Wednesday, February 29, 2012

G is for Griswold

Do people have a right to privacy? Most people would say they do, but where, exactly, does that come from? In the United States, that right is grounded in a landmark US Supreme Court ruling that turns out to be very topical at the moment. Regardless of where one stands on the so-called “social issues”, I think it’s important that we all understand what the debates are built on.

Griswold v. Connecticut was the 1965 case that first declared that there’s a constitutional right to privacy. That specific case involved a challenge to a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraceptives. When US presidential candidates speak out against artificial birth control, they bump up against this ruling, as do state legislators who ban the most popular means of birth control when they’re trying to restrict abortion. But that’s only for starters.

The reasoning behind the Court’s ruling was based primarily on two amendments to the US Constitution: The Ninth Amendment, which says “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and also the Fourteenth Amendment, which, among many other things, requires equal protection of the laws as well as the right to due process.

The dissenting Justices in the Griswold case, Hugo Black and Potter Stewart, argued that a literal right to privacy cannot be found in the US Constitution, therefore, it did not exist. That same argument has been used by conservatives ever since.

All of this is important not just for the Griswold case and the right to use contraception, but for many other issues, too. Griswold applied only to married couples; in 1972 the Court extended the right (in Eisenstadt v. Baird) to include all couples because the Fourteenth Amendment requires equal treatment under law.

The following year, the Court extended the right to privacy in Roe v. Wade, which referred back to both Griswold and Eisenstadt. The ruling was also based on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The advancement of a right to privacy stumbled a bit in 1986 when the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that, essentially, that there was no right to privacy for gay people, particularly for private, consensual adult sexual activity. The Georgia law challenged in Bowers v. Hardwick was struck down in 1998 by the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Bowers ruling itself was finally overturned in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas, again based on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled." Can’t get more definitive than that.

The issues raised in all these cases will again come before the Supreme Court, and it could be a case relating to any number of social issues. However, to me it seems most likely that the case will involve the right of same-sex couples to marry, either relating to California’s Proposition 8 or the federal “Defense of Marriage Act”.

When that ruling happens, it will be based, directly or indirectly, on all the cases I’ve mentioned. Regardless of where we stand on these “divisive” social issues, we should know first where we came from, and Griswold is where it all began.


Oddly enough, there’s also a town called Griswold in Connecticut.

The image of the US Supreme Court building at the top of this post a Creative Commons licensed photo by Wikiwopbop, published by Wikimedia Commons.

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

Two sides, one untold

There’s probably no more misunderstood—or completely “non-understood”—public issue in Auckland right now than the strike against the Ports of Auckland. I don’t know anyone who can say with any certainty what the dispute is about or what the issues are, and they certainly aren’t capable of having, much less expressing, an informed opinion. That includes me, by the way.

Into this void have stepped the rightwing who are attempting to frame the dispute as being one of three things, as I discussed back in January: First, and most frequently, they say it’s all the fault of the evil labour unions, “whose members, they declared, are without exception lazy, grossly overpaid, belligerent, selfish and myopic.”

Aucklanders may not know the real story, but they didn’t rally to this meme, so the rightwing next tried to blame it on Auckland Mayor Len Brown who apparently should’ve waved a magic wand and ended the dispute. He’s also their fall-back, blaming him for whatever they don’t like or think has gone “wrong”. In most cases, his real “fault” is simply being left of centre.

When that meme also failed to gain traction, they tried on a third meme: “The port’s problems would all disappear if it was privatised.” This is the rightwing’s true agenda, always has been, and everyone knows it.

However, missing from this dispute has been the viewpoint of the wharfies themselves. I’ve never seen their side of the dispute presented in the mainstream media: Neither the country’s leading newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, nor TVNZ News, which airs the dominant TV news programme, has reported much of anything about the wharfies’ side. Of the two, TVNZ has at least been more even-handed.

For example, the Herald reported that a Singapore-based ship had turned around after receiving a “threat” from the union. They said that the Post boss and the unions “traded claims and denials yesterday about where such pressure came from”, yet only TVNZ actually bothered to dig (Video—may not be viewable outside NZ) and found that the shipping company doesn't claim there had been a threat of a “blacklist”. The Port and its rightwing allies, of course, have a vested interest in portraying the union as violent and malevolent, which makes the Port’s claim that the mess hall and some barbecues were vandalised by union members extremely dubious. You won’t read that—or anything even remotely resembling critical analysis—on the pages of the Herald.

Enter the alternative media. The YouTube video above presents the wharfies’s side of the dispute—quite literally the first time I’ve ever seen it. The video is from the pressure group Save Our Port, which is fighting not just for the wharfies, but also to prevent the rightwing from selling off our port. I hope they succeed.

But it’s a sorry state of affairs when the only way to air alternative viewpoints on public issues is to step outside the mainstream media because they refuse to do their jobs or are prevented from doing them. The good news is that New Zealanders are a fair-minded lot, and inclined, more often than not, to be suspicious of anyone attacking ordinary working New Zealanders. In times like these, with an aggressive rightwing attacking ordinary, mainstream New Zealanders at every turn, that fair-mindedness will be needed.

In the case of this dispute, I’m not suggesting that the union is right on all points—I still simply don’t know all the facts. However, there are always two sides to disputes like this, and one has been largely untold. We should hear that other side, even if we have to go out of our way to find it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The best yet

This has got to be the best cat video, ever. Okay, so it’s a commercial and it shows special effects (I hope…), but I think it’s hilarious. It’s also a case study in how to make a viral video: Make something clever, funny, catchy, cute, entertaining, emotive, cool or some combination of these. Well done! And no, our cat Bella didn’t make me say that, though she can be quite persuasive, even without opposable thumbs.

Blog stuff

A few things I haven’t had time to mention. First, that time thing is why there has been a lack of blog posts lately; that will soon be ending. I’ve been so busy with things I’ll talk about soon that I haven’t had time for real blogging. This too shall pass—and I’ll talk about the reasons behind all it—eventually.

Also, I’ve made the badges on the left side “permanent”, that is, they’re still there. I considered changing them to just type, no badges, but I didn’t because I like pictures and because in my experience they don’t seem to make my blog load slowly. Please let me know if your experience is different.

Related to that, it seems to me that the thing that slows down the loading of my blog is the weather widget on the right-hand side. I’ll look for a better, faster-loading one (anyone who knows of one, do let me know!), but for now, this is what I have.

As always, any concerns, questions, complaints or compliments (especially those!) don’t be shy—let me know!

Keeping the clowns performing

It’s no secret that some liberals/progressives have openly urged Democrats living in open primary states (that is, states where voting in a primary election isn’t restricted to members of one party) to vote in the Republican Primary for that troglodyte extraordinaire, Rick Santorum. Apart from the entertainment value, they argue that it serves to weaken the Republicans going into November and, if Santorum wins the nomination, he’d be easily defeated by President Obama. Hm…

This video from Second City’s “The Partisans”, loaded with innuendo and double entendres, is an open appeal for Democrats to do that. They say on their YouTube post:
“To any who oppose such tactics on moral grounds, one might ask if they're part of the same group of people who oft bemoan the passive, compromise-y tactics of the current administration. Be the change you've been waiting for, and so forth.”
There’s ample precedent for this. In 2008, for example, rightwing radio blowhard Rush Limburger Limbaugh suggested that Republicans vote in Democratic primaries where they could. “Operation Chaos” was Rushies’ plot to disrupt the Democratic selection process by having his backers cross party lines to vote for Hillary Clinton. In at least two states, Indiana and Texas, Clinton was inarguably helped by Republicans crossing over, though it’s impossible to know whether they were participating in “Operation Chaos” or if they simply preferred Clinton over Obama; while either explanation is possible, in my opinion the latter is far more plausible.

In a pure and perfect world, I’d be opposed to this sort of thing because it makes a mockery of the election process and it’s downright nasty to meddle in the other party’s affairs to gain advantage for yourself. But this world—especially the world of US politics—is far from pure and absolutely not perfect, so people will seek strategic advantage wherever they can find it, regardless of what anyone else thinks. So, I won’t condemn it, even though I doubt I would do it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Love, honour and abeyance

The Obama Administration has decided to leave legally married gay and lesbian bi-national couples in legal limbo while the federal “Defense [sic] of Marriage Act” (DOMA) moves toward inevitably being declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. That’s the short version of a story currently stirring up the liberal/progressive and GLBT blogosphere. In fact, nothing has changed.

Andrew Harmon reported exclusively for Advocate.com that administration officials met with GLBT advocates in late January and told them that it will not put the Green Card (permanent residence) applications of the foreign same-sex spouses of American citizens “in abeyance” (which means, basically, put them aside until the fate of DOMA is determined), as GLBT advocates and our Congressional allies have urged.

Under US law, a legally married US citizen can sponsor his or her spouse for permanent residence. However, DOMA makes it illegal for the federal government to recognise legally-married same-sex marriage for any federal purpose, and that includes immigration. So, a straight person legally married in, say, Iowa, can sponsor his or her opposite-sex spouse for a Green Card, but a gay person also legally married in Iowa to someone of the same gender cannot.

Last year, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama Administration would no longer defend Section 3 of DOMA against any of the numerous lawsuits challenging its constitutionality. Just yesterday, Judge Jeffery White of the District Court for the Northern District of California (a Bush appointee, by the way), ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional, the first such ruling since Holder’s announcement.

The argument to the administration was that since it views DOMA as unconstitutional and will not defend the law, it could hold the Green Card applications in abeyance. The advocates argued that while DOMA prevents the administration from approving such applications, they’re not required to reject them in order to enforce the law until it’s gone. The administration was not persuaded.

What all of this means is that unless the foreign-born spouse in a legally-married same-sex couple qualifies for a Green Card some other way, or can obtain a sponsored work visa, they cannot legally work in the US or do any number of day-to-day things that permanent residents can do—like remain in the US indefinitely. Naturally, this puts bi-national couples under added pressure, especially financial. Also, since available visas are usually short-term, the foreign-born spouse must leave the US periodically to renew the visa, something that puts even more financial pressure on the couple, as well as added emotional strain. All because of one blatantly unconstitutional law.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An anniversary

At 12:51pm on February 22, 2011—one year ago today—an earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. 182 people died. Billions in property was damaged or destroyed, as this became the most expensive natural disaster as a percentage of GDP that the world has yet seen.

Everyone in New Zealand has been touched, directly or indirectly, and far too many people are connected in some way to the people lost. But everyone is affected, even if only in small ways, like the taxpayer money going to rebuild the city, or that our premiums for house and contents insurance are going up by about a third. Still, that’s nothing compared to the human loss.

The above video is a trailer for the feature documentary, When a City Falls. The film is now available on DVD. Even the trailer evokes that day.

The New Zealand Herald has published before and after photos.

And, with thousands of aftershocks, big and small, since that day a year ago, the nightmare faced by the people of Christchurch is far from over.

F is for Friend

A friend indeed is what we need. Or, something like that. We humans, being social animals, have a need for friends. But what's a friend?

I read a definition that said a friend was “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” That leaves out the “my spouse/parent/sibling/child is my best friend” people—and we won’t even get into “friends with benefits.”

But how well do we have to know people before we can consider them friends? And what does “know” mean?

Consider this: In 2009, Facebook said* that the average user had 120 “friends”. But Facebook users tend to have a much smaller number of people with whom they interact the most. Apparently, this includes people the user knows in real life.

And that’s at the heart of my question: These days, thanks to the Internet, we may interact with a lot of people we’ve never met in real life, yet they’re people we know quite a bit about, we may chat with them online or through a service like Skype, we trade emails—all of which we might do with people we know “in real life”. So, are these people any less a friend than people we’ve actually met person-to-person?

Personally, I don’t think so. The “bond of mutual affection” can be as strong with someone we’ve never met as it is with someone we see often. Friendship, in my opinion, is a lot like its more boisterous cousin, romantic love, in that one can never dictate where the heart leads. And why should we?

Years ago, when I first started blogging and podcasting, my partner Nigel used to jokingly refer to my “eFriends” (though these days “iFriends” might be more appropriate). I’ve played around with those and similar terms (“blogging buddy” is a current favourite, merely because of the alliteration), but the reality for me is that a friend is a friend.

So, I think that these “online friends”, as I’ve also called them, can be as close or casual, and the friendship as meaningful or superficial, as any we might have “in real life”. I think it’s kind of nice to be able to have friends all over the world. Kind of makes this planet a friendlier place.

* * * * *

The video above is James Taylor in 1971, singing his number one hit, “You’ve Got A Friend,” written by his friend, Carole King, who included it on her famous Tapestry album that same year. A third 1971 version was recorded by Dusty Springfield, but it wasn’t released until after her death.

Then, of course, there were those other Friends many of us watched from 1994 to 2004.

Do you think online friends can be real friends?

Monday, February 20, 2012

50 Years from the start

It’s the 50th Anniversary of John Glenn’s flight aboard Friendship 7. On February 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. At the time, the US was lagging behind the Soviet Union in the space race, though President Kennedy had high ambitions for the US space programme.

I don’t remember the flight. I was barely three at the time, far too young to take notice of such things. However, the space programme was a backdrop to my childhood. I was taught to read using a phonetic alphabet called the Initial Teaching Alphabet (better-known then by its lower-case initials, i.t.a.), and one of the stories talked about chimps sent into space before people were. More than four and a half decades later, I still remember that.

I also had a toy Project Gemini rocket. I lost the rocket part pretty early on, but I had the red plastic capsule for many, many years. I watched launches in those days and, in fact, I’m certain that I also remember a launch or two of Project Mercury, which Glenn was part of. Naturally, I remember the Apollo programme, which took human beings to the moon just as my childhood was nearing its end.

While I don’t remember Glenn’s flight, I remember growing up with him portrayed as a hero. Fast forward to the mid 1970s when he was elected to the US Senate. At the time I thought that was interesting, but I was still evolving from Republican to Democrat, so I had mixed feelings.

On the whole, I thought Glenn was a good Senator. However, there was one incident that cemented his image in my mind as a good guy. A Washington lobbyist told me in the early 1990s about an incident in which Glenn found himself in an elevator with the vile, disgusting and repugnant Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. Glenn was reported to have said, “You know what the real problem with abortion is, Jesse? That it’s not retroactive.” In the case of Jesse Helms, I couldn’t possibly have agreed more.

So John Glenn started out as one of those remote people we were taught to revere, then eventually I grew to respect him more for other reasons. But all of that started 50 years ago today.

Congratulations, John Glenn.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The fight goes on

So much has been happening in the fight for marriage equality that it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of where we’re at. So, here’s the latest in a series of videos by Matt Baume.

In this video, Matt mentions the devastatingly overwhelming support for marriage equality among young Australians (Julia Gillard—pay attention!!). The bill to enact marriage equality in Australia has been introduced into the federal parliament, where it is expected to fail due to opposition from current “Labor” Prime Minister Julia Gillard. While I suspect few people think she’ll still be Prime Minister when Australia next goes to the polls—so deep is her unpopularity—there’s no guarantee the next Labor Leader will back marriage equality.

Meanwhile, zero progress has been made in New Zealand.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

E is for Eagle

The eagle has been a symbol of nations for millennia, in part because they’re strong, majestic birds of prey. Some species lay two eggs, only to have one hatchling kill the other one, which takes sibling rivalry to a whole new level.

Eagles exist in many parts of the world, but the largest eagle that ever existed lived in New Zealand—until some 400 years ago.

Haast’s Eagle had a relatively short wingspan (2.6–3 metres, or about 8½ feet to nearly 10 feet), but with massive flight muscles it weighed between 9 and 15kg (20-33 pounds). They preyed on the large flightless birds in New Zealand, chiefly the moa, which were 15 times heavier than the eagles (the picture above depicts a Haast’s Eagle attacking a moa).

The eagles evolved from smaller eagles in response to the abundance of food in New Zealand, in part because it had no competition—at least, not until humans arrived.

When Maori arrived in New Zealand, they hunted the large flightless moa and other birds to extinction, and once the birds were gone, Haast’s eagle died out, too, roughly 400 years ago. Still, they may have had a bit of revenge: Maori legends talk of the Pouakai, which killed humans, and that could well be referring to Haast’s Eagle (and that’s the Maori name most commonly used now to refer to the eagle). Certainly the eagle would have been capable of killing humans, especially children.

The largest bird that ever flew was not an eagle, however, but the extinct Argentavis magnificens, a relative of the modern Andean Condor, which is one of the largest flying land birds still alive. It is estimated to have had a wingspan of 7 metres (23 feet) and a weight of 70-78kg (150-172 pounds). The heaviest living birds are a couple species of buzzards and the bird with the largest wingspan today is the Wandering Albatross (3.65 metres, or 12 feet). Not an eagle in the bunch.

Eagle can also refer to a golf term, but I don’t play the game, so I couldn’t possibly comment. But I do remember (and always liked) these guys.

I think Haast’s Eagle is fascinating bird. But I’m kind of glad I never met one.

The image at the top of this post is a Creative Commons licensed illustration, “Giant Haast's eagle attacking New Zealand moa” (2004), by John Megahan, published by PLoS Biology and available for download through Wikipedia.

Something I’ve never seen

I am a native of the Midwest of the United States, an area that ought to have big signs saying “Tornadoes R Us” on roads crossing into the region, because the storms—or the threat of them happening—are common facts of life in much of the region.

I lived in the Midwest—Illinois specifically—from birth until age 36, and there were many times I experienced storms that produced tornadoes (elsewhere), and there were even a few times I took cover. And yet in all that time I never actually saw a tornado.

That all changed today.

We were heading north, making our way to the motorway and we saw one off in the distance. I was more fascinated than frightened—though I did keep an eye on its position and the direction it was heading. Only a few minutes earlier, I was telling Nigel about how I’d seen on Twitter that there had been tornadoes in Auckland a little while earlier.

We got on the motorway at Constellation Drive and, due to traffic, there was just enough time to snap the photo above (at about 4:24pm). I thought it was ironic that I lived all that time in the Midwest without ever seeing a tornado, and here I was, some 13,000 kilometres (8200 miles) away seeing my first one.

Except, it wasn’t and I didn’t.

It turns out, it was a waterspout which is similar to a tornado, but over water and usually not very destructive. Going by the photos posted to The New Zealand Herald website, the waterspout was pretty long-lived, going for around 45 minutes.

Waterspout v. tornado may seem like a technicality, but the distinction is useful, I suppose. Tornadoes aren’t rare in New Zealand, but they’re not common either. There was a bad one last year in Albany—which isn’t far from where the waterspout seemed to be when we saw it—but deadly tornadoes, fortunately, are rare in New Zealand.

I should say that I’m relieved it wasn’t a tornado; I should say that, but I’m actually kind of disappointed it wasn’t one. Obviously I’m glad there weren’t any injuries and there was no damage (as far as I know), but it would’ve been kind of nice to add that to my list of done things.

Because—technically, at least—a tornado is still something I’ve never seen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine’s Day

Today is Valentine’s Day here in New Zealand. Tomorrow, it will be in North America, too. Today, the people of the US State of Washington got their Valentine’s Day gift when Governor Chris Gregoire signed the state’s new marriage equality law (the video above is the signing ceremony). The rightwing will attempt to put repealing the law on the ballot, as they always do, but the state is also the first US state where citizens voted to retain a civil unions law. Given how the momentum is now clearly in favour of marriage equality, chances that voters would retain the law are good—and that’s if the bigots can even get a repeal measure on the ballot in the first place.

All of that is for another today. Today is all about celebrating love, and the recognition of love. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

In the family

Our niece Stacie has posted some YouTube videos of her singing covers of songs, accompanied by her friend Keely on ukulele. I think their simplicity is really nice. The video above is the latest of these videos, a cover of the late Amy Winehouse's "Valerie". In my totally unbiased opinion, it's one of the songs she does the best.

Her first video was a cover of the “New Girl” theme song. Her second was a cover of Adele’s Make You Feel My Love. I admit, I wasn’t familiar with either song. Maybe I’m too old.

At any rate, check out all her videos on YouTube and, while you’re there, would it kill you to click on “Like”? Take my word for it: Stacie is a wonderful girl and deserves your support.

Friday, February 10, 2012

SNAP! Gutiérrez on the ‘food stamp president’

In this video, US Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois-04) good-humouredly explores the facts and figures behind Newt Gingrich’s declaration that President Obama is “the food stamp president.” In the process, Gutiérrez exposes how shallow Gingrich’s intellectual depth really is, something that’s always fun to watch. Gutiérrez concludes his remarks with the one obvious fact that seems to elude the Republican candidate and his allies: "Hunger knows no race or religion or age or political party. Hunger is colorblind."

I’ve long been a fan of Luis Gutiérrez. I knew him primarily as Alderman for Chicago’s 26th Ward, where he was a leading champion of Chicago’s Human Rights Ordinance and other progressive causes. The Human Rights Ordinance banned discrimination against GLBT people in Chicago a couple decades before the state of Illinois finally followed suit. In so doing, it extended human rights protections to roughly a third of Illinoisans. It was a very big deal.

Gutiérrez ran for Congress in 1992, and I was a little concerned because it would me the loss of a progressive leader in the Chicago City Council. However, he carried that leadership to Congress where he champions many of the issues I most care about, including comprehensive immigration reform.

So, that’s why I’ve admired and respected Rep. Luis Gutiérrez for a 25 years. This video gives just a little hint of why.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

D is for Dickens

February 7 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, one of the towering literary giants of literature in English. I put it that way on purpose: While Dickens was English, he is one of the English writers who has most influenced other writers throughout the English-speaking world. He’s still so famous that he’s one of the few authors who are often referred to by their surname alone.

The video above from the BBC is a brief animated look at the life of Charles Dickens.

I first encountered Dickens in high school when we read and studied his best-selling novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Years later, I finally read A Christmas Carol, one of his best-known works, though I’d seen many of the movie versions, including the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen and Gene Lockhart, among others, and even odd versions like the one with Mr. Magoo.

However, while it was high school where I first read Dickens, I’d been aware of him pretty much my whole life. My family had the Authors Card Game (link is to Amazon), which included a portrait of Dickens.

However, it was my mother who introduced me to English literature, including Dickens. She was a self-described Anglophile and shared that love with me. I have to admit, however, that not all her enthusiasm transferred to me. Still, Dickens is one author I did enjoy, probably in part because he was a champion of the poor and of social reform. I have several e-book editions of his books.

The slang term “dickens”, meaning devil, is far older and is not, as some suppose, some sort of retaliation for Charles Dickens’ calls to end debtors’ prisons, workhouses and in support of other social reforms (though it may have originated—in the 16th century—from that surname).

So, happy birthday Mr. Dickens.

Charles Dickens' books are available as free text files from Project Gutenberg. They are also available from Amazon, which has free or low-cost Kindle editions as well as printed books.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

More good economic news for the US

In this video, the Associated Press reports that the unemployment rate fell for the fifth straight month—down to 8.3%, the lowest in three years. This comes hard on the heels of good economic news last month, namely that the US had experienced 22 months of job growth, and that 2011 was the best year for job growth since 2005 and the second best since 1999.

All of which is a good start—and good news.

Friday, February 03, 2012

SPLC Challenges DOMA

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has filed a legal challenge to the US’ blatantly unconstitutional “Defense” of Marriage Act (DOMA), which forbids the US government from recognising same-sex marriages for any federal purpose whatsoever.

Currently, same-sex marriage is legal in six US states and the District of Columbia, along with many countries, but those marriages don’t exist according to the US government. What that means is that the US government is unconstitutionally treating different citizens differently.

This case involves the US military unconstitutionally treating the legal spouse of a service member differently on account of gender. The SPLC case is sound, and no one seriously doubts that if it’s not repealed, DOMA will inevitably be struck down. Sooner is better than later. Kudos to the SPLC.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Blogger confusion

Contrary to what some may think, I am not, by nature, a conspiracy theorist, anti-establishment moaner or even a full-time cynic, though at times I can be one or all three. Having said that, I want to throw a concern "out there" and see if anyone can help me understand something.

Recently Google made a change to its Blogger blogging platform (which powers this blog). It now takes the URL which normally ends in dot com and has it resolve for readers outside the US to the same URL, but with one's country TLD instead. So, for example, instead of seeing my blog as "amerinz.blogspot.com", New Zealanders will see "amerinz.blogspot.co.nz" and, I presume, other countries will see something similar (like "amerinz.blogspot.co.uk" and "amerinz.blogspot.com.au"—maybe folks in those countries can let me know if that's true).

My question/concern is this: What's the point of this if not to enable country-specific censorship? Is there anything even remotely beneficial to the blogger or reader in this change? I honestly can't see or think of a positive reason for it, unless Google is mirroring the blog locally, maybe, but I seriously doubt they are.

I first found out about this when all the comments on a Blogger blog I visit every day suddenly disappeared. It turns out, Google’s change wreaked havoc with blogs that use custom comment systems (like JS-Kit, for example). I can't see any comments left on a dot com Blogger blog that uses such a system—including my own comments I left before the change. I assume the change could also muck-up other customisations, too.

I’ve since discovered that using an anonymiser like Little Tunnel Bear (http://www.tunnelbear.com/) can get around this problem. I’ve also read that the IP blocker Hotspot Shield (http://hotspotshield.com/) does the same thing, though I haven’t tried it yet.

The point is, it shouldn’t be this hard, and it doesn’t really matter whether the problem lies with Google or JS-Kit: Location doesn’t mean anything for the users of the Internet, it only matters to certain content providers—and governments—who have a vested interest in restricting access. Also, Google lets you use the dot com or, in my case, the dot co dot nz version, so why don’t they allow that for Blogger?

I'm well aware that I could use another blogging platform or self-host as my podcasts are, but I'm not even sure I care that much. However, if it really is all about making censorship easier, that could be reason for me to abandon Blogger.

I hope that someone can shed some light on this.

I first published an earlier version of this post on Google+.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

C is for City

Cities are as ancient as civilisation itself. As soon as we humans worked out that it was in our best interest to live together in settlements, it was only a matter of time until those settlements grew large, then larger still. Today, of course, cities are a very big deal—and today was an especially big deal for Auckland.

The United Nations estimated that by 2008 half the world’s population lived in cities. Other estimates suggest that three-quarters of the population of developed countries lives in cities, while only 44 percent of the population of less-developed countries do. [source]

The precise definition of what a city is varies from place to place, even within some countries (such as, different US states have different methods and mechanisms for creating cities). Nevertheless, at a minimum, a city generally refers to a specific geographic location governed by one government. That means it’s not a city’s metropolitan region, which is bigger in both area and population.

New Zealand has a useful definition to illustrate this, saying that in New Zealand, cities “must have a minimum population of 50,000, be predominantly urban in character, be a distinct entity and a major centre of activity within the region.” This is contained within the Local Government Act 1974.

Just today Auckland, my current home, reached a population of 1.5 million. It’s a very big deal for us and for New Zealand.

Auckland is by far New Zealand’s largest city. It has roughly a third of the entire country’s population—though that’s not enough to make the list of the 100 most populated cities in the world. The current Auckland Council was created by the New Zealand Parliament out of seven former city and district councils, and came into being in November 1, 2010. It covers 4,894 square kilometres (1,889.6 square miles), a fact that means Auckland is in the 20 largest cities by area (again, this refers only to cities and their specific geographic areas of jurisdiction, not to metropolitan regions).

The distinction between city and region is an important one, and not as obvious as one might think. For example, when a Kiwi talks about the population of, say, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, they’re almost always talking about the region, not the legally defined city (until last year, the same would have been true if they were talking about Auckland; now, of course, city and region are the same).

This distinction shows up something that’s very different in North America and New Zealand: Suburbs. In North America, a suburb is an outlying town, not legally part of the city, but within commuting distance of it. In New Zealand, a suburb is a geographic area within the city—analogous to a neighbourhood in an American city. New Zealand suburbs are used by New Zealand Post for delivering mail and also by delivery companies.

I was born in a small city, grew up in suburbs, went to university in a small city, moved to Chicago, then to Auckland (twice—interrupted by a couple years spent in a small, rural town). I’ve learned through this that I’m a city boy. It doesn’t have to be a big city, and I don’t have to live in the heart of it, just as long as it has all the urban amenities a city has to offer. I particularly appreciate being able to get a service done or go get something in particular (like, for example, a part to repair something in the house) without having to drive hours or order online. I also enjoy the excitement and multi-culturalism that a city offers—that and all the entertainment and food options.

So, add it all up, and the city is best for me. I know plenty of people for whom that’s not true, though. So, what about you? Given your choice, would you rather live in a city, a small town or out in the country?
I took the photo at the top this post from North Head, Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore, in 2006. You may notice that it’s also the background image for this blog.

A busy hiatus

I hadn’t planned on being absent from all my social media stuff, in particular this blog or my podcasts, but things got in the way. Actually, it was far more than that sounds.

We’d long planned some projects to the house this summer, chief among them, having the house painted. In addition, we’re making some small repairs, finishing a few projects and, while we’re at it, having a major de-clutter. All of which is far more involved—and tiring—than I ever could have imagined. On this plus side, I’ve lost a couple kilos over the first two weeks of this project, and expect I’ll lose more this week.

This huge project is nearly completed—just in time for real, real life to resume as I head back to work.

And that’s what I did on my summer vacation.