens in New Zealand, just maybe not in the traditional carolling sense.

Thanks to Linda and to my sister for their questions!

It’s still not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-17”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, ”Ask Arthur”.

Let the 2017 asking begin The first post in this series
Arthur Answers 2017, Part One: NZ Example

Surprising religion survey

Infographic: One Nation Under God? | Statista
A recent survey about the religious attitudes of Americans has found some interesting results. Some are expected or predictable, but buried within are some surprising details.

The Morning Consult poll conducted last month [download the PDF] found, as the graphic above from Statista shows, a plurality of US voters said that a candidate being Christian would make them more likely to vote for that candidate, while about a third said that a candidate being atheist or muslim would make them less likely to vote for the candidate. This is a largely predictable result—after all, we’ve been saying that for a very long time based on earlier surveys.

What’s surprising, though, is that if one drills down through the results, it becomes clear that most American voters are surprisingly relaxed about most of their attitudes about religion in public life. On a great many issues, it turns out, the most common reply is a variation of “it doesn’t matter to me”.

Of course there are exceptions: Evangelical Christians prefer Christians and are negative towards both Muslims and atheists (less so toward agnostics). Atheists, in contrast, remain pretty open-minded about all things except that knowing a candidate supports the separation of church and state would make them more likely to vote for that candidate, something that wasn’t true even for supporting atheist candidates.

This should surprise no one. Organised religion is in part a tribe, and it’s human nature to support and favour one’s tribe. So Evangelical Christians favouring their own tribe, and being staunch against those they perceive as a threat makes perfect sense. Similarly, atheists, who by definition rely on evidence and rationality to make decisions, are far less tribal in their outlook.

But the MOST interesting thing about all that is that, for the most part, Americans are far less religiously polarised than they are portrayed. Sure, Evangelicals are an outlier in this regard and exhibit more hostility toward out-groups than they should, but some of their other attitudes suggest that the depth of their antipathy toward out-group folks may not be as firmly rooted as we’ve always thought.

Even so, the survey results still do underscore the firm religiosity of most Americans, and even if there may be some signs of hope, the antipathy that is there seems deep and rigid. Until it becomes common for US voters to have no idea what religious views a candidate holds, and until US political candidates no longer feel the need to end every speech with “god bless you”, we won’t see any lessening of religious attitudes in US politics.

There may be hope for a freer, more tolerant, though perhaps merely more pan-religious than non-religious politics in the USA, but that day is some distance away yet. The thing about this survey, especially when combined with others, is that dialling down the volume of religious political expectation may be a bit closer than anyone realises.

Eating to fight climate change

Many of us feel there’s little or nothing that we can personally do to fight climate change, and that sense of helplessness can make things worse. But it turns out that one thing we could do would have a major impact, and yet it’s actually quite simple: Change our diet.

The video above from Vox is part of a growing series of videos produced with other organisations, in this case, UCLA’s Climate Lab. This particular video, the most recent in the series, looks at how eating a more vegetable-based diet can dramatically cut the amount of greenhouse gases a beef-based diet would create.

But it’s actually not that hard to do. To paraphrase Maya Almaraz, a postdoctoral researcher at University of California , Davis, who is featured in the video, all the things we’re being told are good for us are also good for the planet. In fact, one of the best options for most people is the so-called “Mediterranean Diet”, which is often prescribed by doctors for heart health.

I was introduced to the Mediterranean Diet following my hospital adventure and have been following its principles most of the time. There’s still room to improve, and although we generally have red meat only once a week, we could cut that back even more, and eat more entirely vegetarian options, too.

Up until now, the dietary changes I made were mostly to keep my heart healthy and to prevent any future problems developing. Now, I have the added incentive that it could help the planet. That’s a pretty good deal all around.

Butter stick to the recipe

The longer one lives in a new country, the more likely it is that one will forget about subtle differences between the “old” country and the “new” one. Even things that originally were minor inconveniences are forgotten. This is a common enough thing—until something suddenly reminds us. Like this week.

My sister emailed me about an old family cookie recipe, something our mother used to make every year, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was given to her, judging by the handwriting on the recipe card, by a somewhat elderly lady, but I have no idea where or when the recipe originated.

The recipe calls for “Spry”, and I never had any idea what that was, but my mother said “It’s like Crisco”. It turns out, she was exactly right, something I only learned yesterday when I had the happy coincidence of having both the recipe and my computer in front of me. Google can be our friend, and because of that Wikipedia told me:
Spry was a brand of vegetable shortening produced by Lever Brothers starting in 1936. It was a competitor for Procter & Gamble's Crisco, and through aggressive marketing through its mascot Aunt Jenny had reached 75 percent of Crisco's market share. The marketing efforts were phased out in the 1950s, but Aunt Jenny and her quotes like “With Spry, we can afford to have cake oftener!” have been reprinted. Though the product is discontinued in most countries, there are anecdotal reports of its being used through the 1970s.
So, a lifelong mystery was finally ended through a simple Google search. But that then led me to really look at the recipe and remember other, bigger challenges I’d faced in trying to make the old family recipes here in New Zealand. Butter was a big one.

I was reminded of that because Crisco isn’t normally available in New Zealand, and there’s no local equivalent. The closest is a product called Kremelta, which is fully hydrogenated coconut oil with a little soy lecithin as an emulsifier. This makes the product 100% fat, at least 98% of which is saturated. On the plus side, being fully hydrogenated means there are no trans fats. Crisco is made from fully and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (including palm oil, a product with a notorious and particularly nasty environmental cost, including driving the orangutan close to extinction). Aside from potentially helping to kill off orangutans, Crisco’s formulation also means it has mono and polyunsaturated fats in addition to saturated fats but no trans fats.

I don’t use fats that are partially hydrogenated because of the trans fats, and I wouldn’t use any product with palm oil in it (probably not even if it’s certified sourced sustainably, because that helps fuel demand for the destructive stuff, too). So, even if Crisco was available, I wouldn’t use it, and every Kiwi I know who I’ve mentioned Kremelta to turns their nose up at it, literally: I’ve often seen Kiwis make a disgusted face and rear their head back and their noses up at the mere mention of the name.

So, from the very beginning, I’ve had to use a substitute. And that created its own set of challenges.

In New Zealand, neither butter nor margarine are sold in sticks like in America. Butter is most commonly sold in a 500g block (basically, one pound—this was one of the things that helped newly-arrived me feel the metric system, in this case, how much 500 grams was). Margarine is, as far as I can tell, only sold in tubs for the table; it’s definitely not sold in sticks.

So, more often than not, I’ve used butter in my baking recipes. Part of that is because I always thought that tub margarine had a lot of air in it and it wouldn’t measure properly (in fact, to me NZ’s tub margarine seems heavier and more dense than its American cousins). The other reason is that margarine also usually contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which means that butter—which in New Zealand must be 100% butter by law—is actually healthier than margarine. Unfortunately, at the moment butter it’s also at record retail prices in New Zealand.

Health issues, product suitability, and exorbitant retail prices aside, there’s one other issue with the differences between the way butter is sold in the USA and in New Zealand: Markings.

US sticks are marked with tablespoon measures, and very often recipes reflect those measures. New Zealand’s 500g blocks are marked with 50g measures, and our recipes usually call for butter by its weight. This means that I often have conversions to calculate: Tablespoons to weight in grams, or whatever the other measure (like cups or portions of cups) is in grams. Google helps with that, as does my kitchen scale.

All of this matters because while cooking is artistry, and some variation in ingredients is fine (and maybe even brilliant), baking is chemistry, and substituting ingredients can cause very unexpected results. I’ve learned by trial and many errors that using slightly less butter than the margarine or “shortening” the US recipe calls for usually works best—but, then, I have to watch the baking time carefully, too.

This is the sort of thing that used to really frustrate me when I first moved to New Zealand, especially because that was before the days I could pick up my phone or tablet in the kitchen to Google the appropriate substitute or to have the Internet find the measurement conversions for me. In the old days, I had to consult cookbooks and then use math—always a risky proposition for me.

I’ve been in New Zealand so long now that I never think about the unavailability of butter or margarine in sticks—I take New Zealand packaging for granted and forget that I used do the same for American packaging. However, even after all these years, I still need to make conversions to use old family recipes (or merely American ones).

And that’s another reality of an expat’s life. A simple email reminded me of all of that.

Photo of the stick of butter up top is in the Public Domain [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Arthur Answers 2017, Part One: The NZ Example

It’s time to begin answering the questions in this year’s Ask Arthur series. As always, some of this year’s questions are more involved than others, and some are less so. While I usually answer questions in the order I received them, I also often group related questions into one post. Today, it’s the first question, and it’s a good'un.

Kicking off the festivities this year, as she did last year, is my real-life friend Sherry who asked:

America feels like it is so messed up. Do you feel like New Zealand is a far better example of the way a country should be? Would you ever move back to America?

This is a really good question, and so much better than a question I’m sometimes asked: Which country is “better”. That question is unanswerable because, first, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” country, and because perceptions of relative “good” and “bad” are mainly subjective. But whether New Zealand is a better example? THAT I can answer!

The short answer is, yes, absolutely, I do think that New Zealand is a far better example of the way a country should be. There are two main reasons for that: Political structure and societal structure.

First, the structure of New Zealand’s political system—not the politics or the political games, but the underlying system—is far more fair and democratic than what the USA has. Because we have a proportional system of representation, it is far more likely that the Parliament (our national legislature) we elect will mirror the will of the people FAR more than the USA’s system can do. But the structure of our government works better, too. Back in 2014, I talked about those differences in governmental and political structures of the USA and New Zealand [see: “Lessons from two countries”].

One thing both countries could benefit from is the adoption of some sort of instant run-off voting method for electing people to represent specific areas (US Congressional Districts or NZ Electorates). There’s a lot of reasons for that, but chief among them is that it would reduce the “spoiler effect” that small parties and independent candidates create, and would make it more likely that a true majority of voters support the person who is eventually elected. However, that wouldn’t change the make-up of the NZ Parliament, though it would change the make-up of the US Congress, the House in particular.

New Zealand’s election district boundaries are drawn by a non-partisan, independent panel, so we don’t suffer from gerrymandering as the USA does. If there was only one lesson that the USA could take from New Zealand, one that could be adopted without major changes, this would be it, and the difference it would make would be enormous. [Related: “The American problem”, a post on reforming the USA’s election system].

The other advantage New Zealand has is its societal structure.

Both New Zealand and the USA are largely dominated by people of European descent, but the similarities start to fizzle out from there. New Zealand, because of its origins, is an expressly bi-cultural nation (European descent and Māori). Both English and Te Reo Māori are official languages (as is NZ Sign Language), and while I can’t imagine the USA ever having two official languages, it’s worth noting that the USA actually has NO official language, despite what many people think.

New Zealand has it’s own problems with multiculturalism and what it means, but—in general—they tend to be less overtly hostile to other cultures than is often the case in the USA. I think the main reason for that is the partnership between the Crown (basically, government, representing us all) and Māori people. We’re accustomed to being bi-cultural, so being tolerant of other cultures is somewhat easier, though we have our own xenophobes and racists, of course (human nature, probably). But because this has happened because of the country’s unique origin, especially the partnership between European settlers and the indigenous people, I don’t think the USA can learn anything except that peaceful coexistence is possible, and E Pluribus Unum is actually achievable; the USA’s path will be different, though.

New Zealand is also a firmly secular nation, even though a majority still claim to be followers of a religion (mostly some flavour of Christianity, not surprisingly). What this means in practice is that NZ just doesn’t have the religious divisiveness that the USA has, and THAT means we can talk about issues as issues, rather than as extensions of religious dogma (marriage equality and abortion are two examples of that). We have religious extremists of all stripes, of course, and extremist Christians try to dictate public policy in NZ, too, but the difference is that, unlike the USA, they never succeed, and we have none in Parliament because their percentage of the population is so tiny.

An interesting side effect of New Zealand’s secular nature is that the presence—or absence—of religion is NOT a big a deal here. Three of our public holidays—and the three full days it’s illegal for most businesses to trade—were originally religious: Christmas Day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. These days, most Kiwis think of those as public holidays, not religious ones in even the remotest sense. However, we’re not bothered by those who view them as religious. There are public Christmas Carol sing-a-longs in many cities’ public parks, and they can include religious carols (because, after all, many of the best ones are religious!). Similarly, it’s impossible that NZ would erupt in outrage over what cup Starbucks uses in December or whether a shop’s workers say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” (though most say the first, in my experience).

What the USA can learn is that religion isn’t the problem, it’s people deciding to be dicks about their religion. New Zealand shows that religious and non-religious people can live peacefully side-by-side—as long as the religious folks don’t try to impose their beliefs on everyone else. The religious extremists in the USA won’t easily give up their power, but if mainstream Americans can push them aside, it would be possible for the USA to be more like New Zealand.

Beyond all that, New Zealand is a far more relaxed culture than the USA is: We don’t hyperventilate about some supposed outrage in the news (unless it has to do with rugby…), we’re not paranoid about other people or our government, and, in general, we’re pretty laid back. Basically, what the USA can learn from that is simple: Chill out!! Honestly, there’s not nearly as much wrong with the world as many Americans seem to think there is. Kiwis know that, Americans can learn it.

So, peaceful, laid back, more democratic and tolerant, New Zealand has a lot to teach the USA.

The final part of the question, “Would you ever move back to America?”, is the single most-asked question I’ve had over the past 22 years. My specific answer has varied a lot over those years, but it boils down to, “Who knows?!” Certainly after two decades living in New Zealand, and with the way the USA is right now, it’s highly improbable that I’d ever move back. On the other hand, the huge obstacle preventing that—the fact that Nigel couldn’t come with me until marriage equality arrived in the USA—has, for now, been removed. That means that a move back is at least theoretically possible.

So, while a move back to the USA is highly improbable, it’s at least possible, something that wasn’t true for most of the years I’ve lived here. Based on all that, my current answer is “probably not, but never say ‘never’.”

Thanks to Sherry for the question!

It’s not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-17”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, ”Ask Arthur”.


Let the 2017 asking begin The first post in this series

Promoting that Civil Defence App

Late last month, NZ Civil Defence conducted the first test of its Mobile Alert System. About the same time, they started running the above ad on television, and it’s been running ever since. As such ads go, it does a good enough job of eplaining what it’s all about and what they want people to do. But there are still a large number of mobile phones that can’t receive the alerts.

Ever since the ad started running, I’ve been checking NZ Civil Defence’s YouTube Channel hoping they’d post the ad because I prefer them to embedding Facebook videos. But, that hasn’t happened, and seeing the ad on TV tonight reminded me I wanted to share it here. So, the Facebook Video it is. And I was reminded of that when I looked at Facebook early this evening and the ad was in my news feed.

Cross that one off the list.

Auckland plans for climate change

This video from Auckland Council talks about some of the impacts of climate change, depending on what arc it takes. The prospects are fairly grim for Auckland, which is a city built on an isthmus between two big harbours, with other harbours on its borders. There are plenty of risks that could become major threats.

While I’d heard about these threats before, I was struck by one thing that stood out for an unusual reason. The video presenter said that Central Auckland currently has about 20 days a year in which the temperature is above 25 degrees, which she calls “hot days”. The reason that struck me was because 25 degrees is 77 degrees F—not what my Illinois born and raised self considers “hot” (it’s just beginning to move out of what I’d consider “pleasant”).

But there are two things about that. First, 25 degrees in Auckland feels warmer than the same air temperature does in Illinois because the sun is so very much more intense here than there. The sun can feel positively searing, even at that temperature—hot, in other words.

Second, they’re saying the “hot days” will increase by 20, 30, or 65 extra hot days per year (depending on the scenario) by the end of the century. That’s a LOT of extra heat, and because that would mean warmer ocean temperatures, it would also mean more severe storms.

The higher temperatures will also increase the risk of tropical diseases, like Ross River Virus, Dengue Fever, and other mosquito-borne diseases that we don’t see in New Zealand at the moment. Add to that the fact that a warmer climate could make Auckland, and the waters around it, more hospitable to wildlife that currently finds the climate too cool, and we could be in for a lot of threats beyond heat, droughts, and severe storms.

This is why preparedness is so important. It’s far better—and cheaper—to plan (and even begin) the infrastructure and other changes now, before we need them, than to try and do it all in a hurry to deal with increasingly frequent disasters. Auckland Council knows this, and is working hard to ameliorate the likely threats to the region. This video shows some of that work.

I saw this video yesterday when I happened to look at the notifications on YouTube (it gives me notices of new videos posted to Channels I subscribe to). This video was actually posted last week, but I was still in Australia at the time and missed it. That’s not something I’ve ever had the chance to say before. But I’m glad I still got the chance to see the video when so few have, because I like seeing that my city is taking the threats seriously.

Leaving and arriving

There are two things every international traveller rediscovers every time they begin a trip: First, travelling is awful. Second, the main reason for that is the inhuman way people are treated for “security” and border control purposes. It’s enough to make anyone want to swear off ever travelling again—even to “friendly” destinations.

Because all travel begins and ends at countries’ borders, that seems like a good place to begin these travel recaps. For me, the experience of dealing with various officials was truly awful most of the time and it made me feel that international travel was just too much trouble to bother with.

The first experience was with check in, a system that’s now totally “automated”—a misnomer that actually means airlines have fired real people and installed machines to make passengers do for themselves what human beings were once paid to do. This didn’t exist when we last went to Australia eleven years ago, and back then we got actual stamps in our passports.

Now, we stuck our passports into a special reader, and it called up our flight information. Once we figured out how to use the machine, it worked well enough—but we had to figure it out first, and the presence of roving employees helping similarly confused passengers showed this is not unusual—nor an “automated” process. At all.

We also had to print our own baggage tags and figure out how to attach them to our suitcases, before going to another machine to print our boarding passes. We couldn’t get that machine working right, and needed help.

Next, we had to place our bags on the conveyer, and we saw one with a human being standing next to it. Sick of hassles, we went to that one.

Ah, but the hassles weren’t done yet: Security was next. Now, most of what we’re compelled to do at airports is what critics call “Security Theater”, or showy stuff that does absolutely nothing to make a flight safer, but, because it’s showy stuff, supposedly makes passengers feel “safer”. While I doubt it actually makes anyone in the real world feel safer, it certainly stresses them out and annoys them—on top of the stress and annoyances they’ve already experienced to get that point, and what they’ll experience on the flight.

The drill is well known: Place all electronic devices in a tray, along with a one litre plastic bag with liquids, gells, etc. (only of a certain size, of course!). We’d packed our toothpaste and other toiletries in our checked bags specifically so we didn’t have to deal with that nonsense. But I did have a small spay bottle of medicine in the event I ever get angina (I never have). I didn’t put it in a bag—it was the only liquid I was carrying.

We went through the metal detector. Nigel had no problems. I did. My jacket had a lot of extra zips, and I had to walk through again and then be hand scanned. My stress levels were even higher by then.

Next, border control. We have to place our passports in this machine thing again, and if successful, one continues on. Nigel had no problem. I got something about please see an agent. So, I went over there and the lady let me pass. I found our later that my sin was that I was looking down at the screen for instructions when I was supposed to be looking up so the computer could scan my face and compare the biometric data with what was stored in my passport. I never saw anything telling me to look up—no signs, nothing on the screen I was actually looking at, nothing.

We were finally through, and eventually boarded the plane. We found three seats on each side, plus three in the middle, two narrow aisles up each side of the plane. Nigel and I were a window and middle seat, and we immediately raised the armrest between us for more seat room. Air New Zealand planes are reputed to have among the most room for passengers flying “economy” (i.e. cattle) class. I’m sure that’s true: If every passenger was a ten year old child. We were squished into narrow seats, and there was nowhere near enough room for me to extend my legs even a little. I guess I should be grateful it was only a 3+ hour flight (I should add, the staff on the plane were all friendly and attentive, as always, though Nigel hated the “scrambled eggs” he was served).

So: After the stress of checking in, the stress of mostly theatrical security screening, the stress of border control, and the stress of being packed in like sardines, we were off. And I had a new-found understanding of why there is this thing called “air rage” on the rise.

Australia. We arrived to all sorts of signs warning us not use phones or take photos, picked up our bags and headed to boarder control. New Zealanders and Australians (among some others) can use the “ePassport” aisles, similar to the ones we met leaving New Zealand: Put the passport in, it opens some gates, stand on the yellow printed footprints, look at the camera, the second set of gates open, and you’re admitted to Australia (kind of). This worked well for me—not Nigel this time (he had trouble with the first gate).

Next, another snaking line to the agent who collects the arrivals form. They check it over and can direct people for a search, or agents standing around can do the same (that happened to me two decades ago when I arrived in Australia for the very first time; it was an awful experience). We both got through and were finally in Australia for real.

The next flight a few days later was to Gladstone, further north in Queensland, so it was a domestic one. It was similar to when we left New Zealand: Electronic “self check-in”, as they like to call it so we won’t think about the people who lost their jobs. We did better with these. We then put our checked bags on the unattended conveyer, and that worked okay, except that my tag was twisted and the computer scanner couldn’t read it, and I had to straighten it out for the computer.

Security consisted of the usual, plus a metal detector. My jacket was in my carry-on (I learned form experience!), so I had no problems. However, we had to give our carry-on bags to someone on the tarmac who stowed them in the hold for the flight.

The plane, a small propeller plane called a Dash 8, was tight, but seats were two across on each side of a narrow aisle, so it wasn’t as bad, in some ways, as the jet. The Qantas flight crew seemed tired and disinterested, and one even a bit grumpy. Fortunately, the flight was only about an hour.

The flight back to Brisbane, also on a Dash 8, was sort of old fashioned: A human checked us in and checked in our bags (Gladstone is a very small—and quite nice—regional airport). Security was the same, though I was stopped for “explosives screening”: They take a wand-like thing and run it over parts of your clothes, then your carry-on bag (which you open for them), and they stick it into a machine that supposedly senses explosives residue. We took our carry on bags on the plane with us this time, and the flight crew was friendly and nice.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Trolls damage the Internet

Trolls are everywhere on the Internet. They ruin otherwise good conversations, they attack, demean, or even threaten people, and they upset people for fun. There seems to be no good way to stop trolling behaviour and that fact is damaging the entire Internet.

We all run into trolls at some point or other, people who “post an off-topic or inflammatory comment to disrupt an online conversation”, as defined (well defined, I think) in a video from SciShow that I shared the middle of last year. Most of the time most of us back out of interaction when a troll shows up, but I know that I (and others I know) avoid making any comment in the first place simply to avoid being trolled. This makes perfectly logical sense: No matter how strong we may be most of the time, a troll can bring down any of us, at least sometimes. Sometimes self-defence is the best offence.

Two times recently I encountered a troll. The first was engaging in trolling behaviour without being, as far as I could tell, an actual troll. The second was sort of a classic troll: Someone who set up an entire fake identity in order to engage in disruption of inline conversation.

I encountered the first troll last month in the midst of a spirited political discussion I was having with a staunch conservative I’ve sparred with many times. He’s a friend of a friend, not someone I know personally, but no matter how strident our rhetoric (which is part of the game we play), we don’t take it personally nor do we attack each other personally. Their are rules of engagement, even in heated battle over strongly held views.

Then suddenly a different staunch conservative jumped into the discussion and posted the meme at right (heh!). I don’t know the guy (again, a friend of a friend), and as far as I know he’s never said anything racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., but from what I’ve seen in other comments, it’s fair to say that unlike me and the guy I was “discussing” politics with, I probably have no common ground with the intruder. Fair enough, it’s neither possible nor desirable to agree with everyone all the time. But that meme? It’s a dickish thing to post that meme and an example of trolling behaviour by someone who may not actually be a troll ordinarily.

This should be obvious, but the fact that we disagree with a person does not, without some evidence aside from the disagreement, make our adversary evil. Yet the intruder, who agreed with the guy I was sparring with, dismissed everything I said—and me personally—by posting an offensive meme to attack me and all people on the left of centre as people—not our ideas, views, opinions, etc. That’s what a troll does. Sure, the guy may have been a dickhead rather than an actual troll, but does the distinction actually matter? I don’t think so. I immediately deleted all my comments, and deleting the first one deleted almost the entire comment thread. This is a tactic I first hit on last year, and it served me well in the 2016 US Presidential election campaign.

The second troll did say offensive racist things, though borrowed from a well-known elderly New Zealand ex-politician and current professional far-right whinger. For a lot of reasons, it was obvious to me his Facebook profile was phoney, but what made him so obvious as a troll was that he’d used his online accounts to attack both Labour Party supporters AND National Party supporters. It looked to me like he was the type who gets their jollies out of upsetting people, and he didn’t really care who or about what. The funniest thing, I thought, was that he started attacking me for having a cat (Bella is with me in my current Facebook profile photo), attacking cats in general, and when that got no rise from me, he tried calling me a hypocritical Labour supporter because I had a cat (at least, I think that’s what he was trying to say—by then his spelling and grammar had dramatically deteriorated, probably because a friend and I started sharing how we knew his profile was phoney). This was in a discussion about protecting endangered native trees, so having a cat or not was clearly not relevant, demonstrating it was trolling rather than any attempt to engage on the actual issue. Again, I deleted all my comments in the thread, then went one step further: I blocked him on all social media. Trolls may be merely pathetic most of the time, but some are also dangerous; I have no idea which he was.

From these two very different experiences I learned that anyone is capable of engaging in trolling behaviour, though most of us never will, of course. The second thing I learned is that a normal well-adjusted person cannot begin to understand a genuine troll, or why they troll. We keep looking for what they have to gain when, in fact, there’s nothing. The third thing I learned is that ignoring trolls/trolling behaviour ends up destroying online interaction and conversation. There has to be another way, but I sure don’t know what it is.

Real trolls deserve our contempt, and blocking them is a sensible thing to do. In fact, when I see obvious trolls in the comments of news or political pages I follow on Facebook, I sometimes pre-emptively block them so that I don’t see their male-bovine-excrement when I visit the page. But what if someone is just having a really bad day and saying really stupid things, when on other days they’re perfectly okay?

I have no solutions, so I block sparingly, and always with cause. But neither do I engage with trolls most of the time, and far too often that extends to not participating in comments in the first place. Trolls are damaging the entire Internet, and maybe that’s what they want most.

Until we have a way to end trolling behaviour, we all have to come up with our own strategies—what works for us. Being on the Internet makes this a necessity: Trolls are everywhere on the Internet.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Congratulations, Australia!

Yesterday, the Australian House of Representatives voted to legalise marriage equality. Only four MPs voted against the measure, which passed without amendment. Some prominent opponents didn’t vote either way. The Australian Senate passed the measure last week.

Today Australia’s Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, gave Royal Assent to the bill, and it is now law. The first same-gender weddings can be held on January 9.

Congratulations, Australia!

The graphic above is from the Facebook Page of Australian Marriage Equality.

John Anderson

John Anderson in 1980.
The 1980 independent US Presidential candidate John B. Anderson died earlier this week, and it brought up a lot of misunderstanding and misremembering. John Anderson did not help elect Ronald Reagan, nor did he defeat President Jimmy Carter. Those two did all that on their own. But he did give them a good run.

John Anderson didn't give the presidency to Reagan, for many reasons. If one looks at the breadth of Reagan’s victory, Anderson being absent would not have changed the results. Even if one looks at the states where Anderson did the best, his margin wasn’t enough to hand victory to Carter, nor did the few closer states matter in the end: Reagan had too much of a lead. My friend Roger Green has laid out that case clearly.

Immediately after the election, it was widely reported that polling indicated that had Anderson not been in the race, his voters would have broken more or less the way the general public did, meaning Reagan would have won the majority of those votes, too. So, in nearly every state it wasn’t a case of simply handing Anderson’s votes to Carter: Had Anderson not been in the race, the result wouldn’t have been any different.

The main reason for this is the USA’s idiotic Electoral College system for electing presidents means that in most US states whoever wins a mere plurality of the popular vote—just one vote more than the next highest vote getter—gets all a state's Electoral College votes. Because of that, the winner of a presidential election WILL be the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate without exception, and the only two questions are, what winning margin of Electoral College Votes will they achieve? Also, will they win the totally irrelevant nationwide popular vote? Of the two, only the first question actually matters. That’s because a candidate merely needs to win just enough popular votes in just enough of the right states to win 270 Electoral College votes. Under the US system, it’s theoretically possible for a candidate to win a tiny percentage of the nationwide popular vote and still become president because they got one more vote than any other candidate in enough states to get to 270.

And all of that means that there was actually no way John Anderson could ever have won the presidency, and votes for him were not “spoiler” votes helping Reagan, they were—electorally speaking—wasted votes, meaning they achieved nothing. All First Past The Post election systems have the potential for a VERY high percentage of wasted votes, and the USA’s presidential election system is particularly bad for that.

I voted for Anderson in the 1980 general election. When he didn’t win, I took comfort in the fact that he didn’t help elect Reagan, and that even if all of Anderson’s votes had gone to Carter, the president would still have lost. I stuck to that position for years—until I began to regret my vote for Anderson, something I mentioned only in passing in a post back in 2012.

I eventually came to regret—somewhat—not voting for Carter, even though I know that my vote didn't help Reagan. It's because the idiotic Electoral College system disenfranchises all voters who vote for an independent or third party candidate, so voting for one is too big a risk to take. That will be the case until the Electoral College is abolished or the electoral system is changed (neither will happen, by the way). Since 1980, I’ve voted for the Democratic candidate for president most of the time, but also against the Republican a few times. Each election I’ve marked the ballot for the Democrat, and never again voted for an independent or third party candidate because after battling the Reagan regime and the extremism he unleashed, I realised that doing anything other than voting for the Democrat was simply too big a risk to take.

However, I haven’t made a total repudiation of my earlier support and vote, which is why I said I “somewhat” came to regret not voting for Carter. The fact is, I quite liked Anderson’s no-nonsense positions. At the time, I was a Liberal Republican, like Anderson, and I was also socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I perceived Carter as inept, and Reagan as a dangerous extremist. For most of the general election campaign, I thought Anderson would knock out Reagan because of Reagan’s harsh conservatism and often extremist views. I was wrong. I also vastly underestimated how utterly loathed Carter was, a factor that helped Reagan. Anderson calling for a 50 cent per gallon gasoline tax to help fund energy independence, while bold and maybe even visionary, helped kill off his campaign in the eyes of the general electorate.

So, when I backed Anderson it was out of principle, and born of conviction. This is a sentiment that a former colleague of mine shared in a Letter to the Editor published recently in the Chicago Tribune. Like Tim, a friend and I were also at the 1980 Republican Presidential Forum that was held in Rosemont, Illinois, but I don’t remember it with the detail that Tim does.

What I remember most about that event was Phyllis Schlafly, because, as I wrote back in 2011:
She flowed into the room where the forum was being held like royalty, entourage in tow, and wearing June Cleaver-type housedress and a huge red stop sign-shaped badge demanding “Stop ERA!” in type larger than any eye chart I’ve seen. She put on her best fake smile and handed out her propaganda to attendees who, like me, were early. I don’t remember her staying to actually watch the forum.
The other thing I remember, apart from Phyllis, and the fact that Reagan, who hadn’t yet announced his candidacy, didn’t turn up (his absence was somewhat controversial for and against), was that we visited some hospitality suites. Bush the First and his wife Barbara were really nice, John Connolly was smarmy, and John Anderson ate a sandwich. It was a little surreal to be in the room with a presidential candidate who was sitting on a sofa having something to eat, while we stood around a little awkwardly, I thought.

So, I technically regret voting for John Anderson, because voting for an independent or third party candidate is too much of a risk. Even so, I would never tell anyone else what they should do, but that’s me. The fact is, I completely understand why someone would vote for a third party/independent candidate on principle, because I did it.

In the end, John Anderson didn’t actually change anything. The system now is as bad as it was then—worse in many, many ways—but that’s not his fault. Neither is it his fault that Reagan won or that Carter lost. And that means that it’s not the fault of those of us who voted for him in 1980. However, because he ran as an independent, we’re talking about him now, and I doubt very much that would have happened had he not run as an independent. I guess that’s something.

Photo above by Leffler, Warren K., photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Secret and unexpected trip

Yesterday night, we got back from an eight-day trip to Australia. It wasn’t supposed to be an eight-day trip, but, as the crew and passengers of the S.S. Minnow found out, sometimes trips take unexpected twists.

We went to Australia to celebrate my sister-in-law’s birthday, and, as the Instagram caption above says, it was a major surprise. She knew that one sister and their mother was coming, but she was oblivious that the rest of us were, too (there were actually 16 of us on that flight, not 17). So, all her brothers and sisters were there, along with their partners.

We’d actually arrived in Brisbane on Tuesday, November 28, spent a couple days in there, then flew up to Gladstone, further north in Queensland, on Friday for the party the next day. We were due to fly home the following Tuesday, December 5. Things didn’t work out that way.

Sunday night, some family members became sick with what we worked out was norovirus, a highly contagious virus that’s the leading cause of gastroenteritis—basically a very nasty bug. More fell ill on Monday, with the final family member becoming sick on Monday night. Nigel became sick on Monday, and was quite sick at the height of it. By the time he saw a doctor on Tuesday, he was starting to improve, and that continued when he started drinking the electrolyte solution the doctor recommended. In fact, he recovered faster than other family members who didn’t use the solution.

I didn’t become sick, nor did Nigel’s Mum or several other people. The most likely reason for that is that it was the same strain of the virus that I was infected with at Christmas 2015. Generally speaking, one is protected from reinfection by the same strain for around 4 to 8 years, though that doesn’t provide full protection from infection of different strains of the virus, though it is possible.

In any case, this meant we couldn’t fly home on Tuesday, and are now in the midst of making a claim on our travel insurance—the first time we’ve ever had to do that. Someone with norovirus isn’t supposed to fly for 48 hours after the end of symptoms, and for Nigel that was on Tuesday, meaning we were good to go by yesterday. Meanwhile, although I seemed to have escaped the plague, I had to wait, too, to make sure I was symptom free (as well as look after Nigel, of course), so I couldn’t fly home on my own.

We arrived home last night and drove to pick up the dogs from Nigel’s cousin, who’d been looking after them, first at our house, then at hers after our return was delayed. We could have waited until today to get them, sure, but after 8 days away from them we didn’t want to. And they were very happy we didn’t.

So, what was supposed to be a six-day holiday and a family party ended up being an eight-day trip, at least some of which was very, very unpleasant. Fortunately, there was more than enough good and fun stuff to make up for the bad part, and I’ll be publishing separate posts about the trip so I can talk about it without creating one massive post.

All of this is also why I haven’t been blogging the past few days. I’d set up posts to automatically publish from Tuesday right through Friday—and I felt very Roger Green-like doing that. They were all set to publish at different times so that my sister-in-law wouldn’t be suspicious, because I know she reads my blog sometimes and I was worried that either a sudden silence or publishing at set times might tip her off).

I also planned to share the posts to the AmeriNZ Facebook Page, as I normally do, and for the same reason. That worked well—apart from one day I accidentally shared a post to my personal page. That mattered because I’d forgotten to switch off automatic location stamping for Facebook posts, and I was terrified it would come up as being posted from Brisbane (where we were at the time). I quickly deleted it, turned off automatic location stamping, then shared it correctly. She never noticed—whew.

However, creating new posts was very difficult, and I ended up only posting the one on Saturday. Oh, well. I shared a lot to Instagram, and many of those will end up here, too, in the days ahead so that I can comment on them.

However, none of this—nor even posts for this year’s Ask Arthur series—will help me reach my annual goal of 365 blog posts, something I’ve pretty much given up on. It’s not the lack of content, it’s that there just isn’t enough time left in the year. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I’m also in the midst of my final work project of the year, and the “extra holiday” cost me two full days, so I’ll be “a bit busy” until Monday. Still, I plan to post at least a little in the next few days; I may be behind schedule, but I still need a break now and then.

And that’s what I did on my holiday in Australia.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Mirry Christmus from Air NZ

The video above is from Air New Zealand, and, not for the first time, it’s going viral. I can see why: It’s pretty awesome.

The premise of the ad is that Santa, who prides himself on understanding kids from around the world, is befuddled by the Kiwi accent. It is so on-target that it’s almost a documentary. Not really, obviously, but it IS very accurate.

This technically isn’t an ad, but it does do some promotion of Air New Zealand, so I’m including it in this year’s Christmas ad series.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Welcome to summer

Today is December first, and that means today is the start of summer in this part of the world. When you stop to think about, any date chosen for the start of a season is arbitrary, and even when it’s an equinox or solstice, it's not necessarily any more accurate for seasonal changes than any other date we could choose—and equinoxes and solstices re often not very accurate.

In this part of the world we pick the first of whatever month the corresponding equinox or solstice occurs in. I’m sure there are logical reasons for why this is so, but I have no idea what they are. And, being the start of summer, I’m far too busy to look it up. That’s really true, actually, as I begin my last work project of the year.

And then I can really enjoy the summer—however old it may be by then.