Thursday, December 23, 2010

Making Christmas.

What does Christmas mean to me?

I’m not remotely religious. I disapprove of organised religion more than just about anything else. “Spirituality” as a whole only rates slightly higher because it’s a bit less dangerous. I’m quite outspoken about atheism, existentialism and similarly godless topics. So why did I tear up in the Muppet Christmas Carol when Robin as Tiny Tim prayed simply “God bless us, everyone”?

Because the actual sentiments involved, if you don’t just take him literally, aren’t in conflict with my own at all. They were those I’ve come to associate with Christmas as an Australian: spending time with family and friends. Appreciating what we have and who we share it with. Dickens’ line affirms that we are all blessed, all special, and not in the paradoxical sense in which we can’t all be special because “special” is in contrast with “normal”, but in the transitive sense in which we are special to other people. You don’t get much more existentialist than that. That’s what Christmas means to me: an affirmation of those bonds which define and elevate us.

Tim Minchin, one of my favourite artists, has a wonderful song along similar lines.

What does it mean to you?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Anarchy of Ideas.

“Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone has one, and everyone else’s stinks.”
— old witticism.
“Only when they’re full of shit.”
Quincy’s stock response.
The expression which forms this post’s title is most commonly used to refer to the notion that “anything goes”, in terms of philosophy and opinion. To favour it is to hold that opinions somehow should be immune from attack, because they’re personal and precious; and coupled with this, because opinions are personal and precious, everyone has a responsibility to reinvent the wheel and have a unique set of opinions rather than accepting those of others, even if he agrees with them.

This is to some extent commendable. The capacity for independent thought is a virtue, but in encouraging skepticism and critical thinking it is easy to encourage cynicism and solipsism, which are just as unhealthy as ignorance and blind faith. Note that I said the capacity for independent thought. If someone has come up with compelling arguments for a view you accept, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing and leaving it at that. Constant criticism is mentally exhausting and for the most part unnecessary.

The use of the word anarchy is especially apt, because it suggests not just liberty and individualism but also a state of disorganised chaos. Such an intellectual climate emphasises the difference between competing views, and downplays their compatibility; the extremists drown out the moderates, as we’ve seen in the last decade in American politics. The average Republican voter is nowhere near as fundamentalist or as libertarian as the average Republican campaigner or supporter. The average Christian has no problem with the existence of Muslims or gays, or the use of contraception, but you wouldn’t think that to listen to the average minister. Marcus Brigstocke accuses the reasonable moderates of complicity in such extremism by providing it with a power base; without it, the extremists “would just be loonies, harmlessly locked away somewhere nice.”

The results are felt on both sides of politics; the Greens, the communists and other vaguely socialist groups might agree on the majority of their core tenets, but they compete and emphasise their differences, splitting off the socialist vote. This is especially damaging in plurality systems like in the USA, but even in preferential Australia the lack of a united front leaves the ALP the default, or default second preference, for the socialist left. On the right, churches have split over the most minor theological or metaphysical disagreements, and ecumenism has won few battles to overcome these divides; if the DLP, the Christian Party, Fred Nile and Family First, all of which share mostly similar policies, had pooled their resources, they might have been able to get some seats. I don’t think this would have been a good thing for the country, but it would have been in line with the parties’ policy goals. Once you’ve got some united sort of power, you can work on making the appropriate compromises so as to best represent your electorate.

I, of all people, don’t mean to advocate simple conservatism, or sacrificing one’s individuality. I am certainly not a moral conservative, although I am conservative when it comes to things like fashion and architecture, for reasons I will detail another day. What I would really like to see is an emphasis on context, on the relationship between ideas, and on qualified agreement rather than complete rejection where some compatibility exists.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Failure of Moral Democracy.

“Where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day. Personal disapproval, even society’s disapproval, is no excuse to arrest, detain, imprison, harass or torture anyone. Ever.”
— Ban Ki-moon.
What’s sad is that despite the sheer obviousness of this sentiment, the Secretary-General has to remind us of its truth. A number of governments recently managed to get homosexuality removed from a UN document which enumerates unacceptable grounds for discrimination and criminal prosecution, such as race and religious beliefs. Homosexuality remains a crime in more than 70 countries. Ban has pledged to continue to fight for this issue, but the UN has very little real power; and even so, its processes are democratic in the worst possible sense. The number of countries whose governments had a vested interest in making this change was smaller than a majority, but the number of countries whose governments simply didn’t give a damn, for whatever reason, was large enough to give them a plurality.

Even in what I just said, there is an equivocation which highlights the problems of this approach: the word “unacceptable”. If we look at it amorally, we find that the modified document is truer than the original; homosexuality is clearly “acceptable” grounds for discrimination and persecution, because scores of countries and millions of people accept it as such. This is, of course, not the way the word is intended; the meaning is not that it is impossible to accept but that it is impermissible to accept. And this demonstrates the dangers of confusing the two, of making moral rules based not on what is right but what is popular.

Now, intuition has its place in moral reasoning. Judith Thomson is particularly noted for demonstrating moral intuitions by variations on a number of thought experiments. These thought experiments work because the vast majority of people have the same intuitive moral belief about the situation the thought experiment presents. If most people share most moral intuitions, then surely a democratic system would be sufficient (indeed, ideal) to establish both moral rules and legal embodiments of them?

Unfortunately not. Firstly because it takes a great deal of work to get from the intuition to the appropriate rule, and secondly because intuition is not the whole story. Moral thought experiments are like scientific experiments; the activity only gives us data, and the interpretation of that data is what gives us actual results in the form of scientific or moral theories. Also in parallel to science, moral rules must be consistent; if two intuitions cannot both be explained by a consistent set of rules, at least one must be discarded. Simplicity is also important. Moral opposition to racism, homophobia, religious persecution and so on can all descend from the acceptance of two quite simple principles: that that which harms (or endangers) nobody wrongs nobody, and that that which wrongs nobody is permissible.

The intuition-based approach can only be trusted if the intuition in question is nearly universal; a simple majority is woefully insufficient. When it comes to contentious issues, personal beliefs are not necessarily helpful at all, and can often conflict with more basic intuitions. It may be intuitive enough that that which harms nobody is permissible, but the logical step from this intuition to acceptance of alternative sexual, religious, or cultural practices is often not made. Even amongst those who advocate for such acceptance, they too often forget the original intuition themselves and argue for the protection of practices that are actually harmful, simply because they are “cultural practices” or “religious traditions”.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Advocacy in the Information Age.

Just a short post this morning. I’m sorry for letting this issue take over the blog this last week, but it’s a damned important one and I still feel like I’ve got more to say, even as I learn more about the situation.

I saw GetUp’s ad in the Australian yesterday. I think it’s quite wonderful, regardless of whether you believe in every cause they advocate for (I’d wager a majority of members don’t; certainly I don’t), that there is an organisation like this that can get people together to campaign on just about any issue. Groups like GetUp, or MoveOn in America, have the potential to become as crucial to what we think of as democracy as the free press itself, or the republican model of government.

Mass action has always played a part in the development and evolution of liberal democracy. But most such movements have had a charismatic leader around which the people have rallied and who has been able to use the power of the people to effect the change he desires; Martin Luther King Jr for the American civil rights movement is the most obvious example. But things are even more organic now that rallies can be arranged with a week’s notice on Facebook — we can see the first seeds of this potential in the flashmobs that have been in vogue in the most recent decade, but the exact same techniques are now being used for ideological and political purposes. There’s a rally in Melbourne on Friday evening in support of Julian Assange. I have no idea who organised it, the only reason I know about it is the Facebook invitation that arrived in my email inbox this afternoon, barely 48 hours before it’s due to begin.

This is the sort of movement that the Internet seems almost tailor-made to support; one that a massed audience might not be motivated enough to make a big fuss about, but that a few thousand people (nearly 100,000 signed GetUp’s Wikileaks letter to the USA) care about a lot. The sort of number that isn’t the critical mass necessary to form a movement, but big enough that — if it can be coördinated well — it can make a significant difference. The Internet, and savvy groups like GetUp with social networking tools, make such coördination possible. As Rule 34 says that no matter what it is, there is porn of it somewhere on the Internet, and Rule 51 says that no matter what it is, there is somebody for whom it is a turn-on, so there ought to be a rule that says that no matter what it is you believe, you will be able to find someone on the Internet who agrees with you.

This isn’t always a good thing, of course — that depends on what you believe in the first place — but the sheer wealth of opinions and ideas floating around out there makes it much easier to triangulate your own position and find arguments to defend and test it. It also helps you find compromises and common ground; a weaker version of your claim may find you more supporters and be more defensible itself. In the case of the present campaign, even those who disapprove of what Wikileaks has done may sign the petition because what it calls for is for the site’s operators not to be labelled terrorists or enemy combatants, and for the presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial to be preserved, which even the guilty in our civilisation are supposed to deserve.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Maturity and Odd Socks.

“There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
— Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who: Robot.
In discussing maturity, I’d like first to tell why I created Watching the Aeroplanes in the first place.

My fiancée needed a new hobby: one that wouldn’t involve putting in an effort to learn a whole new skill, one that wouldn’t require a big commitment of time or money, and one that could be her own little project outside work. I suggested we both start blogs — she jumped on the idea, and came up with some great ideas for posts in the first day, while mine sort of sat around unstarted for a few weeks until I decided to go for the political opinion/navel-contemplating style of blog I’ve adopted. The original idea was as a hobby for her, but it’s worked wonders for me as well. If I hit a brick wall in my more serious writing, as I have at the time of writing this bit, I can take a break and work on a post for a bit, and when I go back to my paper in ten minutes’ time, I’ll be a lot fresher and be able to do better work on it.

In her sidebar, The Little Quince explains that “I’m currently involved in a long and perilous psychological journey, otherwise known as ‘Getting In Touch With My Inner Crazy’. Initial strategies involve writing this blog, and wearing odd socks.” It’s funny, of course, but that was actually a genuine strategy for dealing with the stress she was under at the time — and it worked. She had become so uncomfortable that even doing something like wearing odd socks to work felt wrong: even though nobody would notice; even though, if anybody did notice, they wouldn’t care; even though there was nothing wrong with it at all. But I seized on it and was able to persuade her to wear odd socks — green and purple stripey ones, no less — to work the next day. And she felt better for it. It wasn’t exactly rebellion: the point of it was to do something that didn’t matter, precisely because it didn’t matter, and because she could.

One symptom, or form, of immaturity is attaching too little importance to really important things. But one can also go the other way: what Quincy was doing, and what so many of us do when we try to be mature, was attaching too much importance to things that really didn’t matter. This isn’t maturity; it’s paranoia. It’s not even just overdoing maturity, because maturity isn’t just caring about important things. It’s OK to care about wearing nice clothes, but that should be because you like to look or feel good, not because you feel wrong without them. Maturity is knowing what has to be important, knowing what doesn’t have to be, and deciding what we want to be and why.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Your Voice in the New York Times

Sarah Palin wants Julian Assange hunted as a terrorist. She’s among a swelling chorus of American politicians calling for the arrest — and even the death — of the Australian citizen who runs Wikileaks. It's a shame that real terrorists, the kind we should be focusing our attention on, don't show up at British Police stations with their lawyers, as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange did on Wednesday.

Here in Australia, Prime Minister Gillard pre-emptively judged Mr. Assange “illegal,” even as the Attorney General confirmed that no Australian nor international crime by wikileaks has been identified.

The death penalty? Judgment before trial? This isn’t the kind of justice system we have in Australia. If our Government won't stand up for the rights of Australian citizens, let’s do it ourselves.

We’re printing ads in the Washington Times and the New York Times with the statement our Government should have made, signed by as many Australians as possible. Will you add your name to the signatories, and invite your friends to join too?

The statement:
Dear President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder:
We, as Australians, condemn calls for violence, including assassination, against Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or for him to be labeled a terrorist, enemy combatant or be treated outside the ordinary course of justice in any way.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “information is the currency of democracy.” Publishing leaked information in collaboration with major news outlets, as Wikileaks and Mr. Assange have done, is not a terrorist act.
Australia and the United States are the strongest of allies. Our soldiers serve side by side and we’ve experienced, and condemned, the consequences of terrorism together. To label Wikileaks a terrorist organisation is an insult to those Australians and Americans who have lost their lives to acts of terrorism and to terrorist forces.
If Wikileaks or their staff have broken international or national laws, let that case be heard in a just and fair court of law. At the moment, no such charges have been brought.
We are writing as Australians to say what our Government should have said: that all Australian citizens deserve to be free from persecution, threats of violence and detention without charge, especially from our friend and ally, the United States.
We call upon you to stand up for our shared democratic principles of the presumption of innocence and freedom of information.
We’re printing this statement in the Washington Times and the New York Times early next week — and the more Australians sign, the more powerful the message will be. Please add your name by clicking below, and pass this message on to friends and family:

GetUp members (including myself) have donated to put a strong statement in a full page ad in The New York Times, so we need as many signatures (names will not be published, only the total number of signatures) as possible before the ad runs next week. Help get us to 75,000!

What has started with WikiLeaks being branded as terrorists won’t end there.

In fact, just yesterday U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, Chair of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, said that the New York Times should also be investigated under the U.S. Espionage Act for publishing a number of the diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks. We can help stop such plans in their tracks, by showing how they are affecting the image of the US in the eyes of their staunchest friends and allies.

Click here to sign the statement before it’s published in the New York Times and Washington Times.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Don’t Shoot the Messenger.

This morning I’m mainly going to share Julian Assange’s own rebuttal to the attacks made on Wikileaks, published in yesterday’s Australian newspaper. I’m not going to pass judgement on his present extradition trial; Sweden wants him for sexual assault charges, not anything to do with his work, which a lot of people seem to be forgetting. (I’ve heard a number of different reports as to what these charges are; one source claims that his crime was in fact not using a condom.)

I don’t think he gets everything completely right. I understand his desire to paint Wikileaks as the underdog; it certainly appeals to the Australian mindset. Rather, I think the reason the authorities are scapegoating the organisation is that if they went after the other, more established news organisations that are coöperating with Wikileaks in releasing its information, there would be a much bigger backlash about freedom of speech and of the press than there has been. And that is, ultimately, what this is all about. It’s not treason: for that matter, Assange isn’t even American. It’s not spying: Wikileaks takes anonymous submissions, investigates them to ensure their authenticity, and then releases them with the assistance of the press. It’s just journalism: impressively hard-hitting journalism, especially embarrassing to a lot of powerful people, but hey — surely that’s what we keep the media around for, morally speaking? It’s their job to see that our leaders can’t get away with anything.

For my own part, I’m on the side of the leakers and journalists up to the point where they release information that’s dangerous to life; so far, the only life that seems to have been threatened by their actions is Assange’s himself. As I’ve said before, the truth never hurt anyone unless a lie got there first. I don’t think this will usher in a new era of more open government. I expect that if anything it will lead to less openness, as official organisations will be less willing to be completely open with each other if they know that what they have to say might be leaked and published. But we’ve always lived with that possibility. Yes Minister paints leaks as just another government tool (“The Ship of State is the only ship that leaks from the top”); perhaps the real objection to this one is that it wasn’t politically motivated, at least by any ideology other than a desire to share the truth.

What has been released so far is embarrassing, but doesn’t seem to involve national secrets or anything like that. Of course, they may be saving the best for last. But what we’ve seen in the last week or so has been a rare glimpse into the relatively private lives of our leaders and politicians and diplomats, and what have we actually found?

That they’re people, no better or worse than most of us. They’re not good or evil; they’re not especially intelligent or dimwitted. I think this is a reminder that the world, especially the USA, needed. It’s a particularly Australian thing, I feel. You cut down the tall poppy by showing him to be just a poppy. In this light, I think Kevin Rudd’s response to the whole mess was by far the best of anyone’s: “I don’t care. I’ve read worse.”

ETA: By far the worst thing to come out of this, I feel, is that Paypal and the major credit card companies have cut off Wikileaks from receiving payments. The organisation survives on donations, many of them small, anonymous, and made online. They have the legal right to do so as private corporations, but I think this is despicable and cowardly. Wikileaks is not a criminal organisation; to compare its releases to terrorism is an insult to the memory of every terrorist victim. Most jarring is the fact that they still allow payments to hate groups and organisations committed to spreading lies and bullshit, while cutting off a group whose ideology is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Blogger's Block.

Nothing much today, sorry. I don’t really have writer’s block as such; but by the time I come around to WTA I’m all writted out, as I’m rather busy at the moment preparing a paper I have to give in a couple of months. I’ll be taking a scheduled break closer to the time but for now I plan to at least try to keep to my schedule. I will, however, share a few of the things I plan to post about over the next little while.
  • Last month’s post What Does Your City Say About You? still has a follow-up planned, talking about why things like beauty and grandeur are not only nice but crucial to society’s well-being. The way things are going, I might need two or three posts to cover it.
  • I have quite a few things to say on the subject of education, following on from last week’s response to criticism of the treatment of disabled students. In addition to better accommodating disabled students, I want to argue for the provision of disability education as part of the normal curriculum.
  • I have a few more book reviews in the pipeline, including Mark Rosenfelder’s excellent Language Construction Kit and Planet Construction Kit.
  • A post concerning the purpose and means of rebellion, which has been on the back burner for more than a month now.
Meanwhile, cheerio. Do stick around.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010

    Preference Deals.

    Whose lame idea was it to allow this sort of thing? Preference deals are one of the strangest and stupidest aspects of the political system in this country.

    The idea of preferential voting is that, if the guy you voted for doesn’t get in, you at least shouldn’t be stuck with someone you despise. I find this aspect of the system to be quite marvellous, actually. It means that more extreme candidates have a harder job getting in (this is part of the reason for the rush to the centre that defines our major parties, but it’s far from the whole story). It means that people are less likely to feel that their vote was “wasted”, as you can vote for a minor candidate while still affecting the outcome.

    Contrast this with the American electoral system, where people vote for the major parties even if the minor ones are closer to their ideals, because if you don’t vote for a major, then the other major is more likely to get in: in Australia, he isn’t, unless you want him to be. Libertarians tend to vote Republican, and environmentalists tend to vote Democrat, even though the USA has both a Libertarian Party and a Green Party. Here, fundies vote Family First, and greenies and socialists by and large vote for the Greens, because doing so doesn’t waste their vote.

    The part I don’t understand is this: every party hands out “How To Vote” flyers at polling booths. The idea is not to educate voters on how the polling process works (we have officials for that), nor even on how the policies of the parties compare, but to tell them that the party wants them to vote a certain way: Labor wants you to put the Greens ahead of Family First, for example. (Most of the time, they don’t even tell you that — the card I had foisted on me by a Labor rep at the state election didn’t even have the party names on it, just the list of candidates and the order they wanted me to preference them in.) It’s even worse for multiple-member constituencies, such as the Senate or the State Legislative Councils, because you don’t even have to follow the flyer — you just make a single mark to say “I’d like to whore away my democratic rights to Party X, please.”

    The idea here, I imagine, was that this was the quickest way for the parties to inform voters as to how closely its own policies would be matched by the alternatives. But it doesn’t really work that way. The reality is that the candidates are ranked according to deals done between the parties themselves; two parties might do a deal to each be ranked second on the other’s How To Vote card. Labor, nominally a left-wing, vaguely social-democratic party, did a preference deal in 2004 with Family First, functionally a fundie Christian party, that resulted in FF sharing the balance of power in the Senate until this year. Labor has apparently since learned its lesson, but the backlash was significant.

    A campaign, Below The Line, exists to challenge party preference deals. But as long as it’s easier to make one mark than twenty, or to follow a little card handed to you five minutes ago by a complete stranger than to ask yourself whether you’d rather see a Green or a Labor member in parliament if your Sex Party vote is unsuccessful, party preference deals will continue to be a problem. The only solution, really, is to ban the bastard little cards altogether, and save a few trees while we’re at it. Same goes for automatic preferences in the Senate.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    Mutant Martian Death Hayfever.

    I was going to post on the election result, but I haven’t really been keeping up with the news enough to warrant a full post just yet. For now, I’ll just say that, PR stunt though it may be, I’m glad that Baillieu’s wanting to get right into the business of government now, rather than waiting till after the Christmas break; and that I’m disappointed that the Greens didn’t win any of the inner-city seats they’d been hoping for, particularly after Bandt’s historic win at the Federal election, but I agree with the party’s own analysis that it is in all probability just a matter of time. If and when I post more about the result, it will probably be at least partly to bitch about the way preferences work.
    “Hayfever — you don’t die, but you wish you could.”
    — Robert A. Heinlein, “The Menace From Earth”.
    Unfortunately, much the same as this time last week, my allergies are making it pretty much impossible to brain. For the first time, I’ve had to take time off work and get prescription-strength stuff to deal with them. Not only that, it’s the first time I’ve been presented with a nasal spray as an option and not decided I’d rather have the hayfever. For some reason I find the things extremely painful to use, but at least this one, unlike some I’ve tried in the past, doesn’t taste like month-old dishwater.

    One other option I spoke to the doctor about was a desensitisation programme. It’d be no good for this season — it takes a couple of months — but it’s something I’m considering doing next year. Has anyone who’s reading this gone through it? I know it’d cost a bit to have done, but the way things go I’m going through at least $100 worth of allergy meds every year, and this year has been far worse than ever: I wound up coughing and wheezing yesterday morning and only managed less than an hour at work before I had to give up because I seriously could not function.

    Between the cost of medication and potential lost productivity, even if it cost a few hundred, desensitisation would be a worthwhile investment — if it works. The doctor said that it wasn’t guaranteed to work, and if it did work it might not get rid of the symptoms completely or permanently, so I’m tossing up as to whether it’s worth trying. (It also depends on whether they can discover exactly what sets me off — as it’s a seasonal thing, it’s almost certain to be pollen of one sort or another, but I’d need blood tests to narrow it down.) If you know anything more about this sort of option, please leave a comment. I hadn’t even heard about it until quite recently, so I’m rather keen to gather all the information I can.

    Also, enjoy the Heinlein story I linked. It’s one of my favourites.

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    Disability Education: A Response.

    On Friday I read a rather concerning article in The Age newspaper: “Concern at treatment of disabled in schools”. What follows is my letter to the paper in response to this article — please read the article itself first for context, otherwise the following post will not make much sense.

    The letter itself was published in the paper yesterday. I intended today’s post to be a commentary on the Victorian election result, but it appears we haven’t got one yet; given that the paper has already published the letter, I figured I ought to bump up this post.
    I for the most part fail to see how the treatment of these children is unreasonable given the circumstances. Only the 90-minute bus ride to school seems unreasonable, and that's more the fault of a broken public transport system and the lack of specialist schools themselves. More of these schools are desperately needed in order to relieve the pressure on mainstream schools (and untrained mainstream teachers) to accommodate those whose disability prevents them from benefiting from a mainstream education.
    If a student has the mental capacity of a three-year-old, regardless of his chronological age, an appropriate environment should be provided. If this resembles a child-care environment then this is neither degrading nor unreasonable.
    What was Matthew's aide supposed to do when he was hitting other children? Calmly explain to him that he was being a naughty boy and hope to persuade him to stop? That doesn't even work on neurotypical adults if they get worked up. If a child poses a danger to his peers, it is a violation of the other children's human rights not to restrain or seclude him.
    A more detailed, more general explanation of my position on this issue will follow; the paper limits letters to 200 words.

    Saturday, November 27, 2010

    Victoria Votes.

    This is the first time I’ve actually still been undecided on the night before an election. Not as to which party I’ll give my first preferences to, nor which to preference last, but as to which major party will get to be slightly higher on my list than the other. Given I’m in a very marginal seat this time around, that decision is also probably rather more influential than usual. I’m not going to bore you with much of the reasoning behind my final decision, partly because it could still change even between now and when I step into the booth. I will say that I am very glad that Greens candidate Damian Magner, the major proponent of their public transport plan that I squeed over a couple of weeks ago, looks likely to win the upper house seat he’s standing for. I don’t really have much else to say except to wish Fiona Patten and the Australian Sex Party the best of luck.

    But I would like to share a letter from GetUp, whose very important pro-choice campaign “My Choice Is No Crime” is linked in my sidebar.

    Today, millions of Victorians will go to the polls and determine the next government and future direction of Victoria. Yet many young Victorians could miss out. An incredible 20% of eligible voters aged between 18 and 25 aren't on the electoral roll, and many more have out-dated enrolment details.
    New laws for this election mean you can vote even if you’re not enrolled yet. Simply turn up to a polling booth with your ID and enrol right there and then on Election Day. More information can be found by going to or calling the Electoral Commission's hotline on 131 832.
    If you are already enrolled, can you pass this on to anyone you think might not be? It could be your son, daughter, friends from uni or co-workers. If you know anyone who turned 18 in the last year, who moved house, got married, became an Australian citizen or changed their name pop them a quick email to remind them they can still enrol on Election Day. It's as simple as turning up to a polling booth on Saturday with your ID — such as a drivers licence or learners permit, a rate notice in their name or an electricity bill.
    More information can be found by going to or calling the Electoral Commission's hotline on 131 832.
    From the High Court victory, protecting the enrolment of thousands of Australians, to the Federal Court decision allowing Sophie Trevitt to enrol online, GetUp members have fought hard to make sure that all Australians have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights. Let’s make sure that this Saturday, every Victorian gets a chance to determine the future of this state.

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    Sorry for doing this again, but I’m afraid there’s no post today. Apart from this one. Which I suppose means there’s one post today, which is fairly normal given I normally schedule a post for Thursdays. But it’s not a normal post, which makes it not a normal day. Then again, what’s a normal day on WTA anyway?* Is there such a thing at all? I’ve only been doing this for... [checks archives] three months yesterday — I don’t think that’s quite enough data to say that there’s really a clear norm to what I’ve been doing here. I’ve ranted, theorised, snarked, on several topics from politics to fashion, and now apparently I’m doing book reviews as well.

    Three months. Huh. Who’d have thunk it. It doesn’t really feel like that long. I got a message today from a good friend whom I unfortunately haven’t seen since early this year, saying she’d found this blog and was following it regularly. Hi, Erin! It’s always good to know I’m not just talking to the void.

    I started out apologising for the lack of a post, and wound up making a post about it. I didn’t think I’d be able to get anything coherent out through the horrible hayfever that’s been plaguing me like the plague. (From the looks of this post, I was right.) I intended just to link to The Little Quince’s post from yesterday, which I figured, given she’s on hiatus and it was an unexpected post, might make up for the lack of one from me. It no longer has to serve that purpose, but I still want to link to it because I think it’s one of her most important posts yet. Even though I know most of my readers read TLQ as well — anyone who doesn’t, do check it out when she comes back on December 1st — you probably aren’t checking it if you know there aren’t going to be regular posts for another week. I do, but then I’m marrying the girl so I’m guessing my situation probably isn’t going to resemble the general case.

    So without any further anything, go read Quincy’s entry on ADHD: Not quite what you think it is. Or isn't.

    *Oh dear, now I’m rhyming.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    A Brief Review: “On Bullshit”.

    I’d like to do something a little different with today’s post. On Bullshit (Amazon link below) is quite a short book, but it does that rare thing which the philosopher always aims for: to find something worth saying that has not already been said six different ways.

    What is bullshit? The instinct tells us it just means lies. Frankfurt contends that bullshitting is in fact something far more insidious than mere lying. The liar lies in reaction to the truth; he wishes to conceal a particular fact, or otherwise influence the beliefs of others, and he does this expressly by perpetrating falsehoods. The bullshitter’s aims, conversely, are utterly unconcerned with truth. A campaigning politician, or an advertising agency, doesn’t care what the truth of the matter really is. Nor do they even care about making you believe the truth of the matter is one way or another. The only goal of the bullshitter is to influence your behaviour long enough to get what they want out of you.

    This sort of concept has been implicitly known all along, of course. The characters in Yes, Minister, for example, are entirely concerned with political or administrative goals, and say exactly what they think most likely to bring about their aims; the truth doesn’t enter into consideration at all. This resonates with us because this behaviour is so familiar; we have had a word for it for a long time, and before that word we had others like humbug.

    But none, it seems, had formally analysed what bullshit really is. The nature of truth and falsity, and their interplay both formally and conversationally, has always been of interest to philosophy. Frankfurt’s book breathes some much-needed fresh air into the field, in a form as accessible as it is eye-catching. His conclusions are not all final, and are on some levels somewhat cynical and pessimistic; nevertheless, the bullshit is out there, and if we are informed and able to more readily recognise it, avoid it, and counter it, so much the better. In these respects, especially the last, On Bullshit is quite a useful little guide.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010

    Words, words, words.

    The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
    — attributed to Dante Alighieri. 
    What I said on Thursday, regarding the difference between the cynical, populist parties and the more earnest, values-driven minor parties, goes for the general public at least as much. Indeed, the success of populism, tautological though it may appear to be in a democratic system, only exists because the hoi polloi are overly cynical about the process themselves. It is fashionable to view being committed to a particular ideal, let alone ideology, as both untenable and undesirable. Idealism is seen as simple naïveté, a denial of the deeply flawed world in which we find ourselves.

    Yet if it were not for the flaws in the world, there would be no need for either ideal nor ideology. I am an idealist not because I insist that the world is not flawed, but because I can easily see that it is. Like the fatalist, I believe that a lot of things suck. Yet I am not a fatalist, because I believe that they don’t have to. Rather, I am an optimist, because I believe they can get better. Like the nihilist, I believe that nothing has inherent or intrinsic meaning; yet I am not a nihilist, because I don’t conclude from this that nothing has any meaning at all; rather, I am an existentialist, because I believe that what meaning we give things ourselves is supremely important. (Plenty of people forget this aspect of existentialism, and lump it in with nihilism; my dearest Quincy explains most excellently in the abovelinked entry exactly why this viewpoint is a load of bollocks.)

    What do you believe in? We all believe in something. We might be wrong in a great many cases, but apathy is no better. The great horrors of history owe their existence to indifference as much as to malice. If you don’t care about anything, you are abdicating one of the most important privileges of being a part of society. But even belief itself is a lesser matter compared to the second question.

    Do you act on your beliefs, and if not, in what sense can you honestly say you hold them? Do you go to church on Sunday and sing about caring for the poor, but lob a single bob into the charity tin and consider your obligations met? Do you want to see the rights of gays, or homeless communities, or children, upheld, yet still vote for whichever major party annoys you less (or promises you a bigger tax cut) and not bother considering the broader implications? Do you want more than anything to see the world, or own a house, or learn to cook, but can’t be bothered putting in the time and effort required, and wind up never leaving your own country, permanently renting, or stuck with bland staples and junk food?

    I admit that I do struggle with this sort of thing myself; and when I try to do justice to my words I can overdo it and burn myself out. Moderation, and above all recognition of your limitations, remains crucial; at the end of the day, you can’t have everything. But even then, deciding how much you can afford to do, rather than just doing as you have always done because it’s made life bearable so far, is the biggest individual step in the right direction.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    The Big Picture.

    Why does policy get made? Why, with an election on the cards, does a party make a particular promise when another makes the opposite one?

    Because they think it will get them elected, of course. This is the cynical way to play the game, and unfortunately it is a very successful way; but it is not the only way, and it is not a particularly democratic way. It’s undemocratic because it results in a “rush to the centre”; the result over the last few decades is that the two major parties in this country now have policies so similar it’s very difficult to distinguish between them. Their platform is populism. Their policies are determined not by ideology, or economic goals, or even a simple desire for consistency (consistency, after all, means there are certain votes you will never get); their policies are determined by focus groups, according only to what they think will be most popular.

    This is why I have so much more respect for the more minor parties. Even the Christian parties, whose existence I deplore on the grounds of separation of church and state (I know we don’t have it in this country, despite being far more secular than the USA; I just wish we did), stand for something. The Greens stand for sustainability, social justice and public projects; the Sex Party stands for social libertarianism and free speech; Family First stand for the erosion of women’s rights and general conservatism. The only things that the Liberals and Labor value, at the end of election day, is power itself.

    The more ideological minor parties offer us a genuine choice between platforms. They look at the big picture, have genuine values beyond the desire to be elected or re-elected, and want to remake the country according to what they believe is good. They may not be right about what actually is good, and they run the danger of being overly dogmatic, but there’s at least a level of earnestness — I won’t say honesty; they’re still politicians, after all — to what they say.

    This is why I would like to divorce (not entirely, but enough to remedy this particular systemic ill) the process of democracy from the direct process of policymaking. Democracy has a rôle in a truly responsible government, but that rôle should be one of review, not of leadership. A Parliament elected by the people to represent their economic interests, their particular values and their stake in their own country, cannot act in these capacities if loyalty to the Party comes first. Relieving it of the responsibility for making policy, and remaking it as a place of democratic review for the policies of a technocratic Cabinet, would leave it freër to act in the genuine interests of the people. It would limit the abilities of parties to promise more than fidelity to their platform: a party can promise to allow a certain sort of policy through, or to reject a certain sort of policy; but if the party is stripped of the ability to actually make said policy, populist tactics will be of much less avail to it.

    Part II coming on Saturday.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010


    Apologies for missing yesterday’s post. I’ll aim to make up for it tomorrow.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010

    Transport Priorities.

    I was glad to read in the Monash Memo (the weekly newsletter of Monash University, where I work) that in campaigning for the forthcoming State election, the Labor Party has pledged an upgrade of Huntingdale station, which is the closest station to the uni (coming from Melbourne). In addition, they’ve promised a 3–4-minute frequency bus service from the station to Monash. Now, this won’t normally directly affect me at present, but it’s welcome news for the university nonetheless.

    I was not so glad to read in the Monash Memo, however, precisely nothing about the Green Party’s plans for the same station. This is quite odd, because the Greens’ promises include an actual branch line from the station to the university, with train services direct from the city centre to Monash and on to Rowville. This would be a far greater boon for the university. The argument might be made that the Greens are unlikely to win the election, but they’re set to gain at least a few lower house seats on the back of their success in the Federal election earlier this year, which could well give them the balance of power and enable them to implement at least some of their policies. The argument might also be made that they’re unlikely to win in part because people don’t realise that they have any policies other than “be nice to trees”, and that giving their actual policies news space might help change this misconception.

    The Liberals have promised to “plan for” the Doncaster rail line, which was first proposed in 1890. That’s not a typo. This line was planned for more than a century ago. It’s been planned for many times since then. It has been planned for enough that construction was begun in 1972, only to be abandoned and shelved almost immediately. Sure, the times have changed, but its necessity has only increased, as the Doncaster area remains the largest part of Melbourne served neither by trains nor by trams. And when it comes to political promises, I’m savvy enough to read “We will do X” as meaning X is the most we will do. The Greens, once again, are on the ball: they will fund the construction of the line, as well as the Monash-Rowville branch and other upgrades and extensions, with the savings from cancelling the government’s planned freeway tunnel from Bulleen to Greensborough. I made a similar proposal in a report at Monash a couple of years ago.

    When it comes to public transport, the policy of both major parties seems to add up to “more of the same”; sure, they’ll continue adding bus services piecemeal, and they’ll slap Metro on the wrist if more than 20% of the trains are more than five minutes late, and they might reopen a closed station or two, and if the stars are right myki might be ready for primetime this side of the Apocalypse. But we haven’t seen any major suburban rail projects since 1930, and I won’t trust them to bring in the planned new underground line from Footscray to Caulfield until I see the line actually in operation.

    I don’t mean to sound like a shill for the Greens, but on the other hand I rarely find myself agreeing so wholeheartedly with a political party. If I want to be honest, I’ll probably end up sounding like a shill in this case, because I’ll promote any political party whose goals are in line with what I want to see — that’s democracy. I don’t like all of the Greens’ policies — their fundamental opposition to nuclear power, for example, baffles and frustrates me — and I handed out flyers for the Secular Party at the federal election. I’m still likely to put the Sex Party first on my ballot paper for the State election (I’m given to understand that the Secular Party, whose policies are mostly the same as the Sex Party’s, aren’t running). But on the issue of transport — and here, as I’ll elaborate on elsewhere, I’d really like to see parties elected on a policy-by-policy basis rather than all-or-nothing — I’m siding quite emphatically and unashamedly with the Greens, and I urge all three of my readers to investigate their policies (and those of the other parties) and make the comparison for themselves.

    P.S. (Post Snark): The party websites I used for references are very poorly designed. I’ve seen better English in a printer manual than greeted me on the Liberals’ website, and Labor’s took about a minute to load a page.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    On Racism.

    Apparently there’s a proposal for a constitutional amendment specifically to recognise Aboriginal people. Didn’t we already adequately do this in 1967 when we removed the (deplorable) clauses that excluded them from voting and being counted in censuses? What more recognition do they need than to be treated as equals? And don’t start on the whole “they were here first” issue. Their ancestors were here before my ancestors: it’s not the same thing. Whether my great-to-the-nth-power grandfather lived in Bendigo or Birmingham has no bearing on my nature today, and to grant me special recognition or status based on it is absurd. I have no obligation to be ashamed of, or resentful of, something that was done 200 years before I was even born.

    What is this amendment supposed to achieve? As long as we set aside specific clauses to recognise a subset of the population, we imply that they otherwise don’t count. As long as we attempt to counter racist discrimination with affirmative action, we fail to recognise the relevant equality we’re supposed to share.

    The statistics show that people of Aboriginal descent have a shorter life expectancy than others, that their education level is likely to be lower, and so on. There are serious social problems in outback communities. But none of these problems will be solved with words. And they will not be solved by setting aside special facilities and services for people based on their race. This is not what is meant by civil rights. It is a perversion; it is pandering to special-interest lobbyists who have no more in common with rural communities or disadvantaged socio-economic groups than I do; and it demonstrably doesn’t work. To offer special concessions to a racial group is to imply they need special concessions because of their ethnicity, which we know is not the case.

    To be sure, plenty of Aboriginals do need government help (don’t we all at some point); but they don’t need help because being Aboriginal is itself a disadvantage. They need help because they’re poor, or because they live in a community which lacks certain services, or because they live in a dysfunctional family situation — and these problems are neither caused by being Aboriginal nor exclusive to those who are. If the existing welfare arrangements and so on aren’t enough (and let me be among the first to say they aren’t), then they should be expanded so as to be available to all who need them, black or white or anywhere in between. If two people go to the same school, get the same results, and apply for the same scholarship, the decision as to who should get it should not come down to the colour of their skin. If I interview for a position, I want to get it on my own merits, not because the employer is afraid I’ll sue him for “discrimination” if I don’t.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    The Benefit of the Doubt.

    I want to discuss the advantages — and pitfalls — of assuming the reasonable best of people.

    Most people are mostly good, most of the time. That’s a thrice-qualified statement. Nobody’s perfect, although as I like to say, that’s no excuse not to try.

    Some people are scum. Some are selfish beyond belief; some are actually sadistic. There’s always hope for redemption, but it rarely happens. These, however, are a tiny majority. Far more harm has been done by ignorance than by genuine evil. Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice, and it is usually the simpler explanation. It’s also practically easier to deal with. While the ignorant may be stubborn, this stubbornness is born not out of conviction itself but out of simple conservatism. If you assume that someone is ignorant rather than malicious, on evidence which could support either conclusion, you’re simply more likely to be right.

    Even the smartest and noblest people make mistakes. Even then, it is seldom harmful, or risky, to assume their best intentions.

    And what’s the cure for ignorance? Information. Only if the person concerned either genuinely doesn’t give a damn, or is too proud to accept information, will this sort of help fail completely; and even then it won’t make things worse, but will rather give you more information yourself and justify you in condemning the behaviour or opinions in question.

    If someone’s acting like an ass, they probably don’t know it. If you thought you were acting like an ass, you would want to change. Those who genuinely wouldn’t care are small in number indeed. Even if they do know it, if nobody speaks up, they’ll assume that nobody really has much of a problem with it. This goes out to the people who called me on my overconfidence when it was getting out of hand and making me seem arrogant — I couldn’t see it from this side of my eyes, but I hope that hearing it has helped me turn it down. The reason they called me on it was because they assumed that I wasn’t being a git for its own sake, or because I genuinely felt superior or thought their opinions worthless, but rather that I simply didn’t realise how I came across. If they hadn’t assumed the reasonable best of me, everyone concerned would be worse off. Even if they had been mistaken in that assumption, nobody would have been worse off for their making it. That kind of went off in a more introspective direction than I expected, but the example stands.

    Cultists and fundies, for the most part, aren’t evil, although they do vile things; a cultist is more likely to be brainwashed than truly malevolent. Exceptions can be made for those who stand to make money off said brainwashing — Scientology, of course, being the most notorious offender here — and those who recognise the damage done and do nothing to avert it. And of course, just because they’re brainwashed doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be stopped from abusing children with threats of hellfire and ostracism, but it does mean they should be treated with sympathy. This is why we now look at criminal sentencing with an eye to rehabilitation, as well as the old (and still justified) motives of vengeance and security.

    Saturday, November 6, 2010

    What Does Your City Say About You?

    Which of these things is not like the others?


    It’s not that we can’t design pretty things any more. It’s not that we can’t afford to make them. So why would we prefer post-modern engineered ugliness, or deliberately random shapes, or even bald utilitarian design, when we can have instead something that is both functional and pleasant?

    I have a more detailed post coming on the subject; think of this one as a teaser. I’m savvy enough by now not to promise it for Tuesday, though I’ll aim to have it ready some time this week.

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    Preying on Ignorance: It Works.

    The Herald Sun at the weekend involved itself in a smear campaign against State Greens candidate Brian Walters. The campaign relies on the general public’s ignorance of an important principle of legal practice: that because everyone is entitled to legal representation, a barrister must not turn down a case if it is in his area of expertise. Brian Walters has represented the coal industry. He’s also represented a Nazi in his extradition case — does that make him a sympathiser or an anti-Semite? Well, yes, says the Labor government, the significant number of qualified lawyers in its ranks inexplicably failing to speak up and correct this misconception.

    Whether you like this principle or not — hey, lawyers have always had a reputation for being spineless, but it does make sense if you value the right to representation — Labor and the Sun are banking on public ignorance and emotional reactions to be a more powerful force than the desire to actually be informed. And they’re right, from a cynical standpoint. More people will be turned away from Walters by his supposed hypocrisy than will be turned in his favour by the facts of the case. Even though both the newspapers are now exposing the facts* — I’m as amazed at this as anyone, by the way — it’s still quite possible that the Greens will have lost this one in the eyes of a lot of casual swinging voters. The Greens’ core electorate is statistically better educated and more inclined to think for itself, but unfortunately such people are a distinct minority, probably still in the seats they look like potentially winning. Their supporters are also more idealistic than many, and mightn’t take too kindly to Walters following the rules.

    Whether this piece of gutter politics will be enough to keep Walters or the Green Party as a whole out of our State Parliament for four more years is yet to be seen, of course — but I’d bet money that four years is the most it will buy the government. If Labor wants to still be the dominant left-wing party a decade or two down the track, it’s going to have to actually have some distinctive left-wing policies, like the Greens do, rather than campaigning on a platform of “the Liberals suck”, as it has done for as long as I can remember. (It can get away with that, of course, because the Libs’ platform has mostly been “Labor sucks”.)

    We live in interesting times. Personally, I’d like to see policy back in politics.

    *Not all the facts, of course. The Sun is careful to forget to mention its own part in the smear campaign, painting it solely as an ALP job, despite the fact that Walters was vilified in its own editorial.

    UPDATED 6:22 PM. REASON: I wrote this first thing this morning, and parts were a bit rushed or unclear.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    Fashions on the Field.

    It’s Melbourne Cup Day today, so I thought I’d share my observations of fashion and particularly formal fashion.

    What you tend to see around this time of year in Melbourne are what I like to call “louts in snobs’ clothing”. Put a bogan* in a suit and tie, and he still sticks out as a bogan. Not everyone who goes to the races is one, of course, and they all get dressed up in suits and dresses, but you can still spot who’s in his nice clothes and who’s in costume. I’ll mostly describe men’s clothing here, because I know more about it.

    Type 1: Gangster chic.
    Will this be formalwear in 100 years?
    Historically, there are only two kinds of people who wear expensive clothes badly: gangsters and servants. Servants used to wear formal clothes in improper combinations as a reminder of their lower status. Valets and footmen still stick to the old combinations. Prohibition-era gangsters wore zoot suits with dark shirts and lurid ties as a means of conspicuous consumption that set them apart from old (or legitimate new) money. (It’s the same with gangsters these days, only rather than booze they push hard drugs, and rather than exaggerated suits they now tend to wear exaggerated sports clothes and deliberately tasteless jewellery, this being an even less “conventional” form of conspicuous consumption.) Still today, wearing a dark shirt with a brightly-coloured tie makes you look like a gangster. It’s certainly retro, but it’s also certainly informal. It’s not an outfit, it’s a costume.

    You want to wear what, sir?
    Type 2: Mix-&-match/servant costume. Same goes for people who figure you can slap together a tailcoat, a frilly shirt, a long tweedy waistcoat and a skinny tie and, because the elements are more fancy than normal clothes, decide that you’re dressed formally. No, no, no, no, no. Tails shouldn’t be seen at the races at all — they’re evening wear, like the tuxedo, and for the same good reason: when worn properly, they create a high-contrast look, which is fine indoors under lights, but looks garish in the daylight.

    Which part would you rather look?
    The only person who wears evening tails during the day is a butler. Similarly, if you wear a pale jacket and a bow tie before six, you’ll look like a waiter. Tweed? It’s for the country, and is even less formal than an ordinary suit. The only character I know of who wears a wing-collar shirt with a long tie is Jeeves. If you’re going with the wing collar, go with an ascot tie or a bow tie. Mismatched waistcoat? Fine, it might be cheaper than a three-piece suit, but unless you’ve gone all the way and are wearing a morning coat and striped pants, it’s also less formal.

    Type 3: the Rule Abiding Rebel. The sort who looks like he was ordered to dress up by his mother, or his headmaster, but expressed his resentment by putting on a poorly-fitting or frayed suit, untucking his shirt, loosening his tie, and not bothering to shave or brush his hair. It doesn’t make you look rebellious or cool. It makes you look washed-up, hung-over and half-baked.

    Type 4: Obviously Rented Clothes. This is more a problem at weddings than the races, but I have seen it crop up. You know the type. Their satin waistcoat, tie, fancily-folded pocket square, and maybe even their hatband are all the exact same shade of pastel purple. Their polyester suit has been drycleaned and ironed to within an inch of its life. They don’t look at home in the outfit at all. Again, they’re wearing a costume. They’d have done much better spending a quarter as much on a nice second-hand suit and maybe a tie at their local op shop. Unless you’re unusually small or large, there will probably be something to suit you at the Salvos, or St Vinnie’s, or Savers.

    When it comes to women I have less to say, partly because looking boganish is more a matter of behaviour than of the specifics of what you wear. The main rule is that you can have quite a low-cut neckline, or you can show a lot of leg, and still look very classy, but if you show both, class is essentially impossible. If your legs are your preferred asset, know how to pick things up. Your mates might appreciate the view, but you have knees for a reason.

    *bogan, n. redneck, yobbo, chav, seljak, bumpkin. Doesn’t exactly match any of these words, but you get the idea. 

    Saturday, October 30, 2010

    The Nuclear Option.

    There’s been talk recently about the potential closure of Hazelwood Power Station, one of the country’s oldest power stations and its worst polluting relative to the amount of energy generated. The Greens have said that they want it simply shut down, as soon as possible, and with the way things are looking they may win the balance of power in the Victorian legislature next month. Labor has paid lip service to the idea, suggesting reducing Hazelwood’s load. Right-wing commentators have suggested that if the Greens do manage to shut it down, the electorates that voted for them should have their power supply cut off in order to absorb the loss of power. This is no more than I’d expect from them, but their rhetoric does raise the question of where we’d get our power from; Hazelwood provides a quarter of the state’s power. My house has solar panels on the roof, but not everyone can afford to install them, even with the government’s rebates, even given the fact that they pay for themselves both in savings and in revenue from power sold back into the grid.

    Frustratingly, though, the one party that is actually taking a stand on global warming by demanding that Hazelwood be shut down, is also flat-out terrified of the only plausible way of doing so without adversely affecting our supply of power in the short- to medium-term: nuclear power. While nuclear fuel is not technically a renewable resource, Australia’s uranium supplies would last a lot longer than coal, and more importantly nuclear power doesn’t release colossal amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere the way coal (especially brown coal, which is mined and burned at Hazelwood) does. Solar power, even in this sunburnt country, is too capricious to use without enormous storage batteries, which we don’t have and which have never been tried on anything like the scale required. Wind power has many of the same problems. Ultimately, of course, a migration to renewables must take place, but nuclear can give us a lot of the breathing room we need to make this possible.

    Nuclear power is far safer than coal. While nuclear accidents have the potential to be dramatic and catastrophic, coal power kills far more people — not just in absolute terms, but per unit of energy produced. There are ways of producing nuclear power that do not produce waste that must be managed for millions of years. There are ways of producing nuclear power without any risk of weapons-grade material going “missing”, because no such material is involved in their use. There are ways of producing nuclear power that actually produce more nuclear fuel as a byproduct. There are ways of producing nuclear power that use thorium as a fuel, which is safer, more easily obtained and handled and more plentiful than uranium.

    Of course great care must be taken. But why are we so terrified of something that could replace all the coal-fired stations in the country in a matter of not decades but years?

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Christianity: the Great Irony.

    Almost from the very beginning, Jesus’ ideas were hijacked. The metaphysics and mythology that go along with his story were elevated at the expense of the man and his message. Whether this was deliberate or accidental, the advantage of this as a means of control for the church is clearly seen. When one considers the nature of his actual teachings, which were extremely anti-authority, pro-individual, anti-wealth, and pro-charity, the irony is most amusing.

    You can quote Jesus in support of a lot of ideals, from libertarianism to socialism to monarchy. This isn’t to say he would support them himself, merely that he can be quoted in favour of them. But ceremony, submissiveness and conspicuous consumption, three things that have marked the Catholic Church for roughly 1500 years and the American Protestant churches for most of their existence, are not among them.

    Some Christians have recently got wise to this, at least in theory. But the irony has remained, and progressive Christian culture today resembles nothing so much as the followers of Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian — the words are “you are all individuals, and you should think for yourselves”, but the message is still “follow our particular interpretations and additions to what this book says, or else”. After all, you need to at least be seen to take account of what the Bible says if you’re claiming to follow it, but you also need to hang onto your own authority. And even if it isn’t chic to threaten apostates with hellfire or damnation, at least in the more mainstream churches, that threat is still on the books, so to speak — and the sense of community helps keep the flock in check, too.

    So this post goes out to every Christian whose views don’t align with his church’s. If your church preaches creationism and you accept science, or if it practices homophobia and you don’t, or if it does anything at all with which you don’t actually agree, you degrade yourself by belonging to it. You have two options. The first, and probably better if there are others who are in the same situation, is to bring up your issues and change the church’s attitude from the inside to more accurately reflect those of its members. The other is to reject it and strike out on your own. Remember that that’s why Protestantism existed in the first place — people sticking to their principles rather than going along with the whims of authority. Of course, this applies not only to Christianity — that’s just the faith I’m most familiar with.

    I have no idea what Jesus would be like if he were around today. But I very much doubt that he would be a churchgoer, or an affiliated Christian at all.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    Keeping the Bastards Honest.

    Has nobody ever tried suing a politician for reneging on an election promise?

    Of course, they’re very good at weaseling their way out of such situations. It’s a politician’s job to be popular, to be convincing, and to make excuses. It’s easy to cost a project at ten million when you’re in opposition, and then “realise” that your figures were off by an order of magnitude once you get elected to implement it. You won’t be voted out of office for another few years yet. The populace will have forgotten your broken promises by the time the next election rolls around. They’ll know that you probably did break some promises, but so did the other guy. It is, in many depressing ways, a race to the bottom.

    It may well be that we’ve left it too late to do anything about it now, certainly in our current system. We all get offended when a politician backs down on a promise we hoped they’d keep, but nobody’s surprised at any of it. A court could easily rule that election promises are not binding contracts for the very reason that nobody expects them to be honoured. While this would break advertising standards and violate common decency, it would be a case of the law recognising that which already de facto exists.

    On the other hand, it may not be too late. If I’m offered a deal, and I honour my end of the bargain, I expect the other party’s end to be honoured too, and legally it shouldn’t make any difference who the other party is. The only problem here is that none of the parties I support will ever form government, at least in the near future, and I don’t know how one could claim to have honoured one’s end of the bargain with a major party without having preferenced it first. Might there be any way that the electorate as a whole, as represented by someone appointed for the purpose, could do it?

    Sunday, October 24, 2010

    This Is What Happens When You Buy From The Lowest Bidder.

    A series of emails regarding the train-wreck that is Melbourne’s public transport ticketing system (and that I’m sure we all hope will remain a figurative train-wreck only).

    From: myki Customer Care
    To: Oolon Colluphid
    Date: 20 October 2010

    Dear Oolon,

    Due to a recent auto top up failure of $10.00 on your myki (card number ███████), your myki has been blocked. [Oops. I ran kinda low in my debit account. No big deal, I'll just top up manually.] We require your account to be topped up with this amount and then your myki be returned in order for us to re-activate your myki. [What?] Please be advised that we are unable to electronically unblock your myki after receiving your online payment. In the future, we hope to have this functionality to unblock a myki electronically. [But you have the functionality to block one?]

    The $10.00 was added to your myki balance on the 16/10/10, but we were unable to deduct this payment from your credit card. [Seriously? Who thought it would be a good idea to credit my account before payment was cleared? And did it seriously not occur to anyone to, I don’t know, simply cancel the erroneous credit even if the system was that stupid?] After we have returned your myki, unblocked, please update your credit card details for Auto top up if they have changed.

    You can make the $10.00 credit card payment on your website account. Just go to” Manage my card” and you will see the Debt Settlement page, from there you just follow the prompts.

    Please post your myki to the following address, to ensure quick return of your myki. A stamp is not required, as this is a reply paid post box.

    myki Customer Care
    Reply Paid ███

    We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

    myki — it’s your key. [Not if you just changed the locks on me it isn't.]


    myki Customer Care Team

    From: myki Customer Care
    To: Oolon Colluphid
    Date: 21 October 2010

    Dear Oolon,

    Thank you for settling the debt resulting from a recent auto top up failure.

    You may be unaware, that we are unable to electronically unblock your myki after receiving your online payment. [You emailed me yesterday to tell me so. I admit that someone with a stronger allergy to bullshit than mine might have taken 24 hours to process the mindbuggering stupidity involved here, but either way reminding me isn’t going to help.] In the future, we hope to have this functionality to unblock a myki electronically.

    We aim to return your myki to you unblocked as soon as possible. Please post your myki to the following address. There is no need for a stamp as this is a reply paid post box.

    myki Customer Care
    Reply Paid ███

    We thank you for your patience and cooperation regarding this matter.


    myki Customer Care Team

    From: Oolon Colluphid
    To: myki Customer Care
    Date: 21 October 2010

    I was not informed that my myki would be blocked should an electronic payment fail to go through, nor of this fault in the system that requires me to post it in, when I bought my myki. For that matter, I find it quite implausible that it can be blocked remotely but not unblocked in the same manner. I will find it very inconvenient to be without the card even if it were returned in the post the day after I send it, and I've been informed by a friend that this happened to him and his myki was not returned for several weeks. I think you appreciate that I would rather not take that chance. If you are genuinely unable to unblock my card remotely, I request that you send me a replacement card instead.

    I appreciate your prompt reply.


    Anyone else think this is as ridiculous as I do? It’s the 21st century, guys. Get on the ball.