Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lion sleeps tonight

Lion Nathan, one of New Zealand’s oldest companies, ceased to exist today: It was de-listed from the New Zealand Stock Exchange (and Australia’s, too) after the company was acquired by Japan’s Kirin Breweries. While this was a bit of a yawn by itself, I think it says something about the modern business paradigm.

The brewery was formed in Auckland in 1840 by John Logan Campbell, and only became Lion Breweries in 1977. After tycoon Doug Myers took control of the company in the 1980s, the company bought New Zealand’s largest retailer (at the time), LD Nathan & Co. from the asset-stripping merchant bank, Fay Richwhite and formed Lion Nathan.

In the early 1990s, they bought the brewing companies of Aussie tycoon Alan Bond, Tooheys Brewery and Castlemain Perkins. A few years later, Kirin bought 45 percent of the company.

The Kirin move sparked a major revamp of the Takeovers Code because ordinary people couldn’t participate in a partial takeover. The Kirin move solidified government resolve and the new Code was completed in time to prevent Lion Nathan from taking over wine maker, Montana.

In 2000, after the Kirin partial takeover, Lion Nathan moved its headquarters to Sydney. By the time of the company’s death, it controlled 50% of the New Zealand beer market and 40% of the Australian market.

What’s instructive about this is that the company followed the current business imperative for New Zealand companies: Grow big, so big that international expansion is required to continue growing profits, then be taken over by a multi-national corporation. This, conservatives tell us, is the highest and best result for any company.

That’s true—if greed is your sole motivator.

While the right wing considers globalisation to be holy, it’s not always, nor the best objective. As once proud New Zealand companies are reduced to irrelevant branch offices of multi-national corporations, something of our cultural identity is lost, as well as a stake in the success of the company.

Multi-nationals try to force consumers into a kind of great global goo, and in the process the unique cultural heritage, traditions and even preferences of a place get reduced to mere “local market variations”. All decisions, and the fate of NZ workers, are decided in some foreign country that won’t feel the consequences of their actions here.

Economic conservatives tell us while that’s sad, it’s ultimately the way of the world. Describing a situation is not prescribing it. Investors hell-bent on acquiring maximum wealth no matter what may not care if a New Zealand town loses its biggest employer when the foreign owners move production to Asia (for example), but there ought to be value in a company that digs in its heels and seeks to maximise its profits AND its connection to New Zealand. That’s what’s missing from the current business paradigm that values maximised profit over everything else.

So Lion Nathan is gone. I won’t mourn it, since, in my view, it was hardly a “good corporate citizen” in its last couple decades. By the time of its death, it wasn’t really a New Zealand company anymore, and neither were its profits or its commitment. And that’s the problem.

The extent of Halloween

Last week, I posted a couple photos from what was the largest Halloween “display” I saw at our local mall. Actually, it was really the only Halloween display.

So as part of my research into my thesis that Halloween is fading, I went to our local shopping centre. The photo above shows the candy display in our supermarket. It was the only display in the entire store.

Out in the mall, a cheap shop had a small display (photo below). As a percentage of store size, this was actually the biggest display I saw.

Today I went to our local, smaller branch of the main discount store, and the Halloween stuff was at the front of the store—and consisted of two displays, each one square metre in size. I heard on the radio this afternoon that the chain was offering 20% off all Halloween decorations “while stocks last.” Sounded like they were trying to get rid of it.

Now I’m especially interested in what happens on Saturday.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Slap some sense into this story

A man identified as “an Auckland businessman” plans to spend up to $450,000 on a march to protest the Government’s decision to ignore the deeply flawed smacking referendum. He’s been endorsed, of course, by the same far-right christianist group that’s been moaning the loudest about the referendum. The march idea is silly, and the nearly a half-million dollars would be better sent on preventing child abuse. Still, it’s their democratic right to waste their money on yet another stunt if they want to.

However, they can’t expect to spout utter nonsense and not be called out for doing so.

Their promotional material reads: “In the election 45% of votes counted for John Key. In the referendum 87% of votes counted for nothing.” Bad grammar aside, this is a double deception.

First—and most importantly—what they’re referring to is that 87.4% of people who voted cast a pro-smacking vote. However, what the activists are hiding is that the voter turnout was only 56.09% of eligible voters. That means that fewer than 48.98% of all eligible votes actually voted the way the activists claim. If you’re feeling generous, you could say that “about half” of New Zealand voters voted “no” in the referendum, but constantly using the 87.4% figure is deliberately deceptive and misleading, meant to imply overwhelming support where it never existed (see also my previous post on the results).

Second, there’s absolutely no direct link between those who voted for the National Party in the general election and those who voted “no” in the referendum: In fact, we have no idea how many voters of any party voted in the referendum or how they voted. We can make some educated guesses, but a direct correlation, as the activists imply, simply does not exist.

A companion piece on the christianist group’s website reads “Should a kick in the guts as part of responsible government go unanswered?” Intended as a play on the wording of the referendum, it’s also deliberately confrontational. If less than half of New Zealanders supported the activists’ position, how is it a “kick in the guts” if the government recognises that there’s no mandate for change? The referendum question was deliberately written to be confusing and counterintuitive. It’s not a stretch at all to assume that some of the “no” voters actually favour the law as changed and don’t back activists’ position.

So what we have are activists who were backed by fewer than half of all New Zealand voters, but who are still trying to force their agenda on everyone. The government is right to ignore them. Let the activists spend their half million dollars on a vanity rally if they want to—at least it’s not taxpayer money this time.

Are they really so clueless?

The more this National Party-led Government goes on, the more I wonder if they have a clue what they’re doing. So many of their ministers are so clearly out of their depth that it’s difficult to have any confidence in John Key’s premiership. Worse, their approach on issues often seems, at best, naïve.

The government’s strategy on Internet broadband is a good example.

The previous Labour-led Government set a goal of ultra-fast broadband (UFB) available to most New Zealanders. They intended to use the government as the instrument for achieving what the commercial sector had shown no interest in doing. The current government, however, has decided to pursue “public-private partnerships” to make this happen.

As a centre-right government, it’s understandable that they’d have unshakeable faith in this approach. The reality is that sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t—which means it’s no perfect solution, as they seem to think.

Their initiative will require the formation of companies to take on the wiring of local areas with fibre-optic cables to the premises (which they call “FTTP”). This in itself a good thing: Previous commercial interest has been in extending cables only to exchanges. One company proposed to extend the cables to the cabinet (the junction boxes on the street), but they provided no timetable and didn’t actually do anything.

The government’s goal is “a minimum uncontested 100 Mbps downlink and 50 Mbps uplink”, with the capability to support speeds up to ten times that. This would represent a dramatic improvement. The government intends that UFB will ultimately be available to “75 percent of the New Zealand population.” However, since a projected 4.5% of New Zealanders will live outside of “high-density population centres” by 2021, the government has decided that some rural areas will probably not get UFB. But their own projections also show that UFB won’t be available to about 20% of the population, which means some non-rural areas won’t be served, either, because it won’t be economically feasible.

And that’s the crux of the problem: National’s reliance on “public-private partnerships” means that urban areas will be wired first, providing, they believe, the profits necessary for the companies to wire smaller areas. Despite National’s unbridled optimism, there’s no evidence to suggest that without massive government subsidies businesses will find any economic rationale for going outside urban areas.

The plan calls for this all to be completed over a decade (or longer). The need for reasonably-priced, fast broadband exists now, and we’ll continue to fall behind the world the longer it takes. The government doesn’t seem to understand the huge urgency behind upgrading our Internet infrastructure.

New Zealand is completely dependent on the so-called “primary sector” (chiefly dairy products, meat and wool). In order to compete in a global economy from one of the countries farthest from world markets, New Zealand must have a fast, reasonably-priced and reliable internet infrastructure as soon as possible. Despite good aspects of the current initiative, there’s nothing in it to suggest the government understands this.

Update: According to Statistics New Zealand (via NZ Herald), in the 15 months to June, broadband connections in New Zealand jumped 27 percent to 1.1 million, meaning that broadband now makes up three-quarters of all Internet connections. However, half of all broadband subscribers had a data cap of less than 5GB per month. The number of subscribers with a 20GB data cap or more had tripled, but was still only 126,000. All of which shows how the market is not delivering the solutions that New Zealand needs.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Um, no, no it won’t

The Sunday Star-Times (via Stuff) reported that the longtime aide to former Prime Minister Helen Clark, Heather Simpson, has married her partner, Sue Veart, in a civil union at their home in Wellington. Clark, whose government created civil unions, did not attend.

The article talked about Simpsons political power during Clark’s Labour-led government, before moving on to how Simpson had her “arm twisted” to work for Clark at the United Nations in New York City. Apparently Veart recently left her job so she could join Simpson.

The article said: “One acquaintance said she believed the civil union would make it easier for Veart to live in the US.” Personally, I doubt that’s true, given Simpson’s well-known political nous. She would know that no foreign or domestic legal recognition of same-sex relationships—whether civil unions or marriages—are recognised by the US Government for any purpose whatsoever, including immigration. The couple could’ve held a Tupperware party, because it would make no more difference to American authorities than their civil union will.

All of which goes to show—yet again—that GLBT people, even ones who were powerful in their home countries—are still seen and treated as second-class in the United States. Sugarcoat it all you like, but America is not a land of equality or equal opportunity for all its citizens or legal residents. This is just another example of why it isn’t.

Changing their tune

The New Zealand Herald reported that New Zealand-owned Marbeck’s CD stores are about to open a “concept store” in Dunedin, a kind of "boutique Borders". Unremarkable news by itself, the article says that the new store “will be run by older staff than those usually seen in The CD and DVD Store” (the chain that bought Marbeck’s three years ago).

But what caught my eye was this: They plan to offer their own digital music downloading service. Roger Harper, Marbecks' managing director, told the Herald, "Initially, we viewed downloading as a threat, now we are working it into our business strategy, seeing it as an opportunity—we're not going to sell more CDs tomorrow." It’s the first time I’ve seen a traditional music retailer acknowledge that the future of music sales is digital music without a physical CD. Put another way, we consumers were right all along, they were wrong, and now, late in the game, they realise that.

The move to digital music, adding books, knowledgeable staff and a café, and even avoiding use of the extremely limited—and increasingly old fashioned—company name, "The CD and DVD Store" shows that the customer is always right. For their sake, I hope they didn’t learn that lesson too late.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More short shots

There are often topics that I don’t have time to blog about, or enough to say to write an entire post, but I want to say something, So, more short shots:

The Matthew Shepard Act finally passes

It’s been a long road to passage, but the hate crimes bill finally seems likely to become law. But if there’s one topic about which the right has lied nearly as much as they have about healthcare reform, it would be this bill. Some of the things said in Congress have been so crazy that one wonders if the men in the clean white coats weren’t far away.

But one other thing occurred to me through this: The Republican Party had little to do with opposition to the bill—it was the religiously-driven wingnuts at the core of that party. Which kind of makes clear that the enemy of freedom and democracy isn’t the Republican Party per se, but these wingnuts. That’s useful in itself.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

I saw a report at Chicago Tribune online that began this way:

“Students from Washington University in St. Louis raised civil rights complaints Thursday against a popular Chicago nightclub after six African-Americans were denied entry under the bar's "no baggy pants" policy—even as fellow students said the bar admitted similarly dressed white students.”

This reminded me of a long-gone gay nightclub (the building has been torn down) in Chicago’s “Boystown” neighbourhood, which had instituted a “no hats” policy. At the time, young African American men, gay or not, wore fancy baseball-style caps as a fashion statement. It was alleged that by banning such hats, the bar was hoping to exclude African Americans. Yep, some things just don’t change. Interestingly, the “no hats” bar ultimately failed—and for a time the space was occupied by a bar catering to GLBT African Americans.

Catholics poach haters

The Roman Catholic Church announced it would be working to allow breakaway Anglican parishes to join the Catholic Church—or is that “re-join”? The Anglican Church was formed in 1534 when the pope wouldn’t grant Henry VIII a divorce. These modern parishes are “breakaway” because they don’t like women bishops and—especially—they don’t like gay people being treated as equal human beings. So, the Catholics are eager to welcome their fellow anti-woman, anti-gay religionists—all of which probably means nothing to people who aren’t Catholic or Anglican; to us, it’s a kind of “no surprises there,” moment.

But the best comment I saw came from my e-buddy Mark, author of Slap Upside the Head (one of my mostest favourtist sites on the web). Said Mark: “Aw, isn’t that just the most adorablest thing ever? There’s just nothing like a common dislike of us gays to mend a 475 year old religious rift.” Amen, brother.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Farewell, Halloween

Today I went to a local mall and saw what I suspected: In New Zealand, Halloween is passé.

There were no displays in the mall, which was decked out for Christmas (the Christmas selling season begins this weekend). The only store with anything like a Halloween display was The Warehouse (the "Home of Halloween", you'll remember), but its display was pathetic by American standards. The photos with this post show all there was.

I also checked two grocery stores (the things I do for my readers!), and neither had Halloween displays. However, sacks of 12 small candy bars were on special this week, and the store I actually shopped in had a cardboard Halloween sales rack from M&M/Mars promoting their product, not that anyone noticed.

Have I mentioned that big, orange pumpkins like we Americans are used to are simply non-existent in Auckland? I don't know that they're available anywhere in New Zealand.

So, this year, Halloween is pretty much a non-starter. Since it falls on Saturday, I doubt we’ll have any trick-or-treaters. And that could be that—or will it? Like the ghouls of American Halloween, attempts to promote the holiday in New Zealand never seem to ever be truly dead.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Halloween is homeless

Halloween has never been big in New Zealand, despite the best efforts of retailers, a few ex-pat Americans and other enthusiasts. I suppose part of it is that Kiwis didn’t grow up with it, so it’s kind of alien. Maybe as a result of that, some people are suspicious of retailers pushing to have Kiwis adopt a foreign custom.

To me, it looks like in the time since I moved to New Zealand, in some years retailers have put on a major push, nothing much happened, they stopped for awhile. Then, they tried again, nothing happened again, and they stopped. We seem to be in another stopped period. So far—only about a week away—I haven’t seen any Halloween displays in stores (I’m going to have a special look tomorrow).

We just got the sale flyer for The Warehouse, a major retailer. Their 20 pages promote the chain’s “Massive Labour Weekend Sale” (Monday is the Labour Day Holiday in New Zealand). Out of those twenty pages, exactly one half of one page has Halloween items. At the very bottom of the page—with camping gear between it and the Halloween products—is a banner that reads: “The Home of Halloween – Monster Range! Wicked Bargains!” If The Warehouse is the home, no one lives there.

New Zealand’s Australian-owned Kmart chain put out its own 16-page flyer containing absolutely nothing related to Halloween—but it has three-quarters of a page devoted to Christmas decorations.

I saw a report on the evening news about NZ retailing in another context, and they mentioned that the Christmas selling season begins this weekend. That actually probably explains a lot: Retail stores tend to make most of their annual profits during the Christmas season, so it figures that they wouldn’t give up floor space or advertising budgets to promote something that Kiwis have shown a resounding indifference to.

All of which means that this could be among the last posts I write about Halloween in New Zealand. I'm not quite sure whether that's a trick or a treat, actually.

Bye-bye ACC?

Today Prime Minister John Key said that, contrary to what he’s been saying, his government will look at “opening-up” all of the Accident Compensation Commission (ACC) to competition. In their election campaign, Key and the National Party said they’d look at “opening up” ACC to competition, but wouldn't sell anything in a first term.

Since winning government, National has been setting out, in my opinion, to make ACC so awful, so useless, that people will be glad to be rid of it. The ultimate goal of the National and ACT Parties has always been to sell-off ACC. It seems that National may be moving that up on the agenda a bit.

When there’s a concrete proposal, you can be sure I’ll have plenty to more to say.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Spring blooms

It’s difficult to find any photos that show spring in Auckland. There’s just not that much visual difference between the seasons in Auckland, apart, maybe, for the odd day here and there.

I could show trees budding out or in bloom—but many of them aren’t natives or aren’t near the house. I’ve been trying to post more photos of what I’m seeing and experiencing, but apparently I haven’t been near many things in bloom.

The two photos here show the yuccas near our house in bloom. Yuccas, of course, aren’t natives, but I’ve never seen these in bloom before. So, here’s another little part of my day-to-day reality.

Update: I have since been told, by people who know far more about such things than I do, that these are, in fact, cabbage trees (Cordyline australis). When we first moved in to the house, and the trees were MUCH smaller, I was told they were yuccas and, since I don't know plants, I didn't question it. I stand corrected.

The cost of things

The first thing I noticed when I moved to New Zealand was how expensive everything seemed. The problem, I quickly learned, was that I was constantly converting prices to US dollars. Once I stopped doing that, I realised that things weren’t anywhere near as expensive as I’d thought.

Later, I noticed some things really were more expensive: Expensive things that had to be imported from overseas. New Zealand allows parallel importing—that is, a business can import goods directly into New Zealand so that consumers can buy products at much cheaper prices than they’d find through “official”, “authorised” importers. The “official” importers declare that the goods aren’t covered by manufacturer warranty, but even if that’s true, they’re still covered by New Zealand’s Consumer Guarantees Act, which is even better.

Some businesses provide strong incentive to find alternative sources, companies like Apple Computer.

For example, Apple advertises on its New Zealand Online Store that the Mac Mini is available “from $1398”, which, at the moment, would be $1,046.96 in US dollars. Trouble is, Americans actually pay “Starting at $599”, which is $NZ799.84. That means we pay nearly 75 percent more than purchasers in the US.

Okay, so take the US price (in NZ dollars) and add GST. The Mac Mini would be $899.82—still nearly $500 less than we’re being charged—more than enough to pay to have one shipped to New Zealand.

Up until the recession, pricing between NZ and the US was more comparable, as it still is, more or less, for music on the iTunes Store. But Apple has had huge pricing discrepancies in the past, and I know people who had friends order Macs in the US and ship them here (they just had to pay GST when it arrived here).

This sort of huge price difference isn’t all that common, but when it happens, it’s because a product is difficult to obtain except through authorised distributors. There are usually ways around it for people who really want the product. The point is, we shouldn’t have to do that.

I always used to think that the reason Americans pay so little for products is that the market is so huge, and obviously that’s a factor. But it sometimes also looks like those of us outside the US help American business keep prices low by subsidising our American cousins. “Global economy”, indeed.

Update 22 October 2009: Along similar lines, Melbourne’s The Age reports that “Aussies pay top dollar for Windows 7”. The basic version will cost $A199 to upgrade, while it’s $US119 in the US (equivalent to about $A129).However, at the Ultimate version will cost Australians $A429 for the upgrade—almost double the $US219.99 ($A238) price in the IS.

Microsoft justified this by claiming “taxes, freight costs and currency fluctuations” were the reasons for the higher prices. The weak US dollar means that the Australian and New Zealand dollars both have greater purchasing power than they had only a few weeks. Try another excuse Microsoft—and Apple.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The columnist, her prejudice and consequences

Time was, it was impossible to open a newspaper without seeing something anti-gay lurking on the pages. Homophobia was rampant in the dark old days (not so long ago); it was almost a universal journalistic convention—in the English-speaking world, at least.

Times have changed, and as the world has moved forward, much of the antipathy toward GLBT people has waned. And yet, sometimes it still rears its ugly, fanged head to have another go.

Jan Moir, a columnist for Britain’s Daily Mail, not exactly a top-tier newspaper, penned a column on the death of Boyzone co-lead singer Stephen Gately that was widely viewed as homophobic. She denies this. Nearly everyone agrees it was insensitive in the extreme to publish it as the singer was being farewelled, but is being tacky a sackable offence?

Well, yes, it is, but more about that later. First, to the main charge: Was it homophobic? Without a shred of doubt—though she’s apparently incapable of seeing it.

Moir claims she’s not homophobic because she supported the “civil partnership” law in Britain, as if that has anything do with, well, anything. We can see from her column that she believes that gay men, celebrities especially, use drugs, have promiscuous sex, even if coupled, and that their relationships don’t last. She used her column to support those beliefs by projecting them onto Gately.

She claimed that on the night he died, Gately had used drugs and insinuated that he and his partner had brought a man back to their apartment for sex. In fact, the coroner ruled that Gately’s death was due to natural causes, which Moir grandly dismissed, “Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one.” Unfortunately for her, the toxicology report showed no sign of drugs.

She also cannot know why 25-year-old Georgi Dochev accompanied Gatley and his husband, Andrew Cowles, nor what happened when they got there. And, quite frankly, it’s none of her business for the same reason that I don’t know—and certainly don’t care to know—the sexual appetites and behaviours of Moir or her cohorts. Unless she has some evidence of murder—which she absolutely doesn’t—then it’s an irrelevance designed merely to smear Gately and, by extension, all gay men. She makes this clear in her arrogant defence of her column in which she refers to “the casual invitation extended to a stranger” (she doesn’t know it was casual or that he was stranger).

She clearly didn’t like Gately. She dismissively declared, “he was the group's co-lead singer, even though he could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk” (catch the subtle fag joke in that?). I can hear fans all over the world shouting back at her, “says you, bitch!” which is fair enough, actually: So she hated Gately’s singing—so what? What on earth does that have to do with his death? Absolutely nothing, but it gives her another opportunity to spit on Gately.

She also said that Gately only came out because “someone was planning to sell a story revealing his sexuality to a newspaper” and “Although he was effectively smoked out of the closet, he has been hailed as a champion of gay rights, albeit a reluctant one.” So, in her view, he couldn’t even be good at being gay. It’s fair to infer from this and her dislike of Gately that she views his continued fame as being the result, in part, of being openly gay, which she clearly doesn’t feel is legitimate.

She then used this all of this as a reason why gay relationships are inferior:
"Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.

"Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened.”
She neglects to mention that McGee committed suicide after years of drug addiction and depression, problems that began long before his marriage to Matt Lucas. Or does she mean to insinuate that all gay men are incapable of relationships? What, precisely, do these two examples have to say about the thousands of other civil partnerships in Britain? Precisely nothing, actually.

What this all adds up to is that Moir was homophobic: She used her column to project her own prejudices against gay men onto Stephen Gately, and then used that to reinforce those prejudices. She used facts irrelevant to Gately’s death to denigrate both Gately and gay men generally, clearly intending to call them into public disrepute. She then used those same prejudices to denigrate gay men in relationships, attempting to suggest by innuendo that they’re not equal to heterosexual relationships, again in an attempt to call them into public disrepute.

More seriously for a newspaper, she was also factually wrong: Toxicology reports found no evidence of drugs, yet she continues to say they must’ve been a factor. The coroner ruled the death was from natural causes, yet she dismissed that based on nothing more than assumption, conjecture—and prejudice.

All of this is reason enough to sack her. No newspaper wants a columnist who uses her column to promote her own prejudices and trash minorities without at least some justification, some factual basis. But she could also be fired for being tacky: Advertisers have told the paper that their ads are not to appear near her column. Cancellation of ad contracts isn’t unimaginable if the paper doesn’t act against Moir in some way. Columnists who create problems for their employers can’t count on keeping their jobs.

As always, there’s politics: Moir will definitely become a cause célèbre for the rightwing, who often complain darkly of the intolerance of GLBT activists as they spit out the phrase, “pink mafia” (while also often demanding that their critics be fired, though we’re not supposed to remember that part). Moir claims she isn’t homophobic and that her critics haven’t read her entire column (I have, they’re right, she’s wrong).

If she really intended that her column “was to suggest that, in my honest opinion, his death raises many unanswered questions. That was all,” then she could have done so without the snide remarks and insinuations. If she really did mean by writing “it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships” that she “was suggesting that civil partnerships… have proved just to be as problematic as marriages,” then she didn’t need to do so by implying none can last.

In sum, Moir was insensitive, tacky, factually wrong and homophobic. She, and the editor who allowed the column to run, should be sacked. And if she is, she has no one to blame but herself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Information, suppression and social media

The Internet is still changing the way information is gathered and shared. Much of what passes for news is now often hearsay, passed quickly through the various social media, but sometimes it’s a bit more.

Not long ago, the Iranian regime tried to hide the truth of its rigged elections and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. They might have been able to keep it all secret—if YouTube and Twitter hadn’t kept the story alive.

In Britain, a law firm has gone to extraordinary lengths on behalf of its client. They’d already won a suppression order to keep newspapers from reporting on the case, but when they found out a question was to be raised about it during Question Time in Parliament, they got an order forbidding the publication of the details of that, too.

However, the question was posted on Parliament’s own website and people quickly figured out what was going on and spread the news through Twitter, Facebook and other media. The truth got out, despite the efforts to suppress it. The law firm didn’t learn its lesson, however, and are reportedly attempting to block Parliament from discussing the matter. While parliaments in most Westminster-style systems routinely refrain from discussing matters that are sub judice—under judicial consideration—that’s usually merely a courtesy (it’s unclear whether a court would attempt to tell any parliament what it could and could not discuss). I bet that if there had been no suppression orders, hardly anyone would know or care about the specifics of the case, so they may have made things worse for their client.

Then, also in Britain, a columnist for the Daily Mail made some outrageously homophobic remarks about the death of Stephen Gately, and when people understandably complained, she claimed to be the victim of “a heavily orchestrated internet campaign” (for the record, she claims her remarks weren’t homophobic, but that’s a topic in itself).

What the Iranians didn’t realise is that the so-called “New Media” allow people to report on things that journalists in the newsmedia simply can’t. What the British law firm didn’t realise was that no one likes being told what they can and can’t know, and they hate their democratic rights being trampled.

And what the British columnist doesn’t understand is that no one needs to “orchestrate” anything anymore. People just Tweet it or put in on Facebook, it gets repeated and in minutes millions of people can know about it.

This makes the Iranian regime, the British law firm and the columnist all seem rather quaint and old-fashioned, as if they were just learning about this thing called The Internet. It also makes them seem more than a little stupid for not understanding the power of these social media to spread information quickly.

Of course, not all information that’s spread is quality information (Tweets with unfounded rumours of celebrity deaths, for example). But sometimes New Media and social media can spread the truth that governments or corporations want to suppress. And when that happens, it makes all the false rumours worth enduring.

New ‘comment spam’?

Comment spam is the bane of any interactive site, like a blog, and most have strategies to deal with it. Sometimes it’s simply word verification, other times it’s comment moderation and sometimes it’s software filters.

But there’s another kind I’m seeing with greater frequency. It’s not susceptible to most normal screening techniques—in fact, I’m not entirely sure it even qualifies as comment spam.

Broadly, “comment spam” is any unwanted attempt to hijack a comments thread to drive traffic to a commercial website, probably one of dubious merit. Such sites may include ones purporting to sell porn or prescription drugs, or they may be some sort of phishing scam. Generally, the comment is irrelevant or unintelligible, so it’s pretty clear what it is.

Lately I’ve been getting some comments that seem, on the face of it, to be legitimate, but instead of a link to a profile or personal website, they link to a commercial site where the commenter isn’t mentioned (and it’s probably irrelevant to this blog or the topic of the post). As long as the comment is about the topic of the post or other comments, I leave them alone. If they make what I think is a valid point or at least seem to have read the post, then I often reply to the comment as I would any other.

I’m a believer in open discussion of issues, and so I generally don’t delete any comments except comment spam, as I defined it above. While I reserve the right to delete any comment that I, at my sole discretion, believe to be racist, sexist, homophobic or some combination, in fact I seldom have. Spam comments, however, get the boot.

I understand why some organisations would engage in comment spamming as part of an astroturfing exercise against opponents, but quite frankly the only gain I can see a company gaining from having comments from blog posts completely unrelated to their business linking back to them is the sheer number of links. But, as I understand it, Google changed their algorithms to preclude this sort of thing skewing rankings for search results.

When I read comments on a blog (including this one) and I want to know more about a commenter, I hover the mouse over their profile link. I always right-click those links to open them in a new window anyway, but if the address seems odd in any way, I “copy link location” and paste the address into the new window. I do this so that if it’s an irrelevant commercial site, its statistics will show it as a direct arrival, and not coming from the site where the link was left. To open it directly from the site only encourages them to leave more commercial comments, something I don’t want to do until I decide what I think about the whole thing.

I’d love to hear the opinions of other bloggers: What do you do? Also, has Google changed their algorithms to make this tactic pointless?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

We liked to dance

People who’ve met me in the past fifteen or twenty may be surprised to learn there was a time that I used to like going out dancing with my friends. It would surprise them less to know that I only tolerated the dancing part—it was the going out with my friends that I liked.

My life has had many unlikely-to-happen things, and this was one of them: I met a group of guys through Dignity/Chicago, the local chapter of the group for Roman Catholic gay and lesbian people—even though I wasn’t Catholic. I was in my early to mid twenties, and they were all older than me—some more than twice my age.

I’m surprised they had anything to do with me at all: I was just a kid in their eyes. But from my mid-teens onward I’d felt older than I really was, so it didn’t occur to me that we weren’t equals. Some of them were a bit standoffish, which confused me at the time, but others were intensely kind and patient with me as I sought my way in the world.

One of them was Patrick, an ex-brother (there were several men in Dignity who had been brothers or priests). We were never anything more than friends, but he was kind to me at a time when much of the world seemed not to be.

Patrick loved the dance music of Patrick Cowley and "Megatron Man" (the music in the video above) in particular. Every time we were out and the DJ put that on, we had to go to the dancefloor. “Menergy” would do, but it wasn’t Patrick’s favourite.

In 1982, Patrick Cowley died from what they were still calling GRID. He was the first person to die from AIDS that many of us had ever heard of. To get a sense of what it was like among the people I knew back then, watch the beginning of the film Longtime Companion—our conversations were very similar.

By the mid-1980s I was settling in with long-term boyfriends and gay political activism, and I saw less and less of that group of friends until I eventually completely lost touch with them. I have no idea what became of any of the guys in my group.

But whenever I hear music or a remix by Patrick Cowley, I think of those days back before—well, back before almost anything, really. And, I think of the Patrick who was my friend, and how much he loved “Megatron Man”, and how, for awhile, we liked to dance.

Who will rule them all?

Last week a bill was drawn from the members’ ballot that may end up having far-reaching implications—if the government doesn’t kill it off, of course. If the Government does permit it to go forward, the bill could lead to New Zealand becoming a republic.

First, it’s necessary to explain a bit of how the legislative process works in New Zealand: The government of the day drafts bills for Parliament to consider, and determines the order in which they’ll be taken up. Most of these are certain to be passed by Parliament and become law, because the government and its coalition partners have more MPs than the Opposition and other parties combined.

Members of Parliament who are not Government Ministers can put forward bills, called Members’ Bills (or “Private Members’ Bills”). There are always more of these bills proposed than can be considered by Parliament, so a ballot is held to draw a bill Parliament will consider.

A Members’ Bills seldom become law unless the Government backs it or if they allow it to be voted on through a conscience vote (which means individual MPs are permitted to vote however they want, regardless of the official position of the Party Caucus of the main party of Government. It’s important to understand this because the odds against any Members’ Bill are long.

This past Wednesday, Green Party MP Keith Locke’s Head of State Referenda Bill (92-1) was drawn on the ballot. Locke has had this on the ballot since at least 2001. The bill proposes that two referenda be held asking voters about what they want for the Head of State of New Zealand. In the first referendum, voters would select one of three options:

1. I vote for the sovereign to continue as New Zealand's Head of State.
2. I vote for a Head of State to be appointed by a vote of at least 75% of the House of Representatives.
3. I vote for a Head of State to be directly elected by the people.

If one of the options received a majority of votes, it would win. However, if no option received a majority, the two options receiving the highest votes would go to a final binding referendum. In that case, the final options would probably be number one and either 2 or 3—but my bet is that this won’t happen.

The most likely scenario is that the Government will say there are far too many important issues to be dealt with before such fundamental constitutional change is considered, especially as the Government plans to hold a referendum on New Zealand’s way of electing Parliament and allocating Members. The Government will most likely kill the bill quickly.

Which is a shame: While many New Zealanders want the country to be a republic, plenty of others don’t. Both sides are guessing about what New Zealanders want, and it might be nice to find out what it is that voters really want. Asking the people of New Zealand what they want, rather than deciding for them—what an amazingly novel idea! (yes, I'm being sarcastic…)

I believe that a republic for New Zealand is inevitable. I just don’t think it’s likely that this will be the time it’ll happen.

Friday, October 16, 2009

You got that right

One of my favourite YouTube folks is Rob Tisinai, and I subscribe to his YouTube Channel. This video just puts it out there: The truth for those who care to know.

Modern racism in America

One thing that’s become clear to me in the rightwing pushback against accusations that some of their rhetoric against President Obama is blatantly racist, is that they simply don’t see it. To them, unless they’re wearing a white sheet or burning crosses, they can’t possibly be racist.

In Louisiana, a justice of the peace refused to sign the marriage license of a couple because they’re interracial. "I'm not a racist,” Keith Bardwell told the Associated Press. “I just don't believe in mixing the races that way,"

He tried to “prove” his lack of racism: "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else." So, he’d be racist only if he didn’t allow them to use his bathroom? WTF?

Apparently, Bardwell’s objection is over children: "There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage. I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through it." So apparently he’s also an expert in child psychology and children’s welfare.

To Bardwell, and probably his defenders on the right, because he “didn't tell this couple they couldn't get married. I just told them I wouldn't do it" he’s not discriminating or violating the law. He must be unaware that the Supreme Court has already ruled that the state—which Bardwell represents—cannot deny couples the right to marry solely on the basis of race (they must still be heterosexual, of course).

The bigger issue is not the denial of the license itself—the couple ultimately got it signed by another JP. The issue is that Bardwell cannot see the racism inherent in his deciding that an interracial couple shouldn’t marry, and that doing so may create children that are somehow inferior. He doesn’t get a free pass just because he has “piles and piles of black friends” or because he let’s them use his bathroom. His underlying assumption is the problem, a paternalistic attitude based on race that has no place in the 21st Century.

And this is why the rightwing just doesn’t get why some of their rhetoric comes across as blatantly racist: They simply cannot see it and don’t believe they have any racism in them, whether or not they allow black people to use their toilets.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I was thinking the same thing

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I watch Fox Noise from time to time, because I’m curious and because it’s always a good idea to know what your opponents are saying. So on the day of the National Equality March (NEM), I surfed through to Fox to see what it was saying.

Surely, I thought, they’d be covering the NEM after making such a big deal of the “9/12” rally in DC, the one they attacked other networks for “ignoring”. Since they so self-righteously and pompously patted themselves on the back for covering the march, and since they’d declared they don’t “pick and choose these rallies and protests”, I was sure they’d cover the NEM.

Of course, they didn’t cover it. Obviously, Fox only considers the rightwing causes it promotes to be news. That’s kind of funny, actually: Fox wouldn’t know what news was, even if looked out the windows of its Washington, DC Bureau.

This Jon Stewart video captures exactly what I was thinking. (Sorry to Canadian readers—this apparently isn’t available in Canada).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gratuitous Jake photos return

I was shocked to realise that I last posted a photo of Jake nearly three months ago. How on earth could this have happened? Three months?!

So to remedy this terrible oversight, and because I want to take a break from serious subjects, here are a couple Jake photos.

The photo at top is of Jake this past Sunday at his (human) grandmother’s house, where we were staying so we could attend a family wedding. Jake always enjoys going there, in part because everyone in the family makes a huge fuss over him—understandably, of course.

The photo below is of Jake this afternoon, napping on the sofa. He raised his head when he heard me turn the camera on, then when he saw what I was doing he put his head down and went back to napping. Priorities! Napping is far more important that posing for photos, after all.

I’ll be back to serious subjects soon enough, but a little nap is good for a blog, too, I think.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Stephen Gately

I wanted to say something about Stephen Gately of the 1990s Irish boyband Boyzone, who died this weekend at the age of 33. To do so, I first have to explain a few things to my American friends and family who will be thinking, “Who?” For starters, Stephen's the dark-haired one who sings first in the video above.

Boyzone was a very popular boyband in the 1990s, with several big hits in Britain and other countries, including New Zealand, but not the United States. Pop music in New Zealand is a mix of songs from Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand. Interesting as I think that is, being a big fan of pop music, I’ve had problems over the years talking about songs or artists because folks back in the US often have no idea who I’m talking about.

I liked Boyzone, which was very popular here. Stephen was one of the two principal singers in the group, the other being Ronan Keating (other members were Shane Lynch,Keith Duffy and Mikey Graham). When the group broke up in 1999, Stephen was the first member of the group to launch a solo record, “New Beginning” (the video can be seen here). Ultimately, his record company dropped him, but he was successful in West End musicals in London. Last year, Boyzone released a mostly greatest hits album with some new material, and they planned a brand-new album for early 2010.

Stephen Gately was also openly gay. In 2006, Stephen married his partner, Andrew Cowles, in a British Civil Partnership. Interestingly, Sky News Australia and a few print news sources correctly identified Andrew as Stephen’s husband, but Sky News UK and all other broadcast reports I saw referred to him as Stephen’s “partner”.

I haven’t heard or read a bad thing about Stephen. He seemed sweet, and the celebrities who knew him confirmed that. It’s always a shame when someone talented dies young, especially when it’s someone we like. But Stephen was also a role model for young gay people who wanted a career as a performer. We don’t have enough role models, so losing one is hard.

The video above is “No Matter What”, probably Boyzone’s biggest hit. It was part of the concept album for the Andrew Lloyd Weber/Jim Stineman musical, “Whistle Down the Wind”. Their song was Britain’s Song of the Year in 1998, and went platinum. The video is from 'Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Royal Albert Hall Celebration' (the official video can be seen here).

There were apparently some gay people who were encouraged by this song, which might come a surprise to those familiar with the show, but one stanza in particular may provide a clue:

I can’t deny what I believe,
I can’t be what I’m not.
I know our love’s forever,
I know, no matter what.

It’s so sad for his husband, his friends and family, and his fans, too. Another one gone too soon.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

National Coming Out Day

Today, October 11, is National Coming Out Day (NCOD) in much of the world (it’s October 12 in the UK). The first NCOD was held in 1988, the first anniversary of the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It seemed appropriate to mention this as another gay rights march is scheduled for Washington, DC tomorrow (October 11 in the US).

I was at the 1987 March, but I was long out by the time NCOD began a year later. Nowadays, I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know, apart from people who don’t know me at all, of course.

So here’s a video from the Australasia region to help celebrate National Coming Out Day.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Burning ring of fire

When it comes to the spectre of potential natural disaster, the developed world is roughly divided into two parts: Those who worry about their possible dramatic demise, and those who like to make fun of and belittle those who worry. They’re both extremes, the first worried about what may never happen, and the latter who blithely dismiss the existence of even real threats.

The truth, as it so often is, lies somewhere in the middle. Here in New Zealand, the entire country is potentially at risk for something: Earthquakes and tsunamis pretty much everywhere, volcanoes in most of the North Island, plus routine dangers of cyclones, floods and even snowstorms in parts of the country. It makes simple, prudent sense to be prepared for such events, and that’s what the Get Thru website and campaign are all about.

It’s easy to make fun of those who worry obsessively about potential natural disasters, but some people make fun of even prudent preparations. Here’s the thing: New Zealand is a geologically-active land in the midst of a very geologically active region—the Pacific Ring of Fire. The two most recent South Pacific earthquakes happened in the same region, geographically, as New Zealand.

The threats to New Zealand and the South Pacific are real and potentially lethal. That’s a fact, though there’s also no reason to obsess about it. But neither is it anything to make light of. After all, sooner or later, some day, the doomsayers may be right.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Auckland Views: Papakura

I’ve been through Papakura several times but never stopped there—until today. Nigel had a meeting there, so I went along and had a look around.

Papakura is a district just south of the more urban parts of Auckland, with rural areas further to the south. Its 126 square kilometres are about to become part of the new Auckland, even though it’s 32kms from Auckland.

Papakura looks like it was once a prosperous service centre for the surrounding rural districts. As some of those areas have been built up, it appears that Papakura town has deteriorated.

The central business district is mainly along Great South Road (in the photo above, looking toward the town square) and adjoining streets. There are several banks and national stores located there, but most shops were discount stores, a couple outlet stores and a lot of second-hand stores. Graffiti was everywhere (including in usual places like the photo at left—look on a round part of the antenna mast—click to embiggen).

The streets were busy, partly because it was school holidays, and people seemed to be doing a lot of shopping—and buying. But I stopped in one little shopping centre were there were about four businesses, and maybe eight empty store fronts. Many shops on the streets were also empty.

There were many ethnic restaurants—Indian, Turkish and several Thai (including one that looked really nice). There was also of course, fast food places of many kinds.

The new Auckland, which Papakura will soon be part of, will be a HUGE city in area. For example, it’ll take at least an hour to drive from its southern border to its northern border—and that’s sticking to motorways. That means it’ll be something like 100km (or more) across Auckland. In all this talk of the “super city”, not much attention has gone to the sheer size of the new city.

I hope that when Papakura becomes part of that new Auckland, it’ll get some of the development (well, redevelopment) attention it needs, and not get lost and forgotten. I still don’t think it was a very good idea to include rural (or largely rural) areas in the new city, but what’s done is done. Somehow, we have to make it work for all of us.

Photo below: Along Great South Road, Papakura.

Stupid, partisan—and traitors?

Conservatives, and Republican politicians in particular, have been outdoing themselves with what can only be called anti-American activity. Oh, the irony…

The recent tacky glee that conservatives showed when the United States lost the 2012 summer Olympics to Brazil is a prime example. The conservatives were delighted, ecstatic, even, that the United States lost. Democrats 2001-2009 would never have gotten away with that—in fact, they’d never have done it.

The reason for the conservatives’ glee is that they hate President Obama so much that they want to see him “fail”, despite the fact that the bid began while Bush was president. The other problem for those conservatives is that the president didn’t fail, the city of Chicago didn’t fail—the United States failed. It’s entirely possible—likely even—that many of us won’t live to see another summer Olympics in the United States. Whether Chicago’s bid for the games was a good idea is beside the point: Cheering for America’s defeat isn’t exactly a classy thing to do—in fact, it’s plain stupid.

Republicans have also gone to extremes to undermine America directly.

US Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) went to China, America’s biggest creditor, and told the Chinese government it couldn’t trust the US Government’s budget numbers. When he got back, he bragged about how he undermined the US to the Chinese. It’s a bit like a member of your family telling your bank that you can’t afford your mortgage payments.

US Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK, though sometimes one wonders if he’s actually from another planet), plans to go to Copenhagen to tell diplomats not to trust the US when it negotiates on climate change. Part of that’s because, as a climate change denier, he doesn’t believe there should be any agreement, but he’s also promoting the Republican Party line against any meaningful international agreement on climate change (they’re pretty clearly planning to base part of their campaign on that in 2010). The US Government wants an agreement.

US Sen Jim DeMint (R-SC) went to Honduras to meet with the military junta, which the US Government doesn’t recognise. He praised the generals’ “commitment to democracy”—despite the fact that they’re only in power because not long ago they deposed the country’s democratically-elected leader and sent him out of the country in his pyjamas. Now at least three more Republicans in Congress plan to go to Honduras to support the “democracy” of the dictators.

These incidents range from the silly to the dangerous, and all of them are deliberate acts designed to undermine President Obama and the US Government he now leads. During the Bush/Cheney regime, if Democrats did what these mainstream Republicans are doing now—actively working to undermine the interests of the United States—Republicans would’ve called them “traitors”. Can anyone think of a good reason not to apply the same name to these Republicans? Or is it just that Republicans’ partisanship and hatred for this president have reached the point where not even the US borders can contain it?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Auckland Views: The CBD

I was in Auckland’s CBD (Central Business District) recently, so I snapped a few photos. In my early days in New Zealand, I became the most familiar with this area of the city because I often I walked through it catch buses or to meet Nigel.

One of the first things I noticed was the diagonal crossing, often called a “Barnes Dance” after Henry Barnes, the first person to use it on a large scale. I’d never seen such an intersection before, and there are several along Queen Street.

Some people call them a “pedestrian scramble” as all traffic is stopped so pedestrians can cross in any direction, including diagonally. Despite what its critics say, it’s actually a pretty efficient way to handle large numbers of pedestrians and vehicles.

The photo above shows the “Barnes Dance” waning at the intersection of Queen and Wellesley Streets, with the Civic Theatre in the background. Built as a movie palace, the Civic was completely refurbished and reopened on December 20, 1999, the 70th anniversary of its first live performance. Its interior has the same charm and magic as other movie palaces of that era.

The Civic is part of an area known as “The Edge”, an entertainment district in the heart of Auckland. Part of that is Aotea Square, which is currently undergoing major changes and repairs.

Awhile back, it was discovered that there were major structural problems with the roof of the carpark underneath Aotea Square—so much so that collapse, especially in an earthquake, was possible. The solution ultimately decided upon was to reengineer the roof and carpark structure, which also meant the square could be completely re-designed.

The earth that was removed to build the carpark and square above it was dumped at a park on Basque Road in the Newton area of Auckland—not far from where I used to work. In fact, I sometimes had my lunch in the park.

The story told is that original design was faulty, with lawns and plantings planned for the square, but engineers are said to have forgotten to include the weight of water in the soil and people attending events when they designed the carpark structure underneath, meaning all that had to be removed. Instead, the square became a vast, ugly paved area on several different levels that left it rather pedestrian unfriendly.

The new designs will create a big open area pretty much all on one level, mixing paved areas and lawns. It will be able to accommodate about 20,000 people, making it a natural gathering spot for large free public or civic events.

Right now, work on the square is only about halfway through, and it’s a huge mess. The two photos below were taken looking across the square toward each other.

I’m looking forward to seeing the square finally completed. If it’s anything like the artist’s concept drawings, it should be a pretty good space.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Alan Grayson gets it right

The Republican Party and its media allies have gone into ecstasy over the comments of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). Finally, they think, there’s someone who’s going to distract from the sins of Joe Wilson (R-SC).

Not so fast.

Joe Wilson called the President of the United States a liar in front of some 40 million viewers, bringing the entire US Congress into disrepute. While Wilson ultimately apologised to the president, he flatly refused to apologise to the US House for his unprecedented breach of decorum. Republicans in the House then flatly refused to punish Wilson for his actions.

Grayson, on the other hand, attacked Republicans over their clear lack of a healthcare reform plan. In a speech on the floor of the house, to his colleagues, he said the Republican plan was 1. Don’t get sick and, 2. If you do get sick, die quickly. Republicans immediately demanded that the House discipline Grayson.

This should be bloody obvious, but the outburst of Joe Wilson and the speech by Alan Grayson have absolutely no equivalence. Wilson insulted the President of the United States, called him a liar, no less, and brought the entire Congress into disrepute. Grayson merely insulted the opposition party in a speech. No Democrat ever yelled out “you lie” at George Bush, but for months Republicans in the House have been saying about the Democratic plan the exact same thing that Grayson said: They said Democrats either want people to die or that they’ll kill Americans.

So, this is yet another case where if Republicans do it, it’s okay, but if Democrats do it, it’s wrong and awful and sinful and must be fully punished.

The larger question, really, is whether doing the same thing as the Republicans, using the same sort of rhetoric, is useful. I think it is because it just may shock some people into seeing the game that Republicans are playing.

The Republican Party has spent months lying about what’s in the Democrats’ plan, while offering absolutely no alternative. Now, they’re using every trick they can think of to slow down the process—like a shoe thrown into the machines—in order to stop healthcare reform. They are insisting there must be a super-majority to pass any healthcare reform, even though when they were in power they frequently used simply majorities to push through their agenda.

And yet, despite all that, I do think Grayson went too far in using the word “holocaust” in his non-apology. That word ought to be reserved only for talking about THE Holocaust. Beyond that, I support what he did, if only because it may have been just jarring enough to wake up some people on the Democratic side—and the mainstream media, too—so the debate can move forward, without the Republicans, if need be.

I’m not a fan of the Republican Party. I despise hypocrisy even more, and Alan Grayson has helped to expose the extent to which hypocrisy is a core principle of the Republican Party.

Taking aim at the constitution

I never guessed I’d be writing about gun issues in the US twice in a week’s time. Last week I wrote about people hoarding bullets. In the heated comments that followed, I mentioned the last time I wrote about gun laws in the US, some 15 months earlier.

In 2008, I wrote about what I believe is a deeply flawed—and wrong—ruling by the Supreme Court, District of Columbia v. Heller, which said that people in DC had a constitutional right to own handguns and the District had no right or authority to ban handguns. At the time I predicted more lawsuits and, in fact, the gun lobby immediately filed a legal challenge to Chicago’s quarter century old ban on handguns. The US Supreme Court has just agreed to hear the appeal, McDonald v. Chicago.

After the Heller decision, he gun lobby immediately declared victory in the battle over gun control, something what was extremely premature. The District of Columbia is not a state or territory and is legally most similar to a slightly self-governing colony: Congress can, and often does, repeal laws passed by the District. This matters because the Second Amendment, over which the gun control battle is fought, has so far been seen to apply only to Congress and the national government.

This is, in part, because the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion, among other things, begins with the words, "Congress shall make no law…” The gun lobby argues that the 14th Amendment extends the Bill of Rights to the states. That Amendment first declares that all people born or naturalized in the US are citizens of the US and the state in which they live, then declares, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…"

I happen to agree with the gun lobby on that one point. It seems pretty clear that the effect of the 14th Amendment is to ensure that citizens in all states enjoyed the same basic rights enumerated in the US Constitution. The Amendment came after the Civil War, and there was a desire (and perhaps a need) to ensure that the African Americans recently liberated from slavery wouldn’t be denied the full rights of citizenship. The fact that it took more than a century to even begin to achieve that—even in the North—doesn’t change what was pretty clearly the intent.

The real debate is still over the meaning of the wording of the Second Amendment: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Like most gun control advocates, I believe the phrase “well regulated militia” is the key; the gun lobby focuses only on the last fourteen words, even though the authors of the Constitution did not. Had those men been better writers or had editors, we might have avoided two centuries of arguments over what the amendment means.

While the City of Chicago expresses confidence that its law will survive, I can’t. The Bush/Cheney appointees, Roberts and Alito, were chosen specifically for their hard right views. The fate of Chicago’s law may ultimately rest on Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote. Will he vote with the conservatives, as he did in the Heller case, or side with Chicago? Based on his record, he could vote either way. And how Sotomayor will vote is also not known.

Whatever happens, I doubt that this will be the last time I write about gun issues in the US.