August 30, 2010

Measuring up to metric and imperial systems.

No really, metric is interesting. Returning to America has reminded me of the absurdities of imperial measures in everyday life, but also that metric enthusiasts overstate the benefits of metric. Although Thomas Jefferson proposed a decimal system for America in the 1790s, I don't doubt that if further metrication was proposed now it would be condemned as a foreign invention, and contrary to American tradition.

When I first moved to America I was irritated by silly imperial measurements, but more outraged by silly international students who, though intelligent enough to be studying abroad, could not comprehend alternative measurement systems. Being a sometime contrarian I found more virtues in the imperial measures than I first suspected.

Not the least of these virtues is that there are fewer miles in a marathon than there are kilometres. Of course at the same speed the miles take longer to pass. But mentally I find a marathon would be best measured in miles to 20 miles/10km to go, and then in kilometres. After 20mi/32km time is appearing to pass so slowly in most marathons that the achievement of an extra 0.6mi/1km is good to know about.

Other virtues can be found in the temperature scales. When you get below freezing it's nice to still be referring to positive numbers. This saves words, you don't have to say "negative eight," you say twenty. It also allows you to push back the point of being expletively-cold to below zero in fahrenheit, which is about right.

The point is that when you're only thinking about one measure it doesn't matter whether that is metric or imperial. So long as you know the practical implications of the distance or the temperature it doesn't actually matter what scale it is measured on.

Instead, the absurdities of the imperial system are when you have to convert between scales, and when you are relating two measures to each other. Lets take the first of these issues. Ounces and pounds are common measures of weight, and there are 16 ounces in a pound. OK so far, though base 16 is not the most intuitive (base 12 makes more sense than many realize). The problem comes in the store, where some items are weighed in decimal amounts of pounds rather than whole ounces. The conversion isn't obvious between scales when you have some cheese measured at 0.593 pounds and you recipe called for 10 ounces.

It's worse for volume and liquid, there are multiple measures -- fluid ounces, cups, pints, quarts and gallons. Quite why it is sensible to have 10 fluid ounces in a cup, 20 in a pint, and then (then!) switch to 2 pints in a quart and 4 quarts in a gallon. It's not intuitive at all.

The chances of changing this mess are small, since changing United States institutions is difficult at the best of times. Of course the costs of not-ideal measurement systems are small every time you use them, but add up over time and across society. They are probably worth the transition costs, but it will never happen.

Posted by eroberts at 3:04 PM

August 3, 2010

Excuse me!

One thing I didn't anticipate about moving back to America 10 days ago was that things I got used to in the 7 years I previously lived here could appear like new cultural experiences and misunderstandings.

To wit, I had completely forgotten how Minnesotans drive me insane by saying "excuse me". PLEASE STOP IT.

In New Zealand you do hear people say "excuse me" as a genuine polite acknowledgment of minor social faux pas (burping, reaching too far for the condiments at dinner, stepping into someone's way by accident). But when I heard "excuse me" in New Zealand it was reasonably frequently used by the wronged person—the person who only had to hear the burp, the person who saw another's arm come across their plate on the way to the mustard—as a sarcastic way of indicating that the uncouth person should have acknowledged their bad ways. I think (and I'm no linguist) that people in New Zealand say "sorry" more frequently as an expression of genuine contrition for these kinds of offences.

Soon after arriving back in Minnesota I was in the store, and waiting to turn the trolley/cart out of an aisle. Someone passed in front of me with the right of way (applying road T-junction rules to the supermarket) and said "Excuse me." This was ridiculous because they had the right of way, and I had stopped briefly waiting for them to pass. To say "excuse me" raised my hackles. I felt the rush of annoyance one feels when strangers are rude to you in public without cause. Why, I wondered, are they being so rude and suggesting that I should have apologized when they had the right of way and I was waiting. There have been several other sarcastic Minnesotans since then, saying "excuse me" and obviously prompting me to apologize for my behavior.

Reflecting on each situation, I think they were just trying to be polite. Indeed one of the reasons I think they are being sarcastic in saying "excuse me" is that, to my mind, there's nothing for them to apologize for in the first place! Thus my next instinct is they must be suggesting I did something wrong. So, it would be a lot easier for me if people in Minnesota could just stop saying "excuse me."

Posted by eroberts at 8:17 AM

April 8, 2010

There was no golden age of original content

Interesting discussion at Crooked Timber about how much original reporting there is on the internet. Not much. Or maybe a lot. All depends what your prior expectations are, I suppose. There is certainly a lot of recycling of content, and probably there always was.

Now that we are lucky enough as historians to have access to lots of digitized text we can see the scale of this problem historical question more easily. A decade ago or more when I first got my hands dirty in original research, I used to think there might have been some golden age in the nineteenth century where newspapers and magazines had a high proportion of original content.

Why the nineteenth century? I suspect that publications with lots of original content are going to come in highly literate societies with printing presses, but despite that relatively limited communication to the outside world. Now, this does describe some significant parts of the world in the nineteenth century, Australia and New Zealand, parts of the American Midwest and West, and South America; the "regions of recent settlement" to quote an imprecise but known scholarly phrase.

But once you get cheaper transport, and then the telegraph, I suspect that the books and magazines of these regions are going to start reprinting material from elsewhere. And why not? The locals (recent in-migrants) wanted to know what was happening elsewhere, where they'd come from, where their friends and relatives had gone, and where they might move too. Indeed you have whole sections in nineteenth century newspapers labeled "News on the latest ship" or "News from the wires" (or something like that).

Not only that but the nineteenth century is full of books that are nothing but reprints of extracts from newspapers and magazines.

The other thing the digitization of magazines and newspapers has shown me is that it wasn't only news that was reprinted and not original (tho' it might have appeared original), it was, of course, also opinion pieces. The obvious successor to the political pamphlet was the newspaper column. Small town and city newspapers were particularly rife with this kind of reprinted stuff.

In short, reporters have long been rewriting someone else's copy and passing it off as new. I'd start with the hypothesis that this is an historical constant and not a decline in modern standards.

Posted by eroberts at 8:56 PM

March 8, 2010

I want to give you money!

In Wellington there is a fabulous non-profit bird sanctuary in the valley of an old reservoir. If used to be called the Karori Sanctuary, and now to try and attract more visitors (for whom Karori means nothing) it has renamed itself Zealandia. Like a lot of non-profits it subsists on a mix of government grants, operating income, memberships and donations.

I'm a member. For $66 (for a couple) you get unlimited entry for a year. I probably run in there once a month on average, which works out to $5 a run and the good feeling of supporting a good cause. The other day I had to find the email address of the membership admin person. This was hard enough, go to the Zealandia website, and there's only one contact address (info@zealandia). None of the other standard categories of administrative emails you might find in an organization.

What about membership? It's totally not obvious from the website that you can actually join Zealandia and support it that way. If you look under visiting it does say there is a member price, but that's about the only indication of membership. Perhaps membership is a small enough category of Zealandia's income that they don't want to appear to be asking for money on the front page of their website. But that's a bit strange. If you're an independent non-profit you have to get the money in from all sources. You can't be shy. Go to the home page of any United States non-profit and it's pretty obvious how to join up and support the organization. The non-profit sector is not nearly as developed in New Zealand as in the United States, and it shows in the softly-softly approach to fundraising many of them take.

Posted by eroberts at 7:30 PM

December 30, 2009

Technological fixes for terror

The response to the Northwest 253 attempted terrorist attack has been interesting. As after 9/11 and the Richard Reid shoe bombing attempts, one of the distinctively American response has been the reach for the technological response.

A common lament has been that if only there had been a body scanner or an explosive puffer, then Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would not have gotten his flammable underpants onboard. Another lament, one I am more sympathetic to, is that if the data matching was better the existing screening system would have worked. After all, his name was in the big watchlist database, and then Abdulmutallab purchased a one way ticket with cash and showed up without any luggage. But again the lament is that technology will save us. Data matching is just another fallible technology. The fact that this suspect's names matched in some databases alerts us to one aspect of this case that could have been handled better with technology. But the next terrorist might have different names in different databases and elude easy matching. Americans seem to like technological fixes to their problems. In New Zealand the more common response to problems is that the government should do something, pass a law or establish an agency.

The response has also been interesting in that the technology and organization of suspicion that is encapsulated in screening airline passengers is pretty widely accepted by Americans. But the same logic that makes it OK to screen airline passengers also makes it OK to stop drivers to check for drugs or alcohol, install red light or speed cameras, or impose restrictions on gun use. But few of these interventions which would also save lives are politically acceptable in the United States.

Posted by eroberts at 3:13 PM

August 5, 2009

Wankers in the Post Office and Fed Ex

When I read Paul Krugman's note about critiques of government services in America being a bit detached from reality I thought "sure, great point in theory, pity you illustrated it with the Post Office." Now, Krugman says "Maybe I'm living a sheltered life here in central New Jersey," and perhaps it's an metropolitan versus small-town thing, but the Post Office is not a good advertisement for the Federal Government providing customer service.

It has struck me that all of the Americans who have visited us in New Zealand this year have commented on how nice the staff are at the post office. One of the great things about Australasia is that small retail post offices are contracted out to book stores and newsagents, a class of the retailing industry where I think you tend to get decent service anyway (at least in my travels in the English-speaking world).

A few years back I recall the USPS proposed contracting out post offices to retailers, but stopped because it would give those firms an unfair advantage. Huh? If firms perceive there's an advantage in also providing postal services they could bid for the local rights to do it. Though it's quite possible that the rights might be worth less than the costs, and USPS would be paying them for it. Contracting out parts of the retail postal service might have improved the terrible location of many central city American post offices (not in central retail districts, not in malls; you have to drive them often). Probably rightly the USPS doesn't want to pay central city retail rents for space they are using for sorting and other operational needs. But there's no need that the selling stamps etc couldn't be done at more retail outlets.

It could hardly be worse than the experience at USPS. Many Americans probably aren't aware of this, but sending an international parcel is something you need to put on your calendar it takes so long. The absurdly duplicative customs declaration forms, the total confusion of the stupid staff about where some foreign countries are (you work in a post office, you should know these things!), it literally drives me to Fed Ex some of the time.

At Fed Ex, as Nate Silver points out, the experience isn't much better. The staff are not so much surly like at USPS as disinterested, young, and not very well-trained. The USPS staff more often give the impression of knowing the rules and processes, but not caring to use them in your service.

So I've had lots of banal, lousy customer service at the USPS. But my single best story comes from a 1am trip to FedEx Kinkos to get copies done for a work presentation. In the hour I spent trying to get the printer to print properly (the totally disinterested 1am clerk had no ability to fix anything, but thankfully didn't charge me for all the paper wasted in trying to get the right printing done), I shared the computer space with a morbidly obese man who was talking to himself and masturbating through his shorts while surfing cherryblossoms.com (warning: obviously NSFW unless you're in academia and this would be research into multimedia).

It would have completed the picture of the ugly side of American life if he had been eating McDonalds and there had been an armed robbery (1am - 2am, remember), but sadly that was the whole of the story.

The Post Office isn't open at 1am for people like this, so I suppose that makes FedEx just slightly better ...

Posted by eroberts at 8:57 PM

May 3, 2009

Just a brothel

Ain't New Zealand politics grand?! Just a brothel, running to worry about. I imagine this kind of incident would have caused more consternation in many U.S. states.

Posted by eroberts at 5:43 PM

January 20, 2009

Getting up early to watch the One Black

Situated all the way out here on the edge of the world there is a long tradition in New Zealand of getting up early to watch 15 men in black shirts chase a leather ball. So it didn't seem terribly different to get up early to watch one black man chase a leather bible across the Capitol steps.

It was a bit unclear for a while whether we'd actually see coverage of Obama's inaugration. For a few days we thought the only channel showing the event was the local feed of Al Jazeera (they also European sports events and German news shows), which we didn't receive, currently living in a neighborhood located inconveniently out of sight of the transmission tower. But then we got word that TV One, one of the main networks, would be starting their Breakfast show early to bring us coverage. This was a mixed blessing. While we receive TV One, the host of Breakfast is more than a little annoying.

The host is a former radio host who then stood for Parliament for the (conservative) National party, and lost to a transgender Labour party candidate in a fairly conservative rural district (I guess this shows that what passes as fairly conservative in New Zealand is a little different than in America, but that's by the by). By the standards of American network television, the host of Breakfast is unusually voluble about his political opinions. He hasn't been hiding his exasperation with the enthusiasm for Obama.

To a degree this exasperation reflects a real difference in political enthusiasm between New Zealand and the United States. People don't get excited or enraged by local politicians to quite the same extent. It would be like Americans getting really enthusiastic about their state house majority leader. Rarely happens. But the news in New Zealand would have done viewers here more of a service by at least trying to explain the enthusiasm, and respecting it, rather than dismissing it. The charm of the American transition between presidents is that the pageantry is over pretty quickly, but the pageantry and enthusiasm is done well.

In any event, the coverage was unexpectedly good. The best comedic moment came when they decided to skip coverage of the invocation, which was dismissed as "Someone is saying a prayer now" and that they would return to coverage of the event when something important happened. Of all the ways to not have to hear Rick Warren's awful accent this was a good one.

The other moment of comedy gold came when the Breakfast host introduced a former New Zealand ambassador to the United States who had been in the United States for 3 previous inaugurations. But as he often does the host struggled to get quite the right word and said the ambassador had "overseen" three previous inaugurations. The implication being that the Americans couldn't quite get it right without New Zealand oversight. Maybe, maybe. Now if only they could get them to schedule future inaugurations for more convenient New Zealand viewing ...

Posted by eroberts at 2:41 PM

January 7, 2009

Spoons: Watch it a couple of times

Like summertime TV everywhere the options on New Zealand TV in the summer are pretty bad. That probably explains how they acquired Spoons to broadcast at odd times like 10:20 on a Tuesday. Spoons is good foam roller and stretching time TV. Not so funny that you fall off the foam roller, yet not so dull that I stop roller-ing and stretching. This, of course, is why there was no second series of Spoons.

There is one overarching premise to the sketches on Spoons: people don't always tell their romantic partners everything they are thinking. The secondary premise of the sketches often seems to be misanthropy. Again, this is why there was not a second series. The great insight of the Hollywood romantic comedy in all its similarly repetitive glory is that a budding romance is a nice thing, but with many opportunities for humor. Spoons is bleak in its assessment of human nature. I enjoy black humor, but there's only so much of it I can take. It turns out 30 minutes in one sitting is a little much.

The best part of Spoons is the sketch that seems to end every show, where a man goes to his storage unit containing just a folding chair, calls his wife and says he'll be home late for some plausible reason (traffic, supermarket delays, urgent deadlines etc). The repetitive sketch works because it's explicit—the same character, the same empty storage unit, the same structure of the conversation with his wife—and also because of the element of the absurd. Are there really people who hire storage units to get away from their families? (any correspondence on this matter will be kept anonymous ...)

The rest of Spoons is too repetitive in the structure of the sketches, varying just the actors and the settings. It's funny to see one skit based on the idea that men won't come out with their partner's female friends because of what women [apparently] talk about without men present. It's not nearly as funny the 3rd time with more variation in the clothes the actors are wearing than the actual joke.

Yet the reason I've persisted with watching Spoons instead of the other 5 options is the refreshingly abrasive British humor. The abrasive humor is another way of saying misanthropy, but it is a humor you don't often see on American TV. It's a pity the writers and actors couldn't diversify the sketches in Spoons a little more, because the method would apply to other situations than dating. The promise of the series seems to have been lost in the over-application of a good idea.

Posted by eroberts at 6:00 PM

October 9, 2008

And in other news it snows there too

Turning to the Star Tribune to procrastinate get the latest on Norm Coleman's suitability for public office (see here) I learned that Minnesota has deer and cars ...

Posted by eroberts at 3:11 PM

August 10, 2008

Real winter!

After 8 midwestern winters the newspaper coverage of two days of heavy frost in Wellington has been funny.

Posted by eroberts at 6:26 PM

July 2, 2008

Divided by a common language

It turns out that composing a post in your head is not the same as publishing it ...

As people more famous than me have observed the English speaking countries are divided by a common language. It's a division at the margins, where the homonym (porn/pawn), the double entendre (you know!), and the slightly-out-of-context word provide mostly amusement, occasionally confusion, and twice a decade frustration and insults ... Swearing always gets your point across. I will not relate these stories here and now, but if you go for a run with me or buy me a drink I'll be happy to share.

I grew up, it seems, in one of the last cohorts of children to learn to spell properly (that's at least partly a joke), so I was well trained in the mostly British spelling used in New Zealand English. By the time I got to graduate school in America computerized spell checking meant that the transition was quite seamless. My assimilation to American spelling was assisted by watching other international students (only a couple, mind you) who seemed determined to inflict their British spelling on Americans because the British spelling was "correct." The insecurity of intelligent people refusing to use imperial measures and American spelling is not endearing.

Spell checkers catch your mistakes, but are not sensitive to context. Easily the worst copy-editing I've done was writing a paper in American English with quotes from both American and New Zealand sources, and then having to transform my own words back to Australian English while retaining the original spelling in the quotes. This was a paper that used the word "labor" and "labour" a lot, along with variations on organize.

S[t]even years of graduate school switched my natural default spelling to American English, only to see me returning to New Zealand to teach both American and New Zealand history. In both classes, but especially in the American history class, I say that the students can use either language for essays but they must be consistent. This is not a consistency I impose on myself in relatively informal writing where I write both "defence" and "defense" or "organize" and "organise" in the same paragraph, and don't care. It's just not worth the time to check it for informal writing.

I realized my default was American English a couple of months ago, when after 3 weeks in America I was grading/marking papers for my New Zealand history class as I flew home. Nearly finished the marking I realized that in 2 hours of grading I'd been "correcting" all the students' consistent New Zealand English for American spelling. Because one is correct, right? Before handing them back I disclaimed the need for students to care about that part of their marks.

As well as mixing the spelling on a regular basis I have found that 8 years between countries—including half the last year in each—has seriously reduced my perception of distinct native accents. I'll hear American accents in New Zealand, or New Zealand accents in America and it will take me quite some time to realize those people are foreign! I can still sort of hear the distinctive British and Australian accents, but even there my ear for it is fading.

The mystery of it is that others can't understand me and think I spell funny.

Posted by eroberts at 8:49 AM

May 27, 2008

Why I love public transport!

You can listen to other people's conversations, and they are quite interesting.

I don't catch the bus that often these days. Indeed, living on the Mairangi bus route in Wellington (Twin Cities residents familiar with the #2 will know what I mean) I go out of my way to avoid catching the bus. In a normal week this involves running to and from work, but I'm tapering for a Sunday marathon, so no double runs this week. This leaves me with the bus. The Mairangi is notoriously never on its schedule, and doesn't go frequently enough that you can just go out and wait in the expectation one will be along in 5 minutes. But today a bus came pretty quickly, and it was just full enough to contain interesting conversations by other people, but not so full you couldn't listen to them.

It's a very relaxing thing to do after your own work day. You can listen to people talking about where they had dinner for their father's birthday, what they are doing on the weekend, when their university assignments are due, etc ... Nothing scandalous, but that's the pleasure of it. Without knowing the rest of these people's lives you can imagine them to be much more interesting than they really are. It sure beats listening to the news or thinking ones own thoughts after a long day.

Posted by eroberts at 4:04 AM

May 13, 2008

Well-educated pigeons

Posted by eroberts at 11:40 PM

May 7, 2008

Hard men drink ginger beer

(full version, Dominion Post, Tuesday 6 May 2008, B1)

Posted by eroberts at 2:30 PM

May 4, 2008

Show and tell

Scenes from recent travels. Remember a picture is worth a thousand words :)

Seen at Auckland Airport, international terminal

Is there a better phrase than double entendre for this? Double entendre implies the speaker/writer is knowingly aware of the double meaning of their words. I am guessing that the American producers of this cereal don't know that that Cafe Fanny is even more hilarious to British-influenced speakers of English. Even in American English it's funny to think of eating your "Cafe Butt" granola. Surely Alice Waters knows these things!

Posted by eroberts at 6:24 PM

March 8, 2008

This week's sign of the apocalypse

Athletics NZ has a quote from Newt Gingrich on their homepage. Newt Gingrich, well-known American athlete ... oh, wait!

Posted by eroberts at 8:59 PM

March 4, 2008

An update on the New Zealanders with Disabilities Act

Two years ago I reported how we'd seen a man in a wheelchair being loaded onto a plane in a forklift, and this spectacle was publicly announced as the reason for the delay with the flight. It's a good story, though "good" does not mean reflecting well on my home country, or being the desirable way to help people in wheelchairs get onto planes. Good as in unique and distinctive, and certain to raise your attention.

Now I can update this story, and report that there are well signposted lifts/elevators in the Auckland domestic terminal. They may even be functioning, but I didn't check that. There was also no sign that people in wheelchairs were prohibited from using the lift, and had to wait for the forklift. For the sake of New Zealand's reputation, I am relieved ...

Posted by eroberts at 11:42 PM

March 2, 2008


No ... One of the perennial [trivial] challenges of my life is keeping straight when to use New Zealand and when to use United States English. In this case I'm writing a book review about a New Zealand book for a journal published in the United States, so I have set the language of the text in Microsoft Word to U.S. English. But then I have to use New Zealand words and phrases which get marked with the dreaded red squiggle.

This is what God created copy editors for ...

(Pakeha. Or shorter)

Posted by eroberts at 8:39 AM

February 27, 2008

Girls, girls, girls

This will get a lot of unintended hits ...

I went to the track for the first time in 5 months today. That isn't to say that I ran on the track. It's school sports season in Wellington. This means—one rubber track in the city—that occasionally the track is occupied by high school students doing track and field events. I had a premonition this was going to be the case as I jogged up there, seeing a lot of girls in colorful outfits heading up to the park.

So I did my workout on the soccer field above the track. This was less than ideal, with some tight turns; but first interval workout in 5 months it was probably OK not to know I was a couple of seconds off the pace. The long side of a soccer field is 100m, so you can check your pace. As I jogged around in between my 5 x 1000m and 4 x 400m repeats I got to watch the Wellington East Girls sports get started. Nowadays, befitting its location "East" is a very multi-cultural school with Maori, Pacific Island, Asian, Somali, and European students. But it also has "houses," which American readers may or may not be familiar with. Houses are vertical divisions of a school (as opposed to horizontal grade/age divisions), sometimes reflecting literally where the students slept, if it was a boarding school. But for most purposes "houses" in schools were to organize competitive sports and culture. Few modern schools in New Zealand have houses. The high school I attended, started well into the 1950s, didn't have them. But any school originating before World War II probably did, and maybe still does, like Wellington East. Well, the funny thing, after all that explanation, is that East is very multicultural, but the house names commemorate long-deceased, British-born governors of New Zealand. So, as I ambled around the soccer field I got to hear a diversity of accents screaming "Go Onslow," "Go Bledisloe," "Go Jellicoe! The girls were really getting into the spirit of things, and as they started the 60m sprint the gun fired, and then the gun fired again. False start, I knew, even from the top field. But not most of the girls in the race, who tore off down to the finish, while one girl stopped, and waited for the others to stop. The girls in the stands just kept on cheering for the dead Lords and Governors. This commotion caused the announcer to cry out "Girls, girls, girls, you have to be quiet when the races are starting!!!" And then they ran the race again ...

Posted by eroberts at 6:54 PM

February 20, 2008

Department of too-easy targets

Quite apart from the humor of reading this with the British understanding of bonk (I think we will all agree, often its own reward), how many [in the American sense] bonk in a 5km? I've always thought that bonk was synonymous with hitting the wall, the [near] total exhaustion of your muscle glycogen. You can certainly struggle to the end of a 5km, but it's a different process entirely ...

Posted by eroberts at 1:00 AM

February 5, 2008

What is Waitangi Day?

Re-using an old entry, I answer a question that people ask me in person or by email every year. Not the same people, mind you, because then they know ... The question arises from calendars that have international holidays noted on them, which show February 6 to be "Waitangi Day (NZ)."

Waitangi Day is New Zealand's national day. Now, here's the catch for American readers! Whereas in America, and [I think] most of the non-white Commonwealth, the national day is the day the country became independent of Britain , in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the national day celebrates when the British formalised their status as colonizers. This says quite something about the political and social culture of those countries. [The Commonwealth: that's what the British Empire has become, a free Commonwealth of independent ex-colonies, and Britain]

Anyhow, Waitangi Day is always February 6. It's never Monday-ised, so when it falls on a weekend, sorry, no day off!

Waitangi is pronounced why-tungee.

It's also a place, and the Treaty House, outside of which the Treaty was signed is still there. It's in good shape.

The day remembers -- celebrates is probably the wrong word now -- the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave the British "governorship" of New Zealand, but left the [indigenous] Maori population with sovereignty.

As you can guess, it's been a mess ever since trying to work out how you can divide governance and sovereignty! Indeed, there's a whole government tribunal that's devoted to doing just that. Understandably they cop it from both sides.

Your next opportunity to learn about strange Antipodean holidays will come on April 25 with ANZAC Day ...

Posted by eroberts at 5:35 AM

January 7, 2008

Foreign students in U.S. college sports

Interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription only, sorry) about foreign players in U.S college sports. The issue is summed up by two quotes:

Recruiting foreign athletes may well help attract nonathlete students from the same countries," says Matt Mitten, a professor of law at Marquette University

Mark Wetmore, who coaches track and field at the University of Colorado: "As a state institution, we have a responsibility to Colorado and U.S. taxpayers to make sure their sons and daughters have first priority," he says. "Imagine if after 18 years of paying taxes in the state of Colorado, or Maine, or Florida, your daughter has been able to throw the shot put 42 feet, but your state institution does not make an athletics scholarship available to her because they can get someone from Iceland who can throw 43 feet."

The openness of U.S higher education to spending money on foreign students, whether graduate students or athletes, is a huge credit to America. Its persistence over the decades and consistency across institutions speaks to a generosity to the world in American life that many foreigners don't appreciate. But, as ever, the question is that mealy-mouthed word "balance." American "kids" shouldn't see college sports as a benefit for foreigners. The Chronicle article suggests that across the whole country the balance is probably achieved pretty well.

Posted by eroberts at 4:02 PM

January 2, 2008

Happy New Year

The cat gets comfortable with the wine glasses

Posted by eroberts at 6:54 AM

December 29, 2007

Drunk driving dames

The same cautionary holiday season tale makes its way into papers in Auckland and Minneapolis ...

Posted by eroberts at 1:28 PM

December 6, 2007

Homeland security

At a Flying J gas station in Evansdale, IA

Draw your own implications, but I was struck by the effort that had gone into making the sign in the first place, indicative of the concern with terrorism after 9/11 ... and now it's turned off. Guess we don't need to be worry anymore! Moreover, Evansdale, IA is not a known major target of terrorists.

Posted by eroberts at 8:09 AM

November 25, 2007

Minneapolis at night

Beautiful clear night with a full moon behind the Prospect Park watertower

While taking this photo of the Minneapolis skyline I didn't notice the prominence of the lights from the university buildings (right foreground) but there they are ... the downtown skyline seems further away than I imagined it to be.

The lamps in Prospect Park and on Tower hill park always remind me of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Posted by eroberts at 11:19 AM

November 14, 2007

The snow makes me think not

For the New Zealand readers ...

In London they have this magazine called In London aimed at the expat Australian/New Zealander/South African population. In the back they have advertisements for property back home. This was one of the New Zealand ones, it's advertised as Whangarei, but the snow and the mountains in the back suggest it's probably not. My guess is it's Queenstown or Wanaka.

Posted by eroberts at 5:00 AM

November 8, 2007

Bradman still the best

Cricket has lagged behind baseball in generating more sophisticated measures of players contributions to the game that incorporate variance and conditional measures of performance. This research from the University of Queensland is a step in the right direction:

Batsmen in cricket are invariably ranked according to their batting average. Such a ranking suffers from two defects. First, it does not take into account the consistency of scores across innings: a batsman might have a high career average but with low scores interspersed with high scores; another might have a lower average but with much less variation in his scores. Second, it pays no attention to the “value� of the player’s runs to the team: arguably, a century, when the total score is 600, has less value compared to a half-century in an innings total of, say, 200. The purpose of this paper is to suggest new ways of computing batting averages which, by addressing these deficiencies, complement the existing method and present a more complete picture of batsmen’s performance. Based on these “new� averages, the paper offers a “new� ranking of the top 50 batsmen in the history of Test Cricket.


Posted by eroberts at 4:58 PM

November 5, 2007

Typographical errors of the week

You'd hope the Transportation Security Administration would proofread their signs better. At least they're not in the accomodation business too ...

The Minnesota Daily credits Chris Lundstrom with a truly insane, or just really slow, training schedule. (And they spell his name as "Lunsford" in the introduction to the article).

(Images clickable for full sign/article)

Posted by eroberts at 2:17 PM

October 31, 2007

Subtle differences

Here is an advertisement that has been getting a lot of airtime on New Zealand television (YouTube embedding disallowed, you'll have to click through, but it's worth it). I point to this ad as an example of the kind of subtle differences between New Zealand and the United States. I don't think you'd see an ad like this in the United States. Now, admittedly it is the American car manufacturers who can only sell cars with reference to scenery, children asleep in minivans, cash rebates and finance terms. The foreign car ads in the United States are more innovative. But even the foreign ads often focus on the car. The connection between the car and the advertisement in "New Lancer, New Life" is subtle, at best. But funny.

Posted by eroberts at 9:13 AM

October 3, 2007

Variable weather in New Zealand

What counts for major temperature fluctuations in New Zealand.

Temperatures fluctuated between 8C (45F) and 16C (62F).

To be fair, the clothes needed at 8 and 16 can be quite different. But this is not Minnesota temperature variation.

Posted by eroberts at 3:48 PM

September 26, 2007

Lighting up the Dominion

Today is the 100th anniversary of New Zealand becoming a somewhat independent Dominion in the British Empire, as opposed to the even less independent self-governing colony it was before, and the more independent nation it would become even later in the twentieth century. In commemoration they've lit the Parliamentary Library a bit like it was 100 years ago. The actual parliament that was around at the time burned down shortly after, and was replaced by the building below.

As well as lights, there are lectures, including this symposium on "Concepts of Nationhood" I will go to today.

Posted by eroberts at 5:20 AM

September 7, 2007


After coming/going back to Minnesota for the last two weeks of August I had to return to Wellington and teach. Such are the obligations of being employed to do just that. On account of a Saturday wedding in Minnesota I booked my ticket back to Wellington for Sunday. After flying over the dateline I was scheduled to get to Wellington at 8am on Tuesday. Having booked the ticket before I knew my teaching schedule I was effectively taking a 1/5 chance I'd miss a class, and a 1/5 chance I'd fly in and have to teach that day.

I got lucky, and my scheduled arrival time of 8am and lecture at 11am gave me 3 luxurious hours before I had to front up and tell my students about the Progressive era and the New Zealand Liberal government, and how modern life began in about December 1910 (at least, according to Virginia Woolf). While I was in America I got absurdly astonished reactions from people who thought that this plan to travel for 27 hours, and then give a lecture was a little too brave. While I'm using my New Zealand-United States comparative history class as an opportunity to impart the wisdom that you shouldn't rush to generalizations about national character, I will. Courtesy of New Zealand's isolation, long plane flights are a fact of life, and New Zealand people just get somewhat used to the idea of jetting in from halfway across the world, and working straight away. Most Americans aren't used to the idea that a 12 hour plane flight is just normal. Indeed, one of my colleagues, having done a similar thing a few weeks ago, told me that the lecture is easy, it's the discussion section/seminar/tutorial where you have to think on your feet that will get you ...

Two weeks of astonished Americans later I got back to Auckland airport, fortified with their astonishment, and determined to show that I was hard core enough to front up to class 3 hours after my 27 hour journey across the world. But I bumped into a colleague at Auckland airport who was just off the plane from Chicago, and heading for Wellington too, and it turned out that he was lecturing at 10am ... I wasn't even the most hard-core-traveling-lecturing person on the plane!

Lectures are easy. You just read a piece of paper and remember to cue up the next Powerpoint slide. Discussions are harder with mild jetlag. That's why you watch a video in the afternoon discussion section, so you only have to discuss articles for 45 minutes, rather than 2 hours.

All in all the arriving at 8, lecturing at 11 idea went very well, so well that I'll do it again when I have the chance.

Posted by eroberts at 6:32 AM

August 31, 2007

Reality is better than fiction

You couldn't make up a story as good as this from today's StarTribune. We were at the Fair shortly after this happened, and the commotion had all died down.

Posted by eroberts at 4:29 PM

August 13, 2007

University challenge

When it's a cold southerly my office gets cold enough that I need to wear fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm. My question for readers is, can I ask my employer to reimburse me for this expenditure? Or, are the many other perquisites of academic employment such that I should just accept the $25 capital cost for my merino and possum fur gloves that should last a few years? (=suck it up ...)

Posted by eroberts at 2:41 PM

August 6, 2007

Avoiding disaster

Public photo from flickr user MosesImages

What can you say? On 9/11 I was in England, not America. When the bridge fell, I was in Wellington, not Minneapolis. I shouldn't voice the thought that I've avoided being on location for these disasters because the next disaster will now follow me.

One of the oddities of life is that I feel like I have two homes. Home is all about feeling, not fixed criteria like location. Hearing about the 35-W bridge collapse made this very clear to me. It felt so intensely local, yet to many of the people round me in Wellington it was all rather abstract. Perhaps if I'd been there I would have been one of the thousands that tried to see the remains of the bridge from up close, or at least a proximate bridge. As it was, I probably had a better view obsessively scouring the internet for photos.

Although the bridge was quite close to our place, I quite rarely drove over it. For me, the 35W bridge will always be one I associate with winter hill repeats. In the Minnesota winter with the prevailing wind being a northwesterly I found the West River Road parkway under 35W to be one of the better hills around. I'd run up the hill into the wind, and then amble slowly back down with the wind behind me. This way I would never get too cold on the downward jog. It was an interesting and unique looking bridge from underneath, and ambling down I always looked up at it. Earlier this year I had one memorable session of 10 repeats up the hill in sub-zero (farenheit) weather. With only the slightest breeze and the sun out, it was quite comfortable and the amazing light of a clear Minnesota winter morning made the scene quite pretty. The muted rush of the Mississippi in winter gurgled downstream as the cars rushed past above on their way to work. It was a good workout, on a good day.

Even without the connection to the now-fallen bridge it would be one of those training runs I'd remember for a while anyway. Returning to Wellington and its hills made me reflective of the hill repeats anyway. And that session on the cold day stood out amongst a winter of hill repeats. An hour's recovery run in Wellington involves more elevation change than a hill session in Minneapolis. Hill repeats are a necessary evil for many runners, but to me they seem even worse mentally because I know that elsewhere in the world--my other home--there's a more scenic path to fitness up the hills.

There's another hill on the West River Road, under the I-94 bridge. That bridge looks more solid. I'll have to trust it stays up this winter.

Posted by eroberts at 6:24 AM

July 21, 2007

Be happy with what you have ...

Which is worse? Running in July in Wellington, or Minneapolis

Running in July in Minneapolis was for the most part not great. The heat, the humidity, the ozone days, the bugs. You make do, enjoy the chance to take it slowly 6 days out of 7, and run on a schedule dictated by the weather. Running in July in Wellington can have few charms too. I'm of the opinion that there's no good clothing for rain and 40°F/5°C. I just put on polypropelene on my top and hands, and go for it. If the southerly makes it too cold for the legs to warm up you don't run quickly and risk pulling a muscle, you just get out there and run, and wait for the weather to change, which it will do in a day. That's the good thing about a maritime climate. The cold and rain rarely stick around for more than a couple of days in a row. In short, my question when I left Minneapolis for Wellington, was which would be worse, cold and rain or hot and muggy.

In general and in respect of running I try—if not always successfully—to be happy with what I have. No point in raging against the weather. Those caveats aside, I think I'm now in a position to judge this slightly ridiculous question.

After 20 miles over Makara Peak and the Skyline Track in intermittent rain and hail below 40°F/5°C, the trails more than make up for the 30mph wind with 50mph gusts, and the rain. You have to pick your trails more carefully in the winter but 80% of the hundreds of miles of trails in the city are runnable even in the winter. You come round the corner and get glorious view of the Pacific Ocean or the city or the regenerating bush. I almost forgot that my legs were red with cold ...

Reading recommendation: Matthew Engel discusses month-by-month moves for the best weather in the world.

Posted by eroberts at 9:27 PM

July 16, 2007

And in other news ...

... starting a new job keeps you busy. Not that I'm complaining. Quite the contrary.

Amongst the thousands of minor linguistic differences between New Zealand and the United States I had not happened upon the word "scheme" having different connotations. With the introduction of KiwiSaver (like IRAs) there is much talk of "retirement savings schemes." Apparently, this makes Americans think of retirement savings conspiracies and plots. Scheme has more innocent connotations in New Zealand.

In the course of trying to learn more about this "scheme," I learned that you shouldn't go to personal finance seminars with academics. It was the worst example of specific ignorance on the topic at hand combined with general certitude of righteousness and knowledge I've seen in a long time ... I will say no more, and name no names, but you can probably guess what it was like. What made it odder was that I was by far the youngest person at this seminar. Most of the people there to learn about Kiwisaver were north of 40, probably most of them north of 50 years old, and were mostly concerned about the overlap with their existing retirement savings conspiracies (or schemes). This seemed to be missing the point of the KiwiSaver policy, which is mostly not to help people who are 62 top up their savings, but to change the mindset of younger people, and by offering blandishments from employers and the government get the relatively young saving a little bit early on.

I went from there to the first two hour seminar/tutorial I've ever done as the professor/lecturer/person who claims to know what they're talking about. Done it many times from the other side of the table. This was kinda exhausting, not because of the class who were great, but because facilitating discussion for two hours is tiring. Luckily I did not think "this is the first 2 hour seminar I'll ever do" beforehand. However, I think Tuesday might become a double-run day on account of the hour of general lassitude that a 2 hour seminar induces. Maybe that ratio will rise (seminar:lassitude) over time. Gradual adaptation to stress. Everything in life is like running ...

Posted by eroberts at 10:57 PM

July 4, 2007

You're not in Guatemala now, Dr. Ropata

Happy 4th of July! Outside America, and in winter, you don't miss it except as a memory.

Today's title will either be instantly recognizable, or totally meaningless.

If it's totally meaningless, this classic dialog is from the first episode of the New Zealand soap opera Shortland St. The dashing Dr. Ropata is upbraided for bringing his crazy foreign experiences and assumptions back to New Zealand.

There's a great deal of absurdity in moving back to your home town and complaining about the weather. Actually, it wasn't so much the weather as the weather forecast. I opined this morning that one of the great things about America was the relatively accurate hourly forecast that allows you to, for example, plan your run for the coolest, warmest or driest time of the day. My mother upbraided me for this comment by saying "you're not living in the middle of a large continent now, you're living on an island in the middle of an ocean where the weather is quite unpredictable." It's not the forecast, it's the weather itself.

If I was in America I would say that I "lucked out" this morning. If I was in New Zealand I wouldn't because the phrase means the opposite. The rain lifted 20 minutes in to the run, and I got the most glorious view of the city from Tinakori Hill (really, click the link, it's a beautiful city), a view that is relatively recent after a storm a couple of years ago necessitated the removal of many trees. That green house in the bottom right corner of the photo is the Prime Minister's house. What a quaint country. You can run up the hill behind the Prime Minister's house and look into her backyard.

It's both the truth and the politic thing to say that the unpredictable weather is all I can complain about after five days back in Wellington. The coffee is good. The trail running is excellent. I've almost adjusted to hearing New Zealand accents again. When I got off the plane in Auckland I thought "they speak funny here." I'm trying to keep the best parts of the Midwestern inflection on my New Zealand accent. The mid-Pacific accent is not nearly as common as the mid-Atlantic accent, but perhaps I'll make it famous in time.

One of the truisms of international moving is that moving home is never quite as easy as people naively imagine. Both place and person have changed. When I moved to Minneapolis I tried to tell myself that the inevitable minor frustrations of moving were not all about America, which is the easy way out for foreigners in America. Oh to be sure, there are some unique things about America including some things that are annoying, and others it's just fun to tease the locals about, but when you're moving you're not moving from country to country, you're moving from city to city, from neighborhood to neighborhood. You'd have the same frustrations moving in your home country, of not knowing the bus timetable or where the best stores or restaurants were, etc, etc ...

Moving home there is none little of that. Some things have changed, but mostly I know my way round—though I have forgotten the names of many streets I know where I am, I just couldn't describe it to the emergency services if I called them out of sight of a street sign—and I find myself more surprised that things have not changed. I have seen strangers on the bus that I saw on the same bus route when I was in high school.

The truism is that both place and person change. But both would have changed if I'd stayed here, the personal relationship to place evolving gradually over time. What they call the shock of re-entry is that all those changes appear to have taken place at once. So I ask when something occurred, and the locals look at me oddly, not remembering (for example) if that new building went up in 2002 or 2003. Not that it really matters. It's there now, and so am I.

Posted by eroberts at 6:27 AM

June 29, 2007

Crossing the Pacific

This is true. The Pacific is a great body of water.

Posted by eroberts at 12:26 PM

May 14, 2007


No, really, that's all there is to the story. They met in New Zealand. Hence the headline in the New Zealand Herald.

These kinds of stories are probably universal. I never fail to be amused by them. I'd say there's an interesting project for someone to look at how often these types of articles appear in papers in different places.

Posted by eroberts at 8:28 AM

May 11, 2007

Cafe standards

A U.S. acronym doesn't survive the Guardian's editing.

I believe that the café standards for fuel efficiency are to drink at local cafés which you can walk or bike to, rather than driving. Very fuel efficient. Rigorous CAFÉ standards would probably ban drive-through "coffee."

Posted by eroberts at 3:03 PM

April 18, 2007

Hapless cricket teams

Sports that do poorly in cricket are often called "hapless." My hypothesis was that this would be mostly associated with the English cricket team. In the interests of the social studies of sport I did a Google search of +"hapless <country>" +cricket today and these were the results. I think they speak for themselves ... or they speak for themselves, if you follow international cricket ... Crucial qualification. Might I remind my American readers, cricket's about as popular as baseball worldwide, and they both look funny and have funny rules.

No doubt more sophisticated "analyses" could be done, perhaps adjusting for the population speaking English in each country. Now while it's a little surprising to see Bangladesh and Zimbabwe getting more "hapless" mentions than England, those countries have better excuses than England for not fielding a good cricket team. I threw Canada--yes, they were playing in the World Cup--into the mix as a "control" group.

Posted by eroberts at 2:45 PM

April 12, 2007

Nappy-headed means different things to different people

Where I come from (and in some other countries) "nappy" means diaper. So this week's news coverage of "nappy headed hos" leaves me with quite a different mental image of the Rutgers basketball team than most people get from that phrase. I'm slow on the uptake, have only seen one photo of the team, and until now I'd never heard this alternative American use of the word "nappy." So it's surprisingly hard to displace the mental image of women playing basketball with diapers on their heads every time I hear about Don Imus.

(I should hardly need to add the disclaimer that this is not some contorted defense of Don Imus, but the sensitivity of the topic etc ... compel me to state the obvious)

Posted by eroberts at 1:19 PM

March 21, 2007

The sound I'm going for

"his New Zealand accent worked nicely on the witness stand; it made him sound erudite without being pompous."

From a Wall Street Journal profile of Berkeley professor, David Teece.

That's the sound I try to cultivate. As an historian I doubt I'll make the kind of money Teece does. The accent isn't everything!

Posted by eroberts at 1:20 PM

February 7, 2007

Limited [intelligence] government

There's a common perception, internationally and at home, that Americans are fond of limited government. Now, I think that's a little too simple, but you still have the fact that people believe in the myth anyway. It's in the face of that perception that I laugh at stories like these:

And this is just what I've noticed in the last two days ... The common element is that there's already pretty sharp incentives to do the right thing here: look both ways when crossing the street (you might die!), don't leave your car idling on a cold morning (it might get stolden!). If someone isn't motivated by their own personal safety or losing their car, a comparatively trivial fine isn't going to change their behavior.

I hasten to add that these kinds of silly laws may be just as prevalent abroad. Minor political office, minor intellect and major ego lead to these kinds of things everywhere, not just in America. But the multiple layers of government in America give, perhaps, a little more scope for laws like this.

Posted by eroberts at 5:51 PM

January 23, 2007

Swedish-Australasian relations

This pairing on a cookie box of Swedish and Australasian cookies touched my little Antipodean-born, Swedophilic heart.

Posted by eroberts at 9:25 AM

December 22, 2006


If you knew the history of Australia claiming the talents of New Zealand born and bred musicians (only this one web reference on a hasty google search) then the above, from Minneapolis' Electric Fetus will be perversely amusing.

Posted by eroberts at 5:07 PM

December 7, 2006

Be kind to the blind and the seeing

American money, specifically the bills, are visually unappealing. This has always struck me as a little odd, since Americans tend to do the ceremonial and decorative aspects of public life quite nicely.

For example, the American flag is very nice; the national anthem is uplifting if overplayed and sung in a key that renders it often done badly. I guess it really is the thought that counts is what I think when I hear people mangle the Star Spangled Banner; American public architecture is, on average, much better than where I came from. I've rarely seen a New Zealand post office building that inspired, but some of the American post offices in small towns and large cities are fine examples of functional and beautiful public buildings.

Perhaps the unappealing money is part of the same trend that makes American stamps hit-or-miss. There are some great ones out there, but then there's the poorly done American flag stamp, and some other insipid ones that manage to poorly render inspiring artefacts like the Statue of Liberty.

But anyway, the bank notes. I'd occasionally wondered, as apparently foreigners from many countries do, what the visually impaired do to distinguish the bills all of the same size and all of the same basic color scheme. Clearly the truly blind don't care what the bills look like--perhaps only that they are of different shapes--but the partially sighted apparently find it functional to have bills of different colors.

In any case, the blind are a small minority in American life. Multi-colored currency with attractive, varied designs is a pleasant if minor way of enhancing everyone's life. A little bit of public artwork everytime you open your wallet. The best American bank note is the $2 bill, which along with its portrait of Jefferson has a rendition of the Declaration of Independence on the obverse. But when did you last get a $2 bill? This is way better than the succession of similar looking classical revival buildings on the flipside of most of the notes.

But things change slowly in public life in America. A country founded in a revolutionary moment now goes with the instinct to conserve what its founders might have the impulse to change were they around today. Clearly (clearly!) I'm not the person to lobby for changing the color of the money. Foreigner and all that. Yet even if I were, I can hear the attacks now. Do I not like George Washington? What do I have against the Lincoln Memorial? Etc etc ... Actually, I think Washington should stay. But Ulysses Grant on the $50! There must be better candidates, even from within the pantheon of 38 other presidents not already on the money.

Posted by eroberts at 4:51 PM

November 30, 2006

Google maps fun

What would make Google Maps great for runners? How about if Google mapped trails? Well, now they do. For New Zealand. As best as I can tell they've digitized the 1:50,000 scale topographic maps and included the four wheel drive trails and "single track" trails you can run, walk, and sometimes mountainbike.

The picture below (follow the link to see for yourself) is of my old stamping grounds of Wilton's Bush and the Skyline trail.

Not all of the trails that exist on the ground are there. 1:50,000 is still quite large scale, and no doubt some of the trails on the ground are non-official. Nevertheless, what an amazing thing to have added to Google maps. If you happened to find yourself in Wellington or Auckland and wanted to go trail running you could start planning before you hit the ground.

The other semi-useful thing about Google Maps for New Zealand which you can see if you click on "Map" on the linked image are property boundaries. Those boundaries in between the roads when you get in close enough appears to correspond to people's houses and yards. Something you can't yet see in Google Maps for America.

Posted by eroberts at 11:10 AM

November 20, 2006

Down with the glace cherries

The neon-green fruit to which this article refers
are glace cherries, and they are rarely popular in fruit cake. American distaste for fruitcakes is a rightful distaste for bad fruitcakes. Done well with lots of alcohol they're something else again.

Posted by eroberts at 7:23 AM

October 30, 2006

Shopping your ideas

Earlier this week the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that there was no governmental purpose in denying same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, and that the state had six months to remedy this. Gay marriage, per se, did not have to be one of the remedies, civil unions would also do.

In passing I'll note that this ruling has attracted much less public attention than previous rulings in Massachusetts and Vermont, which might suggest that American politics is heading towards some kind of compromise on this.

While there has been less debate about the decision you don't have to look hard to find [mostly Republican and right-leaning] people criticizing the courts for making this decision. It's telling that the conservative response is to criticize the venue of the decision—the courts— and not (entirely) the decision itself. It's fair to say that until very recently conservative parties in Anglo-American democracies saw the courts as the bulwark of tradition and order against populist change.

It's striking that in America there is a populist right that sees the judiciary and the common law as anti-democratic and revolutionary. Historically conservatives saw the courts as a bulwark against populist democratic change. There are traces of this attitude in Australasia, Canada and Britain, but it's less pronounced because social movements have not used the courts to try and achieve social change quite as much. Perhaps that is for the better, since changes are achieved with democratic support, but I suspect that it reflects rationally different choices in political strategy contingent on legislative and judicial structure.

Now, I'm no lawyer, but one of the defining characteristics of Anglo-American government is that laws are made both by the legislative/executive branches (statue law), and by judges interpreting the law in cases (common law). In almost every setting groups seeking social change use both mechanisms to try and affect change. This is such an established, bipartisan part of our broad political heritage that current critiques of it by people opposed to gay marriage are, I suspect, largely disengenuous.

For the sake of argument, wandering away from the issue at hand, look at the movement for the 8 hour day. Unions campaigned for this at three levels

  • Trying to achieve it through contracts with individual employers
  • Multi-employer contract negotiations (particularly the Australian and New Zealand arbitration systems
  • Legislative restrictions on working hours.

The 8 hour day was not achieved in any country in one go; it was achieved incrementally through success in different legal venues. Same with most other social changes one cares to look at.

Venue shopping by political and social movements is an inherent part of the Anglo-American political and legal structure. If some groups really do feel those rules of the "game" are unfair and should be changed, that's a problem, but I'm inclined to guess that for now they're being disengenuous and will happily shop their own ideas round whatever sympathetic legislature or court they feel will take them.

Posted by eroberts at 3:45 PM

October 19, 2006

Party politics

I got this email today:

Dear <redacted> member,
Do you ever wish you could quit your day job and work to take back Congress? Well, on Election Day, you can come close: Take the day off work on Tuesday, November 7th and be part of something big.

Skip your annoying commute. Skip those endless meetings. This election is the best chance we've had in years to change the direction of our country. And we have a plan to put dozens of races over the top by making hundreds of thousands of get-out-the-vote phone calls on Election Day—but we can't do it without your help.

Can you take the day off work on Tuesday, November 7th to help win this historic election?

It made me think again why making an election day a holiday is a good idea. It's fair to assume that being able to take a solitary day off for the election is not something everyone can do. It's probably easier if you are a professional worker not serving other people. Hard to say how that affects Democrats and Republicans. Teachers can't take a day off, and they tend to vote Democratic. Soldiers probably can't take the day off, and they tend to vote Republican. Now, it's clearly not the case that election day being a work day is the reason that turnout in American elections is low, since many other countries have their elections on a weekday and manage significantly higher turnout than in the United States. Moreover, the wide variation between the different American states in turnout, none of which have holidays for election day, must indicate that other factors are at work.

All those caveats aside making election day a public holiday is still the right thing to do. Everyone is legally entitled to take time off to vote, but to help turnout the vote and participate in other aspects of an election requires you to take your holidays off. In a country that celebrates and proclaims its democratic traditions, wouldn't one day off in the year to take part in democracy be small but symblic. America does its nationalistic public holidays very well (Memorial Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving specifically) but what could be more American than to participate in the nation's democratic events?

If you look at the history of American election days it's quite clear that election days used to be opportunities for boisterous public displays, and not a lot of working. Making election day a non-work day again would return to a grand American tradition. In the 19th century Minnesota made election day a public holiday by legislation. It's been done before.

The other good reason for making election day a public holiday (or a weekend) is that then you can have an election night party. The election night party is, I think, a small but important part of Australasian culture that derives from the convenience of having elections on Saturdays, and being able to sleep in the next morning with nothing to do (for most people).

Having elections on a Tuesday when you have to work makes voting like running to the store after work. You do it. You go home. You make sure you have everything ready for Wednesday at work. There is a better way. Make election day a holiday.

Posted by eroberts at 1:08 PM

October 10, 2006

That 70s show

This sentence in the New York Times:

And in a month in which Republicans have sought to discredit Democratic challengers as advocates of big spending and high taxes, 52 percent of respondents said that Democrats would make the right decisions on how to spend taxpayers' money, while 29 percent said Republicans would.

prompt another round of my perennial thought that if only ordinary voters knew enough history they'd know that cliche of Democrats as deficit-spending wastrels is not historically accurate in the long run. I'd say, and this is a hypothesis, that this perception of Democrats really only dates from the 1970s.

The emphasis here is on deficit spending. Like the various Labo[u]r parties around the world, it's a fair characterization that liberal, social democratic, populist leaning parties spend a little more than right-leaning parties do. But deficit spending? Not so much. Go back to the 1930s and you see Labour and Democratic parties spending more to get out of the Depression, but given the circumstances, perhaps not deficit spending enough. It took the deficit financed World War II to get most of the western countries out of the depression and back to full employment. War, of course, is a perennial historical justification for deficits. If you win. If you're borrowing good money to fund a war gone wrong, that becomes unpopular.

Like Vietnam. This, I would guess, was the beginning of the perception that Democrats were weak on national security, and couldn't control the budget. The two are related -- I'm not sure that that gets enough attention. Then you have the oil crises of the 1970s, and the Australasian and British Labour parties, the Canadian Liberals, and the Democrats were all in power during at least one of the oil shocks of the 1970s. That was when government deficits became a problem for western countries, and the Labour/Liberal/Democratic parties were all, unfortunately, for them left standing when the music oil stopped. Would conservative parties have done any better at adjusting government spending in the midst of the oil crisis? I don't know.

Going back to the Great Depression suggests an answer. In Britain and Australia where the Labour parties held the finance ministry at the start of the Depression "responsible" balanced budgeting was the order of the day, and it saddled both parties with responsibility for the Depression that the Republicans, and the New Zealand Reform (conservative) party also experienced. The somewhat unfair perception that left voters with, was that the conservative governments were responsible for most of the misery of the Depression. Somewhat unfair, because it reinforced stereotypes that were already out there that conservative governments were less likely to spend on the poor.

Conservative governments would probably also have run up large deficits during the oil shocks (and did, later in the 1970s in Australia and New Zealand). But conservatives running budget deficits doesn't reinforce stereotypes already out there, while it does for liberals.

Posted by eroberts at 1:11 PM

September 12, 2006

Not original, but effective

At the risk of losing readers by making my first sentence here in a week a reference to obscure, foreign elections ... I'll do it anyway. In 1972 the Australian and New Zealand (remember, different countries!) Labo[u]r parties won elections in succeeding weeks after being out of power and irrelevant for decades. They used the same slogan. "It's Time for A Change".

This was an effective slogan because it captured the spirit of the time, and was a phrase that you might use yourself in everyday life. The idea in the slogan, because it captured a mood already out there and easily picked up in polls and by journalists, was reinforced by its repetition and simplicity. None of these things can be said about the lame-o slogan of the Democratic Party for the 2006 elections "Together, America can do better."

Now I confess that not being American myself I may lack some crucial insights into the way Americans think and vote, but I'm pretty sure no one is out there thinking "Together, America can do better" on their own. Perhaps "We can do better," but not "Together, America can do better." It's the comma, you see. It is probably not written down anywhere, but one of the first rules of effective slogans is "No commas." Now I was about to expand that and write "No punctuation," but that's wrong. A question mark (preferably for a rhetorical question) or an exclamation mark, where appropriate, are fine. Perhaps no punctuation that qualifies your statement. "It's Time For a Change" is not original, but it would do far better service for the Democrats that "Together, America can do better."

In the interests of fair play I would offer some advice to the Republican Party from Australasian political history. But the GOP don't appear to need it. After winning office in 1975 both Labo[u]r parties lost in 1975. The New Zealand National Party put out one of the most effective political ads ever, the [in]famous Dancing Cossacks ad which implied Labour's superannuation scheme would lead to creeping Communism.

Of course, no American politician would ever imply their opponents were Communists, would they?

Update (5:37pm): Another alliterative slogan that did good service for its creators was "compassionate conservatism," which they're discussing in a review of Bush's presidency over at TPM Cafe. For the purposes of this discussion, who cares that it was a crock and has scarcely been uttered by Bush since the campaign. The phrase apparently resonated with what a crucial (if perhaps small) part of the electorate was looking for, and summed up what Bush chose to emphasize as his priorities during the 2000 campaign.

Posted by eroberts at 1:59 PM

September 5, 2006

Foreign accent thing

Reason no. 269 I want all call-centers out-sourced to India right now ...

I called a firm today, and lacking my ID number took the automated voice up on the option of saying and spelling my name to confirm my identity. The courteous automated voice then asked

Have I got that right?
Last name: R-A-B-B-I-T
First name: E-V-A-M

How cute. When you say "EVAM" it does sound like you are speaking with a lisp like we imagine rabbits do.

Posted by eroberts at 5:08 PM

August 18, 2006

They write letters

Posted by eroberts at 1:07 PM

August 7, 2006

Check it!

The Star Tribune's columnists say what I feel about people who bring wheelie suitcases onto planes with more panache than I could. Basically, don't do it. Check it, for everyone's sake.

Having traveled on both third world (Vietnamese) buses and American planes, the similarities are surprising. In both cases, people bring on board far more than they need for the journey and far more than can reasonably fit in the space available. I can understand this on Vietnamese buses, there's no secure protocol for checking your bags and getting them back at the other end. But the bizarre practice Americans have of bringing their suitcase into the cabin is a bit of an example of a tragedy of the commons. Everyone thinks they're saving themselves some time by not checking the bags, but by the time we've all waited for people to find a space for their over-stuffed roller bag and several people have wandered fruitlessly up and down the aisle without finding a space, and had to check it anyway, the time saved is minimal, if not evaporated. If you don't need spare underpants during the flight you can check that bag.

While the proportion of the traveling public that reads this is, ah, minimal, to put it mildly, I trust that those who do read will take note ... the Star Tribune of Minneapolis tells you to check your bag too.

Posted by eroberts at 7:50 AM

June 14, 2006

It means something else too

Good article in Runner's World about nutrition for runners. Why is Runner's World on the web so much better than Runner's World in print?

Of course I titter whenever I hear the word bonking.

Posted by eroberts at 4:53 PM

June 13, 2006

The alleged Northern Hemisphere

From an otherwise great interview with Nick Willis on Runners World.

"Northern Hemisphere"? What are the quote marks for? Is the idea of the Northern Hemisphere so contested that it has to be in quotation marks? Maybe I just find this funny because I regularly have to qualify summer with the appropriate hemisphere to make it clear which approximate months I'm talking about.

Posted by eroberts at 11:50 AM

May 12, 2006

How much would Canada fetch?

New Zealand not for sale: eBay

May 12, 2006

AN Australian man has failed in his bid to sell New Zealand for a bargain-basement price on eBay.
The South Pacific country was described by the eBay man as having "very ordinary weather" and bidding opened at one cent.

A generous bid of $3000 had been entered by the time the eBay realised the problem and stepped in to say New Zealand was not for sale, the Associated Press reported.

More than 22 bids were received before eBay - which describes itself as selling "mostly household items" - pulled the plug.

"Clearly New Zealand is not for sale," eBay Australia spokesman Daniel Feiler was quoted as saying.


Posted by eroberts at 12:30 PM

May 10, 2006

Random reading recommendations

Linda Colley on American anti-Europeanism. Another way to look at the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Jill Lepore in the New Yorker reviews Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution and Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty. Pybus is a great writer. Her book on a 1950s sexual harrassment case at the University of Tasmania, Gross Moral Turpitude is still memorable 13 years after I read it.

Posted by eroberts at 9:35 AM

May 9, 2006

Sir, that's icky

A couple of years ago I went to Seward Montessori school and talked to them about Australia and New Zealand, and let them try Vegemite. This is what they thought then:

In the first class, the choicest and most appropriate comment, was the girl who said that "I don't really care for that." One can assume that all the children saying "ewwww" and "yuck" would have expressed similar sentiments if they had been as articulate.

In the second class though I received proof that children in Minnesota are taught to lie, and to debase the meaning of useful words in the English language. Amidst a chorus of "ewww" and "yuck" the teacher actually told the children "If you don't like something, don't say yuck, say that's interesting, or that's different".

Anyone who has spent anytime in the Midwest will know that "interesting" and "different" do not mean curious and distinct as they do in most other parts of the English-speaking world -- they mean "I don't like that, but I'm not going to tell you that directly."

Today I had four, count 'em, four children in a class of about twenty 1st through 3rd graders, request more Vegemite. Really, it is good stuff, even if you have to grow up eating it to really like it. The touching moment of the day—after I'd seen lots of little faces pulled and lots of little kids run to get a drink of water after their morsel of Vegemite—was the boy who tugged on my shirt as I was leaving, looked up at me with big, round, brown eyes, and said politely "Sir. Sir, that's icky." Polite and honest.

De gustibus non disputandum

Posted by eroberts at 4:04 PM

May 1, 2006

Unexpected food irony

This, in the Star Tribune today, was kinda ironic:

BBC/ Few people are more ridiculed for their cuisine than the Brits. There's no food programming on BBC America. So it's a bit jarring to find a site that rivals the Food Network's and is immensely easier to navigate. Swell recipes, lively chat rooms and a great glossary make for an entertaining, edifying mix. (www.bbc.co.uk/food)

New Zealand/ In the who'd-a-thunk-it? department, a Kiwi production recently was named the world's best food magazine at the Gourmet Media World Festival. The website of Cuisine magazine reveals it's no surprise. There's an admirable local focus, but also an assortment of worldwide recipes and cool chapters on travel, wine, books and "Toys & Tools." (www.cuisine.co.nz)

Not to sound too defensive, but someone from the Midwest, home of hotdish and "cuisine" whose main ingredient is chicken-mushroom glue is criticizing the reputation of New Zealand and British food. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:40 AM

April 25, 2006


Like Memorial Day but without much of the glory or early summer weather.

Australian War Memorial
1966 New Zealand encyclopedia entry
NZ Herald coverage
Sydney Morning Herald

Posted by robe0419 at 9:22 AM

April 24, 2006

Vintner's apostrophe

Noticed in New Zealand while wine touring, the vintner's apostrophe. Closely related to the grocer's apostrophe.

(click on image for larger view)

Posted by robe0419 at 2:52 PM

Another variation on the Nigerian spam

I always find the "Nigerian" spam email funny, as it comes in so many variations these days. This one was interesting;

Do accept my sincere apologies if my mail does not meet your personal
ethics although, I wish to use this medium to get in touch with you first
because it's fastest means. I am John Bernard an external auditor of a
well known bank here in the United Kingdom.
I have secretly discussed this matter with a top senior minister official
of the federal ministry of finance here

I liked how the speed of email correspondence and the ethics of the financial transaction were traded off against each other. Not normally what I'd call morally equivalent actions, but perhaps that's just me ...

And shouldn't an external auditor at a well known bank in the United Kingdom know that there is no ministry of finance, let alone a federal ministry in the United Kingdom? But 35% of 15 million pounds ... that's worth thinking 'bout.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:34 PM

April 8, 2006

Windows are made of "glarse" or "glasss"

Home Depot. I needed to buy some glass. It's a maze in there. Helpful young man asks me if I need to check out. "No, but I do need some glarse" (short a, like how they say "car" in Boston")

"Glasss? What's that for?"
"Glarse. You know, like in windows" (even in America they have windows in their houses)
"What part of the window? Do you use it for gluing or something?"
... It's about this point I realized we were not communicating ... It must be the accent ...
"Glarse, you know, it's the see through stuff you put in the window. But don't worry, it's my accent, not you."
"Ohhh, glasss! Where you from man?"

And after one mid-week encounter on a run I just had been feeling so sanguine about my mid-Pacific accent understandable if not native to both the Antipodes and the Americas. I spied someone ahead with a t-shirt that looked familiar. It was the 2005 Philadelphia marathon shirt with the course map on the back. Not a lot of Minnesotans who ran that, so I pulled alongside and said hello, and how I'd run that marathon too. We reminisced about a beautiful day beside the Schuylkill. "Where's that accent from?" said the friend of the other Philadelphia finisher. "New Zealand, but I've been here a few years," I replied. "Yeah, " he said, "it sounds like it."

Posted by robe0419 at 7:06 PM

April 3, 2006

Gone too long

Clearly I've been away from New Zealand too long. I'd never heard, never ever, of Anand Satyanand who is now giving up his position as a High Court judge to be Governor General. On the other hand that seems to be the pattern with Governor Generals in New Zealand nowadays—they alternate between not-well-known High Court judges and better known folks from other spheres of life.

Satyanand seems to be an interesting choice, described as an "Indo-Fijian Catholic," a descendent of Indian (sub-continent) laborers in Fiji who migrated to New Zealand.

But as always. Up the Republic!!

Posted by robe0419 at 5:39 PM

March 31, 2006

Mixed flatting

Through the magic of the internets I've been listening to Wellington's finest music radio station, Radio Active. (Twin Cities readers: if you like The Current, you'd like Radio Active).

It's kind of bizarre hearing your own accent again ... a friend recently returned to New Zealand told me she'd never realized how g**damn annoying the New Zealand accent was. And it's true. It's as annoying as hearing an American accent, when you're not used to one. Or an Australian accent, when you're not used to one. Or a British one, when you're not used to one. To say nothing of those nasal South Africans. I will let the Irish and Scots off this general indictment of accents ... digression ...

Anyway, another thing that was semi-bizarre was listening to the "Accommodation Guide" where people advertise for flatmates (roommates wanted). I hadn't really forgotten this, but it was still revealing to note the number of people advertising for flatmates of a specific gender. Here's the kicker, and the cultural exchange part. In New Zealand they're almost always advertising for a woman or a man to keep a flat mixed sex. In America they advertise for roommates to maintain a single sex household.

It was a rare student flat in New Zealand that was not mixed. Moreover, many (most?) of those mixed flatting situations were strangers. The prevailing attitude among the youth in New Zealand is (was, at least, five years ago) that (1) it's better to share a house with people you didn't previously know, and (2) you should have a mixture of men and women. What I've noticed in America is that these attitudes are almost precisely reversed—most people believe it's better to share housing with people of the same sex they already know.

There's two things going on there; gender and trust. Painting with [too?] broad a brush, Americans [Minnesotans] are still more conservative about gender. Notice how many women they elect to public office? Not so many.

There's also an issue of trust. New Zealand is still a small enough country that most of these potential flatmates you didn't know were probably known at two or three removes. But there is also a greater sense of trust in strangers that they won't turn out to be axe murderers or psycho killers. Or gun murderers, as seems to be more common in America. (Axes don't kill people. People kill people).

Interestingly enough, in New Zealand, a quintessential late-90s cult movie about the perils of flatting/house-sharing was Shallow Grave. Where one flatmate just died and left lots of cash behind. What does that say? Another movie about the perils of flatting was Scarfies (great soundtrack, by the way) where the risk in sharing a house was that you'd discover someone was growing dope in your basement, and your big moral dilemma was again, how to liquidate the windfall you'd come into.

Contrast that with the best American movie about room-mates: Single White Female. That would put you off living with other people.

The constant is that wherever you are, there are those awful accents to get used to. Except in Shallow Grave. They had nice Scottish accents.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:30 PM

March 23, 2006


Via Minnesota Politics news that "atheists are America's most distrusted minority." There's so much to unpack in the following excerpt that I hardly know where to start ...

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.� Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Allow your children to marry? Is that still how it's done?

But I digress. I can't believe I've never repeated this story here on a slow news day. I found out the funny way about America's mystified reaction to atheists when I first arrived here, with several conversations that went like this ...
them: How you do pronounce your name?
me: Ee van. It's pronounced like in "evangelical"
them: So your name is Evangelical? What religion are you?
me: No, my name is Evan, and actually I'm an atheist.
them: An atheist??!! [WTF!!!???] How do you do that? What do you do on Sundays?
me: Well, it's quite easy really. You have more free time on Sundays for a start ...
... conversation rapidly degenerates as they realize I'm being flippant about the serious question of belief and non-belief

At this point I began searching for a new word that would cue people on the correct pronunciation of my name. I was not totally unaware that America was a little more religious than New Zealand; after all I had seen some statistics about the comparison. But I had no clue about how this all played out on an inter-personal level.

A friend of mine once said that many New Zealanders were not agnostics or atheists—they were apathists. They just didn't care about the question of whether there is a god or not, and what role god might play in the world. I think he's right. A lot of people (not all) in New Zealand are disinclined to think too hard and too long about that question. Atheism, like its counterpart, belief in God, is seen as thinking a little too hard about things. Like you were some kind of intellectual ... historically frowned upon in New Zealand.

These days I don't go round volunteering a belief in atheism, preferring to let my mind wander between atheism (yesterday), agnosticism (sometime last week), and apathism (most of the time, including today).

Posted by robe0419 at 9:08 PM

March 20, 2006

Cool foreign phrases and stuff you can't pronounce

The scenes in the REI spring 2006 catalog looked really familiar. On this page the words "See the world. Meet the locals .... Learn cool foreign phrases" didn't seem to fit the pictures. Oh yeah, that's the Kingston Flyer. That's Lake Wakatipu. New Zealand. Not foreign at all.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:57 AM

March 9, 2006

Sports with lunch breaks

As any baseball fan who has a desk job and colleagues within hearing distance will know, the advent of websites that allow you to monitor the box score of the game has allowed one to both work and follow the game all day long.

The same nifty service is available for cricket fan at cricinfo. Today I have been semi-enjoying New Zealand let the West Indies back into the first test. And then the scores stopped updating! What happened? The scoreboard was stuck at West Indies 160/5 (45.0 ov) for quite some time.

Lunch happened! The things you forget when you've been away from home a while. They take a lunch break in cricket matches. What a great game.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:09 PM

March 1, 2006

Dangerous food

Another cheater blog entry ...

New Zealand and Australia are officially obsessed with "biosecurity." It comes with having a lot of agricultural earnings and being islands. For example, Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank was busted for bringing in an apple and orange from America without declaring them.

When you leave New Zealand they have lots of stern warnings about what not to bring home. Basically they give you the impression that to be on the safe side, don't bring back anything that was once alive in any form. Like wild rice. We saw this display about dangerous foreign agricultural [and cultural] items at Christchurch airport. What was particularly amusing was that one of the dangerous items not to bring home was Byerlys wild rice. This will only be semi-amusing if you're from the Twin Cities. Otherwise it will be even more dull.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:14 PM

February 27, 2006


Funny article in the Star Tribune about roundabouts, which as they helpfully explain are "circular traffic intersections commonplace in Europe." like this ...

If you [procrastinate] follow the link to the Washington County website, they even have a handy guide on how to navigate roundabouts. This is more necessary than it seems. While idling away an evening at the Dairy Queen near the Minnehaha Parkway roundabout, I was amused at the number of people who failed to yield to traffic on the roundabout, went round it the wrong way, or less seriously didn't know how to signal their exit from the circle. I run past the Minnehaha roundabout quite regularly, and have witnessed several other instances of people going the wrong way round it to make their left turn a little quicker.

Having great experience in roundabouts—though any other European or Australasian drivers would do just as well—I would like to offer my instructional services to Minnesotan drivers confused about navigating these new intersections. Since I can't accept off-campus employment, gifts in kind, or checks made out to the Conservative Association for Southampton Hospital (you may use the acronym) will be accepted.

Roundabouts are useful ways of designing some intersections, but the quintessenitally North American four-way stop is better in some situations. Some roundabouts are nearly impossible to enter at certain times of the day if the traffic immediately to your right—which you have to yield to—is very heavy.

When I was back in New Zealand I noticed they had put in a bunch of new roundabouts that amounted to little more than a raised bit of concrete only slightly larger than a manhole cover. I nearly drove right over one without realizing it was a roundabout (there were no other cars around). Larger landscaped roundabouts are both more scenic, and more effective at announcing their presence.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:47 AM

February 24, 2006

Don't weigh yourself in public

In the unlikely event you should want to weigh yourself while at Melbourne Airport, you can't use these scales.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:46 AM

February 21, 2006

The New Zealanders with Disabilities Act

The scene: Auckland airport on a busy Friday night.

What we heard: "We're sorry for the delay in boarding flight 559 to Christchurch, but as you can see out the window we have to load a passenger in a wheelchair onto the aircraft with a forklift"

No, really, that's what they announced to the terminal.

What we saw: Some puzzled looks from waiting passengers. Some other people coming over to the window to see if they really heard that. And what do you know? They really are wheeling a guy in a wheelchair onto a forklift, and his wife (or other female traveling companion) is getting on too. My wife who had not heard all the announcement asked me what was going on. Well, I said, it's the New Zealanders with Disabilities Act in action.

You see, it is actually true that there is no equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act in New Zealand, so you do see a lot of public buildings in New Zealand that don't have elevators (lifts) or ramps. My anecdotal epidemiology is inclined to the view that there a smaller proportion of the population is in wheelchairs in New Zealand than America, but I could be wrong. Anyway, this was an airport, you would think they'd have an elevator/lift in the building. We found out later that they do, but it goes up to the first class lounge, so maybe it was broken that day, or maybe Air New Zealand doesn't want people in the first class lounge seeing people in wheelchairs. Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, they get this guy into the forklift, and we're not the only people at the window laughing at the absurdity of the situation. I mean, if the lift is broken, that's OK and nice they could work out a way to get him on board, but announcing his loading onto the aircraft as something for viewing ... words fail me

So they hoist the forklift up in the air, and at first attempt it's not lined up properly with the door of the 737. So they reverse the forklift--with the lift and its passengers up in the air--and the two guys on the ground are gesticulating to indicate which way to go to the driver of the forklift. They get him onboard without any more drama, and then the announcer starts up again: "Once again, I'm sorry for the delay in boarding flight 559 to Christchurch ..."

I was waiting for him to blame the guy in the wheelchair again, but he didn't. He just invited rows 14-23 to board.

And that is the New Zealanders with Disabilities Act in action.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:58 PM

February 20, 2006

The great southern lands still exist

Internet access on my trip to the Antipodes was even poorer than I might have imagined. I mean, my parents have a phone that only works on Tuesdays. Just kidding, but you can never be too certain what some credulous Americans will believe about the technological progress of foreign countries.

Actually, what is interesting is how some areas of technology are conveniently better in New Zealand and Australia: heated towel rails, electronic banking, washing machines and dryers; but there is no effective competition in broadband internet. It's a long story, but the upshot is that broadband costs a lot. So does wireless. Ever heard of charging for access by the megabyte? Welcome to New Zealand. The excuse/story they use is that they're at the end of a long thin pipe to the rest of the internet so there is a capacity constraint.

Anyway, that explains the lack of posting here lately. So does being on vacation. Other aspects of the Antipodes were just as I remembered if not better. I had this vague, naive, fantasy I'd get the 15 minutes a day done to keep me up on that dissertation I'm meant to be writing. But frankly, the motivation I have to finish up and get back here is worth more than 17 days of 15 minutes of bad writing ...

One thing that was better than I remembered it was the coffee. Nothing like a long black or a flat white well made at a little cafe with al fresco dining, and Bic Runga on the stereo. And that oh so Wellington habit of offering you yogurt with your cake. To make it a healthy treat, of course.

Another thing that objectively improved in my absence was the trail running ('tracks' in New Zealand or Australian English). I've run in a bunch of cities around the world, and the only cities that equal Wellington for citywide access to trails are Canberra (Australia), and Portland (OR). Anyway, in Wellington I am lucky enough to stay with my parents from where I used to be able to amble 300m, and then run at least 16km without hitting the road or retracing my steps for longer than 200m. That was before I moved away. Now it's more like 32km, if not more.

Now one of the great treats of Wellington running, the trail along the ridge from Mt Kaukau to Johnston Hill, is legally open. You could always run it, by getting up early, and keeping to the top of the ridge so if you saw the farmer you could dip down one side. And then there was the problem of coming across a paddock with a bull in it. But now it's open, signposted, and there are only sheep in the paddocks. Mostly the sheep move as you approach them, but I did meet one the other day who just stood there. I got a great day for doing this run, crisp and cool as I set out (10°C), but ideal as I finished (15°C). Great views of the western and northern suburbs, and the harbour.

I also made it up the [in]famous Tip Track. They say it's 3km. The unofficial record last I heard was held by a guy who has run 30:01 for 10km, and he was able to break 18 minutes. For 3km. Perhaps multiple world mountain running champion and Wellington area native, Jonathan Wyatt, has done quicker but you get the idea about how steep it is. Despite that, it's actually not as hard as it sounds. You just keep plugging away, and are rewarded with amazing views of the Wellington region and the South Island.

We did another wine tour by bike, like we'd done on our previous New Zealand holiday in 2004. After doing Hawkes Bay then, this time we went to Marlborough--Renwick to be precise. Biking is the ideal way to do vineyard tours. You get that extra time between tastings to let the alcohol wear off. The other trick to a good day wine tasting is to drink lots of water along the way.

Other things I learned are that straight 12 hours with 87 year old grandmothers can be surprisingly exhausting. We had 36 hours in Hobart, and had to use every one of them!

Demographic history also makes for excellent art. I kid you not. The Exiles and Emigrants exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria was excellent. It was about migration to Australia from Britain and Ireland. I too am curious (anticipating my readers' curiosity, or should that be reader's after 20+ days without an entry) why the state of Victoria has a national gallery. My guess is that it is because it was started (1861) before Federation (1901). But I'm too lazy to look that up right now.

All in all, an excellent time.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:41 PM

January 29, 2006

Still looking for the next Toqueville

Garrison Keillor writes a hilarious review/spoof of Bernard-Henri Lévy's book, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (via Marginal Revolution)

An early version of Levy's ramblings was published in the The Atlantic last spring. From that excerpt I determined I would not buy the book. I will pretend to not understand how such poorly edited, over-analysis came to be published. I'm as sympathetic as the next person, maybe a little more so, to tales of foreigners in America, and Americans in America, trying to understand how a nation of millions (the exact number, of course, having been quite different at various points in time) scattered over such a distance functions, nay, thrives as a nation, as a community. It's a fascinating country. Much to love, much to wonder about, no more to dislike than in any other country.

The trouble with Levy's Atlantic article, and I'm guessing, the book too, is that he seemes determined to essentialize America, to yoke the culture of Texas and Minnesota closer together than I-35 brings them. Maybe, just maybe, in Tocqueville's time you could essentialize about the American "character." Easier to do with thirteen million than three hundred million. But that was the insight of Tocqueville, he tempered his generalizations with an appeciation of the variety in American life.

If you are going to try and explain America, to itself, or the rest of the world I don't think you can start with the presumption of unity. You have to presume diversity and variation, and let the guiding question be what unites the country in spite of that diversity. How does the nation hang together, though at times it has hung separately.

To give you a sense of Levy's over-analysis without subjecting you to the whole first chapter, take a look at this excerpt. It is a good question, why do Americans fly their nation's flag more than in Europe or Australasia, or Canada? But the question is not that profound. But "strange," "obsession," "a response to that trauma,"neurotic abreaction," or "something else entirely"? I'd say "something else entirely," without endorsing any of the other over-reactions to the flag that Levy has.

It's a little strange, this obsession with the flag. It's incomprehensible for someone who, like me, comes from a country virtually without a flag-where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared; where you see it flying only in front of official buildings; and where any nostalgia and concern for it, any evocation of it, is a sign of an attachment to the past that has become almost ridiculous. Is this flag obsession a result of September 11? A response to that trauma whose violence we Europeans persist in underestimating but which, three years later, haunts American minds as much as ever? Should we reread those pages in Tocqueville on the good fortune of being sheltered by geography from violations of the nation's territorial space and come to see in this return to the flag a neurotic abreaction to the astonishment that the violation actually occurred? Or is it something else entirely? An older, more conflicted relationship of America with itself and with its national existence? A difficulty in being a nation, more severe than in the flagless countries of old Europe, that produces this compensatory effect?
Posted by robe0419 at 5:21 PM

January 24, 2006

International inefficiency

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber saves me the trouble of having to write down thoughts I've long had about America.

On some levels America is very capitalist, materialistic and efficient. But then there are four layers of government, including hundreds of teeny, tiny counties and cities that must have a higher per-capita cost of local services than they would if they amalgamated. Many professions and occupations are regulated by the states which impose different requirements for licensure, making the American labor market quite a lot less free than we imagine it to be. The meeting of two tendencies in American life--local control and the free market--explains many of these quirks, and are part of the rich diversity of life here.

But as I said, someone else wrote about this better than I could.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:01 PM

Important news from Canada!

Wouldn't want to get too excited about the election when Mario Lemieux is retiring.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:27 AM

January 17, 2006

"NO" would be a good answer

As the price to pay for the chance to live in the United States, filling out the three application forms for a non-immigrant visa is a small one.

I'll try to make this amusing for my mostly American readership, who probably don't get the opportunity to see how their nation's border security works. If any of my sponsors happen upon this, really, I love being here and appreciate it immensely. Some of the forms are just a little bemusing.

Back in those innocent days before September 11, 2001 there was just one form to fill out, the DS-156. As far as I can tell they haven't revised this form, so you still get this gem of a question:
"Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose? Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State? Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?"

Bad stuff. Not to defend the Nazis, but it's interesting how they get identified and all the other twentieth century genocides are lumped together. There's also questions about having "been a prostitute or procurer for prostitutes?" among others, and then they tell you "While a YES answer does not automatically signify ineligibility for a visa, if you answered YES you may be required to personally appear before a consular officer." (emphasis added)

May be required? I'm sure you're glad to know that admitted terrorists may be required to be interviewed by a consular officer! Actually, even if you answer "NO" to all these questions you still have to show up. I imagine this makes the interview a little shorter (never having answered "Yes" to any of them).

After September 11, 2001 they added two new forms, the DS-157 and DS-158. It really is slightly interesting that the numbers of the forms are sequential. In other parts of the American government (to say nothing of other, similarly disorganized governments) it seems to be an empirical rule that related forms and publications are not given identifying numbers anywhere near each other. Take a look at the IRS website if you doubt me. So good on the Department of Homeland Security for a little bit of easy-to-understand form-numbering!

The DS-157 is funny: you don't have to sign it. Not sure what that means. Do you not really have to give a true answer? I still do, honest person that I am. Most of the questions are pretty standard, name, family, places you've been, why you're going to the United States, and then these.

13. List all Professional, Social and Charitable Organizations to Which You Belong (Belonged) or Contribute (Contributed) or with Which You Work (Have Worked).
14. Do You Have Any Specialized Skills or Training, Including Firearms, Explosives, Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical Experience? If YES, please explain.
15. Have You Ever Performed Military Service? If Yes, Give Name of Country, Branch of Service, Rank/Position, Military Specialty, and Dates of Service.
16. Have You Ever Been in an Armed Conflict, Either as a Participant or Victim?

I always get a little bit of a laugh out of being able to put down such subversive groups as the Economic History Association, the American Historical Association, and Wellington Scottish Athletics Club as potentially subversive organizations I belong to. Thankfully I don't have to explain that, and it makes me extra glad I don't have any specialized skills outside of social science. Probit regression is not yet directly applicable to terrorist activity ... Though someone is probably working on it somewhere.

Somewhere along the line the formatting guide for these forms must have included the instructions that "All Questions be Asked in Mostly Title Case Sentences. Except when they are not for reasons that are hard to work out." And they also lost the Adobe Acrobat manual somewhere along the way too, because the DS-158 has fields where the text expands or contracts to fit the whole box. Like so. It looks odd. The other forms don't work like that.

Whether all this will keep out potential terrorists, I don't know ...

Posted by robe0419 at 3:30 PM

January 10, 2006

Time for tea

One of the small disappointments I have with American life is the absence of that fine Commonwealth social activity called morning tea. (At which you discuss cricket ... except in Canada).

Really, morning tea is nothing more than a 10-20 minute break in the workday when people take a break and have a drink or snack, and converse with their colleagues. Right now, American readers are probably wondering what could be less exciting. What makes morning tea different than a coffee break in an American workplace is that at morning tea [nearly] everyone takes a break at the same time, and gathers in a common space to have a drink or snack. Tea itself is not compulsory, in fact I would assume that in the Antipodean coffee paradise that is Australasia more people now drink coffee at morning tea than tea.

This linguistic imprecision is probably what confuses Americans about morning tea, and the other forms of "tea" that are taken in the Commonwealth. I was trying to explain all the tea distinctions to my wife the other day, and have to confess that she had a point when she said "that doesn't make sense!" Well, neither does silly mid-wicket (another story). Let me see if I can explain it concisely.

  • If you say you are "going out for tea" or that "you will meet for tea" this will likely refer to a traditional English-style afternoon tea (tea or coffee, scones, cucumber sandwiches, floral decorations on the china, etc ...). Thus, when talking to people who don't live with you about social engagements tea means afternoon tea.
  • "Tea" without any qualifiers can also refer to the main evening meal (dinner). If you were to dine out for this meal it would be "dinner," but eaten in with just your normal household it is "tea." If you were invited around to someone's house for tea, and expected to arrive after 6pm you could reasonably assume it was for an evening meal "tea," but not a very fancy one. If it was fancy it would be called "dinner."
  • In the morning, before a reasonable morning tea hour, if you were to refer to "tea" in conversation ("When are we going to stop for tea?") it would be morning tea.
What's not clear about that? Quite a lot, it seems.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:26 PM

December 27, 2005

Boxing Day and plastic knives

Welcome back to work, if that's where you're reading from. Wasn't Boxing Day grand? Still wondering what Boxing Day is and was? I confess to not knowing the answer to this question until I moved to America (<tongue in cheek>a largely Christian nation that can't celebrate Christian holidays properly</tongue in cheek>) and had several versions of this conversation

me: You don't celebrate Boxing Day
puzzled American: What's Boxing Day?
me: It's the day after Christmas.
puzzled American: but why is it called Boxing Day?
me: it's a holiday, it's the day after Christmas
puzzled American: speculates incorrectly on pugilism and returning items to the mall.

The Wikipedia entry on Boxing Day is very lengthy, and quite informative, linking to a site that observes "even though Boxing Day is celebrated in Australia, Britain, New Zealand, and Canada, not all that many in those countries have much of a notion as to why they get the 26th of December off. Boxing Day might well be a statutory holiday in some of those lands, but it's not a well understood one. " Indeed. The OED settles on the definition of gifts to "post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box."

In New Zealand it was not uncommon to leave a gift out for the rubbish man and the milk man and the post man. I use the original gendered terms to signify that this practice may have died out too, along with such common luxuries as home milk delivery.

My most profound thought on Boxing Day was about plastic knives. Americans don't often use knives when they eat. So why do they make disposable cutlery sets with knives? (This website has some interesting stories on the oft-observed differences in what is uncouth behavior with your knife and fork in different parts of the western world. And the U.S. State Department chimes in as well, with the anodyne observation that 'neither method is right or wrong, but only different.")

Posted by robe0419 at 2:45 PM

December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to any and all readers!

Unless you have been hiding from the American media, you'll be aware of the faux-controversy of the "war on Christmas." I find the whole thing mostly hilarious, actually. I'm about as secular as they come (atheistic foreign intellectual, though not from France!) and I'm quite distressed that I haven't been invited to be part of this conspiracy to ban Christmas. Not because I want to ban Christmas, au contraire, but because I'm clearly not moving in the correct liberal, secular, atheistic, non-American [blah, blah, blah] circles to hear anything, anything(!) about the Christmas banning thing.

So ... perhaps there is no plot to ruin Christmas. Thought so!

In any case, I have got more amusement than normal this year out of saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Christmas" to my liberal colleagues and friends who are also not part of any conspiracy, but being Americans say "Happy Holidays." As I mentioned in another post Christmas in New Zealand is like Thanksgiving with presents with Memorial Day weather. It's a largely secular celebration. There's not a lot of religious meaning to it. So you can "Merry Christmas" with no irony to the atheists, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews. It's an expression of good tidings and who could be against that (these people). And so is "Happy Holidays." The words are trivial. The sentiment is all.

Good will and good cheer, and Merry Christmas to you all!

Posted by robe0419 at 7:26 PM

November 29, 2005

Shopping across borders

This photo and headline, on the Washington Post site a few days ago, was not unfortunate in its juxtaposition. But it was sort of funny. It did look at first glance as if Mr. Abbas and Mr Suleiman were leading the crowds into the stores at 5am on the day after Thanksgiving. But apparently not. I hear they don't celebrate Christmas so much in that part of the world.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:54 AM

November 27, 2005

Please don't do bad things. They are against ordinance

The English-speaking countries—to use that quaint phrase that glosses over the Celts, various and sundry indigenous people in North America and Australasia, and some French-Canadians—are united and divided by their common language. What's less appreciated is the odd similarities and differences in other aspects of their cultures.

Take public warning signs, for example. Those metal laminated things telling you to pick up dog poop, not to drink alcohol here, and other useful edicts for better living, have a markedly different form in the different countries.

In New Zealand, and as best I can tell from personal observation and report, Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada, these signs are generally polite and relatively informal. "Please pick up after your dog," "Please do not remove the trolleys from the supermarket carpark," etc ...

In Australia and the United States, by contrast, these types of signs are excessively legalistic. Like this one, for example.

It's not immediately clear to me why potential cart thieves need to know that it is a specific violation of Article 11, Section 841 to remove carts from the premises. I suppose that would make the difference. Perhaps if stealing carts was punishable under the more lenient Article 12, Section 359 more people would do it. But I think not. The information about the penalties may give a thief pause, but the section of the law. Why is it relevant? Why are so many warning signs in America and Australia like this?

In America, at least, it seems especially odd because the majority of people are so preternaturally polite that the excessive legalism of these public appeals seems against the temperament of the country. But Americans also love system, formality, and authority which these signs have in spades. You might appeal to the federal system as an explanation, but then those nice Canadians have simple "please do this" type signs and a federal system. In Australia you might explain these legalistic signs with the notion that the people are the criminal descendents of petty thieves and convicts. And in so doing, forsake any attempt at serious explanation.

Sometimes these signs are tragi-comic. I have seen (and have the film photographs somewhere to prove it) signs in America that inform you that committing suicide by leaping from a particular bridge is against some municipal ordinance. An effective mental health intervention? I think not. In a similar vein, I've seen signs in Australia that say that leaping into a tempting-looking swimming hole in a river is against the municipal ordinances, and only lastly mention that there are submerged rocks in the hole that might hurt you if you lept.

I should say, to forestall some comments, that I generaliz(s)e here. You can find both types of signs in all these countries, but you find many of the very legalistic signs in America and Australia.

It would be nice to end with some conclusive insight into why this is so. But I have none. I just offer this as a long-held observation that I've never put on the internet, and invite your comments on examples, explanations or contradictions.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:22 PM

November 11, 2005

More great moments in American-New Zealand relations

Another highlight of American diplomacy under George Bush. More comedic in its low-level hackery than anything sinister. After all, being ambassador to New Zealand is not exactly a post of great global security importance. But let's see what kind of man Washington has in Wellington:

The Anzus Treaty has become so disused and irrelevant that the United States has apparently forgotten how to say it.

New United States Ambassador Bill McCormick described it four times at his first press conference in Wellington yesterday as the "Anzu" treaty - (pronouncing it "Anzoo").


[Here is my favorite part as the New Zealand Herald lets its readers know how completely unqualified the new ambassador is for the job]

Mr McCormick, 66, is new to diplomacy. His wife, Gail, lived in New Zealand as a young woman in 1974.

He owns a chain of 56 seafood restaurants that will turn over US$300 million ($436 million) in the next year. He is also a big donor and patron of the arts, with a special interest in opera.

Comedy gold! "New to diplomacy." That's one way of putting it. But I'm sure he's a quick learner, right? So what are his qualifications. Well, his wife lived in New Zealand for a while? He owns some seafood restaurants? This will sure help out in New Zealand -- they have a lot of seafood there.

But there's your answer, he's a big donor. Knowing how the American administrations dole out ambassadorships, when they say "donor" they don't mean just to the arts and culture. They mean to the Republican party.

Let's go to the numbers! Totally unsurprisingly, it turns out that Mr. McCormick and his company have given bunches of money to the Republican party in states they have restaurants.

In 2004, McCormick gave $20,000 to the Oregon Republican party and $25,000 to the Republican National Committee. Our [sarcasm]friend[/sarcasm] here in Minnesota Norm Coleman got $1000 for his troubles. All up, Bill "Anzoo" McCormick gave $63,824 to the Republican Party in 2004.

In 2002 McCormick was a little less generous, handing out $2000 to Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), and $1000 to his buddy at the National Restaurant Association Edward Tinsley who was running for the open Republican NM-02 seat in Congress.

It could have been a lot worse for New Zealand. Tinsley, who owns the fine dining establishment, KBOBS Steakhouse gave a paltry $3000 to the Republicans in 2004.

But who knew the ambassadorship to New Zealand was so expensive? $63,000! A small price for a quiet life and a newly exalted title when you return home, perhaps?

Posted by robe0419 at 6:53 PM

Armistice Day

It's Armistice Day. I noticed the 11th hour tick by [electronically] and paused momentarily to think of the First World War. I then also reflected—being in America—on how this anniversary passes by without much notice.

Here, by contrast, is the BBC news page for today

Still remembering World War I. Not a peep on any of the major American papers. But then the First World War barely touched America, the casualty rate was just 8%. In Australia and New Zealand the senselessness of war was brought home when 2/3 of men who went to a war that did not threaten their homes directly returned injured or did not return at all. The small towns of Australia and New Zealand are dotted with memorials to the men who paid the "ultimate sacrifice." Who died for King and Country. The social dislocation, the impact of half a generation missing, wounded or dead haunted both countries throughout the next twenty years.

As is the way with death and despair we are left with some great literature from the period, that probably captures better than any historian now could, the sense of loss. Indeed, the best history of New Zealand in that period is still Randal Burdon's The New Dominion because he'd lived through the period, and could sense what it meant to his contemporaries.

Whereas my impression of America in the inter-war period is a period of relative prosperity followed by a Depression, New Zealand between the wars was a place which struggled to get over the war, and may, just may have had a year or two (1925-1927) of normalcy, of a society that felt optimistic, before things headed south again. And the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Australia.

Isolationism gets a bad name in the United States today, but a little bit of caution about rushing off to foreign wars is not a bad thing.

[late updateYes, yes, I know it's Veteran's Day. But really, that just proves my point that America is not really marking the end of World War I in the way that other combatant countries are.]

(Below the fold is a table of the casualty rates of major combatant countries)

Casualties of the First World War
Country Mobilized Killed Wounded Total Casualties
French Empire 7,500,000 1,385,000 4,266,000 5,651,000 75%
Austria-Hungary 6,500,000 1,200,000 3,620,000 4,820,000 74%
New Zealand 110,000 18,000 55,000 73,000 66%
Australia 330,000 59,000 152,000 211,000 64%
Bulgaria 400,000 101,000 153,000 254,000 64%
Russia 12,000,000 1,700,000 4,950,000 6,650,000 55%
Germany 11,000,000 1,718,000 4,234,000 5,952,000 54%
Turkey  1,600,000 336,000 400,000 736,000 46%
Great Britain 5,397,000 703,000 1,663,000 2,367,000 44%
Romania 750,000 200,000 120,000 320,000 43%
Canada 620,000 67,000 173,000 241,000 39%
Serbia 707,000 128,000 133,000 261,000 37%
Belgium 207,000 13,000 44,000 57,000 28%
Italy 5,500,000 60,000 947,000 1,407,000 26%
Montenegro 50,000 3,000 10,000 13,000 26%
Portugal 100,000 7,000 15,000 22,000 22%
The Caribbean2 21,000 1,000 3,000 4,000 19%
South Africa 149,000 7,000 12,000 19,000 13%
Greece 230,000 5,000 21,000 26,000 11%
USA 4,272,500 117,000 204,000 321,000 8%
India3 1,500,000 43,000 65,000 108,000 7%
Japan 800,000 250 1,000 1,250 0.20%
Africa1 55,000 10,000 unknown unknown -
Posted by robe0419 at 1:25 PM

October 13, 2005

Notes on the state of Virginia

With apologies to Thomas Jefferson for being much less erudite under the title he coined.

Well, first up, do they ever speak funny down there. And so do I, of course. Many episodes of mutual incomprehension while speaking the same language.

The first thing I saw when I stopped for dinner was this sticker on a car.

Think about it for a moment ...

I was down in the Old Dominion to do a 20 mile run, the Stonewall Jackson Ambulance Run. Good event. Well organized, nice up and down course, and a solid 20 miler on the roads. If you're going to race a road marathon you face a dilemma -- you want to practice running on the surface you will race on, but if you run too much on the tarmac your risk of a stress fracture or whatever goes up. Not so good. I lucked out—in the New Zealand sense of getting bad luck—with the weather: four days out the forecast was for calm and 45 degrees, a sort of distance running ideal. What we got was 73 degrees, a 69 degree dewpoint and hours of rain that varied from the misting to torrential. Not quite the same as 45 degrees and calm.

I took the opportunity to have a gander round the Fredericksburg area after the race. In this endeavor I was transported by a car that is, in fact, worse than the Chevy Classic, I derided just last month. I speak of the Chevy Cobalt.

Even less acceleration than its stablemate, a rear window that difficult to see out of, large blind spots ... But it did have this cool feature I'd never seen before. Perhaps I just haven't been around long enough.

Northern Virginia is an interesting place for the suburban sprawl that is occurring on top of Civil War battlefields. Thus you see scenes like this:

Yes, yes, that's Jefferson Davis Highway outside the anonomall. Now, you could make the argument that commerce cures old war wounds, and all this is well and good, building over the scars of the past. That might me true. But I was put in mind of the argument that Tony Horwitz makes in Confederates in the Attic: that the South still hasn't really accepted that it lost the war. When you get right down to it the South was fighting to preserve slavery, and there's not a lot of glory in remembering that. It's necessary and right to remember the war, and preserve parts of its history -- the parks that now sit on old battlefields seem appropriate. But naming a highway after someone—in this case US 1—seems like a commemoration of what they did. Not so good.

At least it was reasonably clear what the Civil War was about. Now we have a war in Iraq where it's not clear what the objective is, and what the troops are doing there. Nevertheless we should support them according to Budget Rent-a-Car who adorned the windows of all their cars in the National Airport lot with these stickers.

The quibbler in me wanted to point out that by national affiliation they're not my troops, though I am paying some amount in taxes for their upkeep. It's true that supporting the troops should be a rather anodyne, apolitical opinion, but these yellow stickers have been rather commonly linked to support of the Republican Party. Surely they know that at Budget?

The rain kept teeming down all day, so I sought out indoor activities, including the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. It's a little more modest than the modern presidential museums and libraries, but then James Monroe did not die a wealthy man or fundraise for his library.

Soaked from the rain and tired of repeating everything I said I bade farewell to James Monroe and drove the lawnmowerChevy Cobalt back to D.C.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:51 PM

October 3, 2005

High variation

The story of the weather in Minnesota is not so much the average, but the variation. Almost every April and October there is a week where it varies more in 7 days than it ever did in Wellington in a normal year.

This is that week: 85° for today, and snow by Wednesday here in Minneapolis. I could lose three fingers and still be able to count on that hand the number of times it snowed during my Wellingtonian childhood. It once hit 30°C in twenty years living there.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:34 AM

"Interesting" things

The Star Tribune had an article from New Zealand yesterday. It makes the country seem a little quaint, but also note the possibly Midwestern use of the word interesting:

Britain's Prince Andrew faced a knotty problem Saturday at the unveiling of a sculpture in New Zealand.

The prince was asked to say something about the sculpture commemorating the links between New Zealand and England when he looked back at a tangled knot of gray rods behind him.

"This sculpture is, um, interesting,'' Andrew said. "Having looked at it now...''

The rest of his words were drowned out by laughter from the crowd ....

The sculpture commemorated the 200th anniversary of the death of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the historic Battle of Trafalgar.

Up the republic!

Posted by robe0419 at 9:27 AM

September 29, 2005

Ineffective opposition

Governments don't win a fourth term, they get lucky and face lousy opposition.

I haven't written much about politics lately. There ain't an election on, at least not in any country I'm particularly interested in, and I do have more interest in elections than the times in between. Now, I could have written about the NZ election and tried to make it seem interesting to foreigners. But try as I might, after five years away I couldn't make it seem that interesting to myself.

For at least as long as I can remember—that would be as far back as 1992, the last century, in fact—there's been talk that the Democrats are in trouble, blah, blah, have no policy, are only sustained by Clinton, blah, blah ... Some of this is not so much disinterested commentary, as it is very interested partisan opinion. So it sure made me sit up a little when I read E.J. Dionne this week. The title the sub-editors have given it, Democrats in Disarray, is perhaps a little stronger than his argument, but no matter. Dionne is not someone who follows the Washington political reporting herd.

And then I read Mark Schmitt's blog today, another person who's not reflexively critical saying the Democrats have a way to go before they'll be competitive in next year's elections.

It all made an interesting compare and contrast to Max Hastings' Guardina op-ed which said that the [British] Conservative leadership contest is "a battle for the honour of losing the next election." The Democrats are not as dysfunctional as the Conservatives, but there's only one more election between the Democrats and that fate.

These are all predictions, not actual results, and the Democrats may yet find a way to regain control of one house in 2006. If you can't actually win elections, they should try to avoid becoming what the British Conservative party is now, or what the Canadian Conservative party was for a good decade in the 1990s, or the Australian and New Zealand Labo[u]r Parties were between 1949 and 1972, or the British Labour Party in the 1980s, or lest we forget, the Republican party between about 1954 and 1994, and the Democratic party in the early twentieth century. Parties that can't win elections or majorities despite ample opportunities.

You can explain some of these cases by reference to peculiar social or political cleavages of the time (Australian Labor in the 1950s, Canadian Conservatives in the 1990s) that parties got caught on the wrong side of. But don't let that get in the way of a good generalization from history.

It is said that oppositions/minority parties don't win elections, governments lose them. What was once snappy insight is now cliche. The story of most elections can be arranged to suit the phrase, even though it would be a highly useful stylized fact if it were only true 2/3 of the time.

The cliche that "oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them" is a necessary, but not sufficient condition. It really does suppose an effective opposition party, one that isn't just waiting for the government to fall in, and has some sort of programmatic and philisophical statements that voters can identify with it, distinct from being the "other party." I don't think the Democrats are at that pathological level of being unable to win winnable elections, but I do think we'll see if they are in just over eleven months.

I think it should be a cliche that any majority party that succeeds in going beyond three terms in control is aided by a defective opposition.* It's difficult for me to think of a case where any government or majority party was not showing strains or tiredness by the time it reached year 9 to 12 of its tenure in office.

Obviously it plays out differently in different cases, but if oppositions can't win when majorities are going for a fourth term, they can remain out of office for a long, long time. For a start, the election was normally winnable, and there's enough people that feel they weren't responsible that parties can turn on themselves. Moreover, after about a decade in opposition, parties start to lose the experience of people who have been in a majority who retire, and gradually you get an opposition party that has spent most of its time in the minority. The collective knowledge of how the party can win, and what to do once you're there, really starts to wither.

This can beget an even longer term decline. When and if the party does take office, they are full of inexperienced people and are more than usually prone to over-reaching and just governing badly. Exhibit A here are the Australasian Labo[u]r parties from 1972-1975, but there are others, the SPD won office in Germany in the 1970s after a long time in opposition, and weren't the most competent administration you've ever seen. There is also the danger of the inward turn, and sometimes I think the Democrats may be on their way to that. Politicians like to win, and if they can't beat the opposition, they'll place a more than usual importance on winning unimportant internal contests. Bad cycle for a party to get caught up in.

2006 is that critical election for the Democrats. If they can't win this, then why should they win others. Given the gross gerrymandering in the House, their best hope is to take back the Senate. And even then, they should forget about gerrymandering, they should campaign as if it doesn't matter, and maybe it won't.

* Obviously (obviously) after 12 years in control, the Republicans are going for their 7th term in charge, not their fourth. But, the American House terms are in some ways artificially short. It makes more sense to think of the electoral cycle as four years, on a par with many other countries. This is not so contrived as the Presidential term is four years, and the interaction with the executive is an important factor in legislative politics and elections.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:52 PM

September 21, 2005

Welcome to Canada!

I was up in Canada again over the weekend

For the curious, I was in Toronto at the Economic History Association conference, and at the University of Guelph to give a seminar. If you're ever in Toronto, do make time to go to Dufflet Pastries. Good stuff.

Now, this may be old news to non-U.S. citizens, but to the Americans used to tripping across the border with just their drivers license, do I have news for you: the Canadian immigration officials are the most inquisitive of any I have ever met. This includes communist countries, and post-9/11 America ...

The only time I've been asked more questions by an immigration official was the first time I entered the U.S. on a student visa. Every subsequent time—yes, even since September 2001—I have had nothing but the most perfunctory enquiries about my purpose in the United States. Now, I concede that I have several things going for me that may account for my welcome, (1) my visa sponsor has been the Department of State, (2) my home country is a small, harmless country not known for its religious fanaticism, and (3) I'm white. I say the last, not because I think it should smooth my way, but because I'm sure it does. Positive supposition, not normative suggestion.

But back to Canada ... every time I've gone, multiple questions about the purpose of my visit. When I was there in April, they asked me more questions about historical census microdata than I've heard in a long time! Who was I meeting? Where was I meeting? My experience was not unique, my Scandinavian colleagues (Norway, big enemy of Canada if you'll recall ...) were also amazed at the level of inquiry about the meeting and their purpose in Canada.

And then, this always gets me, remember I'm going into Canada, they ask about my status in the United States. Guess that student visa must be intriguing ...

This time I decided to show my British passport, and see if the purple passport of the mother country didn't get me a little more respect than the bad photo in my New Zealand passport ... Not so much as it happens. Multiple questions again. How long was the conference? Why was I going to Guelph? (Actually, Guelph was very pleasant to visit, in case you wonder) etc ... And then, what was my status in the United States. I replied that I was a student, and they asked to see my other passport with the other visa ...

After that, I was away and into Toronto to eat pastries, enjoy the comforts of the Westin, and be enthused about economic history. But those Canadians, more aggressive immigration officers than you might suspect!

Posted by robe0419 at 4:24 PM

September 19, 2005

New Zealand is the world's oldest democracy

112 years ago today (or yesterday, because of the dateline) New Zealand became the first country in the world to enfranchise women.

Appropriate, I suppose, that we now look likely to have a three term Labour government led by Helen Clark.

This is good. When people ask me to express the differences between New Zealand and America I sometimes say that the difference is that New Zealand has a childless agnostic woman (with a different last name than her husband) as Prime Minister. It just wouldn't have been quite the same contrast with Don Brash.

Correspondence from other nations defending their right to be regarded as the world's oldest democracy eagerly entertained!

Posted by robe0419 at 11:29 AM

September 7, 2005

So many places, so little time

The New York Times visits central Vietnam (Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An). Fabulous places, the month I spent in Vietnam, with a week in that area, was one of the best trips of my life.

The only odd note in the article is this comment on a Western hotel in Hue: "[it] has a friendly staff, as long as you can tolerate the lobby's flea market atmosphere and bad Internet service. Web rates start at $80 for a double room."

The "flea market atmosphere" is found throughout Vietnam. It's part of being there, and at first it feels like a hassle, like you're an easy mark for the sellers, but after a week or so most people find that they adopt just the right pose of indifference that they can watch and browse without being hassled to buy something. And this hassling is really nothing more than being approached by Vietnamese people eager to sell you something. It's rarely physically threatening. I never felt threatened in the markets.

"Bad internet service"? Well, whatever. A week away from your email is called a holiday.

If you can make the arrangements, staying in the cheaper, less-Westernized, hotels in Vietnam gives a much more authentic experience. You'll be sharing the corridors with the rapidly growing Vietnamese middle class who are out to see their own country, often for the first time ever. And you'll meet actual Vietnamese people, some of whom are genuinely interesting to talk to.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:17 PM

August 18, 2005

Pizza advertising in New Zealand

(From http://www.flickr.com/images/spaceball.gif)

Posted by robe0419 at 1:37 PM

August 16, 2005

Veering left

If it doesn't kill you, you don't adapt.

Driving on the left is the natural thing to do (according to C. Northcote Parkinson), but it's not the way most of the world does it.

It's not at all difficult to adapt from side-to-side, as a driver or pedestrian, since the whole thing is very Darwinian. If you get it wrong you could die! Really, all it takes is about three weeks of being very conscious about what you're doing (look left, right, left again or vice versa when crossing the road) and it's pretty much ingrained.

The other social conventions that follow from the driving conventions do not seem to have embedded themselves in my little mind after five years on the other side. Much to my surprise.

Most of the time I do not walk down the wrong side of the sidewalk, but the habits of 25 years of veering left when faced with oncoming people is still with me. Last year I nearly ran down a woman with a heavy baggage cart at LA airport as I hastened between the terminals. As I had just been six weeks in left-hand drive/walk countries this was understandable.

But last Friday I was a good 18 months away from left hand drive/walk conventions and I still did the wrong thing. Ambling along the Minnesota river trails a mountain biker came round the corner, in the center of the trail, where I was running. So I veered to the left. He shouted at me. I kept on going left. Instinctively. Correctly. He skidded. The river loomed beside him. He put his hands out to save himself. I hopped to the right and managed to avoid his bike flying out from underneath him across the trail, and he got good value out of his gloves as he rolled onto the gravel. He picked himself up and swore at me. I apologized, hoping the accent would suffice as an explanation. But he was already peddling away, still swearing at me.

Watch out for me on the trails! And keep to the left right.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:18 PM

August 5, 2005

My past is a foreign country

It starts with fruit cake, because everyone can understand fruit cake.

Before I went "home" to New Zealand for the first time, after 3.5 years away I had a little crisis of confidence about what I'd confidently been telling Americans, that fruit cake was the Christmas and wedding cake of choice in Australasia (and Britain), and that it was wildly popular. (The secret is the alcohol, as the Temperance Union sort of knew.) Then as the departure date approached I wondered ... what if it had just been my family? what if my memory was misleading me? what if people didn't really eat it so much?

Three and a half years is not exactly a long time away from home, but it's long enough that you can start to forget what things were like, and lose touch. It was enough to make me see why some countries restrict their diplomats to being away for no longer than four years, except in special circumstances. How can you credibly represent a country you've really only vacationed in during the last few years?

I was reminded of these thoughts the other day when meeting some people who were moving to Wellington (from whence I came five years ago). I expounded rather confidently on what the city was like. The weather has likely not changed much, nor the steep topography, but the music scene? the restaurants? Well, it sure used to be good! Perhaps it still is. I will remember it that way until I next live there for a while.

One of the points that David Lowenthal makes in his book, or at least that I took from his book, The Past is a Foreign Country is that living in a place now doesn't privilege your understanding of the history of the place. America in 1920 is pretty much as foreign to most Americans as it is to me.

The converse is also true; after you've lived somewhere and moved away you're always carrying around a somewhat frozen picture of where you used to be. It amused me when I visited America around the time of the Clinton impeachment that I was occasionally asked what "the rest of the world thought about [impeachment]." That made me laugh because I didn't have much ability to speak for the Africans and the Asians and the remaining 99.95% of the world. But I would have quite confidently extrapolated my own views to what New Zealanders thought. More fool, me.

Six years on I'd hesitate a little more before I'd even generalize some things about where I grew up. The view I have of New Zealand is pretty much frozen in 2000 (last century! if you think of it like that), and will probably remain that way for a while.

While outsiders and travelers can often draw a scintillating portrait of the places they go—precisely because they are standing a little outside the society they're commenting on—I wonder if expatriates can do the same with their home country (and you can substitute far-flung states for countries, if you like). I have thought that over time it all became clearer in retrospect, the essence of the place, its mores and manners.

Now I'm not so sure that is does become clearer. If you go back you can be Tocqueville at home. But if you stay away, you're really just re-arranging your own memories of the place, and fashioning them into a seemingly more coherent story. Seeming is important, but it isn't being, and it isn't understanding. Memories can delude, until your own past life becomes nostalgia.

But I was right about the fruit cake. It really is good, and they/we really do eat it. Ain't the Empire grand?

Posted by robe0419 at 2:45 PM

July 26, 2005

The New World conceit

America is uniquely screwed up about class. So are the other new world countries

As I write this I'm coding occupations from a database of the complete 1880 census of the United States. Mechanically, what I'm doing is looking at 80 character descriptions of people's jobs, and giving them 5 digit codes in an Access database. In the end this will allow anyone who cares (and is not a genealogist) to make some sense of the 550,000 different responses 37 million Americans (the other 13 million were under the age of 10, and thus ineligible to answer, or neglected to give a response) gave to the basic request for the "Profession, occupation, or trade of each person, male or female."

Right about now I am working my way through assorted odds and sods who work on the railroad, thinking about whether someone who describes their job as "tends station" is like a "station master" and kind of a manager, or whether "tends station" is more of a subordinate clerical position. And what about someone who "works at railroad station." What do they do? If they were the station master, surely they would say that? Probably "works at railroad station" means the man (this is 1880) does general duties at the station; perhaps selling tickets, unloading freight, calling the arrival and departure of trains. In the end, some of the actual meaning of the job is lost to history.

I mention this to dispel any lingering notions that historical demography and economic history are glamorous profession, but also to make the point by example that while clarity may be elusive the distinctions do matter. There was a substantial difference in pay and status between the station master and the grunt who unloaded goods or shoveled coal. Needless to say, being the President of the railroad was even more prestigious.

(At the risk of losing my readers in this digression, there were lots of small railroad companies in 19th century America, many of which were incorporated, so being president of a railroad could mean being president of a 6 mile transfer line, or being James J. Hill and holding sway over the plains and northwest. More of the former than the latter.)

Class is a slippery subject, and I have considerable sympathy for the New York Times endeavor to say something about class in America in their Class Matters series. They're not the only ones; the LA Times examined risk and inequality for families back in October 2004, and the Wall Street Journal looked at inter-generational income mobility in a May/June 2005 series (but for that you'll need a subscription, sorry).

The Times series gets the most criticism, because it was more ambitious, and because it's the New York Times. Paper of record, liberal elite and all that.

They cop it from all over the place --none of the people commenting on the series had much love for it after the obligatory "glad someone's looking at this" comment. Two of the more substantial criticisms come from Chris Lehmann in the Boston Phoenix, and Jack Schafer in Slate.

Lehmann's take is that:

Social class is at the core of the Times’ institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands.

Anyone who has ever read the catalog of heiresses marrying scions (Yes. Still. In 2005), and doctors marrying lawyers (a more recent development) that is the Times' Weddings and Celebrations section will know the ring of truth in this charge.

Schafer's criticism is rambling, and all over the map (but then so is his target). He makes an advance on the argument that class is really moot these days, because most everyone has more and better material possessions than people did back in the day, which he defines as the 1960s.

Then he says relying on surveys that exclude immigrants--who have high relatively high inter-generational mobility--"places a cloud" over the "whole project. Really? When only 11% of the country is foreign born I'd say that places a cloud over, ummmm, 11% of the project. But whatever. What's 89% of the population when you have an axe to grind?

Then he says that because choices and circumstances differ (1) between individuals and families at a point in time, and (2) for one person over time, you can't make sense of class at all:

Lives are in such flux over any two points in time—one ages, marries, divorces, spawns, changes jobs, gets sick, gets sicker, gets well, moves to a new climate, etc.—that it's maddeningly complex to determine whether one's stock is up or down .... No consumer price index, academic data, and statistical tool known to man can crack these nuts.

That's true, people's lives are up and down, but there are ways to account for these individual variations in circumstances.

Finally, Schafer lights upon the idea that journalists in New York are particularly envious of the people they report on. The whole series, he suggests, is really an expression of journalists own status anxiety:

Journalists are notoriously sensitive to matters of class and status, especially a New York journalist with a $125,000 salary that might make him an object of envy to a reporter living in Lansing, Mich., but that stigmatizes him as a knuckle-dragging proletarian on his home turf .... If they're blue about class in America, you can't blame them.

This is the admonition to look at an author's perspective motivation gone amok, beyond parody. Nobody can write about class because we're all so invested in our part of the class structure.

Now you can see the continuing appeal of Tocqueville . It's the foreign observer, mixing easily with the locals, traveling the country, who can see the people and their social relations as they really are. Something to aspire to.

But what I've seen, as a foreigner from another new world country, is that American ambivalence about the existence of class relations is not unique. It's unique in its particular forms—the usual things that can be used to explain why American social history is not the same as Canadian/Australian/New Zealand social history: race and religion—are relevant here too. But the national myth—or delusion—that class does not exist here persists.

Tocqueville observed about America in a section entitled "Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly so Called" that

In democracies servants are not only equal among themselves, but it may be said that they are, in some sort, the equals of their masters

When Tocqueville spoke of "manners" he didn't mean how you hold your knife and fork (<joke>and just as well for Americans whose incompetent use of these instruments is the disgrace of the civilized world</joke>), but rather of the way in which people of different economic circumstances conversed and interacted.

His observation that these interactions were less formal and more equal than in Britain was echoed in the Antipodes. In Australia and New Zealand it was said that:

'Jack's as good as his master' here, and even better in some cases

This rather echoes Tocqueville's observations from earlier in the century about the United States.

Contemporary [19th century] observers attributed this equality of interaction to the economic mobility in the new world, and one man one vote elections. If men could advance rapidly and far from humble origins (inter-generational mobility) and humble starts (career advancement) then servants might soon be masters. Moreover, in the voting booth servants and masters spoke with the same weight.

There was, of course, inequality in the new world. But these new world countries came of age with the justifiable belief that there was more economic mobility and political equality than in Europe. Comparing at least Britain and the United States we know this was true. Contemporary observers were not wrong. The national myths of the classless society was grounded in something real. It was always likely a bit of an exaggeration, but it expressed some reality, and reflected an important ideal.

In the last century two things have changed (just two? not really. two things that are relevant). We know the United States has become less economically mobile, (it's probably true for Australia and New Zealand too) compared to its past and to European countries; and old world Europe has become more politically equal.

The exceptionalism of the relationship between rich and poor, between the new world and the old, reflects an historical ideal, rather than a current reality. The myths of the new world classless societies attributed mobility and easy social relations to the character of immigrants and the bountiful opportunities of abundant land.

We tend to forget that economic mobility in a society does not spring just from the good character of its population and [what appears to be] free land. Policy, government policy, is important too.

Universal male suffrage created a constituency for policy that distributed benefits to many white men. When land appeared free it was easy to distribute benefits to the relatively poor without taking from the wealthy. That is a harder trick to play when land is no longer free, abundant or very useful. Policy that promotes economic mobility may advance the interests of many at the expense of some others. But governments that want to stay in office have to wonder about balancing the votes they will lose when they take and tax, with the votes they will win when they spend and distribute.

That's a harder trick to pull off. Getting the right balance between government intervention to ensure opportunity, and government interventions that do too much to ensure outcomes is not straightforward.

We should not kid ourselves in the New World that because we have a history of high economic mobility, and because we idealize mobility, that class does not exist and does not matter. Because class has many dimensions—measurable and not—we will never really understand it. But that does not mean that class doesn't exist. The belief that a history of opportunity and an ideal of mobility persists into the present is the conceit of the new world.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:41 PM

July 21, 2005

Why Americans might care about New Zealand's election

Like "worthy Canadian initiatives," foreign readers may yawn when they hear of "Elections due in New Zealand." Anyone still awake out there?

A brief primer on New Zealand politics can be found at the bottom of this entry.

For the first time since 1981 the likely winner is not clear in advance. Only a year ago the Labour government looked odds on to win another comprehensive victory. Now, the National party which was the dominant party in New Zealand politics between 1949 and 1984, has a chance to win a shot at government. Owing to the electoral system, any majority government would likely have to be a coalition with the populist and unpredictable New Zealand First party. Both Labour and National might well prefer to take their chances on running a minority government, seeking support on an issue-by-issue basis.

There are a couple of reasons Americans might care about the New Zealand election. The first is trade. Both the Labour and National parties are committed to free trade. New Zealand's commitment to further liberalization of world trade is not going to change with this election. Labour's trade diplomacy has been to support the ongoing World Trade Organisation negotiations, pursue free trade agreements with small countries (recently concluding an agreement with Chile and Singapore. This is not as crazy as it sounds), and to plough ahead with further economic integration with Australia. (For whatever reason, it has historically been the norm that New Zealand and Australian bilateral relations are strongest and most productively focussed on issues of joint concern when the domestic governments are not of the same party.)

Both parties would love to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. However, it's pretty clear that the current American administration does not really negotiate free trade agreements, it "negotiates" "free trade" agreements.

The Bush administration has pretty clearly demonstrated that it will put out the trade agreement it wants, and it's a take it or leave it offer for the other country, and American industries with an interest in the trade deal. That's not really negotiation. It's also not really free trade.

The Australian FTA proposal, a good template for what New Zealand might be offered, required Australia to substantially modify its pharmaceutical purchasing and pricing policies, and in exchange accept fairly limited access to the American market for its primary produce (meat and wool).

It's also clear that the Bush administration sees trade diplomacy as having a symbiotic relationship with security and military diplomacy. Australia was offered a FTA because it had been supportive of American foreign policy after 9/11.

Such are the realities of great power politics. It has been made fairly clear to New Zealand that a bilateral FTA will only follow when the New Zealand government modifies its foreign policy in other areas. For a while, the US clearly hoped that NZ might offer more than the 40 engineers it had sent to serve with the British in Iraq in late 2003. But now it's clear that the US is going to have trouble convincing anyone to pony up men or troops for Iraq, the sticking point in relations has returned to being New Zealand's ban on nuclear powered or nuclear armed ships entering its waters.

New Zealand's security position is relatively benign. Situated where it is, several thousand more miles from Asia than Australia, the country's perception of international threats is quite different. While Australia has legitimate security concerns because of its proximity to Indonesia, New Zealand has a much larger moat to hide behind. This is not to defend a blindness to the world situation, but merely to indicate that there are good reasons for New Zealand to believe it faces few external threats to its sovereignty in the near future. It may be that in 10 or 20 years, Indonesia or China or Vietnam, or some other large Asian country does pose a threat to New Zealand's security, but the cost-benefit on arming against low-probability, distant threats is small.

Similarly, because of New Zealand's geographic location, the public wonders why the US should find it so necessary to its global strategy to send nuclear armed or powered vessels. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the most common reason for foreign navies to visit New Zealand ports is so that sailors can have sex. I exaggerate slightly, to be sure, but "R&R" is a major reason for naval visits to New Zealand.

For both these reasons—public perception of limited external threat, and scepticism about New Zealand's importance to global strategy—the anti-nuclear policy remains very popular. Eighty percent of the population support the ban. This constrains any government that has to deal with the United States.

The National party put out feelers earlier this year about repealing the ban on nuclear powered vessels, and was pilloried in the press for doing so. Subsequent statements on the matter have been much more cautious, with the leader musing that any change might have to be approved by a referendum. Nevertheless, it's clear that the National Party is prepared to "modify" the nuclear ships ban, in pursuit of a FTA with the United States.

Thus, the results of the New Zealand election are likely to have some impact on relations at the inter-governmental level. My own view is that Labour's policy and instincts have been broadly right. The chimera of a bilateral FTA with the United States is not worth so much as to accept the approach of linking trade and military/security diplomacy. If the US market was much more important to NZ than it is, or the bilateral FTA could be expanded to include other countries, then the benefits might be greater it might be worth it.

But as it stands, bilateral trade agreements are clearly inferior to freer world trade, and it's not clear how long the Bush administration's linking of trade and security diplomacy will last. Putting one's diplomatic efforts into the WTO negotiations is likely to have a larger, long-term payoff for New Zealand. It is clear that any Bush administration-negotiated "free trade" agreement for New Zealand would maintain substantial barriers to real free trade in agricultural products. That's a shame, because American consumers are losing out on cheaper meat and diary products than they currently have.

While I'm not privy to whatever has been said between governments, the debate in public about the nuclear ships ban suggests that neither side has worked behind the scenes for a compromise. On the one hand, the Bush administration waxes loud and long about the importance of democracy. On the other, it then puts pressure on friendly countries to ignore what their voters believe. We saw this in the run-up to invasion of Iraq when the Chilean government was caught between 90% domestic opposition to the invasion, and the government's desire to maintain good relationships with the United States.

The way forward for the next New Zealand government (nothing will happen until after the election), Labour or National, should be to inform the American government privately that they would welcome a conventional ship visit, and to suggest a suitable vessel. After all, information on the power source of American navy ships is publicly accessible in Jane's Fighting Ships.

The other way forward is for the governments to co-operate on soft power issues. I've said before (but am too lazy to link to it) that one of the flaws in America's official soft-power strategy at the moment is the hubris that the United States is the only force for democracy in the world. World's oldest democracy, blah, blah, blah ... If only it were true. A little recognition that other countries have substantial experience with democracy as well, might actually help in spreading democracy. As well as the older democracies (like New Zealand), it seems that the lesson of the last twenty years from places like South Africa, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, and Mozambique is that democracy can grow and flourish in diverse conditions and cultures.

The trouble with democratization as a diplomatic goal is that democracy is a process, not an outcome. American official pronouncements speak as if repealing legislation, like the nuclear ships ban, with 80% popular support, were so easy. It's not, and it's even harder when governments appear to have been walked into that position under pressure. New Zealand's election will have little consequence for many Americans, but it will be interesting to observe whether the Bush administration has learned much about diplomacy in friendly countries. When an administration can't even manage its relationships with its friends, its no wonder they struggle with their enemies.

Potted introduction to New Zealand politics

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, with a unicameral parliament. The executive is drawn from the members of the legislature (=House of Representatives). The Prime Minister is the head of the Cabinet, and [generally] the leader of the largest party grouping in the House of Representatives. The House has 120 Members of Parliament (=MPs)

Elections must be held at least every three years, but the government can call an early ("snap") election at any time if they feel like it.

The voting system is called "mixed-member proportional," and is less complicated than it sounds. Everyone casts a "party vote," and an electorate (=district/constituency) vote. The party vote determines the overall party make-up of the parliament. Once the winners of the 65 electoral districts have been determined, parties are then enough list seats to get them up to their required number of seats. So, let's say a party wins 1/3 of the party votes, and 30 of the [geographic] electorate seats. They are entitled to 40 seats in parliament. Their next 10 members are then drawn from the remaining 55 seats that are distributed to make seats in parliament proportionate to votes across the whole country.

The two main parties are the Labour and National parties. The Labour party dates to 1916, and is one of the younger social democratic parties in the western world. It tends to support somewhat more generous social welfare programs, and government intervention in the economy, and more independent foreign policy. However, is is very supportive of free global trade, and Labour party treasurers have nearly always supported conservative fiscal policies. It governed from 1935-49, 57-60, 72-75, 84-90 and 1999 to the present.

The National Party dates to 1936, and is similar to the British Conservative party or the Australian liberal party. It has historically been identified with the urban wealthy and employers, and the rural farming communities as its core supporters, but has supported the welfare state enough to win lower and middle income votes. It first won office in 1949, and governed from 1949-1957, 1960-1972, 1975-1984, and 1990-1999.

Both parties are, compared to America, socially "liberal." Reflecting New Zealand's secular culture, there is a very small constituency for bringing religion into politics. Indeed, recent New Zealand prime ministers who have been church attenders have gone out of their way to stress that they would not let their religious beliefs influence their politics. Abortion has not been a topic of major political debate since the 1970s.

There are several smaller parties in parliament, the New Zealand First party, a populist party opposed to immigration from Asia, and supportive of more government intervention in the economy; a Green party, a small "Progressive" party, and the "United Future" party who are slightly conservative on social and cultural issues, but liberal on economic issues (in the sense of favoring less regulation and government spending).

Posted by robe0419 at 1:42 PM

July 7, 2005

Always pack your knife in your checked luggage

Great article in the Guardian about the challenges the Swiss army knife has faced since September 11th.

Having owned a Swiss army knife since I was but a boy I can attest to their usefulness. I am not one of those exceedingly practical people who carries it all the time on their belt, and can fix locomotive engines with the toothpick. More the type to use the scissors to cut a loose thread from my rarely worn dress shirt before an out-of-town conference.

I always packed mine in my checked luggage. It never occurred to me, even before September 11 2001, that they would permit 3 inch sharp blades and saws on planes.

Buy a Swiss army knife. But always keep it in your checked luggage.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:00 PM

July 2, 2005

Through the center of the earth

When I was a kid in New Zealand if we were digging in the sandpit or the garden the proverb was that if you kept digging through the earth you'd get all the way to Spain.

(American kids, I hear, are told they'll get to China. This is false, but no child is going to empirically disprove this lie by continuing to dig, so no harm done probably)

For whatever reason I've met more Spanish people in Minnesota (at the University to be specific) than I ever imagined. All of them report that children in Spain are told that if they keep digging they will get to New Zealand.

I think it is kind of cool that the proverbs people tell their children half a world away mirror each so neatly. It's not as if Spain looms large in the New Zealand imagination otherwise, and I imagine that New Zealand is not often on the minds of most Spaniards. Except when children are digging ...

Posted by robe0419 at 6:22 PM

June 30, 2005

The 1950s today

David Howard in the New Zealand Herald:

Prime Minister Helen Clark has expressed her preference for removing the Union Jack (correctly the Union Flag) from the design of our New Zealand flag. It is a remarkable prejudice to be found in a prime minister who owes her position to the traditions we have inherited from the British connection.
... snip ...
This shared heritage is both useful and comforting. When we see the Union Jack on a flag we can make certain assumptions about that country: that English will be spoken, that there will be parliamentary democracy with a free press and freedom of religion, that there will be a strong Christian tradition of tolerance and charity, that the rule of law will apply including habeas corpus, that ideals of public service and loyal opposition will be fundamental political concepts.

The first thing a corrupt government would want to do is distance itself from all those positive political values.

What a bizarre argument! Americans will doubtless find this funny in the way they find all worthy Canadian initiatives funny, but the flag-changing movement in Australia and New Zealand really have no greater aim than to have flags more like Canada's. That may seem like setting your revolutionary sights too low, but such are the ways of political change in the Commonwealth.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:52 PM

June 24, 2005

A Jewish Christmas

Great moments in the history of New Zealand-United States relations.

Visiting New Zealander (agnostic, lapsed Unitarian parents): What about Christmas? Do you celebrate Christmas?
American (Jewish): We don't celebrate Christmas. We're Jewish.
Visiting New Zealander: That's funny. All the Jews I know in [Australia and New Zealand] celebrate Christmas.
American: Really. Hmmm ...
Me: The best way to think of it is that Christmas in New Zealand is like Thanksgiving with presents with Memorial Day weather.
Assorted Americans: That's weird.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:29 AM

June 16, 2005


There was a hilarious exchange on a message board I read about the metric system, and America's half-hearted adoption of the same.

It was hilarious that people could get so animated about a measurement system. Neither side did their cause much glory. Here's a hint to American metric enthusiasts: many of your arguments about why we should adopt the metric system either insult the average person's intelligence (Americans are too dumb to see why metric is best!), or insult commonly held views that America is a great country (It's a cause of our national decline and wastage that we haven't gone metric!).

The debate may be hilarious, but it's well-formed, and its participants agree on its terms. Supporters of retaining imperial measurements often argue, and I paraphrase, that Americans are simple people who know and prefer the mile, the pound, and the fluid ounce. They also argue that the [modified] imperial measurements that Americans use are a key part of our national distinctiveness. [Our???!!! ed. Clearly conflicted, and trying to ingratiate myself with my audience]

The metric system will be a long time coming in America if its organized advocates are its best hope. If metric is the way of the future, the US Metric Association's website is the way of the past. They can't even afford their own domain name!

Metric advocates should give it up with the argument that America should convert because other countries have. That argument didn't work for capital punishment, or slavery, or any other change in American history. The argument that "we should do something because foreigners have done it" works well in countries with manifold insecurities. Not America.

Metric advocates should also acknowledge that the mile, the pound and the fluid ounce that you know so well are perfectly good measuring systems for length, weight and volume. On their own.

The advantage of the metric system is that it scales well, so that it's easy to convert between measurements of vanilla extract (millilitres), the amount of blood in your body or gas in your car (litres) and the amount of water in Lake Superior (litres). Or, to convert between the length of your fingernail (millimetres), a school ruler (centimetres), your height (metres), and the distance between your house and Chicago (kilometres).

If you can work out conversions in imperial units, the metric system will be a snap. Metric advocates should flatter Americans into changing measurement systems, rather than insult them by saying that if you understand imperial, metric will be even easier. Metric: a clever system for a clever people.

Or the republic will fall, and those metric Canadians will take over ...

Posted by robe0419 at 6:05 PM

June 6, 2005

If you keep going round ...

This ad appears in a recent issue of Time magazine.

My interest was piqued by the appearance of New Zealand in the ad. When you grow up in New Zealand you learn to spot a "Z" (that's Zed, not Zee, by the way) in a page of text within 5 seconds.

The point of the ad is that those warm, cuddly and cheap Canadian pharmacies might be selling you drugs from other places. Places that sound far away or dangerous! Or both. Those foreigners might kill you! Or make you sick.

It's both hilarious and insidious at the same time. Of all the countries they mention, I might be worried by pharmaceuticals from China or Vietnam. Might. I just don't know. I guess I'd trust the judgment of the Lonely Planet guides on what to do when sick in those countries.

But the other countries? Israel? Guess that conspiracy theory about all the lobbyists in Washington being intertwined must be wrong if the drug companies put up Israel as an example of places making dark, dirty, dangerous drugs.

It's insidious because the idea that drugs from foreign countries are somehow dangerous preys on all the baseless ignorance a lot of Americans have about the rest of the world.

A word to those people: to get to China, Vietnam and New Zealand it's actually quicker to head west. Don't buy drugs from companies that don't know basic geography. They're trying to scam you!

The final irony in the ad is that the reason American drugs are meant to be so much safer is because of the government approval process. So much for companies being responsible because it's in their own self-interest.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:37 PM

June 4, 2005

nous sommes des fraudes

lindie emails me with the following message:

Subject: hello
Message: je rentre en contacte avec vous afin d'avoir de votre part une assistance
de tres grande importance, car je vous estime digne de confiance.
Je me nome koukebene Lindie, l'épouse du défunt Benoît Koukebene qui était
l'ancien ministre des ressources minérales du Congo Brazzaville pendant
la période du Président Pascal Lissouba avant que son régime ait été renversé
il y a quatre ans. Sur le 16ème vers 2002 mon mari était malade et il partit
en France pour le traitement et plus tard est mort du cancer et il a été
enterré. Pendant sa tenure mon mari a fait la déposition de la somme de
$8, 500,000(huit million cinq cents milles dollars américains) de l'attribution
du pétrole brut qui lui a été donnée par le gouvernement, cet argent était
la société de fiducie fiduciaire logée dans une compagnie de sécurité ici
Abidjan Cote d'ivoire car des objets de valeur de famille et l'expédition
ont été voulus en ma faveur entant qu'au près des parents.

Let me guess! Someone died. Their money is sadly tied up in some African country. But if I give them my bank account number they'll give me a cut for helping them get the money out.

Does anyone know how to reply to "Lindie" in French? And shouldn't it be "bonjour," instead of hello?

Posted by robe0419 at 4:46 PM

May 23, 2005

Tips for readers

The Star Tribune has a barrage of letters with advice and strong feelings about appropriate amounts to tip.

The difference between 15% and 20% is hardly something I'd have thought justified language like "those food servers should be sent to jail" and "That woman ... is an idiot."

Me? I'm just glad to know that lots of people are all at sea with the appropriate percentages. It isn't just faulty information being given to foreigners.

I'm also glad to see that Miss Manners also thinks that folding service charges into the bill would be better:

You see why Miss Manners has been railing against the institution of tipping, with its silly pretense of being voluntary that brings out the worst in both giver and receiver? Putting the service charge on the bill is a big improvement, but building it into the cost of the food, as service is figured into the cost of buying other items, would be better. The very term “gratuity” inspires the nastiness you encountered, and a parallel unpleasantness on the part of some recipients who try to shame tippers into giving more.

One of the strange things about being an historian is that you can write a sentence like "tipping is actually quite new in the United States," and then realize that the early twentieth century is not "quite new" to most people.

In any case, no matter your perspective, tipping has only been around a hundred years or so in the United States. Economist Ofer Azar provides a good summary of the literature in a working paper "The History of Tipping - From Sixteenth-Century England to United States in the 1910s" and writes:

Tipping did not exist in the United States before the Civil War, but by the end of the nineteenth century it was prevalent throughout the nation and in many occupations. Yet, despite its prevalence, many regarded tipping as an evil and an un-American and undemocratic custom that should be eliminated. Those who disliked the tipping custom claimed that it is degrading to the tip-takers who have to “ask for favors” instead of earning a fair wage, and that tipping makes the tip-takers servile and creates different classes – the tip givers being superior to tip takers. Several customer and worker groups tried to abolish the practice, and in several states anti-tipping laws were passed around the 1910s.

And so to the present confusion ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:24 AM

May 17, 2005

Finchley and Golders Green

One of the cool things about the British election was hearing all those cool electorate (U.S.: district, Canada: riding) names. Here's a map you can zoom up over and see them pop up.

A few random ones: Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Ceredigion. St Ives. (Not related to this St. Ives AFAIK) Louth & Horncastle.

The Canadian ridings have some interesting names too. Nunavut. Churchill River. Humber--St. Barbe--Baie Verte.

Australia has some Aboriginal names for electorates, and other exotic ones: Gellibrand. Kooyong. Warringah. Capricornia.

The indigenous electorate names pop up in New Zealand too: Aoraki. Maungakiekie. Tukituki.

Of course, all four countries have a large number of less exotically named electorates. North, East, West, or South Somewhere or Somewhere East, North, West or South are common too.

But it's still a nice touch, and makes elections more interesting. If it could avoid becoming a partisan fight, it would be a cool thing for American districts, and help make them more identifiable. Who really knows where the 8th district of Indiana is if you don't live in the district?

Gerrymandered districts probably make the task of giving a good name to districts harder. And the absence of real hills or mountains in many parts of America takes away one source of names. And some of them are so large it's difficult to pick a good name that would be accepted by everyone. But rivers, lakes, and other natural phenomena, along with indigenous names are all a good way of naming electorates.

All the at-large districts could be named after their states. That would be easy.

For example in Minnesota (district maps here), the 8th District (Duluth, the Range and the Shore) could easily be named "Arrowhead." Minnesota's 3rd district (western suburbs of the Twin Cities) could be "Lake Minnetonka." The 7th district (northwest Minnesota) could be Itasca. That's easy ... The 6th and 2nd (northwest and southeast suburbs of the Twin Cities) districts defy easy naming. And the 4th (St. Paul + suburbs) and 5th (Minneapolis + suburbs) could easily be ... St. Paul and Minneapolis, but perhaps that would offend the good people of St. Louis Park or Roseville. Tricky, tricky ... this is why those proverbial foreigners give the job to an independent commission made up of judges and geographers.

Suggestions welcome ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:53 AM

May 12, 2005

Race you!

Clancy Ratliff's report on the Proposals for the Responsible Use of Racial & Ethnic Categories in Biomedical Research: Where Do We Go From Here? conference took me back to when I used to work in health services research.

The following is an anecdote, but I hope a useful one. We had a famous foreign researcher being interviewed for the position of Director. One of the New Zealand researchers asked the candidate how they would incorporate Maori and Polynesian concerns into his research on the efficacy and efficiency of health services. After struggling for an answer he replied [and I paraphrase]

I would include an independent variable for that in a regression

Outrage at the man's insensitivity to Maori and Pacific Islander concerns followed.

This answer exemplied what Raj Bhopal has called "black box epidemiology." Race or ethnicity is thought to affect health status or the outcome of treatment, but the precise pathways are unknown. The [dummy] variables for racial categories are generally retained in the model because they have statistically significant co-efficients, even if their effect on the outcome may be trivial.

I wager that despite this flurry of well-researched articles telling us that race and ethnicity as conventionally used have little purchase on answering medical questions, we'll continue to see it.

At level of the lab or the office it's because researchers in a black box of their own see race as a convenient proxy for something else they can't measure that well, and may not even be sure of how to go about measuring.

But my foreigner-in-the-Antipodes anecdote suggests something else: politics.

In New Zealand there is a significant political constituency for funding research into Maori and Pacific Islander health issues. The particular way in which that works is unique to New Zealand, but race and ethnicity are a live element in political discourse around the world.

Self-identification may not be a way out of the conceptual morass for researchers, but as long as people see race as part of their own identity it will be a part of social research. Bio-medical research is conducted by social people, and is not immune from the social and political currents around it.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:43 PM

May 2, 2005

Cricket and the colonies

From one exciting topic (taxes) to another ... (via Crooked Timber, where the comments are the usual collection of the inane prattling to the academy)

Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman (elder statesman and rising thing young, respectively, in the Harvard Sociology Department) had a piece in the New York Times yesterday (illegal PDF copy here for future reference) that purports to explain why cricket faded into obscurity in North America (yes, that includes Canada) but is wildly popular in Australasia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, "the subcontinent" (i.e; Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) and the West Indies.

Their thesis, simply stated, is:

Cricket lost ground in North America because of the egalitarian ethos of its societies.

Frankly, I don't get it. Perhaps the article is a little clearer on this startling new interpretation of Australian and New Zealand social history, not to mention American, but it just isn't plausible to me. Regarding Australia, they say

....less glamorous roles like bowling and fielding were assigned to social inferiors while those of specialist batsmen and team captain were reserved for elites. Much the same was true of 19th-century Australia, at the time a highly stratified colony whose masses were descended from prisoners. Cricket helped antipodean elites cultivate their Englishness, but the size and isolation of their European settlements limited the extent to which they could be truly exclusive.

It may be true that "less glamorous roles like bowling and fielding were assigned to social inferiors while those of specialist batsmen and team captain were reserved for elites," but calling Australia a highly stratified colony misrepresents how contemporary 19th century Australians saw their own country, and how it actually was. Since the Australasian censuses were destroyed we'll never really know how fluid the social structure was in 19th century Australia and New Zealand (the US had a much more fluid social structure than Britain. We know that.). It's abundantly clear that the popular view in both Australia and New Zealand was that social mobility was a good thing, and that marked social distinctions were bad.

Moreover, can you really say that 19th century America was a more egalitarian place than Australia or New Zealand? You can if you willingly ignore how race is related to class, and if you want to pretend that some regions with a social ethos a little removed from egalitarianism (that would be the South) are not really part of America. In other words, you can't advance the argument that 19th century America was substantially more egalitarian than 19th century Australasia without appearing a little foolish.

I admire the authors' bold willingness to explain in 750 words why one great game flourished in one place and another great game flourished elsewhere, but if that is the best they can do it doesn't inspire great confidence in their research.

UPDATE (3 May 2005 @ 5.25pm CDT): Not only do Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman have a flawed interpretation of North American history but they also have a damned shaky model of Indian history too, according to Sepoy at Chapati Mystery. (Tip o' the hat to Ralph Luker for the Chapati Mystery link)

UPDATE II (4 May 2005 @ 11.00am CDT): Rob McDougall is more sympathetic to Patterson and Kaufman, and advances a more plausible argument for baseball's advance in North America -- good marketing.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:30 PM

Taxes, fees and credits

Via Minnesota Politics the news that the governor and the House Republican leadership want to cut the renters' tax credit.

Since I'm not likely to get the renter's tax credit this tax year anyway I want to believe that my opinion is not affected too much by the fond memories of the $300-500 checks that conveniently arrived just before the State Fair.

I've seen this kind of chicanery before about when paying more in tax is not actually a "tax increase," when the difference between user fees and taxes becomes emotionally heated, and when broadening the definition of taxable income or narrowing the definition of exempt income is not a tax increase even though some people pay more taxes after the change.

The 1990-1993 National Government in New Zealand had a peculiar fervor against raising taxes, but they introduced many new fees for previously free [at consumption] government services, reduced or eliminated many excemptions, and brought more income within the definition of taxable income. All the while saying that they had not raised taxes, which they defined narrowly as not raising the personal or corporate income tax rates, or the Goods and Services Tax (a value added tax) rate.

No-one likes paying more taxes. But when governments become fixated on not altering tax rates despite a persistent gap between government revenues and government expenditure this kind of inefficient fiddling at the margins is the result.

The level of taxes we have now is not perfect, it's the end result of bargains and legislative deals over several years. If in fact the people of Minnesota want state government to provide services provided or financed by local governments or private companies in other places then maybe our state taxes will be a little higher. Maybe in a few years if there's another boom they will be a little lower.

Taxation rates are a means to the end of having publicly provided services. There's nothing particularly special about whether they're 9.5% of total state income or 10.5%. The real question which is "what services do want the state government to finance/provide?" gets squeezed out by the reductive focus on keeping tax rates just as they were in 2002.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:01 PM

April 29, 2005

Suitcases and orange t-shirts

Check that bag, please!

I'm back. Glad to see (via statcounter) that my regular readers have lives of their own and were not checking to see if I'd posted in the past blog-free week.

Courtesy of this project (funded by NSF. Ultimately the American taxpayer continues to pick up the bill for my semi-interesting life) and this project (funded by the Canadian taxpayer) I was in Montreal and Ottawa for a few days. Nice cities.

Took the opportunity to run the Montreal Half Marathon which was on a flat, scenic course. Many of the participants were wearing the bright, orange t-shirts from the race pack during the run -- making it seem that the Dutch soccer team was out training. The only confusing aspect was that all the kilometre markers were in French ... As well as having the numeral (which I could read) they also contained some seemingly encouraging text. Four years removed from my French reading course I could make out some of what they are saying, like "Imagine you are a Kenyan." Ran the thing at intended/hoped-for marathon pace, though the kilometre markers seemed inaccurate. Let's just say that while an 8:00 minute 2km followed by a 7:28 2km pretty much averaged out to the desired 3:54/km, the 8:00 was with the wind behind me, and the 7:28 mostly into the wind.

I made it back to Minneapolis last night, with the 15 minutes waiting to deplane at MSP convincing me again that people should be strongly discouraged from taking the roller suitcases onboard.

People, please check your bags. By the time we've all waited for each other to shove the suitcase in the overhead locker we've lost any time saved at the baggage carousel. Women who cannot lift their own bags into the locker, please check your bags. Men who grin like idiots at the opportunity to help strange women on planes with their bags, there are better ways to meet women. Men traveling on business who think there should be a space in the coach class bin for their suitcase when they rush on board shortly before the doors close, if you were as important as you think you are you'd be in first class -- until then travel light or check your bags.

Happy travels!

Posted by robe0419 at 12:30 PM

April 21, 2005

Beside the rails

Los Angeles is a case study in how to take a beautiful natural environment and ruin it.

I was in Los Angeles on the weekend. My reflections while driving (and driving and driving ... ) coincided with others reflections on transportation and development in LA.

The topography of Los Angeles has begotten a different kind of low density development than in the Twin Cities. The largely flat Twin Cities area seems to have relatively large individual parcels for each residence. The hills in Los Angeles mean that where the land is developed the lots seem smaller and the houses close together. In between there are swathes of hillside that are not impossible to build on, just expensive.

The end result in Los Angeles is something no-one should try to emulate. Even five lanes of freeways are not enough when you have lots of people trying to get all over the place. Be thankful though for permanent carpool lanes which do at least get you places relatively quickly.

As in Chicago, Los Angeles has developed a commuter rail system down the middle of the freeway. I can see the appeal of this -- you put transit in the same corridor, and make the train stations conveniently close to the freeway. But in both places the result is grim, foreboding unattractive stations in the middle of a freeway.

If the Twin Cities develops more rail lines they should keep them out of the middle of the freeway, so that people want to develop commercial and residential property near the rail line. It gives me a bit of hope to see the new condos going up near the 50th St and Minnehaha station. Maybe there will be some more at other stops soon.

Spending time in the car in LA also made me think about how to pay for freeways. The economist in me thinks/knows that a gas tax can be equivalent to metered freeway access, but people don't think things through that way. The fact that there's no at-the-time cost to drive on the freeway, while you have to pony up $1.25 or more just to get on the bus is crazy. If people had to compare metered prices for freeway access to bus fares, the relative prices of driving versus taking transit would be much clearer.

It was "only" eighty years ago that people were moving out to Los Angeles for the clean air, unspoiled views, and good health. Now the air is dirty and ummm, I think those were the San Gabriel mountains on the horizon but I couldn't be sure ... The Twin Cities are similarly situated in a beautiful natural environment. But it's possible to ruin all the advantages of location with the wrong type of development. Anyone who thinks that we can build more roads on our way to happiness should see where that's gotten Los Angeles.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:42 AM

April 19, 2005

Mail from Mr. Raymond

The "Nigerian spam" now has a New Zealand variation, from a "Mr. Raymond." How exciting, the country has really come of age. Whoever is sending these emails doesn't know that in New Zealand "Raymond Dobbs Keith" would be known as "Mr. Keith" and poeple would sometimes ask him if he was related to Ken Keith, the "world famous in New Zealand" judge.


My name is Raymond Dobbs Keith, a New Zealand citizen based in Europe. I am an International businessman who has made many supplies to United States and Canada.

I have a debtor, an investment company in Canada that owes me the sum of Four Hundred and Fifty Thousand United States Dollars (USD$450,000). Sequel to our correspondence with the investor in Canada, they are ready to pay the money and they requested for a bank account in United States of America or Canada so they can transfer the funds to the account.

Meanwhile, I do not have an account in either USA or Canada and further explanation to have the funds transferred to my bank account in Europe has met a brick wall.

So I want them to transfer the money to your account in United States (if you have one) and upon conformation of the transfer, I will send you my private account so you can then transfer the money to me.

Sincerely, you are not going to face any risk in rendering assistance, spend any money or demand anything from you.

In rendering your assistance in this transaction, you will be entitled to 10% of any money transferred to your account while the balance of the money will be transferred to me.

If you are interested in having my identity I will provide it as soon as you agree to assist.

What I need is your sincerity and just be honest with me.
Moreover, I will send you the contact details of the investor in Canada once you have accepted my offer. And I would let them know that you are receiving the money on my behalf.

Raymond Keith.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:50 AM

No wonder they don't understand!

Despite five years here the English I speak has more in common with the South than the Great Lakes. Some of the questions are a little odd -- "soda" should be Midwestern, I think.

Your Linguistic Profile:

45% General American English
35% Yankee
20% Dixie
0% Midwestern
0% Upper Midwestern
What Kind of American English Do You Speak?
Posted by robe0419 at 9:20 AM

April 14, 2005

Royal wedding

This cartoon is not for children. It is also not for royalists. The full two minute animation can be found here.
(Via The Australian, Australia's respectable daily national newspaper ...)

Posted by robe0419 at 10:13 AM

April 12, 2005

Less Crowded House

Somewhat old news: Paul Hester, the drummer for Crowded House, "one of Australasia's most renowned pop-rock bands" committed suicide. Very sad.

In memory I've just been listening to their first album (on tape!). It still plays after all these years, and the sound of Te Awamutu still has a truly sacred ring.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:36 AM

April 10, 2005


It's the size of the market that matters. Size in the sense of how many people, and how big those people are.

It's crazy that at 6' I end up buying clothes in "small" sizes. Most of the time you can't find pants smaller than the size I fit.

What do genuinely small men do? Buy children's clothing? Women's clothing? Order stuff over the web? I find the small sizes comfortably loose, and I can only imagine that men of 5' 9'' and 130lb find it even harder to buy stuff that does not make them look like they're wearing their big brothers hand-me-downs.
(Google provides this answer. The salespeople at least suggest they shop in the kids section. For a suit. That'll work!)

Anyhow, in the process of purchasing tank tops/singlets I found that even in specialist running clothing I have to buy the small size. This, in itself, says something ... even in sporting goods the average size is still assumed to be pretty large.

More revealing was the adidas singlet which was labelled "US Small. UK Medium" Now it all makes sense ... I'm still buying the same sized clothes I did in foreign climes, they are just relabelled here to make others feel better about their girth!

Posted by robe0419 at 2:47 PM

April 8, 2005

English as she is spoke

Via Profgrrrrl and Crooked Timber this [free] Chronicle story about a bill in North Dakota introduced by Rep. Bette Grande ...

if a student complained in writing that his or her instructor did not "speak English clearly and with good pronunciation," that student would then be entitled to withdraw from the class with no academic or financial penalty -- and would even get a refund.

Further, if 10 percent of the students in a class came forward with such complaints, the university would be obliged to move the instructor into a "nonteaching position," thus losing that instructor's classroom labor.

I don't claim to have a unique perspective on this issue -- there are, after all, many other native English speaking non-Americans in American higher education -- but I have a usefully illustrative perspective. I also speak with the slight moral authority that comes from once having read in the Guardian's "Learning English" section that Australian and New Zealand accents were the best for non-natives to learn from, as they would be understood by the most people.

Take that, Betty Grande! (There go my hopes of a job in North Dakota! Of course, understandable by most people is not the same as "most understandable in North Dakota." I digress)

And, in a fit of bureaucratic bumbling when I arrived at the University of Minnesota I was required to take a spoken English language test, because it was supposedly required of all international students. They've now clarified the language to make it clear that it is non-native speakers of any nationality who have to take the test.

In any case, I've had non-native instructors who I've had to concentrate to understand. I can understand the frustration that North Dakotan students feel growing up in an environment more sheltered from different English accents than most everywhere else.

I also stood in front of my own classes, and told them straight out that if they wanted to understand what I had to say they'd have to listen more intently, and I would try not to confuse them by saying "mark" when they expected "grade," that I would say "very" instead of "quite" 'cause we all knew what that meant, and "slightly" instead of "quite" for the same reason ... I also told them that, yes, the burden would be asymmetrical because I'd been in America two years and was well used to Midwestern accents, whereas they were all getting their first sustained exposure to a New Zealand accent.

The problem is that we're all lazy listeners.

We're lazy for a good reason, it allows us to think about other things at the same time if we need to. Most of the time when we're listening to someone else we are subconciously anticipating what will come next -- not necessarily the content but the sounds. When the sounds don't match what we anticipate our comprehension is somewhat impaired.

In that sense, the non-native speaker (I will not say foreign, because there are plenty of non-native speaking Americans ...) can do their utmost and still have the listeners not understand as much.

The good news is that most people adapt to hearing unfamiliar accents relatively rapidly. Certainly within a semester students should be able to understand the non-native English of most instructors. Unless you're going to refuse to listen to people with different accents, a big part of the remedy is to suck it up and listen to multiple accents. If you've been exposed to multiple accents then you'll have fewer problems adapting to new ones.

I can attest to this -- because of the paucity of local production the radio and TV in New Zealand were filled with Australian, British, and American programming. (Not so many Canadian shows, if you're wondering. We played field hockey in New Zealand eliminating most Canadian broadcasting ...) Same in Australia -- lots of British and American shows alongside the local ones. It was hard not to grow up listening to multiple varieties of English.

A side-effect of this is that a lot of Antipodeans are able to more effectively mimic other accents -- it's not an accident there are so many Australian actors in Hollywood.

The weirdest thing is that since moving to the U.S. my ability to distinguish between different native accents has diminished. Non-Southern U.S. accents sound normal, but so do the Australasian ones I grew up listening to. I thought that surely I would find the British accents distinctive when I visited last year, but no, they just all sound normal. Except those Southern accents ... like the folks from northern Australia, I can only conclude that living in hot places screws up your accent.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:53 PM

March 31, 2005

Slow train coming ...

Why can't New Zealand and the United States have a decent rail network?

If you think Amtrak is a joke, it's not like it's unique. Taking the Overlander between Wellington and Auckland a few times was great preparation for yesterday's journey on the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Chicago.

I just knew that the train would be delayed, and that the right mental attitude was to assume that the journey would take about 2-3 hours more than scheduled. Then if it was just 90 minutes late it would be a bonus. Was I ever right!

We were half an hour late leaving St. Paul, and mysteriously stopped in the middle of Wisconsin for 40 minutes. From my Overlander experience, where the train would stop in the middle of the Waikato ("New Zealand's dairyland"!) it all felt so familiar. On the Overlander they would mumble "there's a freight train ahead of us," and give you a wildly inaccurate estimate/guess of when we'd be moving again. Amtrak didn't even bother to get our hopes up about when we'd resume our journey ... We just sat there looking at the cows.

Chicago, at least, has a nice station. It wouldn't be hard to improve on the Minneapolis/St. Paul station. Again, this was all familiar from the Overlander journey, which took you from the impressive, well-maintained Wellington station to the shed beside the tracks one mile from the city-center that has been Auckland's inter-city rail station for years.

Having safely (slowly) arrived in Chicago we then waited 40 minutes for the baggage to arrive. At least they have decent baggage service on Amtrak. They even check you aren't stealing someone else's bags when you leave the baggage claim! Retrieving your bags on TranzScenic in New Zealand meant wandering down to the baggage car and waiting until they chucked yours out onto the platform ...

I'd be tempted to make this a generalization about trains in English-speaking countries. But that would be a little unfair ... While the trains in England are a national joke for being late, I actually had a pretty good experience on them last year. In a week I took 5 inter-city trains, none of which were more than 5 minutes late. They also drop you off pretty much in the center of town, making connections to buses and subways easy.

It wouldn't be easy to get a functioning passenger rail network in the United States. It would just take political will. Building a network of interstate highways wasn't easy either, but it got done.

But that train too might be slow coming, coming round the bend ...

Posted by robe0419 at 1:53 PM

March 26, 2005

Easter is all about the chocolate


Posted by robe0419 at 10:59 AM

March 25, 2005

Hong Kong is only part of China

A map of all the places I've been in the world. I've only been to Hong Kong, not any of the rest of China. I did catch the train to the last station you can get to without an actual visa for China. If they had a separate option for Hong Kong it would make my travels look somewhat less impressive. It's hard to tell, but I have been to the Cook Islands.

You can make your own.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:02 AM

March 24, 2005

Farewell to the crown?

Questions for discussion ...

Did the NZ Herald look for the worst possible picture of Camilla Parker Bowles it could find? Or does she always look like she's telling you to sod off?

Aren't you glad you don't have the New Zealand government as your relatives? Not sending a gift because it's the second marriage! And after the poor man's first wife died so tragically ...

Posted by robe0419 at 5:58 PM

March 22, 2005

Queen's English

He's joking, right? Or is it really a problem that the LA Times wrote "went missing" (British, apparently) instead of "disappeared (American, apparently) 17 times in 2004.

Of course, when Camilla Parker Bowles becomes Queen the Queen's English won't have quite the cachet it used to ...

Posted by robe0419 at 11:54 AM

March 21, 2005

News across the world

These events are sad and tragic.

What was personally strange was that I first heard about it when I went to the New Zealand Herald to find out the cricket scores. (Rain in Wellington had stopped play ... New Zealand's only hope for not losing)

Posted by robe0419 at 9:30 PM

The Office

The original BBC version of The Office is hilarious. And now an Americanized version is starting on NBC this Thursday.

I hope the NBC version will be good. Perhaps the BBC thinks it will make more money showing the original on BBC America.

But really, the show is in English. It's set in an office. There's a guy who is the boss who provides unintentional humo[u]r, there's sexually charged interaction between the staff. It's a sitcom, so the humor is mostly self-contained. It's not as if it's political comedy, and they're sitting round cracking jokes about Ken Livingstone and George Galloway.

Nor does it require knowledge of the sweep of English history, as some shows did for best effect.

But I'll watch The Office, and perhaps it will be good. I think the reasons these remakes often fail to have the charm of the original is that the adapters think that all they need to do is make the bare minimum of changes needed to make the show comprehensible to people of bare minimum intelligence. I think they're underestimating their audience's intelligence and ability to read subtitles and listen to British accents.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:03 PM

March 18, 2005

Notes from small far-away islands

The New Zealand Herald sets the antipodean discussion off with its moaning about how [some] expatriates think the country is going to hell in a socialist handbasket. Others think they're being a little precious.

In the past clever young things like Ernest Rutherford, Katherine Mansfield and Jack Lovelock left and never really returned. Now many of them go away and come back again, and the ones that stay away can sort of keep in touch with what's happening via the magic internet.

It's just damned difficult to keep in touch with what is happening in another country, even your home country, if you're not there. Some people react by finding much fault with whence they came from, others by making it out to be some sort of sunny, happy little paradise with few problems.

There's a way in which expatriates are like lapsed Catholics, never quite acknowledging the complexity of their upbringing -- the good and the bad, and that other people might have had different experiences -- yet feeling a kind of guilt about their fall from grace or trans-oceanic journey.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:57 PM

March 14, 2005

Tales from a small country

Good insight into the current social and economic milieu in New Zealand.

Nice place. Don't expect to get rich too quickly.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:39 PM

Making connections

It's all about making connections. People just do it in different ways in different places. Since you read this rather than hear it, you don't know that five years in the Midwest have modified my New Zealand accent only enough to be understood by the locals. There's enough of that vowels-swallowing-the-consonants New Zealand accent to let people know I'm "not from round here." (No, and neither were your ancestors, originally ...).

The accent precipitates regular conversations along one of the following lines
them: Where are you from?
me: New Zealand [if I'm out of Minneapolis, it gets funky ... I instinctively say "Minneapolis," and they look confused like you would if someone with what you think is a "British" accent says they are from Minneapolis.]
them, version 1: Oh, New Zealand, I hear it's beautiful there.
them, version 2: Oh, New Zealand, my girlfriend's sister's cousin was in Australia two years ago on Study Abroad and went to New Zealand.
me, version 1: Yes, I suppose so. [Isn't Minneapolis beautiful in March?]
me, version 2: [thinking WTF!!??] That's cool, where did they go?
them, version 2: Umm, I don't know. South Island. [sound of cash registers operating]
me: version 1 and 2: Thanks for the [groceries/coffee/gas/stamps]

I hoped that after five years of living here I'd be able to handle these conversations with more articulate responses than I do. When people say, "I'm thinking of going to New Zealand," that's easy -- I say that now is the time to go because the exchange rates has never been better (this worked about 2-4 years ago), or now I say "you should go before the U.S. dollar crashes."

But the "it's beautiful" and the "someone I know was once there" conversations exemplify both differences and similarities in the way we converse. It's not like I wasn't warned. Along with the top four things you need to know about America, we were also informed of how American casual conversation is often about searching for connections, even if they are really tenuous. By way of example, the American-born advisor related the story of going to dinner with someone who responded
"Oh, New Zealand, we were going to go there on vacation once, but we went to Rio instead." Great. Hope you liked Rio.

One of the first conversations I had with a fellow graduate student went like this
them: Did you say you were from New Zealand?
me: Yes
them: I have a friend who was with the Peace Corps in Tonga, and she was going to go to New Zealand for New Years, but she couldn't get a ticket
me: Oh, that's no good. [Elevator door mercifully opens for someone else's floor] See you in class next week! [thinking "they weren't joking about the tenuous connections conversation ..."]

How would you respond?! Consider that Tonga is about as far from New Zealand as Yellowstone is from Minneapolis, and here's your analogous conversation
them: Did you say you were from Minneapolis?
you: Yep.
them: I have a friend who worked for a summer at Yellowstone, and she was going to drive to Minneapolis for the Aquatennial, but her car broke down ...
you: ....
See what I mean!

So this discussion doesn't rely on New Zealand as the great, remote place people don't know about it. Minnesota will do just as well. In fact, out on the east coast I've had non-trivial numbers of people say things along the lines of "oh, Minnesota, I was in Milwaukee a few years ago" because that's the closest they can come to some connection with where you're from (whatever "from" means).

In New Zealand there is a distinct, but related, version of the drive to make a connection with newly met people. People from the Upper Midwest will be familiar with the genre. Since there are 4 million people in a small area, and [until recently] a relatively low rate of in-migration when people learn they hail from the same place the search for people known in common begins. (I'm told that in Iceland people discuss who they are commonly related to. It takes an island of 270,000 people for that to be worthwhile)

The search for connections is the same, but it doesn't work out quite as comically when it begins with the premise that you both grew up in the same place, and might plausibly have known people through school, work, sport or whatever social life you had.

But when you start from the position that you've never been somewhere and you don't know much about it, it's just silly. It's well meant and friendly, but it's still silly. (Not stupid, not idiotic. Silly. Comical. Amusing.) It would be better for the sake of the conversation to admit [implicitly] you don't know much and ask an open-ended question if you really are curious.

In fact that perennial proud, yet insecure, question of outsiders you hear in Minnesota and New Zealand, "Do you like it here?" is a far better conversation mover. (I do)

The difference, I think, is that the same motivation plays out quite differently once you get away from small populations and small areas. We're not all connected. America is a big country. Some well-traveled famous-on-the-internet people have scarcely visited the Midwest. Michael Froomkin managed to live in Illinois, and never visit Ohio. It's a big world out there, and since Johnny Cash died no one has been everywhere. (Here's a NZ adaptation of the song. I haven't been to half those places ...)

Posted by robe0419 at 11:51 AM

March 10, 2005


This story, about a man sexually assaulting sheep (via Eschaton), is sad and bizarre.

In the same way that Americans make jokes about Canadians being lumberjacks and hockey players, New Zealanders and Australians are accustomed to making jokes that buggery of sheep is prevalent in the other country. (Search for 'sheep' on any of the linked pages to find them).

Other than that very sophisticated, cosmopolitan countries ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:27 AM

February 28, 2005

World cities

While looking for something on Wikipedia I found this entry about world cities.

Being parochial, I was interested to see that Minneapolis is regarded as "gamma world city." Wellington makes it onto the lowest rung of the ladder along with a diverse list of other cities like Edinburgh, Tashkent, and Winnipeg.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:40 AM

February 24, 2005

A photo a mile

From classic kiwiana to classic Americana. This project -- driving across America and taking a photo at every mile marker -- is incredibly interesting.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:27 PM


This is hilarious (mpeg). It's more hilarious if you can remember this lowpoint in male fashion. For the non-antipodean readers among you, I'd like to point out that (1) summer fashions have advanced significantly in NZ since the 1970s, and (2) the 1970s were a low point all around the western world for dress standards ...

L&P (Lemon & Paeroa) is a lemon flavored soda/pop/fizzy drink. It's world famous in New Zealand.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:19 PM

February 21, 2005


The first batch of entries -- on "New Zealanders" -- for the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand are now available, and the website seems to fulfil its promise and potential.

Until now, the most comprehensive Encyclopaedia of New Zealand was a three-volume 1966 set. It was well-written and broad-ranging, but dated for anything after the 1960s. A one-volume Encyclopedia was published in 1983, and many will be remembered it for its colorful cover, and primary school style brevity. The one-volume Bateman seems to be well represented in American university libraries, giving Americans the unfortunate impression that a country of several million people with some notable events in its past (women's suffrage, the highest death rate of any combatant nation in WWI ...) and a stunning natural history, could be adequately summed up in 640 pages.

Kudos to the New Zealand government for not trying to make money on making information about New Zealand known to the world. (If only, their statistical agency had the same policies ... ). Although the full Encyclopedia will not be complete until 2012, the web publication will allow people access to topical areas as they are completed.

The other excellent thing the project has done is make the 1966 encyclopaedia available online.

Some things change slowly, if at all, like the weather in Wellington ... it is still amazing to me that I grew up in a place where the variation in temperature over the year was less than the variation in a week in Minneapolis.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:00 PM

February 4, 2005

What is Waitangi Day?

If you have a calendar that includes a wide variety of international holidays, you might be wondering on Sunday what Waitangi Day is.

Waitangi Day is New Zealand's national day. Now, here's the catch for American readers! Whereas in America, and [I think] most of the non-white Commonwealth, the national day is the day the country became independent of Britain , in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the national day celebrates when the British formalised their status as colonizers. This says quite something about the political and social culture of those countries. [The Commonwealth: that's what the British Empire has become, a free Commonwealth of independent ex-colonies, and Britain]

Anyhow, Waitangi Day is always February 6. It's never Monday-ised, so when it falls on a weekend, sorry, no day off!

Waitangi is pronounced why-tungee.

It's also a place, and the Treaty House, outside of which the Treaty was signed is still there. It's in good shape.

The day remembers -- celebrates is probably the wrong word now -- the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave the British "governorship" of New Zealand, but left the [indigenous] Maori population with sovereignty.

As you can guess, it's been a mess ever since trying to work out how you can divide governance and sovereignty! Indeed, there's a whole government tribunal that's devoted to doing just that. Understandably they cop it from both sides.

Your next opportunity to learn about strange Antipodean holidays will come on April 25 with ANZAC Day ...

Posted by robe0419 at 5:37 PM

January 18, 2005

Half off!

It turns out that New Zealand actually has about one car for every two people, contrary to my earlier guess, now picked up and expanded on elsewhere.

The true wits among you can do what you wish with this data about New Zealand: 4 million people, 2 million cars, 40 million sheep.

The sheep population has dropped from 70 million in 1982, after the elimination of agricultural subsidies. (When the population was around 3 million).

Posted by robe0419 at 9:16 AM

January 14, 2005

Solo drivers

This is spot-on as an observation:

there's a social stigma attached to asking for rides; it's not something with which most Americans are comfortable.

The first 18 months or so I was here I lacked access to a car (getting a license to drive on the right hand side of the road prompted more people to offer their cars as available for borrowing ...) and relied on the generosity of friends and acquaintances to get everywhere the #16, #8 and #2 buses did not take me. (and the late lamented little bus route that ran from Prospect Park to Dinkytown, almost always a short bus too). Coming from a place where the ratio of people to cars is close to 3:1 than 1:1 I felt little shame in asking, but I quickly picked up that sharing rides was not that common here.

Hike the gas tax!!

Posted by robe0419 at 10:45 AM

December 23, 2004

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone!

Posting will be light until after New Year. Enjoy the holidays. Eat well. Give generously. Receive generously.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:29 PM

December 21, 2004


Christmas in New Zealand often has a pavlova accompanying the meal. It's a light, sweet meringue dish that complements the heavy, alcoholic fruit cake nicely.

Pavlova recipe
4 egg whites
1 1/4 cups caster sugar (a.k.a. ultra fine or bakers sugar)
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 tablespoon cornflour (=cornstarch)

Topping: 1 cup whipping cream
Fruit (Kiwifruit, mandarin slices, and berry fruit are common. Kiwifruit with berries can be used for Christmas colours)

Preheat oven to 180C/350F.
Using electric mixer beat egg whites and sugar for 10 minutes, or until thick and glossy.
Mix vanilla, vinegar and cornflour together. Add to meringue, and beat on high speed for another 5 minutes.
Line oven tray with baking paper. Draw a 20cm (=8in) circle on baking paper (Use the bottom of an 8 inch cake pan). Spread pavlova mixture to the edge of this circle, keeping the shape as round and as even as possible. Push the sides up and then smooth the top over. Place pavlova in oven, and turn oven temperature down to 100C (212F). Bake pavlova for one hour. Turn oven off. Open oven door slightly, and leave pavlova in until cold. Carefully remove pavlova from paper. If the pavlova does not come off, cut the edges of the paper and then transfer the pavlova to a plate with the paper lining on the bottom. Be sure not to serve the paper when you serve the pavlova.

Decorate the top with whipped cream. You can use the cream to cover over any cracks in the surface. Cover with fresh fruit.

Choose firm kiwifruit. You can peel them with a carrot peeler. Slice thinly and arrange on top of the cream. The first slice at either end will not have the white center with the seeds surrounding it, so you may choose to leave this off the decoration.

Merry Christmas!

Historical note: The pavlova was named after the Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, pictured below, who toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. The precise dating of the name "pavlova" being applied to the meringue like dish were long disputed, with both Australia and New Zealand claiming they honored Ms. Pavlova first. Recent research tends to indicate the first usage was in New Zealand.

NB: The pavlova is not related to the Turkish model Arzu Pavlova whose dancing appears to be more, ummm, "modern," shall we say. Let's just say that if you turn on "Safe Search" in Google you'll get plenty of images of Anna Pavlova, and not so many of Arzu. I've "researched" this, so you don't have to.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:51 PM

Christmas crackers

Among the things largely lacking in America at Christmas is the Christmas cracker

a small cardboard tube covered in a brightly coloured twist of paper. When the cracker is 'pulled' by two people, each holding one end of the twisted paper, the friction creates a small explosive 'pop' produced by a narrow strip of chemically impregnated paper. The cardboard tube tumbles a bright paper hat, a small gift, a balloon and a motto or joke.
Joy of joys, we found some at Williams Sonoma today. They're not available online from Williams Sonoma, but the English Tea Store appears to be the place to get reasonably priced ones in America.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:24 PM

December 17, 2004

The holidays you have when you don't have holidays

With Christmas Day falling on a Saturday this year, the irony of calling this the "holiday season" (can't offend anyone by calling it Christmas) is high. Many people won't get any more holiday than the weekend they would already get.

In the Antipodes where it's summer, the week between Christmas and New Year is pretty much off work for anyone not working in a service occupation. It's nice, but it is summer, there is more fun to be had. Especially if we continue to have no snow here ...

Posted by robe0419 at 12:23 PM

Wedding registries

As much as I can tell from 20 minutes 'work' on google and e-mail with ex-pat New Zealanders living there, they don't really have wedding registries in Britain.*

It would be nice for me if they did, since it would save some time and effort, but my question to you, dear readers (Sharon? anyone?) is "Why?" Or, better yet, please tell me that I'm wrong and point me to British sites where I can type in the first three letters of the bride and groom's names and the date of the nuptials ...

UPDATE: Always define your terms. A "wedding registry," as the term is used in the U.S. means a registry of the gifts the couple would be happy to receive from guests. Social etiquette prescribes that the couple not inform the guests of where they are registered, but the brides mother is often a helpful source of the information. Nowadays with the magic internet the wedding registry business has moved online, so that you can go to Amazon or home goods stores, type in the name of the bride and groom, and find what they want.

Indeed, the UK Amazon site has no "Wedding Registry" link, while the American one does.

*Not sure if they do in NZ. Before I left I had been to just one wedding. Such are the social realities of a median age at first marriage racing towards 28 (F) and 30 (M).

Posted by robe0419 at 12:18 PM

December 15, 2004

Stamping out Christmas abroad

If the US Postal Service stamps are any indication Americans don't send many Christmas cards abroad.

That's right. The only Christmas -- sorry, holiday -- stamps are 37c ones.

Don't get me wrong, Denali/Mount McKinley is a lovely mountain but it has adorned the 80c stamp since the middle of the year 2000 -- all the time I have been in the country. It would be nice to send Christmas cards overseas with an appropriately themed stamp without having to pay 31 cents extra (37 x 3 - 80) for the privilege.

If other civilized countries post offices' can produce stamps for international mail, why not the humble USPS?

Posted by robe0419 at 8:48 AM

December 14, 2004

William Stroker

The Nigerian spam is always worth reading for a bit of a laugh. Today's entry in this genre was particularly good. The unfortunately named William Stroker wrote to me. Despite his time in the UK, Mr. Stroker appears to be unaware of the alternative meanings of the diminutive forms of his name.

I am Mr. Willie Stroker the Financial Director with Standard Trust Security and Finance here in the UK. I was the accounting officer of late Mr. Larry a national of your country, who was a contractor here in UK. On the 21st of April 2000, my client, his wife and their only son were involved in a car
accident along Manchester Diagonal.
It's also a bit of a mystery to me where the very sad accident occurred, since there is no road in Manchester known by this name. Be that as it may, readers who wish to take Mr Stroker up on his offer can e-mail him at williestroker178@netscape.net.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:38 PM

The better shoe polish

Kiwi Shoe Polish is re-inventing itself. The name originates from the Scottish-born, Australian-dwelling inventor's New Zealand wife. It's not clear if this was actually her name. It's possible. There was a bit of a phase of European settlers naming girls after the local flora and fauna in the early twentieth century (eg. Ngaio Marsh).

So that explains the boot polish.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:27 PM

December 9, 2004

Civil unions

It's irrational to be proud of where you are from, but today I am. The New Zealand parliament passed the Civil Union bill 65-55.

Most of the support came from the [governing] Labour Party, but a significant minority of the [conservative] National Party. It's interesting that some of those that voted against it said they would have voted for gay marriage, but not for civil unions.

"A liberal, tolerant country." In some ways so far from "God's Own Country", but in other ways still the same place.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:46 PM

December 8, 2004

Quote of the day

" I don't think it's any more embarrassing for a child to say they have gay parents, than to say they have Tory parents, really."
From the lesbian sister-in-law of a conservative MP (the MP is planning to vote against the civil union bill)

Or for American readers: " I don't think it's any more embarrassing for a child to say they have gay parents, than to say they have Republican parents, really."

As it becomes clear that the sky will not fall on our heads when the Civil Union Bill passes in New Zealand, the opposition to the bill becomes tragi-comic:

The fast by Mr Paul Adams MP, reported in last week's post, is beginning to take its toll. Last Thursday he spoke on bFM, after a week without food. As a stranger to starvation and a friend to the fridge, I expected him to be lying in a darkened room while he spoke, but it soon became apparent that he was conducting the interview on his cellphone while driving. Someone else who used a cellphone while driving was legendary drummer Cozy Powell; his phoned last words were "Oh, Shit!" Fortunately no harm came to Mr Adams, but by Wednesday his reasoning was seriously impaired. In a speech that will go down in Parliamentary history, he tried to say that babies were born as boys or girls, not as gays or lesbians; he claimed he had scientific evidence to back up this non-sequitur. Today he added something about apple trees and orange trees; obviously fruits are on his mind. At tomorrow's vote, his colleagues should be careful to not let him wander into the wrong lobby or drift towards the canteen.

(Archived version here, I think, after 16 December)

Posted by robe0419 at 5:15 PM

Church/state separation and religious observance

Matthew Yglesias observes:

The thing that really jumped out at me was a graphic showing the percentage of people who attend religious services at least once a week in America and six Middle-Eastern and West Asian countries. I'd like to think my sense about this stuff isn't too unduly influenced by stereotypes, but I was quite surprised to see that American led this list with 45% of its citizens attending services at least once a week. Jordan was right behind at 44, Egypt and Morocco at 43, Turkey at 38, Saudi Arabia 28, and Iran 27.

What's interesting about this, I think, is that it reenforces the trend we see in the West, where countries that have experienced periods of close church-state ties (France, most of northern Europe) are relatively unobservant compared to countries with a stronger church-state separation.

Now I'm going to sound parochial, and the experience of 51 million people in Canada, Australia and New Zealand (CANZ) is not much more data ... but these countries like the United States never had an established church, yet have seen religious attendance wither as it has in Europe.

That is the most interesting contrast, and likely to point by elimination, to the factors that make America so religious. I'm not going to answer the question in my lunch hour, so I'll pose some more:

  • Back to the races! The peculiar legacy of slavery and Reconstruction explains something about the distinctive development of the American labor movement. Since [at the margin] churches and unions compete for the time and money of the masses, it might be that racial unfreedom rather than religious freedom has something to do with the flourishing of religion.
  • Or, since labor unions faced a more hostile organizing environment in the U.S., the church benefitted as an alternative collective civic institution. (The gap in religious attendance between the US and CANZ has widened recently, but can be seen in the 19th and 20th centuries).
  • Immigration? CANZ had much more homogeneous migrant streams in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Professional and amateur sports? At least in ANZ, amateur sporting teams were a huge part of community life, and still are. Did the earlier development of professional sports mean that amateur sports in America didn't develop as a competing civic institution to the church?
  • Taxes? None of these countries had an established religion, but did taxes and regulation of non-profits differ in a way that might have affected the viability of churches?

Answers please!

Posted by robe0419 at 2:43 PM

Happiness and wealth are [nearly] uncorrelated

Tyler Cowen shows why New Zealand is not getting rich quickly, but is a nice place to live.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:42 PM

December 6, 2004

In the Christmas spirit

Apropos of the previous post, Target may not make political donations to my liking, but I have to say I've been feeling warmer about Target because of their decision to banish the bellringers.

I've disliked the Salvation Army ever since they led the opposition to homosexual law reform in New Zealand back in the '80s; and the American version of the Salvation Army are similarly lacking in generosity of spirit to all.

Target's motivation for banning the irksome red ringers seems to be different from mine, but they'll be gone and that's good.

On a related note, it is slightly strange that the spokesperson for "Concerned Women of America" criticizing Target's decision is a man. How many, you know, actual women are involved with CWA if they can't even get a woman to be their public voice?

Posted by robe0419 at 2:39 PM

December 3, 2004

Civil unions

Seemingly un-noticed by the rest of the world except for some crazy lunatics and gay community papers, New Zealand is about to become the sixth country in the world (after the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway) to legalize civil unions.

(I say "sixth country" because civil unions are available at the sub-national level in Canada and the United States at the moment).

The time to mark this moment is now, because once the legislation is passed the effect on the country will be a long way short of momentuous, if international experience means anything. In a year it will be a non-issue in New Zealand politics.

It will not be a non-issue for individuals and couples who are able to formalize their relationships, and have them legally recognized. For them it's a great thing.

It's also a great thing that the bill has got such wide support from people in both the Labour and National, and other parties.

Clem Simich probably has no reputation outside New Zealand, but I will let the last words be from a Catholic Tory: "This is Catholicism in action and that is being fair to everyone and not discriminating. That's what the Church should stand for and this bill does that."

Posted by robe0419 at 10:49 AM

November 30, 2004

No bad weather, just bad gear

Minnesota running legend, Ron Daws, tells it like it is

“The truth is that winter running is so simple that there is little out of the ordinary to tell about. Training at 20 below zero is far easier than at 85-90 above. It’s relatively easy to protect oneself from the cold, but impossible to escape the heat. My endurance base is always built during the winter, when there is little else to run but high mileage.”

I never thought when I moved here that I would love the winters, and find the summers sorta miserable. But that's how it is ...

Posted by robe0419 at 5:09 PM

November 28, 2004

Fruit cake at a bachelorette party?

The big fruit-cake-making extravangza is underway. 3.5kg (that's 7.7lb) of fruit is now soaking in a quart of brandy, and we'll add more brandy tomorrow.

The next challenge, and it may be larger than I thought is to find a huge (10" x 10" x 6") cake pan. When I searched Google for "big cake pan", this fine product was the first non-sponsored result.

Not quite what I was looking for, but when I need a penis shaped cake pan I will know where to look.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:58 PM

November 25, 2004

Happy thanksgiving

If you're lucky enough to be just browsing blogs right now, you probably have it pretty good :) Be thankful for that.

The Arena 5km is well worth the money for a certified course, and lots of people to race against. Must be quite a money spinner too at (7000 x $17 + sponsorship) minus 7000 x $(t-shirts + post-race food).

UPDATEIt turns out they donate proceeds to Second Harvest Food Bank, so all in a good cause, actually.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:28 AM

November 24, 2004

More Commonwealth perspectives on Thanksgiving

Mince pie recipiesfrom Harry at Crooked Timber.

Pumpkin pie is good, but alcohol soaked fruit is better!

Roll on Christmas and the fruit cake season ...

Posted by robe0419 at 2:42 PM

How do you live without Thanksgiving?

That was a question I got asked quite often the first couple of years I was here. Quite easily. Actually.

They/we don't have Thanksgiving in New Zealand. Unlike the shamelessly imitative Canadians who have "Canadian Thanksgiving," when your climate is temperate and your main agricultural products were dairy (year round), meat, and wool (spring shearing) there was really no cultural equivalent of harvest.

The functional equivalent of Thanksgiving in the Antipodes (this includes Australia) is Easter (if it falls late), in the sense that it's a 4 day holiday in autumn, or ANZAC Day (the Antipodean Memorial Day). So those are our basically secular autumnal holidays that cause delays at airports.

[Easter? Basically secular!? Yes. If 2% of the population goes to church weekly, and way less than half rediscover their affiliation at Easter and Christmas, it becomes a commercial festival instead]

Even though you can live without Thanksgiving, it's still a great holiday. It's secular, and thus inclusive of the whole country. And there's no presents. It's just about eating and spending time with family and friends. Gotta love that. Whether it would be worth traveling with the masses in the air and on the roads, I'm not so sure.

Harvest itself was a local event, it's timing dictated by local weather conditions and the state of the crop. You couldn't put on the table much more than what was grown within a hundred miles of you.

Traveling coast-to-coast or out-of-state for Thanksgiving is a recent phenomena, only made possible by the jet aircraft. It's almost a perversion of the holiday, especially since the Pilgrims in the beginning had little hope of ever seeing the families they'd left behind in England.

Stay home. Eat well. Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by robe0419 at 11:57 AM

November 22, 2004

Non-rhetorical question

Tyler Cowen evaluates New Zealand's economic reforms.

I'm not so sure that the distance and size explanations for slower-than-desired growth despite the reforms is entirely persuasive, but perhaps that's my wishful thinking.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:19 AM

Department of Black Pots

Prince Charles provides another example of why there is a quickly growing Republican Movement in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada:

"People think they can all be pop stars, High Court judges, brilliant TV personalities or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having natural ability ...

Hmmmm .... how did he get his job as heir apparent??

Posted by robe0419 at 8:33 AM

November 10, 2004

Alternative reality

Sometimes reading the papers, and subsequent political discussion in New Zealand makes your head spin.

There's a Labour [liberal/social democrat] government. It's running massive surpluses, and the ratio of government spending to GDP is falling. Unemployment is down to 3.8%. Labor force participation is up.

The dark lining on the silver cloud is that if more skilled workers don't migrate from abroad growth might slow. So, any young people out there looking for a job who speak passable English (even with a Midwestern accent), immigrate there now!!

Posted by robe0419 at 7:33 PM

Fruit cake

Over at Crooked Timber they're discussing the hardships you face making a decent fruit cake in the Midwest.

Rule 1: Most problems with fruit cakes can be solved with liquor.
Rule 2: Most Americans don't like fruit cake.
Rule 3: Apply Rule 1 to solve Rule 2.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:55 AM

what do you call a returning diaspora

Irish emigrants returning home get culture shock! This kind of anxiety about the nation's place in the world is not unique to small islands in the Atlantic.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:12 AM

November 8, 2004

Forget Canada!

"[New Zealand] Prime Minister Helen Clark has welcomed a surge of interest from Americans considering migrating to New Zealand but was careful not to link it to the result of last week's presidential election ...."

Posted by robe0419 at 4:30 PM

November 5, 2004

Guy Fawkes

Since America is apparently heading towards a more parliamentary way of organizing its political parties, it's appropriate to remind everyone that today is Guy Fawkes.

If you don't like parliament, you can always blow it up!

This rather bizarre piece of public pageantry is still celebrated in Britain. It was only stopped in Australia in 1967 when they banned fireworks. They still have it in New Zealand. The perennial campaigns to ban the sale of fireworks fizzle out, though there are now lots of restrictions on where you can let them off and what you can buy.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:47 PM

November 4, 2004

Reversal of fortune

Slate helpfully explains that concession speeches are not legally binding.

In the unlikely event that Kerry was to overcome a 136,000 vote deficit in Ohio he would become President.

I think it a safe prediction that if this unlikely event was to transpire George Bush would not take it well.

Now, as it happens I have seen with my own eyes a concession speech on the night followed by a surprise reversal of the results and much petulance.

Way back in 1990 when the Labour Party got swept from office (losing nearly half the seats they held) in New Zealand the incumbent member for Wellington Central was behind by about 400 votes on election night. Historically the "special votes" (absentee and provisional) have skewed to the National Party about 60% to Labour's 40%, especially in well-off districts like that one. And with only about 2000 special votes expected the chances of reversing a sizeable on-the-night-lead were slim.

Amazingly enough, when the final results came out they showed a 700 vote turn-around from the on-the-night results, giving the incumbent the seat by around 300 votes.

A display of petulance and misunderstanding about the political process I have not seen before or since ensued. For years after the challenger would claim that she was "elected on the night," and that she was the member for 10 days. It sounds plausible enough ...

Except that it's like claiming that if you lead from the top of the first to the bottom of the 8th, and then lose it in the 9th, that you won because you lead most of the game.

As the former owner of the Texas Rangers, if Bush should unexpectedly lose in the 9th inning in Ohio I expect he'll take the result gracefully ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:07 AM

October 23, 2004

In our own image?

One of the interesting things about the way the Iraqi "project" has developed is that the United States has not tried to turn Iraq into a mini United States. In the case of the electoral system, they're turning Iraq into Israel.

For sure, there was that unfortunate attempt early on to privatize everything in sight, but the most important institutional design that's been made is the putative Iraqi electoral system. And that, folks, looks nothing like the one we have here. It's flaws are its own.

First of all, the Iraqi system is unitary and not federal. Not only that, there are no geographic districts at all. Second, the Iraqi system is not open, but closed. The candidate lists are not open to modification by the voters through primaries or write-ins. Third, it's proportional rather than plurality based. Only the last thing has much to recommend it.

Indeed, the proposed Iraqi system looks something a little like what Israel used to have, a pure proportional system with no geographic districts. This is a bit of an irony -- and not much of a recommendation. Any democracy in Israel's situation -- under great external pressure, with religion bound up in politics to boot -- is bound to have some crazy political swings. A pure proportional system is going to exacerbate, not reduce the problems of a tense, fractured society.

You can well understand why a federal system is not being imposed on Iraq, drawing the lines of new states/provinces would be an extra complication. But no geographic districts? The Westminster (=British) system of parliamentary government elected from geographic districts has its flaws, but would be preferable to what's proposed for Iraq.

I have to say that I have some sympathy for the idea that intervention in the Middle East to bring about democratic reform is a necessary thing. But democratic reform is not an impulse or experience whose sole home is in the United States.

This is not going to get me elected to any political office here, but other nations have long democratic traditions too. You might argue that given the sordid history of black disenfranchisement in the South that democracy in the United States is a comparatively recent phenomenon. All this prattling about being the "world's oldest democracy" ignores the experience that other countries have with democracy.

Some of that may come in useful in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East. The political system that will work for a continental nation of 280 million is not necessarily going to function in a nation of 28 million. But it may have something to add. A little modesty about America's own democratic virtues might actually help with spreading those values and virtues.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:32 PM

October 18, 2004

Top Four Things You Need To Know About America

Before I left New Zealand the good people at Fulbright gave us some handy hints about American life. Amongst the worthy advice on navigating different academic systems and the crazy quilt that is American health care, were four things it was good to know right off the plane. And they're still useful points of advice. I relate them here in the interests of cultural exchange.

  • Don't say toilet. Say bathroom.
  • The banking system is backward. You can't use plastic everywhere.
  • Don't swear so much. Except in New York City.
  • Tip 15% and a dollar for drinks.

Good advice, except that last one.

  • True. Americans don't say toilet. They say bathroom. This is because (1) the toilet is not in a separate room, and (2) people are less frank about these things here. In New Zealand people will excuse themselves by saying "I'm going to take a pee," not "I'm going to the bathroom."
  • True. It has improved (in Minnesota) since 2000, but that's not saying much.

    • In New Zealand you can pay with plastic just about everywhere. The pizza delivery people and the taxis have mobile units that allow you to swipe your card, enter your PIN, and be done with it.
    • What's with the continued use of signatures as the security mechanism when you use a credit/debit card away from an ATM?! In a country as advanced as the United States you'd think it would be possible to secure credit and debit card transations with PIN entry.
    • Why can't recurring inter-bank transfers between personal accounts be set up? In New Zealand, I banked with Bank A, my landlord with Bank B. I sent them no check. I paid them no cash. Every fortnight [=two weeks] the money was transferred from my account to his.
      Just after I'd signed the lease on the first apartment here in Minneapolis, I asked the landlord if he could tell me his bank account details, and he looked at me like I was crazy. When I explained he expressed heartfelt enthusiasm for such an idea. As you would if you had to endorse 40 rent checks every month.

  • True. People don't swear so much here. Pretty amazing in a climate that cries out for the phrase "it's f***ing cold/humid today" to be socially acceptable in all settings three quarters of the time.
  • Not so true. And they repeated this out-dated information at the UMN international student orientation. Thus I went through my first 18 months here tipping 15% on the pre-tax bill. And getting good service from bartenders. That's right, I interpreted it as $1 for each drink.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:52 PM

October 13, 2004


Teresa Heinz Kerry feeds her cows alfalfa because New Zealand scientists say so ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:16 PM

October 12, 2004

Nation of immigrants?

Trivia question for the day.

Order the following countries, from highest to lowest, in terms of the proportion of foreign born people in their population.
United States
United Kingdom
New Zealand

(Answer below the fold)

1. Australia (23.1%)
2. New Zealand (19.4%)
3. Canada (18.4%)
4. United States (11.4%)
5. United Kingdom (8.4%)

Not what you expected, right?

More details here. (PDF)

Posted by robe0419 at 3:43 PM

October 9, 2004

left turn

For all those curious about how different countries came to drive on different sides of the road, the British driver licensing authority has a handy explanation and a list.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:21 AM

October 8, 2004

enslave Canada

This site is a parody. Substitute "Canada" for "New Zealand," "United States" for "Australia", "Bush" for "Howard" and "Central America" for "East Timor" and you'll be well on your way to wry laughter.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:43 PM

September 13, 2004

please explain football!

After the something-th coolest summer on record in Minneapolis, it seems that now the city is enjoying a September heat wave of sorts. All I can say is it had better drop to 38F at 8am on October 3rd.

But I wouldn't know about that September heat, I'm in the city that persists in believing its sports teams are perennial underdogs, even when its football team has won 2 out of the last 3 Superbowls.

Football for me signals that period of year when I get to ignore large parts of the sports section of the paper. I've been to some games. I even saw the Gophers beat Penn State (is Joe Paterno still coaching? I think he could coach from six foot under, and perhaps he has been doing so for a while). But I just can't get interested in the game itself. I follow the NFL standings since the position of the Vikings and their inevitable failure to convert regular season victories into post-season glory is central to understanding Minnesota society. And I think that the way the college football championship is decided is meaningless, and could so easily be made meaningful (like the basketball final four) that the NCAA should be indicted.

But unless I'm in a bar, and the TV is pointing at me, and the conversation is deathly dull, will I watch the actual game. This is not, I hasten to add, a prejudice against American sports. Baseball. Great sport worthy of more international attention. Worthy of soaking up many summer evenings and afternoons. (I was halfway kidding about making the outfielders take their gloves off). Ice hockey. Great sport, especially at the college level. Worth the ticket prices the Gophers charge. Basketball. Great sport.

But football, I just don't get. At many levels it is the simple fact it takes 3 hours and then some to get through 60 minutes of playing time for a running, contact sport.

Now, other sports, like baseball and cricket have significant breaks in the action. But baseball and cricket are not primarily meant to be sports of continuous interaction (let alone contact) between the players. They are in many ways, the addition of discrete plays, with the strategic drama of the situation building slowly. The breaks between innings, and the breaks between deliveries of the ball to the batter, allow the spectators to reflect on how the situation has evolved with the last play, and what could happen next.

But American football in many ways is closer in spirit to, well, other forms of "football," such as soccer, both codes of rugby, and Gaelic football. The object of football is also similar to basketball, netball, [water]polo, lacrosse, and hockey in its temperate (field) and frigid (ice) climate varieties. Both teams have the same number of players participating on the ground at the same time, and the object of each team is to convey the ball [puck] to the other end of the field, and into some scoring zone past the defence of the opposing team.

But all these other sports have lengthy periods of continuous interaction [and contact] between the opposing teams. The breaks in play are relatively limited (though the fourth quarter of a basketball game can get mighty long), and in soccer and rugby occur largely after an infringement of the rules.

By contrast, in football, there are remarkably short stretches of continuous interaction between the two teams. It is essentially a series of set pieces, with ample time for the coaches to advise players on how to react to the situation on the field, and for players to move on and off the field, depending on the situation.

Now, many of the other sports face the football problem of swapping players into the action, so it's not as if this is a facet of the game unique to football. But in ice hockey (especially), and to some extent in soccer and rugby, the players must swap in and out of the game while play is occuring, and this ability to swap on the move is an additional skill.

WIth the partial exception of basketball, these other codes try to limit in time and frequency the breaks in play. To a large extent the game flows, and can flow for lengthy periods of time, 20 minutes in ice-hockey for example. American football doesn't impose nearly the same restrictions on breaking the action.

Because football allows players to swap in and out of position during frequently occuring breaks in play, it encourages a high degree of specialization in players' skills, and the input of the coaches likely reduces the players' tactical and strategic ability. The excitement of watching a player have to play out of position, of watching a team have to regroup and re-organize several times before there is a break in play is, if not entirely missing, not present in football.

As I noted, breaks in play and the input of coaches and captains in determining the next move, do not make a sport intrinsically less interesting. They are an essential part of the charm of the game in baseball and cricket.

But inserted into a game that in other respects bears more resemblance to continuous, contact sports, it's just odd. It's like listening to a symphony line-by-line, rather than stanza by stanza; or reading one sentence in a novel, taking a 60 second break, and reading the next one, rather than reading whole paragraphs or chapters.

I write this not because I don't like football, but because I like most other sports (tho' maybe beach volleyball got more than its due of Olympic coverage) and my obvious failure to appreciate football cries out for one of my readers to help me out, and tell me what I should see in the game ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:37 PM

September 11, 2004

Never too late to learn ...

Maybe now you'll all regret that Revolution thing and leaving the British Empire and all its fun games like cricket and [field] hockey and netball ...

Wisden reports that New Zealand scored a "crushing victory" against the USA at cricket. 

Other words used to describe the encounter were "pillaging," "a torrential downpour of sixes," "highest score in the history of the Trophy," "the Americans began to flounder," "an eight ball spell that removed the wheels from the American wagon," and more ominously "This was bad enough for the Americans, but on September 13 they come up against Australia at the Rose Bowl. The record books could need a major rewrite after that one."

More in the New Zealand Herald ... if you care for it.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:29 PM

August 29, 2004

governments of men or laws

One thing Americans might find odd about the Australian election (or the Canadian, British or New Zealand ones for that matter) is that the Prime Minister gets to choose the date.

Being democratic countries, that does not mean that the government gets to extend its term as long as it likes. Elections in Australia and New Zealand must be held every three years [for people who are really into trivia, the exact requirement is that the election must be called within three years of the previous election results being declared, which generally occurs about one month after the election, leading to full electoral terms of slightly over three years. we digress ...] and in Britain they must be held every five years.

Britain, in particular, has a long-standing tradition of elections more regularly than the maximum term would allow. The government, holding the power to choose the date, naturally tries to pick one that maximises its own chances of coming out ahead. Australia and New Zealand used to disdain this practice. Between 1949 and 1975 the Australian and New Zealand elections were often held only a week or so apart in mid-late November. Lately though, it has become quite common in Australia for governments to try and renew their mandate with the electorate earlier than they have to. Indeed, Australia had an election in March 1983, and then another one in late 1984.

The New Zealand election was held early in 2002, by about four months, and the government came in for some flak from the media and political commentators for breaking with a schedule that would have seen the election return to its traditional late November date (after an early October election in 1999). It's not clear whether many voters actually cared about this.

I mention all this as a random entree to the different world that is election scheduling in Westminister democracies, that is to say, non-republican, democracies (small r, small d).

Governments that are not entirely sure of their re-election, like John Howard's, put even more thought than normal into the timing of the election, with such things as major sporting events, the release of economic statistics, visits by or to foreign leaders, and other countries' upcoming elections key variables that work in every possible direction.

American readers wishing to ponder the alternative political universe this kind of power gives to governments, can imagine what kind of thumping victory George Bush would have won if he had been able to call an election in February 2002, for example ...

November 2, 2004.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:40 PM

because no one else will

I suppose it's a good thing that the national anthem is God Defend New Zealand, because it seems actual, real people willing to defend the place are getting short on the ground.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:26 PM

August 24, 2004

backwards into the future (again)

Still with me?

Yesterday, I gave a potted history of Pakeha-Maori relations in NZ, organized around the Treaty of Waitangi. Today I'm going to give some thoughts on Chapter 1 as I work on this book review.

A note on the title of the post. Maori have a saying that you spend your life walking backwards because you can see the past but not the future

Byrnes is nothing if not clear up front about her argument:

The book has two main arguments. The first is that the Tribunal is not engaged in writing objective history, but one that is deeply political and overwhelmingly focused on the present .... The second argument is that the historical narratives produced by the Waitangi Tribunal have strong postcolonial tendencies.
Tribunal history, as with the efforts of many other commissions and judicial bodies to rewrite history, is a noble but ultimately flawed experiment.
the published reports of the Waitangi Tribunal have fundamental problems if viewed as scholarly academic history .... the flaws and weaknesses of these reports are a direct result of the Tribunal's statutory jurisdiction ...

Byrnes makes a distinction early on between the history of the Treaty developed by the Tribunal, and the way the Tribunal uses history.

She also says that for some tribes the process of presenting claims to the government has punctuated the experience of all generations since the 1880s. In that sense, the elongation of the claims resolution process is of no great question to some Maori as they see it as part of the partnership with the Crown. Be that as it may, public opinion polls in NZ show that the majority of the population would be comfortable with some form of fixed end date for the claims process. Governments, National or Labour, tread carefully round this for they must balance respecting a contractual agreement (the Treaty) with popular support. Not for the last time, the Treaty claims process pits two liberal principles against each other, with no easy resolution of the dilemma.

A strength of the first chapter is that it presents a clear definition of "postcolonialism," but also makes the argument for why people outside the academy should care about the concept.

In Byrnes' words postcolonialism is "a critical engagement with the aftermath of colonisation ....an attitude, rather than an epoch. It is a perspective that ... seeks to undermine the structures, ideologies, and institutions that gave colonisation meaning ..."

Byrnes draws parallels and contrasts with other historical commissions and enquiries outside New Zealand, finding most similarity (unsurprisingly) with the processes for first nations peoples in Canada, where treaties give claimants something specific and legal to structure their grievances around (7-8)

But she points out some pretty important differences;

  1. Because the Treaty of Waitangi is seen as an ongoing social contract, the remit of the Waitangi Tribunal is much wider than claims processes in Australia or South Africa.
  2. The Waitangi Tribunal is open-ended.
  3. Rather than relying on orthodox historical perspectives (i.e; written documents) it also includes "memory traditions" as part of evidence.
  4. Most importantly, the specific context of a strong guarantee of land title in the Treaty provides more basis for compensation than in other jurisdictions.

The Tribunal has produced a sizeable ouevre, and that in itself has probably discouraged many people from undertaking a close reading of its work. Byrnes restricts herself to the 'historical' reports produced by the new Tribunal (post-1985). In the last few years, however, historians have started to engage with the reports produced by the Tribunal.

Perhaps the most damning, coming from a long-time participant in the process, was from W.H. Oliver who argued that the Tribunal was creating a "retrospective utopian history ... a history of what the Crown should have and could have don, but did not .... Rhetorical gestures towards timeless truths--and the appeal to timelessness to disarm dissent and bypass exegesis--will not dispel the suspicion that the Crown and its agents are being short-changed, primarily by insisting that they should, in the larger issues of policy and administration, have heeded rules of which they were unaware and performed tasks which would never have occurred to them."

Oliver also points out the paradox that the Tribunal cannot condemn the state too much, as it is a creation of that state and relies upon it to implement the Tribunal's recommendations. Therefore, it resorts to the trick of condemning the consequences of colonisation, and maintaining that colonisation could have been better managed in substantial areas.

Oliver's critique is significant because he remains largely sympathetic to the political aims of ensuring that the contractual obligations of the Treaty are lived to, and the breaches restored. So, and she makes this very clear, is Giselle Byrnes. Yet both end up being deeply, and constructively, critical of the histories produced by the Tribunal.

As I mentioned in the conclusion to yesterday's discussion, the place of the Treaty in New Zealand society has become part of the present political debate. Yet the Treaty is a relatively thin document on which to base a constitutional settlement. Hence the Court mandated reference to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

But the principles that animated the signers of the Treaty cannot be completely recovered; we are adding our own interpretations to them in the present, yet trying to give them legitimacy by grounding them in the past. This is appropriate for a nation that was not founded in a Revolution, but was instead founded by those Britons who had absorbed the lessons of the American Revolution. While F.M. Brookfield may argue that the British assumption of power in New Zealand was a revolutionary act, it can, in other ways be viewed as a rather conservative undertaking.

In any event, the dispute over the place of the Treaty in New Zealand politics seems likely to be sustained for a while, for several reasons.

The first, as I've noted above, is the rather thin foundation the Treaty provides, combined with the belief by many (both Maori and Pakeha) that the Treaty is a sufficient foundation for an enduring constitutional settlement.

No one, not even Don Brash, who's raised all those questions but won't front up with an answer, has seriously proposed some complementary constitutional document. The British legacy of a cobbled-together informal constitution persists. Moreover, the Treaty reflects the balance of power that existed between the British crown and Maori in the 1840s, when they were more equal. Maori would not get such a good deal today.

The second is that resolving some of the issues posed by the Treaty requires explicitly trading off some agreeable principles for others. That is, there are compromises all around to be made. Referring to the "principles of the Treaty of Waitangi" without actually ever saying concretely and concisely what they are is a symbol of this evasion all around.

Moreover, to give assent to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi might actually mean cutting against other principles which have become important in New Zealand society.

The main conflict is that the Treaty has been established as a valid contractual document, and adhering to agreements that have been made in good faith all around is regarded as a good idea.

But there is also the classical liberal position that people should be treated equally regardless of their race. This is a position which many people in New Zealand would agree.

In the New Zealand context there's little hope of holding both positions simultaneously, not without a lot of cognitive dissonance.

There are also the liberal, and somewhat republican, principles that
(1) political rights are not given to groups, but to individual citizens, and (2) that rights and privileges are non-hereditary, but the entitlement of every citizen in the country (unless they renounce their citizenship or commit some crime). Such universal statements of political rights animate the American constitution. While they aren't written down in New Zealand politics, their influence can be discerned.

Even if we were to admit of group rights to political representation for Maori, defining who is in and out of that group becomes a little problematic in practice. The Treaty as a contract was signed between the British Crown and independent Maori tribes. There was, it is clear, no sense in which the different Maori tribes regarded themselves as a nation in the modern sense, though some Maori 'nationalism' was inchoate in 1840.

So, you might think that you could reach some form of political and constitutional settlement that involved the tribes as corporate or political bodies. Unfortunately, many (probably most) Maori no longer identify with a single tribe, being able to trace their ancestry to multiple tribes. And Maori have not remained a distinct ethnic group -- their rate of exogamy is well over 70%, so that most people with some Maori heritage also have European heritage too.

All of these principles are, by themselves, uncontroversial in a modern democracy like New Zealand. Set alongside the Treaty they point to some uncomfortable compromises, which no-one likes making, not on a three year electoral cycle.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:05 PM

August 23, 2004

looking backwards into the future

Inspired by Eric Muller's 'live' blogging of a book review in progress, I am going to try the same thing as I collect my thoughts for a review of Giselle Byrnes' important new book, The Waitangi Tribunal and New Zealand History.

Right off the bat, I don't expect my small and mostly American audience to be interested in this ... but maybe you'll find something worth reading.

At the broadest level Byrnes grapples with the universal problem of the historical past being used in the service of the political present. Perhaps I stretch for the parallel too much, but what John Kerry and George Bush did or did not do in Vietnam over thirty years ago is fixed. Whether or not you believe that it is relevant to today's politics, it has been made relevant. Even absent the personal dimensions of the draft dodger versus the veteran, the history of United States' involvement in Vietnam would be relevant to the debate today about Iraq.

History, in the sense of what happend, but more importantly history in the sense of "our interpretations of the past" are central to politics.

Clearly, European-indigenous inter-relationships from the 19th century have little impact on the mainstream political debate in the United States. That's what you get when Native Americans make up 0.9 percent of the population, compared to Maori making up 14.7 percent of the New Zealand population.

The issue of white (or "Pakeha" in the NZ context) relationships with Maori, and the form of Maori political representation is currently the axis on which New Zealand politics divides. In all likelihood, who wins the debate will determine the next government.

If you've read this far, I hope I've convinced you of the current salience of the issue, and the broader issues the book deals with, and will take time for a quick guide to the history of the Waitangi Tribunal.

To really start at the beginning we'll take off from the American Revolution.

Along with sadly depriving Americans of the chance of having cricket as their national pastime, the Revolution also cut short the scheme the British had of sending their convicts to Georgia. Thus were born the Australian penal colonies in New South Wales and Tamania.

Once the convicts had served their time they were not able to make it back to Britain (that being the point of the penal transportation system), and despite a degree of acceptance in free society, many felt it was better to clear out to the next place they could find.

That would be New Zealand, which was also being discovered by whalers, sealers and traders as an all around good place for those activities, and the New Zealand Company, led by the "interesting" Edward Gibbon Wakefield had designs on starting settlements there. Despite a smattering of French and Americans amongst the whalers and traders, most were British; as were the ex-convicts.

With the British descended population in New Zealand growing, the Colonial Office decided that British law would provide a more orderly framework for the settlement of New Zealand. Not insignificantly, they also believed that a British legal framework would confer substantial benefits on Maori by bringing transactions about land and other real property under the law.

Thus it was that William Hobson was sent out to negotiate a treaty with Maori.

The result was the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840:

The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess over their respective Territories as the sole sovereigns thereof.

Her Majesty the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession; but the Chiefs of the United Tribes and the individual Chiefs yield to Her Majesty the exclusive right of Preemption over such lands as the proprietors thereof may be disposed to alienate at such prices as may be agreed upon between the respective Proprietors and persons appointed by Her Majesty to treat with them in that behalf.

In consideration thereof Her Majesty the Queen of England extends to the Natives of New Zealand Her royal protection and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.

Plough through that, and you'll notice that it's not exactly a model of clarity; not to mention that the Maori version had some interpretive differences.

As a practical matter, the sovereignty the British had obtained over New Zealand was rather limited; as they had few officials and few troops, but a rapidly growing number of immigrants.

Whether you like to view the dispute as being over land or sovereignty, the New Zealand wars between 1846 and 1882 (if you believe that the peace treaty with the King movement was the end of the wars) or 1916 (if you believe that Rua Kenana's arrest marks the end of the wars) unquestionably established European legal control over New Zealand. Maori were more successful in resisting encroachments on their land and self-government than native Americans in the United States and Canada, to say nothing of Australia or South Africa.

With the end of large scale armed resistance to British authority in the 1880s, Maori increasingly turned to political means to press their claim for compensation for lost resources. To some extent the New Zealand government responded to these claims with a Royal Commission into land confiscation in 1926, and small monetary settlements with major tribes in the 1940s.

Then in 1975 the third Labour government established the Waitangi Tribunal to hear claims against the Crown. The Act limited claims to events occurring after 1975, and because of that limitation the impact of the Tribunal was slight.

In 1985 the fourth Labour government extended the ambit of the Tribunal back to 1840 in a move which occasioned remarkably little debate at the time. The official website for the Treaty (established in response to the current, that is 2004 onwards, political debate) notes:

There were unexpected implications of going back to 1840: opening up the whole history of the terms and modes of colonisation.

which really only emphasises (nz book, nz spelling) how little debate went into the whole thing.

A couple of years later in 1987 the Court of Appeal decided that the 1986 State Owned Enterprises Act meant the government could do nothing that "is inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi," and then proceeded to set out a number of principles that it saw flowing from the text above. In particular, it said that the Treaty meant that the Crown and Maori were partners in government, though partners with profoundly unequal resources and power. For a country with a long tradition of a supreme executive, compliant legislature, and relatively weak courts this case attracted little public comment at the time. If you're not watching what the courts do, you don't see what the courts do.

But the government did take note of the court's decision, as did the succeeding National government which proceeded to make some major settlements with key tribes. This settlement process had bipartisan support, but led to some disagreement within the Maori community about how to allocate the bounty received. A radical, direct action group within the Maori community were the very visible face of Maori discontent about resource claims, and continuing poor health, education and criminal justice outcomes for many Maori.

The next Labour government, elected in 1999, attracted a lot of Maori support. The government's key policy aim was to remedy some of the poor health and education outcomes; and more quietly to reduce the pressure on Maori tribes to make settlements of resource claims quickly. Despite some Pakeha opposition to 'special' programs for Maori (you may like to think of this as equivalent to affirmative action in the U.S.), the opposition National Party did not make a political issue of the programs; and was subsequently crushed in the 2002 election.

After continuing to flounder in the electoral wilderness for the next 18 months, the National Party then elected a new leader in late 2003, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, Don Brash. Brash's initial months in the job were not auspicious; to put it mildly the man was not used to the give and take of political debate, and more used to the executive authority of being the head of the bank.

But then in late January 2004, Brash journeyed to Orewa and gave a speech that shifted NZ politics dramatically. Before the speech everyone assumed that Labour would coast to re-election in 2005, on the back of a surprisingly strong economy, and that Labour could establish itself as the 'natural party of government.' Now that's not the case; if Labour wins they will still be able to thank the economy and their stewardship of it has been more than competent; if they lose, it will be because Brash has made the Treaty salient in partisan politics in a way it never has been before.

Reading the speech several months after its delivery, and with the knowledge of others Brash has delivered since, several things are striking. First, Brash is great at asking the sophomoric questions about politics. As a former paid-up member and current supporter of the Labour party, I have no love for the Tories but Brash raises some legitimate questions. Second, he's proved pretty poor at answering his own questions, and putting some policies out there that actually differ substantively from Labour's. Having rushed out with the blanket principle that there should be no racial preferences ... it turns out there will be exceptions for racial preferences which meet a true need and are demonstrably successful in achieving policy aims in other spheres. All of which is much less ringing a call to electoral arms than what we heard in January.

It is into this political climate that Byrnes' book is released. How we deal with the effects of the past in the present, and how academic historians relate to that debate.

With that very extended introduction, more tomorrow on the actual book.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:40 PM

August 13, 2004

kiwi what?

In the parade of inanities that accompanied the parade of nations at the Olympic opening ceremony I was, of course, listening most intently for what gem of wisdom Katie Couric or Bob Costas would contribute about New Zealand ...

What I learnt was that the one-time Kiwifruit Marketing Authority, known after that as the Kiwifruit Marketing Board, and now as Zespri New Zealand ("Zespri" -- a commercial neologism in case you wonder) has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams at associating "kiwifruit" with New Zealand. Maybe too well.

What Katie told the audience (apart from saying that NZ has less than 4 million people, when in fact there are slightly more ... making it somewhat less "sparsely populated" than she thinks. I digress) was that

The New Zealanders are known as the kiwis. Named not after the fruit but the bird.

Back in the day, at least until the early '80s, the green flesh, furry brown skinned fruit that Americans know as a "kiwi" was known in New Zealand as a Chinese Gooseberry, after its native land.

But then in the '80s the growers got serious, levied themselves to pay for export promotion, and came up with the clever idea of calling it the kiwifruit to associate the fruit with New Zealand rather than China ...

It seems they have succeeded all too well in the United States for now most Americans live in blissful ignorance that a "kiwi" is a flightless bird (you can think what you will of that being the national symbol of a country, but it's no worse than the gopher as a state symbol) and not a green furry fruit.

Although American English is sometimes not the most parsimonious, in this case the "fruit" suffix has well and truly been lost in conversation, though I note that many supermarkets do actually display the item as a "kiwifruit."

It does make for odd conversations, however, when people with a moderate amount of knowledge ask why the national symbol of my erstwhile home country is a fruit ... if only they knew is all I can say.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:37 PM

my thoughts [nearly] exactly!

Over at Crooked Timber Brian writes "I hate NBC" because he can't see Australian swimmers.

I think the more pertinent point is not that NBC makes it hard for ex-pats to follow their country's athletes, but that NBC makes it f***ing difficult for anyone to enjoy watching the Olympics!!!

I mean, the total lack of respect for viewers that is apparent in displaying the information that an event that takes 2 minutes will be shown sometime between 12pm and 4pm. Hope you all have extended play VCRs!

They could do everyone a whole lot better by reducing the intervals an event might be shown in to an hour.

The notion that they are spoiling things by not showing them live is a little off; after all there are Olympic events taking place simultaneously, so some events will not be shown live if the coverage is going to be complete.

No, what is maddening is the lack of specificity in advance. Here, I feel that NBC really is trying to reserve the right to drop coverage of actual sports to show medal ceremonies, soft-focus biographies of American athletes, and maddeningly inaccurate portrayals of other countries' athlete development programs and athletes ...

Coming up sometime in the next two weeks ... why I think Bob Costas should stick to baseball ...

Posted by robe0419 at 7:03 PM

August 11, 2004

Rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen?

Unless that gentleman happens to be George W. Bush ...

This Modern World has the evidence.

... and if soccer is a game for gentlemen played by thugs, what does that make American football; where they wear so much defensive attire that it brings the phrase "contact sport" into disrepute.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:14 AM

July 26, 2004

Economic debate in NZ

So, it's the Democratic convention, but according to The Note the most interesting news is that Christie Vilsack commented in the mid-90s about regional accents. Interesting stuff.

This news, about the formation of the "New Zealand Institute," (no website yet, apparently) led by David Skilling is good. Whatever the economic [dis]advantages of being a small country are, one thing NZ does seem to suffer from is a rather thin economic debate. There are few groups whose interests are not closely tied to a particular economic sector, so that the debate about public policies is often more informed by rent seekers.

[UPDATE. 27 July 2004. They do have a website.]

Posted by robe0419 at 10:25 AM

July 22, 2004

Berger in perspective

If you think that the Berger 'scandal' is a little overblown, check out this tempest in a teapot from New Zealand:

Helen Clark has raised the prospect of a prime ministerial aircraft after the furore about her motorcade.

She has been under fire since a cancelled flight prompted Saturday's motorcade dash from Waimate to Christchurch airport.

Police are investigating a complaint about the speed of the motorcade, estimated at having averaged as much as 147km/h.


Helen Clark said she had no fears for the safety of others as her motorcade sped from to Christchurch so she could fly to Wellington for the Bledisloe Cup rugby test.

The convoy -- two police cars and a ministerial limousine -- travelled 209km in less than two hours.

Discussing the issue during an engagement in Levin yesterday, Miss Clark described herself as "the meat in the sandwich" and said she would not interfere in a police investigation into the matter.

She said she was working in the back seat and did not look at the speedometer.

"I didn't give any instructions to drive fast," Miss Clark said.

Asked whether she feared for her safety or the safety of others, Miss Clark replied that she had not.

She said she attended the rugby match out of "public duty" and would not have gone if she were not prime minister.

Beehive sources tried to turn the focus on National leader Don Brash, saying his crown car also travelled to the rugby test on Saturday night at high speed accompanied by police on motorbikes.

Dr Brash's spokesman told NZPA yesterday the Beehive was "spinning lies".

It was absurd to compare a short trip by Dr Brash with the long dash through Canterbury by the prime minister, he said.

There were reports today that Dr Brash was in a motorcade which ran red lights and drove on the wrong side of the road.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said Dr Brash should have walked to the test in the rain like other people.

"We can understand why the Prime Minister might travel in a motorcade but someone in Don Brash's position should have called a taxi, caught a bus or walked to the stadium," he said.

"We in New Zealand First are happy to rough it with ordinary Kiwis even if that means a walk in the rain because, after all, rugby is a winter game."

nb: Divide by 1.609 to get the speed/distance in miles

Posted by robe0419 at 8:10 AM

July 10, 2004

inter-related politics

It used to be a canard of Labo[u]r Party politics, and probably still is, to welcome the election of another Labour government elsewhere in the world, because it portended forthcoming electoral success for one's own party.

The English-speaking Labour parties (Australia, Britain, New Zealand) have been particularly prone to this flowery rhetoric, even though in most cases the electoral results were coincidental, and the electoral cycles so nearly as to be completely independent.

[The only exception might have been the 1972 elections in Australia and New Zealand. An aside to those who know]

But now with the Iraq war, the domestic politics of Australia, the United States and Britain really are inter-connected. Look at the pages of the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the Sydney Morning Herald when reports are issued about the intelligence estimates and use of intelligence before the war. What is written by the Senate in Washington about Nigerian uranium has direct ramifications for British domestic politics, and likewise what is said in London has an effect in Washington.

To be sure, this is no equilateral triangle of influence; what happens in Washington has a larger effect in London than vice versa, and what happens in both those cities has a larger effect in Canberra than Canberra will ever have elsewhere.

I suspect that this degree of inter-relatedness is higher than in previous conflicts, precisely because the reasons for the war, and its conduct have become so controversial.

After all, if it had been a rousing success (a la WWII), the war itself would not be such a domestic political issue.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:23 PM

July 8, 2004

the American Revolution and cricket

All this talk about whether the cause of liberty and the abolition of slavery would have been retarded, or whether World War I would never have happened, if the American Revolution had not occured ventures so far into the speculative that everyone is ignoring the one safe counterfactual prediction we can make ...

Without the American Revolution, the national pastime would be cricket.

Random thoughts on this alternative world

  • The Canadians would also play cricket ... and matches between Canada and the U.S. would have the fervor of the India-Pakistan series.
  • With a large population, the American cricket team would generally do pretty well.
  • While the world is better off with both cricket and baseball, if we had to lose one, it would be less worse to lose baseball.
  • Cricket would rival soccer as a true world sport, rather than the present situation where cricket and baseball divide up the global audience.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:35 PM

Suicide in the Washington Post

... Phelps Tops Himself at Trials: Sad story in the Washington Post. Apparently this guy set a world swimming record and then killed himself.

His coach then said "He was so far ahead I don't think I pushed him at all," which suggests that the coach also wanted to kill him, but didn't get the chance.

But then the article goes onto say that he'll be racing later in the week.

Which is it? Did he really top himself, or is he still alive?

Posted by robe0419 at 6:19 PM

the American Revolution in an Antipodean mirror

Never in the history of blogging has New Zealand history so wrongly informed American views of their own history.

Tyler Cowen argues that New Zealand was a "nanny state" from the beginning.

No. There was a good 40-50 years before the government got into the business of social insurance and assuming individual risks in the 1880s and 1890s. Government actions in New Zealand before that point was largely of four kinds (1) Police and military action and (2) Actions establishing the British legal system over the whole country. i.e; the New Zealand wars, (3) Internal transportation developments (railways), and (4) Sponsored immigration.

Only the last distinguishes NZ government actions from what federal and state governments did in the U.S.

Cowen has been to New Zealand [and written a contract report about the electoral system], so he has some understanding of the history, but his argument here is misleading:

3. The United States was founded on the pro-liberty ideals of the eighteenth century; the nineteenth century might not have provided such propitious foundations. For instance New Zealand was conceived as a nanny state from the beginning [emph. added]

"Nanny state from the beginning?": What on earth does this mean? To be sure, New Zealand was not formed as some sort of libertarian ideal; but where does Cowen get the idea that there was some sort of nanny state there. Let's review the beginnings of the colony ...

  • The early (pre-1840) settlers were principally whalers, sealers and traders, with some being escaped or released convicts from Australia. The British government, which had sent these convicts to Australia, was motivated to negotiate the Treaty of Waitangi, because

    1. It accepted the responsibility of bringing some form of legal system to cover the transactions of Maori and settlers, many of whom the British government was responsible for bringing to the area [as convicts]
    2. Officials in the Colonial Office perceived that some settlers were unscrupulous and would not pay a fair price for Maori land, or renege on agreements they had made. Hence the Crown prerogative to buy and sell land with Maori. Whatever your views of whether Maori understood European views of property, the point is that the Colonial Office perceived the issue as being establishing a functioning market and legal system, not guaranteeing the outcomes for individuals in that market. Establishing the legal and civil society mechanisms that support a market economy is not the same as providing social insurance; even libertarians will acknowledge that the former is a proper role of government.
    3. Rightly or wrongly, the British government in NZ initially tried to protect the interests of Maori; and there was no "nanny state" for early settlers, who thought they would do better without the Colonial Office protecting Maori.

  • At the time the Treaty was signed, the Wakefield's New Zealand Company was establishing four settlements, and plans were afoot for the churches to sponsor settlements in the South Island -- the organization of the church settlements informed by NZ Company ideas.

    The NZ Company, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield in particular, espoused [if not always practiced] ideas that could nowaday be called communitarian, as a response to the problems of establishing a new outpost of British settlement, far from its original locations.

    To be sure, there were aspects of the NZ Company's organization that might be termed "nanny state"ish, such as the idea that land-owners would find a job for any unemployed laborers in the community. But this was a concept closer to noblesse oblige, since it was the responsibility of private individuals to look after other individuals -- not the governments.

    As it happened, of course, there was periodic unemployment in the NZ Company settlements, but the unemployed were not picked up by the landlords -- they often moved out of the community.

  • Whatever demands there were for the government to provide some form of social insurance, it took until the 1880s before they were enacted. This is hardly the beginning of the colony -- it is some way into the period of responsible government. What's more it only predates American state governments social insurance and labor market regulation efforts by a decade or two.

  • The development of the "nanny state" was a significant break with previous practice; a point more than adequately made by David Thompson's book A World Without Welfare.

In response Matthew Yglesias writes

Free marketers would do well to avoid mentioning New Zealand, however, whose welfare state was producing sub-par economic growth, provoking a major bout of neoliberal reform after which they started doing even worse (interestingly, New Zealand and Argentina provide just about the only historical examples of rich countries becoming un-rich and they don't seem to have much else in common).

... which takes us forward to the twentieth century. Using NZ economic history to inform an understanding of the American welfare state is strange; as New Zealand is a very open economy, with trade being a major share of GDP, whereas in the United States it was and is not.

In both New Zealand and Argentina the terms of trade turned against them, and it took decades to unwind the political-economic structure that had previously redistributed the gains from being efficient producers of protein from grass (i.e; selling meat to the world), but which were ill-equipped to cope with a world where people weren't prepared to pay monopsonistic prices for meat anymore.

As for the success of the "bout of neo-liberal reform", well yes, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw particularly slow growth in New Zealand, but growth since the mid-1990s has been relatively strong.

Again, however, there's substantial debate about whether this is just a favorable terms of trade, or whether it really is the long-awaited results of neo-liberal structural change.

In any case, Matt would do well to salute the New Zealand lesson in getting rid of agricultural subsidies. Just remove them and be done with it.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:33 PM

July 7, 2004

Colonial relations

Matthew Yglesias writes:

British policies in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, however, demonstrate that there were approaches that the United Kingdom could have taken to the thirteen colonies that would have led to a workable form of political association. Indeed, even without any formal structure, after World War II the British settler states share a set of fairly close ties.

The key point in response to this is that British policies in C/A/NZ were informed by the failures of colonial policy in the 13 colonies that became the United States. New Zealand gained effective self-government in the 1850s, and Canada of course became independent relatively rapidly in the 1860s. The Australian colonies with penal settlements had somewhat more oversight from London. It took the American Revolution to work out a workable form of settler colonialism, and as Brad De Long points out the democratic example in the U.S. forced democratic reforms in Britain too.

One might also point out that New Zealand and Australia were democratic innovators themselves; the secret ballot was an Australian innovation, women's suffrage and guaranteed representation in parliament for indigenous populations New Zealand ones.

C/A/NZ had enough effective sovereignty that the granting of actual formal independence from Britain (Statute of Westminster) was seen as a matter of no great urgency in the 1930s and 1940s, as the prerogative of the British parliament to pass legislation affecting life in the Dominions had never been exercised in a long time.

There was a formal structure for maintaining associations after WWII -- it's still going, and it's called the Commonwealth.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:51 PM

July 4, 2004

happy 4th of July

Happy 4th of July to any American readers, for whom the sentiment is more meaningful, and happy 4th of July to everyone else, because I wish you all a happy day every day.

America gets the 4th of July pretty much spot on as a festival of positive patriotism. As I noted on Friday history plays a prime role in constituting a country, and every nation needs a day for uncomplicated celebration of its achievements as a community. Other countries could learn a lot about saving the arguing for the other 364 days in the year.

To be sure, American pride-in-country has its insular, reactionary side too, but there's none of that on the 4th. It's all good celebration, with firecrackers too!

Posted by robe0419 at 6:53 PM

July 2, 2004

what is a nation

Simon Upton's latest online musings about how history constitutes once-colonial nations in the 21st century is well worth reading.

Upton tends to infrequent but detailed and considered writings, so it's not worth checking his website for new posts -- subscribe to the e-mail instead.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:40 PM

June 23, 2004

what use is the word then?

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber notes the difference in how Americans, and Britons/Antipodeans use the word "quite"

When I first arrived in America I was bemused by how seemingly polite Midwesterners would say "It was quite nice to meet you." As these phrases were generally the conclusion of five minute first-meetings I'm sure that quite=moderately was the accurate judgment of meeting me (maybe even an overly good judgment!).

But the conversational convention most places seems to be that you should err on the side of effusiveness in saying how nice it was to meet someone.

The OED notes that the contemporary American usage is "usually felt to be old-fashioned or stilted, and has become less common," another example of how word use in the United States reveals its seventeenth century separation from English English.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:25 PM


John Judis, guest blogging for Josh Marshall, has an articulate post about the Bush administration's tightening up of foreign student visa rules.

Now it's true that several of the 11 September hijackers entered the U.S. on student visas, and that they never showed up at the English language school they were supposedly entering. And the ability of the [former]INS, now BCIS, to track foreign students was pretty much non-existent.

But the response of the Bush administration has been to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; in this case to create a lot of obstacles for legitimate students who make a great contribution to American universities and the American economy.

To wit, students from China (!) have been particularly slowed in their visa applications. Whatever the other merits or demerits of having lots of Chinese graduate students enter the country, no-one to my knowledge has ever suggested that China was sending lots of potential terrorists to the United States.

Moreover, the 11 September hijackers all enrolled in privately operated English language schools. These kinds of operations are certainly deserving of more scrutiny.

But students coming to study at major universities, and those who come from non-Islamic countries are not where the risk lies.

As Judis says, international educational exchange is so fundamental to making long-term allies in foreign countries that the U.S. should be offering more opportunities to the best students in Islamic and Arab countries to come to the U.S. to study. Of course, some oversight is necessary, but the long-term payoff of giving future opinion leaders the opportunity to see America up close, is great enough to outweigh the slight risks.

[Update: 30 June 2004]: an op-ed in the WaPo addresses the same issues.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:23 PM

May 12, 2004

getting down [under] to business

A bit of a diversion from American politics, and back into the much smaller, less globally consequential, New Zealand scene.

Colin James has a quick summary here about the campaign by Business New Zealand to "harness Kiwi values so growth is portrayed as an outcome of Kiwi values, not a threat to them." And there is much to admire in what follows.

One of the perennial problems New Zealand still faces is the lack of opportunity for its best and brightest. As well as tapping into the kiwi diaspora, New Zealand economy and society will only be strengthened by a more diverse range of companies and occupations.

Encouraging that cultural shift towards celebrating business success, while at the same time not losing sight of the best in New Zealand's culture -- a genuine warmth in the people, and the opportunities to enjoy the lifestyle will not be a short term change, but a valuable one.

That change is something that goes beyond party politics. Giving people more fields to excel in is not something that should go against the grain of good Labour people.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:13 PM

April 30, 2004

thank you for the vegemite

in a previous post I mentioned that in their attempt to be polite, Midwesterners actually went round the circle a little too far and crossed over into dishonesty. lest anyone misunderstand my point as being that people were rude, not at all! for the most part, the apparent Midwestern politeness and friendliness is true. [appearances are not always what they seem, however].

Indeed, just yesterday I received the nicest multi-coloured, written in felt-tip pens on newsprint card that I have seen since I was in primary/elementary school myself. And that is the mark of true politeness. They even wrote "Thank you for letting us taste the Vegiemite (sic)" but were more effusive by way of an exclamation mark about the Tasmanian devil.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:30 PM

April 27, 2004

vileness in the Minnesota Daily

From the Minnesota Daily: "Riter and Ford competed against each other in high school, with Ford winning the 2000 state title in the 800 and Riter winning in 2001. Now, they root each other. "

I'm all for people making up for past rivalries and encouraging each other but this is a little too much!

Posted by robe0419 at 9:53 AM

April 26, 2004

blowing hot and cold

Farenheit and celsius may be objective measures of temperature, but what really matters is how we perceive these as "hot" or "cold". Minnesota has an interesting climate [and I do not mean by that I dislike the climate], over the year whereas in New Zealand they have less climatic variation, and a lot of variation in the weather.

What is a little odd is how the same temperature on the dial feels in different places. In Minneapolis, 50F/10C feels quite pleasant. When I go running it's T-shirt time, and no gloves. By contrast, in Wellington the same temperature is generally accompanied by dampness and a southerly which makes it all feel a little cooler, and the clothing of choice is typically polypropelene.

By contrast, 68F/20C in Minneapolis feels cooler than the same temperature in the Antipodes, where 20C is typically accompanied by sun unmoderated by the ozone layer.

A strange phenomena, but possibly one confined to me, myself and I, given the subjective element in temperature.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:17 PM


On Friday, 23 April I went to talk to three classes of kindergarten students at Seward Montessori school, who had been learning about Australia and New Zealand (mostly Australia, but we'll let that slide ...). All in all it was a wonderful 2 hours of cultural exchange for me, and I hope for them too.

The most interesting thing I learnt was that the Sydney Opera House is featured in Finding Nemo. After showing pictures of all the wierd and wonderful fauna in Australasia I showed pictures of the cities. The "Wellington Cable Car" sign in the picture of Wellington alerted them that that was Wellington, but there was no clue that the next picture was Sydney except the opera house. "Does anyone know where this is?" I asked, and in each class a couple of little hands would shoot up, and little voices would call out, that it was Sydney. "How do you know?" I asked, and they would enthusiastically reply that Sydney was featured in Finding Nemo. Most other little heads in the class would then nod enthusiastically, remembering the film if not Sydney.

They were all markedly less enthusiastic about vegemite, as most Americans are (follow these google links to see what I mean).

In the first class, the choicest and most appropriate comment, was the girl who said that "I don't really care for that." One can assume that all the children saying "ewwww" and "yuck" would have expressed similar sentiments if they had been as articulate.

In the second class though I received proof that children in Minnesota are taught to lie, and to debase the meaning of useful words in the English language. Amidst a chorus of "ewww" and "yuck" the teacher actually told the children "If you don't like something, don't say yuck, say that's interesting, or that's different".

Anyone who has spent anytime in the Midwest will know that "interesting" and "different" do not mean curious and distinct as they do in most other parts of the English-speaking world -- they mean "I don't like that, but I'm not going to tell you that directly."

Midwestern people will defend this practice as being polite, overlooking that dishonesty is impolite in itself, saying that it would be rude to directly say "I don't like X". Perhaps they could learn to say "I don't really care for that" as some five years have ...

Posted by robe0419 at 11:16 AM