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.