Monday, December 28, 2009

Greetings and Depression

I've been struggling with depression a bit recently. Not down there with the worst I've been through, and even my lowest moments don't really compare with what some people suffer, but after two years pretty much free of the thing its not a lot of fun.

In the process I've been reminded of some of the things people do, clearly with out meaning to that make these bouts worse. I'm not sure how unusual I am in this. I've never read anyone else talk about these sorts of interactions as particularly troublesome, but I figure that if they are common they're worth mentioning because it really shouldn't be hard for readers to avoid doing them.

Greetings are a particular problem for me. Being bothered by greetings and goodbye's is supposed to be one of the marks of Asperger's, and its something that has always made me self diagnose on that point. In particular I'm troubled by the vague questions that seem impossible to answer. A particular bugbear is "What's happening?" A perfectly reasonable query from someone arriving late at an event, but really frustrating when you run into someone and they fire it at you with no obvious context. I have absolutely no idea how one is supposed to answer. Should you talk about the current state of geopolitics, discuss the last five minutes of your life, of give them an update of what has happened to you since you last saw them.

This is actually quite stressful for me at any time, because if I'm supposed to do one of these I don't really want to get it wrong. Sometimes I can make a joke out of it, but that effort is usually beyond me when I'm depressed. It all feels like there is some secret handshake and if I don't know the correct response I'm being failed as a human being.

Even the standard "How are you?", fine normally, can be a problem when I'm depressed. If the person asking is someone I'm not close to I take it as a totally boilerplate greeting and answer "fine, and you?" It's not true of course, but I figure they don't really want to know, its just a piece of politeness. If the person is someone I'm really close to I might confess how I'm really feeling. Where it really hurts is if its someone I'm close enough to that I don't want to lie to them - as they might really care - but not close enough I feel I can burden them with my worries. I once had someone look on me with amazement when I literally writhed in pain after he asked this question. I just wasn't sure which way to go.

Nevertheless, as a rule I think the "How are you?" is polite without being demanding. What I really hate is some of the more intrusive inquiries. On one occasion a friend of friends asked me "So what brilliant things have you been doing lately?" No maybe he says this to everyone - its his own boilerplate. Or maybe based on our one and a half previous conversations he really does think I do brilliant things all the time. But the problem was that at the time I was deeply anxious about how little I had achieved in the last two months. If someone had offered me a noose and a handy hanging point right then, I reckon it might have been all over red rover. I've avoided the guy ever since, and I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm terribly rude.

The worst aspect of this is when I don't answer the question properly, and the inquisitor gives me a sort of stare, that is apparently meant to mean: You haven't answered my question, instead treating it as a routine greeting. I demand you give me a full explanation of your state of being forthwith, because I have the right to do this. Twenty-five years of non-violence behind me and I swear one day I am going to slap someone who does this.

The worst aspect of this is social situations where there are a mix of people, some of whom are genuine friends and some who are likely to do this sort of thing. Yesterday I was feeling pretty down and remembered a social event of exactly this nature. I knew that some of the people there would cheer me up, but attending meant desperately navigating around, trying to avoid those likely to greet me this way. I nearly didn't go, and the soothing presence of friends was almost entirely counter-balanced by the other factors.

I suppose a different personality would say "I find it really intrusive when you ask questions like that," but most of the time that's not me.

So for anyone who knows me in real life, consider this a head's up. And if you don't, you might want to think about how what you say affects those given to glumness and a certain literalness of interpretation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Misreading the By-elections

One of the odd things about the post-mortems written on the Higgins and Bradfield by-elections is the common assumption that the starting point for the Greens should be the combination of the Green and Labor votes in 2007.

In some cases this is just people who hate the Greens setting an ridiculously high bar so they can gloat about it not being reached, but the extraordinary thing is that some people actually seem to believe it, including some Greens who are downcast that it was not achieved.

It’s rather hard to imagine why anyone would expect such a thing. The ALP is many things, but amongst those it is the party of Martin Ferguson and Michael O’Connor, of Dick Adams and Gary Gray and Peter Walsh. It is the party which for 15 years sent Graeme Campbell to Canberra. On the issues the Greens ran on - climate change and refugees – all these people are well to the right of Malcolm Turnbull and some of them are more hardline than Tony Abbott. It’s unlikely any of them would vote Green ahead of a Liberal, particularly a moderate such as Kelly O’Dwyer. Why would one expect the voters they represent to do so?

The people who voted Labor in Higgins in 2007 had 12 options before them. To vote Green, or Liberal or for one of eight other candidate, or informalise their vote or to not turn up and risk a fine. By far the largest portion chose the Greens. We’ll have to wait for all the prepoll and postal votes to come in, but it appears that those who didn’t turn up are a very, very comfortable second. Those who chose the Liberals don’t seem much more numerous than those who chose the DLP or the Sex Party.

In Bradfield there were 24 options, and the Greens again streeted the field, although it seems the fine-riskers may have been closer to the rest of the pack.

The closest thing I can find to a justification for the expectation that the Greens will pick up almost all Labor voters is the theory that voters are tribal, and with generations of hating the Liberals in their blood Labor voters will always back the most obvious opponent. It’s an odd theory, when you consider that the Liberal vote has declined in Higgins over recent years. Some of this may be new people moving in, but mostly its former Liberal voters shifting their first preference. Not a lot of tribal loyalty there.

What’s more the conclusion is totally a-historical. Consider two elections in Liberal held seats in which neither the Greens nor Labor ran. In Menzies the Democrats took 22%, and two other candidates got 10.2%, of which a little over half flowed to the Democrats on preferences. The combined Labor and Democrat vote at the previous election had been 39.5%, so the Democrat primary was barely half this figure.

In Warringah in 1993 the ALP and Democrats combined for 38.1%. Two years later the Democrats got 15.9%. An extraordinary 13.5% voted informal. If so many Labor voters wouldn’t support the Democrats over a Liberal when the Democrats were in their hey-day, why would you expect them to all back the Greens now? Note that the Liberal candidates in those cases were Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott – possibly less attractive figures to Labor votes than O’Dwyer.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Acting Locally

There’s a beautiful piece in The Age today, which doesn’t seem to be online, about a school where almost all the children came from refugee families. A teacher asked children to bring in their favourite book from home. Most didn’t, and those that did produced very damaged copies – in one case only two pages were left.

The teacher put out a call for help, and was absolutely deluged in offers. Not only did people line up to hand over books they were no longer using, many dipped into their pockets (in one case to the tune of $2000) to buy new ones. The target has already been exceeded ten times over, and presumably this publicity will send it higher. Moreover, all sorts of other support is being offered – people with no connection to the school are offering to come in and read to the children, or construct containers for storing the books etc.

It’s all very inspiring in the way many films try to be, while being true and real and not-faked up at all.

I think it also provides an indication of how some of the problems we often see as intractable are anything but, if we can only find the right triggers for action.

This might seem a big claim. The responses have solved the immediate problem of a shortage of books in the children’s homes. We’ll have to wait quite a while to discover if they will solve the real issue of limited reading, let alone social disadvantage. And all this is just one school – there are hundreds across Australia with similar problems, along with thousands of individual students at schools where the problem is less universal.

It’s a big leap from this to saying we can beat Global Warming or war. However, I think the case that these problems are soluble with enough commitment has been made adequately elsewhere. The question has always been “is that commitment achievable?” Examples like this indicate the answer is yes if we can find the right triggers.

Something about this case caused people to take the steps required to fix the problem. The efforts they made are not all that much smaller (and in the case of the $2000 donor not smaller at all) than that required to solve the world’s macro problems. Of course only a minority of those who received the plea for help acted. Maybe there’s a finite number of people who will ever step up to the plate, but I’d like to think not. Some of those who gave to this cause were probably the usual suspects – the same people on Oxfam’s regular donor list and volunteers for all sorts of causes.

But I doubt it. I’ll bet some were people who don’t give a lot the rest of the time. This appeal touched them, they saw the problem as being manageable, and they did something.

It’s the reason for the slogan “think global, act local”. Most people find it difficult to relate to global problems, or those too big to be solved through individual action. The solution, at least sometimes, is to break the problem down into manageable parts – often based on geography – and get people to deal with these. An appeal for books to solve the problem of children growing up without them in the home, without the specific manageable case of a single rather small school, would probably have produced much less of a response.

This is one of the less acknowledged reasons why those who argue Australia shouldn’t “take the lead” on fighting Climate Change because we only produce 2% of the problem are talking utter horseshit. It’s not just that this approach would have seen us stay out of both World Wars (desirable as that may have been in the first case) or individuals refuse to pay taxes if even some others are evading.

It’s that its only by breaking the problem down to more manageable scale we can get it addressed at all. My suburb only produces 0.0001% of the worlds Greenhouse Gasses. However, making it carbon neutral is a goal that might inspire people in a way that zero national emissions might not – it’s possible to imagine it happening and one person making a difference to it.

If we can make examples like this attractive we might be on the path to putting together the pieces to get the whole jig saw fixed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why e-books Scare The Hell Out Of Me

There’s an article in The Age today about the anticipated rise of the e-book. Although they admit there have been problems with products such as the kindle, those quoted generally think that electronic books will largely replace paper versions for new sales within three years.

There are some obvious benefits for society in this. All those saved trees for a start. What is more, by eliminating the cost of printing, e-books will slash costs. Falling costs are obviously good for society in general, but they’re even better for books, which provide a public good by raising education and promoting ideas. Lower costs, more reading, more reading, smarter society. Sounds great.

Except of course for the problems of royalty-free distribution. I use this term to avoid the emotion concerning the term “piracy”, which many argue is an inappropriate way to describe copyright violations.

The danger is that e-books will make it so easy for people to distribute copies of books without paying royalties to the author that it will become impossible for almost anyone to make a living from writing them. Or editing them for that matter. Of course, at the moment most writers don’t make enough to live on from writing, but they do make enough to provide some recompense for their time – to make it affordable to go part time, for example, or to take a year off work and living on a mix of ones savings and anticipated royalties.

If royalties drop close to zero, that won’t happen. New books will either be written in a tearing hurry, without proper editing, or they’ll be the preserve of the independently wealthy. A few academics may convince their universities to let them take the time to write, although the trend at the moment is in the opposite direction. Some people may be able to cobble something together out of work they have done for another purpose, such as a set of lectures prepared for university. However, quality novels, and books presenting genuinely new ideas may become an endangered species.

Optimists can point to the music industry against this theory. Peer-to-peer filesharing has slashed musicians’ income, and may have harmed the production of new music, but it hasn’t killed the field. However, musicians have two advantages over writers.

Firstly they have another major source in income in the form of live gigs. Spending months writing and recording music you’ll never get paid for can to some extent be seen as a loss-leader, or advertising, for gigs. This argument gets oversold a lot by those who don’t realise how expensive touring is, but it still has some merit. Despite the rise of spoken word performances and author lectures it doesn’t really apply to writers.

Moreover, it’s possible to sell individual songs for 99c each, at which price some people will choose them over a free version which is harder to find and carries a (small) risk of prosecution.

Most books can’t be broken up the way CDs can into individual saleable units. It’s true that most authors don’t get paid more than $2 a copy or so as it is, unless their product is a large textbook or glossy coffeetable material. However, if one allows for the cost of editing, marketing etc its unlikely to be practical to sell e-books for less than $5 at an absolute minimum, more likely $10. At that price it is all too tempting for people to buy one book every few years, and otherwise depend on filesharing.

Even if more books are read this way (and even more acquired because people obtain free copies they start and then abandon quickly) the royalties will quickly drop to a point where writing books is a totally unfinancial prospect.

The Buggy-Whip Factor

Now clearly I have a financial interest here. My standard of living is supplemented by income from a parent’s books. The royalties of that will dry up pretty soon anyway, but obviously it makes me identify with the producers rather than the consumers. What is more, I hope to have a book published soon. I’ve never expected it would make me rich, or even a living wage, but I do hope it will be a noticeable part of my annual budget for a while.

It’ll be out before e-books are really having an impact, but a future career looks pretty dicey.

Now when people connected to an industry in decline whinge or seek to see it protected they get compared to buggy-whip manufacturers. Lots of people lost their jobs when horses and carts were replaced by motorcars, but there were new jobs in the new industries and (other than the unforeseen climate change consequences) we were all better off. The government should provide support and retraining for those affected, but subsiding buggy-whips or banning cars to protect them, is a bad idea.

The difference here is that people didn’t want buggy-whips once cars came in. Books are different. People will still want to read them, will want people to write them. They just won’t want to be the ones who pay.

The writers and editors may be the first to suffer, but if the quantity and quality of books produced falls dramatically everyone else will lose as well.

I don’t have any suggestions on how to stop the tide. Legal restraints on kindle production aren’t realistic. But that doesn’t stop me worrying.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cap and Trade: Good, BAD, BAD, Good

The Waxman-Markey Cap and Trade Bill has passed the US has passed the US House. There's two bits of good news here and two bits of bad. Unfortunately the bad news is a whole lot bigger than the good, but I think one of the good pieces is maybe the most interesting.

First the first good news - something passed. That's a big step forward for America, and sends a signal to the rest of the world that everyone has to get on board about doing something about global warming.

Bad 1. It's a watered down bill, that will end up doing as much for the profit lines as some big polluters as it will about actually slowing climate change.

Bad 2. It barely passed, 219 to 212. That's not a good sign for getting through the Senate. Although it should have 50 votes, getting the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster will be much harder. The margin is slightly deceptive - at least three people voted against it because it wasn't tough enough, but they (and maybe some others) probably would have come on board if their votes were needed. Equivalent people in the Senate would probably help bring it to a vote. Nate Silver discusses the prospects.

Good 2. It does suggest that Obama knew what he was doing. His failure to press for a better bill was to me perhaps the greatest failure of his administration so far. Was he doing this because he knew he couldn't pass a stronger bill, even if he used his authority? Or because he just didn't care that much about climate change compared to other priorities? This outcome suggests the former is more likely. Why does this matter? Well for one thing I think there is a high chance that Obama's power is going to grow. If his healthcare bill passes, the economy picks up, and there are no terrorist disasters he is going to develop an authority that may be very hard Congress to resist, particularly if the Republican's keep losing their leadership.

There's another reason though. Billions of people around the world have invested a log of hope in Obama. If he fails because he is blocked by Congress or other forces some will be disillusioned, but others will just redouble their efforts. But if he fails because of a lack of personal commitment, that will be a very hard blow to take, and may do a lot of damage to the idea that change can be achieved through democratic means. The possibility he's doing all he can may just be symbolic, but its a very important symbol.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pop Stops War

As I type this the Eurovision Song Contest is playing in the background. It was easy to stop watching - Norway is so far ahead in the voting its hard to imagine anything will change.

A lot of Europeans cringe at the mention of the contest. The music is often so bad, the lyrics so unoriginal, the emotion so fake that's all pretty understandable. But in Australia its treated as high camp - hugely popular in the Gay and Lesbian community and ironic inner city inhabitants who wouldn't be seen dead at this sort of music the rest of the year. If I'd slept more last night I might be at a fundraiser where you could watch it on the big screen.

But whether you love or hate the clothes, music and presenters, its worth spending just a minute to consider the real benefit of the event. It was created in the 1950s, when Europe was desperately searching for a way to prevent another war. The European Union was the most important product of this search, along with the court of human rights and other bodies that managed to pull in even more of the continent's nations. Besides these Eurovision might seem pretty trivial. But it is all a part of the process of building a common European identity. The hope was that the more one saw of another nation's culture, the less likely you were to invade.

Modern technology and the fall of the Wall has given the whole project a renewed lease of life. Western Europe doesn't need it any more, and aside from the Scandinavians they don't much care either. But for Eastern Europe, so recently at war and with unresolved conflicts still to be address, anything that instills fondness for the neighbours has value. The fact that everyone gets to vote these days is important too - when you've just voted for Bosnia to win the contest you probably don't feel so much like bombing them back to the Stone Age. It's even better if they've just given you 12 points - but even 5 or 6 will do.

It's hard to prove that Eurovision works. It's a pretty flimsy basis for continental peace after all. But these things build up. Once Europe was in a continuous state of war. Peace for any nation was a temporary aberration, and for the whole place to be free of war at once was almost unimaginable. Last year, when Russia and Georgia went to war, the first conflict anywhere west of the Urals for 9 years, it was like an event from another era. Which in fact it was.

You may, like me, think that the Norwegian entry was so boring it ranks as three minutes of your life you'll never get back. But spend some time in the cemeteries of Flanders if you need to be reminded there are worse things than boredom.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

They Couldn't Get It Right, Even When It Benefited Them

The outbreak of swine flu is frightening. It may peter out (although that will still mean hundreds of deaths. Or it could kill millions.

One reassuring thought is that it seems to be fairly susceptible to Tamiflu and Relenza, the drugs based on the work of Graeme Laver. This will mean a lot of people who would have died otherwise will be saved, and even those who would have lived will have a much less hellish experience.

So the citizens of all those countries that stocked up heavily against the Avian flu threat should be feeling very grateful. That doesn't really include the US. While they probably hold the largest stocks in the world, on a per capita basis they're way behind. The funny thing about his is that apparently Dick Cheney held many shares in Hoffman La Roche, the company marketing Tamiflu. I remember reading (and responding angrily to) emails claiming the stockpiles were a conspiracy to enrich him.

So even when Chaney stood to benefit, the Bush administration couldn't do the right thing and create appropriate defenses against dangerous threats.

BTW, at one point Australia was lagging well behind the rest of the developed world in building a stockpile. Bob Brown became alarmed and asked a lot of questions in the Senate. He was told the situation had changed, and our stockpiles were being rapidly added to, and we would soon have the 2nd or 3rd largest per capita stocks in the world. It's not clear if Bob's pushing contributed to this, but naturally I like to think so.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

You Can't Always Get What You Want

In 1993 The Herald-Sun published a front page headline indicating that John Hewson had been elected Prime Minister at the federal election. It was a "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment. Hewson had lost to Paul Keating, despite the campaigning of most of Australia's daily papers, including the Herald-Sun.

Celebrating Labor supporters printed the page on t-shirts, with "You can't always get what you want" underneath.

I rather doubt the headline "Conservatives Win Power in Iceland" will achieve the same prominence, but in some ways it is actually more embarrassing. The Hun had to race to the presses and arguably went with the best information available at the time. Not only is the pressure to report on an election in a tiny country across the other side of the world rather less intense, but the facts never supported the headline here - as can be seen from reading the text. (I'm not linking because presumably they'll change it eventually. I tried for a screen shot, but for some reason it wouldn't load properly).

However, as we have seen on global warming, it is clear that The Australian believes truth is whatever they want it to be.

UPDATE: It seems I overestimated The Australian's commitment to truth, or at least their desire to not be embarrassed. Despite the fact that the headline is being mocked on blogs much more read than mine, 24 hours later its still there. We'll see if it lasts.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


This is truly disgusting.

For anyone unfamiliar with The First Stone controversy you can read about it here. But that's only the part that became public. There is a much nastier side to it, which (luckily for Garner) never came out.

A friend of mine was a student at Ormond, and friends with the women harassed by the women who made the complaint, and close to some of their main supporters. At one point she her boss told her "I've dobbed you in to talk to a friend of mine, Helen Garner". He, and Garner, were expecting her to present the women's side of the story so she could use it in her book. My friend turned him down flat, saying (approximately) "Those women have made their choice not to talk to Garner. I'm certainly not going to rat on them."

When the book came out my friend appeared as a minor character, identified in such a way that virtually anyone who had met her would know who she was. She didn't have a big part, but the description of her was completely untrue and vicious in a society where promiscuity in women is not regarded favourably. There's no doubt Garner can write, but the stylishness of her words didn't make the content any different from if she had written that my friend was a slut nine times. Garner never met my friend, but felt completely comfortable trashing her reputation for the crime of refusing to betray her friends.

My friend's contract was not renewed, surprise surprise, she dropped out of her course, broke up with her boyfriend and spent two years depressed. The break-up may not have been caused by Garner, but having colleagues sidle up to him and ask "so what do you think of X's cameo smirk, smirk" probably didn't help. Certainly the other factors were directly attributable to the book.

It's a legitimate matter for debate whether Garner's moral failings should prevent her winning literary awards. But an award for "work that advances the position of women and girls in society"? That is a disgrace of epic proportions.

Yes its true that those who gave this award would not have known about what happened to my friend - at least the aspects of having her boss try to force her. They may even have thought that character in The First Stone was fictitious. However, the fact that Garner is out to ruin the lives of any woman younger than herself who dares to cross her path is hardly a secret.

The credibility of the prize is utterly destroyed.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Demise of Family First

After the last election Kim at Larvateus Prodeo joyfully announced that Family First's poor result was finished. I considered it to early to be so sure. In many ways the FF position in 2007 mirrored that of the Greens in 1998. Similar vote, each party left with one ongoing Senator.

The Australian Greens had 2 state MPs and one member in the ACT assembly at this point, while Family First has two in South Australia. Granted the WA Greens, technically a separate party had 3 state MPs. However, the Christian Democrats are almost as closely aligned with Family First as the two Green parties were, and they've got two members in the NSW Legislative Council. All up the situations look pretty comparable.

Given the subsequent rise of the Greens I wasn't confident Family First were dead.
However, circumstances have changed.

Post 98 the Greens needed some wins, and they got them. First electing avid Risstrom to Melbourne City Council (not only the first Green Party local councilor in Victoria, but to the most prestigious and powerful council). Then Lee Rhiannon was elected to the NSW Upper House. Some good by-election results (along with some bad ones) kept things rolling along until WA added another couple of state MPs and Queensland got a big swing at the 2001 election. All this before Tampa.

Family First's situation has been the opposite. They didn't run in the ACT or NT elections, did badly in WA and failed to make much impact at the various by-elections.

Now the Queensland result has been devastating. In 2006 Family First got over 4% in almost every seat they contested in Queensland, and broke 10% in two. This time they are currently above 4% in four seats (although to be fair they will probably creep over in two more). No result is above 5%.

Let's acknowledge two things. Firstly it was a harder election for them. There were more independents running than last time, the Daylight Saving Party gave a bit of competition in the South-East and they had a Green in every seat (last time their best results were where Greens didn't run). A close election also usually makes it harder for smaller parties.

On top of this Family First no doubt knew they couldn't win anywhere and would not have tried that hard.

Still, all that taken into account this is a terrible result for them. They've been outvoted by the Daylight Saving mob, on totals if not averages. They've dropped totally off the radar at a time when their Senator's profile has never been higher. They've demonstrated they have no serious party machine in Queensland and should not be taken seriously as able to deliver on preference deals.

Prior to the next federal election there are two more state polls: Tasmania and South Australia. Family First didn't run in the last Tasmanian poll, and I don't expect to see them contest this one. In South Australia they will probably hold the seat that is up for re-election, but unless they can go forwards in a big way they will be entering the federal election at a very low ebb. A half senate election will see them wiped out, with the two SA state MPs hanging on as a strange reminder of times past.

I have argued elsewhere that in a Double Dissolution they have a chance of winning a seat or two, and I still think this is correct. However, even this will just delay the inevitable, since they will certainly be short term Senators.

I think we can now be pretty confident right-wing religious influence in our parliament will soon be confined to the ranks of the major parties.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Counting One's Unblessings

Pavlov's Cat has a predictably charming piece about feeling slightly depressed and trying to cheer oneself up by counting one's blessings. As she notes this can be ruined by a small voice in one's head:

The lemon tree was not killed by the 47 degree heat and is thriving. Yes, but its roots are probably what's blocking next door's plumbing.

Obama won the election. Yes, but look at the state of the world.

I particularly like this one: Labor's in federally and in nearly all the states. Yes, but how can you tell?

I think we may be observing the origins of a meme.

The first comment is also a gem.

I haven't been depressed lately (lovesick yes, but it's not the same thing). Nevertheless the last few weeks have not been filled with good news, so I would like to add my own: Cadbury's dairy milk chocolate is going to go fair trade, lifting thousands, perhaps millions out of poverty. Yes but all hope of weightloss is now definitely dead.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why the Queensland Election Matters

Many blog commentators are running with the theme, “The Queensland election hardly matters. State governments don’t do much these days anyway.” This line is perhaps a little stronger than usual because the powers of Brisbane City Council, for example over transport, mean the Queensland Government is arguably less powerful than its equivalents.

Nevertheless, I think the claim is wrong. This isn’t just because I think state governments still do a lot of important things, although I do, it’s because I think this election has far more significance for the future of Australian politics than most. For that reason its disappointing that those in a position to know regard the electorate as more than usually disengaged.

The background to this is that I have thought for some time that the Liberal Party is in danger of collapse as a serious political force. I doubt the collapse will come quickly, and I expect them to keep winning occasional state elections for some time to come. Nevertheless, I think without external salvation the combination of a declining talent base and an inability to face up to the implications of climate change will discredit them as a serious possibility for government, and without this the Liberals whole raison d’ĂȘtre ceases.

When I proposed this theory some time ago I noted that a global economic crisis in Rudd’s first term of government could change this, and give the Libs the liferaft they need. I’m sure I’ve seen one of those around here somewhere, so I think there is a real chance the Libs can avoid the fate I have predicted for them, but I still think it will be touch and go.

So why does this Qld election matter? For two main reasons. Firstly it is the first outing of the Liberal National Party, formed in a less than ideal manner. If Springborg wins then winners are grinners, all the internal nastiness associated with the formation of the LNP will be forgotten and the new revived force will breathe life into the Coalition north of the Tweed, providing them with great assistance at future federal elections.

If they lose, however, there will be deep recriminations. It should be easy to beat tired fourth term governments, particularly when the economic situation is not good. All the elements in the Liberal Party who were done over in the process of forming the LNP will reappear full of recriminations and the battle will rage throughout the period when federal preselections should be taking place. With a tiny membership in marginal Brisbane seats, branch staking will run rife. The federal campaign will be a shemozzle, and after that the recriminations will be even worse. Many areas of Brisbane already lack the healthy party infrastructure to cope if someone of talent does turn up. Give it two years of infighting and there’ll be almost nothing left, both in Brisbane and a number of regional centres.

I’d make an exception here for the loss by one or two seats. In this case its possible the party will hold together as people see themselves as being just a by-election or two away from victory.

So this election could go a long way to determining whether the Liberals are a serious force in one fifth of the country. A fifth, moreover, that is particularly heavily endowed with marginal seats.

The other major reason I think it matters is in regard to the Greens. If the Liberals do collapse I don’t believe this will usher in some sort of permanent Labor rule. But it is a bit hard to see what would represent the alternative. One possibility is the rise of the Greens to the status of major opposition party, with the ALP becoming the dominant party of the right. The obstacle to this is the way the Greens keep flunking opportunities to gain toeholds in the Lower Houses of mainland state parliaments (and of course the House of Representatives).

If the Greens could win a few Lower House seats, and their MPs be seen as doing a good job, public perceptions could really change when people are desperate for an alternative to Labor Governments. The following election could see a raft of Green MPs, and one or two elections later government ceases to be ridiculous. But at the moment, ridiculous is exactly the word.

The problem is particularly acute in Queensland. Lacking a state Upper House, and without a senator, the Queensland Greens have much less of a party structure than the other states. Historically, the quality of their candidates has also been lower on average, and this is hardly surprising. The absence of any local councillors compounds the problem.

Having temporarily acquired an MP through Ronan Lee’s defection this election offers an unusual opportunity for the Greens to make that breakthrough. Doing so would put the Queensland Greens on an entirely different footing, and provide a significant boost for efforts to win lower house seats in other states. The fact that Lee is not the favourite candidate of many Greens is unfortunate, but would not necessarily diminish the significance of such a victory. If Larissa Waters were to be elected in Mt Coo-tha, with or without Lee, the achievement would be unambiguous.

Now let me state that I consider the chance of a Green victory small in either case, and negligible anywhere else. I consider the chance of LNP failure much larger. But both will be worth watching on Saturday night.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Music To Change The World By

Thornton McCamish quotes David Nichols in The Age today on U2. "This was a band that was made for people like me - middle class male, with a social conscience. And that annoys me even more. I don't need a soundtrack to my social conscience."

This annoyed me quite a lot, as does a lot of the criticism of Bono and U2. I'm also middle class and male and I bloody well do need a sound track to my social conscience. I find activism rewarding, but also bloody hard. Music, particularly music with political lyrics, helps inspire me to do what needs to be done.

Now I don't know David Nichols. I have no idea what he has done with his social conscience. I couldn't find evidence in his latest blog posts when I googled him. If he achieves a lot without the need for political lyrics good for him, but I resent the sneering condemnation of anyone who finds music reaffirming in their beliefs.

I'd add here that U2 have never been the most important band for me in sparking my activism. As my introductory post indicates, I prefer a much more obscure solo artist. And there are plenty of others who've meant more to me than the Irish foursome. I only own two of their albums, and can't find one of those. But I like the Joshua Tree and listening to it is more likely to raise than lower my next donation to Oxfam. I'd add that lyrics opposing violence or poverty don't seem so bad when you compare them with the self-indulgent paeans to one's current love object that make up the bulk of the music industry's output.

This whole thing seems to me to go with the frequent dissing of Bono for his activism. Now there are many, many ways I think Bono could be a better spokesperson for the movement to abolish poverty. Constructive criticism is good. Even carping criticism is fair enough if it comes from people at the coalface - representatives from the world's poor or the NGO workers who spend years in hell to make a difference. But you seldom hear it from those places.

The NGOs aren't always happy with Bono (still less with Geldof), but they don't go in for slagging the pair off as Irish millionaires who should shut their mouths except to sing. They know the two have saved millions of lives. If they'd been smarter and less arrogant they could have saved more, but I'll take their achievements any day over most of their critics, who can't seem to do a damned thing to make the world a better place other than sneer at the most visible representatives of those who are trying.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Real Threat

In the last few weeks I have, by implication, been called a murderer at least twice. Once was by Miranda Devine (with slightly more toned down versions by the usual suspects). She was alleging that environmentalists had sacrificed the lives of the people who died in Victoria's terrible bushfires by opposing fuel reduction burns. That very few environmentalists do oppose fuel reduction burns was irrelevant to her, as was the fact that the Victorian government seldom listens to the things the environment movement is pushing for anyway. Oh and that many of the most lethal fires went through areas that had been burnt recently anyway.

All this is old news. However, we've now had the spectacle of a Green Party member calling all those Greens who don't oppose flouridation murderers as well. Now I, like most of the fellow Greens I have spoken, to had a pretty open mind on flouridation. The opposition to her motion to condemn flouridation came from people who were concerned that process was being steamrolled and there was not adequate time to assess the issues. Only a handful had actually made up their mind in favour of flouridation.

I have read what appear to be intelligent arguements that conclude that overall the damage from flouride is larger than the benefit, and I was prepared to consider that these might be right. I knew that anti-flouridation campaigns had been discredited by some of the nutters who were involved, but tried to put this aside. Just because crazy people believe something doesn't mean it is necessarily crazy.

But the more the anti's spoke the more concerned I became. Many of the "facts" they claimed were things I was pretty sure were wrong. For example that the WHO was opposed. So I did a little research.

It didn't take long. I'm told National Greens policy on the matter is for a thorough inquiry into the issue, although I can't actually find it in our policy volume. However, if this policy exists its now out of date, because the NHMRC has done just such a study. It's a metastudy of all the recent research in the field (which is far more substantial than I had been lead to believe) and concludes that the only negative effects are aesthetic (discoloured teeth). As someone who suffers from this I don't trivailise its significance - if it affects one's love life it matters - but its certainly better than endless painful (and expensive) dentistry.

It's true that some studies have found small increases in serious conditions such as bone fracture rates in fluoridated areas, but even more have found reductions. Overall assessment is no net effect, and this applies for all the alleged forms of damage.

The important point here is not the issue of fluoridation itself. While the dangers are vastly less than opponents allege, it is also clear that the benefits are smaller than was originally thought, and are smaller still where good dental services exist. Much of the country has survived for many years without fluoride. If it was blocked it would not be a tragedy.

The danger is to the Greens. It is essential as a party that we make our decisions based on good science. The consequence of abandoning that path are all to clear in the last, unlamented, US administration.

This doesn't mean we should jump at every technology that has been proved "safe". There are arguments against Genetically Modified foods that go well beyond safety. Even if one considers the science settled here (and I'm not convinced it is) there is a case for opposition, at least temporarily. Even with fluoride, one can argue that philosophically people should not be forced to drink something they don't want, even if their fears are groundless.

But if we oppose these things we need to do it for good reasons, not because someone read something on an unreferenced website produced by an individual with clear mental health issues. If we go down that path we are in serious danger, because we will attract to the party people who don't understand how science works, and scare of those that do.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

For The Record

Some people are celebrating the news that Hugo Chavez is free to run for another term as president of Venezuela. Not me. This is not to say I think everything Chavez has done is bad. Far from it. My understanding is he has reduced poverty dramatically at home, and some of his foreign interventions have been positive as well.

But I don't trust the guy. He shows every sign of being a demagogue. Power corrupts, and Chavez strikes me as more than usually corruptible. I expect a steady decline in the quality of his governing. At some point he may just cancel elections altogether

A lot of Chavez's opponents are much nastier than he is, but there are plenty of good people who are against him as well. We shouldn't assume that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

I'm putting this here so I can point to it in a few years time when the Right are using Chavez's failings as a stick to beat the left. But I also hope that any starry-eyed lefties reading it pay attention. We've been down this road far too many times before.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Limis of Consensus

One area where I am not fully in tune with the party I belong to is the issue of consensus (I'm referring to the decision making process here, so maybe it should be capitalised). I think it has its place, and the world would be better if it was used more often, but I don't hold with the view (common in the Greens) that it should be used in all cases.

Consensus only works with fundamentally reasonable people, who have a commitment to working together in future for common goals, and are therefore willing to make compromises to maintain the relationships. Some people seem to think this is really always the case, its just that some people don't realise it and behave badly. But if they could just be brought to see...

We now have a consensus advocate in the most powerful position in the world, and we've seen just how limited its use can be. Even from a position of very little power, the Republican leadership were willing to block and frustrate, even though they knew that it would only take 2-3 defections for their strategy to come undone. Eventually it did, but they were so committed to opposition they prefered to take this risk than negotiate reasonable compromises.

Of course, within the Greens you seldom encounter people as nasty as Senate Republicans. Nevertheless, I think this is a demonstration that consensus is limited in its application. I'm glad Obama tried it, and I'd still like to see it used more widely, but also with caution.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Do Nuclear Weapons Reductions Matter?

Inspired as I was by Obama's campaign, and his inauguration speech, I've had my heart broken by politicians too many times before, so I've felt plenty of caution as well. His appointments have been mixed. Some great, some terrible.

In terms of the moves he has made so far, they've mostly been good, but not surprising. Removing the global gag rule was wonderful, but we all knew he'd do it. Clinton did the same thing. But there are two things he's done that have given me hope that here we have someone more FDR than WJC.

The first is the more even-handed rhetoric on the Middle East, and the appointment of George Mitchell. I'm pessimistic this will work, but its great to see him trying. Even more exciting is the proposal to slash nuclear weapons by 80%, with the sweetner to the Russians of an abandonment of the missile defense shield on their borders.

Pretty much anyone who values peace will think this is a good thing, but I suspect most people will see it as a fairly small move. Cutting nuclear weapons on each side from 5000 to 1000 still gives us the capacity to wipe out civilization and cause suffering on an unprecedented scale. If the other 4000 bombs were (literally) overkill, does it really help if we get rid of them?

I'd argue yes, for several reasons. Combined these make the proposal a huge step forward.

1. Every weapon is a danger. It can be stolen, misfired or the vehicle carrying it could be in a crash. The US has had several near-misses. I'd imagine the Russians have had more so. Getting rid of 80% cuts this risk by 4/5ths. Probably more, since the remainder will be better guarded.

2. The message it sends to the world is very potent. Bush's pause on weapons reductions has legitimated the quest for nukes by Iran and North Korea and the expansion of India and Pakistan's programs. Demonstrating that grown-ups get rid of weapons, not add to them, is an invaluable message. Particularly to those nations that are at least partially democratic.

3. Should the worst happen and we really do have an all out nuclear war 1000 bombs on each side is enough to destroy the world. But there's a lot of evidence that in this circumstance quite a large proportion of the bombs won't go off. The technology will fail, or the human operators will resist. A few hundred bombs from each side would still add up to more deaths than from all the wars in history combined, but there might be something left to rebuild. Five times as many - no way.

4. The missile defense shield Obama is offering to give up in the deal is a destabilizing influence. Getting rid of it bolsters the chance of peace.

5. Keeping nukes is expensive. Building the defense shield much more so. The money saved will be very, very useful elsewhere.

6. Nuclear weapons contain highly enriched uranium, or plutonium. When they are decommissioned this is burnt in nuclear reactors. In the process there is less need to dig up new uranium. Since uranium from the ground has only 0.7% U235, while bombs are mostly 235 one bomb will power a lot of power stations for a long time. Avoiding digging up all that uranium is good for the environment, and for the indigenous people on whose land many of the mines sit. It also means there is a lot less depleted uranium sitting around waiting to be used. And the uses DU is put to are generally pretty nasty.

7. If you want to get to zero nuclear weapons, you have to go through the stage of having 1000 first. Obama may not be able to take us down entirely, but this move can pave the way for his successors, if they wish to follow through.

Of course the plan may fail. If Putin won't come to the party then Obama isn't likely to get rid of the bombs unilaterally. But even if that happens we still get something good out of the whole thing. Putin's ethical bankruptcy is exposed to the world, and the global population still sees Obama showing real leadership, which may encourage them to demand the same thing from their leaders.

All in all, I think its really good news.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ethiopia At Risk

I got an email today about a crisis in Ethiopia. Again. The rains failed. Again. Millions are at risk. Again.

But this isn't just another gloom and doom story. Apparently UNICEF programs for treating malnourished children have been working, and infant mortality has fallen significantly (not sure if that is in the statistical sense or in common parlance).

Rather than asking for money, the email asked everyone to raise awareness, both of the dangers but also of the successes. To tell people that foreign aid can work, and if we move fast we can prevent another tragedy. One of the ways they ask us to do this is postings on our blogs.

Given that my webtracker is still telling me no one reads this site at all, which clearly is not entirely true, I've no idea whether I'm achieving much at all with a post on the topic, but I think its a worthy idea. Info here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How Moving Are These?

Of all the areas on which one might hope the US President would work for change, the Middle East was perhaps the one that inspired least optimism, at least in me. I figured that Obama would be too scared to take on the more hardline Israeli partisans, given the "broken alliance" between American Jews and blacks, and the pressure of the republican rumours on his religion. It certainly seemed that way during the campaign and the period between election and inauguration.

But his words since then inspire hope even here. I've been a strong supporter of Israel since I was a child, but the behaviour of its governments in recent years make clear that for its own good, as well as that of the Palestinians, it needs a president who can pull it into line. If Obama can do that, what can't he do?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Compulsory Inauguration Post

I didn't want to just be repeating what everyone else was saying, so I wasn't initially going to post on the inauguration. However, there are so many rich gems in this event I don't see any harm in holding them up to the light to catch yet another glint.

One point that has been made before is that Obama's heritage is about more than being black. When he was born it was still illegal for black men to marry white women in quite a few states. His election isn't just going to mark a breakthrough for blacks, its going to make what used to be called miscegenation completely legitimate, indeed actually cool.

I was reminded how significant this is when something triggered a memory of the sitcom CBS "Kate and Allie", about two single mothers who move in together. In one episode one of the characters finds herself at the dentist when the lights go out, combining her two worst phobias. She's talked through her fears by a charming sounding man, who eventually she asks out. He's doubtful, but agrees. Then the lights come on and it is clear he is black (and very good looking).

He warns her that they will experience racism going out together, but she initially thinks she'll cope. However, eventually she decides it is all too hard. When breaking it off with him she says, "You know my kids thought it was great we were seeing each other. Maybe soon it won't matter." I was surprised when I saw this episode. This was the late 80s. In Greenwich Village. Surely such things were now the province of Deliverance country?

The actors who played Kate and Allie's kids would be past thirty now, too old even to have been the shocktroops of Obama's campaign. But they're part of the generation that did this. And their children won't understand the episode at all.

Update: I looked up the show on Wikipedia and discovered that one of the kids went onto play Leo's daughter Mallory in The West Wing. How sweet is that?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A New Word

I've always wanted to invent a new word. One that describes a concept we're vaguely aware of in such a way that it comes to the front of our brain and people find it a really useful addition to the language.

I've decided we need a word for mistakes so bad they completely discredit the maker. We all make mistakes of course, particularly online. In the heat of an Internet discussion its natural to sometimes misremember a statistic, or quote something from a source you thought was reliable or just get some fact rather wrong. If you do this too often people will rightly start to ignore what you have to say. But its permissible to err now and then.

On the other hand, sometimes people come up with claims that are so wrong you know there is no point reading the rest of what they have to say on the topic, or in extreme cases on anything. I think we need a word for this, and the word I have chosen is "zong". It can be a noun, a very or an adjective.

If you say that Obama is secretly a Muslim, you've made a zong. If you inform the world that the Earth's temperature is determined by heat rising from the center rather than light from the Sun, you've zonged. The claim that violence is as much a female activity as male is a zong statement.

To some extent whether something is a zong or not depends on who is making it. An American who bases some argument on the belief that Canberra has more crime (absolute, not per head) than Sydney has made a mistake. An Australian saying the same thing is zong. The discrepancy in population is so large, and so well known to locals, that anyone who thinks this could possibly be true is not operating in the reality based universe.

The great thing about the zong is you don't have to work out whether someone is lying or merely delusional. You can just note that they've zonged and move on. Of course its a fairly subjective judgment to distinguish zongs from mere mistakes, but sometimes it isn't that hard to tell.

So dear reader, if you think this is a useful concept, I urge you to take the word in hand, and slap down trolls with relish.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Those Awful 60s

Conservatives hated the 60s, and they hate them even more in retrospect. But whatever their problems with feminism, black rights, anti-war protests and the beginnings of environmentalism, no one blames the people actually born in that decade. They were too young to be involved, and often too young even to be accused of being brainwashed.

But in Australia the people born in the 60s are giving the Liberal Party another reason to hate the decade. Because when they put someone of that group in a leadership position the outcome seems to be pretty consistently disastrous. Let's look at the list:

* John Brogden. The right hated him, but he looked the best thing a state Liberal party had until he called Bob Carr's wife a "mail order bribe" and resigned. Leading to them losing the unloseable election.
* Matt Birney. It's not obvious what was so bad about Birney, but he didn't last long as leader of the WA Libs, and is now out of parliament.
* Troy Buswell. It certainly is obvious what was wrong with Buswell. A lot of politicians hate women, but most manage to hide it better.
* Will Hodgman. Hasn't done too badly yet, but hasn't really been tested either.
* Iain Evans was considered an effective minister, but the shortness of his term as leader of the SA opposition says a lot.
* Lawrence Springborg. The Libs now have to admit some ownership of him now that they agreed to be assimilated. He's lost two elections so far, but if he wins the third all will be forgiven. However, if he loses this one it will be no ordinary defeat. The LNP will likely fracture into many shiny pieces, far worse off against a fifth term government than if they had stayed as two.

There are a few, such as WA Libs deputy leader Steve Thomas, who have been in positions of some significance without drastically screwing up, but also without covering themselves with glory.

Federally there are a few figures of note. Joe Hockey, Chris Pyne, Greg Hunt. But its noticeable how short the talent is compared to those born in the later half of the 50s.

It could be argued that this is simply a function of timing. It's hard to look good when you are the leader of the opposition, particularly against a relatively new government. But the thing is that these guys have actually had it a lot easier than their predecessors. They've been up against state Labor governments that were showing signs of tiredness, yet they couldn't hold it together.

Of course there is still time for newcomers to save the decade for the Liberals. The youngest members are not even 40. But the signs are not good. The Vic Libs have barely a member of the state parliament born in that decade. When Baillieu goes, possibly after a period under the 50s born Terry Mulder, they'll probably hop straight to, born in the 70s. There are not a lot of names on the tips of people's tongues in other states either.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Goodbye President Gore

At first its funny. Then it just hurts.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An End to War II

I was thinking more about this post, particularly after a denialist tried to argue that we hadn't got rid of war so we'd never beat climate change so we shouldn't even try.

Two points are hardly enough to demonstrate a long term downward trend in warfare. However, to plot the number of wars occurring around the world each year is a big job.

But I think we can make the case by looking at a decadal scale and moving away from my focus on the numbers of conflicts to look at the proportion of the global population killed. Unless 2009 turns out to be a very bad year it is clear that the naughties will be the least warlike decade for a very, very long time.

Consider. Since 2000 (inclusive) the numbers killed in wars around the world are under 6 million. This includes civilians who died from the more direct effects of war, but not the wider consequences of the misdirection of resources. Most of these were in the DRC, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. All the other conflicts combined would account for less than a million because they were either brief, confined to small population areas or relatively low intensity. So unless 2009 is much worse than its predecessors the numbers killed for the decade will be less than 1 per 1000 people on the planet.

The 90s were worse. I don't have the figures, but the DRC, Somalia and Afghanistan were as bad or worse. Darfur is basically referred horrors from South Sudan The invasion of Kuwait and global response killed fewer people than the current Iraq war, but Rwanda makes up for that. And there were more sites for medium-sized wars, such as the former Yugoslavia, Algeria, Angola and the Liberia/Sierra Leone conflagarations.

The 80s were worse yet. The Iran-Iraq war probably led the pack, but various conflicts in Central America, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Angola, Mozambique and Peru meant the death toll would have been larger than over the last ten years, divided by a smaller population.

However, it is when you get back to the 70s that things really go to pot. We don't have to argue over whether Pol Pot's killing of his own population meets my definition of experiencing war to see that the death toll was far worse. For a start there were events in Cambodia that clearly do meet the definition. But Bangladesh, being so much bigger was probably worse. The various Portugese colonies did not win their independence without bloodshed, and civil wars followed in Angola and Mozambique, while in East Timor the Indonesians reduced the population by a third. The Vietnam war saw a considerable portion of its casualties, and there were events such as the Yom Kippur War to keep the body count ticking over.

In the 1960s the Vietnam conflict alone would come close to have killed 0.1% of the global population, but if that's not enough there was the Congo Crisis, Biafra, The Six day War and all sorts of horrors in Indonesia.

The Korean War may not have been quite as bloody as Vietnam, but it certainly outranked any modern conflict. Meanwhile, almost 200,000 died so Algeria could get its independence, mostly in the 50s. Tibet was invaded, various African states had to fight for their independence and the Vietnamese were doing the same.

I don't think I need to discuss the 40s, but the 30s included quite a lot of events we now think of as part of World War II, such as the Japanese invasion of China and Italian occupation of Ethiopia. I think there was a bit of conflict in Spain at the time was well.

I could go on, but all this bloodshed is pretty grim, and I think the point is made. In each of the decades I have listed a small portion of the wars that actually occurred, yet the ones I have included added up to a larger number of casualties, adjusted for population, than we have seen this decade. Nothing going on in Gaza is likely to shift that.

Another way of making the same case would be to consider that at the moment only about 10% of the nations on Earth are experiencing war, and since they're generally smaller to medium sized nations, the proportion of the global population is even smaller. On the other hand, on the definition I used Australia experienced war for about a third of its first 72 years, and we're not usually thought of as a war-wracked country.

War is on its way out, and only environmental catastrophe, or a major spread in nuclear weapons, is likely to bring it back.

It might be argued that with the death toll having fallen globally to one person in ten thousand per year that war really isn't doing that much damage any more, and any benefits from further decline will be swallowed up through overpopulation or environmental disasters. This is possible, but the direct casualties of war really are the tip of a very large iceberg. Eisenhower's speech about the costs of military expenditure are as true now as they were then. At the moment wars are still sufficiently common that most people accept these costs, but if they continue to decline there will come a point where people really will demand the beating of swords into plowshares. The benefits unleashed will be easily enough to feed the world and protect the environment, if we use them wisely.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Climate Change, Relativity and The Right

John Quiggin and Mark Bahnisch have discussions going on what I think is one of the most interesting topics around - why has The Right in Australia and North America strapped itself so fervently to the mast of climate change denialism, and what are the implications when the population fully wakes up to their dishonesty?

Neither piece adds anything hugely new, but they are well worth reading if you haven't explored this issue in depth before (I've been obsessed by it for over a decade).

I was more interested by this comment from nanks

One of the properties of science is that it stands in the way of desire.
Desire dreams a future world where the desire is fulfilled. Building that future world does not have unforeseen consequences - unforeseen is undesired.
Science stands in stark constrast as it presents a world ‘as it is’, severely curbing the scope of desire and clarifying the consequences of actions.
Science then is the enemy of people who desire a future without consequences.

At university I did an essay on the idea that much of the science fiction written in the 30s-60s was a way for white male techies to deal with their disappointment at the realization that Relativity Theory meant conquering the galaxy was impossible, at least if you wanted a heroic return to your loved ones. I also argued that science fiction writers (and readers) of that period were further troubled by the implication from relativity that multiple observers could see contradictory things, all of which were correct, with no superior frame of reference. To people who were used to being the winners of the world (privileged by race, gender and often class in the most powerful nation on Earth) the idea that your vision of reality was no more correct than that of others was something of a shock, and science fiction gave them a number of ways to deal with this.

The right would be appalled by all this postmodernism[1]. So apparently was the marker - I fairly consistently got high marks in the English Department for work I considered mediocre, but the one time I handed in something I thought was really good the department (widely reviled as a haven for postmodernism) didn't think much of it.

However, given the way the anglophone Right are destroying their future by burning their credibility over Global Warming I think it might be worth looking at the idea again. Science fiction of the era I was writing about was not necessarily right-wing. Its most popular author was the proudly left-liberal Isaac Asimov and there were others of similar ilk. Nevertheless, the readership was very much the same demographic as the majority of climate change deniers.

Both the relativity-fearing sf readers, and the denialists were/are people used to getting their own way, both individually and as a class. Then along comes an unfortunate scientific fact and their dreams for eternal growth are shattered. While some SF of the era simply avoided the problems relativity posed (Warp Drive, wormholes in space) some was more creative, finding ways exploration of the galaxy could occur without offending Einstein. Unfortunately, it seems most of the Australian, American and Canadian Right (plus elements elsewhere) are incapable of this creativity, and their only response to unfortunate scientific facts are ostrich-inspired.

[1] I enjoyed the postmodern analysis deployed in the English Department. However, I had no truck then, and never have had since, with the form of postmodernism promoted by some philosophers of science that argues either that there is no concrete reality, or that it is fundamentally unknowable and science is slave to social prejudices and ideology. When a tutor tried to argue that scientists changed their mind in response to social forces, but not to unexpected evidence, I could hardly believe my ears. At the time the idea was presented as one of the Left. I've been amused to see it become (firmly unacknowledged) the mainstay of the right as they try to argue that tens of thousands of climatologists have no relationship with reality.

Friday, January 9, 2009

On Beauty II

This is a more considered extension to this.

Recently I've had a few conversations with the woman referred to in the previous post. She often mentions or alludes to her poor body image. She says that when she gains a few kilos she feels fat and unattractive and this affects her self-image generally. Nothing unusual in that, except that I consider her the most physically beautiful woman I've ever had a conversation with. Obviously a subjective judgment, but everyone else who knows her pretty much concurs. Reflecting on her comments I think of the T-shirt that says, "There are 3 billion women in the world who don't look like supermodels, and 8 who do." The thing is that here is a woman who really does look like a supermodel (albeit one with fluorescent hair and piercings) and she still feels bad about her appearance.

I suspect that the heaviest she ever gets to is probably within her medically approved BMI, and when she's actually feeling good about herself she's probably unhealthily thin.

So what does one say in these situations? Is it best to point these things out, or to note that really they're not that important compared to the fact that a) she's well on the way towards a PhD in a hot area of science b) she has great values and politics, c) she's a very talented artist and d) she's witty and charming company.

Logically any of these things is more important than appearance or weight (at least as long as it isn't life threatening). But its probably true that is she's worrying about her appearance reassurance on that will, at least in the short term, be more effective than telling her it doesn't matter compared to her brains.

I'm not sure what the best thing to do is, although I comfort myself that saying something supportive is probably good, even if I don't hit the perfect note. But its also a pretty remarkable illustration of how good society is at making women feel lousy about their looks, and themselves in general.

Welcome Back to the Fold, Bangladesh

If it bleeds it leads, so all the attention over the summer break has been on the horrors in Gaza. I don't wish to minimize either the tragedy of a thousand lost lives, nor the damage this is doing to the rest of the Middle East, but in the process something much more important has been missed. Something good.

Bangladesh held a democratic election on December 29. There was not a lot of violence, international monitors judged it free and fair. The better of the two coalitions won, but that's almost incidental - there isn't as much difference between the two parties as one would like. The important thing is that the will of the people was expressed. Oh, and there is a woman Prime Minister. Again. It's been that way for most of the last 20 years.

Bangladesh has 150 million people, the seventh most of any country on Earth, so what happens there matters. It's desperately poor, had a horrific 20 years under Pakistani rule after independence from Britain, followed by another horrific 20 years of coups and warfare. It is more threatened by Global Warming than any other large nation, both in the form of rising sea levels, and from increased pulsing of water from the Himalayas if glaciers cease to store the winter rains.

But for all that there is hope. For almost 20 years it has had substantial economic growth and falling poverty. It's once appallingly high fertility rate is down to 3.1 (although this is a small increase on 2000 figures). Provided it can hold onto a democratic culture it may survive the ravages ahead in some sort of reasonable shape.

However, in early 2007 things got a bit shaky. After three democratic elections (in which power changed each time) the polls were postponed indefinitely. Bangladesh has a unique system where a caretaker government steps in for three months every five years to run the country while the elections are held, to prevent the incumbents rigging things. Not a bad idea in theory, but this time the caretakers kept extending their term, arguing that things weren't ready. Leaders of both major parties were arrested. A coup looked a real danger.

But now the elections have been held, the somewhat more left-wing Awami League and their allies won an overwhelming victory, and it looks like everything will go back to normal.

It's great news for the local population, but also for the world at large. The proportion of the world living in functioning (albeit imperfect) democracies has been increasing at least since the mid 80s, with a huge surge when Eastern Europe was freed from Soviet domination around the same time Bangladesh, Chile and several Central American countries had their first fair elections for quite a while.

It's getting to the point where the only non-democracies other than China and Vietnam are in Africa and the Middle East, and the recent election in Ghana shows there is progress there as well. If there is not significant backsliding, and we can keep picking up a democracy here and there we may soon get to a point where being anything other than democratic is so frowned on it becomes unsustainable.

But the "if" in the last sentence is a big one. Russia has lost so many of the key features of a democracy it is doubtful it still deserves the term. Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia are shaky, as are quite a few smaller countries. Losing Bangladesh from the fold could have been the start of an avalanche.

Instead, we have the situation where the four largest Muslim majority nations all have democratically elected governments, surely a first. Neither Pakistan nor Nigeria have the ongoing record that would allow one to call them democracies, but the idea that Islam and fair elections are incompatible is looking very hard to defend.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Vale Helen

I tried to get this published under my real name, but it wasn't wanted. So, at last, this blog gets to fulfill one of the original reasons for its creation, as a fall-back for work rejected elsewhere.

Suzman's Legacy

I wonder how many of the people enjoying the cricket from Sydney realise it probably wouldn’t be happening without a woman who died on New Year's Day. Once again I'm reminded that "It is never a tragedy when an old (wo)man dies", but it is certainly a time for reflection.

Helen Suzman is not nearly as famous around the world as Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu. That's fair enough - they were the legitimate leaders of the black majority. She represented a minority within a minority; the whites who wanted justice. And while she faced death threats and sacrificed plenty, you can't compare her suffering with Mandela's decades on Robben Island.

But as a trailblazer for the future she is perhaps even more significant than either of these great men. Mandela will probably be one of the last leaders ever to legitimately institute a campaign of violence against tyranny, and have to deal with the questions of when and how to turn it off. Tutu, as a religious leader against oppression, is also representative of a great tradition whose peak may well have passed.

But Suzman, the parliamentary activist, who used her position as a platform to give a voice, and credibility, to those struggling outside represents a movement whose time has come. Ingrid Betancourt, Wangari Maathai and our own Bob Brown are current examples but there will be many more. Some, like her, doing time as the sole representative of the cause in large parliaments.

Suzman was not the first in such a role, William Wilberforce being her most famous predecessor. However, her position could hardly have been starker – the sole anti-apartheid activist for 13 years in the South African Parliament as well as the only woman and only Jew. Outnumbered 160-odd to one she demonstrated that courage and wit can shake the conscience of a nation, and by the time she retired she left a healthy parliamentary opposition which would be crucial to bringing about the end of Apartheid.

Suzman was not a Green (I've never heard of her even mentioning the environment, and her economic views were center-right). However, she is particularly relevant for Green parliamentarians because, like them, she stood up both for the minority who elected her, and for a much larger constituency who could not vote. Non-Green readers may assume I'm referring to non-human species here, but I think a more relevant analogy is with future generations.

Anyone who believes electoral politics is an important part of social change will regularly be frustrated by cynics who adore lines such as “whoever you vote for a politician will be elected” and “if voting changed anything they’d make it illegal”. Yet Suzman, operating in perhaps the most twisted version of a democracy in the world of her day managed to lay the foundations of a better nation in a way that would have been utterly impossible if the constituents of Houghton hadn’t stood by her with their votes. The government tapped her phone, issued her with death threats, rejigged the boundaries of her constituency and she kept coming back.

In the process she legitimized the idea forming in some white South Africans’ minds that Apartheid was wrong, as evidenced by the steady growth in support for her Progressive Party and its successors. Perhaps equally importantly, she demonstrated to the black majority that not all whites were against them, and that there might be hope for change not written in blood. Meanwhile, by exposing the most egregious examples of Apartheid’s obscenities she achieved many small changes which benefited numerous individuals’ lives. And when change finally came, she used her moral authority to draw attention to the failings of the Mbeki regime.

One of the key factors in Suzman’s success was her pointed use of language, so upon her death I'll raise a toast to the woman who could tell a government minister he needed to “go about your constituency, heavily disguised as a human being”. May we often see her like again.

Foot shooting II

I was thinking overnight about my last post. With so much rubbish out there on the Internet why did I post on this, something well outside any areas of expertise I have?
Am I going to end up like the figure in the xkcd cartoon?

Part of it is that this was a piece of stupidity coming from a perspective I have some time for. I'm not planning on chasing down every bit of madness from misogynist men on this topic, be they those who want to abuse sex workers or those who want to persecute them in God's name.

But the other thing was that this is such an unusual argument, yet one from a source that seems to be granted considerable credibility within that wing of the feminist movement. The most hardline members of the anti-sex work wing of feminism want to stop all hetrosexual sex. Yet here is someone effectively calling for Johns to stop seeing prostitutes or strippers and instead ask more women to sleep with them unpaid. Weird. So weird it just called out for a post (or two).

True the author says respect is required. I'm sure that everyone can agree on that. But in some ways respect makes things worse. Giving the flick to a guy who lurches up and "says how about a shag?" is not always easy, but it can be a lot harder to reject someone you like as a person, but have no interest in sexually. When I've expressed interest in romantic relationships with women I knew and been turned down it didn't look like they were enjoying the experience.

Again, all this has little bearing on the author's core position, but in some ways that makes it even stranger - why put it there when its not even a necessary step?

Foot shooting

I've been mulling a post for a while on prostitution and pornography, but I'm wary of saying too much. In part this is an issue where I think men need to spend more time listening to women than sounding off themselves.

While the last link on my blogroll might suggest clear support for the pro-sex industry wing of feminism, my mind is not entirely made up. There are certainly women I respect on the other side and while Heather Corinna is often lumped in with the "pro-sex" side she's really somewhere in the middle (and I think moves around a little).

When you're genuinely uncertain about something a really bad arguement can provide quite a strong push in the other direction, even when you are aware it doesn't really matter that much. This was very much the case for me when I was reading through a thread on a very different area of feminism that briefly morphed into a discussion of these issues. One poster stated "I don’t even know where to start with this. So I’m going to direct you here"

On which one comes to this gem "Sex is fun, and it feels good, and it is widely available to anyone who treats others respectably with kindness and asks."

In one sense this is totally irrelevant. The fact that many men can't get sex without paying for it is not much of an argument for prostitution being legalised or condoned. Not having anyone want to sleep with you is not a legitimate excuse for rape. If prostitution is, as the author argues, a form of sexual violence then the incapacity of the "johns" to get sex elsewhere counts for nothing at all.

So why put in such a complete piece of rubbish? I don't know, but it certainly suggests the author is deeply out of touch with reality, and makes it hard to take her seriously on everything else.