Monday, June 20, 2011

The People Are Still Revolting.

Tony Abbott is introducing a bill in Parliament calling for a plebiscite on the carbon tax.

There should not be a plebiscite. This country is too democratic as it is. The people, by and large, are neither informed enough nor reasonable enough to make the right decision on this issue. We’ve heard stories of people expecting a “carbon tax bill” alongside their tax returns next month, and Abbott himself is spreading the lie that it is a “tax on the Australian public”, rather than the corporate tax it is, because that lie furthers his cause. Most people are only concerned for the immediate good, and politicians never look further ahead than the next election; both groups will see a tiny blip in the economy next year as being worse than the long-term benefits which outweigh it. While the public is so uninformed and the politicians so short-sighted and dishonest, it is irresponsible to trust them to handle this issue.

Also what was that line of Oakeshott’s from just under a year ago? “We should have a great big swear-jar in Parliament for when anybody uses the word mandate.” Shame, Tony.

What scares me is how Abbott has managed to completely take control of this issue. Of the people who actually care about the issue, the vast majority are in favour of the tax. Of those who actually understand it, support is nearly unanimous, with the holdouts being those who believe alternative means to the same end would be more effective. Yet somehow he seems to have swayed the ignorant masses.

Why is it that, just when the Government tries to do the right thing, something that will benefit all, something that should by its own virtue be popular, they are utterly unable to sell it? How can they be that stupid? How can they be that incompetent?

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Point of Law.

I’m back. Again. So much for sticking to a schedule. I think the sort of thing I write about on here is less suited to regular updates than, for example, The Little Quince — and even she’s cut down from three to two posts a week.

So I’m going to try to post fairly often — perhaps aiming for twice a week on average — but I won’t be scheduling posts in advance, at least for the time being, unless I find myself with too much to say at once, in which case I might break up a post over a few days.

Today’s post was triggered by yesterday’s story about Victorian state MP Geoff Shaw, who ineptly tried to defend his Government’s new pro-discrimination laws and wound up revealing himself for the homophobic bigot he is. You can read the complete exchange between him and outraged citizen Jakob Quilligan here. What follows is my own letter to the former-MP-soon-to-hopefully-be.
Dear Mr Shaw,
It has come to my attention that you recently insulted a constituent by comparing his homosexuality to, among other things, child molestation, speeding and public drunkenness. As a legislator, I should have expected you would have noticed that these three behaviours, unlike homosexuality, are illegal, and for very good reasons: they are both voluntary and harmful, or at least dangerous. Homosexuality is neither harmful nor voluntary, which is why it is perfectly legal. The comparison holds no water at all and demonstrates either ignorance of and/or contempt for the laws of our State and the wellbeing of its citizens, whom it is your job to represent and respect.
By allowing homophobic and religious organisations to discriminate on otherwise illegal grounds, you will make second-class citizens of agnostics, queers, minority religions and many other groups, who will find their job prospects severely limited, especially in the most vital fields of health and education. And if you continue to espouse such bigotry yourself, you will find yourself on the receiving end of a major backlash from within your own party and from the electorate.
In short, please die in a fire.
A liberal Victorian.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ah, Capitalism.

As usual, today’s post is kicked off by a news article. It seems my country is becoming more and more unusual in that we don't habitually tip waiters, cabbies and so on. We figure the person is getting paid already out of the cost of the service. And of course, here, they are. Even the minimum wage for service staff here is a reasonable amount, and those on casual rates generally make half as much again per hour.

In many places, this isn’t the case. Austraian service staff might be on a wage of $15 an hour. Call it $20 if they're casual. In the USA, the usual wage for an equivalent job might be $5 per hour. (The Aussie dollar and the greenback are within 10% of each other’s value these days, but even when our dollar was closer to 60c our service staff had a much better deal.) This is because tipping is simply the done thing over there.

But this means that while on a good day, a waiter might make hundreds in tips, on a bad day he might go home with $25. This uncertainty is very unhealthy, psychologically speaking. Ultimately it’s also bad economically, as if your citizens are unable to plan their finances and have a reasonable guaranteed income, they’re going to be either a lot more cautious with their spending or a lot more likely to go into debt or overdraft.

Now, you might argue that there’s nothing essentially wrong with this. It’s the market at work; if I give you a service, you decide what that service was worth. Should we also put buskers on a fixed wage, and then give all their takings back to the city that pays them that fixed wage? Of course we shouldn’t. But they know what they’re getting into. They’re explicitly relying on generosity; and they’re also working only for themselves. But paying regular service staff fiddling small change on the expectation that customers will voluntarily give them enough to make up a decent wage is not on.

A tip should be a bonus for exceptional service. They’re too volatile — even with the supposed average of 10% or even 20% in some places — and much more sensitive to the whims of the customer than the worker’s actual performance. 14-hour-a-day sweatshops are also “the market at work” — that doesn’t say anything about whether they’re acceptable. It also gives rise to the “customer is always right” attitude that gives Americans their arrogant reputation here. Over there, the customer has the power of withholding a substantial fraction of the service staff’s expected income, with the result that they walk all over them. They come out here and try that — I’ve seen it happen — and are amazed when we tell them where to stick it. This is the biggest argument against a tipping culture: it creates unnecessary inequality, which can be and is often abused.

Now, I’m of course coming from an Australian mindset here, and tipping might not always lead to this sort of inequality — I’ve no idea what the situation is in Europe, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s not just tipping that causes this, but a combination of tipping with tiny minimum wages.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

He Doesn't Get It.

Over the break, I read an article that raises a point seldom mentioned today. Our country’s former Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, was in a bit of hot water for suggesting that sportsmen who get involved in charitable or community work are merely cynically promoting themselves or their sport.

The irony is so thick you’d need a diamond saw to cut it. About the only thing that would be more cynical than such behaviour is Costello’s accusation itself, and the associated implication that it is therefore morally questionable. “There is a big difference between celebrity and philanthropy,” Costello commented, as though reminding all us mere mortals of an obvious fact.

To hell with that. It is hardly obvious, and to my mind the assumption that there is such a necessary difference is itself the very root of the problem. Using even — especially — the broadest meanings of the terms celebrity and philanthropy, we used to have an expression for the relationship that should exist between them. We called it noblesse oblige. I don’t mean to sound like a nostalgic fool who believes that yesterday’s celebrities were somehow better people than today’s; by all accounts they weren’t. Noblesse oblige simply means a situation where those with privilege are considered to have an obligation to be responsible with it.

Now, the very nature of privilege of course makes this situation relatively rare. Yet it appears to be eminently desirable — and the way to bring it about is to make fulfilling such an obligation rewarding, as it is in the case of footballers who represent charities, or run school clinics, and as a bonus improve the brand of the AFL and their club. Costello’s cynical attitude, in this case sadly representative of the prevailing one across most of the political spectrum, is counterproductive at best and completely misses several points.

I have more to say on the topic of noblesse oblige. It says much of our society that I had no idea the expression existed until, by chance, I read an interview with John Armstrong on the subject. I think I’ve said enough to be going on with, though, so I’ll leave it here for now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Have the Numbers.

So Saturday morning’s post inexplicably failed to go up, and I only noticed last night. Bugger. It’s been bumped to Thursday’s slot. For once I had a post written well in advance — in fact, I had it mostly done while I was away in February — and I still managed to fail to have it go up on time.

But for today, I’d like to say a few words about Saturday’s climate rally. As you may have read in my twitter stream, the numbers were thoroughly on our side — at the end of the day, the crowd was estimated at over 8 000 strong. The “people’s revolt” of deniers and libertards was only a few hundred: initial estimates were about 200, and even the rally’s organisers only claimed 400. Andrew Bolt conveniently “misremembered” our figure on Insiders the next day, quoting 800 to 400. Pardon me while I have a coughing fit that doesn’t remotely resemble an accusation of bullshit.

While we’re on numbers, I know the Newspoll indicated a loss of 6 percentage points to Labor following the announcement, but the Coalition only recorded a gain of 4 points in the same poll. The other 2 points went to the Greens, and I seriously doubt those would have been from people “revolting” agains the government’s proposal to price carbon emissions — unless they felt disappointed that the government wasn’t going far enough, which seems fairly unlikely if they weren’t voting for the Greens in the first place. Makes you wonder about the other 4%, don’t it.

I’ll conclude with the text of an email Quincy and I sent to our respective representatives in Parliament the other day (we’re both in Labor seats). Feel more than free to copy and/or modify it and send it along to your own member. If you’re in a Liberal-held seat, maybe it’s worth letting them know that the numbers are against them.

Dear [representative],
As an [electorate] voter, I write to inform you of my involvement in yesterday’s rally in support of the proposed carbon pricing scheme. I believe that this is a very important initiative for our future and that the money it raises will be valuable in funding research and development in renewable energy and supporting related industries. I am personally proud that my Government is taking such a positive step in combating climate change. The public support shown at yesterday's rally — an 8000-strong crowd in favour of the carbon tax, compared to a few hundred protesting against it — speaks volumes.
I urge you not to be overly concerned by what is a very small vocal minority. I believe that the doomsayers will be proven wrong when the scheme kicks in and the world keeps turning. After we weathered the GFC so well, I have every confidence in the ALP's competence in economic management. Good luck to you and the rest of the government with putting the carbon price into practice.
Yours sincerely,

[Oolon Colluphid].
PS. Fuck you, Tony Hooper. Your accusation that I and the rest of the crowd at the pro-tax event were “paid activists” and unrepresentative of our own convictions, let alone public opinion, is offensive and not remotely true. Had we the time or the inclination, we’d have grounds for a libel suit; but I, for one, have much better things to do.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The People Are Revolting.

The fear campaign against a price on pollution has become so absurd that talkback radio hosts are claiming that a price on pollution means the end of our economy and life as we know it. Independent MPs are even receiving death threats. The amount of misinformation around the issue is staggering, with reports of people expecting a “carbon tax bill” alongside their tax forms come July.

Now, these same radio hosts have joined with climate deniers and far-right politicians to organise anti-climate action rallies as part of Tony Abbott’s so-called “people’s revolt”. They start on Saturday outside the Prime Minister’s electorate office in Melbourne.

As I tweeted on first hearing of this, the big polluters and corporations who stand to actually pay this carbon tax are big boys now. They don’t need mass indignation on their behalf. People’s revolts belong in tyrannies like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. Basic freedoms and human rights are worth fighting for. Slightly lower taxes for the sake of big corporations, not so much.

But politicians are spooked. Even with the next election a few years away, the loss of four percentage points in the latest Newspoll is bound to be causing at least a few second thoughts in the Labor caucus. The more intelligent among them might recognise that this was expected; it does mean a short-term sacrifice for probable long-term rewards, which is exactly the sort of thinking that republican democracy discourages; but there will be some who will just see today’s numbers and want to back down. We mustn’t let them.

Implementing the cap-and-trade system is politically courageous, and implementing it early in the Parliament’s term is sensible, because in two or three years when the next election rolls around, they can point to the fact that our economy has not collapsed, that inflation is stable, and hopefully that carbon emissions have slowed, and regain some of the points that the deniers’ fear-mongering has lost them.

I’m proud of the government on this issue. I was beginning to doubt that there was much in the way of guts left in the ALP. But if those of us who aren’t as selfish and short-sighted as Tony Abbott or Alan Jones just sit back feeling smugly superior and let their angry shouting wash over us, it will be easy to overlook the fact that there is any support for climate action at all.

This is why a number of organisations, including the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria and GetUp, have arranged for a peaceful counter-rally this Saturday. We’ll be at Treasury Place this Saturday (12 March) at 11am to remind the government and the people that we support strong, courageous action on climate change.

Don’t let the vocal minority scare the government into backing down on this one. The Little Quince and I will be there. Whose side are you on — your children’s, or The Man’s?

See you there.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Independent Media.

On Saturday, I listed “quality journalism” as something we’d miss under a libertarian regime. Given the independence of the media is supposed to act as something of a foil to keep the government accountable, I felt the irony warranted an extended post on the subject.

An independent media is supposed to be a cornerstone of open government. I’m not saying there aren’t decent private journalistic enterprises — the Huffington Post has got quite a reputation, not to mention WikiLeaks, and the traditional great newspapers were all private enterprises — but there’s certainly no comparison on the television front. The BBC World Service, and more recently our own home-grown ABC News 24, put commercial TV news to shame, and are considerably more impartial than private news channels. Part of this is because both Aunties have a contractual requirement to be impartial, while there’s no such rule preventing corporate channels from being beholden to corporate interests. I read an article the other day which expressed this very succinctly:
“...the fundamental practice of so-called ‘professional’ journalism as a courtier of power”
Compare the Beeb’s news reputation to that of Fox News, whose slogan of “fair and balanced” infamously belies its rabidly conservative, corporate agenda, or MSNBC, which has a similar reputation for supporting the Democrats. Compare the ABC’s news channel to the tabloid current-affairs that passes for “news” on Nine and Seven (or in the Herald Sun), or the Greens-bashing that goes on in the pages of our only national broadsheet. Even The Daily, pioneering electronic newsmagazine, editorialised in its first issue claiming neutrality yet in the same paragraph making it perfectly clear that it would support economic libertarianism — Tea Party politics — which is considered extremist anywhere outside the USA. Is it any wonder that in America, with no significant public journalistic outlet, the most trusted newsman is one whose agenda is comedy?

As mentioned, I believe this is due to the fact that public news outlets, by virtue of being state-owned, are regulated specifically to avoid partisanship; and by virtue of being state-owned, nor are they beholden to corporate interests. If you owned a private newspaper, and would benefit from an economically libertarian government, wouldn’t it make sense (from a selfish point of view) to advocate such policies and agitate for the party that would give you them in its pages?

I don’t mean to advocate for the end of private journalism — far from it. My own blog carries ads, although they’ve not put a cent in my pocket yet and I’m not writing here to make money. But I believe that a strong tradition of public journalism, such as we see here and especially in Britain, is necessary — and maybe some official definitions and standards of what can be legally called “news” would be nice.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

10 Things Atomists Should Go Without.

Time for a list-y post. All the things in this list are things that have been created by governments, which (as earlier discussed) libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism and other atomist ideologies would like to see dismantled and replaced with an entirely free market. If you find yourself tempted by these ideologies, think of this as a reminder of what you’d have missed out on.

  • Stephen Hawking. Infamously held up as an example by American conservatives of the sort of person who’d have been killed by “death panels” under a public health system, Hawking in fact owes his life, and the technology that enables him to work and communicate, to the British National Health Service; science today would be far poorer without him.
  • The Internet. Grew out of a US defence project.
  • Doctor Who. For that matter, the majority of decent British telly.
  • Related, a lot of quality journalism. I’ll go into this one more next time, as the irony involved deserves its own post.
  • Daylight savings time — for that matter, any form of time coördination.
  • Highways. All roads for that matter, which is why the first question to ask a libertarian is always whether he owns a car. Or a bike. Or a bus ticket.
  • Competent employees. Sure, the wealthy send their kids to private schools, but even they’re government-subsidised; and their companies benefit from a publicly-educated workforce.
  • Your telephone number.
  • Courts. It always amuses me that libertarians love to stand on their individual rights even as they tear down the institutions expressly designed to guarantee them those same rights.
  • Public transport. You hear people bitching about Metro, the private train operator, and Connex before it, a lot more than you heard them bitching about the government-run Met.
Sorry this one went up a bit late — and sorry for missing Thursday. Got a new Flash-blocker that’s been messing with my Web browser and stopping me from posting. Uninstalled it now and it’s working fine. If anyone can recommend a decent Flash-blocker for Safari that isn’t ClickToFlash, please let me know.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    On Conscience.

    I read a while ago about a case of a pharmacist refusing to fill a prescription on the basis that the drug prescribed is sometimes used in post-abortion care. He didn’t know whether the patient had actually had an abortion or not — there are, after all, rules about patient confidentiality, and it was a nurse rather than the patient herself who made the request — but he exempted himself from the requirement to do his job nonetheless, because the law allows health professionals for whom abortion is against their beliefs to refuse to provide services.

    I’m sorry, what? Isn’t America (where this incident occurred) supposedly a free country, where people are entitled to not experience discrimination in the provision of services? Where the right to be served is so ingrained in the culture that when they come to our country they are seen as presumptuous and demanding?

    I respect the right of everyone to act in accordance with their conscience, or at least to refuse to act against it — if someone’s conscience called for revenge killing, we aren’t OK with that, but I agree that a person shouldn’t be forced to do something that goes against his conscience.

    BUT, when you sign up for a job you take on the responsibilities involved. If you are unable to take on those responsibilities, you shouldn’t be signing the contract; if you take the job and then refuse some of its requirements on grounds of conscience, you are violating your contract. Ordinarily, if something like that happened, you’d be fired. Now, I’m aware that some people will have been in the business since before abortion was legal in their area. But I don’t think that changes anything, as that change would have resulted in a functional, if not a written, addition to their contract. (I’m using “contract” more in its moral sense than its legal one here, so the idea of an unwritten one is not as counterintuitive as it might seem.)

    In a free society, people have the right not to provide abortion services; but if they don’t want to do that, then they shouldn’t be in a job that might require them to. A free society in turn has the duty to say to an anti-choice doctor “you’re not doing your job” and replace them with somebody who will. If being a pharmacist means sometimes filling prescriptions for abortion patients, then someone who isn’t OK with this shouldn’t be qualified to be a pharmacist, because they are unable to actually do the job.


    Saturday, February 26, 2011

    I’m back!

    Hello again!

    It’s been rather longer than I intended, I’m afraid. I didn’t expect to be away from WTA all month. The paper I was presenting yesterday took more of my brain-time than I expected. It wasn’t that it was harder or more time-consuming than expected. I had plenty of free time, and I didn’t have to rush to get it ready or anything like that. It’s more just that the part of my mind I use for this blog is the same part I was using for the project, and I didn’t have enough of the right mental resources to go around.

    I have put together a few entries while I’ve been away, to make up something of a backlog while I get used to doing this on a regular schedule again. Thanks to anyone who’s waited for me to come back, and hello to any new readers! Do stick around, and I promise to try and do the same! First major entry to come on Tuesday. See you then.

    — Oolon.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Saturday Morning Bleargh.

    Hi all.

    Sorry for not posting much this morning. I’ve been working overtime the last couple of days and have had practically no time to myself since Wednesday evening. At least no time worth blogging in — I spent Thursday evening in a daze and last night seeing a mate off to his new job in Alice Springs.

    So I’ll just share this amusing article which I just read (it gets a few things wrong, but still very cool), and this image macro which I saw last night:

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    Floods: emergency housing needed.

    Today’s post is another appeal from GetUp regarding the floods in eastern Australia. The sheer scale of the disaster is unfathomable and I’m sure there isn’t a person who hasn’t been personally touched by it or knows someone who has. A friend of mine lives in Kerang and I’ve no idea if she’ll have a job when she returns there.
    The recent floods have had a devastating toll on communities, homes and lives. Now thousands of Australians in flood affected areas face the daunting question of where to have their next sleep. Together, we can help.

    As the process of rebuilding begins, thousands of people will need a place to stay as they put their homes and lives back together. But with more than ten thousand homes still without electricity, and many more uninhabitable, no government or aid agency could ever house all of those in need.

    So we’ve launched an emergency national housing drive to connect empty beds with flood affected Australians who could use a place to stay while their homes are repaired or rebuilt. You can post your offer of housing (a spare room or an extra bed) and search for available housing online at:

    Housing is most urgently needed within reasonable driving distance of the affected areas, particularly in Queensland, northern New South Wales and Victoria, where flood waters are peaking and levees breaking, as well as Tasmania and other parts of the country.

    Please forward this message to anyone you know in the region who might be able to help and be sure to post on facebook and twitter. Those without internet access can call 1300 998 603 to get assistance or to offer a bed.

    No matter where you live, your help could still make a world of difference to a person or family in need, so please offer what you can. The process is simple:
    1. Post your offer of help. Your name, address and contact details remain hidden and you can change or remove your offer at any time.
    2. Flood-affected Australians, relief organisations, friends and relatives can search the site for housing. We'll do our best to get your offers where they are needed most.
    3. You will receive emails when people are interested in taking up your offer. It's up to you to call or email those people, decide if it's a good match, and make the necessary arrangements with them. Then you can remove your offer.

    As progressive Australians we share a belief in service to one another and today is a great opportunity to put that belief into practice. There are thousands of families who’ve lost everything and who need a comfortable bed and a warm welcome. Let’s do what we can to help.
    PS. You can also help by spreading the word about to everyone you know. In addition to email, facebook and twitter, word of mouth is very important, particularly to reach people in flood affected communities without internet access who are looking for a place to stay. Those without internet access can call 1300 998 603, but we are encouraging everyone who can to use the website, to reduce the burden on our call centre.

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    The Empiricist Strikes Back.

    I recently got into a discussion where the case for my correspondent’s particular flavour of God was framed as rationalist against my empiricist atheism. Implicit in this are a whole lot of assumptions and accusations; that empiricism is somehow irrational is the most obvious one. This was quite odd, as I was using the word “rational” in its less strict sense, to refer to any form of valid reasoning, deductive or otherwise; my correspondent decided, and later insisted (which is something you never do), that I was using it in its narrow sense, to refer only to reasoning that is mathematically provable, despite the fact that this definition would have rendered my points meaningless.

    The scientific method is rational under the former definition, and not under the latter. Yet it is widely accepted as a knowledge-generating technique. We can take from this that just because something is not mathematically certain, doesn’t mean it can’t be certain enough to be assumed, unless to do so would be question-begging, and unless and until a later development casts doubt on it. In the case of the scientific method, neither of these conditions are in play.

    The usual problem with what might be termed hard or deductivist rationalism is that it tends to lead to solipsism, which basically means that you accept Descartes’ proposition I think therefore I am and nothing else, or at least nothing which you cannot derive with mathematical certainty from this proposition. This usually entails hard atheism, moral relativism (or its less paradoxical functional equivalent, moral nihilism) and theoretical, if not practical, selfishness — traits commonly associated with the stereotyped perception of atheism, but atypical in actual fact.

    As mentioned, my solipsist correspondent is unusual in this regard in that he is not an atheist, but he defines God as existing outside the Universe, which is a common trick among theologians when they’re up against empiricism.  Now, if you define Universe as referring to everything that exists, then the notion of something existing outside it is paradoxical. So instead he uses the cosmological sense of Universe, which refers to everything we can observe (or infer from observation). Unfortunately, as far as we know, the second definition is functionally identical to the first, as it’s a principle both of science and of deductivism that what cannot be observed or inferred/deduced from observation cannot be claimed to exist.

    I wonder if anyone’s thought of claiming that God follows a form of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle — that he exists, but you can’t detect him if you’re looking for him. They’d still have to back up why they thought he did, and even then it would mean that as far as we or anything else is concerned, he may as well not exist; but it’s the only way I can think of that he could both exist and be undetectable. Practically, I think, it would be as much a dead-end as the existing-outside-the-Universe trick, but it just struck me curious as to whether it had been tried.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    The Old Cretin’s At It Again.

    Everybody’s favourite Emperor Palpatine look-alike is attempting to paint education as the enemy of religion in general and, of course, his own religion in particular. Bizarrely, he has done so as part of an address to various ambassadors to his own country, in a direct attack on the governments they represent.

    You almost have to admire the bastard. Not everyone would have that level of honesty. Or sheer balls. One is reminded of Sir Humphrey’s assertion that one official meeting between politicians can negate two years’ patient diplomacy behind the scenes.

    But seriously, Popeatine. The only reason this hasn’t caused an international incident is that nobody pays any attention to what he says. Oh, they notice; and people like me with a bit of an axe to grind will chew him out; but he doesn’t have nearly as much influence as he’d like to think. Even relatively friendly governments are much more concerned with the opinions of the actual Catholics on the ground who vote for them, than they are with the official opinion of the Church.

    As I was saying, though, I almost admire his honesty. Education — real education, the provision of facts and techniques for rational thought and inquiry — has long been a threat to religion; but as it’s usually also seen as a good thing, religion is usually hesitant to openly oppose it. It’s refreshing to see a major religious leader come straight out and say he doesn’t want facts taught in schools.

    And, despite his supposed lack of experience with the subject, he’s once again speaking out about sex. Not long ago there was an utterly bewildering suggestion from the Vatican that condoms were A-OK for preventing disease, but only among sex workers, whose existence I was pretty sure the Church was not OK with in the first place. The “only among sex workers” bit stinks of retcon: the Pope isn’t supposed to be capable of being wrong when speaking on matters of doctrine, so they couldn’t retract it in this information age, but they were able to restrict its scope.

    The very idea that education somehow constitutes an attack on freedom seems initially incoherent, as more information can only make one more free. It may illuminate one’s lack of certain freedoms, but it doesn’t remove them itself. But what he means, of course, is that parents are no longer free to keep their children in ignorance. I honestly cannot fathom how he considers this to be a good thing. Children have a way of finding these things out one way or another; better it be from a trusted and accountable source, in an open environment that encourages tolerance and inquiry.

    If parents are given the right to withdraw their children from classes, it is the children’s freedom that will suffer. Children have a right to education, and deserve equal opportunity in this, regardless of who created them.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011


    My readers in Melbourne will know just how horrible the weather has been here lately. Humidity has hovered at over 90% for days, and never before have I known 27ºC to feel so hot.

    Of course, compared to what’s going on in Queensland, Melbourne is fucking parched.

    At least a dozen people have died, scores are missing, and the damage bill was $13 billion at the time of writing and rising as fast as the waters. Thousands of homes have been destroyed. It’s the sort of thing that boggles the mind. In some cases the flood water has risen by as much as nine metres in as little as four minutes. I don’t see the state recovering this year, maybe not for a few years. The cleanup alone — ironically hampered by a lack of clean water — will take weeks, more likely months. The bushfires we had in Victoria two years ago were deadlier, but in terms of property damage it seems that this disaster is far worse, and its effects will last longer.

    So I’m dedicating today’s post to doing my bit to help. I’m rather strapped for cash at the moment, but I’ve sent a small donation through. As they say, every little bit helps. Details for donations are located at

    (I’d give them here, but apparently some people are running scams that way, so a link to the government website is more trustworthy.) If everyone reading this can send a little bit, then things will be that little bit easier for those involved in the rescue and clean-up operations.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    The Height of Rudeness.

    A very bizarre thing happened yesterday. It was Quincy’s birthday. That wasn’t the bizarre thing. Her housemate arrived home — fortunately before it had started raining — to find a bag of wrapped presents on their doorstep. That wasn’t the bizarre thing. There was a card, but no other note. The presents were from an old family friend. The card was addressed to Quincy and her family. The card was the bizarre thing.

    You see, on both the card and envelope, the part that had included Quincy’s parents’ names had been cut out and removed before they had dropped it off.

    What sort of insanity have these people descended to, such that they will agree to pass on birthday presents to the daughter with whom they have refused to make any form of contact for six months, but will do so in such a way as to make it so perfectly, literally clear that they are cutting themselves out of her life? What level of doublethink leads to such passive-aggressive, schizoid behaviour?

    I hope they come to the wedding. I will be so wonderfully, infuriatingly nice to them that the cognitive dissonance will turn their brains to noodle soup.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    Cultural Cringe.

    Yesterday, one of my workmates expressed incredulity that another workmate had never heard of Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s kind of odd to be bringing up A Christmas Carol for the second time in a short while, but that’s what prompted me to compose this post. Or rather, the ignorant workmate’s response, which was a withering refusal, on being told it was by Dickens, to even consider reading “anything like that”, prompted me to compose this post.

    This particular book is an especially good example: “scrooge” has entered the English language as a by-word for an unpleasant miser, and the basic plot of the novel has been adapted and repurposed so many times (most recently by Doctor Who a couple of weeks ago) that it has become a trope in its own right. Yet wilful, dismissive ignorance of the novel seems to be not only acceptable to, but encouraged by, the culture I find myself in.

    I’m not setting out here to defend Dickens from anyone who doesn’t like him. I myself have only read a few of his works. My problem is not that this person doesn’t like a “classic”. Any honest person who reads enough “classics” is bound to find one he doesn’t like — I don’t care for To Kill a Mockingbird, and I find much contemporary “literature” to be pretentious and near unreadable. Even with works I enjoy, I can see how others might not; Les Misérables is both beautifully written and superbly detailed, but the plot is very obviously an excuse for Hugo to comment on early-nineteenth-century French society. But I recognise the place that To Kill a Mockingbird has earned in the canon. The problem I have is the attitude that because something was released before last year, or written by somebody dead, or in any way associated with tradition, it’s worthless.

    Not only are you missing out on a lot of things you might otherwise enjoy, but your enjoyment of a huge number of more recent works is severely diminished if you can’t see on whose shoulders they are building. The Princess Bride is a great story in its own right, but so much of its humour comes from playing with various fairytale tropes. And it’s even funnier if you’re familiar with Les Misérables, as Goldman works in a wonderful parody of the style of that novel.

    The sheer incoherence of a culture that sneers so at its own foundations baffles me. Such an attitude can only lead to cultural impoverishment. We can hold that off for a little while by importing things from other cultures — as indeed we do, as foreign cultures are held in much higher regard (in a lot of cases) than our own or its closer relations, if only for fear of offending those who are not yet so postmodern and cynical as to be ashamed of their own culture. But even this doesn’t stop us from losing sight of the giants on whose shoulders we are privileged to stand.

    I’m a big fan of multiculturalism, and of cultural progress, and of new traditions and techniques and tropes, but this doesn’t have to mean throwing our own traditions and treasures out if they’re worth keeping, just because they’re old. If they’ve survived this long, it’s well worth asking why. They might not have much to offer us any more, but usually a concept, or a story, that’s lasted has lasted because it is still useful, or entertaining, or enlightening.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Buzzwords and Bullshit.

    The real problem with buzzwords isn’t that they’re completely meaningless. If they actually were completely meaningless, they’d never have become buzzwords in the first place. The problem arises from the fact that they have become  semantically bleached — stripped of meaning — in common usage. They are still treated as meaningful in two cases: by the usually very small minority of people who do know what they really mean and can competently use them, and by the unfortunately larger group of people who want to appear to know what they mean.

    The problem then manifests when the people in the latter group try to interact with people who aren’t in either group. This often comes up in a teaching environment — both in schools and elsewhere — especially where the person or group who prepared the course is not the person teaching it. They know that this buzzword is involved somehow, that it means something relevant to the course, because it was mentioned dozens of times when they learned it. Unfortunately, concepts have a tendency to seem as self-evident as they are simple once we genuinely internalise them. Their original teacher, even if he did understand the concept itself, probably considered it more obvious than it was and consequently failed to explain it in adequate detail.

    I’ll illustrate with an example that I remember from primary school (it carried over into secondary school too, but wasn’t quite as bad there). A lot of fuss was made about self-esteem. It was apparently a very important thing to have. But as far as my class was concerned, this notion had come out of the blue very suddenly, as fads are wont to do when you’re completely unaware of and uninvolved in the processes that produce them. More problematically, we had no idea what it meant, and nobody’s attempts to explain it left us much the wiser. We hadn’t heard of esteem before, except maybe when I’d listened to old records of the “highly esteemed” Goon Show, which didn’t help me actually understand the word at all.

    The best I could gather was that if you were being picked on, it meant you didn’t have enough self-esteem, although if you were picking on people, that also meant that you didn’t have enough self-esteem. I tried again and figured out that self-esteem meant being assertive without picking on people. (I had never conflated those two things in the first place, although everyone seemed to assume that all the kids had. As far as I could tell, you picked on someone either because you were mates, or because you were a coward; you could tell which sort a particular case was by noting if it was reciprocated.) So I tried to put that into practice and assert myself, to claim some sort of identity for myself. Yet when I did, the one teacher who seemed so obsessed with the word in the first place would put me down herself.

    Years later, I gradually pieced together what self-esteem was supposed to mean, and I figured out a few things that it certainly wasn’t. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could just tell people they should have. Certainly you couldn’t just tell people that they needed to have it to be worthwhile (which was more or less the impression we got in school), and that if they were in any of these fairly common situations then they didn’t have enough. I’m sure it did far more damage to a significant number of kids than schoolyard bullying itself, as it’s the sort of psychological process that is self-perpetuating. The sheer irony of how counterproductive such an approach actually is depresses me. Not only that — it now seems so obvious to me how counterproductive it is.

    From this, it’s quite obvious now that none of my primary teachers — certainly not the one who actually drummed the buzzword into us — were actually competent at understanding the concept and its implications. This may have been their own fault, or (given how systemic their failure was) the fault of their own sources and teachers; the effect on the students would have been no different. That’s why it was a buzzword: not because it wasn’t meaningful, but because people pretended it was. Buzzwords are neither falsehoods nor lies, but they are most definitely bullshit.

    Tuesday, January 4, 2011

    Happy New Year.

    I haven’t forgotten WTA over the Christmas break; I’ve just been busy. I thought I’d actually mentioned that I’d be taking a week off in my last post, and only realised I hadn’t when Quincy pointed it out. No matter.

    I got a new bicycle for Christmas, which is quite awesome. Quincy’s been getting back into cycling and I decided to start riding with her. I haven’t cycled in years and my old bike was so far gone it was better just to replace it, and my folks decided that that would be my Christmas present. Have I mentioned that my family is great? (I’m getting a newer car too, but I’m trading my old one in for it.) So far we’ve been able to ride about 15km in a stretch, which isn’t too bad for a reasonably cold start. We had a bit of an embarrassment the other day, when she was struggling a lot more than I was up a hill, and then we realised that all the packs she was carrying added about 10% to the weight. In future, I’ll be making sure to carry my fair share.

    Coming up to a few major milestones this year, the most obvious one being the wedding. As for new year’s resolutions, I’ve never been much for them, but I will resolve to try to emulate Quincy a little more and write myself a bit of a backlog of entries for WTA (rather than, as it’s been the last few months, putting half the entries together the night before posting). The other thing I’m going to start doing is tweeting alongside the regular blog: mostly just jokes and one-liners I come across in the course of my day, hopefully as a counterpoint to the relatively dry tone of the blog itself. I’ve set up @Oolon_WTA for this purpose, all the simpler and more obvious usernames having been taken. Tweets will show up in the right-hand column, above the fold.